Where We Come From
Was it? She'd suffered a lot, and now she wasn't suffering anymore. And she'd been so drugged she'd barely talked at Christmas, staring blankly as he and his other two sisters and brother and father talked and drank. She'd been in a wheelchair, her legs so swollen they couldn't move. It hurt to look at her. Now, in this moment, as he steered his Jetta onto 87, he felt some relief. It was over. Ann's life was over, and it hadn't been an easy life. She'd been the oldest of the five of them. Then came his brother Harry, then himself, then the twins, Margo and Jane. And then his mother abandoned Catholicism. The one truly smart thing that woman ever did. She had her tubes tied.
Kevin loved driving upstate. He loved getting out of New York. Not that he would ever return to Albany for good--New York was his life, where his job as a cameraman was, where he enjoyed great restaurants and movies and the lovely, sophisticated women, women like Stella--but he enjoyed visiting the sleepy, quiet Albany suburb where he grew up. And the drive upstate was beautiful. The endless snow over the Catskills. The red barns and silos and beat-up old houses. Someday, he'd own one of them and he'd restore it perfectly. He was good with his hands; indeed, he was a skilled carpenter. His Jetta, his practical and capable car, handled the roads fairly well. Someday though, he thought, he should upgrade to something a bit more fabulous, if not for himself (he was making money now, he really was) then for Stella.
It had snowed just the day before. He couldn't wait to walk around in it. In the city, the snow turned gray and littered almost immediately. It wasn't lovely, just a burden that soon turned disgusting. But upstate, it was like a blessing. It was like Stella's back. Years ago, Kevin lived in LA for two years and one day in December he stepped outside of his house in Silverlake and realized that it would never snow there. He quit his job that afternoon and moved back to New York two weeks later. And he'd made it work. Sure, there was more work in LA, but there was enough here. He'd managed fine. He was doing well. He was, in a word, proud. Sometimes he worried that Stella wanted more, that Stella wouldn't mind moving to LA so that Kevin could make even more money. Be the DP on big projects, rub elbows with movie stars. She was a bit mysterious that way, happy and grateful, and yet not. There was something in her clipped English accent, her slender body and expensive clothes, that made him think, I'll never make her happy. Fucking Stephen Spielberg couldn't make her happy.
The traffic had thinned until he was almost the only one on the road. Occasionally a truck passed him going the other way. It was late, close to eleven, and it was a Thursday night. No one was out this late, not in this weather up here. Everyone was asleep already or watching TV in their homes. Everybody was home. That was the way he grew up, too. No night life, no restaurants, no arthouse movies or rock-n-roll bands. All seven of them in the living room on a snowy night, fighting over who got to sit on the couch or easy chairs, two of the kids always ending up on the floor, the TV screen glowing at them, quieting them all eventually. Sometimes, they didn't quiet themselves quickly enough. "I get the couch this time, Harry," he remembers yelling once, and his mother, his thick-boned, beaten-down mother, her eye sockets deep with exhaustion, whacking him hard with the back of her hand. "Shut-up and sit down. Now." He had a bruise on his cheek the next day. It didn't happen often, but still. It was all too much for her. They were too many, they were too much.
It wasn't until Ann was in the first grade that they discovered something was wrong with her, that she was slow. Kevin was just three at the time, but he remembers talking about it with his mother, later in life. And it wasn't until Ann was eighteen that his mother put her in a home. It wasn't until his mother completely gave up on trying to control her, because even on medication, Ann would still throw temper tantrums like a four-year-old, but in a healthy, strong, teenage body. A little girl, but wiry and tough and, sometimes, extremely violent.
The cord was wrapped around her neck at birth, his mother said. She said this to console him, to explain it away, to say, there is nothing wrong with me, or you, or any of us. But he still had his doubts, his fears, that deep inside him, something was wrong. That he carried a faulty, stupid gene.
People made fun of them at school, but that wasn't such a big deal. It didn't compare to the problems of living with Ann and of watching his mother destroy herself in taking care of her firstborn daughter. She should have sent her away sooner. Why wait until you've fallen apart yourself? Why wait too long? Why wait until the very, very last minute? This was probably what Stella was asking him in her head right now. Why was he waiting so long to ask her to marry him? It was normal to be nervous about asking someone to marry you, this Kevin knew. But he worried he was waiting too long, that something inside Stella was hardening as each time they were apart and got back together, nothing happened. He had to do it. He had to do it soon.
