LOS ANGELES – 1999
I think normalization is the most profound and useful of human survival instincts. So many situations we can get ourselves in aren’t actually “normal.” I could spend the rest of my life logging in situations that are normal, and there would be so many that the word normal would become meaningless
It was already meaningless.
Maybe normal was what we were to be. Maybe normal was Drew and me living in the same apartment, being in love, fucking on a regular. Maybe normal was having meals together, kissing each other before we went work, watching TV on the couch.
So we were normal. And all that puts pressure on the things that people wouldn’t see as normal. So maybe normal is just what other people see.
Here’s what they didn’t see. They didn’t see us in a Beverly Hills Hotel in 1999, doing all the normal things. Walking up toward the suite door, putting the key in the lock, dropping our things in the corner. Drew wanted to fuck. Normal. Normal. Normal.
The normalization comes in the details. Drew wound around the stylish, modern hallway. I don’t know if he was trying to follow the swerves and swirls in the carpet pattern, or if he was in a constant battle with the rotation of the earth. Right, left, right, left, crossing one leg over the other in a dance that would’ve been impressive if it didn’t make me wonder if he’d fall on his face.
He took his keycard out of his pocket, and tried to slip it in the door. He missed once, he missed twice, before a frustrating and embarrassing third attempt, I snapped it out of his hand and slid it into the slot until the light turned green. I pushed the door open, dropped my bags on the floor. He stumbled in.
“Bedtime, babycakes,” I said as I pulled his shirt over his head. He tried to get at mine, but I slapped his hands away. That simple movement made him lose his balance, and he tipped to the left crossed his right foot over, put his hand on the dresser and managed to keep himself relatively upright.
I went for his pants. He slapped my hand away. I was sober. So it wasn’t such a big deal for me. It was almost normal.
“Do you want me to help you get undressed or not?”
He unbuttoned his fly. “You don’t need to treat me like a child.”
I folded my arms. “Stop drinking like frat boy.”
He continued as if I hadn’t said anything, getting his own damn pants off. “Not like… your fucking family. Fucking talk to me like I’m made of… Sticky nasty gunk and I can’t… No more holidays here. I cannot do another fucking holiday with your fucking family.”
He had no idea how irritating his family was either. They were so nice. I wanted to punch each and every one of them in the face. If any of them ever had an edge it had been smoothed over by sweet genteel Scandinavian manners. The only relief had been his brother-in-law who belonged to a motorcycle club. He could at least carry on a conversation about something besides the weather or the best route between the house and church.
What kind of person complained about that? What kind of person complained about a family being normal?
Drew stepped out of his pants and left them on the floor. He had a bone to pick, and I knew this guy. Drunk or sober, he was gonna pick that shit clean.
“They can’t say a fucking thing to me without meaning twenty other things, and you expect me to decipher which of those twenty things I’m supposed actually respond to?”
“You confuse inference and implication.”
“I may have had one too many, but don’t throw your high horse bullshit around right now.”
“Maybe you should just go to bed.”
“And that kid, that sharp little brat, being raised in that fucking family. Your fucking father…”
“Stay away from him and you’ll be fine.”
“Your father knows, and he thinks you don’t know. And he looks at me like I’m a fucking pushover. Like I gave you away. Like I pawned you off, or worse that I couldn’t control you.”
“That was sixteen years ago!”
“It was yesterday. It was yesterday that I fucked a girl so young that her parents could send her away.”
He didn’t usually get to the point so quickly, and that was always the point. His guilt for loving me when I was so young. I kept telling them it was all right. I kept telling him he’d more than made up for it. But it’s that nice person guilt. He was raised by nice people, to be a nice guy, and not do things that aren’t nice, like fuck young girls.
He rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes like a little boy, and I wondered if I was the one who fucked somebody too young for me. I took him by the wrists and pulled him down
“Drew. You need to go to sleep.”
“I hate your family.”
“I know. But don’t you ever, ever hate Jonathan.” I made my voice so saccharine sweet I could’ve been presenting him with a birthday cake. “Because I’ll leave you so fast your dick will snap off.”
He didn’t sober up as much as get a little clarity. It didn’t last.
“I don’t hate Jonathan.” He almost said it without slurring.
“Good,” I cupped his face in my hands. “Because I love you.”
He patted my shoulder, brushing by me to make his way to the bedroom. I didn’t want to fuck when we came in and I still didn’t want to. But I was left in the hotel room feeling as if we had unfinished business. Something that was supposed to happen before he went into the bathroom and closed the door.
When I heard the click of the door and the shower running I knew what I wanted, but it was too late to ask for it, and I’d never had to before.
He didn’t say he loved me back.
That was not normal.
The situation called for an hour on low simmer, covered. Remove cover at bedtime, stir. Raise heat. Bring to boil. Salt to taste. Serve.
