I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m sure: I’m not sure if I’m a good son. As if I can even define what that means. Case in point, I think if I were a better son than I am, I’d have understood a little more what the hell my mother was talking about some of the time.
I’ll try to recreate a little of that night’s dinner conversation. If I can even remember it. That’s the thing about things you don’t understand: it’s hard to remember what was said. Because you keep trying to make it make sense, and you know it didn’t. So this might come out making more sense than it did at the time.
It started with the discussion about what we were going to have for dinner, we being the four of us: me, Ziggy, Courtney, and Claire. (Chris and Colin had made themselves scarce — I think they felt they’d done their duty with mom-wrangling already that day.) The discussion happened in the living room. The TV was on but the sound was off, like some kind of electric fireplace bathing the room in cold, colorful light. Claire was parked next to it in the arm chair.
Court plopped a stack of take-out menus down on the coffee table. “I think we ought to order in tonight.”
Claire raised her eyebrows. “Are we not going out? I thought you wanted to go out.”
Court sat down next to her and crossed her Chuck-wearing feet on the table. “Why go out when we can have food brought right to us?”
“Goodness gracious, Courtney Marie, you want us to eat on that table? I thought I taught you better manners than that.”
Courtney grinned. “Come on, Mom. We live in one of the few places in the world where we can have any cuisine you can think of delivered right to our door. Let’s take advantage of it,”
I think my sister forgot that our mother grew up in New York City but whatever. Claire wasn’t impressed. “And just which godforsaken country’s food are you proposing we eat?”
“Italy. How about Italy? The pizza place also delivers baked ziti, ravioli, you name it. And their salad’s decent.”
Claire’s nose twitched at the word “salad” like Courtney had said “shit” instead and looked at me. I was standing behind the couch and Ziggy was perched on the back of it. I had my hand on his shoulder or maybe even partly wrapped around him. Let’s put it this way: I was being more touchy-feely than usual and even I knew it. Having had the conversation about where we were going to live next had only heightened my sense that our next separation was imminent.
“Daron,” Claire said, and it felt like there was a lot of weight in my name, “didn’t you promise me a nice dinner out?”
Did I? “I’d be happy to take you to the absolute nicest place in the city,” I said, as Courtney glared daggers at me, “but I think I’ve worn all of my nice clothes already this week.” A slight smirk appeared on Court’s face. I wouldn’t hang her out to dry. “Plus isn’t our flight out kind of early tomorrow? I don’t want to wear you out.”
That last bit was where I went wrong. “I have hardly moved from this chair all day,” Claire was indignant. “Is it so wrong for me to want to?”
Court and I shared a look, but I was missing what was going on. She picked up the ball and ran with it. “Of course not, but what about me? I’m tired and I don’t want to go out and I don’t want to get dressed up again. I just want to spend some time with my family while I have a chance to see you all together. Is that so wrong?”
She sounded exactly like Claire on the “is that so wrong.” That was what made it patently obvious to me that Court didn’t really mean what she said, but she was saying it to manipulate Claire into going along with the plan.
It worked. “Oh, well, you’ve had a very big week, darling,” Claire said. “I suppose we can indulge you.” She gestured for someone to hand her a menu. Ziggy slid down onto the couch proper and handed it to her.
Claire’s hand shook a little as she took it.
I came around to lie across the couch with my head on Zig’s thigh to wait for my turn at the menu. Zig told Court to get him a baked ziti with a salad and she wrote it down on a notepad and then asked me if I’d split a calzone with her. I said sure. “You need cash for the delivery guy?”
“The pizza place has your credit card on file,” she said with a flick of her finger.
“Well, I suppose I could have a little spaghetti and meatball,” Claire declared, folding the menu back up and setting it aside. “I used to love that as a child. My favorite meal. We used to go down to Little Italy sometimes to eat, and they always made me feel almost like a grown up at those places, you know? Or up to Arthur Avenue, very Old World, making me feel like a princess.”
“Does Italy even have princes and princesses?” Court asked.
“That is beside the point,” Claire said with a sniff.
“And where’s Arthur Avenue?” Court sounded like maybe she thought Claire was making up the name of the street.
