In my family
we do not
Well, shit I know we’re all growing old
But where there’s a will there’s a way --
So way to go.
Say goodbye to your feral days
Say goodbye-bye-bye-bye . . .
And this daughter . . . Alice: does she live with you or the ex-husband?
She lives with us, Elliot.
[ . . . ]
This daughter Alice. Is she coming to the wedding?
Why are you doing this, Elliot?
O N E :
t h e
p a s t
Wherein their brother Dylan gets married:
The pink bridesmaid’s dress was ruined and Alice left it to hang limp and dirty in the bathroom at her grandmother’s house.
Grandma had expected them at her house. She had expected Alice days ago.
She expected the entire family, and in her mind, the entire family would always include Paul.
She never thought much of Elliot when she thought of the family. She thought of Dylan and she thought of Alice; she thought of their fair hair and Dylan’s tan skin and Alice’s wan smile. She thought of the things that belonged to Paul and how they made themselves known through his children. How they made themselves known through her daughter.
There was no room for Elliot in that assessment.
She expected the family at her house, and Elliot, like an unwanted guest, a pest, that serpent waiting in the grass, came before Alice.
He came waiting for Alice. He came, forcing himself to be recalled and to be remembered.
“What’s wrong with Elliot?” Alice asks.
She is eight.
Lynn holds a hand over her mouth to keep whatever emotion threatens at bay before she snaps: nothing.
Alice arrives, like a thief, in the night.
The analogy ends there.
Her arrival is the very opposite of surreptitious, nothing sly or unassuming about the fact she stepped over their grandmother’s threshold and into her house.
Elliot, if he had the words, if he could shelve his pride, would say: the room went quiet when she stepped inside it.
But then if Elliot had the words he would say a lot of things; he would be a different person.
After dinner, Alice sits besides Elliot on the sagging sofa in the family room. Elliot sits there in silence though in constant motion: his hands rolling over themselves, first one foot tapping out an unknown rhythm and then the other taking up the lead. He sits there next to her, surveying both the crowd and the dessert buffet with an open expression of utter and total contempt.
“You look good,” Alice says quietly, the same glass of red wine in her hand that was poured for her at dinner. Elliot watches a piece of lemon cake sag on the plate and then collapse on its side. He turns to her suddenly and Alice curls a fist around first the stem of her wine glass and then a crumbled napkin.
“Could say the same for you,” he says, a dark, thin smile threatening to spread.
“I hear you’re back from Sweden -- or so Ben says.”
Elliot snorts, his eyes drifting back to their aunts, watching the way they watch the both of them. He decides that he spies disapproval in their eyes and he decides that he likes it. He looks at Alice over his shoulder, arches an eyebrow and says drily:
“That what we’re calling it now?”
Alice shrugs and does not comment.
Elliot sighs and leans back against the flattened couch cushions. His elbow bumps against Alice’s arm and her wine sloshes in its glass. He watches her as she leans forward, her body unfolding into straight lines and tight angles, as she reaches and places her glass of wine on the coffee table before them.
Elliot sighs again, and Alice leans back; that dark smile has finally reached his mouth.
“The one thing I gotta say in rehab’s -- excuse me, Sweden’s -- favor? Goddamn, it was like an all-you-can-eat pussy buffet.”
“You’re gross, Elliot.” Her tone is bored and she starts to shred a paper napkin into a pile of light confetti in her lap. He leans into her and brushes it away as she scowls at him, her gaze still fixed on her lap and her knees and the shredded paper at her feet.
“No it’s not.”
“How would you know? I was in rehab for teen addicts not head cases like the place Mom sent you. When you take away the pot and the smack and the booze and whatever other colloquialism you’ve got for whatever substance you’re missing you’ve still got your dick and you’re gonna go and stick it any and everywhere. Pretty sure prison works the same way.”
“If you say so, Shawshank.”
To anyone who has ever met Alice after -- after the divorce, after Lynn left Paul, after Lynn met a man named Lee and she made him her husband -- she has told them that Lee is her father.
There is no Paul.
Lee is her father and Elliot is her brother and Ben is her brother.
She has never seen a point to define things by degrees, to halve relations that have always felt entirely full.
If you were to ask her, she would say she’s rounding up. Round the half to a whole. Round the half to a whole and see if that fills the heart.
When Paul asks her, when he all but asks her, when he asks where she has been and what she has become, she finds she doesn’t know how to round that. She doesn’t know what to do with that. How you square something that was meant to be a whole but instead not only gave you empty but left you soured out and weak inside.
Alice doesn’t know what to do with that.
So in the parking lot she cries.
She cries in the parking lot and waits for her mother. She waits for her father and her two brothers.
That night Elliot comes stumbling into Alice’s bedroom. She is already in bed, buried under the covers that stink of lavender and fabric softener and disuse, and when he moves to get in bed with her, his entire body folds in on top of hers.
She can tell from the heavy and limp weight of his body, the clammy feel of his skin against hers, the soft and muffled sounds he makes against her neck, that he is completely fucked up on something. Something, she is sure, that would not be classified as a typical teenage drug or whatever he had used as a defense the night before.
“Jesus, Elliot,” she mutters, her mouth sticky and stale with sleep, “get off me.”
He more or less collapses along her side instead of rolls and he keeps a heavy arm anchored around her waist.
“What the fuck did you take?” she hisses.
“Granddad,” is all he says.
“That’s not an answer, Elliot.”
“Fenta -- fentanyl.” His words are syrupy and slow, and Alice sighs.
“I could tell Mom,” she says to the ceiling.
“Hmmmm.” It’s all he offers, either lazily calling her bluff or simply not caring at all, anything beyond her bed too far away and too unreal to imagine, too far to recognize as a tangible threat.
“You even know what fentanyl does to your system?”
She can hear him smack his lips, hear what sounds like the start of a soft moan and his arm twitches against her belly.
“‘course I fucking know,” he mumbles, each word a brush of his lips against her neck. “Me of all people. Al. It’s me.” His anger sounds diluted to her, watered down and tempered, no ferocity to his mouth, his eyes closed, and she hates him a little for that.
She does not say anything and she does not push him out of her bed. She lays there, under and beside him, uncomfortably warm, her legs sticking to the sheets and to his bare legs. She closes her eyes and finds the beat of Elliot’s heart, each intake of breath, to be impossibly slow. She wonders if that means he’s dying. She wonders if she will wake to a body and a body alone.
“Why were you crying tonight,” he asks suddenly but the question sounds too far away. She turns her head and her chin brushes the top of his head.
“Because I was sad,” she whispers. He shifts that much closer to her, his body draping hers once again.
“Don’t be sad,” Elliot whispers, the words slow, like pulled taffy, sticky and too sweet in his mouth. “Don’t be sad. Don’t be . . . sad.”
When she wakes, the sun is just rising up over the bay. Elliot is already gone.
She wakes to a body alone.
Alice was sent away the year she graduated high school.
That was the year she tried to kill herself. It was summer and Alice had just graduated.
That was the year Lynn cried every morning in the kitchen while she poured Apple Jacks into two bowls, one for Elliot and one for Ben. She cried when she drove the boys to the community pool and cried when their dad grilled chicken slathered with his special-made barbecue sauce (bourbon and peppercorn and just a hint of cayenne pepper and what he called his secret ingredient and what Ben knew was a dash of sugar).
When Elliot would say, “What’s your damage, Mom, god,” or “Jesus, stop crying already,” or simply, “Mom, come on,” she would reply with a hand held over her mouth, the sound muffled and far away.
“I just miss her so much I just want her to come back,” she would say.
“I just want her to come back.”
Elliot had been the one who found her.
“It was an accident,” would be Alice’s feeble recrimination two days later, still in the ICU, her arm stitched up and painful, morphine dripping through her system.
“You tried to kill yourself. What’s accidental about that?” he’d say in response, and when she’d whisper softly, “ . . . the blade slipped,” it would sound like a lie to both of them.
So she’d say: “I was sad.”
And Elliot would say, “Don’t be sad,” and shade the words with condescension instead of the pleading filling up his throat.
“Don’t be sad.”
Granddad dies and they fish Elliot out of the bay, his body waterlogged, his eyes half-lidded and the pallor of his skin chalky and white. Granddad dies, but Elliot doesn’t.
Lynn sobs when she hugs him, as though her father’s death has earned forgiveness on the side of Elliot, and for once, for now, Elliot does not press his own luck.
Alice doesn’t touch him. Alice doesn’t touch him until, as though sparked by Elliot’s presence, the room erupts in violence. Grandma wrings her hands and cries and Lynn shrieks at Paul, the same words repeated: You smug fuck don’t you put this on me you smug fuck don’t you --
When Alice touches Elliot she drags Elliot off by the elbow.
“Where are you taking me?” he asks, a lascivious wiggle of his eyebrows, and then he starts to laugh. She pushes him into her bedroom and slams the door behind her.
“What the fuck is the matter with you?” she hisses between clenched teeth. Elliot doesn’t say anything, but he’s still smiling, swaying, his balance unsteady. Granddad died. He died, and Elliot didn’t. They fished Elliot out of the bay and left the inner tube floating behind.
“What the fuck, Elliot.”
He narrows his eyes but he is still smiling.
Alice hits him in the shoulder with a weak fist, and he stumbles back. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” She goes to hit him again, but he grabs her by the wrist and squeezes. His face is tight and serious and Alice sounds like she might cry when she asks again: what is wrong with you?
He pulls her to him, her wrist still in his hand, and presses her against him. The first broken sob from Alice goes largely unheard, absorbed by his chest, her mouth and face pressed against the clammy wet fabric. He stinks of the bay and summer and sweat and that scent that has always been distinctly his own. She had told him that once, casual and innocuous, when they were younger, that year they both bought the same green sweater just to piss Lynn (and to an uncertain extent, each other) off.
“It’s yours, asshole,” Alice had said after Lynn yelled at her for leaving her sweater on the kitchen counter.
“You can’t know that for sure,” Elliot said, still a boy but already possessed of that unnerving sense of self-awareness and misplaced confidence.
“It smells like you,” she had said, acidly, and then thrown it at him. He looked at her funny. He looked at her as if she just revealed something he had not known before this conversation and he was equal dueling parts curious and horrified.
“It smells like me?”
Alice had shrugged. “You know what I mean.”
He considered her, his eyes too bright, too dark, his brows drawn like he’s trying to figure something out. “I have a smell.”
Alice rolled her eyes. “God don’t be dumb, Elliot.”
A glimpse, the future:
They will send him to Arizona. Before UCLA, his third college (after University of Michigan, after Kalamazoo, after he is kicked out of first one and then willingly leaves the other): his fifth stint in a rehab facility.
They: his mother, his father, no need to round up. They: not Alice, though when he leaves she refuses to look him in the eye.
She will visit him alone. They sent her West too, once before, but that will be a long time ago. Before UCLA and before Kalamazoo and before the University of Michigan. Before his fourth rehab and before his third. She went West and Elliot had just started high school and Elliot went to visit her.
But that’s not the future.
They will sit alone in a sterile looking room that overlooks the desert: a flat stretch of land and mesas to the north, the sky almost purple where it reaches the flat peak of rock. The other families who have come to visit will be in this room too, like this is prison and it is the weekend.
Alice will have come alone. She will come without Mom, and Elliot will tell her rehab horror stories, about his roommate who was picked up by the police -- his drug habit not just limited to using but dealing as well, and he was wanted for trial -- or the group sessions where everyone has the same sad story to tell about a misspent youth in their parents’ overstocked medicine cabinets or private schools without the compulsory locker searches. Or he will tell her about Apache Joe, their group leader and former meth addict, and how he was teaching him how to lasso a rattlesnake, because “like, people can totally do that,” that’s something that is possible. Possible in Arizona, where the sky is purple when it meets the land, where the night air is cold and dry enough to make Elliot’s lungs ache, but that’s a thing he won’t tell Alice. He’ll tell her about the roommate on trial, about a girl named Spencer who can -- and does -- cry on cue, and he will tell her about Apache Joe and the rattlesnakes.