Instead, my phone rang. It was my sister Sheila, who had probably heard about the fight and wanted a reason to be angry at someone about it. She was exhausting, but I picked up the phone anyway.
“Everything’s fine,” I said without offering a greeting. The shower sputtered out and I wanted a chance to catch Drew before he boiled over.
“Heard what? I was there.”
We’d crossed signals and if I told her “where” the crossed lines would turn into a knot of misunderstanding.
“Nowhere. What did you call to tell me?”
“If you know already I’m not repeating it.”
Releasing a cloud of steam, Drew opened the door with a towel around his waist and old tattoos covering his chest. The towel was low enough to expose the V still at his hips, and the tattoos were old enough to have lost their sharpness, but not their ability to remind me of the sexy fucker with the guitar string callouses on his fingers.
“I’m sorry,” he said. I pointed to the phone and mouthed “Sheila” with rolled eyes. He’d react poorly to my being on the phone with my family minutes after we’d just fought about them.
Because they took over. They encroached. They expected me to jump at the drop of a hat and I filled expectations like a force of nature filling a vacuum.
“Margie,” Sheila was getting impatient. “Are you there?”
“Nevermind,” Drew said, whipping his towel off. “Forget I said anything.”
“No….I…” Between my sister with her gossip and my man about to put clothes on, I had only one choice.
“I have to go,” I said to Sheila.
“I’ll see you there.”
“Don’t get off,” he said. “I mean, for what? So another one of them can call you in fifteen minutes?”
“Wait…” I held my hand up to him. “Meet me where?”
“Or this.” Drew got his pants on. “So you can meet—”
“—with another one of them to not say anything—”
As soon as I said that, Drew shut up as if I’d dropped an anvil on his head.
“You didn’t know?” Sheila said, and for the love of Jesus Christ on a ladder I wanted to punch her in the face. Drew stepped into his pants without resentment or unspoken accusation.
“Obviously not,” I said, meeting his eyes across the room. The bitterness between us was utterly gone, but the exhaustion remained.
“Jonathan,” Sheila said before a pause. “He tried to commit suicide.”
2015 – LOS ANGELES
I’d left Buddy and Calvin with their dicks hanging out. Maybe they fucked each other. I didn’t care. I hadn’t cared about much in a long time.
The last time I’d been at Sequoia for Jonathan, I’d gotten a call from Sheila. This time the call came right to me. As the family fixer, I had a cloaked forwarding number, and it was the first one on every contact sheet.
It wasn’t any easier this time. He was 32. Divorced already with an ex dying to get her hands on his money. A grown man with an empire of his own and a girlfriend he had actual feelings for. He’d collapsed right in front of her at an art show. It was probably exhaustion or a virus. Dehydration. Whatever. Healthy men in their early thirties rarely collapse from something that’ll kill them, but they don’t just collapse over nothing.
Trust me on that.
What I’d convinced myself, before I even put the car in park, was that it wasn’t suicide again. For a malcontent, Jon seemed pretty happy. He was going to win this latest battle with his ex. His business was finally separated from our father’s. The girlfriend seemed devoted enough and because I’d had to fix this latest mess with his ex-wife, I learned she shared his unusual sexual proclivities. It was more than I wanted to know, yet on the hospital elevator, crowded against seven other people, it was good to know. I didn’t have room in my heart to think something was really wrong with my brother. As I watched the lights blink on the way to ICU, my eyes fell on the red button at the bottom of the panel. It was just a circle with the word ALARM next to it, and braille raised underneath. The paint was scraped off the first A and the RM, leaving LA.
Nothing had changed since Drew rode this elevator with me. The city had been less crowded and the night had been darker. It had been just us and an elephant in the room, and everything had been the same.
I’d been so fierce then.
The doors opened on my floor before I defined what fierceness had turned into.
The girlfriend was already sitting on a mauve chair in a beige waiting room. Monica. She was five-ten, brown eyes, long dark hair falling out of an up-do. She was still in heels and a party dress.
“I think he was poisoned,” she said. Her voice usually had a throaty tone, but exhaustion and tears had made it worse. She twisted one of Jonathan’s linen handkerchiefs. She was distraught enough for both of us, mostly because she was very upset and I wasn’t upset at all. Between a serious illness and foul play, I’d give about even odds. Throw in the possibility of indigestion or exhaustion and the odds of the other two shrank to mathematical irrelevance.
“Poisoned,” I repeated so she could see how silly it sounded. “By whom?”
“His ex-wife isn’t that bright.”
Her eyes darted around the corners and settled in her lap. Monica wasn’t a shy woman, but she was holding something back, and her discretion could be easily confused for bashfulness.
“Your father was there. At the museum.” A quick glance. A hardened jaw. “But he’s not here.”
“He went to get our mother.”
