Authors: Marisa de Los Santos
Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life, #Literary, #General
For Susan Davis,
ideal reader and treasured friend,
F I HADN’T BEEN
alone in the house; if it hadn’t been early morning, with that specific kind of fuzzy, early morning quiet and a sky the color of moonstones and raspberry jam outside my kitchen window; if I had gotten further than two sips into my bowl-sized mug of coffee; if he himself hadn’t called but had sent the message via one of his usual minions; if his voice had been
voice and not a dried-up, flimsy paring off the big golden apple of his baritone; if he hadn’t said “please,” if it had been a different hour in a different day entirely, maybe—just maybe—I would have turned him down.
Fat chance. He caught me at a vulnerable moment; that’s true enough. But the fact is that, in all my life, I have loved just three men. One of them was only a boy, so he might not even count. The other was my twin brother, Marcus. The third was Wilson Cleary, professor, inventor, philanderer, self-made but reluctant millionaire, brilliant man, breathtaking jerk, my father.
Two weeks before Wilson called me, he had undergone a massive myocardial infarction and subsequent quadruple bypass. The irony of this turn of events was so obvious that I didn’t need Marcus to point
it out to me, but of course he did, with a frequency and satisfaction that was in very poor taste, even if Wilson deserved it. Marcus made bad-heart jokes. Lots of them. After we got word that Wilson had emerged from the surgery more or less intact, I made them, too. Even my mother, whose animosity toward her ex-husband had, as far as I could tell, evaporated years ago, lifted one curled corner of her mouth and said, sweetly, “Well, now, at least we know he has one.”
At Wilson’s request (a request conveyed to my mother in an e-mail through Wilson’s lawyer, a woman named Elspeth Bing with whom Marcus swears Wilson had an affair, back when we were ten), we had not visited him, neither in the hospital nor at his home after he was released. I was outwardly relieved but inwardly a little bruised by this. When I said something to this effect to Marcus, whom I was visiting when we got the news, he knocked gently on my head with his fist in a gesture that meant
Is anybody in there?
and said, “Reminder: we haven’t visited the dude in over fifteen years. Haven’t visited him
at his request
. Not that I’d go anyway.” “
,” I’d protested. “He might have been on his deathbed,” and then I quickly added, “And don’t say, ‘No such luck.’” Marcus grinned and, pointedly, said nothing at all.
It was true: seventeen years ago, in a frenzy of disgust and impatience, Wilson had ditched us—my mother, Marcus, and me—kicked us to the curb. With neck-breaking speed, we went from being his family to being a collection of acquaintances, three people he barely knew and almost never saw. Marcus and I had just turned eighteen. Even before this rupture, before he became a spectacularly terrible father, he had been a garden-variety bad one. Before he was absent, he was absent. Cold. Disapproving. Distant. A workaholic. All the usual bad-father garbage. Since the day he told us he was finished with us, the day my mother told him to take his house and shove it, then packed us up and moved us to the North Carolina town in which she’d grown up, determined to be the leaver, rather than the one who was left, we had seen him a handful of times but had visited him exactly once, on
his daughter’s first birthday. The real, new and improved, clean-slate, second-time’s-a-charm daughter: Willow.
Don’t go thinking that I wasn’t angry about all this. I was. In fact, I would say that I was at least as angry as Marcus, whose anger stayed red-hot for years before it cooled to something hard and shiny and black. It’s just that without wanting to or trying to—and for years I was deliberately trying
to—I held on to love. Or it held on to me. Not active love; not love, the verb form. It was more just there, a small, unshakable thing, leftover, useless, as vestigial as wisdom teeth or a tailbone, but still potent enough so that when I heard his voice on the phone, my heart gave a tiny jump of hope that made me want to slap it.
It was a Monday in late September, early morning, as I mentioned before, the sky just beginning to paint gold onto the maple tree in my backyard. Normally, I wouldn’t have been awake to see this, but Leo had moved out the week before, and, even though we had only lived together for three months, I hadn’t gotten used to sleeping alone again, yet. We weren’t meant to be a couple, Leo and I, but I missed him, both because he was nice and because he made sure of it. When he moved back into his house a few streets over, he had left bits and pieces behind for me to find: a tube of his favorite cherry lip balm pocketed in the cardboard egg carton, a balled-up pair of socks (clean) in the basement Deepfreeze, one of the river stones from our trip to Maine tucked into the toe of my shearling slipper.
