(346 days since)
The thing about grief is that everyone deals with it differently. When going through a bad breakup, you might drive by your ex’s house just to get a glimpse of them; or go on a weeklong bender with your friends. I once saw a TV show where a man dealt with the death of his wife by dressing up every day as a mime. Either way, it all depends on the person. When I was eight, my dad ran over my prized Sky Dancer with the lawn mower. In my grief I collected the pieces and buried them in our backyard. I held a small funeral with my best friend Alyssa, and my dog Chelsea. That was how I grieved over my favorite toy. I did not shed a single tear when my father apologized for the accident, or while Alyssa and I dug the shallow hole. But when I visited the tiny grave alone, I would silently sob. And yet, in a week or two I got over it and started playing with my Skip-It instead. I’m not saying that people are like Sky Dancers or anything, but who am I to tell someone that they’re grieving wrong? That would be like telling someone that they’re breathing wrong.
But when I walk into the kitchen to find the sour smell of weed wafting in the air, I can’t take it anymore.
He is grieving wrong.
Reaching into the cabinet, I grab my favorite worn Tony the Tiger bowl and prepare my usual breakfast. Back when cereal boxes actually gave out prizes I would spend my weekends watching cartoons and demolishing boxes of cereal, hoping to collect enough proofs of purchase to send away for the bigger and better prizes. After two months of weekend binging, and three weeks of waiting, I finally received my classic Kellogg’s cereal bowls. I cherished those bowls—the Tony the Tiger one especially—and wouldn’t allow anyone else to use them. But now, after thousands of cycles in the dishwasher, Tony’s stripes are faded and his face is almost unrecognizable. At first glance, it seems ridiculous to hold on to. But its sentimental value makes it worth keeping. That and the fact that it’s the largest bowl we have, excluding the mixing or salad bowls we keep under the kitchen island. As I pour my bowl of Frosted Flakes, I look at my boring start to the day and decide to liven up my meal by pouring a glass of orange juice.
As I take my first few bites, the garage door swings open and Dad steps into the kitchen with fingertips of smoke trailing behind him through the doorway. His eyes are red and puffy and he begins mumbling under his breath something about being allergic to the dust in there. Over the past year, my dad has gained a significant amount of weight—mostly due to late night McDonald’s runs. He constantly looks bloated, as if someone turned an air compressor on into his clothes and forgot to turn it off. His button ups are at their last stand and with one wrong move they’ll be popping off in every direction. I imagine one landing into my bowl of cereal with a bloop. His light brown hair is always disheveled, and has begun to just stick out at random angles. Since shaving has become a chore for him as well, he leaves the house with a face covered in patchy gruff instead of being the clean-shaven man I grew up idolizing. My morning soundtrack used to play with the sounds of Dad’s razor clinking against the bathroom sink, paired with my mother grinding coffee beans in the kitchen. But all we hear now is silence.
We have our usual awkward small talk: him being high and me being uncomfortable. Since returning home for summer vacation, this has become a new thing for both of us. Instead of his usual weed-addled morning routine with no consequence, he has to find reasons for locking himself in the garage each morning. But I’ve got to hand it to him; his excuses are getting quite impressive. Just last weekend he ran towards the garage exclaiming, “My electric razor fell into the toilet!” sounding more excited than alarmed. “I need a screwdriver to fix it!” Twenty minutes later, when he floated back in from the garage, he’d forgotten all about the screwdriver, and instead returned with a hammer in hand. Everybody knows what he is really doing in there, but no one talks about it.
We are a family specializing in avoidance.
Mornings like these are when I wish for Before It Happened Dad. When weekends sounded like sizzling bacon and smelt of maple syrup. My feet pattering against the wood floors, I would sprint down the stairs, jumping from the second to last step. Dad would be wearing an apron with flour on his face, and pouring Mom a fresh cup of coffee while she completed The New York Times crossword in pen. Waiting for me would be a plate of pancakes that spelled my name, and a canister of whipped cream. If I asked for strawberry milk he already had it ready for me with a spoon in the glass waiting to be stirred, my favorite part. That was what I wanted. But now I was nauseous from the smell of weed and eating far more bowls of cereal than usual.
While shoveling a spoonful of Frosted Flakes into my mouth, I instinctively check my cell phone, even though I know that nobody has tried to reach me. I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that I am alone. I thought your first year of college was supposed to help you make everlasting friendships. That’s what I always saw in movies or on TV shows at least. But apparently I did something wrong, since my freshman year gave me social leprosy, causing everyone I thought were my friends to run away screaming. I shuffle through my old texts with Rose, trying to pinpoint the exact moment where I should have known she was plotting something against me. But no matter how many times I look, I still can’t find it. I guess I should have known though. As a freshman in college, you tend to become friends with the first person you meet and during that first semester the friendship goes through a trial run.