“The Bronx, dear. Back when the Bronx was a respectable area.” Claire sniffed again. “Goodness gracious, don’t I feel like the product of a bygone era now.”
Ziggy spoke for the first time in quite a while. “Oh, I love stories of Old New York, though. I think it’s still there, really. It’s just you have to know where to look for it now. Under the glitz and grime.”
You know how he was, how he could sort of turn on a homing beacon that would draw all your attention? Claire tuned right in, and just like that, Court was somehow off the hook. Ziggy and Claire descended into a conversation about this and that and Court went off to place the order. I went with her to the kitchen to get myself a drink.
When she hung up the phone she said, “Let’s go get the food ourselves.”
“Is their driver backed up?”
“Yeah, and I need a break from Her Highness.”
For a second I thought she meant Ziggy and the thought amused me. “Well, they’re keeping each other amused out there right now. They’ll be okay for a twenty minutes while we run out.”
So Court and I walked down to the pizza place which was not all that far away. It was honestly a little chilly considering it was the end of May, but that was New England for you, beastly hot one day, gray and damp the next. “I hope this clears up down the Cape for you,” I said.
“Actually sometimes it’s better if the weather’s dicey because then the crowds are thinner,” she said. “You doing okay?”
“Me? I’m fine. I’m not the one who is making the major life transition this week, you know.”
“Ha. You just seem, I dunno. Kind of turned in on yourself.”
“More than usual?” I almost said more than I did when I was literally hiding from people on the hotel roof? But sometimes I could joke about that and sometimes I couldn’t.
“No, but. Look. I know you’re not happy about going back to the boonies with Mom.”
“I’m perfectly happy to be going back to the boonies with her.”
“You’ve got a very fucked up definition of ‘happy’ then, bro.”
“You know what I mean. I don’t want you to cut your well deserved vacation short and let’s face it, I don’t have anything better to do with myself right now.”
She stopped in her tracks. “Did you hear what you just said?”
I had to double back to her. “That I don’t have anything better to do? It’s true. I don’t.”
She stared at me. Then she said slowly, “I know I don’t have to say this, but maybe I do, because… I mean…” She pressed her hands together. “If this whole artist-fan engagement job I’m creating for myself is going to work out, you know that you have to, kind of, keep up the artist side of it…? Right?”
Right. A couple of things could have happened then. I could have exploded in a rage because of-fucking-course I knew that and didn’t she think I was doing everything possible to get the ball rolling again? I could have dissolved into tears because goddammit I still had nothing in the tank and you can’t get blood from a stone? I could have turned it around on her and blamed her for making me feel Iike crap about it and wasn’t it feeling like crap that was keeping me from getting back to music in the first place? But those would have been other people’s ways of reacting.
Me? I just froze. Like a solid block of ice. Like my entire throat was encased in concrete so I couldn’t have said anything if I wanted to.
She grabbed my good hand like she was afraid I was about to be beamed up by aliens or something. “Oh shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, I did, but.”
I squeezed her fingers. “You know I’m trying, right?”
“Okay, but are you? I kind of feel like you’re using Claire as an excuse to hide away from facing everything you don’t want to face. At first I thought maybe that was good for you, you know, get away from things for a while, but then you really went down the Claire rabbit hole. I thought you were coming out of it, but now I’m not so sure.”
“The Claire rabbit hole? You mean how she drove a wedge between me and Ziggy and convinced me to set her up in an isolated cabin where she could literally do all the drugs she could stand?”
“Court, our mother has been fighting a battle with reality all her life. And the reality is that cancer’s reality can’t be denied for much longer. She’s in a care facility now because even she couldn’t pretend anymore.”
Her eyes were unblinking. “Okay, but hear me out. Daron, my brother, I love you dearly. Completely aside from the fact that I depend on you right now for my livelihood. Don’t you think you kind of are battling reality in the same way as Claire? Except for the getting high part, maybe?”
“Am I? No, really, am I?” I was open to this interpretation. I just didn’t see it. I held up my scarred palm. “She’s not going to recover from her thing. I am. This? It can be fixed. It’s going to be fixed.” Boy, I sounded really convincing didn’t I? Until this bit maybe: “It’s just… not yet.”
