I sit in the TGIFriday’s by the mall. I am flanked by my parents, my Aunt Molly and Aunt Suzanne. We are here because it was close to the hotel, and because it’s familiar: the small comfort from knowing we could get the same meal whether we’re here in South Portland, Maine, or in Washington State or Honolulu, Hawaii.
But tonight, we are not hungry.
“Hi! I’m Greg and I’ll be taking care of you tonight! How’s everybody doing?” Greg bellows. For a long moment, no one answers. Finally, Aunt Molly, a prominent theater director, takes charge. “Fine, Greg,” she says. Her strong voice is polite, but somehow conveys that our party is not in the mood for small talk this evening.
My eyes land on the banners of buttons lining Greg’s red suspenders. “What can I get you to drink this evening?” Greg asks, slightly subdued.
“Water, I guess,” I say. Pop music blares.
I look at my parents’ faces. My dad’s eyes are pink-rimmed with lilac shadows underneath from sleeplessness. My mom’s dark eyes stare at an empty space on the table. Her face looks blank, and I wonder if mine does too.
“Chicken Chimichanga! Chicken Chimichanga!” A small parade of servers dance by.
“Why did we come here?” I ask. I laugh, though it’s a hollow, brittle laugh.
Greg presents a basket of bread. My hand reaches for a piece automatically, but when my fingers touch the soft, spongy slice, I just pick at little pieces of it as if I am preparing to feed ducks. I know I should eat; it’s been almost a day. But I can’t. I can barely breathe.
I look around the restaurant. People in the bar laugh, their voices rising. Waitresses with brightly dyed hair and big hats. A bicycle hangs from the ceiling, as do random traffic signs. I think of how I used to lie on the floor and imagine an upside down world. One where I could walk on the scratchy popcorn ceilings, stepping over the tops—no, the bottoms—of doorways.
The words start flashing through my head again, as they’ve done for the last 24 hours, over and over: “My brother is dead. My brother is dead.”
“I need some air,” I say, getting up.
“Do you want me to come?” my mom asks, already starting to stand.
“No, I’ll be back,” I say. I dart for the door, escaping the colors and sounds and lights.
I find a bench outside and dig for my cigarettes. It isn’t completely quiet out here; music escapes from a big black speaker. But it is dark, and there are no perky servers, no broken parents out here.
I light my cigarette and pull my knees up to my chest. Finally, a slow song pours through the speaker. The lyrics, like most words right now, slip away, but I am grateful for the slow tempo. On the road outside, cars stop and go, stop and go. Traffic lights hum from red to green to yellow, over and over. I exhale for maybe the first time in days, and I watch the smoke twist up into the sky.
And then, the chorus hits. Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless. The words barrel through my body, settling just below my sternum. They expand inside me, like one of those capsules that you toss into a bowl of water and watch as it becomes a large sponge dinosaur. Then the words stop and there is just the sound of the strings, whining and winding, carrying on the tone of Neil Young’s voice. And there is something about the words and then the absence of them, and the sad, sad strings, and the way I’m holding my own knees like a baby.
And I can finally cry.
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