If by the end of that semester, you are happy with one another, you decide to upgrade to a full friendship subscription. And if you have found other people that you connect with more, you can walk away without question because you weren’t really that close anyway. But even then, I was so sure about Rose. We lived across the hall from one another making us almost destined to become friends. It was during move-in day while I was balancing a crate and trying to unlock my door that hers opened. Rose, wrapped in a pink towel and carrying her shower caddy, stepped out and caught me.
“Do you need help?”
I jumped, dropping my crate and spilling both my entire supply of Easy Mac and book collection everywhere.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said. Gently placing her shower caddy on the floor, she bent over to help. Her movements were dainty, refined almost.
“Thanks,” I groaned. I had been in the dorms for less than an hour and was already making a fool of myself in front of my new neighbor. When I first met Rose there, I couldn’t describe her in any other way except perfect. She was tall and slender with long, auburn hair that even when thrown in a ponytail had the right amount of wave without a hint of frizz. Her complexion was pale without looking sickly. Even her face was a perfect circle. The only imperfection I could see was a slight scar below her right eye, and even then it was perfectly placed, drawing you to her green eyes. She radiated confidence. She was in a Target-brand towel and yet, she worked it as if she were ready for a night out.
Handing me my books, she looked at the titles.
“The Bell Jar, Mrs. Dalloway, and Live or Die. You’re not going to stick your head in the oven during finals week are you?”
I raised an eyebrow and smiled. Of course she was pretty and well read. “Well, if you picked up these books,” I held up The Beautiful and the Damned, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and A Farewell to Arms, “You’d think I was a raging alcoholic.”
She giggled. “I wouldn’t know. I only know those first titles. Half of your book collection just covered every book I’ve ever read—and only because it was assigned in school.”
I looked at her, trying to figure her out. So she wasn’t that well read?
“What kind of progressive, new-age high school did you go to that the only books you read were written by female writers who eventually offed themselves?”
“An all-girl boarding school in Connecticut,” she giggled. “I’m Rose,” she said extending her hand. “Rose Greenleaf.”
“Really?” I said, taking her hand.
Rose rolled her eyes. “Yeah, really.”
“I’m sorry,” I laughed. “But you’re like an accidental hippie.”
Rose giggled again, “My older sister’s name is Dahlia.”
“That’s rough,” I said, “I’m Addy Tate.”
“Addy? That’s unusual.”
“It’s short for Adelaide. It was my grandmother’s name.”
“Oh, that’s sweet.”
“Adelaide!” My mother’s voice echoed. I looked up and she was heading our way, dragging my suitcase of winter hats and scarves behind her. When she met us, she put down the suitcase and began playing with my hair. I knocked her hand away. “Oh, honey,” she gushed, ignoring my physical warnings, brushing her hand on my shoulder now. “This is such a big step for you.” Rose looked over at me. I pushed my mom’s hand away again and rolled my eyes.
“Yeah, sure. Anyway, Mom,” I said, trying to distract her, “This is Rose. She’s my neighbor.”
“Rose! It’s so nice to meet you!” All of a sudden my tiny mother lunged at Rose, wrapping her in a large embrace, rocking her back and forth. “You need to promise me you’ll look after my Adelaide,” she mock-whispered into her ear. I became mortified and actually smacked my hand against my forehead in embarrassment. Over her shoulder, I saw that Rose was more shocked than annoyed by my mother’s actions. I mouthed an apology to her and she nodded back in acceptance. “I’m Adelaide’s mother,” Mom continued, “Isn’t this exciting?”
Rose smiled. “It sure is Mrs. Tate.”
“Oh, please! Call me Pilar.” She went back to playing with my hair, tucking my curly locks behind my ear.
“Mom!” I interjected, taking a step away from her. “Rose needs to go take a shower now.”
“How silly of me,” she said. “It was so nice to meet you, Rose.”
“You too, Pilar.” She picked up her shower caddy and walked down the opposite end of the hallway my mother had come from, towards the showers. “See you around, Adelaide.”
“Bye,” I said.
When she was out of earshot my mom looked at me, wrapping her arm around my waist. “Well she seems sweet.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She does, doesn’t she?”
After polishing off my second bowl and contemplating having a third, I realize Dad has been asking me how I plan on spending my day.