He was gripping the wheel too tightly, much too tightly. His hands hurt. He softened his grip and realized he had been holding his breath, and now, looking at the speedometer, he also realized he'd been going 85. Much too fast, especially in these conditions.
It began to snow, very gently, tiny white flecks falling in slow motion in the black sky before him. The beauty of it! It had snowed a lot this year. It snowed when he was home at Christmas. He didn't remember thinking much of it, its cleanness, its purity. Snow made things new, this he felt now, seeing it float down and swirl around in the night sky. His heart leapt; he felt free out here on the road, with no one else, nothing else but the gorgeous snow and surrounding, quiet hills.
At Christmas, he hadn't felt free, snow or no snow. He drove up with Harry. Stella was with her parents in London. It had been bitter cold, perhaps that's why the snow seemed so unfriendly. Having Harry in his car hadn't helped, either. He loved his brother; he was proud that his brother was starting law school, even if it was late in life to do so. It was something that was focusing him; it was a good thing. But he was still Harry.
"Remember when I got into that law school in Chicago and I even got a full scholarship, remember that? When I graduated from SUNY Albany?"
Kevin remembered. He'd heard this story so many times. "Yeah, I know, and Mom asked you not to go."
"Asked me! She threatened to disown me. Not so far away, Harry. You can't! You can't do that to me. Like I owed her something."
"Well clearly you thought you did, otherwise you would have gone." Kevin was so sick of his brother's rage.
"I didn't owe her anything. I was too stupid then to know it. Guilt. The only way she could ever get anything in life was by wielding guilt around." Harry looked out of his window, turning his head away from Kevin. It's not that Kevin didn't feel sorry for him; he did. He just was tired of feeling sorry for him. His mother had been harder on Harry. Kevin knew that. Their whole family life had been harder on Harry. His mother needed Harry in some way she hadn't needed the others. But their mother had been dead for seven years and Kevin wanted some peace now. He wanted her to rest in peace and he wanted to forget things. He wanted to move on, but seeing his brother always took him back and made him resent Harry. "She used to come in when we were little, remember? With the broomstick? After we'd gone to bed and if we were talking . . ."
"Who fucking cares anymore? OK? She's dead. She can't hit you anymore. And now Ann is dying." They were halfway to Albany at that point. They had another hour and a half in the car and they didn't speak the whole time. Harry sat there, stoically, the victim now of Kevin's bad temper. Forever the victim. Would law school now, as he neared forty, change that? He sat there next to Kevin, tears streaming down his grown man's face.
This time, Harry was driving up with a new girlfriend, a woman he met in law school. Kevin was curious to meet her. He wanted to be happy for his brother for a change. He did, he really did. He wanted to be happy, period. This was his goal. And why not? Stella was his, or soon to be his, if he could just fucking ask her. He made money, he liked his work, and he was more handsome now than he'd ever been. He'd been an awkward adolescent, fearful, skinny, with bad skin. And college wasn't that much better--indeed it had been more of the same really, except with some tetracycline to help his skin--and his twenties he spent building up his career, and now, and now. Now he got to be happy, dammit. And he didn't want anyone getting in his way.
He had gone home at Thanksgiving, too. Ann wasn't quite so far gone then. Before he got in the car to drive back to New York, he went up to the bedroom where Ann stayed that night. She stayed a night at home once in awhile, but not often. Her group home was near enough so that it didn't make sense. And she was in the hospital so much by then. But his Dad had let her stay that night. She was in a big pink robe and she looked and smelled like the death that would soon come over her. But she could still talk at Thanksgiving, and move around without a wheelchair. And yet she was bloated like a sick fish, with gray, discolored skin; with her wig off, she revealed a veiny, bald and terribly vulnerable head. His sister. His sister who once had long, beautiful, brown hair and huge, almond-shaped, blue eyes. She had been so pretty. It had all been such a shame. He sat with her and she played her favorite Mariah Carey CD.
"I love Mariah Carey, Kevin." she said, proudly.
"I know that Ann. I got you that CD for your birthday last summer."
"That's right! You did! You're the best brother."
They sat quietly, listening to the sugary, overproduced pop music.
