The week she moved in she was unpacking from one of those rent-a-center trucks. You know the kind, where you basically pay to borrow some furniture for as long as you need it. I remember thinking how beautiful she was; her long, black curls cascading down her back, even as her ponytail sat high on her head. She had an edge, one I easily recognized from my past work in rough parts of the city I used to live in. I smiled politely, she didn't return it; something I expected.
In the mornings, as with most parents of school-aged children, she'd be rushing as she and her ten year old would fly down the stairs, her black curls down, jumping into the car in slippers, his backpack slinging through the air into the car. They never yelled; they spoke easily and comfortably as mothers and their ten year old sons do.
I was never close with my brother.
He was adopted when he was five. We were all adopted, but his birth family abuse and the eight foster homes he was in before the adoption did, to put it mildly, a number on him. He had a lot of rage; he was the most fragile person I've met to date, his brown eyes muddied by years of detachment and disconnect. He was empty, he was full. His cup never overflowed.
At one point, this guy shows up. There's no other way to put this, but he looked shady. Everyone on the street thought so. I don't know why I did; probably my gut. I've always had a good gut about people. But my gut was also telling me something like There's More To This Story Than Meets The Eye. His eyes are dark, he has a strong nose in his profile. He also never smiles back. The little boy looks like him.
One day, it occurs to all the neighbors that we've not seen anyone at the house but the man. Did they have a fight? we all wonder, nosey as neighbors go. My son likes to stand on the top of the couch to look out the window a lot, much like a cat. I can't help but glance out and often see the man, standing outside on the porch, making phone calls or walking down to the corner market to buy small bags of chips, munching on them on the short walk back to the house across the street from my own. I see her gray Nissan there still. Why didn't she bring it if she left him? we all wonder.
When my brother and I were both 17, he went to Juvie for the first time. He was caught at a party doing drugs and drinking and told the cops to fuck off. He sent me two letters with poems I still have. I throw a lot from my past out; it provides me a haven of amnesia, my memory too sharp for its own good. His words, written in his classic 2nd-grader handwriting (spelling and grammar mistakes included) speak of his loneliness and escapism and desire to change. My heart ached for him at the time, but I was lost in my own way. I continued to work nearly full-time while going to school, subconsciously planning my own escape.
Late in the summer, we find out the woman went to jail. No one knows what happened, how a lady like that ends up in jail, we all say. Her gray Nissan just sits there and sits there, at one point getting two street cleaning tickets in a row for not moving it each week. The man suddenly starts coming by to move her car twice on Thursdays. He's always on the phone, standing on the porch, only up and down the stairs to go in an out of his house. I try to say hello but he simply stares off, his dark eyes empty. But he keeps his head high as he walks, not intimidatingly so.
An expensive television is stolen from a neighbor. The neighbor having the most financial difficulty, who also happened to be doing work on the house it was taken from, is automatically blamed. An elderly woman who lives across the street shyly calls the police telling them that No, it was not who you say it was. It was the woman with the dark curly hair. Everyone is flabbergasted. But she's in jail now. Another neighbor finds out she'd been purse-snatching and stealing TV's. Does her son have other family? I wonder, we all wonder.
She returns in October. I see her walk in and out of her house a few times, her dark curls still lustrous, she takes pride in her hair, I realize. She never looks at anyone, her eyes quickly darting away if she accidentally does. My partner tries to say hello to her; she just put her head down, he tells me.
My brother and I completely lost touch. I had joined the military, he had stayed in Pittsburgh, hopping from job to job, occasionally going to jail, never for anything big. But you know the labeling that goes on; druggie. mooch. lazyass. good for nothing. common criminal. Never mind that his birthmother drank excessive amounts of alcohol while pregnant with him and he was what many used to call "slow". He'd been craving a good hit since well, he was born. In October of 2005, something came over me where I had this sudden need to try to contact him, to try to reconnect with him. I asked my adoptive mother for his address, his phone number. She tells me that it isn't worth it. I ask my nun-godmother what to do; a woman I'd been writing since my early 20's. She's elderly, so I don't hear back in time. On November 25th, 2005 at the age of 25 my brother overdosed on downers. The numerical irony is, quite literally, painful.
It was an accident. Or so they say. It's never an accident to try to reach that heroin high you'd had before that you just can't reach again. Ever. So maybe that little bit more won't be too much more. Until it is. Until it was. My smile, plastered on my face at his funeral, made me look like a fucking depressed clown, but it helped me to deal with the swarm of voyeurs I'd not seen in 10 years and would've done fine not seeing for another 10. Or 100.
The next morning, as we bury him, my other brother; his half-sibling, his only blood relative, stands next to me in his Marine Corps dress blues, his fists balled at his sides. I glance at his face, his jaw clenching as tears roll down his face. I fold my arm through his; this person I never got along with and to this day, do not. As we walk back to the cars in the classic gray-skied Pennsylvania winter, I see my best friend trailing behind my family, her small legs gliding over the frosted grass, her eyes downcast, her head almost swaying side to side, as if she were in song. But no, she was crying.
No one ever sees her. The man and boy sometimes come and go, but no one seems happy, no one seems present.
Early in the morning on October 26, as my partner was leaving for work, we look out the window to see paramedics quietly entering her house. I guess somebody got hurt, he says. I tell him they're moving much too slowly for that. He asks me to take our son off the top of the couch.
Two hours later, while the little one's napping, I look again to see them carrying the stretcher down the stairs. They were not rushing, there were no sirens. All I saw were her beautiful black curls, peeking out from underneath the sheet.
Hurricane Sandy hit my town with a vengeance 3 days after she overdosed on heroin. It was that little bit more that did it. Until it wasn't. Who doesn't know about self-sabotage? The ocean met the bay in the middle of my street, sweeping away most of my neighbors' homes, along with any memory of her. To most, she seemed like just another person who'd evacuated and could never return home.
A week after we finally do return home, I'm at the post office. As I'm sitting in my car, filling out address labels, I look up and see the little boy. He is coming out of a dog groomer's shop. He has a fuzzy puppy on a leash. He's barely smiling. The man comes out shortly afterward. It becomes clear that the dog is a gift and he's still figuring out what to do with the ball of energy. The man gently tells him to take the dog for a small walk. He laughs a little as he gets pulled along. I misjudged him, the man. He's trying. He's really trying.
As I'm driving to the grocery store the next week, I pass this one cemetery I always do. I look over and see a large group of people standing around a coffin about to be buried. It is flanked by bright, colorful flowers and bows, the memory of the smell making its way to my nose. People in coats, people in no coats, feet shuffling from side to side, hair blowing in the cold air, the earth piled up on one end, still moaning from its early morning awakening. It only takes a moment, but I'm suddenly back there, standing next to my brother's coffin; the brother I barely knew. The smell of the unearthed ground, the biting chill of November...the great groaning sound as the coffin was laid down inside his second and final dark womb.
He wasn't her son, we find out. He was the man's son. She never had any children, her mother died of an overdose, too. Her obituary called the boy "the love of her life", her "adopted son", her "best friend".
I saw him again the other day as I parked my car. He was standing outside the house, waiting with his backpack. I got out and tried to smile at him, pulling my son out of his carseat. His eyes darted away from me, muddied and empty, a look of detachment I recognized all too well. He looked like the oldest little boy in the world. I went inside, thinking about bringing him cupcakes. My hand stopped as I was gathering them together.
I realized he didn't want to see me. A mother carrying her son, a son being carried by his mother.
This is dedicated to Christina and Domenic, and Jason.