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We Disappoint, They Disapprove

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People ask me sometimes what my family's like. I don't know why; maybe it's the genius thing - yeah, I know what that sounds like, but I can't help it, that's what all the test scores say - maybe they want to know if it's genetic or something. Maybe they just have nothing better to talk about. Either way, I wish they wouldn't, 'cause I never know what to say. How do you explain people, for crying out loud? I have two older brothers, one really cool, the other not so much; I've got a baby sister who's a total mystery to me. I've got a mother who thinks I'm the most amazing thing that ever happened. And I have two fathers.

No. That's not true. Not literally true.

Truthfully, I have just the one, same as anyone else, but if you didn't know - if you saw our family one day, at its best, and then another day, at its worst, then you might honestly think that he was two different people: Good Dad/Bad Dad. Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. Positive Kirk/Negative Kirk …

(Ah, damn. Danny bet me $5 I couldn't get through three paragraphs before my inner geek made its appearance. Although Danny doesn't know I'm writing this, I'm just getting it down to sort some stuff out for myself, so I guess I needn't tell him. On the one hand: moral obligation; on the other: betting's illegal and I'm under age. Yes, I think I just saved myself $5 there.)

He has his good days, my dad, or he used to, and on those days you couldn't've asked for a better father: he laughed, he told stupid jokes, he brought us presents, he took us out on spur-of-the-moment trips to the coast, or into the country, or just driving, driving for miles for the hell of it and to see where the road might take us. But the good days didn't come around very often, and then only when we were children. As we grew older, more and more there were nothing but bad days. Days of taut silence, when everything seemed screwed up right from the start, when the least little thing made him snap and snarl, when none of us could do anything right not David, his oldest and the apple of his eye; not Leah, his baby girl; not me, the smart one, the one who gave him something real to brag about. Not my mom, who I guess he loved. Not Danny. Not Danny, for sure. Danny never could please our father, no matter what Dad's mood. Those were the days when no-one dared speak louder than a whisper for fear of setting him off, when those of us who could get away with it skulked (that was his word) in their rooms for as long as they humanly could, and when they came out they walked on tiptoe and crept about in the shadows, like spies. Days when we dreaded his homecoming, when, if he was working late, there would almost be a race to see who could get to bed the earliest so as not to still be up when he came in. Days when Mom's face was lined with tension and misery, but she still somehow managed to pretend that nothing was wrong, that everything was normal, to reassure us that we were a family or, if not, that we surely would be again. If only we could have believed her.

I read in one of my history books about villages in England that've been going about their lives peacefully, unsuspectingly, for the last fifty years, and then one day a kid'll be playing on the beach, or they'll dig up the street, and they'll find that all this time they've been sitting on an unexploded German bomb. That's what living with my dad was like. Danger: UXB.

I told Danny that, and he laughed, and said it was an interesting metaphor. I love Danny, and so I wasn't going to tell him it wasn't a metaphor, it was an analogy, but then I remembered he wanted to be a writer, and it might help if he knew the difference, so I did. He laughed even more then, and told me to fuck off, but he said it nicely. Danny never got mad at me. That's one of the things that was coolest about him, because pretty much everyone used to get mad at Danny. My mom hated his clothes; my dad hated his clothes too, and his hair and his music and his friends, the books that he read, the way that he stood and sat and walked, the way he spoke and the language he used, the way he held his fork … you get the picture. They both thought he stayed out too late, and drove too fast, and drank too much - well; just drank at all, what with him still being underage. David always seemed to suspect that Danny was having more fun as a teenager than he'd ever had himself, which was probably true, 'cause David never was much fun, and kind of had a grudge about it. His teachers thought he had a smart mouth - that was probably true too - and were forever keeping him late after school, which just got Mom and Dad madder … ah, you see how it goes. He wasn't exactly the family black sheep, but that was mostly because no-one was ever less sheeplike than Danny.

"So you're saying I'm a goat?" he said, and I thought he was going to tell me to fuck off again, but then he thought about it some, and shrugged, and just said "Cool."

