It was always understood that the girls got their time to be girls. The protocol was basically: Leave the girls alone. Which left him to fend for himself, making friends with his parents. This would have an impact later on. All that time invested with the grownups wouldn’t be sloughed off with age, as one would think. It would only make him more reluctant to leave, to ingratiate himself with people his own age, or perhaps mentors his parents’ age. Or was it just that his parents’ house meant free rent? Could you extract the reasons he became a homebody, to put it mildly, say it was a combination of nature and nurture, his desire to run wild and drink, their desire to forgive him no matter what?
Well, ours is six years older, his mother recently said to a sister-in-law, a single mother of a hibernatory 23-year-old, so if you figure out how to get rid of yours, let us know. We all laughed. But then she took a small breath in, said: No. We enjoy his company. We wanted to say, but didn’t, because this isn’t the place for such a discussion, and perhaps no place is: But at what cost?
We all enjoy his company, and these days we seem to need him around more. No more Leave the girls alone, though his parents still say it. He just doesn’t listen. And we don’t question it when he trails behind us to the bar to play pool. In the old days we would tell him to get lost. Then when she got a job and I suddenly wanted to be best friends with him, he’d find someone else and then tell me to get lost, and I would act like the world had ended.
But that’s all past now. There’s no time for messing around with allegiances, testing each other. We stick together. And we’re sponges that absorb the energy that sluices from him. I don’t understand where he gets it from, although if I was feeling mean I could say that we would all have so much energy if we did as little as he does. Some people just operate at a higher frequency than everyone else. He is bright in the morning, while we are sallow and inert. But watch our progress throughout the day: his is flat, then spikes when the sun goes down. Ours is a steady climb, filled with concentration and money-making. By the time he’s ready to let loose, which he’s been waiting all day to do — and arguably has been doing all day anyway — we are defeated. I lie in a ball on the sharp, glittering boulder, the boulders being our new spot, convinced there is a person standing in front of us on the beach. He talks and talks. I interrupt him with my irrational concerns about specters on the sand. And she, the hardest worker of all, she squeezes her legs to her chest and stares out into the black, bored by us.
So far, his energy, his constantly vibrating being, can only do so much: enjoy, laugh, joke. I don’t read. I don’t know why, he told me the other night, holding the bottom of his wine glass against the arm of the chair between his thumb and other fingers, as if he was worried that someone was going to come take it away. My father was sitting across from him, zoning out, unimpressed. I wanted to kick him for saying this around a man of letters. Instead I tried to encourage him a little, throw out some author names. Once I get into him, he said a few minutes later, of a writer who is beloved around here, I’m into him. The problem is, I can’t get into him. I’d thought recently of getting him a Philip Roth book, but I knew he would never read it. He would say he was going to read it, then I would ask him two years later whether he had ever got around to it, and he would say something like, Shoot! I forgot!
One night I’m up late writing a few doors down from him. At some point I migrate to Facebook. The newsfeed says: Greg likes Dave Chappelle. It’s funny what constitutes as “news” to Facebook. But you can piece together a lot of someone from these casual, commercially exploited clicks. So he is up too late, as am I, stoned, as I am not, watching a movie he’s seen too many times, probably Half-Baked. In that time he probably could have read the Roth book, or any book. It’s only about 240 pages. It’s one of my father’s favorites, being about death.
There are these rare times when she lets herself off the hook long enough to actually enjoy the weekend, and she can surge into life like a cannonball out of a cannon. It makes me happier than almost anything, happier even than his reliable enthusiasm does. You appreciate something more when it occurs as infrequently as an eclipse. At these times she brings us up with her, although of course he is already up there, way up there. It’s really only I that need buoying.
We meet a pair of strangers while playing pool and despite her protestations — she tells him to go home, as she always used to — at the end of the night we all three of us get in the car with them and drive a couple of towns over, too beer-addled to question whether the person driving is even remotely sober. And she says to her brother: What are you, our body guard? He is angry, silent and angry. Then he asks the strangers whether they’ve got any girls where we’re going. The guy in the passenger seat, whose name may or may not be Dan, says, You’re looking at them. Greg says, Great. His arm is stuck under my ass and he makes no attempt to move it.
Our new friends put on a country radio station and pass back a fat joint. I try not to think about the fact that when our grandparents were our age, they already had several children. Mine had thirteen between them. When my father’s mother wanted peace here in the summer, she would just send all of them out to the front lawn to sleep in tents inches from the lake. Of course they preferred this, running around until long past when she had gone to sleep, unzipping the tents quietly around 9 PM and tiptoeing in the grass with a lantern to someone else’s tent to scare them, or maybe, in my uncle’s case, to kiss them.