"They told me I have cancer."
"I know, Ann."
"Is it the same cancer that Mom had?" She looked right at him and he knew that she was afraid.
"No, Ann. It's a different cancer." It was, too. It was colon cancer. Not pancreatic. He wasn't lying to her.
"Well, that's good! Right?" She clasped her hands together, looking hopeful. His mother's death had devastated her. His mother had been her life.
"Yeah, Annie. Yeah, it is."
"Am I gonna die, Kev?"
"Yeah, Ann. You are. We all are eventually."
She looked scared again. "What's going to happen to me?"
Kevin grabbed her hand, her swollen, cold hand.
"You're gonna see Mom and Grandma and even your old kitty Mittens. You're going to be with God, too, Ann. That's where you started and that's where we all go. Mom is going to give you a great big hug. She's going to be so happy to see you. And you won't hurt anymore. Your hair will come back."
"Well that's good! I want my hair back! I hate my wig! It itches me."
"I know, Ann."
She was quiet. She didn't want to die. He held her hand for awhile and then let go and sat back. Mariah Carey started up a new, god-awful song. They sat there together, listening for awhile, and then she said, "You know what I want for my birthday next year, Kev?"
"No, Annie, what do you want?"
"I want white jeans from Old Navy! I do!"
The snow was coming down heavily now. Yesterday and tonight's snow would really add up, probably up to three or more feet. Oh, it was going to be gorgeous. His Jetta's windshield wipers were going as fast as they could, but the glass kept blurring with the white. He turned on the defrost. Why hadn't he done that fifteen minute ago? If Stella had been in the car with him, she would have told him to. Firmly, but with her polite English accent. "Turn the defrost on, Kevie, you can't see anything," she would have said, with only the smallest hint of frustration in her voice. It felt hard to control the wheels. He wished he already had that better car that he was going to get any day now. Something with four wheel drive. It was slippery now, the road wet with snow and maybe starting to ice, too. Who knew how cold it really was. He had put off getting the four wheel drive because he didn't use the car that often. It wasn't like he still lived up here. Next week, he thought. Next week I'll get a new car. Trade this one in.
Next week I'll ask her to marry me, Kevin thought. She'll be back from London. She'll be tired from working--clothes, crowds, more clothes, parties, bitchy fashion ladies, models, more clothes. She'll want to order in and watch lots of cable and he'll ask her at home. A quiet night, just the two of them, snuggling in bed, her gorgeous slim body next to his. He'll get the ring from the bedside drawer--What ring? Which fucking ring? The four thousand dollar one or the seven thousand dollar one? God help him!--and he'll ask her while they are in bed, watching TV. Or would that be so terrible, the TV on? He could get up and turn off the TV and then ask her. Or he could plan a night out. But then, but then things would get so complicated and public. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Why couldn't they already be married? Why did he have to figure out some way of asking her? It was like torture. He'd been with Stella for a couple of years now--god, maybe three--and why he had to go through this rite of torture of finding some way to ask her to be his wife he didn't know. She loved him. She told him that. They wanted to get married, to have kids. He loved her. He did. Sometimes, it was true, he would look at her and think, you are not in the plans. You are not what I ever expected. Sometimes, despite seeing her put green masks on her pimples and seeing her discarded tampon applicators in the bathroom garbage pail and her dried, sticky underwear on the floor next to their bed, sometimes, despite turning her over onto her stomach and entering her, despite all that, he wasn't sure he knew her. Or that she knew him at all.
Sometimes, it seemed all like a dream, his life now. His face turning into a chiseled, distinguished thing. His shoulders broad and strong. His expensive shirts and good shoes. He didn't look in the mirror much, but when he did, he looked away pretty quickly. That wasn't Kevin Doran. That wasn't him. Or was it? Ann died alone in the hospital. They tried calling their father, but he'd been out at a movie with a date. Kevin was glad he was dating again, glad he wasn't sitting around being depressed. But he was sad for Ann. Sad no one was there with her.
When he was twelve years old, Ann and he once played checkers. Their mom had taught her how. Their mom had always let her win. And Ann was pretty good at it, at playing checkers. She was about fifteen then. A pretty girl, her eyes like those of a baby doll's, so wide and clear. And their mom had kept her hair so nice, combing it every day and washing it often. It was a shiny, beautiful mane of hair. He had memories of his mother sitting on their back porch in the warm weather in the mornings, combing through Ann's hair. "Stop that! It hurts! You're hurting me!" Ann would cry.