And Alice will merely listen, her body hidden in what he will think is an old sweater of his he left at home. Dwelling on that thought will make him feel young and open so instead when she stands to leave, when she stands beside him and his body is sprawled out, taut and predatory yet lazy, in an orange plastic chair, he will pluck at the fabric bunched around her wrist and tell her to buy her own clothes.
And Alice will tell him, her voice wavering just enough for him to read her false, "I hope you fucking rot in here."
But she will drag her fingers through his hair, just barely, just enough, as she walks past him to the door.
At their grandmother’s house, in the bedroom she has given Alice, they sit together on the bed.
He keeps touching her, his fingers pulling at her hair and running down her arms, until she curls her body in against his. The front of her dress is damp and ruined from him, the thin fabric clinging and sticking to her skin. She has stopped crying and he has stopped smiling, and it’s like they can’t figure out if they’re sad about Granddad or their mother or each other or just themselves. He can smell the bay on her, just as she could smell it on him, and her sheer sleeves stick to the palms of his hands.
“You’re going to stay,” she says into his chest, her fingers gripping his forearm tight, the smallest lilt to that final word stay, just enough to make it a hesitant question. If Elliot was to look down, he would see her eyes are closed. He does not look down and he does not close his eyes. Instead he drags his fingers down the curve of her throat, feels her pulse jump, feels her fingers curl into the lean muscle at his thigh, and says, just as soft and low as her request (because that’s what it was, the hesitancy, the smallest lilt, the word stay), “yeah. Yeah I’ll stay.”
And he does.
They sleep on top of the faded floral comforter and in the morning the bed they leave will still be damp, will still stink of the bay and of them. Alice will sleep with her head tucked against his chest, Elliot’s hand caught in her hair, the other high on her waist.
They sleep in the same bed and Alice will wake before he does.
They will drive back up to Michigan that day -- Lynn asleep in the backseat, and Ben and Lee will spend the trip talking about the strangest of things (the mating habits of grasshoppers and the best works created by Austrian composers and the efficacy of setting mousetraps, the board game Mousetrap, so on and so forth) in the most serious, yet amused, voices.
It will be just the two of them in the front seat. It will be the two of them alone, as cut off as they were the night before, though they both refuse to talk about what happened during that night before.
And so they will drive, Alice will drive, and Elliot will find himself wanting to roll her sleeves up, wanting to look at her skin. He will know that’s a wrong and bad thing to want, but he will keep fixating on it, and he will watch her hands clutch the steering wheel the same tight way she had been clutching at first his forearm and then his thigh the night before.
“Home sweet home,” he will murmur when Alice pulls into the drive.
That summer passes without incident.
The fall finds Elliot intolerable, a more than reluctant product of a regimen consisting of forced cold turkey and heavy maternal monitoring. Earlier that summer, Lynn had all but given up the illusion that Elliot would finish high school, and so earlier that summer she had buckled down and earlier that fall he had tested out and gotten his GED that same month.
He’d been clean those entire two months of the summer, the only drug entering his system the negotiated nicotine Lynn begrudgingly permitted, but beyond that, she watched him like a hawk, and Alice had watched him too, but she was more careful, less demanding with her surveillance.
One evening, the start of November, Michigan weather already freezing Alice rests on her stomach on the floor of the family room highlighting an article about the intersection between pop culture and ADHD. Her commute to the school each day varies between twenty minutes to an hour, depending on the weather, depending on traffic, but Alice says she doesn’t mind. Elliot sits sprawled out on the couch watching an old Seinfeld episode, the volume turned down too low to hear clearly.
“I feel,” he drawls,” George Costanza understands me on a deep personal and spiritual level.”
“That’s great,” Alice replies, distracted.
Her cell phone rings. The screen reads PAUL. She does not know why she answers the phone but she does. She hasn’t talked to him since the wedding. To say she has not thought of him since the wedding would be a lie, but it’s a lie she likes, a lie she doesn’t mind cultivating into a truth.
Alice sits up, her posture alert and straight, and when Elliot mouths at her “who?” it takes a beat before she mouths back, “Paul.” Elliot shakes his head, scoffs, and under his breath he says, “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”
He moves to leave, but Alice reaches over, blindly, her hand meeting the sharp jut of his hip and pushes against him as though to hold him in place. As though she means to say, no, please don’t go, but instead says, “I’m good, I’m good,” over the phone to her father.
Elliot slumps back against the couch cushions and Alice does not move her hand away so Elliot circles her wrist with his fingers. He moves them just a little lower, beneath the knobby pop of bone and he can feel the fine shallow indentations in her skin she has left behind over the years. He can feel her blood thrumming under his hand, how she’s pulled taut and afraid and anchoring herself against this onslaught with him, his body. He brushes his fingers lightly against her skin, and maybe he thinks, just the once, that he has not touched her since the wedding. He hasn’t touched her since she last spoke to Paul, and if there is a connection to be mined here, if you can string a thread through the eye of a needle and pin Paul to Elliot, Elliot to Paul, and then stitch it to Alice’s breast, he does not want to know it.
Her voice is just as soft, just as inaudible, as the actors on the television. She tucks her chin to her chest when she speaks. Her hair falls across her face, hiding her from view. To reach her, he would have to move.
He doesn’t move. The only words he can hear clearly are, “Then why did you call me?” but he can’t see her mouth when she says them.
Alice hangs up abruptly. She drops her phone to the carpet like it has stung her but she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t look at Elliot and Elliot still has his fingers pressed against the pale underside of her wrist.
When she laughs suddenly, a single hiccup of sound, Elliot can see her eyes are trained on the television. She laughs once, the sound more akin to a sob, before she wrenches her hand from his, pushes her hair off her face and leaves the room.
And this: she breaks down after.
To say Alice has been good since the wedding is to tell a bit of a lie, but it’s a good lie, the hopeful kind. The kind of lie you offer an invalid, the family of the sick, to convince them that maybe things can still get better. She’s been good. She’s been good except for when she cries, sudden and terrifying, in the shower or on her way to school or in the parking lot outside the local grocery store, or when she opens the medicine cabinet, nervous and excited and suddenly, alarmingly, disappointed when she remembers and she sees that, no, they don’t keep razor blades here and no, she’s not supposed to make herself bleed. She’s not supposed to want that. And maybe it’s the wanting that hurts her all the more. Wanting the things you’re not supposed to want. Wanting something no short of seven psychiatrists, her mother, and two general practitioners have told her is wrong and bad and Alice we just want you to be good we just want you to be good.
So she told her father (she told Paul) over the phone, not once, but twice, “I’m good. I’m good.”
So she breaks down after.
She goes to the bathroom, and the first thing she does after shutting and locking the door is open the medicine cabinet. There’s nothing there. Some cotton swabs, a half-used tube of toothpaste, a leaking bottle of face wash and a string of floss. They can’t keep the sharp things because of her and they can’t keep the drugs because of Elliot. They can’t keep a lot of things in this house because of the both of them, because they want them to be good.
Over the phone, Paul had offered that Alice come over for a family dinner. And when Alice had asked, quiet, the question almost embarrassing in its earnestness, if it could just be the two of them, that it would be better if just the two of them met and no Patty and not her daughters, he said, no. He said, no, it would not be better.
Alice wonders if seven psychiatrists, her mother, and two general practitioners told Paul that Alice was wrong and bad and in order for Paul to be good he should never keep Alice. That he wouldn’t be able to keep a lot of things if he kept Alice.
When Elliot knocks on the bathroom door, Alice’s back is to the wall, her breath shallow and fingers curled into fists.
“Al?” His voice is soft, but it carries through the door.
“I’m fine, Elliot,” she says, but she can hear the hysteria to her voice, hear the way his name breaks in her mouth, into the start of a sob, and when the doorknob jiggles she isn’t surprised.
“Let me in,” he says. He says: “Open the door, Al. Come on. Open the fucking door.” He sounds tired, not angry, and when she opens the door, when her fingers touch the doorknob, she thinks that maybe that’s another thing you can’t keep if you keep her: your patience.
There are a lot of things Alice doesn’t like about Elliot, small things, big things, things that would keep most people at bay (things that would make you say he’s wrong and bad, you don’t need a doctor for that second opinion), and she has never liked the way concern manifests itself on his face. It makes him look old. It makes him look like a stranger to her. It makes her imagine a different world where he is the older brother and she is the younger sister; she does not know how to imagine a world where they’re not family at all.
If they weren’t family, she thinks, they would not keep each other.
She starts to cry when Elliot shuts and locks the door behind him, great heaving sobs, and without meaning to she finds herself repeating herself, over and over again.
She keeps saying, “He didn’t want me, he didn’t want me, he didn’t want me.”
“Alice,” Elliot says, and he says it again when he wraps an arm around her waist and pulls her to him, when she stumbles into him.
“Why didn’t he want me?”
Elliot leans his body heavy against hers and he holds her face by the jaw, his fingers tight, framing her face and her mouth, and she looks up at him, eyes glassy and wet.
He says, “I want you.” He leans in, his forehead pressed against hers, and her fingers are pulling at his t-shirt, right at his waist. The lip of the sink bites into her lower back and Alice has stopped crying, her breath trying to even itself out.
Elliot says it again, and again after that -- a tic set off, the emphasis shifting: “I want you,” he says. “I want you. I want you,” until he finally says, quiet and insistent, “You are all I want,” his hands still holding her face and his mouth right there, inches from her own.
Alice shudders against him.
Elliot’s kindness is hardly a constant.
He likes to bait, he likes to goad; he lets his anger take control.
An evening late in the fall Elliot stops in Alice’s room before going to bed. Her laptop is open on her bed, scattered stacks of papers and notes, a few highlighters have rolled off her bed and onto the floor. She has the first draft of her thesis due that Friday and she has spent the better part of the last few days holed up in her room working on it.
“Can I help you?” she asks without looking up from the screen of her laptop, her fingers moving quickly over the keys.
“God you’re boring lately,” Elliot says, smirking as he leans against her door. Neither is sure when the habit began, but whenever they are together, whenever they are alone in a room together, they shut the door. Elliot is sure it has something to do with their mother, especially since as of late it’s as though they live in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War or some shit. Spies fucking everywhere.
He’s sure it’s more than that though. Something about companionship, something about keeping what they share in secret, bounding it between the both of them. And if the door stays shut, then it stays the both of them. If the door stays shut, then they are all that matters.
“I’m responsible lately,” Alice mumbles, distracted, as she jabs at the backspace key.
Alice looks up at him over her laptop and leans back against her pillows drawing her knees to her chest.
“Maybe you should start considering the responsible and boring side of life. Mom keeps asking me if you’ve even bothered to consider those college apps.”
Elliot scowls, his mood turning on a dime.
“Why? So I can be like you?”
Alice scowls, too. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, come the fuck on. You majored in fucking child development psychology because you’re the most transparent fuck I have ever met. All your Daddy issues ironing themselves out in that thesis of yours?” There’s a slight quirk at his jaw as his scowl blossoms into a self-amused sneer. “Or better yet, how many old men on campus have you spread your legs for, huh? Because come on, we all know someone’s gotta fill that Daddy-shaped void for you, and who better than some middle-aged professor with a saggy middle-aged wife at home and some brats who at the very least get the benefit of your typical American nuclear family even though Daddy’s gone nuclear all up in your cunt.”
“Fuck you, Elliot.”
He smiles, dirty, like he knows a secret, like she’s the punchline of an inside joke only he’s privy to -- like he’s enjoying this.
“Nah, man. That’s not Freudian enough for you! Is it? It’s fucked up, but not Freudian. I’m younger than you. I can’t be the misguided father figure plowing you to some sort of mental and spiritual and, if you’re lucky, orgasmic personal revelation.”
Alice’s face goes flat and unreadable, her eyes -- one blue and one green: “you’ve been fucked up since birth,” Elliot told her once, one of his unkinder days -- are dark in the dim light of her bedroom. Her nostrils flare as she takes a deep steadying breath, and even though her knees are tucked to her chest, her body closed off from him, she sits up straighter, the straight line of her body just as severe as the angled way her wide mouth twists.