He was sixteen then, and we didn't see so much of him; if he wasn't being kept after school, he'd be out with his grungy friends, drinking in bars on a fake ID, following the local bands from gig to gig, trying to pick up girls - succeeding, I think, a lot of the time - coming home smelling of booze and cigarettes and sex; falling over his own feet coming up the stairs, or not even making it that far and collapsing on the couch, or getting up to his room and deciding that 2.00 am was a good time to turn up the stereo or to take a shower.

Or phoning late at night, scared and shaken, from a hospital payphone to say that he'd been in a car accident and he needed a ride home, Mom, please?

It was just his bad luck that it wasn't Mom who picked up the call.

The phone had woken us all up, and once we'd heard the news, none of us could think of going back to bed. We sat around the living room, waiting, tense; trying to talk, but unable to think of anything to say. Leah, on our mother's lap, whispered, "Mommy, will Danny be all right?" but Mom just hugged her; he was alive, we knew that much, but Dad hadn't told us anything else, just thrown on some clothes, snatched up his car keys and stormed out without a word.

It was hypnotic, sitting there in the middle of the night, listening to the rain outside, the ticking of the clock, an occasional car or siren somewhere very far away. My mind started wandering: imagining Danny dead, or horribly injured, losing an arm, maybe, or an eye; wondering how that would change him, whether he'd still be the same big brother I'd loved all my life, the brother who could take all the things that were wrong in the world and show me, in just a few words, how they could all be made right; the brother who'd never laughed at me - at least, not when it mattered, never unkindly - no matter how geeky I was, who'd fought for me and protected me and been my best friend. And then, somehow, suddenly, I was angry at him - didn't he know what it would do to us, to Mom and Leah and me, and to David - even to Dad - if anything happened to him? Didn't he care?

I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I hadn't heard the car pull up outside. The slamming of the front door caught me by surprise, and I jolted upright, looking toward the hallway. I caught my mother's eye as I turned, and she smiled, trying to be reassuring, but actually so pale and strained-looking that she scared me. If Mom fell apart, I thought, there wasn't much chance of anything being left standing.

Then Dad came in. He was gripping Danny's upper arm, holding him like a prisoner and Danny, for once, wasn't laughing, wasn't even smiling; he looked as frightened as the rest of us, white-faced and wide-eyed, dried blood spiking his hair. His left arm was in a sling - he'd dislocated his shoulder, we found out later, and had to have it reset - and there was a short line of black stitches by the side of his mouth. That seemed to be all. It was enough.

It was enough for my father. He almost threw Danny's arm away from him, sending him stumbling, off-balance, across the floor. Mom moved to get up, but Dad snapped at her, "Sit down, Ruth!" and she sank quietly back into her chair. Some life came back into Danny's eyes, and he spun back toward Dad.

"Don't take it out on Mom!"

Dad took a step forward, his face twisted with rage. "Don't you talk back to me!" He reached out and grabbed Danny's chin with his hand, forcing his face up. "You've been drinking. You were driving around drunk - "

Danny pulled away. "I wasn't driving!" His voice dragged, slurred. "I wouldn't - "

"You were drinking!" Dad grabbed for him again. "What else were you doing? What else did you take?" He didn't give Danny a chance to answer. "Listen to yourself! You can hardly talk - you can't walk straight - you selfish - stupid - ungrateful … Do you ever think about your mother and I, what this is doing to us, what people think?"

I shut my eyes. I knew Danny wouldn't be able to resist it. The frightened expression had left his face, and his mouth had tightened.

"'Your mother and me'," he said, flatly. "Not 'I'. 'Your mother and me'."

Dad brought his hand around and slapped him hard across his mouth, his too-smart mouth; his signet ring caught in the stitches, and as he pulled it away, Danny's face began to bleed again. Dad stepped back, his hands bunched into fists, stared at him a moment, then turned abruptly away and slammed out of the room. Danny stood motionless, watching him go, then lifted his free hand to touch the bleeding.

"Well," he said, faintly, "that went well." He looked over at us and tried to smile. "I'm sorry, Mom."