"Shhh, Ann. Shh. You'll look so pretty. Stop fussing."
It must have been summer. A boring summer, before he started working in fast food restaurants. He mowed lawns, but he had a lot of down time. Ann asked, "Kev, you want to play checkers?" Her voice full of fearful expectation. No one liked to play with Ann. She knew it.
"Watch out, Kevin, I'm really good! I always beat Mom." She beat him the first time. But then he beat her. And then he beat her again. And again. And she was so frustrated, so angry. So disappointed in herself. Did he get some sort of sick pleasure out of it? Torturing his retarded sister? She threw the checker board across the room. Was he smiling, laughing? And then she threw other things, and then she started banging her head against the wall.
"What happened? Ann! Ann! Stop that!" His mother came running in. "What did you do? Kevin?" But he ran off, before his mother could get the belt on him. Before he had to witness his mother holding down his sister like she was some sort of wild animal.
When his mother was dying (it took about six months), he drank a lot. Smoked a lot. He hadn't had a cigarette since her funeral. Before she died, or rather, while she was dying, he hung out at this groovy little dive on Second Avenue, Orson's. Steve Buscemi hung out there. So did Tim Roth. After moving the lights around for some stupid music video, or for some commercial (he was still a grip back then), he'd go there and drink and smoke. He'd get messages on his machine from his father, "Your mother's in the hospital again." The chemotherapy seemed worse than the cancer. Seven years ago, and still it all seemed surreal. It was especially surreal back then. Now, he knew his mother was dead. But it had been a slow believing of it. It hadn't happened right away, the knowing his mother was dead. When he was watching her die, when every time he went to see her upstate she became more and more deathlike, when his mother became weak and fearful, well, he didn't believe it then. He just drank a lot and worked a lot, albeit with terrible hangovers.
There had been a dark-haired, soft-voiced bartender pouring beer after beer for him. Her name was Suzie.
"Did you go to Albany this weekend?" she'd ask.
"She's dying. My mom's dying of cancer," he'd slur at her. She gave him lots of free beers. She never judged him, even if after doing too many shots of whiskey he threw up in the bathroom. That happened at least twice. God, what did he remember from that time? Who knows how many times he vomited in that tiny, blue-lit stall.
"You're going to be OK, Kevin. You are." she'd say to him and sometimes stroke his head. "I'll order you a hamburger, OK? And let's switch to Coke, all right? You're gonna be just fine, Kev. I know it."
"To be alive is such a blessing," his mother would say, regularly, as if trying to convince herself. This while bending over the kitchen sink, her breathing labored, the weight of her thick arms hanging over the dishes seemingly more a burden than the washing itself. "Life is a gift," she'd say, her voice hard, fierce. But it wasn't true for everyone. Suffering was the real truth. Where was the blessing in Ann?
"Do you remember Mom praying, Mom with her rosary?" Harry had asked. They were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant. This was a few months after she'd died.
"No I don't," Kevin answered.
"I do. I remember her still pretty, still thin, praying to her God. I remember her before the twins were born, before they figured out Ann was retarded. I loved her then. But she changed. She became awful."
Maybe that's why Harry was so disappointed, so bitter, thought Kevin. He knew her before. Kevin never did. She'd always been who she was to him--heavy, thick lines on her face, a down-turned mouth. A half yell of a voice, a firm hand. The sharp stink of her skin.
He was driving too fast again. His wheels were gliding above the road, sliding in wet and ice. There was a curve and he wasn't controlling things well. He put his brights on; why hadn't he done that sooner? Fuck, he was being so spacey. It was late. He was tired. His exit was coming soon. He better start focusing. The snow fell thickly, but there seemed to be little wind. He had been scared there for a moment. As the Jetta slowed down, he felt his heart pounding against his chest. He exhaled long and slow, something Stella had taught him from her yoga classes. He'd get upset about something at work and he'd be telling her about it and she'd put her gorgeous, thin hand on his shoulder and say, "Breathe."