“I have work to do,” she says, “and I don’t have time to deal with your suspended late adolescent sexual ideation, okay? I’m sure Mom can find a shrink for you to talk to about your totally appropriate desire to fuck me.”
The sarcasm and contempt are thick in her voice, but Elliot smiles all the same when he winks and then shuts the door behind him.
A condition of Elliot’s return to high school his junior year -- after he was found passed out in the boy’s bathroom with enjoy horse tranquilizer in him to fell Seabiscuit, after his second stint in rehab -- was that he would regularly and routinely sit down with the school shrink.
Her name was Sandra Levi and she insisted that Elliot call her Sandy and for that, among other reasons, Elliot hated her.
The first thing she told him was that she wasn’t going to ask him any questions. She wanted him to speak openly and naturally. Elliot had arched an eyebrow to that.
“There is nothing remotely natural about me sitting here with you. Sandy.”
“And that’s fine. That’s completely fine. We can sit in silence. You don’t have to say a word -- unless you want to.”
Elliot had not liked that. The idea of sitting in silence with this complete stranger staring at him like she knew him and knew how he worked unsettled him. So he started talking. So he tried to antagonize her.
“Am I supposed to tell you that my mom used to make me take vitamins and we could only drink soda on Fridays and that she dropped me on my head a few times or am I supposed to tell you about my deepest and darkest masturbatory fantasies or something?”
“If you think that’s relevant.”
“I’m a sixteen-year-old boy. Of course my dick is relevant. My entire universe is centered around my dick.”
Sandy did not say anything but she made a note on her legal pad. That spurred Elliot on.
“I bet you talk about teenage dick all the fucking time. Your entire job is to listen to boys talk about what they jack it to. Is that what gets you off? Is that why you do this job? Mixing business with pleasure?”
With a straight face and a slightly discomfiting oblivious smile considering what Elliot just said, Sandy said, “We’re not here to talk about me, Elliot.” She said it the way a preschool teacher would scold a wayward toddler who was sticking paste in his mouth or something.
“That’s right. We’re talking about me. Me and my dick.” He looked up at the shrink and smiled. Anyone who knew Elliot even just a little knew that smile.
“I think about my sister,” he said, quiet and dark, and then he leaned back against the couch, his arm spread out along the back of it and raised his chin as though in challenge.
Elliot lost his virginity at the age of thirteen after huffing paint in his buddy Ryan Kreager’s garage and sharing a joint. The girl was sixteen and she was stoned too and smelled like cheap perfume and her mouth tasted of even cheaper chapstick and when Elliot fucked her it was the single most disappointing moment in his young life (among a myriad collection of others that would later be shelved by even more disappointing moments -- moments centered around his family, moments revolving around Alice). Like most things in his life, he blames his disappointment on the drugs: on the paint thinner and on the weed and on how together they made this girl taste like absolutely nothing at all.
He forgot the girl’s name but he she did not forget him and when he fucked her best friend his freshman year of high school (her senior year; she had fine, dry blonde hair that stuck to his lips when she moved over top of him) she spray-painted, illogically, the word COCKSUCKER on his locker.
When she confronted him in the parking lot behind their school, he still had a first name for her -- a name he’d forget somewhere around his second circuit of rehab at Montgomery Falls (Montgomery Falls came before Dovetail Bridge which came before Silver Hill) -- he merely shrugged his shoulders and told her seeing as her friend lacked a dick the term ‘cocksucker’ was quite the misnomer. Besides, she really should consult this friend seeing as she was the superior party in the sack. The girl, logically, started to cry.
Elliot was fourteen years old, going on fifteen.
Alice was still a virgin.
Alice didn’t lose her virginity until she was eighteen years old. Before she graduated high school. Before Lynn sent her away. Before Alice tried to kill herself. When Elliot likes to pretend he is a shrink (which is often; he calls it “an obvious side effect of his clinical upbringing”), he hypothesizes that Alice’s sexual identity is so rooted in her deep-seated daddy issues that the simple rite of passage of popping her cherry was enough to send her on a spiraling journey of shame and self-loathing that culminated in a straight razor, their shared bathroom, and a whole lot of blood two months later.
He wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but Alice is never going to tell him that.
Alice let starting forward of their high school’s basketball team, a Jackson Samuels, Jackson Samuels of the athletic scholarship to Duke, fuck her on his mother’s floral print couch that stunk of Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume, menthol cigarettes, and disinfectant. She left immediately after -- the entire affair unpleasant, the ache between her thigh sharp and lingering and all too real. She had told herself that she was fine, fine until she arrived home and saw the dried blood on her thigh, could see more of the slight stain of blood in her panties, and could feel the slimy residue of the condom Jackson Samuels had used inside her.
She had started to cry and laid down in the center of her bedroom floor with the lights off and that’s how Elliot found her -- Alice’s hair sticking to her damp face, the room dark, her body curled in on itself.
“Why’d I let him do it?” she had whispered when Elliot pushed her hair back out of her face.
“Do what?” Elliot had asked, the question too demanding, too rough.
“Do what? Do what?” he kept asking. “Do what?”
But he knew.
That week at school he would corner Jackson Samuels, starting forward for the Riverside Tigers, athletic scholarship to Duke. He would get in his face.
He would say: touch my sister one more time I swear to god I’ll make you eat your own fucking dick.
And Jackson Samuels would say: who are you again?
And two months later Elliot would find Alice on the floor of their bathroom, her hair sticking to her cold face, the room dark, her body curled in on itself.
Lynn would say the only time she ever heard terror in her son’s voice for someone other than himself was when she sent Alice away. Not when he found the body but when they sent her away.
But then that probably isn’t entirely true.
She’s good, he said.
She’s fine she’s good she’s fine she’s fine you can’t take her away you can’t fucking take her you can’t take her away she’s good she’s good.
Alice spent the summer at a facility in northern California that overlooked the Pacific.
That was the summer Lynn cried every morning.
I just miss her so much I just want her to come back.
The year Granddad died is the year Elliot turns eighteen is the year they spend Christmas in Annapolis.
Lynn’s sister called her just after Thanksgiving (“Which sister?” Alice would ask; “Does it matter?” Elliot would say), all but haranguing her for the sparse and miserable holiday enjoyed under their mother’s roof.
“You’re coming for Christmas,” her sister said. “And I won’t have you turning the . . . the birth of Christ into a whole rigamarole about you. Dylan’s wedding was enough.”
They come for Christmas. They fly down, the weather too unpredictable for their plans, and sure enough their flight out of Michigan is delayed by three hours due to an ice storm hovering over West Virginia.
When they get there, the house is crowded and Grandma has her friends from the club over.
“What club?” Elliot hisses to Alice and she shrugs.
“These are my daughter Lynn’s children, Elliot and Alice,” she says to the women gathered in the sitting room. They all have the same styled hair, light and fluffy and no longer than their ears, though the color varies from white to gray to a fake red.
“No,” the fake red says and she raises a hand to her mouth, a salute of the dramatic. “These are Lynn’s kids?” she says. “No, they can’t be. These two? Her, maybe, but him? No.”
Elliot arches an eyebrow and the white and the gray join the red and they all keep saying the same thing, a refrain of friendly surprise and something else. It’s like they already knew about Elliot before he walked in, that they knew about him from his grandmother and what they know is far from flattering. It’s like they know about Alice too, the sympathetic cast of their gaze when they look at her, the one of faint disapproval aimed at Elliot.
“They’re Lynn’s kids?” they say. “No. No, impossible.
“They’re brother and sister? They can’t be!”
The white, who has been mostly silent through this exchange, clucks her tongue.
She says: “I never seen two children look less like they belong together. I say.”
Alice visited Elliot in rehab, back when he was supposedly in Sweden.
He hated it there. When Alice visited, he tried to talk her into getting him out early. She sat across from him in the rec room, just as she sat across from him in every other rehab center he would find himself in, and he told her he loved her and that she loved him and that you always help the ones you love.
Alice had pushed away from the table, from him, with a gross look of disgust. She told him that he was sick and not to call her until --
And that was when she trailed off, and that was when he arched an eyebrow and asked her cold and deliberate, “Until what?”
Alice walked away without saying anything, and they didn’t talk again until Lynn casually mentioned to Elliot mid-conversation and mid-visit that she was worried about Alice, that Alice isn’t doing so good, and as she said it, she got all weird and choked up and for once, Elliot didn’t know what to say to that.
So Elliot called Alice that evening. So Elliot snuck out of the cafeteria during dinner and he called Alice. He crowded his long limbs into the phone booth, the one right next to the nurse’s station, and when she answered, he immediately said, “Don’t hang up don’t hang up don’t hang up,” and she didn’t and when she started to cry it was as though he expected this. He expected her to cry, and having his expectations realized reassured him in such a terrible way.
He never was sure what it was that set her off all those days before. Whether it was because he said he loved her, whether it was because he called her out for loving him, or whether it was because he tried to use that love to his own advantage.
He called that love out and tried to make it work for him.
It’s at the dinner table on Christmas Eve that Dylan announces that Heather is pregnant.
Lynn’s eyes go large, but she looks happy, incredibly happy -- definitely happier than Patty, who apparently is not entirely thrilled to be learning this information with the rest of the family, but just as quickly as that disappointment crests on her face, it fades, and she’s announcing more to herself than the table that she is going to be the hottest grandmother ever.
“Wow,” Elliot says, and he applauds slowly, “you wasted no time at all inseminating your sow. Living the American Dream, man! Goddamn, congratulations. Go on and get that.”
Paul is seated across the table from Alice and Alice is seated next to Elliot. He glares at Elliot from across the table and Elliot flashes him his most shit-eating of grins.
It’s at this same dinner that someone mentions how Alice looks so much like Paul. Her father, they keep saying, and Alice freezes up. She drops her fork against the bone china plate and stares down at it.
The chairs are packed in too tight around the table and Elliot’s arm is flush with hers. Her breathing has ramped up and Elliot watches her carefully out of the corner of his eye while Grandma says, a strange hint or pride, that Alice got so much from her father.
“Alice got so much from her father,” she says.
It’s like a shockwave through Alice’s small frame and Elliot is almost surprised that they can’t all hear her bones rattling against each other as she shivers violently, just the once. Without thinking he reaches over and covers her thigh with his hand and squeezes. He rubs his thumb along her inner thigh, against the rough woolen fabric of her tights, and her hand closes over his. When the conversation has turned -- “Oh, I could spend all day discussing the fascinating implications of genealogy, and probably have. With my shrink. Because have we filled our quota today? I know that we must mention at least once just how fucking crazy I am. So! Consider this the requisite mention and in the interest of titillating conversation, how about Patty’s new milkbags, huh?” -- he smiles, provocative, a challenge, and when he goes to move his hand from Alice she grabs him by the wrist and holds his hand there.
She does not touch her meal but she drinks greedily from her glass of red, the muscle in her thigh still jumping under his hand.
At their grandmother’s house, Alice has to share a room with Paul and Patty’s female progeny (“You’re lucky the herp isn’t airborne,” Elliot cracks) and Elliot, par usual, is bunking with Ben.
They hide out in the bathroom that night, the one that adjoins his and Ben’s room. The rest of the house has gone quiet, the lights strung around the Christmas tree unplugged, and everything stinks of evergreen and holly and the chocolate someone burnt earlier that day.
They sit together in the empty bathtub passing an expensive bottle of scotch back and forth.
“That was, like, totally some kind of exercise in psychological cruelty,” he says to her and Alice laughs in agreement.
Elliot gives the bottle a shake and examines the label.
“Pretty sure this was Granddad’s stash,” Elliot speculates.
Alice’s hair sticks to the white tiles at their back, some weird state electricity pulling at the strands. Some weird electricity pulling at the both of them. She looks at him slant-eyed, at the bottle in his hand, and says quietly, “I imagine it must be.”
Later, he’ll look back on this and call it scarily intimate. She’s in her pajamas, a festive pair of red and white flannel pants and a loose t-shirt, while he’s only in his boxers and a thin undershirt. Their knees keep knocking together, their shoulders pressed against each other, and every now and then, her head will lull to the side, her cheek, her chin, resting against him.