“Toddlers and Tiaras marathon,” I state, eyeing the box of Frosted Flakes. “I’m all booked up.”
“Adelaide,” my dad sighs, “You haven’t left the couch since returning home from college.” He picks up a pen off the island and begins tapping it against the granite top. I stare at his hand, trying to will him to stop. But he keeps on tapping; as if he needs to keep himself busy or else his body will shut down.
“I know, but I keep missing the feud between Jacqueline and Brittany.”
Dad picks up my glass of orange juice and finishes it. I glare at him, angry that he has not asked me if I was done with it—which I wasn’t. “It’s time you left the house. And not just to go to the Walgreens down the street.”
I cough, choking on my last mouthful of soggy cereal. I shift in my seat, hoping this conversation isn’t going to go where I think it is. I try to remember where I’ve left my recently purchased pack of Marlboro Lights, hoping I have not left them in clear sight. I then raise my hand to my mouth, and let out a breath of air and inhale it, checking for cigarette smell. I detect nothing. How did he find out? How could he find out? He is so baked right now, I’m surprised he’s able to string a full sentence together.
“I know you’re the one replacing the milk,” he says, “But that doesn’t count as human interaction.”
I let out the breath I was unknowingly holding.
“You’re right,” I nod with a painted-on smile.
“Maybe look for a summer job,” he suggests. “Keep you busy.” Dad smiles back at me and kisses the top of my head. I awkwardly look up at him. We were never the kiss-each-other-to-show-affection type of family. But I guess things like that can change. Opening the fridge, Dad pulls out his packed lunch and reaches for his keys.
“Okay kiddo,” he says turning back to the garage to leave for work. “Tell your mother I’m off.” And like a rock-god, he opens the garage door, disappearing into the settling smoke.
Minutes after the door closes behind him, Mom comes running down the stairs in nothing but her bathrobe. Her short curly brown hair is still wet from her shower, dripping with every step. I inherited my mother’s thick Latina curls, but unlike hers—which are completely manageable when cut short—mine have such a mind of their own that when cut short, it looks as if I licked a light socket; a mistake I had learned when I was thirteen and asked for a chin-length bob. My mom’s face was unmade, a now regular concept due to her completely giving up on makeup. Under her beautifully tanned skin, there is a permanent pale undertone, a constant reminder of her sadness. Unlike my father, my mother has lost a considerable amount of weight, causing her clothes to wear her. She is a hanger instead of a person.
“Did you father leave yet?” Her eyes shift around the kitchen, as if he is hiding in a corner somewhere.
“Can’t you smell his exit?”
This is the only hint of conversation about Dad’s new hobby our family has. Mom asks me something, I slip in a snide comment, and she ignores it.
“I need him to go to the craft store after work,” she continues. “They’re having a sale on photo glue.”
My mother’s way of grieving is through scrapbooking. It’s silly, but a better alternative to my father’s choice. My only worry is the slight obsession it has become. Every day she stops by the local craft store to pick up more material, go to workshops, or learn about a new style in decorative scissors.
On numerous occasions I’ve caught Mom sitting on the den floor surrounded by old photos. Birthdays, vacations, all past events. Clasping onto these photographs like lifelines, she eventually glues them down into permanent existence. They can no longer be taken away from her; and that’s what she wants. After our loss, she needs something solid to lean against. And since Dad is constantly wavering, pictures and memories became her stable ground. But soon as I catch her looking at a Cricut scrapbooking machine, I’m holding an intervention.
“I can go for you, Mom.”
She puckers her lips at me. “Oh but sweetie, I wouldn’t want to get in the way of Jacqueline and Brittany’s feud.”
(353 days since)
On June 16, 2012 my older brother, Nataniel, died in a car accident. He was 22 years old. He was driving through an intersection when a drunk driver ran a red light and t-boned his car. When he was brought to the hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival. It was a Saturday afternoon. In anticipation of the first anniversary of his death Dad has called his dealer twice this week. Mom spent five hours at the craft store yesterday. I have done nothing.
(362 days since)
My monotony is becoming a routine. I wake up at noon to an empty house, sneak a cigarette on our porch, eat two bowls of cereal, and watch hours of television. I can’t really complain about this arrangement, but it’s obviously upsetting my parents. They call me every afternoon asking if I have left the house. And every afternoon I disappoint them by saying no. It’s not like I am trying not to be social. I want something—or someone—to distract me. But I’m stuck here with nobody to talk to. With our family being the town pariahs, my phone wasn’t exactly blowing up with texts from old high school friends. And thanks to Rose deeming me socially inept, my last few months of freshman year were quite lonely. But strangely, I had gotten used to it.
