Janine came in while Remo and Court were out getting food and Claire and I were both asleep. As usual, our mother was propped up in her hospital bed and I was face down on the mattress with my butt in the bedside chair. I’m not sure how long Janine was standing there before I picked my head up and startled upon seeing her across from me.
“Jeez. Hi.” I clutched my heart.
She hastened to wiped tears off her cheeks with her sleeves. “Hi. How’s she doing?”
“Supposedly tomorrow’ll be her last day in the intensive care ward?”
“You don’t sound too sure of that.” She was using that quiet voice, that I’m-trying-not-to-wake-her voice, which somehow just intensified her vehemence.
I guess I just didn’t have any patience for anyone anymore. I was quietly vehement right back. “You should be here if you want to know what’s going on.”
Janine’s nostrils flared. “Shit, you think I don’t know that? I thought you were above petty guilt-tripping.”
“If you’re feeling guilt-tripped it’s because you feel guilty about not being here.”
“Yes, exactly.” She stared at me and I stared right back. “You know I’m the one who always ends up taking care of everyone, right?”
That statement struck me as rather out of the blue. “What are you talking about?”
“It should be Lili, you know; she’s the oldest. But she’s never been bothered by little things like responsibility.” She exhaled heavily. She sounded more tired now than outraged. “So it’s always been me picking up the slack for her and keeping Court out of hornet’s nests and saving you from bullies.”
I think that’s when I stood up so she and I were seeing eye to eye across Claire’s bed. “When the fuck did you ever save me from bullies?”
“Oh, come on, that time at the pool when the other boys were trying to drown you?”
I had to think about that. Remember, I wasn’t the most social kid. But there was a sort of loose pack of boys I knew from school who we’d see at swim lessons. I wouldn’t have called them friends exactly, but I was part of that bunch. Swim lessons were held right after school at the YMCA, which was right near the school, so the whole crew of us would walk there together. In the 1970s, it wasn’t considered necessary for ten to twelve year olds to be chaperoned anywhere that was walking distance in town. The Y was a busy place. After children’s swim lessons were done came “family swim” time from like five to seven p.m., then “adult swim” from seven to eight. Something like that.
Court and I would go to take our swim lessons and then Lili and Janine would show up during family swim to retrieve us on their way back from their afterschool activities–cheerleading practice or whatever. “Most of what I remember is you yelling at us to hurry up and get dressed while Lilibeth snuck some make-out time with her boyfriend.”
“Exactly. I was covering for her ass and babysitting the two of you at the same time.” She frowned at me. “You really don’t remember the bullies?”
“I remember horsing around a lot.” After all, boys plus water equals horseplay. One of the regular activities was, of course, the “chicken fight.” This is the game where you get on your partner’s shoulders and try to knock the other guy on top into the water. I have no idea why that’s called chicken fighting, but there you go. The horsing around often devolved into just leaping onto each other and wrestling in the water.
At the time I didn’t really understand why I liked wrestling with other mostly-naked boys or why that aggression–at least from some of them, some of the time–was attractive. I figured if sometimes it was a little “too much” that was just par for the course.
“One time Adam Rasmussen pinned you to the bottom of the pool and you almost drowned,” she said.
My memory of it was pretty different. I mean, first of all you can’t really “pin” someone to the bottom of the pool. Second of all, I was probably letting him do it. Adam was one of the boys who wore a Speedo instead of swim trunks, which I appreciated, even at age 12 or so. “Adam wasn’t a bully.”
“You were under the water and you couldn’t hear what the other boys were calling you.” She folded her arms like that was irrefutable evidence. “Or what they were telling him to do to you.”
“And I’m sure Adam couldn’t hear it either, since we were three feet under.” Did she really think she’d rescued me? Would things have gotten out of hand? With a lifeguard right there? Or would it have escalated in the locker room? Don’t get me wrong. I was bullied at times. I just wasn’t convinced this was one of them. The men’s room at the Y had a group shower. I might have been more upset at having to leave early and missing showering with Adam than I was about any potential drowning. Which was definitely not what I’d call a healthy mentality, but it still wasn’t like my life was in danger.
But I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Remember, we were still trying to keep our voices down. “You never told me they wanted to kill me.”
“Kill wasn’t the word they used.”
“Whatever. Thanks for looking out for me, but all I knew at the time was that you were bossing me around.”
“So, what, you wanted me to tell you I was doing it for your own good? That would’ve gone over great, I’m sure.” Her whisper made her sarcasm sharp.
“No, but you could’ve said something. You feel underappreciated? How’m I supposed to appreciate what you did when I didn’t even know?”
“Well, you know now.”
“Yeah. And are you going to tell Landon things ten or twenty years later and expect that’s going to fix everything?”
“No. I told you.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m just spitting it all out. Everything. All the time. Just like you.”
Part of me wanted to say something shockingly honest then, to prove I really wasn’t saying everything. But that would have undermined the point. Plus I couldn’t really think of anything to say. Instead, I asked a question. “Are you worried that getting bullied me made me gay or something?”
“Jeez, no. Where the hell did you get that idea?”
I shrugged. It was just a guess–a bad guess.
“We were worried it was the other way around. What with Dad going on about not to be too soft on you.”
“What?” I wasn’t really asking her to repeat herself. That was my brain not being able to swallow the information in one gulp. “When did he say that?”
“All the time. You don’t remember that?”
I rifled through my memory. “I guess… at the time… I didn’t really hear it that way. I just took all the ‘be a man’ shit in stride.”
“Yeah, yeah. And you probably didn’t hear what he was telling me and Lilibeth–and Mom–when you couldn’t hear.” She shook her head, then looked up suddenly. “Wait. But are you saying that… me and Lilibeth bullying you is what made you gay?”
It was so hard to keep my voice down, but I did. “Fuck no! Nothing made me gay, Janine. Me being gay has nothing to do with you.”
“Okay, just checking. The brutal honesty thing is aptly named.” Again the heavy sigh. “But it works. I’m done carrying everyone’s emotional baggage. Yours, hers, everyone’s.”
“Great. I’m happy for you.” I really was, if it were true. “The thing is, isn’t it your own baggage you need to drop?”
“That’s what I’m here to do, stupid!” Another sigh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call you that. Something about you brings out my dumb teenage habits.”
“Takes a bully to know a bully, I guess.” I can’t believe I said that, but I did.
She was red-faced and angry, then, but her words were contrite. “Yeah, I guess. Look, I’ve apologized for treating you like shit when we were kids, and I’m apologizing again. Me and Lili both did, I know, and I take responsibility for my part in it. I want my kid to grow up better than that. That means I have to be a better person. I’m trying, okay? I had shitty role models, but I’m trying.”
“And I appreciate it. Apology accepted.” Out of reflex I stuck out my hand and she shook it. “I’m trying to be a better person, too.”
“The fucked up thing is you know Mom was trying to make herself a better person when she got into religion.”
“Yeah, Courtney says the same thing.”
“Here’s my beef with religion. It lets people believe that they are ‘good people’ because they’re following a bunch of rules, when actually they’re still being shitty to the people around them.”
“You still going to church?”
“I am. But–”
Claire yawned then, a dry sound, and I wondered how much of the conversation she might have heard. It was one hundred percent in her playbook to pretend to be asleep and we all knew it. I hadn’t said anything I’d regret her hearing. I wondered if Janine felt the same.
(Can you tell this was during the moment in the music industry when the Black Crowes had broken out? And all of a sudden raspy-voiced, rootsy blues-rock–which had never gone away but which hadn’t charted for well over a decade–was suddenly a hot property again? In my opinion Sass Jordan should have been even bigger than she was, but that moment came and went. -d)