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someday is a story (it's the one I'm sticking to)

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Brianna Hanson has always been alone. Or at least, mostly been alone. Her life is a stream of clean kitchen countertops, men she doesn’t know or care to know, and anything that’ll make her bones feel a little looser, anything that lifts her feet a little off the ground. (Except for vodka, which she mostly avoids, because Brianna knows by now that she has to be her mother but different, her mother through a funhouse mirror, and vodka is pure replication. It’s lazy, and Brianna Hanson is anything but.) It’s like her life is the lazy river at the Las Vegas hotel where the Hansons (and the Bergsteins) spent spring break when she was in 3rd grade, because her dad and Sol had a case there and wouldn’t it just be fun to bring the kids along!

She doesn’t remember much from that week, just things like Mallory crying on the airplane while her mom signaled the flight attendant for tiny bottle after tiny bottle and her dad shut his eyes against the headrest, Bud and Coyote daring each other to jump into the pool first (before she pushed them both in) and them pulling her in after, chlorine and cigarette smoke from casinos the kids weren’t allowed into and shows their parents went to at night that they weren’t allowed into either. Why’d we take the kids here again?

Still, between the arguments (her parents vs. each other, her mom vs. Frankie) Brianna remembers having a nice time, the way that kids do when they’re in a new place and everything is foreign (the bright lights, the lions in the lobby, the giant pools) and the constant discovery making everything feel like an adventure. Their first day there, she and Mallory had run up and down the hallways until Grace found them and said that this was not an appropriate way to behave. Brianna misses some things about being a kid, but the shame is not one of them. Her parents were good in some ways, doing their best in others, and always adequate, but even in Grace and Robert’s extreme marital differences, the one thing they always had a mutual passion for was long, eviscerating speeches whenever Mal or Bri did something wrong.

Brianna does everything she can to avoid that feeling now, the hot, overwhelming shame that she felt smothered in ages two to twenty.

Vegas hadn’t been the source of anything too intense though - mid-hallway-racing-debacle Frankie and her boys had appeared like angels on high to ask if the Hansons might like to join them at the pool. Brianna doesn’t remember much of the rest of that day, or even the details of the pool, just splashing and happy shouting, the pool-smell in her hair and wrinkled fingertips. Frankie, ever the fun mom, had spent the time playing with Bud, Coyote, and Mallory (who was both too young to be alone in the water and a pro at pretending to be a dolphin with Bud).

Grace had not.

Brianna remembers being surprised by her mom’s choice to get in the water at all (a choice that will seem less surprising in twenty years when Brianna understands that cocktails are allowed in the lazy river) and wanting so badly to see her mom swim that Grace had given her an innertube too, plopped a sun hat on her head, you can float with me if you don’t talk, okay? Her mom hadn’t stayed in the water for long and even Frankie retreated to the pool chairs after a while, leaving the young dolphins to imagine things on their own, but Brianna had stayed in the river, going around and around and around, listening to kids yelling and chairs scraping, bottles clinking together at regular intervals, waving at Frankie when she passed by her chair each revolution and responding to Coyote’s high-five, to Mallory’s small wave. Always floating on, never stopping. Never even effected really, by anything going on. She’d done that each day, all week long.

One night her dad mutters something to the other adults, should we be taking her more places? What kind of child just wants to float all day? Her mom’s proud response, I guess she really is my daughter, Robert, fills Brianna with a kind of warmth that she’d do anything to feel again. (Over the next few years forgoing normal kid fun to float around in circles with a bunch of wasted adults will seem like a small thing compared to how she copies her mom, how she asks to be loved with every breath, but in Las Vegas Brianna is still small, still feels every emotion like a tidal wave crashing through her body, still reaches up to hold her dad’s hand as they board the plane home.)

Brianna doesn’t usually like metaphors, they taste too much like the poetry class she had to take in college for an English credit when everything else was full (ten weeks of horny nineteen year-olds taking too-long pauses to stare into each other’s eyes while Brianna cracked her gum in the back of the room). But her life as the lazy river, it’s almost one she can get behind.

(She floats, head tilted back and eyes shut, shifting to trail her hand in the water or get more comfortable, vaguely aware of the stuff around her, the other people laughing and arguing but as uninvolved as possible, stopping by different family members before the manufactured current carries her onward. A slow, steady drift, unattached from other’s moorings, perfectly content.)