Court looked at my face, not my hand. She didn’t say anything, and I felt the need to fill in the silence with more words. “Look. If I had kids of my own, or a day job where I had to go to a factory or a restaurant or an office every day to make the donuts and the dollars and the health insurance, I wouldn’t be in a position where I could be there for… a dying relative.” I had been about to say “mom” but she’d never let me call her that before and it felt weird to start now, even if that was Court’s word for her. “But the whole point of being a musician instead of any of those other things is that I’m not chained to a desk or a routine or whatever. I’m have a freedom and a power to do this, so I feel like if I don’t, I’m truly a worthless human being.”
“I can do this, I want to do this, and if I don’t, I won’t be able to live with myself. All right?”
“I didn’t realize you’d thought this through so much.”
“I don’t have a lot to do down there when I’m not playing hearts with folks in the convalescent home other than think things through. Now you can try to convince me that this is a delusional thing I’ve created in my head. It wouldn’t be the first time. But it feels right. I just… It feels right to me. Even if some parts of my life are suffering.”
She thought for a second. “Okay. You’re right. I think you might still be kinda using it as an excuse or a shield to keep you from having to deal with other stuff, but maybe that’s working out in a weird way. Like I said. Maybe you really did need time off.”
“I mean, of course you needed time off. You fucking traumatized yourself — and the rest of us, by the way — in South America. I’m not trying to put pressure on you. It’s just, from the outside perspective, it really looks to me — and some other people, by the way — like you’re well past the point when you should be getting back into the swing of things. And if you’re not, okay fine, but… I guess that’s what you’re telling me right now, aren’t you.”
“Yes, jeezus, that is exactly what I’m telling you? But also even if I was ready to jump back in to doing battle with lawyers and creative demons and whatever else, what I’m saying is for fuck’s sake all that can be put on hold while the woman is fucking dying, okay?” I may have shouted this last bit. “Why am I the only one with this perspective?”
“So you think I’m a heartless bitch for abandoning her.”
“What? No! You had college to finish and you had to take care of your own mental health.”
“And now I’m done.”
“And in a couple of weeks you’re going to tag team with me so we can keep our mother from dying alone but neither of us has to sacrifice ourselves entirely on the altar of Claire’s ego. Isn’t that the plan?”
The wind was picking up and my ears felt cold. Court’s cheeks looked pink but I’m not sure that was from the weather. “You’re right. Okay. You’re right. I just… needed that all hashed out to make it clear.”
“Hashing stuff out helps me, too,” I said, as we started walking again. “Because there is reality and then there’s Claire’s World and sometimes I have to check.”
“Oh god, like tonight. That whole thing with her trying to play us off each other?”
“I know. And you know what I think? I think she hasn’t moved from that chair all day because she doesn’t feel up to it. She’s exhausted and barely making it through, but if any of us try to tell her that, she’ll deny it up and down and force us to go out just to prove it.”
“Yeah, that’s why I made it about me. ‘Mom, I’m tired’ ‘Well okay then dear, let’s stay in.’” She rubbed her arms and then went on in a quieter voice. “How long do you think she has?”
“No idea. When her doctors made the decision to change course after her bowel obstruction, they said it could be anywhere from one to six months, but there was still a chance she might respond to…” I trailed off. “I just don’t know.”
“She’s like a cat. You can’t tell what’s going on in there, how much pain she’s in.” She sighed. “She’s actually been easier to deal with this week than I thought she would be. I dunno if mortality has finally convinced her to ease up on some of her shit, or if she’s just too tired to harp on things like usual. Like, hardly a single negative comment about my weight or my hair or anything?”
“Well, does it help that you’re actually the perfect weight, gorgeous, and that you picked a wardrobe she approved of–”
“Oh, come on, you know she thinks my hair’s too short, I’m too queer, all that, but somehow, not a word about that.”
“Maybe she’s starting to accept you the way you are?”
“It’d be nice if that was it, wouldn’t it? You know, I think I’m going to take it that way. If we get to choose what we want to believe, there it is. Thanks, big brother.” She pulled open the door of the pizza shop for me and then followed me into the bright, rosemary-scented warmth.