We’ve brought board games, video devices, audio devices, mnemonic devices, salted cashews, libations and more libations, all to keep us duly amused. It’s a good thing we did, too, because Uncle Jerry didn’t factor in certain scheduling errors and delays, namely Aunt Mimi taking too long to pack, scrutinize, and re-pack. Now, we won’t reach the resort near Kittery until tomorrow morning. Tonight, we will not fall asleep to the low tide lapping against the shores of Anchorage-by-the-Sea, nor comment upon the inflection of seagulls, nor wonder at the amalgamation of stars, how they are shy in the city and wash into the smog, evading us. Instead, we will manage. It’s a good thing we pre-cautiously over-packed, because without these modes of entertainment, we would stifle ourselves with our incompatible dynamics. Distraction proves to be an invaluable method when dealing with one another.
Uncle Jerry, my mother’s eldest brother, the unofficial patriarch, has decided we’ll lodge at the Holiday Inn a few miles north. It’s a few days before Thanksgiving, so we’ll avoid the holiday rush, he affirms. Uncle Jerry is full of assertions and no qualifiers; he turns pale and thin-lipped if you disagree or interject. He is blunt and defensive and drains easily of tact, but is ever-sure of stance. No one reprimands Uncle Jerry.
There were a few uncomfortable moments at the diner, unpleasant, antiseptic lighting and red vinyl seating. Cousin Alison had been going on about an antique violin she once owned, an Italian make. She was balancing her children on two knees, bouncing them intermittently, darting about in her storytelling, something about how years ago a first chair from Boston Symphony, while workshopping with a crop of students –she among them – had commented on her excellent turn-out, something like that. It was hard to follow, with her tangential meanderings. Alison doesn’t have the mind she used to, what with how it’s been, her problems these past few years. More than a few. Hey, Dad, can you take that violin out of the safe? I can take care of it again, I can obviously do it, but before she could go on, Uncle Jerry gave her a sharp look, a look of a sentence ending in an abrupt hyphen, and Alison looked away, mind already drifting to other comforts. She pretended that the kids were tiring her, Come on, get off, my legs are going to be sore, and they clambered out of her lap and onto mine. We all fidgeted after that and blamed the both of them for the irrevocable pause.
So we turn into the parking lot after a lukewarm dinner and a seven-minute drive from the diner to the Holiday Inn, our caravan of three cars. We’re missing Cousin Zach’s Volvo; he drove back to his place in Providence, grumbling, told us he’d see us tomorrow afternoon, absconding our familial tribe and the atmospheric disturbance of testimonial dynamics, even though the drive back to Providence takes hours. He forgot his bottle of gin in the trunk, the bottle he asked Mom to pick up when she stopped to fill the tank of her thirsty SUV in New Hampshire. The gin is already something distant, he’ll have his hands full tomorrow with a hangover, he’ll take from his personal collectibles when he’s back at his apartment, things like white, sophomoric tequila and cheap oily vodkas. But now, I am the victor with this well-made gin, these are my spoils. I have infinitely more patience than Zach.
We have booked four rooms, two interconnected, the third across the hall, and the fourth a level below. Naturally, we have gathered in the adjacent rooms, leaving the connecting door ajar. Alison has claimed the room on the other floor, though she insists on keeping the children’s toys in our newly-formed suite. We’re playing Monopoly on the double bed my mother has staked as her own, and the aunts are swatting Sammy and Hannah’s pink hands away from the play money and leaden pieces, all the color of carnival candy. No, you can’t eat those, have some peanuts, they scold. Uncle Jerry and Uncle Roy are playing cards with Alison’s husband in the next room. Fold, come on, fold! The television is an ambient murmur. I’m trying to get my younger sister to drink with me, but she’s not of age nor is she interested. She is listening to an aforementioned audio device. So its gin and citrus-flavored soda, Damn, I wish I had tonic and lemon. Cousin Alison keeps making excuses to go downstairs, Darn, I forgot Hannah’s soymilk formula, but comes back empty-handed, slack-jawed, a disoriented, bovine glassiness to her. When she leaves for another trip, attempting to slip out unnoticed, as Uncle Roy gives a dissertation on the Patriots and the stati of the National Football League, we feel her absence, and we conjecture.
I’m worried she’s stealing methadone from the clinic, I don’t know how she could, or she’s getting something, somewhere else, her eyes are drooping and unfocused, she’s not allowed cash, the credit card is supposed to keep tabs on that, but she’s found ways, maybe she’s found ways around it, Christ, Aunt Mimi can’t stop extrapolating (We’re Jews, Mimi, we don’t say Christ, says Uncle Jerry), nor can she stop the premature wrinkling around her eyes, lips, forehead. We’re thinking about the children born addicted to methadone and how thin they looked at first. We’re thinking about how these things weren’t supposed to happen to people like us. We’re thinking about sepia, scalloped-edged family portraits and New World dreams, and how these well-reaped dreams have inverted like well-worn myths. We’re thinking about mnemonic devices and smiles that should have been, that were not, that never are. I’m thinking about the ratio of gin to citrus-flavored soda, that solution A must trump solution B, though now isn’t the time nor place. How being well-adjusted should be our birthright. How we never notice our own addictions.
Aunt Mimi sits up graciously, resigned. She goes into the next room and riles Uncle Jerry, who heaves something more than a sigh, less than a sob. Everyone else is attempting to carry on, even Alison’s husband, though his sports commentary has ceased. We’re really trying, this family, despite the cramped quarters, fluorescent lighting, pastel-colored walls, the induced headaches. Sammy and Hannah bounce on the bed, oblivious. They ask my sister to take a picture. I hear the door close in the other room, the angry strides to the elevator that echo and rescind. When Aunt Mimi comes back, face a livid yellow, the jaundice of worry, without her husband, without her daughter – who keeps slipping through the cracks, mouth gaping, mustering up a scream – and she announces that Cousin Alison will be going home, and I know that tomorrow, so will we.
This essay originally appeared on Freshly Hatched.