Brianna knows how to not get too involved in other people’s messes, has watched the way her mom detaches from the rest of the world a thousand times and memorized the motions. She’s perfectly fine at spending time with herself, after all she both likes herself and understands herself probably more than anyone else ever will. So it’s not like she’s missing out on anything by keeping her distance, by only floating close enough to others to drop by and drink them in for a minute, it’s not like she’s missing out by moving on. She knows how to have fun, the kind of fun she actually likes, so it’s not like she’s bored either.

It’s like this: Brianna is mostly alone, except for occasional brushes with other people, when someone else cracks her exterior, and then eventually Brianna is alone again.

She understands this pattern. She’s fine with it. It’s not like there’s another option. In fifth grade Mallory starts hanging out with a new group of kids from her class. The house is suddenly full of a chorus of giggles, and sleepovers with things like spa nights and cookies in the afternoon and homework huddles and practicing their lacrosse moves in the backyard. Brianna didn’t think anyone really had friends like this, late night cross-your-heart secrets friends, but of course Mal who is sweeter and softer and doesn’t ever worry about feeling too much because she’s the nice one, because all her feelings are pink and pretty and cloaked in enough tulle that no one ever asks her to be quiet, she ends up with a huge group of close friends.

Brianna plays her music loud enough to block out the squeals, spends nights on the Bergsteins’ couch when she doesn’t want to go home and Frankie doesn’t push it, and dives into school, determined to be great at something. (She even learns how to walk up to random kids in the hallways, ask questions to see if she might like them. She never does. She rarely talks to the same people twice.) Her dad kind of likes Mal’s friendship thing, Brianna can tell, he lets them watch movies late and makes sure there’s ice cream in the freezer at all times and drives Mal to and from her million different friend’s houses. Robert Hanson takes to a house full of bustle and shrieking with ease. Brianna and her mom on the other hand, well, Brianna thinks her mom doesn’t really know what to do. Giant groups of preteen girls are outside her comfort zone, outside her pay grade, and in her less charitable moments Brianna will think about the giant birthday parties that Frankie throws for her boys and wish that Grace was even a little like that.

Her dad engages with the friendship that’s suddenly oozing across their house and her mom retreats to her hiding places, the attic, the master bedroom, the giant bathtub or front porch. More times than she can count, Brianna finds her mom in their darkened upstairs hallway, head tilted back and martini glass in hand, while Britney Spears’s blares from the kitchen below them, accompanied by the smell of slightly burned cookies. Brianna sits next to her mom on their carpeted hallway and shuts her eyes the same way. Mallory might have friends, might actually know how to be sweet and make people like her, might find the mundanity of other people’s lives interesting, but Brianna is learning how to be just like her mother. Grace is living her life the good away, the way Brianna should too, right?

Mallory and her girls don’t stop being friends in seventh grade either, or eighth, or ninth, they’re all still holding hands and giggling at graduation. (A graduation that both takes too long and is way too hot. Brianna and Grace both wear sunglasses and both bring water bottles that aren’t filled with water and spring out of their seats the second the ceremony is over. In the back of her head, as Bri fake-laughs with the older siblings of Mal’s classmates, each trying to one-up everyone else with their mid-college achievements and future plans, as Grace does the exact same laugh with the same withering glare behind her eyes, Brianna briefly remember her own graduation, looking for her parents in the audience and finally seeing them, understanding in an instant how much her mom didn’t want to be here, how her dad didn’t want to be next to her mom, how she learned that this is how people behave at graduations.

But Mal had given her the biggest hug after and Brianna tries to return the favor now, even though she’ll never be as good at showing affection as her little sister, she tries to whisper something nice in Mallory’s ear but ends up crying and Mal holds her in a way that makes Brianna think she understands. Brianna floats. Brianna keeps floating. She is mostly alone, and that is ok.

This is how to leave a good life, an easy one, if there’s one thing Grace taught her it’s this. No attachments just make things easier. You’re better than all of them. Never forget that.