She leveled her gaze on me. “Jonathan doesn’t trust him.”
The sentence had a weight that implied layers of meaning under Jonathan’s well-earned distrust.
“Jonathan wasn’t poisoned,” I said. “This is probably nothing, and if you say what I think you’re going to say, it’s going to put me in an awkward position. I’m too old for awkward positions.”
She blinked. “You’re right. I’m a little stressed.”
I put my hand on hers. “Trust me. You guys are going to be doing…whatever it is you do…in no time.”
It helped, in those moments, to think of Jonathan as my brother. These days, I rarely thought of him as anything else.
My phone beeped with a text. It was Will Santon.
—I think we should talk—
—Take it up with accounts payable—
—Stop fucking around—
Well, there was a side of my PI I hadn’t seen before. I excused myself and went into the hallway to call him.
“What are you getting pissy about?” I asked when he picked up even though I knew damn well why he had a bee in his bonnet.
“Can you stop hiding behind the witty banter for five minutes?”
I looked at my watch, but he couldn’t see me, and after getting shot down for banter I wasn’t about to mention he had 300 seconds.
“I’m in the Sequoia waiting room, so yes. We have five minutes without wit.”
“It’s nothing.” I paced in front of the elevators and down a hall. “Really. But, okay. Not hiding. I had…” I had to take a breath before deciding my exact words. “…you’re a great guy, Delta, but—”
“Don’t ‘great guy’ me.”
“Dear Lord,” I prayed out loud. “I enjoy the hell out of Will. Don’t let him turn into a douche who won’t take no for an answer, in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”
“Your prayers are answered, sweetheart. I can take no for an answer. What I can’t take are insincere compliments.”
“But I am sincere.” I’d backtracked down another hall, and turned at a Monet print I recognized. “Maybe I wasn’t specific. You are strong, and smart, and loving. You’re the handsomest guy I’ve kissed in going on…” I counted quickly, “fourteen years. And that’s not for lack of kissing.”
“Thanks for the reminder.”
“And I feel a connection, okay? You’re not imagining it. It’s there. Feelings. But that’s the problem. I don’t want to feel anything.”
I wound up back in the waiting room. Monica was standing with her hands folded in front of her as two men in lab coats indicated she should follow them.
“Because.” I picked up the pace. Monica held her hand out to me.
“That’s not cutting it,” Will said.
“Your 300 seconds are up.” I softened my voice. Something in my brother’s girlfriend’s demeanor rubbed my hard edges smooth. “Really, I have to go.”
“This isn’t over.”
“I know. We’ll talk later.” I hung up and stood next to Monica. “What’s going on?”
She pointed to the doctors. Her face twisted into something crushingly sad. “I know him.” She was going to break into tears. He must be an old boyfriend or some shit. Nothing she should be getting her knickers in a twist about.
I took her by the biceps.
“Keep it together.”
She sucked her lips in her teeth and clamped her eyes shut. Took a big, gunky swallow before she spoke.
“He’s a cardiologist.”
The doctors, tired of waiting, came to us. Monica tried to keep her shit in a sock but it didn’t work. She sniffed hard. Real messy crier. Maybe this wasn’t an ex boyfriend. Maybe an ex-husband. Maybe a long-lost lover. Jesus, I’d cry too.
“Monica,” the blonde one said.
No love there. No sexual tension.
“I’m sorry to meet under these circumstances. This is Dr. —”
He was talking. Telling the other doctor how he knew Monica.
Neighbors. They were neighbors.
I fell into a hairline crack of time.
He’s a cardiologist.
She was upset because he was a cardiologist.
Why would a cardiologist be coming into the waiting room to talk about my brother’s indigestion/exhaustion?
Strat had a heart problem.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What did you say?”
Brad held his hand out, “I’m sorry, you’re the patient’s ____?” He paused to let me fill in the blank.
“Sister,” Monica interjected when the word fell back down my throat.
I was his mother and my son’s father had a genetic heart defect that killed him when he overdosed. I was his failed mother who never fought for him because reasons. Because fear. Because I was just a kid.
Brad was talking. The word was family. The word was genetic. The word was history.
I was a smart person.
I was not emotional or hysterical.
He was saying something about a heart defect but I couldn’t hear it because reasons. Because I couldn’t. Because hearing it might hurt too much. Because I had rock music in my head and drugs in my blood.
Because I loved both of them and I had nothing left for my own child.
Who I loved.
Who I loved, and who was in serious trouble.
“Can I have some water?” I croaked. “I think I need to sit down.”
Monica led me to a chair, and there, for a crack of time that was indefinable, I fell down an abyss.
This type of chapter by chapter release is the absolute worst idea I ever had. It doesn't fit my process at all, but I owe it to you to find time to write this book.
So here's the deal. This is a group project.