He’s drunk. And if he’s drunk, then she must be drunk too. The logic holds: she’s had to drink just as much as he has, and of the two of them, she’s not the one with a varied history of substance abuse; she’s the one with a lower tolerance.
If you want culpability and you want blame, you won’t find it here. He doesn’t know how what happens next came to happen. He doesn’t know who reached for who first. Who took the last pull from that expensive bottle of scotch. Who decided that this would be a very good idea or a very good bad idea or who simply had enough and decided to close that small distance between them.
In fact, he is not entirely sure there ever was a decision to be made at all.
Alice would say there was. Alice would say she let him do this.
But either she kisses him or he kisses her first. It isn’t a simultaneous move: someone starts this. Someone starts this with a kiss, by leaning in, by smearing their mouth over the other. She will imagine that it was him and she will place the blame at his feet, at his mouth and the way it opened over hers. Elliot does not think this way and he never will. He will blame her and it will not matter who kissed who first; the only thing that will matter is that in a bathtub in their grandmother’s house she kissed him back.
(He kisses tentatively at first and that surprises her. If anything he has always seemed to be the type to take what he wants, no questions, no request for quarter. But he kisses her like he is unsure this is what she wants and that might be the kindest thing he has ever done.
Make no mistake: he will never be this young or this kind again).
She kisses him back, and it’s Alice who opens her mouth first, it’s Alice who yields to him in that way. So he gives her what she wants: he kisses her harder, he kisses her deeper. He gets his fingers caught in her hair and every move they make echoes too loud in that bathroom. Her knees bracket his hips, and when he pushes her down she almost hits her head on the tap. She shivers when he pushes her t-shirt up, when the cold porcelain touches the small of her back; shivers again when it’s his warm hands that touch her there.
And each time they move against each other a pointed joint, a knee, an elbow, bumps noisily against the tub and echoes in the space -- something confined yet endless about the space, like a mausoleum done up in only the fragile things, the things that break: white tile and porcelain, the both of them, all that pale skin, the both of them.
Without leaving her body, he reaches and he jerks the curtain shut. But the door is locked, the only witness the mirror, the only witness themselves.
There is something bizarrely inevitable at play. The white-haired woman had said: I never seen two children look less like they belong together. I say.She had said that, yet here they are. She said that, and the others had agreed; they had refused to believe they were brother and sister, refused to believe they came together in a set, that they could possibly belong to each other.
But Elliot now knows that Alice’s mouth is sour and wanting when it is pressed against his, and when he tastes her, when his tongue slicks against hers, her head thumps against the bottom of the tub and her legs open that much more for him. He wants to fuck her, he has always wanted to work his way inside her, make her feel it and ache for it, but he knows himself better than that. He knows what the better part of a bottle of top shelf liquor can do to a man and if he has learned anything he has learned that the side effect of utter and complete chemical dependence is more often than not a limp dick. He still grinds himself against her, listens to that same hitch in her throat she makes just before she starts to cry, but she isn’t crying now. Her eyes are wide open, unreadable and huge. There is no element of surprise to her, just flushed cheeks and an open mouth, swollen and hungry.
So he bites at her throat that much more and it’s crazy to think a good lost girl like her could ever have wanted this too.
A preview, the future:
Elliot calls her from Amsterdam. “Of course you’re in Amsterdam,” she mumbles into the phone. “What time even is it there?” She flicks her wrist and glances at her watch. She figures it has to be around four in the morning where he is if she’s done her math correctly.
She has done her math correctly.
Elliot doesn’t answer her, but he laughs into the phone, a slow rolling chuckle betraying just how fucked out of his mind he truly is.
“I read a book once,” she says and then she pauses.
“You read a book,” Elliot says, his voice fuzzy yet familiar.
“Yeah. Parts of it, parts were set in Amsterdam. And at one point, this cab driver is talking to the main character who was visiting and he said that people think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but really it’s a city of freedom, and it’s in freedom most people find sin.”
Elliot is quiet for a beat. She can hear him inhale, lazy but deliberate, and she’s sure there’s a cigarette clenched between his fingers.
“I beg to differ,” he finally says. “Most sin I have ever found was under the dark heel of oppression.”
“What do you know about oppression?”
“About as much as you,” he says, entirely too serious.
She thinks he said: about as much as you, but she could be wrong.
She fears he said: it’s always been you.
Round up or round down: it’s either the kindest or the cruelest thing he has ever said to her.
T W O :
t h e
f u t u r e
Wherein Elliot moves in with Alice and her husband in the suburbs:
One afternoon in late February Elliot moves in with Alice.
He flies in from Portland and takes a cab from O’Hare International Airport out to their house in the suburbs.
The fare is $112.50.
His first words to her are as follows:
“You spot me some cash?”
Alice doesn’t answer, but Michael takes his wallet out and pays not only the fare but a generous tip as well.
“What’s wrong with Elliot?” Alice asks. She is twelve. She is embarrassed by her brother and at the same time ashamed.
Lynn ignores the question.
Before the cab and before the fare and before Michael takes his wallet out, Lynn calls Alice.
“Elliot’s gone and moved to Portland.”
“Why?” Alice asks, her voice quiet and she wipes up the overflow from the kitchen sink with a pink sponge.
“What do you mean why? It’s in Oregon,” Lynn says, as though that’s an appropriate answer to a question like that, a question like why. A question like Elliot. It’s as though they are having two separate conversations running on parallel tracks, but then that has always been the case where Elliot is concerned.
Elliot does not stay in Portland. Elliot does not remain anywhere for long, something transient and nervous buried deep into his bones -- the constant need to keep moving, the constant need to be on the run.
Elliot always was a constant force in motion. The arch of his eyebrows, his seemingly nervous tics as he would speak, a rapid and dramatic cadence to his words, matched by his too expressive face.
It was always Alice with the flat facade, but she could never quite hide the pain in her eyes.
He’d speak and gesticulate wildly -- the wave of his hand, long slender fingers, strong pale hands. His plump mouth, lips darkened as though stained.
The deep rumble to his voice, and Alice is not sure when he stopped being a boy and started talking like a man, that low menacing timbre, the dangerous tilt to his mouth. His voice equal parts mean and soothing.
Her own wide flat mouth pales in comparison. All of her pales: pale lips, pale skin, her pale washed-out hair.
She has never wanted to run. She has always wanted somewhere safe to hide.
You can’t find that when you’re constantly in motion. You can’t find that if you never stay still.
What he is running from and what she is looking for are one in the same.
Home, she thinks, and she knows she is not wrong.
Elliot shows up at her house one afternoon in late February.
While he is here Michael will go out of town. He will leave the two of them alone in the house he picked, the house on the street he liked, the house that’s in his name.
Alice will be alone in the kitchen the morning Michael leaves and Elliot will join her. She’ll be alone in her kitchen with him, with this stranger, and she will be able to feel his eyes on the back of her neck. She will be able to smell the cigarette smoke on him, fresh and almost charred. He will smell almost the way leaves smell when burnt at the height of fall. He will smell almost that good and warm and promising, but like everything about Elliot, there will be something about the scent, something about him, just a little bit off.
She will turn to face him. He will look old and worn to her, leaner and crueler, as though time has done what it can to break him down. That time has let the world catch up to him, that it has found him in Los Angeles or Brooklyn, Portland or Chicago, and he will look all the more used for it.
“Are you going to stay in Chicago?” she will ask quietly.
“Probably not,” he will say, that voice still the same and deep, still flavored with that amused tone of mockery. “But it’s good to see you all the same.”
There will be sincerity there, and it will be that which leaves her on edge.
Elliot moves in with Alice and her husband Michael, their small house in Chicago. Alice lives in the suburbs, a tree-lined street, a gated community, and for all that, among other reasons, Elliot thinks he could hate her.
Her hair is short when she meets him at the door. A cropped bob, bright blonde and shiny, and Elliot frowns when he looks at her. Each time he sees her she looks older than the last.
The same could be said for him.
Alice shows him to the spare room in silence. She doesn’t point out the different features of the house. She doesn’t show him the bathroom or the kitchen or where they sit and watch TV or where she sleeps when the house goes dark at night. Where she sleeps beside her husband. She does not show him that.
She doesn’t tell him that she only just recently redid this spare bedroom. That she knew what Michael’s intention was with that empty bedroom. It was why when he was out of town for a week, some hospital administrators thing at the Cleveland Clinic, she converted it into a guest bedroom. Michael had not said much about it, but he kissed her complacently on the head and two weeks later he started talking about how nice it would be to have a bigger house. How nice it would be to have so many bedrooms, a larger backyard, more bathrooms. More rooms to fill.
Alice let him talk until she finally snapped later that week over breakfast.
“Two people don’t need all of that,” she said, right as Michael was telling her about a listing he saw for a four bedroom house in the very neighborhood they live in now. She stood up after she said it, pushed in her chair and dropped her plate in the sink before leaving him to eat and dream alone.
“You can stay here.”
She finally says it when Elliot steps into the spare room, when he drops his bag on the bed and then flops down beside it. The bedspread is white. Everything in the room is white and sparse, the window overlooking the green backyard.
“You can stay here,” she says, and when Elliot looks to her, her eyes are wary and unsure.
He finds her bedroom on his own.
In the bedroom she shares with her husband there is a photo from their brother’s wedding. Elliot can’t remember when the picture was taken. It was early in the day, if only based on the way the light glints off the bay in the background, the yellow tinge to the sky, the way they are squinting into the camera.
It is a picture of Elliot and Alice and only Elliot and Alice and they are squinting into the camera and they are smiling.
They look young. They look impossibly young. Elliot had not thought they had ever been so young.
He thinks they almost look happy, if only he could forget who they are. If only he could look at these two people as strangers.
When Elliot was eighteen, he plotted to leave.
Not to college, not for school. His grand plan was simply that he would leave. He would pack a bag and then he would walk out the door. “Where would you go?” Alice asked, and Elliot rolled his eyes. He said: that was the point. “What’s the point?” Alice asked, and Elliot accused her haughtily of being deliberately obtuse before he told her that the point was to have no point; the point was to have no direction.
“What about Mom?” Alice asked. She popped a grape in her mouth, her forearms braced against the counter. “That’d kill her.”
Elliot rolled his eyes again and took a grape for himself.
“The guilt over her relief that I am finally out of her hair would subside and she’d find inner peace in a sad women’s yoga club.”
Alice smiled despite herself. “And Ben? He could use a bad influence.”
Elliot pointed at her, his body mirroring hers, bent into the counter on the opposite side. “Not that bad and you know it.”
Alice looked down and her hair fell in her face.
He did not say anything at first but he looked at her funny. He looked at her funny as she looked up at him and batted her hair out of her face.
“You’ll learn all about little kids’ weird mushy brains and what makes them tick and you’ll become like Mother Goose and all those little brats will follow you around and you’ll be wonderful and happy and fine.”
He said it all fast and low, still staring at her and Alice stared back at him.
“Yeah?” she said, just as low, and when Elliot repeated back, “yeah,” he offered a tell: he said it with just enough recognizable resignation.
Elliot did leave, but he left with direction.
He went to the University of Michigan that fall and told anyone who asked that he was going to major in the occult, if only to see what kind of rise he could get out of them.
In the end, he wound up going to three different schools before he dropped out for good.
He made it through one and a half semesters in Ann Arbor before he was kicked out. He picked up his education, at Lynn’s insistence and Alice’s own gentle needling, at Kalamazoo College. He hated it there. He hated it more than he hated Ann Arbor and he had hated Ann Arbor quite a bit. Everyone he met at Kalamazoo said they wanted to go into the Peace Corps and that was just another thing he found to hate about that school. The only thing he liked about the place was the school newspaper but the school newspaper didn’t like him and used big dictionary words like “incendiary” and “firebrand” to describe him, but they used those big dictionary words in a way meant to denigrate and condemn.