Except, of course, that sometimes the aloneness is punctuated by other things. Other people. Hooking around her lazy river innertube and splashing water in her face. Brianna supposes she’s lucky, in a way, to have such tenacious people in her life. People who won’t ignore her, even when she begs them to. On her better nights Brianna feels just like her mom, a habit she can’t ever seem to break, the constant thought that Grace’s way of doing things is best. On her worst nights she just feels lonely.

Some memories:

In school, Brianna spent a lot of her time in carpools. Her mom doesn’t necessarily like the other parents at their school, but she’s savvy enough to hook her girls up with carpools that minimize her own driving responsibilities as much as possible. Sometimes it’s Mrs. Benson who lives down the street, who plays 80s music loudly and kisses her three kids on the forehead before they run into the building, sometimes it’s Mr. Allen who lets them open the car windows and yell out to people on the same street, or even Carly the neighborhood girl who’s old enough to drive and makes a little money by taking the nearby streetfulls of kids to class before getting herself to high school later in the morning.

Almost always, Coyote and Bud are in the same car. After all, Sol Bergstein works as much as Brianna’s own dad and Frankie never forgets to drive her kids, doesn’t farm out the majority of their care like Grace does, but she likes painting in the mornings so a few days a week of someone else taking the kids is welcome. It’s not that the Hansons live especially close (Mallory gripes about the drive to the other side of the neighborhood on her grumpier mornings) but for some reason, maybe because their dads share a firm, Bud and Coyote are always getting lumped in with Mal and Bri. It’s an assumption, even for those who know that Grace and Frankie don’t get along that, the Hanson girls need a ride? Well I’m happy to pick up the Bergsteins too.

Brianna knows she should complain about this, knows that her mom doesn’t like the Bergsteins so she really shouldn’t either, but she can’t ever drum up enough ire to dislike them. They’re all nice, nice in a way that Brianna’s family never is, and Frankie gives hugs that are all warmth and welcome, the kind of place she wants to stay forever. The car is always totally full and Coyote eats bologna sandwiches that make the whole car smell like warm lunchmeat some days, but Brianna likes it, likes all of it, deep down likes being thought of as a set, as the other half of the Bergstein boys. Bud reads in the car, or tells her about what he’s been reading, or plays I Spy with Mallory while Brianna badgers Coyote about switching shoes with her or tries to sneak pieces of his lunch. (Frankie starts packing a double set of fruit snacks so they both get a share.) Brianna likes the rides, likes how they all scream-sing the songs on the radio and how predictable they all are and how even if she doesn’t have a lot of friends (she never has a lot of friends) she always has someone to talk to.

Every so often, when one of their own moms has a doctor’s appointment or is in a particularly intense art groove their dads meet them outside on the cement stoop. Unlike their moms, Brianna knows that her dad and Sol get along great. They smile a lot more around each other, and her dad laughs in a way that Brianna never sees him do at home. It’s really nice, in a weird way. Brianna likes all their normal rides, but the days when she sees her dad in the window, Sol’s hands on the wheel, those are the best days. Sometimes they stop for doughnuts or at the park, or just go straight home because their dads have to get back to work. She likes to watch her father’s face in the rearview mirror, just starting to crinkle and smiling gently while Sol taps his hands in time to the music and asks questions about their days. Brianna doesn’t usually like that type of question, but the car ride home with Sol is a sacred space, questions never seem to bother her as much here.

Crammed in the backseat with Mal’s hair in her face and Coyote’s fingers poking her side, Brianna feels the opposite of alone.

There are many boys. Not in high school really, it takes Brianna until her second year of college to really hit her stride, but even in her freshman seminar there’s a shy boy named Evan who offers her pencils whenever she forgets and a new swim team addition who waves at her before he jumps into the water at meets. (She goes to them sometimes, feels a thrill down her spine at his smile.) Sophomore year arrives with a bang, Brianna finally knows enough sorority girls to get into their parties (which leaves a bitter taste in her mouth) and then there are boys.

Brianna rarely likes them enough for an actual conversation, and they wouldn’t take her on a coffee date or to dinner even if she asked. Still, it turns out she’s hot, hot in a palatable-but-mean kind of way that thin blonde girls are allowed to be (of course you are, you’re a Hanson! She hears Grace’s voice in her head) and she enjoys the attention, the skin on her skin, how someone else’s presence in her dorm can burn away the quiet for a few hours, and afterward she gossips with her few friends (smart people who are taking the same business classes and like her sense of humor).