After weeks of the sameness, I decide that I am going to make use of my time. My parents have their hobbies. I’ll pick mine. After thinking it over, I decide to move into Nat’s old room. When I first mentioned this to my parents, they were hesitant. Mom rattled off reasons why I shouldn’t and Dad fell silent. I knew it would be a lot of work. We had not done anything with his room since the accident. All of his belongings from his apartment were still in boxes on his floor, untouched. It was easier to pretend the door at the end of the hallway wasn’t there than go through them, admitting his absence. But Nat always had the better room, being the oldest. It was bigger, and he had a built-in bookshelf that went from the ceiling to the floor. I dreamt of bookshelves like that for as long as I could remember and the fact that Nat had been using them for his video games and action figures was blasphemous.
And whenever I pointed this out to him—which was often—Nat would laugh, ruffle my hair and say, “Well when you’re a famous editor, you can convert every wall in your house into a bookshelf.” But one day when I was ten and making my usual complaint against him he said to me, “For now, I can give you one row.” I remember looking up at him, analyzing his expression, to see if he was teasing me.
But that’s exactly what he did. He brought me into his room, leading me towards his bookshelf. I remember having to crane my neck just to see the very top of it. I imagined myself having to use one of those wheel ladders I’d seen in movies with enormous libraries, just to reach for the book I wanted. But then I dipped down towards the lowest shelf, getting on my hands and knees. There wasn’t anything glamorous about the last shelf. Even Nat knew it, keeping his older, damaged models on it.
I looked at this shelf, and back at Nat. “You sure that’s the one you want?” He was right. I must have been down on my hands and knees for only a minute, and they were already pulsing with angry discomfort. I didn’t want to do this every time I wanted a book. I jumped back up, and looked back at him.
“No, not that one,” I whispered.
“Okay then,” he grinned. “Which one do you really want?”
“That one,” I said pointing to the shelf that was at my eye level. It was also the shelf with his prized Star Wars figurines.
“Okay then.” And with a single sweep of his arm, the shelf was cleared with his figurines scattered on the floor. “Happy reading.”
After days of wearing them down, my parents finally agreed to let me redecorate. I even took advantage of Dad’s usually hazy mental state and finagled him into giving me his credit card. The only condition was that I would be doing all of the work on my own. I agreed to their terms, ready to begin.
Finishing my bowl of cereal, I feel a sense of purpose. Today I begin cleaning out Nat’s room. As I sit atop our kitchen island, I hear the slight creak of our screen door open and then slap into something. Bowl in hand, I hop off the island and walk the five steps to our front door to unlock the deadbolt. When I open the door, I find an old cardboard box. I bend down and lift a flap to take a peek. The first thing I see is a small hint of red and I slap the box shut again. I stand back up, and look around to see if I am alone. The sidewalk is empty, except for a tall, gangly guy walking away from my front door.
“Hey,” I shout out to him. “Is this from you?”
He turns, surprised by my sudden outburst. And when our eyes meet, I can’t help but instinctively roll them. Because I know exactly who he is. Zander, Nat’s college roommate and best friend, had been hanging around our house since Nat’s first college break. It seemed as if whenever we had a break, I could count on finding him crashing on our couch the entire time. He was over so much, I had just adapted to his presence. Not so much as a person, but more like a fixture. Like a lamp; or a dishwasher. I never went out of my way to befriend him or even talk to him, really.
But as nonexistent our friendship was, I couldn’t help but notice him at Nat’s wake. He never came up to the casket or spoke to anyone. Instead, he spent the entire day in the corner of the church in silence. He’s also just someone who is impossible to miss. He caps off at 6’4” looking like what Mike TeeVee probably looked like after going through the taffy puller in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His dark brown hair is too shaggy, desperately in need of a trim, and he has the most beautiful grey eyes I have ever seen. His nose has a distinct kink in it, signaling he has broken it at least once before. But those eyes; they are as if I am lost in a fog.
He backtracks to our house and stumbles back on the front step. I roll my eyes again, watching him try to stealthily work with his lanky limbs. He stands sheepishly, with his hands digging in his pockets as if I have caught him with his arm in the fish tank, trying to grab an angelfish. “Oh, you’re home,” he exhales. “I knocked on the door but nobody answered.”
“No you didn’t,” I counter. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“Uh, well maybe you were in another room?” His voice is shaky, nervous.
“I’ve been in the kitchen all afternoon.” He begins fidgeting, as if I am making him uncomfortable.