After that year spent at Kalamazoo, Elliot transferred out. After that year at Kalamazoo and after his stint at Circle Tree Ranch just outside of Tucson, after he OD’d yet again (Oxy this time) he did all the paperwork and he made all the phone calls (“It’s amazing how sympathetic some people can be to the tale of a former drug addict,” he told Alice later, and Alice said one word: former?). He transferred to UCLA, much to Lynn’s chagrin.
“I don’t like him being that far out west alone,” Lynn said, as though Elliot was about to traverse the Oregon Trail instead of go to school in Los Angeles.
“You sent him to Arizona by himself.”
“I sent him to rehab, Alice -- there’s a difference.”
Alice visited him in Los Angeles, by herself and on her own dime.
When she arrived, it was late afternoon and Elliot seemed so proud to have her there. She wanted to say he looked good, and in a way he did -- he was smiling, he had color to his skin, his shoulders looked broad, his body fit instead of the rack of skin and bones he had been back in the hospital.
But seeing him made her tired. The flight made her tired. Everything, it seemed, made her tired. So she climbed into his bed, mid-afternoon, and she pulled the covers over her, the smell stale and of him. Elliot had rambled away, hopped up on Adderall and Red Bull and the bottle of Jameson he stole from some senior frat brother he had befriended, and even though all three of these elements were violations of Lynn’s agreement to let him go West (“she’s the money, Elliot, of course she has a say in where you go”), Alice didn’t say a word. She just laid in his bed and listened to the cadence and rhythm of his voice, but not the words he said.
And while she was there, she let him pretend he loved it out there.
“Like, fuck, man,” he said, “for settling in fucking Michigan.”
It was a lie though, a part of his game of pretend, but Alice allowed it.
The truth was that California did not suit them though. It didn’t suit Alice, and try as he might -- and Elliot was trying -- it did not suit Elliot either. There was too much openness, too many bleached golds and yellows, too much promise of something greater. They were and are and always will be people bounded by the things they know and fear. There is no place for openness, no claim or strength to be gleaned from a flat and empty sky, a washed out stretch of shore.
For people such as themselves, they need walls and they need cold, they need the boundaries to know where things stand and where they change.
When Alice arrived, she climbed in his bed, and Elliot had slid in bed beside her. Even though the sun had yet to set and even though it shone meanly through the slats of his open blinds he got in bed with her.
His breath was hot against her face and he toyed with the ends of her hair as he told her that it had gotten long.
Alice had shrugged, her eyes half-closed, and she started a smile she did not finish.
Alice in the West was not the right Alice.
After Alice tried to kill herself, after she graduated high school, the summer before she was expected to start college at Michigan State, Lynn sent her away. She sent her to a treatment center along the coast in California.
Elliot visited her. He came with Lynn and Ben stayed home with Lee. While they were there, they ate dinners together at cheap chain restaurants, Applebee’s and Chili’s and just the once a seemingly authentic Mexican restaurant. Each time, it was only Lynn and Elliot, Alice left behind in her room, and each time they would leave the center to go to dinner, Elliot would beg Lynn to let him stay.
“There are rules, Elliot. And we need Alice to get better.”
Their last night there, Lynn let Elliot stay longer. He sat with Alice in her room and they played gin rummy and didn’t really say much of anything to each other.
At eight that evening, Alice’s nurse Rosa had popped her head in.
“No gentlemen in rooms, querida,” Rosa told her.
“He’s my brother,” Alice said.
“I’m her brother,” he said with a dangerous smirk.
“Ay, por supuesto, El Diablo es su hermano,” Rosa sighed under her breath as she walked away from Alice’s room, a quick sign of the cross and then the shake of her head.
He had not even wanted to go to college.
The year Dylan got married, Alice went back to school in the fall but commuted from home.
Elliot did not return to school. He got his GED, and at times, Alice would gently, and not all that slyly, bring up college.
Elliot rattled off a list of names for her: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the guy who created Dell and Henry Ford and Andrew Jackson and a Rockefeller and Spielberg and Zuckerberg and Russell Simmons and --
“All bros who never got a fucking degree. All bazillionaires. College is just an expensive conspiracy to inter us all into a clockwork culture of fear and assimilation. You know how many commercials are aired aimed solely at getting people all worked up and paranoid about whether they can save enough money for their children’s college education despite the fact they are still trying to pay down their own academic debt? Fucking conspiracy. You really think you need a degree in, in, in, I don’t know, fucking philosophy in order to work in a cubicle plugging numbers into a spreadsheet and having your computer do all the math? You think you need four years undergrad to know how to make a pie chart or give a presentation convincing your superiors or your peers or that rival company why you’re the fucking balls-out best? All bullshit, man. All total fucking bullshit.”
Alice bit the inside of her cheek and impatiently tapped a pen against the book she was reading.
“Well I need a degree for what I want to do.”
Elliot laughed at her.
“No you don’t. Shrinks are the biggest bull-shitters of them all. Except lawyers, maybe.”
Alice frowned. “I never said I want to be a shrink.”
“No you just want to play around with children’s minds like a brain predator or something. A mental pedophile. That’s some fucked up shit, Al.” He gave her a smug knowing look and Alice slammed her book shut and crossed her arms over her chest.
“God just shut up. That’s great if you want nothing for your future but not all of us plan on coasting on our charisma or whatever it is you think you have.”
He leaned forward. “Vision, my friend. I’ve got vision.”
Alice looked at him coldly over her textbook.
“You sound like every stoner I have ever met. There is nothing original or unique about you, Elliot.”
His face had clouded in hurt for just a moment, but it was long enough for her to catch it. He covered quickly, flashing her a shit-eating grin.
“What are you talking about? You don’t have any friends, you don’t know anyone.”
She knew what he was trying to do. He was trying to hurt her just as she hurt him -- sharp and accidental on her part, or so she thought, but with Elliot each blow he delivered was always etched with purpose and desire to draw blood. He leaned forward even more, his hands reaching at the edge of her book, close enough to touch her own hands.
“I’m the most fascinating person you know,” he said darkly, but he was still smiling, his grin had grown.
She met his eyes and then she blinked.
“Don’t know why you look so smug. Like you said,” she said, “I don’t know a lot of people.”
His first night under their roof, the three of them share dinner together: Elliot and Alice and Michael.
Michael is a better chef than Alice, and while Alice mixes together a salad, Michael braises the lamb and he makes the potatoes and keeps talking about some apple tart thing he's making for dessert. Elliot sits at the counter and he watches Alice. He sips at a glass of iced tea, and Alice's hair keeps slipping into her face as she works and the diamond on her finger is huge and bright just as her eyes are huge and bright, and each time she glances at Elliot, it seems to be on accident.
So it's Elliot and Michael that talk. It's Elliot who plays at cheerful, an undercurrent of disdain buoying his words, as he plays along with Michael. He tells Michael he has not had lamb in ages and that apple tarts sound like the perfect dessert if he had to name a dessert and if he actually even cared for desserts, and Michael nods and Alice mixes the salad, and when at last Elliot catches her eye, Alice blinks but does not look away.
"So how were the Maldives?" Elliot asks, a mouthful of braised lamb and potatoes.
"Marvelous," Michael says. "Simply incredible. I, hand to god, could not think of a better destination for a honeymoon. Right, Al?"
Alice nods, her meal untouched. She swallows her sip of wine (none offered to Elliot), and dabs at her mouth. "Sure," she says, unconvincing.
"Can't say I ever been," Elliot says. He's watching Alice again. He's watching her and seeing how far he can goad Michael, trying to see just how much Michael actually knows about Alice.
"I did," Elliot says, "spend quite a considerable amount of time, uh, over in Scandinavia. That was around the time of your little spell in California wasn't it? Terribly restive out there. Great for getting all your mental faculties back on track."
Alice stares at him. There's no reproach in her gaze, not even alarm. Instead she looks bored, almost disgusted.
"No, Elliot. That wasn't then. You're off," she says, stabs a potato with her fork, "by quite a few years." Michael does not comment, not about Elliot's mistake in measuring time and not about Alice's restive stay in California or what she might have needed a respite from at all.
"Right, right, right. California is such a great state. The golden state! I would even wager that in California one can almost feel sane."
Alice licks her lips.
"Why did you leave then?" she asks.
He stops talking and he grits his teeth. Alice watches the small yet pronounced tic at the hinge of his jaw. He is angry, though Alice has decided he has no right to be. Not with Michael, and certainly not with her.
“Your brother is protective,” Michael will tell Alice that night in the dark. But he will say it like Elliot doesn’t have a right to be that, like Elliot has stepped into his territory, and Alice will not know what to say about that. Alice won’t know what to say about how Michael drew that conclusion despite the way the dinner table conversation was dominated by Elliot trying to pick a fight with her.
She will not see anything protective in that.
If he was trying to protect her, she will want to say, he wouldn’t try to humiliate her like that.
Alice was drunk. It was the spring, coming on a year after Dylan’s wedding, and Alice was drunk.
She had gone out that night with friends, her thesis finished, graduation eminent, and so she had gone out. Getting drunk, she found, was easy. The shots burned her throat, felt too warm in her chest, but she liked that. She liked all of it: the free drinks the bartender offered her, how easy it was to be fun and light and stupid, how with enough in her it felt as though nothing really mattered. Nothing mattered but her.
So she was drunk, and she came home. Later, she won’t know why she did it. Later, it won’t fit the reasoning she offers herself (I don’t know why I let him do it), but upon arriving home, she went straight up to Elliot’s bedroom.
The light was still on, shining out from beneath the door, and she didn’t knock. She opened the door and she stumbled inside; she shut the door behind her and leaned back against it. Elliot was sitting there, shirtless in bed, and he looked up at her, his eyes narrowed.
“We swapping places now, huh? Guess I better get slicing and dicing.”
Alice’s easy smile slipped into a scowl. “Fuck you what’s that supposed to mean?”
Elliot laughed and his posture relaxed that much more. “I can smell you from here. And how I thought I had cornered the substance abuse outfit in this family . . . ”
Alice stood up straight, her shoulders square, angry with him and with herself that she even felt the need to rise to her own defense. “I had a few cocktails. That’s hardly . . . comparable to you, like, OD’ing on ketamine or . . . whatever.”
“Which time?” he drawled.
“My point exactly. You can still be the junkie.”
“And you’ll be the nutjob?”
“Don’t be mean.”
In her mind, it was always easy to blame him. In her mind, what happened at Christmas could be made attributable to him. Elliot was the bad one, and Elliot made her bad, too. It did not work that way this time, and no amount of future revisionist history could change that for her. Denial would become her engine for control, but even denial would not have its place here.
Nothing had happened since Christmas. There had been no other shared bottles of expensive scotch and no other empty bathtubs. He had not pressed his open mouth against hers and she had not reciprocated, had not gone down on her back and wanted him to work his way inside her.
Nothing had happened, until that night. And it was Alice who walked across the room. It was Alice who toed her shoes off, who let her jacket fall to the ground with her purse, and it was Alice who got in bed with him.
She got in his bed and she straddled him. Maybe she liked that look of surprise on his face, the way his eyebrows arched not in dismissal or in conceit but rather as a result of the unexpected. Maybe she was brave, or maybe she saw no other option.
Maybe she just wanted to know that he was her own.
She got in bed and she licked her lips and his breath hitched despite himself. She kissed him, her mouth hot, her hands balanced on his bare shoulders, blunt nails threatening to break the skin. He did not mean to groan, but he did, a deep rumble of sound more felt than heard when he kissed her back.
The kiss was all teeth and spit, visceral and mean. When she tasted blood, she did not know if it was his or hers. She did not know if it mattered.
What mattered was the way he grabbed at her neck, how he hauled her down to him, how even though he was under her, even though it was her initiative that brought her here, he still tried to hold the reins of control. What mattered was his hand under her shirt, his hand pulling at her bra, pulling at her nipple, how his hands were warm and her skin felt cold, the arch of her spine, the spread of her legs over his.
What mattered, she will think, is that their roles were reversed: she was the drunk, and he was supposed to be the voice of reason.
Instead he kissed her back.