After college she really starts dating, finds random men she sort of likes, or can at least stand, punctuated by a few she really does like. For a while at least, the best ones, the men she wants to talk to and wake up with brush away her loneliness. It’s nice, it’s always nice, until the price for company turns into real emotional involvement, turns into caring, turns into commitment, and somehow Brianna is so her mother’s daughter that she can’t even think about saying yes I would like to keep doing this for a long time to a man, to anyone really. The pull of the lazy river always wins out, detachment sounds sweet after a few months of trying out “emotional availability” and she lets herself float away, lets the soft current protect her from anything too real.

Discomfort avoided.

Bri’s known she doesn’t want kids for as long as Mallory’s been pressured to have them, and she doesn’t see much use for getting married either. In her experience, (in her parents’ experience) marriage is spending a lot of time with someone you barely like, making dinners when all you want is to be in the office, bedrooms that will either be full of shouting or totally separate and just pain. Brianna doesn’t need someone else to be lonely with her. Her mom doesn’t like being married, even if she’ll never admit it, and Brianna is supposed to be just like Grace so she knows better than to repeat history.

She’ll give her mom this, if nothing else. Grace, trapped in a life of false niceties and constant denial of real passions, had whispered possibilities into her daughter’s ears, taught them to be mean when it mattered, to not compromise about what they really want. In her own way, Brianna supposes, this had been a kind of warning. She learns the lesson well. Mallory does not. Mallory gets married two years after graduating and Brianna is her maid of honor. She looks out at the seated rows of people while Mal walks down the isle and thinks I’m not missing out.

But she is a good sister, or at least trying to be. So she wipes away a few tears, pretends to like the dick her sister is marrying, and dances her ass off at the reception. All in all, it’s not a terrible night. Bud sneaks appetizers with her and Coyote’s always fun to twirl around a dance floor with. It’s all terrible formal and stuffy (nothing like her sister) but Brianna has one arm hooked through Coyote’s and the other attached to Bud and it feels a lot like home. Frankie never asks about her love life in a leading way, not like her mother’s other friends do at events like this. Instead she squeezes Brianna’s arm and smiles and for the rest of the night Bri is struck by the disconcerting notion that she might actually be loved. It’s a night apart from the lazy river and she savors all of it. Most boys don’t stay but her boys do, Bud and Coyote tolerate her and love her and never ask too much and if pressed, in a certain light, she might say that they’re her best friends.

Important: Frankie

Brianna doesn’t exactly have the vocabulary to describe Frankie, even after all these years. Mom’s nemesis, dad’s coworker’s wife, friend’s mom, resident-artist-who-might-get-high-regularly-but-never-in-front-of-the-kids-which-is-more-than-anyone-can-say-for-Grace-and-her-vodka. Family friend doesn’t quite cover it, and neither does aunt or “this woman I know.” What Brianna knows is this: Frankie will come pick her up anytime, anywhere. Doesn’t matter if it’s lacrosse or a party or a bad date or from her own house, Frankie is always there, no questions asked, usually with a taco in the passenger seat waiting for her.

Frankie always feeds her, car tacos and snacks and dinners and really whenever Brianna’s over. (Frankie also sends care packages in college, half normal cookies and half weed cookies and it makes Brianna feel a little bit normal, a little like those girls with moms who show up on weekends and wear matching sweaters for special events.) Frankie never asks questions that Brianna doesn’t want to answer, never punishes her for the answers, smiles more instead of less when some part of the hungry girl she is always hiding underneath her clipped, Brianna Hanson edges slips out. Frankie dances around grocery stores, making Brianna and Bud pretend they don’t know her, and turns on movies late at night and hugs so tightly, so easily, like her love is a given, like no one has to jump through any hoops to end up in her embrace.