“I, uh, I don’t know then.” He begins running his fingers through his hair. “You know? I got something I have to do. Sorry to bother you.” He turns around and bolts off our front step and I am left there with a bowl of cereal in my hand and a box of my dead brother’s belongings at my feet. This isn’t exactly how I planned my day going, but I’m going to go with it. I gulp down the rest of my cereal, lay the bowl on top of the box, and run after Zander.
“Wait!” I shout, trying to catch up with him. Luckily, his car is parked two houses away from us so I don’t have to run very far. He is trying to wrestle his car key into the lock, cursing under his breath.
“Now hold on,” I breathe, regretting that cigarette I had this morning. “What’s the rush?”
He faces me and apologies start pouring from his mouth like a running faucet. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here.” He is running his hands through his hair again. “I-I mean, it’s not like we were ever friends or anything,” he stammers. “And here I am on your doorstep. Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he begins batting his hand against his head. “But I—err, uh—I just had to… just—I…should go.”
I reach out to rest my hand on his shoulder, well I try to reach his shoulder, but I’m just barely brushing the lower part of his bicep, hoping to calm him down. “Okay, guy, take a deep breath.”
He looks down at my hand and back at me.
“Seriously, do it.”
Zander begins fidgeting again and I cock my head to the side, waiting.
He takes a deep breath, holds it, and lets it out.
“Better right?” I say.
He smiles. “Yeah, actually.”
“Hey,” I say, “why don’t you come inside for a bit?”
“Oh, I don’t kno—”
“It’s not a marriage proposal,” I interrupt. “Just an invitation inside.”
He barks a nervous laugh, and nods his head. “Okay.”
I smile back at him and head back to my house. He follows behind me with his head down. When we reach the front door I pick up the box, fumbling about, trying to balance the bowl on top. Zander reaches forward, grabbing the bowl with one hand and opening the screen door with the other. I thank him and duck inside.
He walks into our house and begins looking around. I feel as if we are on display, showing the world how the accident has shaken our lives. I instantly regret inviting him in. All you can see now are its flaws. It’s strange to think about what you can get used to. Whenever I watched Hoarders—only because it was on after Toddlers and Tiaras—I would always wonder how someone could let things get that bad. As the woman was climbing over ceiling-high stacks of old newspapers to reach her bedroom didn’t she ever think, “This might be getting out of control”? But when it becomes normal to you, you can overlook anything. And as I looked around my own house now, the evidence of our own overlook was obvious: stacks of unopened mail and scattered scrapbooking supplies on the dining room table signified our disregard to eating as a family. The sink was stacked with empty take-out containers from every restaurant in Winfield. And our trash bin was overflowing with rotten food that had spoiled in our refrigerator, but nobody had bothered to take out yet.
There is nothing warm and comforting about our house. The lightness our home used to have had been snuffed out. I can’t even bring myself to call this place my home anymore. It’s just a place where my parents come to at the end of the day. I look over at Zander, trying to read his thoughts. He furrows his brows, as if he is trying to decide if he wants to ask me something or not.
Before he gets the chance to, I break the silence.
“I’m just going to put this upstairs,” referring to the box.
“Sure,” he answers, still holding the bowl.
I walk upstairs into my room, closing the door behind me and place the box on my bed. Now that I am alone, I examine its contents. The first thing I find is an old Boba Fett action figure. This is the first Star Wars toy Nat ever bought, sealing his fate as a fan. I cradle the toy in my arms like a fragile child and place it on my bedside table. Returning to the box, I pull out a few beaten up sci-fi paperbacks. I walk across my room and put them on my small bookshelf, next to my worn copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Finally, I look for the hint of red I saw earlier. Reaching inside, I bring the old red flannel shirt to my nose, taking in a deep breath. It still smells of soap and citrus. It still smells of him. My vision blurs with tears and I can feel myself losing control. Throwing the shirt in the corner of the room, I wipe away the moisture from my eyes with the back of my hands. I shove the box under my bed, erasing its existence from my memory.
Angry with myself for my weakness, I take a deep breath and wipe at my eyes again. When I collect myself, I leave my room and walk downstairs to find Zander trying to place a frame back on top of our piano. When he realizes I’ve caught him, he bobbles it, knocking over half the other frames. I smile and pick up the one he was holding. It is a picture of Nat and me smiling at my high school graduation. It was taken thirty-two days before the accident.
He looks at me and then around the house again. He takes in a deep breath and looks back at me again.
“What?” I ask.
“Uh, well,” his words are muddled; stuck on the roof of his mouth like peanut butter. Until he finally asks me, “Are you smoking weed in here?”