She got up then, passing poor, terrified Leah to me to hold, and went to Danny, wrapping her arms around him. He was taller than she was, had been for a year or so by then; her head rested on his chest. "You're always sorry, Danny," she said, and she sighed. "Are you ever going to learn?"

He held her tightly in his one good arm, his cheek against her hair. "I'll try," he whispered. And then he passed out.

* * *

The gash on his face was from flying glass, we learned later, and he'd been lucky, he'd been thrown clear. That scar never really healed. Neither did the other, deeper one, the one that Dad had cut into him with his own two hands. He never apologised. For a long time, he couldn't even look at Danny's face. But Danny said that was no difference at all, and he pretended that it didn't matter.

Mom kept him home for the next few days; he was suffering from shock, a little bit, though he acted like he was fine. It was pretty clear he was lying, though; he was quiet - and Danny, quiet, was something I'd previously never have imagined and sleepy, and kept to his room as much as he could. I got in there once or twice, but he wouldn't talk to me, not really talk. He said "Okay," when I asked him how he was feeling, and "No thanks," when Mom asked if he wanted anything. And when I asked him what it'd been like, what'd happened, whether he'd been scared, if it had hurt, he just turned away and didn't say anything at all.

By the weekend he was mostly back to normal, or as normal as Danny ever got. He slept late and spent most of the day lying across the couch, feet up, reading, or up in his room with his headphones on; usually that meant he had a hangover, but it could have been his way of apologising, keeping out of the way and as low-key as he could. He even helped Mom in the kitchen, peeling vegetables and washing dishes - he'd abandoned the sling after the first day - and you could tell by the way her face lit up every time she looked at him that he was forgiven, at least as far as she was concerned. Then Dad came home from the golf club, where he spent every weekend in preference to keeping his family company. Slammed the front door behind him. Stalked into the kitchen in silence; fixed himself a drink; came out, went into the living room, turned on the TV. All in silence, still. And the silence spread, until all of us were, once again, stepping on tiptoe, breathing in quietly, talking in whispers; afraid to be the one to draw his attention, afraid of waking the sleeping tiger.

Dinner was silent, too; silent and strained. And, truth to tell, pretty bad. We all realised it at about the same time; glanced at one another. None of us dared say a thing. Dad sat at the head of the table, head down, face like thunder, chewing grimly, determinedly, as if his life depended on it. Swallowed; stabbed another piece of meat with his fork, and began chewing again. Mom looked at him, looked around at all of us, agonised, and suddenly, too brightly, too artificially, said, "I'm afraid the meat's a little tough."

No-one said anything. She gave a nervous little flutter of laughter, touched her hand to her throat. "I couldn't get to my usual butcher, I was running a little late, so I had to go to Mortons …" More silence. "It's really quite tough … I should complain, I guess, but I never really use them, so - "

Dad slammed down his fists on either side of his plate and bellowed, "The meat's fine!" Mom gasped; Leah started snivelling. I shut my eyes and wished I was anyplace else but there, but when I opened them again, there I still was. And there they were: Mom pale and looking as if she were about to throw up, Dad glaring straight at her, snapping out, "It's fine. Will you just quit yammering on about it and let us eat in peace!"

Mom started to stammer that she was sorry, she hadn't meant ... And then, suddenly, Danny said, quite brightly, "You know, Mom, you're right - it is a little tough." And then, as we all stared at him, he went on, cheerfully, "That's good though, because tests have proved that modern-day diets are a major cause of oral problems - we eat too much soft stuff, and don't chew, so our teeth and jaws - "

We never found out what happened to our teeth and jaws, because Dad was on his feet by then, almost purple in the face, screaming semi-incoherently at Danny, words like 'ungrateful' and 'spoilt' and 'insolent' and 'good for nothing' and 'haven't you done enough?'; Mom and Leah were crying, I was sitting as still as I could, hoping no-one would notice me, and Danny …

Danny was just sitting, slouched back in his chair, watching Dad yell. And smiling. Smirking, you could call it. Grinning. As if the whole thing was just a big joke to him; as if he were watching some comically dysfunctional family on a TV show, not his own, his own family slowly falling apart in the privacy of their very own dining room. As if it were somebody else's problem. As if it were nothing to do with him. And when Dad finally yelled himself out, he just said, very quietly, "Want to hit me again, Dad?"