Instead he pulled her shirt over her head, mouthed at her breasts through her thin pink bra, pulled at her jeans, her panties, and dragged them down her thighs. He was the one to gasp when he touched her for the first time. It was him who said, “Jesus, fuck,” when he rubbed at her and found her wet; it was him that grunted when he slid two fingers inside of her.
Alice lowered herself on top of him. Her chest brushed against his; she rolled her wet cunt against his dick until Elliot snapped and then thrust up into her. Alice’s mouth had gaped open, a soft high-pitched gasp as though he had knocked the wind out of her. He pushed his hips up against hers and muttered the word, “fuck,” when she twisted, ground herself down against him.
He flipped them over and her bare shoulder hit the wall and her eyes widened, not in pain, but sudden terror that someone might have heard them. “It’s fine,” he stammered out, pushing her down into the mattress and grabbing at her hip, “it’s fine.” His fingers bit into her thighs and her fingers bit into his rolling shoulder blades.
He came before she did, her mouth wet at the hinge of his jaw when his entire body went rigid, and he stuck his fingers in her, wet with his come, wet with her, and brought her off. She kept trying to hide her face against his neck, her mouth hanging wide open, small needy sounds escaping her, but he grabbed her by the chin.
He forced her to look at him.
“I don’t know why I let him do it,” she said.
They said: Alice we just want you to be good we just want you to be good we just want you --
Michael goes out of town; he leaves them there.
Alice orders a pizza that night and they eat it together in front of the television, watching old 1970s B-movies and the first half of The Daily Show.
Elliot gets grease on his fingers and wipes his hands with a napkin, his eyes glued to the exposed curve of the neck, the way her jaw clenches, her throat moves, when she swallows. He watches her, the intent hard and unforgiving like a stone within him that she know that he is watching.
"I don't know why you came here," Alice finally says. She bites at her thumbnail before she turns to look at him, and when she does, her eyes are in shadow. Her eyes are dark like his.
"I missed you," he says. He aims for levity, he aims to mock, but he misses his mark. He finds he means it. He knows he means it. He has missed her in ways he will never know or ever want to articulate.
"That's nice," she says. She reminds him of their grandmother in that instant -- cold, aloof, untouched by anyone but herself. It leaves him angry, he can feel it swelling inside of himself.
Before he can decide what he wants to do with that anger, she passes him the remote.
"I'm going to bed," she says, and later, later, always later, neither will be entirely sure if that was meant to be construed as an invitation.
Elliot does not go to her that night, but the next morning he wakes early, the sun just rising, and he walks down the hall to the master bedroom.
When he opens the door, her eyes are open but she’s still curled in on her side, buried in her bed, the covers hiding her body.
Elliot gets in bed with her and he winds his body around hers. She makes a quiet whimper when his chest presses against her back, and the sound only grows when he bites her, his teeth nicking at the back of her neck.
His hand slides down her hip, and she is naked. She went to bed naked, she went to bed expecting this, expecting him, and he can feel her whole body trembling under his.
He says her name once, like a warning, but no, that's not right. If it is a warning, then it's a warning for him, a warning for how far he has let this go. He says her name desperately, and when he says it, Alice makes a sound like a sob.
He rubs his body against hers, and her hips push back against him. She bats at the covers when he drags her up onto her knees, her body bared to him, and his kisses and licks, bites, down the knobby length of her spine.
He fucks her from behind and watches her fingers curl into the sheets, watches them grab and pull. He fucks her hard, the slap of his skin against hers, fucks her until he thinks she’s crying.
He stops then, groans when he pulls out of her, and Alice hides her mouth with her forearm.
"Al," he murmurs. "Al, Al, Alice, Al," he keeps saying, and he rolls her over; her head arches back, her face still covered by her arm, but her legs open to him.
He bites at her hip bone, his mouth tasting the skin of her scars, all those small fine white lines she made into her skin, and he bites her, makes it hurt. She bucks wild under him, her voice strangled, but saying the same word over and over again: please please please.
He licks into her cunt and he can taste himself. She comes with her knee crooked around his neck, clenching tight around around his fingers, his mouth hot and open and wet right where she is the same.
He kisses her after. He kisses her, after, after all this time and all these years and all the places that have come between them. She bites at his mouth, fists his cock in her hand, makes him moan and confess too much.
When he comes, her eyes are huge and glassy, and perhaps, just a bit afraid.
When she had her mouth against his, when she had his cock in her hand, he thinks he said: you’re all I’ve ever wanted.
She left him in her bedroom. He finds her in the kitchen.
Alice is standing at the kitchen sink, at the window, holding a cup of coffee. She must hear his approach because her entire body goes rigid, on alert.
“I want you to leave, Elliot,” she says, but she says it to the window. She says it to the window that overlooks the small back patio with the industrial size grill that Elliot wants to bet has only been used once and that time was the Fourth of July and they held some great backyard gathering for all their neighborhood friends, and what he doesn’t know is that he’s right, and what he doesn’t know is that Alice went to make sangria in the kitchen and she stood in that exact same spot she stands in now and she thought of Elliot, she thought of him for a moment too long, and she forgot about the sangria, forgot about the sliced apples (she knew all the names, Braeburn and Fuji and Red Delicious and Pink Lady -- they had been Pink Lady apples), and stood at the window, at the sink, with the water running and watched Michael at the grill. She thought of Elliot and watched Michael at the grill, and for the first time in a long time she felt the way she used to feel -- she felt younger, more hopeful, though she still despaired of everyone and everything -- and the very thought that there might have been a part of her that got lost along the way, a vital part of her that though it might have made her hurt it had also made her complete, and it was gone now, stamped out, rubbed out, without fanfare or acknowledgement, and she was only realizing its departure then. It made her sadder than she thought she was capable of anymore. It made her forget the apples and the open bottle of wine. It made her forget the party and the smell of the barbecue had become only smoke and burnt meat to her, and she wanted to cry, and she thought of Elliot, and that made her want to cry more.
He has no way of knowing that now. Alice will not tell him. She has asked him to leave, so she will not tell him.
“Why?” he asks flatly.
“What do you mean -- ” she starts and then sputters to a stop. “You know why. Elliot. You know.”
“You afraid I’m going to spill all your dirty little secrets to Michael?”
She looks at him over her shoulder. “It’s wrong,” is all she says, and it makes Elliot laugh.
Then she says, “You’re all wrong,” more to herself than to him. Elliot clenches his jaw and takes a step closer. He thinks this what they call seeing red. He thinks what he is seeing is red. He steps closer, and Alice turns around to face him.
“You think you’re so different?” he snarls. “You think you’re better? Fuck you. Fuck you, Al. You love this shit. You love acting like you’ve got your life together, that you did it, you achieved whatever blissful fucking nirvana all those pamphlets at Dr. So-and-So’s advertise, but you’re a liar. You’re a fucking liar, and I hate liars. All you’ve learned how to do is self-medicate and bury whatever horrible awful dark part of yourself you hate so fucking much inside of you. And well done. Bravo. A worthy performance. But I’m sorry I can’t lie like you. I’m sorry that offends you and upsets you and makes you all . . . squirrelly like you are right now. I’m really sorry about that.”
“Jesus, Elliot,” she interrupts.
“I’m not finished yet. You want a big apology from me? I know that’s all Mom has ever wanted from me, and if we’re baring our souls here and opening up the big wounds and telling all the big scary truths, why don’t you chew on this one for a little while: I’m not entirely sure when it happened, but I’m pretty sure it was when I left the country for a little while, but you have all but become our beloved mother. Look at you. So shrill, so intent on keeping emotions in check -- ”
“Nah, nah, I think you need to hear this. I think you need to know that I am incredibly sorry you turned out like Mom. So sorry. And I’m sorry, ok? I’m sorry the only person I have ever loved is you, and I’m sorry I don’t know how to make that stop.”
Alice squeezes her eyes shut, her bottom lip trembling.
“Please,” she says, “Elliot, please.”
“Oh, I forgot. You’re fine. Alice is fine. Alice can’t hear these things because she is good and fine and they found a cure for her but not for me. I’m the leper, but Alice is fine.” He grabs her by the jaw and tilts her face up to his and she stumbles into him, her fingers curling into the front of his shirt.
“Alice doesn’t like to fuck her brother,” he says, his voice ragged and low, hurt in a way she recognizes all too well. “And she certainly doesn’t beg him to make her come. No. She’s good. And she’s fine and she’s okay and she doesn’t talk about these things or want these things; the only one who wantedany of that was me.” He grabs her face that much tighter and Alice is crying openly now. “And Alice doesn’t love anyone, she doesn’t love anyone, you don’t love anyone, least of all me.”
Alice pushes away from him. She throws the coffee mug down hard against the counter and it shatters, porcelain and spilled coffee everywhere.
She screams at him. “Get out! Get the fuck out get out get out of my house get out of my life get the fuck out Elliot.”
Elliot watches her, and for a moment, he is sure what he is seeing is their mother.
Alice kicks Elliot out of her house. She kicks him out of Michael’s house. She drives him to the airport -- O’Hare not Midway. She does not know how to get to Midway.
She braces her hands against the steering wheel, her plum-colored manicure chipped, her nails bitten down to the quick.
She does not put the car in park when she pulls up outside the departures gate.
“No goodbye for your broth -- ”
“Get out of the car,” she says, dark and even, and she has changed so much, too much, she’s covered more distance than he has, and he made an error in judgment because of all things he anticipated this wasn’t among them. Alice was the constant. A year before she said I’m all you have, but sitting in the car with her he doesn’t think he even has that anymore. She won’t look at him, her gaze flat and unseeing as she watches the row of taxis in front of them.
“Yeah? Well fuck you too.”
He slams the car door and Alice jolts in her seat.
Alice in 1999 is not the Alice in 2002 is not the Alice in 2008 is not the Alice in 2012 is not the Alice he left behind.
There was an Alice who favored the apple farm forty-five minutes northeast of Kalamazoo, the Alice who favored apples, who knew their names and said them like they mattered, who knew their specific scent, what the stained flush of color or lack thereof across its skin meant should you first polish and then sink your teeth inside. An Alice who preferred the flesh of one over the other. An Alice who could say their names -- Belle de Bishop and Ben Davis. Braeburn and Alkane, alias Tokyo Rose: small to medium in size, bright shiny red. The Red Delicious and the Yellow Delicious, the Wagener and the Vista Bella -- very dark and very red. Fuji and Spartan, Pink Lady, the Rome Beauty, the Red Wealthy; Priscilla and Primrose and Sansa; Mother and Northern Spy, a fruit that bruises easily.
Alice, this Alice, not only knew them all, but they mattered to her. This was an Alice whose stained flush of color across her skin he knew, and he knew the taste of her flesh.
The Northern Spy. The Tokyo Rose. Vista Bella: very dark and very red. That Alice belonged to a different time; she was not the one he left in the rain.
Elliot pays cash for a flight to Mexico City and he buys John McCain’s memoir and sits down in the smoker’s lounge and waits for his flight to be called.
He’s never been to Mexico. He thinks Mexico is as good a start as any to run to, to start over; every movie he has ever seen the hero flees south of the border and that’s called a good ending. That’s not true. None of that is true. He’s not sure what he is looking for is called a new start or if he’s the kind of man capable of starting fresh. Tethering himself and everyone else to the past has always been his primary weapon. If he’s going to cut loose, it won’t be by his own hand. And he’s never seen a movie where a hero or anyone in particular successfully (or unsuccessfully) fled to Mexico, and if he never witnessed that, then no one ever called it a good ending.
“Mexico, huh?” the businessman says next to him: a nod to the ticket in Elliot’s lap, a flagrantly Americanized pull to his attempt to say the country’s name en español. “Business or pleasure?” he asks.
Elliot smiles, lazy and predatory, more himself than he has felt in days. “La cocaína,” he says, and then he chuckles. With this thumb he smears the Hitler moustache he has drawn on McCain’s face.
Alice pulls over fifteen minutes outside of the city. The falling rain has frozen and the streets are slick with ice and accumulating slush. Her tires slide when she attempts to brake, and that’s when she starts to cry.
