Charlie and I are driving to his parents house to celebrate an unpleasant Statten holiday. Charlie stares silently at the road ahead, and this is the one day out of the year ( except for the days that I aggravate him), that he is bitter. I stare straight ahead too, and I watch the green trees become blurry every time I turn my eyes to the right. The trees remind me of aliens in a cartoon show I watched as a kid and of the basil that covered my steak the night before.
Yesterday, after I had told Charlie the most unoriginal excuse ( that I had to work late), I met with Mike at a romantic restaurant. He listened to me intently as I talked about my next step in solving the mystery of my mom’s past, and I felt a warm feeling of camaraderie towards him. He was my accomplice in this crime, although crime was probably too strong of a word to describe my quest. He was my partner in mischief. I would have preferred to dig up my mom ‘s secrets with my brother ( not Mark, but an imaginary brother who I had a terrific relationship with), but since that was not possible, having an almost lover as an accomplice seemed like the next best thing.
In truth it was not morality but fear that kept me from consummating my relationship with Mike. I had been moved by a video I had seen in health class over ten years ago. In this movie a girl not only got pregnant from having sex only once, but she also got aids. It made an impact on me(which would have probably made my health teacher proud), and I was terrified of giving Charlie HIV.
Mike had sat across the table, and he held my hand as I rattled on about what I thought I would discover about my mom, and what I was afraid I would discover. At one point, when I needed to freshen my parched throat with water, my almost lover said to me “Ann, I think I’m falling on love with you.” I had replied with the first thing that popped into my head: “I will not leave my husband for you.”
The rest of the dinner continued as if these truths had not been uttered, but I felt guilt for being so callous. I couldn’t take it back because I meant it, but I wished I had simply kept my mouth shut. Amy Miller always accused me of having bad social skills. When a boy I had a crush on asked me to a late night movie in high school, I had responded by telling him I had a an early curfew. “Your not supposed to say that,” Amy had said to me. I had argued with her by explaining that I had said the truth, I really did have an early curfew. “It doesn’t matter,” Amy responded, “when you said that it sounded like a rejection.” Towards the end of my friendship with her, it had taken me eight days to return a phone call. When I apologized to her, knowing that I deserved a stern lecture, she simply replied, “it’s okay Ann, I know you have bad social skills.”
I look at Charlie and I know for once his thoughts are not about me. I feel guilty for feeling relief about this, because I know how upset this day makes my husband. “I really hate this day,” he says, confirming my thoughts.
“I know,” I reply.
“I guess this day is important to Mom, Dad, and my brothers, but I always feel like such an imposter on this day. I don’t feel sad, and I can’t mourn someone I don’t remember.”
I have heard this speech many times, but I let Charlie rant. After all, everybody should be allowed to be upset on the day they celebrate their dead brother’s birthday.
The dinner rituals are similar to the rituals of the years before. Elaine has cooked Tim’s favorite meal; a ritual I think is morbid, but which my brothers-in-law think is endearing. Elaine talks about the details of Tim’s life: The piercing sound he made when he cried for the first time, how happy and proud he was when he lost his first tooth, how straight and clean his hair looked before he went on his first date, and how fresh and ironed his clothes were when he lay in the coffin. While Elaine talks about her dead son’s life, her other son stares at his plate without eating. When Charlie finally puts a morsel of food in his mouth, Don mentions how the happiest years in his life was when he could tell people he had four sons, and Charlie almost chokes on a piece of meat.
Sam and Al call, and Elaine puts them on speaker phone. After they finish sharing memories about their brother, my mother-in-law starts praying out loud. I lower my head in respect, but I have never been religious. Most religions that I know state that a higher power knows each person’s fate, and I always figured if somebody out there already knows everything about me, I’ll let them worry about my beliefs. Still, I can’t help but think that if Tim’s spirit is in this room, he would feel happy to know that his birthday is still remembered twenty-five years after he died.
When the prayer is finished, and Sam and Al say their goodbyes, Elaine goes into the kitchen to prepare dessert. Charlie excuses himself to use the bathroom, and Don and I are left alone at the dining room table.
‘You know it was hard to keep my affair a secret in a small town,” Don says to me. I stare at him with my mouth wide open. Don rarely talks, and he never talks about his former extramarital activities. “I used to make up all sorts of different lies,” He continues. “Some were small and insignificant, others were quite clever, and every now and then I would say an absurdly silly lie. I think my favorite lie was one of the last ones I used to hide my affair. I had pretended to miss my flight so that I could have a day alone with my mistress.”
He doesn’t look at me as he says this, and before I have a chance to reply, Charlie comes back from the bathroom.