Brianna would call her a mom, she knows that’s the word people normally use for someone who’s sung you to sleep, who keeps band-aids with your favorite cartoon characters on them in the bathroom cabinet, who knows you watch cartoons. But the only kind of mom Brianna knows is distant and distracted and dismissive and like, she gets that her mom cares. She really does. It’s just that she’s not great at saying that kind of thing. Frankie isn’t someone who Brianna’s supposed to be when she grows up, she doesn’t have a five year plan for Brianna’s education or quiz her about math concepts at dinner. She just has a lot of open space in her life and is always inviting Brianna in. That’s not a mom, not in the way Brianna knows the word. Frankie is something so much safer. Always there, no matter what.

Brianna remembers the awful night when Coyote showed up at Mallory’s house, how they all knew he wasn’t doing great but thought it was something manageable, thought he was fine, just the son of his hippie parents to the core, but no. That night she realized her friend was buried under layers of alteration, that night Mal cried in the bathroom and Brianna only noticed because her eyeliner was smudged, that night Brianna and Bud stayed up watching silly movies in his apartment because neither of them could think about sleeping. What if we never get him back, Bri?

We will. We have to.

Brianna has never felt so small, so powerless, and she thinks of her mom, eyebrows tense and lips pursed, unsure what to do with all this sympathy. They’ve never been good at honest feelings, at leaning on others, they’ve made themselves into statues and this is the night Brianna realizes that might be a bad thing.

In the following months, as Bri and Bud drive up to visit Coyote in rehab twice a week, every week, she’ll imagine herself in that position, a hazy head full of only one thought, find your way home. For Coyote, apparently, home is sweet and blonde and married in a two story house twenty minutes away from where he grew up. In the car, watching Bud wind his way up the road as his hands tap out a beat on the steering wheel, just like Sol fifteen years ago, Brianna can’t shake the idea that she would end up on Frankie and Sol’s lawn, screaming please, please does anyone love me?

(Spit is an outlier, one creature Brianna loves without concern. She doesn’t need barriers for Spit because he never plays games, never asks for something she can’t give, just loves and loves and loves and lays against her legs at night. She gets him at a time when her entire world is upside down and his soft panting, his fur in the corners of the room, all the little things that remind her she’s not totally on her own, it’s unexpectedly welcome. Later she will wonder if he reminded her how to care when she hadn’t considered the merits of intimacy in a long time.)

Barry is a different story. Barry is everything good a man can be. Brianna doesn’t know how to deal with him, doesn’t really understand now to love a kind, decent boy who isn’t an asshole and loves her, even in her most prickly states. He shows up in her life one day and by the time he’s willing to leave Brianna knows how much she never, ever wants to let him go. Loving him isn’t easy, in fact it’s literally one of the hardest thing’s she’s ever had to do (harder than asking her mother for help with Say Grace or being nice to Mal’s toddlers). But she loves him. And they make each other better, deep down. So it’s always worth it. Barry, with his gentle smile and big hands and nerd humor, she loves him. He does nothing but ask her to get out of her Las Vegas detachment river and she really, really wants to say yes, wants to learn how to do things a different way for him.

The thing is, Brianna knows she is supposed to be a certain kind of person, beautiful without being flashy, quiet and polite and funny in a mildly interesting way. This person is tame and college educated but with a degree that isn’t too interesting, isn’t intimidating with a career she can give up at a moment’s notice. This person loves kids, wants a whole heap of her own (but not a heap, maybe just one or two, a tasteful amount of well behaved, decorative children). A good corporate wife. Nice to have at dinners, attentive and sweet and a good cook.

Brianna knows this because her mom is supposed to be the same kind of person too. Neither of them are particularly good at it.

Brianna knows how her mom hates small talk, hates scrabbling for the admiration of strangers, hates the stifling air at dinner parties and how she can’t say what she really feels. Brianna knows this because she does too. Mallory is a different story, Mallory who knows how to curl her hair and smile just the right way, who has perfectly small plans for her career and grins at babies when they cry. Mallory has a string of boyfriends, nice boys with firm handshakes and no fear of commitment, she can keep a pleasantly interested look on her face through parties, she is exactly who the Hanson women are supposed to be. Incidentally she is also the only one of them who really gets it right.