She cries noisily, her body bent into the steering wheel. And she cries about the rain and she cries about the ice and she cries about her brother, she cries about Elliot, and she cries because she will never be good, she doesn’t have it in her, she doesn’t want it in her, the only things she wants inside of her is him.
So she cries.
So she calls his cell phone number three weeks later and when it rolls over to his voicemail she cries again.
She says: “I have always loved you. I have always always loved you.”
Elliot left his cell phone in Portland.
He gets it when he returns from Mexico City. He returns much as he left, only richer and with a scar to the right side of his abdomen courtesy of a knife fight in a tequila bar.
He returns to the apartment he had been squatting in with the better part of an indie rock outfit in Portland. His stuff is all still there. They put it in boxes for him and stored the boxes in the coat closet.
In the box he finds his cell phone.
In the box he finds she loves him.
Before Chicago, before Portland, before Michael, before Alice clutched the steering wheel and cried, Elliot went abroad.
He kept calling Alice from cities like Gothenburg or Copenhagen or Gdansk as he tried to fall asleep with the window open even though it was winter and he had tried telling her about that once, how he liked to sleep when it was cold and it smelled like snow because snow totally has a smell, but he had not know how to say that either so he just breathed and she laid back on her bed as the sun set and she breathed too and it was as though they were in the same room and she knew about the snow and she understood it, understood him, and it was a fiction he was more than willing to buy into, a fiction he could sleep with.
It became a habit he immersed himself in so deeply -- imagining Alice, imagining her everywhere he is -- that years later when he would reference the time he spent in Gothenburg or Copenhagen or Gdansk he would place her there as well.
At a party he let such a detail slip and Alice had frowned.
“I was in Chicago,” she said, and Elliot stared blankly at her, the moment in his mind -- Alice with snow in her hair, Alice with a cold mouth at his ear, Alice in Gothenburg or Copenhagen or Gdansk -- too real to have been feigned.
So he looked at her like she was a liar, like he did not want to believe her but he laughed all the same.
So for him, she has been everywhere he has been.
So for him, that means they will meet again.
They meet again. Paul dies three years later, a sudden heart attack, and this will be the first time Alice leaves Michael. The first, not the last.
The second time she leaves Michael, she stays gone for a month. She will be almost thirty and Elliot will be living in Washington, D.C.
He will be a surprise success -- the editor of a politically subversive website (like Drudge, but not lame; like Stewart, but meaner).
The best review he will ever receive in the court of public opinion will come courtesy of a mention by Bill Clinton: “I want to call him a boneheaded asshole, but goddamn, this asshole’s right nine times out of ten.”
But Elliot will not change.
The Elliot of the past, the Elliot of 1999 and 2002 and 2008 and 2012 and the Elliot of today, the Elliot who can remember Alice in an apple orchard and the Alice with the names of the red, red apples on her red, red tongue -- he will be the same.
He does not change.
When are you going to grow the fuck up?
Oh, you know. Some time near the end.
T H R E E :
t h e
p r e s e n t
Wherein Alice is wed:
“So what’s the groom do for a living?”
“He’s a lawyer,” Lynn says, a hint of tired caution to her voice.
Elliot considers it for a moment. “Defense or prosecution?”
Lynn sighs, “Neither, Elliot. He does contracts over at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.”
Elliot sputters in laughter. “What? She meet him there during one of her relapses?”
Lynn spins to face Elliot. “Jesus,” she mutters. “No. No, she didn’t meet him like that, and no, she hasn’t relapsed.” She sighs again. “For god’s sake, Elliot. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t do this to her. She is happy. Alice is happy. And don’t you dare, don’t you even think of trying to ruin that for her.”
“Why would I do that?” he asks lazily.
“Because despite all your protestations to the contrary you can be incredibly and deliberately cruel to her.”
“‘My protestations to the contrary,’” Elliot mimics. “God, Mom, listen to you. What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t talk to me like that. And you know. You know exactly what I mean. Alice has always been . . . your favorite.” Lynn’s voice tightens. “Alice has been the only one of us you’d dare look out for -- don’t you even argue with it. You’d think you were the older brother and she the younger sister the way you act with her. But despite that, despite all of that, you know how to hurt that girl in ways none of us could imagine. Don’t you dare do that today. Don’t do it, Elliot, I swear to god.”
“Yeah, well, what if she can hurt me too. You ever consider that?”
“I’d say, if I were to believe you, that you probably deserved it.”
For as far back as she can remember, Lynn has seen a therapist.
For a long time, she saw a Dr. Redding. She visited him once a week in the lead up to Dylan’s wedding. They talked about Paul and they talked about Lynn as a mother, and more often than not, they talked about Elliot.
“I always,” she said during one session; her voice cracked and she started again. “I never feared that Elliot, that he’d hurt himself. I just, I always worried about everyone else.”
“Everyone else hurting your son?” Dr. Redding had a habit of referring to Elliot as “your son,” as though he was trying to reinforce the idea that Elliot was indeed hers.
Lynn looked up, a kleenex crumpled in her hand, and a surprised, stricken look on her face.
“No,” she said, as though this much should have been obvious. “I worry about him hurting everyone else.”
Dr. Redding did not say anything and waited for Lynn to continue.
“You remember, you remember a few years back when there were all those school shootings? Columbine, or whatever,” she paused, her fingers crushed into a fist around the used tissue. “Every time I got a call from his school, every single fucking time -- there was my first thought. ‘Oh my god he’s found a gun and gone and used it. Oh my god he’s finally done it.’”
“Did you keep guns in your house?”
“Never,” she said, her voice edging closer to a sob.
“Your son’s violence, however,” Dr. Redding said, “always seemed, seems,” he corrected and Lynn visibly flinched, “to be rooted in the more personal, uhm, hair-trigger situations.”
“What is that even supposed to mean?”
Dr. Redding had leaned forward, his forearms braced on his knees and his hands clasped together. “Your son does not plan to be angry. He does not plan his violence. In fact, one could say your son is a victim of his own violence just as much as whoever he acts upon.”
“One could say that if they’ve never been a victim.”
“You feel you have been a victim of your son.” It was not a question, but Lynn waved a hand in the air as though to bat the statement away.
“I’m not worried about me,” she said.
“Then who do you worry about?”
“Alice,” Lynn whispered. She looked Dr. Redding in the eye.
“I worry about Elliot, my son, hurting Alice.”
“Do you even want me there?” Elliot asked Alice over the phone. He sounded wounded but as though he was trying to hide it, like he was too fucked up to pull off the trick and instead he had gone clumsy, he had gone and revealed his sleight of hand, gone and revealed the dark bird hidden up his sleeve, and now she was recognizing that bird as hers and now it had gone and flown from him -- one less thing to keep inside his control.
“Elliot,” she whispered.
“That’s not an answer,” he said, but he bit each word. He had gone defensive, anger easier to cradle than whatever hurt she had filled him with.
“Yes,” she said, softly, barely audible, but he heard her. “Of course. Of course I want you there.”
“You’re a liar but I’ll accept it.”
“If you already assumed the answer then why ask?”
The other dark bird hidden up his sleeve: I wanted to see if you would lie.
Alice has never romanticized Elliot as he does her. Her fragility is always a surprise to him. He has built her up as something different in his head. Something broken still, but shockingly with a note of hope and strength.
This is a difference between them. This is one of many things that set the two of them apart.
The Things That Set Them Apart:
Their biological fathers and their respective relationships with the aforementioned men.
The year and season in which they were born: Alice was born in the winter three and a half years (40 months) before Elliot, a brutal February where a cold snap blanketed the entire eastern seaboard in a sheet of ice. This was when Alice and Lynn lived with Dylan and Paul and this was when they lived in Annapolis; this was when they lived on the eastern seaboard and this was when it was brutal and covered in ice.
Another difference: Alice was born in the winter three and a half years before Elliot at the civilian hospital in Annapolis.
Elliot was born in an Indian summer, the start of October, the leaves orange, the sun blood orange, his first true memory is his sister peeling an orange (not an apple) with her clawed fingers. He was born in Kalamazoo. This was when Alice and Lynn lived with Lee and then Elliot (and then Ben) and this was when they lived in Michigan.
The things that set them apart: Alice has always craved normalcy while Elliot has never known what to do with that.
Alice is to get married at a fancy Maryland country club just outside of Annapolis proper.
Before Elliot arrives, she tries on her dress again.
“Is Elliot coming?” she asks in a delicate voice, her fingers just as delicate as she picks at the netting and lace of her veil before placing it carefully back in the closet.
“He says yes,” Lynn says slowly.
“Okay,” Alice breathes.
He does come, but so does Paul.
The summer after Dylan’s wedding Lynn made them all attend therapy, together, as a group. Family therapy: in her words, they had been “through a shock” and should talk their way through it. Elliot knew this meant Lynn lacked the words herself, didn’t know what she wanted to hear least of all wanted to say, so why not bring in the big guns, the pros.
So they went to therapy. So Elliot, Alice, and Ben all sat in a row on the couch, Alice in the center.
And so they talked about Paul.
“He looked exactly like I imagined,” Ben said, too serious, and Alice pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“He wore a lot more flannel than I expected,” Elliot said, just as serious.
“Do you hate him?” The therapist asked Elliot exclusively, picking up on the undercurrent of resentment. Alice wouldn’t look at Elliot but Lynn was watching him in open earnest.
“Sure,” Elliot said with a shrug. “Why wouldn’t I.”
“Why don’t you tell me why you hate him.”
“Well, if fucked-upness is a gene you can trace, I’d say Paul is the very genesis of our own little familial fucked-upness, even though his DNA has got nothing do with Ben and me.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, like. Dylan absorbed all of Mom’s sane genes, and the three of us got stuck with the rest. And I fucking know, okay, that’s not how science works or whatever, but it’s a . . . it’s a fucking metaphor, just roll with it. Alice was born when Mom, our dear Lynn, was already super fucking stressed because she married a Lifetime movie of the week villain, and then Alice got to experience his . . . villainy first-hand, ergo, the thread of Paul-rooted fucked-upness. I was born after Mom left and she obviously had all kinds of residual bizarro faux-PTSD shit going on where it comes to this flannel-wearing asshole, so that’s what I am born into: some unacknowledged abyss of self-loathing and mild terror, which, you know, really explains a lot -- sorry, Dad. And then Ben, Ben just got whatever was leftover. Which was apparently autism. Cool!”
“Elliot . . . ” Alice said quietly. Lynn meanwhile looked close to tears.
“Or, I don’t know. Maybe it’s all on Grandma, I don’t know. That bitch is fucking nuts.”
“Elliot,” Alice said again, more warning to her tone, but Elliot bulldozed straight through her. He was monologuing. In another life maybe he would have been a Shakespearean stage actor. Maybe not.
After all, he always needed to be the focus of his message.
Elliot arrives at the wedding,
and everything goes quiet.
He sees Alice as changed -- smoothed and polished, as though someone took a stone to all her faults and irregularities and buffed them out
Her hair is silky and sleek, pulled back in a chignon at the nape of her neck. It makes her look severe, her face too exposed, her mouth wide and pink and bordering on the grotesque. She is neat and mannered, but then she has always been neat and mannered: it is the context that has changed.
It is the context that has rendered her behavior all the more alien.
She has always been all bird bones and brittle and blonde, and when he hugs her he can feel the sharp fold of her shoulder blades under her thin linen dress.
“You came,” she says, just under his jaw as he holds her.
“You expected otherwise?” he says and smirks.
At the rehearsal dinner, Elliot punches Paul.
(For most of the guests gathered, it’s the highlight of the weekend. By most accounts, the two men were spotted mid-conversation, when suddenly, inexplicably, Elliot had hauled back and returned with a raised fist).
Elliot punches the man in the jaw, but Paul is quick, bigger than Elliot and more on balance, and he punches him back, splitting the skin at Elliot’s cheekbone.
Elliot stumbles backward, knocking into the buffet table. “Mother . . . fucker,” he sputters, incredulous and amused, but not angry.
Alice walks him away. It is her wedding but it’s as though she need not be present.