In the silence that followed, the scrape of his chair across the floor was shockingly loud. He stood, stopped by Mom's chair, touched her on the shoulder and said "Thanks for dinner, Mom," and then strolled off, hands in his jeans pockets. If he'd ever been able to whistle, he'd've been whistling.

Dad sat down again. Icicles began to form on the ceiling, or maybe I only imagined that part.

None of us had much appetite for the rest of the meal.

* * *

I knocked on Danny's door when I finally managed to escape and get upstairs. There wasn't an answer, but that was nothing new; sometimes he was playing music and didn't hear. Other times he just couldn't be bothered to shout out. I tried the doorhandle, and the door wasn't locked, so I opened it and stuck my head inside.

It was freezing; the window was wide open, and Danny was sitting beside it, one leg crooked along the sill, one hanging down outside. He was smoking, blowing the smoke outside, waving it away from himself as he exhaled. He turned his head to look at me, and gestured me on inside.

"How was dinner?" he asked, brightly.

I collapsed onto the end of his bed. "Fucked," I said. "Thanks a lot."

He raised his eyebrows. "Oh, it was my fault?" He finished his cigarette, stubbed it out on the outside of the windowframe, then put the butt carefully back in the packet before swinging himself back into the room. "Seemed to me like I had some help in there."

"You didn't have to start him off - "

"He'd already gotten started." I looked up, startled; his voice had gone hard and cold, quite unlike his own. "Better me than Mom," he added, more gently. "Don't you think?"

I shrugged. It was a good enough theory, but it could use some work. "Yeah. Nice job. You think it makes her any happier if he's yelling at you instead of her?"

He flopped down on the bed beside me, elbowing me over to make room. "Any time you have a better plan, genius …"

"Yeah," I said. We lay in silence for a moment, staring up at the posters on his ceiling. Then I burst out, "What I don't see is, why does she stay with him? When he treats her that way? How can she stand it? I don't …" My voice cracked, and I had to stop.

Danny didn't say anything for a moment. Then, very quietly, he said, "I dunno. But maybe she loves him. And maybe their marriage matters to her. You know we matter … don't you, Sam?"

I sniffed, and nodded, and he put his arm around my shoulders and hugged me. I held on to him tightly, grateful beyond words that I had an elder brother like him, maybe the only one in the world who would let me talk, let me cry, and not push me away or laugh in my face. Finally, a little muffled, I said, "I wish I was more like you, Danny."

He let go of me and sat up suddenly, switched on the bedside light and sat staring at me. Then he grinned. "Yeah. Sure you do. 'Cause I'm such a great person, and you, all you've got is an IQ of 184. Don't expect me to swap, Mister, 'cause I'm just fine the way I am, thanks."

That wasn't the point. The point was … I didn't know what the point was. That, even though I was only two years younger than he was, he seemed so much older, so much - not wiser, 'cause even I could see that Danny was screwed up and half-crazy a lot of the time; but there were depths to him, of kindness and generosity and compassion, that seemed at odds with the skinny, grungy kid that I knew he really was. That he might not act like a saint, might not even want to, but that he was, simply, good. Something I couldn't say to him without the risk of getting laughed at. A lot. And possibly puked on. "You always seem so … I don't know. So - certain about everything. How to deal with Dad, what to say to Mom - what to say to me, and to Leah. And you know what you want to do, you know you want to be a writer, you know you want to work in sports - "

He let out a crack of what was not exactly laughter. "Yeah. 'Well, if you're not good enough to play sports, maybe you'll be able to write about them.' Didn't that make me feel special?"

His impersonation of our father was pretty lousy, but it made up for it in venom. I don't know why Dad had said that; why it was always Danny he put down. How he could knock him on the one hand for being dumb and lazy and for lacking ambition and on the other, when Danny expressed an ambition, to turn around and try to make it worthless.