On top of that, he called me five, maybe six times a day just to say hello or to tell me about the unsettling color of the ham on his sandwich (“Brilliant pink, real dog’s tongue pink.”) or about the awful music that his neighbor was playing (“Barry Manilow.
Barry Manilow. Who knew there even was such a thing?”). In fact, when the phone rang, I figured it was Leo, all set to regale me with tales about the texture of his toast or something.
“Good morning, Leo,” I chirped into the phone. “What’ve you got for me?”
There was a pause and then that frail voice: “Eustacia.”
At the age of two, Marcus had decided to call me “Taisy,” committing me to a lifetime of saying the slightly nauseating, if useful, phrase, “Like ‘daisy’ with a T.” Only one person in the world called me by my given name, the name that he had given me.
“Oh.” It came out as a whisper. The word
leaped to the tip of my tongue. I swallowed it, trying to ignore the sudden clamorous beating of my heart.
“Wilson,” I said in a flat and noncommittal tone. “Well. You’re certainly up early.”
“I hope I did not wake you.”
As far back as I could remember, Wilson had been famously opposed to contractions, “acts of verbal laziness,” although I had noticed, with far too much satisfaction, that in moments of stress or if a conversation just went on long enough, he would slip into using them, like anyone else.
“You didn’t,” I said. “I’ve been up for quite some time, actually.” A lie, of course, which I instantly kicked myself for telling, since why would I possibly care whether or not Wilson Cleary regarded me as an early riser?
“I am glad to hear it,” he said. “I have always felt ‘the early bird catches the worm’ to be one of the truer truisms.”
I dropped my chin into my palm and shut my eyes.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Ah,” said Wilson. Wilson had always been a person who said “Ah.”
“I take it you have heard about the recent, ah, troubles,” he said.
. As if Wilson’s heart were Northern Ireland.
“I sent you a note,” I reminded him. “And a fruit basket.”
“So you did,” he said. “Thank you.”
Silence. Then, an immense and ponderous throat clearing.
“Eustacia, I am calling you this morning with a request, a rather important one,” he said.
And there I was, shooting bolt upright in my chair, my hands tightening, of their own annoying accord, around my coffee mug. All ears. The very picture of an eager beaver.
“At least, I regard it as such,” he continued. “I hope you will, as well. You and your brother both.”
“Really?” It came out as a squeak.
“Yes,” said Wilson with a touch of irritation. Wilson hated questions like “Really?” “Really.”
I attempted to collect myself. “Fine,” I said. “What’s the request?”
“I would like you and your brother, Marcus, to come here, to my house, for a visit.”
Your brother, Marcus
. As if I had any other brother, as if he had any other son. My inner eager beaver slid off its log with a splash. It was one of the great things about Wilson: just when you needed a reminder that you disliked him, he gave you one. Then I realized what else he had just said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
“I recently suffered a catastrophic health event,” said Wilson, his irritation turning more acidic. “Would I go to the trouble of
you only to
“‘You’ve got to be kidding me’ is an expression of surprise.” My tone was chilly. “A fairly common one that I’m sure you’ve heard before.”
He made a sound of disgust.
“Since I can’t remember the last time you called me,” I went on, “since the last time I was invited anywhere
your home was fifteen years ago, I think I should be allowed a few seconds of surprise at your request.”
“I do not doubt that my making a request would surprise you,” he said, loftily. “Obviously, I am not in the habit of imposing upon you or of asking you for anything.”
I sighed. “Once again, you have completely missed the point.”
“I would like you to come,” he said. “I am requesting that you and Marcus come here.”
“For what?” I asked. “For ‘a
’? Meaning what? A social call?”
“You know where I live, right?”
“More or less.”
“So you know we’re talking a seven-, eight-hour drive.” I didn’t mention the fact that Marcus lived just an hour-and-a-half train ride from my father’s town because it might as well have been light-years. No way was Marcus going there. “Can’t we just discuss whatever it is over the phone? Through e-mail?”
