It’s much cleaner. I pretend I’m invisible and tiptoe out a side door and you’re left holding a martini imagining me in all of my glory, much sexier. After all, the party is the thing. Once that has played out, why do you need me to say goodbye?
The Irish goodbye is precisely what my friend Juju and I had in mind not so very long ago when we disappeared from another friend’s party. There was a dinner with whiskey cocktails, a touch of grappa, someone’s homemade limoncello, and a secret plan to slide on over to the neighborhood watering hole. I don’t know what to tell you other than my husband was out of town, and I was masquerading as some idiot 20 year old.
Juju and I were lit up like Christmas trees. As we entered our neighborhood bar, there was so much alcohol on our breath that we should have been holding warning signs. We gathered our dollar bills and headed straight for the jukebox. We had a giggle fit about our Cher-themed playlist and a couple more drinks. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had two choices. I could fall asleep sitting up at the bar, or I could start walking home and, hopefully, make it back without stopping to take a nap in a flowerbed.
Once we were outside, I found the wherewithal to pull myself together. A brisk Chicago breeze at 2 am will do that to you. Juju and I air kissed our goodbyes and serenaded one another with Cher impersonations until we were too far away to hear each other. Rogers Park can be a little frisky at times, so I was mostly focused on hoping for a people and drama free walk home.
I came to an intersection and could see and hear a car readying to turn onto the street I was about to cross. I was wearing a fuchsia sweater and still giving my best Cher attitude, so I wasn’t all that concerned about being seen. As I entered the crosswalk, I didn’t even turn my head. I was focused on getting home in one piece.
The car did not stop. It barely slowed as it turned the corner and then came for me. I was stunned. This could not be real. I tried to outrun the car for a moment, thinking that the driver would see my flailing ball of gayness and stop. I am disappointed to report that I am apparently not gay enough to stop traffic. It should also be said that Cher can do a lot for your self-esteem, but she can’t make you stronger than a car. When the car hit my legs, I wanted to scream, but all I did was say, “No.” I’m not even entirely sure the word came out of my mouth. I had it together enough to know that if I fell under the car, this would be it. I threw myself onto the hood and hoped for the best.
I blink and I am fifteen years old. It is exactly one week before my sixteenth birthday, and we are eating hamburger steak for dinner. I don’t know why I remember what we had for dinner, but there it is, clear as day. How ridiculous. Memory is an asshole. Why do I hold onto hamburger steak? Everything else exists in a fog. Hamburger steak. Salisbury steak. It’s a hamburger patty with fried onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Call it whatever you want. I haven’t eaten it since.
The phone rings and you can see that something awful is happening. You can read the terror on my mother’s face; she might as well have the word tattooed on her forehead. Everything changes in that instant. It is as if the air around us has transformed into water. One minute my mother is cooking dinner and the next she is falling down a well, all while standing right in front of me. With the simple sweep of her arm, I am banished to my room. I drop my fork and run. The hamburger steak is over before it has even begun.
I press myself against my bedroom door and try using my entire body as an ear. My brother is missing. That much I understand. Kevin is always in trouble. He is always somewhere he isn’t supposed to be, doing something he is not supposed to be doing. Why does this feel different? Maybe it’s more of the same. I feel sick. He was on his way to watch his girlfriend’s basketball game and never showed up. This is not unlike him, but his absence has all of us on edge.
This is before cell phones, before every breath could be hash-tagged. He could be anywhere. How do people end up misplaced? How do they disappear? Why can’t everyone just be where they are supposed to be? Safe. Sound. Together. Where was he? There are more calls. Each ring offers an electric jolt.
There is a long moment when everything is up in the air, and we all quietly hold on to hope. We wait for headlights in the driveway, a laugh, a cough, any sign of him. I decide that this whole thing is a prank. I look under my bed. I search my closet. Here he is! How silly we all were to worry. You’re so mean, Kevin, I say to him. How could you do this to us?
He is not under the bed. I don’t see him in the closet. We feel the pressure of the clock. As the minutes tick by, he gets further away from us. I try to force him to materialize.
None of what happens next is like what you see in movies. There was no county sheriff. No knock on the door. What we get is a nosy neighbor with an addiction to her police scanner. There has been a car wreck. A head-on collision. My brother is dead.
There are sounds that you are not supposed to hear come from your mother. I’d swap her cry for all of the fingernails across every chalkboard. I can still hear her. Children are not supposed to die before their parents. It’s not supposed to happen. I couldn’t come out of my room. I hid in my closet. There was nothing else to do.
My face hits the top of the car. The hood is knotty, warped, and broken, and my left nostril slides across it like cheese. I am hugging the side of the car. I struggle to hold on to the driver’s side rearview mirror, but the whiskey won’t let me find it. I look at the driver. I see a blurred shadow of a person. The whiskey won’t let me see that either. The car is accelerating and I roll off of it and into the middle of the street. I am so relieved that the car has passed me that, for a moment, I lay there on my back in the crosswalk, staring up at the sky.
I think of my brother.
Losing someone when you’re a kid does a real number on you. You cope by making up rules and assigning logic to things that cannot be controlled. If I am nicer or love harder or roll my eyes less then I can keep everyone alive. That kind of imagined responsibility will leave you searching for death like it’s a mugger in the shadows and that is no way to live.
When you are someone who obsesses over finding meaning in everyday life, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t a karmic message in each breath. I have wasted a tremendous amount of energy trying to answer impossible questions about life and death. There are so many moments I don’t understand; so much that isn’t fair. If a message can be found I think that it’s that life is the meaning of life. It’s dinner with friends, crying in your closet, giving your best Cher walk. It’s not the beginnings or endings; it’s everything in the middle.
I remember my last conversation with my brother. We were eating Apple Jacks and gossiping about high school teachers (I’ll need a psychiatrist to tell me why I always remember what I’m eating). Kevin wanted to give me advice on which teachers and classes I should or shouldn’t take. I remember some serious attitude and a lot of eye rolls. I didn’t need advice from him. And then, he left for work.
If there was a final hurrah, this was ours. He was trying to be a big brother. All I gave him were loud eyes. I did not say goodbye. It never occurred to me that we’d ever not have each other. If he got to take that moment with him, I hope all he can see is Apple Jacks.