She shuts the bathroom door and rummages around in the medicine cabinet without saying a word. She cleans him up, gets blood on the hem of her dress, doesn't ask once why Elliot punched Paul, and when she is finished she holds his face in her hands. She bumps her forehead against his chin and she says, “Fucking . . . goddamnit, Elliot.”
“You know me,” he murmurs, and his hand skates over the subtle curve of her waist, “always gotta make a scene.”
He can’t remember the last time he was this close to her.
The year after Dylan’s wedding, the entire family -- Lee and Lynn, Alice and Elliot and Ben -- went down to Florida and spent a week on the Gulf.
They played Yahtzee that first night on the back screened-in porch. Alice’s nose was sunburnt from the day at the beach and there was a new crop of freckles sprinkled across her cheeks. Elliot’s shoulders ached pleasantly from the laps he swam that morning at the pool.
Elliot had stolen a beer after dinner, chugged it in the small laundry room off the bathroom he shared with Alice and Ben, and leftover sand had stuck to the soles of his feet as he stood in place and swallowed as quickly as possible. He snagged another bottle while Alice and Lynn washed the dishes and when Lee asked, just before the game was to begin, why there were only four beers in the six-pack he had bought that morning, Alice, without missing a beat, said that she had drank them earlier, while everyone was showering for dinner. If there was a discrepancy to be found in that story (and there was), Lee did not comment on it.
Lynn had not heard what Alice said. Lynn would have commented. If there was a discrepancy, Lynn would have commented.
Lee won each game of Yahtzee they played, and after his fifth win, Elliot had leaned back heavy in his wicker chair and scoffed, “You’re not even going to let someone else win, huh, man?”
Lee had pushed his glasses up the sweaty bridge of his nose and eyed Elliot with a sly smile.
“I see no point in turning my back on the spoils good fortune has blessed me with. Luck speaks, and I merely listen.”
Elliot looked around the table at everyone assembled there, at his family, and they all were smiling. They all were happy, and, he found that so was he. They were happy out there on that old screened-in porch facing the Gulf. They were happy, but Elliot could sense it: this good moment would not last. There was a sense of doom pervading even this good and happy moment, and Elliot could taste it same as he could taste the dank and choking humidity that lingered in the air. That sense of doom was echoed back in the distant crash of the dark surf against an even darker shore, no moon in the sky that night, but the cicadas buzzed in earnestness, a bird would call, yet through it all, they were smiling. They were smiling, but Elliot knew they could feel it too. That they knew it with each crash of the dice onto the table that there was one less good hand to be dealt. That this game would end eventually, dawn would come, and with it a new set of spoils blessed by fortune, be it good or bad, and that the day might be silent and unlike Lee, there would be no luck to listen for.
Lynn would scream and Alice would cry and Lee would sit silent and Elliot -- Elliot was never quite sure what he would do, but he did know that it would not be good, he did know it would match and meet the gloom that spread up like the Spanish moss clinging to the side of the condo, wrapping itself around the back porch.
The next night they played mini golf at a small pirate-themed place off the causeway, clearly a product of the 1980s. The mini golf course was muggy, teeming with mosquitoes, and Ben had gone off on a long litany of facts pertaining to malaria. It was clear even then that good fortune had abandoned them and the mood was tense and suspicious the entire night. Or perhaps the mood was not tense and suspicious for all parties involved but merely Elliot, as earlier that day he had convinced the female bartender at the Purple Parrot to give him a fifth of whiskey after telling her a long, and earnestly false, tale involving leukemia, a lost dog, two dead parents, and an autistic sister. She gave him the whiskey on the condition he not return and he had thanked her kindly and then proceeded to drink in silence under a palm tree in the middle of a parking lot facing the beach. The asphalt was too hot and his black t-shirt absorbed the midday sun and when the whiskey and the asphalt and the black t-shirt became too much he stumbled drunk back towards the condo and hid the whiskey bottle in Alice’s bed.
She had approached him alone while everyone else was cleaning up for dinner (“We’re going to a crab shack, I don’t understand what there is to exactly clean one’s self up for”) and stood in front of him, one hip cocked, the bottle cradled at waist height and merely raised her eyebrows.
“For me? You shouldn’t have, sis.” The words were garbled by the toothbrush hanging out of his mouth and Alice’s hair was still wet, dripping down her bare shoulders, which Elliot thought was rather brave of her, but then he realized this was the first time the entire trip he had seen her in anything without sleeves to hide her wrists.
She thrust the bottle out at him and arched an eyebrow, a weak mirror of his own expression of condescension and dismissal. “Find a better hiding place, asshole.”
That night, the night of the golf course and the night of the mosquitos, Elliot met Alice in her small bedroom. She was staying in a former sunroom -- the floor still terra cotta tile, still all shuttered windows that overlooked the crystalline blue of the Gulf.
Alice had opened all the windows and she sat in the dark on her bed. Her room was sticky and warm, a thick twilight blue; the moon lit the curve of her face, lit the sharp angular bend of her shoulders and the boyish cut of her hips.
When he kissed her, her mouth, her skin, the space between her breasts where with his tongue he could count her ribs, he tasted her sweat. She tasted salty and sweet, like an animal, and he painted her in his own sweat.
The old bed in the sunroom was noisy, but the ocean was louder, the windows were open.
That night, that beat of a second before he sank inside of her, he let himself think that this could be a thing that would last. That sense of doom was absent, he could not feel it, see it, in all that blue, all that humidity, all that skin she laid out before him.
He would be right, in a way.
He thought this could be a thing that lasted, a thing free from doom.
He was right about the first part.
In the bathroom, the night before her wedding, Alice pushes Elliot away.
“You shouldn’t have come if you planned on causing trouble.” The voice she uses is tight, professional. Elliot imagines that this is how she speaks to her clients.
“I thought you wanted the entire family here,” he says, picking at her, needling at her armor.
“Not if it’s like this,” she says quietly.
“That’s right. Well, it’s not like you’re even really my sister anyway,” he says and Alice rears back from him. Her eyes are wet with tears and she looks as though she might slap him.
"How dare you," she mutters, "how dare you, how -- I am all you have!” she shrieks, her voice shaking, her hands clutched in tight fists, her arms braced and straight, the tendons in her neck standing out stark against her pale skin. “I have always -- it’s always me, Elliot. It has always been me I am all you fucking have.”
“Then where have you been?” he asks her, practically a growl.
He pushes her back against the wall, right next to the towel rack, his thumb pressing into her throat. She grabs at his wrist. “Where were you?” he asks.
“I never left,” she says. “I never left you.”
He raises his hand from her throat to her mouth. He passes the pad of his thumb over the swell of her mouth and her mouth parts open to him.
It makes sense to kiss her then. It makes sense, so he does it. He kisses her, and she’s still holding onto his wrist, her fingers digging in tight, but she is kissing him too. The blood on his cheek smears against her face, the blood from his knuckles stains the front of her dress. He pushes her panties to the side. He pushes her up the wall, he pushes inside of her.
“You’re all fucked up,” she whispers into his mouth. She kisses him. “You’re all wrong,” she breathes.
“Shut the fuck up,” he says, “shut the fuck up.”
He snaps his hips, his pace ruthless, and he can hear it, hear her, how wet she is, how each movement of his hips is winding her up that much more.
Before he had kissed her, she murmured against his mouth, “Please don’t ruin this.”
She gets married to a man named Michael, a lawyer who works at a Chicago hospital --
When are you going to grow the fuck up? she had asked him --
she gets married,
and Elliot lets it happen.
He lets this stranger keep her.
In his head, he believes he could have controlled this. But he lets it happen. Maybe that’s growing up. Maybe that’s letting go. He thinks about getting married himself, but he knows it would only be out of spite. He knows Alice would see through that. She has the same eyes as him, at least in terms of what they see.
It’s funny though how he can hear Lynn’s voice in his head.
I just miss her so much I just want her to come back.
The first time Alice leaves Michael she goes to Elliot in Brooklyn.
He’s working as a bartender, and when he’s not tending bar he’s dealing on the side, and when he isn’t doing either of these things he’s passed out on the futon right next to the door in the small walk-up he rents from a Ukrainian drug lord who speaks only in menacing broken English.
He’s been listening to a lot of Springsteen since he moved into this shit hole, a lot of Darkness on the Edge of Town on repeat, and he’ll bump lines in the dingy bathroom and songs like “Factory” will make him almost wish he was capable of nostalgia for a childhood he never had.
He tried to tell Alice about it one night over the phone at two in the morning, and Alice had been barefoot in the kitchen of the house she shared with Michael, and Elliot couldn’t put it into words what he meant about Springsteen and the Americana childhood he and Alice never shared, so he got angry with her and Alice got impatient in return. “Streets of Fire” was playing when she hung up, playing off the record player left behind by the girl who had been squatting here with him before she left, before she hung it all up, too.
She said her name was Marigold and he said that was a stupid name but he fucked her on that futon next to the door and she made banana pancakes in the morning and for a good three weeks they were both domesticated, feral only with each other, and he was glad her hair was dark, her eyes matched and black in the dim light. He told himself that not once did he think about Alice or her stringy blonde hair or her eyes, one blue one green, like nature itself couldn’t decide what to do with her, or how she used to try and persuade him out of bed with breakfast -- plain buttermilk pancakes or bacon their mother cooked, never Alice. He had no place for sentimentality -- this another thing he told himself -- and he had never understood the draw.
Alice arrives after, after Marigold. Alice leaves Michael.
She doesn’t belong in that apartment, doesn’t fit with the organized squalor Elliot surrounds himself.
He finds her to be all mean curdled attitude, a hand on her hip, her mouth turned into an unfamiliar and unattractive sneer. It makes him want to ask what Michael has done to her, but he doesn’t want to know. He wants to see himself as the root of this. So when she goes to her knees, when she sucks him off, it’s with that same sneer on her face, it’s her sad mean eyes looking back up at his own. And after she has swallowed him down, when she goes to move from him, he won’t let her. He gets her off on his fingers, her panties already wet but he wants them soaked through, and she is drunk and he is all kinds of fucked, but she is here, she has left Michael, and what he doesn’t know is that a week later she’ll leave Elliot and she will return to Michael. What he doesn’t know is that she’ll leave.
But she’ll come back.
He brushes her hair out of her face when she comes.
Her eyes have never been his, they have never shared that, but looking at her, looking into her eyes, he thinks he can see a bit of himself there.
She’ll always come back.
Neither learns any lessons here. Neither grows from their mistakes. Alice gets shriller with age, their mother’s hunted look in her eyes, the same persecution complex keeping her spread on a cross of both circumstance and her own design.
Elliot has never belonged to anyone, not in a creationist sense. Not like Alice and not like Ben and certainly not like Dylan. Where he sprung from, it is difficult to tell.
It’s Doris. It’s their grandmother. It’s that lonely ancestor who shot himself in the head on account of the Great Depression among other factors of a suffocating nature.
“You’re all wrong,” Alice had whispered to him, but she said it while he was inside her, and if he was wrong, then that made her wrong too. He was inside her, he was making her entire body tremble, her knees fight to close but his own hips, his thighs, were in the way. He was inside her, he had always been inside her and she had always been in him. That made them both wrong.
That made them both all wrong.
“What’s wrong with Elliot?” Alice asks at twenty-one.
She asks the question defensively, she asks as though she and her brother have been challenged, as though to challenge one is to challenge both -- as though they are the same.
So she asks: what’s wrong with Elliot?
So she asks as though to say: there’s nothing wrong with him at all.
She left the ruined pink bridesmaid’s dress. She left the ruined dress from her rehearsal dinner. She left a trail of ruin and Elliot followed, a dark bird pecking at the breadcrumbs. Hansel and Gretel, but there is no witch; the witch’s house, her oven, is of their own creation.
It’s a house in Annapolis. A house in the suburbs of Chicago. A house just outside of Kalamazoo. It’s a walk-up in Brooklyn, the desert to the west, the sea to the east, a transatlantic telephone call in the middle of the night.
Round up, and it’s called home.
Round up, and they’re the villains to their own heroes in this story.
Round up and call him a whole. Round up and say he’s filled her heart.
If Elliot had the words, he would say the same.
F I N .