So what exactly are we driving away from? I don’t feel I’ve earned this recklessness. I say something about this, and he says, as he always seems to say lately, You’re on vacation. And I begin to correct him. I am not on vacation. This is my home, or something. But I don’t. He moves his arm as he says this and puts his hand on top of my leg, as if reassuring me. But there is nothing reassuring about someone who is only affectionate when wasted.
She passes the joint to him, looks at his hand on my leg, looks at him, breathes the smoke out into my face. I can barely see her but I can very acutely feel what her face is expressing, and so can he. He removes the hand, rolls his shoulder forward, tucks his elbow into his lap, takes a hit, then another. He will communicate his frustration by keeping the joint longer than is polite, at least in this country. In France you just keep it as long as you want, then pass it back, he told me a few weeks ago. Well go to fucking France then, I’d wanted to say.
When we get to where we’re going, there’s a fire dying down in a pit in the middle of the woods, down a path from whoever’s house we’re now at. We just follow the flicker of orange through the dark. Greg and I chain-smoke. Soon she is sitting on the lap of one of the guys, possibly the one whose house we’re at, or maybe the other one, and I marvel once again at how good she is at being flirtatious, of getting what she wants. This is the story of our lives, of ours nights out, which rarely if ever included Greg and rarely if ever included me hooking up with someone. If I was as good as her at this, I think, I would be married to Greg by now. Because flirtatious means brave, and so I would be brave enough to confront her with all this, to say that she would just have to accept it and that it shouldn’t change anything between us. Between any of us. But I am not that person. So I just sit on a tree stump, and he sits on a tree stump next to me, and we build a wall of words around us and forget the strangeness of this situation, forget the fact that he wishes he hadn’t come. But he doesn’t wish he hadn’t come. He just thinks he’s supposed to wish he hadn’t come.
We contemplate staying over, just crashing on the giant leather sofa in this kid’s basement while she wanders into a dark room with whatever the guy is that she has chosen. I am too drunk to focus on people’s faces long enough to tell the unfamiliar ones apart, but I guess it’s Dan. As it stands we are just sitting on the sofa for now, and I’m wearing a sweatshirt from a Massachusetts prep school that I found on the floor upstairs, because it’s dropped into the 50s. The stone floor of the basement is cold. I pull my legs up, bring the sweatshirt over them and the hood over my head. I groan. We’re waiting for her. His head is back against the back of the sofa. He is impatient, sighing frequently and loudly. He gets bored easily, and all the substances have worn off, worked their way enthusiastically through his system and out his pores, because he is a big man, and it takes a lot, more than the half a joint he hogged in the car and the countless beers we’ve had since 8, when we first started playing pool.
Then we hear the distinct sound of his sister having sex. Oh god, he says. We start laughing and I grab his hand. We run up the narrow stairs to the living room. The other guy is nowhere to be found, and we realize that maybe we’re supposed to be quiet, that there could actually be parental figures somewhere in the house. We go out to the back, onto a deck facing the woods. I say we just leave he says, and come back and get her in the morning. I say, That’s mean, and he says, Serves her right. Then I say: Wait. And he looks up at me, smiling, realizing what I have just realized. We’d have to walk home, I say. It’s only 20 miles, he says.
Some amount of time later, the glass door to the deck slides open and she and the guy emerge, holding hands, she pulling him behind her, as if they’ve been dating for months. Gonna drive you guys home, Dan or whoever he is says. Great! Greg says in his best polite grownup voice. We walk to the car behind them and Greg tugs on the back of my sweatshirt. That’s not your sweatshirt, he whispers in my ear. Keeping it, I say, and he laughs loudly, a sound I love, a homing device. It’s always a surprised sound, like he didn’t know I could be funny.
I wonder how miserable this night had been if he hadn’t come. I imagine some future argument in which she says: You prefer him anyway, and storms off down the lawn, flip-flops squeaking. I would have been good, I think, if he hadn’t come, if she’d pushed him out of the car with the strength of both arms back in the parking lot of the bar. I would have been good, would have found the strength or enough alcohol to have fun without him, as I’ve always been able to. But I prefer to be good while sitting by his side, as if we are both just in some waiting room waiting for our respective soul mates to arrive. Sitting by his side for as long as it takes. Sitting by his side even after he has found his person, and I mine. In the beginning I was just good for her sake, but now I’m grateful that I was good for all of us. That I put in all that time, all those years of model behavior, so that we could still be here now, too old to be doing this, but doing it anyway.