"But you know," I said again. "Whatever he says, that doesn't change the fact that you're really good at writing, and you know a lot about sports, and you can put those two things together and you can make magic happen. What've I got?" He laughed again at that, and I kicked him. "Yeah, so I'm smart - big deal! Dad keeps on coming up with all these great plans for me, and Mom talks about how I could be a doctor, or a scientist, or, I don't know, pretty much God to listen to her - and none of it sounds right, none of it's me - you know? I might as well be dumb as a plank for all the good being smart's ever going to get me," I ended up sulkily, and then I had to kick Danny again, because he was laughing pretty hard by that time. After a while he started choking, and I had to bang him on the back until he hiccuped, although I did think maybe I should just let him choke to death and let that be a lesson to him. He finally fell back against the pillows, still giggling to himself every so often.

"Yup," he eventually managed, "You're pretty crap, okay - fourteen years old, and you don't have your life all mapped out for you yet. How can you live that way?" He started giggling again, and I had to pull the pillow out from under him, stuff it over his face and hold it down until he'd good and stopped. I pulled it off then, and checked to make sure he was still breathing.

"I've changed my mind," I said, with dignity. "I don't want to be you. You're an asshole."

He just looked up at me and let his hands fall to his sides in surrender. "Won't hear me denying it," he said.

And then we heard Dad downstairs, shutting his study door with a bang, and we both stopped laughing; holding our breath as we heard him coming upstairs, sitting frozen in silence, tense, waiting to see if he stopped outside the door, if he'd heard us laughing, if he was going to come in, if we were in even more trouble …

His footsteps went straight past the door and we heard his bedroom door close, and we relaxed and breathed again. Danny looked at my face, and tried to smile, and put his arm around my shoulder and hugged me.

"Tell you why I'm not swapping with you," he said. "I'm getting out of here two years before you do. No way I'm giving that up, not for you or anyone."

"Yeah," I grumbled, "leaving me with him." But I knew he was right; I'd be okay. So would Leah. Danny was the one, the one who drove our father crazy. I suppose Dad loved him; I'm sure he'd say he did. But sometimes I had to wonder just how broad the definition of love could possibly be.

Mom came upstairs a little while later, her footsteps lighter and quieter than Dad's. She paused outside the door; knocked softly. Danny called out "Yeah?" and she opened the door a crack and peeked in.

"I made you a sandwich, honey," she whispered, and passed the plate across. "You didn't finish your meal."

Danny set the plate down on his desk, went over to her and pulled her into his arms. "I don't deserve you," he murmured, and I watched from the bed as Mom hugged him tightly, letting her fingers run through his hair, her hand slide along the plane of his cheekbone. Then she pushed him away.

"You really don't," she told him, and looked over to me. "Sam, it's past your bedtime, and your brother's a bad influence." But she smiled when she said it, and that made all the difference.

As I was leaving the room, I turned back for a moment. "Those cigarettes really stink, Danny - you're not gonna fool anyone with that 'window open' thing."

I didn't know why then, but for some reason that made him fall back on the bed again, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

It took me a long time to figure out what it was that Danny was using for a lifeline.

* * *

And now Danny's going; he'll be leaving for college in just a few weeks. Leaving me here all alone. I'd thought that I'd be okay, but that was two years ago, and things have got worse since then. Dad doesn't yell any more these days; the silences have taken over completely now, silences that seem to freeze the air and strangle the life out of whatever room he's in. Mom still tries to keep things together, but I know she has a lifeline too; the level of the gin bottle in the cocktail cabinet goes down one civilised glass at a time, but there's always another one hidden at the back of the kitchen cabinet, and that one's emptied and replaced a couple of times a week. Leah's seven now. She still wets the bed. Me? I stay in my room and turn my music up loud; I go out in the evenings - I don't have many friends, so I mostly go out alone - and I stay out as late as I can. Some of my teachers are concerned about me, they tell me; they want to know if I have problems. They want to know what it's like at home.

I don't know what to tell them. How do you explain people?

* * *