“You misunderstand me,” said my father. “I am not talking about a discussion. I am talking about a visit. Preferably one lasting a fortnight, possibly longer. You have not seen this house, but I assure you there is plenty of room.”
“Your house. You want us to stay at your
? For two weeks?
Are you serious? You can’t possibly be serious.”
This time, Wilson’s voice wasn’t irritated, only weary. “All right, Eustacia. You are incredulous. You are surprised. No doubt you have reason to be. I register that. You have made your point.”
I had an enormous urge to hang up on him then, my finger itching to press the button that would make him disappear. Marcus would have done it. Marcus would’ve hung up on him ten seconds into the conversation. But I needed to know something first.
“Because I am asking you to come.”
Unbelievable. I lifted the phone from my ear and stared with longing at the disconnect button. I breathed for a few seconds, then said, with all the quietness I could muster, “Not ‘why’ as in ‘why should we come?’ ‘Why’ as in ‘why are you asking us to come?’”
I knew he would loathe the question. Wilson hated—maybe over and above all the many other aspects of social interaction that he hated—to explain himself; he believed it was beneath him.
“I shouldn’t think an explanation was necessary.”
. A contraction. A paltry and pathetic victory, but a victory nonetheless.
“It is,” I said, firmly.
There was a long pause. When he spoke next, his voice was thinner than ever, thin and exhausted and impossibly old. Wilson
old, seventy-one, but at that moment, he sounded ancient.
“I very nearly died,” he said, simply.
I couldn’t help it. I softened. But just a little, not enough to leave it alone.
“Such an experience causes one to . . .” He trailed off.
“What? Reevaluate? Reconsider?” I stopped before I added
“It causes one to look at one’s life in a way that one has perhaps not looked at it before.”
My heart jumped into my throat, but I shook my head.
. I waited.
I kept waiting.
Then he said it: “Please.”
Tears flooded my eyes. I could hear Marcus’s voice:
That’s it? That’s all it takes?
But it didn’t matter.
“Marcus will never agree to it,” I said, finally.
“If anyone can convince him, it is you.” And then: “But you?
. Out of the papery, colorless wasteland of his voice, the word leaped up, like a spark out of ashes, one clear, fluting note:
“Yes,” I snapped, wiping my eyes. “Yes. Fine. Whatever. I’ll come.”
I NEEDED TO CALL
Marcus. There was no getting around this fact. I needed to call him, and I needed to do it soon. But the very thought of telling him that (a) I had just agreed to visit the man he reviled most in the world, to visit him
his wife and child, soon and for an extended period of time and (b) I had also agreed to attempt to convince Marcus to do the same made me feel squeezed by dread, physically, like I was wearing one of those horrible body-shaping slip-things, the kind my friend Trillium swore by and spent scads of money on, one that was growing tighter by the minute.
But I think I’m making it sound like I was afraid of my brother, when nothing could be further from the truth. For me, Marcus had always been the opposite of scary, the
for scary. Like all siblings, like all people who take each other seriously and have known each other their whole lives, we argued. We fought, even, sometimes, yelling, stomping around, swearing, slamming doors. But amid all the noise and frustration (and few people could frustrate me more than Marcus), my brother was forever and ever home to me, the safest place I’d ever been.
No, what I dreaded was hurting him, making him think, even for thirty seconds, that I was taking sides against him. He was a pretty thick-skinned guy, overall; not many things actually did damage, but of course, I knew what they all were, and watching his face or hearing his voice go from normal to confused to hurt was one of my least favorite things in the world. This was how it had always been.
So instead of calling my brother, I poured myself some more coffee and took a shower. It was one of my favorite things, drinking coffee in the shower, and I had it down to an art form: setting the mug on the shelf outside the shower curtain, snaking out an arm and picking it up at opportune moments, standing at just the right angle so that the water fell on me but not into the cup. The steam, the heat, the toasty bitterness, the loamy, chocolaty smell of the coffee mingling with the sharp citrus of my shampoo, all this sent me into my own personal version of a state of grace.