Kevin breathed. It was horrible driving weather. Horrible. He was alone and right now he hated that. He would make it tonight, of that he was sure. But would he make it through everything? Through marriage and children and mortgages and the aging of his own body? He had a memory of his mother, of only a few months before Ann was sent to the home, a few months before their house became a little more reasonable--a lot more reasonable, really. He was coming in from work--he'd started the job at a McDonald's and he worked every day, every day he got out of that house, every day he made money and saved it to really get out of that house. Ann had been having one of her fits, he couldn't remember why. Sometimes there wasn't a very good reason. It wasn't always because of someone torturing her at checkers. Sometimes, it was because she couldn't find her favorite doll. Or because she wasn't allowed to eat an entire box of Oreo cookies. Or because, in her mind, she wasn't getting enough attention. His mother was sitting on Ann on the green linoleum kitchen floor. She sat on her middle section and held one arm down and Ann was hitting her mother with her other hand. Then, his mother hit Ann, hard. In the face. Ann let out a howl. Blood dripped from her mouth. Then his mother took a large round, red pill out of her apron pocket and shoved it down Ann's throat. Ann gagged, but it went down. Then Ann started to cry. His mother collapsed next to her oldest daughter, her forehead sweaty. She was crying, too.
"I'm sorry Ann. I'm sorry," his mother said and hugged her, wrapping her arms around her there on the floor. " I love you, you know that, don't you? I love you."
"I don't know that! I don't know that!" Ann screamed, crying hard, her face bright red and wet with snot and blood.
"But I do, Ann, I do love you."
"I don't know that you love me." Ann sobbed through the tears. "I don't, I don't."
Oh, Ann, that you do know now how she tried to love you. How she loved you as best as she could. And you did know, in the end, that she loved you, you did, you knew it better than anyone else in the family. And you loved her more unconditionally than any of us ever could. She had done a horrible job, but there was no one else to do it. Because where would we be without our mother? We wouldn't exist. She had done a horrible job much of the time and a decent job much of the time, and for this Kevin was grateful. He was grateful to be alive, for her sacrifice and misery. For her fried meat and potatoes and for sticking a Q-tip in his ear all those years and taking him to the doctor when he was sick and making sure he had clean clothes. It had not been enough for Harry, but it had been enough for him, because he knew he was out of there. He was grateful, but now he was free. Free first from one, and now the other. Free from all his shame and maybe, someday, from all his fear.
Yes, she had loved Ann. And he had, too, despite his disgust and resentment, the endless shame. But he had not loved his mother, not in his memories, not in his heart as he knew it. Was there a time he did, before memory? As a baby in her arms? A toddler clinging to her legs? If it existed before his memory of it, could he possibly name that love? Is love a choice or is it something else?
Whether he loved her or not, he was grateful. Because where would he be without the women in his life? Without Stella, the ultimate prize? She loved him, and she knew where he came from. And without his mother, where would he be? He came from her body, he literally burst through her loins in a wash of blood and mucous, and for this, he was grateful--he was grateful to get a chance at life, and he was doing his best to make it the life he truly wanted.
He arrived, shakily, as if he had barely made it, at his house, or rather at his father's house, at the house where he grew up, the house that was no longer his home, but was where he came from. His father had left the light on and the house shone like a ghost in the dark night. He parked on the street in front of it. He was alive, and they weren't. What kind of secret was it? It felt like a secret, although the facts were plain, the facts were known. They died so that he could live a freer life. They were, in a word, the sacrifice. Would it be worth it? When he opened the door to his Jetta and got out, snow blanketed him immediately. It was so pure out here, unlike the snow in the city. So wet and soft, too. It didn't even feel cold. Indeed, it felt warming and protective. He saw the dark silhouette of his father in the light of the door. He looked dark and large in the doorway--he was not a small man--but as Kevin walked closer, he saw him for what he really was. Weak, tired, perhaps ruined. He wanted to run to him, shouting, we are free now! We are free! He picked up his step and he felt an uncontrollable smile take over his face. He walked to his father and wrapped his arms around him.
"Kevin! What are you doing?"
Kevin lifted him up and his father made a noise, a sort of oomph as his slippered feet rose from the ground, and then Kevin swung him back and forth, back and forth. He was light, the old man, fragile and brittle; and for a moment, Kevin knew he could crush him easily. But the moment passed, and he put him down.
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