Sometimes Brianna hates her sister for this, for being perfect without trying, other times she decides that all of this is stupid, and eventually, when they’re both adults, Brianna will see a pinched look settle over Mal’s face when she thinks no one’s looking and wonder if all this has hurt her too, if none of them want to play their narrow little roles, if Mal isn’t winning either. Brianna knows that not everyone is like this, that some people have different rules and different lives and maybe they don’t feel an awful weight pressing down on their chests all the time. She understands this in a wider world sense, like people in another state might have different rules, or even at another school.

But there’s also Frankie. Frankie, who might be the kindest person Bri’s ever met. Frankie, who is always covered in paint and feeds Brianna without a second thought, who has a familiar laugh and bright eyes and a family that actually likes each other. Sometimes Brianna goes to the Bergstein’s without any real purpose, just to be overwhelmed by the happy chatter and chaos of Bud and Coyote, accompanied by Frankie’s familiar voice calling from her studio, come tell me about your day, Brianna! Frankie is supposed to be exactly the same kind of person as her mom, and Brianna secretly thinks this might be why Grace hates her so much. Frankie doesn’t live inside all the restrictions Grace does, and Brianna can understand how that could make you hate someone.

So really, there are three different kinds of people in Brianna’s universe. There’s Mallory, who checks every single box, who might secretly hate it but is perfect all the same. And there’s Frankie, who doesn’t even care what anyone thinks, who has a genuine laugh and loves her husband and really seems happy. And then there’s Brianna and Grace, grasping at rules they hate, trying to be something they never will, off kilter and always trying desperately to regain control.

Years after Brianna sits against the hallway floor with her mom she will decide that she hates Grace, hates how distant she was, how unfeeling she could be, how she never really seemed to care about her real daughters, choosing Say Grace instead at every turn. But even later, in the aftermath of all this fiery pain, Brianna’s feelings will cool into a softer kind of affection, holding herself at arms-length but with a little more leeway, a greater helping of generosity. Her elementary school aspirations are true, she and her mom are more similar than they really understand.

We’re made of the same stuff.

Around this time, Mallory will confess that she wants to get a divorce, that she feels trapped by her children almost as much as she loves them, and Brianna will think that maybe none of them got away from their upbringing unscathed. In her head, she and Mal stand on two diverging paths from their mother. Mallory’s life – what a young Grace wanted. Brianna’s life – what a young Grace wished for. She and Mal are their mother’s daughters, diverging lines in a set of painful options. All things considered, she’ll try to be a better sister.

Brianna knows how she can be, knows how she is, knows how her complete inability to be genuinely nice hurts Mal more than anyone. But she loves Mal. Brianna knows she doesn’t have many people, knows that Mal loves her even though she actually has friends. In all the most important ways, Mallory is her other half, the path not taken. She’s also a great sister, a great mom, and learning how to finally speak up for herself. She has a lot to teach her sister about being assertive. Mal has a lot to teach her about feelings. It sucks that they’re missing pieces, but she really is glad that they’re in it together.

What feels like a hundred years later, like they’re all sitting at the table a thousand years old even though all that’s really happened is that her dad and Sol are in love and have been for quite some time. Her dad was in the hospital and Sol cheated on her dad and like, everything is a mess and has been and seems like it will be for a long time.

And still.

Right now, everyone is okay.

Her mom is sitting next to Frankie, which like, Brianna wouldn’t have predicted in a million fucking years, but their shoulders are tilted together, cackling at something Frankie just said. They look happy, happy in a way Brianna hasn’t seen from either of them in a long time, maybe ever. She sits there, back against the wooden chair, letting the hubbub of their weird family unfold around her when Grace looks up. She smiles. Brianna’s not used to this, free smiles from her mom, smiles without weight or context or expectations, but she doesn’t see any of that here. Just Frankie’s hand on her mom’s forearm while Bud and Coyote throw sugar packets at each other. Her mom smiles, and Brianna smiles back and for a millisecond, like blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, her face changes, looks different than Bri’s ever seen before.

What, mom?

I was thinking, Brianna.

Thinking? About what?

Maybe we don’t need to do this.

Do this?

Maybe we can be happy.

And oh. Yes. Maybe this isn’t the way things always have to be.

The lazy river doesn’t look so good, not compared to this, and Brianna is struck by another memory. Her mom, as the sun sets, striding to the side of the pool and reaching out to Brianna, extra towel in hand. Come on, baby. Dinner. Time to dry off.