Trey and I were in a family therapy session at Recovery Village. Somewhere along the way I had turned it into a Marcus Meltdown. I hadn’t intended to hijack my brother’s session. I’d even apologized to the therapist for blubbering on. Of course, being the trained professional that Greg was, he raised his eyebrows into sad little arches and quietly said, “No need to apologize, Marcus. Better to get this all out on the table.” Meanwhile Trey was balled up on the couch half asleep, utterly comfortable with me drowning in my emotions.
It was our fourth stint in rehab. It seemed fitting to call it our fourth stint, even though Trey was the one in recovery. It wasn’t the first time my sexuality had come up.
“Maybe our relationship would be better if…I weren’t… gay,” I said.
I’d been carrying these “maybe-if-I-weren’t-gay” isms around in my pocket for years. They framed my entire life. Maybe if I weren’t gay, Trey wouldn’t be an alcoholic. Maybe my mother would still be mentally reachable. Maybe my father wouldn’t have left us. I knew that last one wasn’t true. My father would’ve left anyway. Me being gay was just one more reason for him to frown at my mother. I still questioned my role though. I’ve met other homosexuals who have wondered to what depths their sexuality has contributed to the downfall of the family unit. It’s a fairly common concern.
“Let’s ask Trey about this,” Greg said. He was a big block of a man. From his neck down, Greg reminded me of the Stretch Armstrong toy that Trey and I had spent half our childhood trying to destroy. But unlike Stretch, Greg’s face was wrung out and stubbled. He kept his hair long, and tucked it behind his ears just before he said anything that might come across as direct.
Greg swiveled his chair toward Trey and rolled in closer. “Trey? What affect do you think Marcus’ homosexuality has had on your life? Specifically, your alcoholism?”
“None. What do I care if he sucks dick?” Trey was practically in the fetal position by then. His face was splotched red and white. Sweat rings fanned out from his armpits.
“So, what you’re saying is, Marcus’ sexual orientation has had no bearing on how your life has turned out?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” Trey sighed. He sat up and crossed his arms over his chest. “For the last time, I do not care if Marcus is gay, straight, or fucks donkeys.”
“Well, there you have it, Marcus,” Greg said.
Yeah, there I have it. Another successful therapy session for the books. A family completely healed. I wanted to scream. Why, in all the family sessions we’d sat through, had no one ever asked me how Trey’s behavior had affected my life? They asked for lists in the ways his alcoholism had affected me but never about how his overall behavior may have shaped my life. I could’ve filled a few dozen pages with that list. Dear Trey, your being a dumbass has affected me in the following ways…
Trey was the first person to use my sexuality against me. All over a bag of potato chips. If that doesn’t scream dysfunction, I’m not sure what does. I was holed up in my bedroom eating the last of Trey’s potato chips, he was on the other side of my door.
“Open. The. Door. Marcus,” Trey said.
“Open it yourself, douchebag.”
I had pushed my desk chair up under the handle of the door. Trey twisted the knob back and forth, pushed his shoulder against the door a few times, then got a running start and smashed into it. I heard him wince then go back to twisting the knob. It must’ve surprised him to come up on a locked door. Growing up we didn’t have a single working lock in our house, not even on the front door. All the parts were there but it wouldn’t latch. About every other week Mom asked Dad to fix it. He’d say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, woman.” But he never did fix it. Later, after my dad moved out, my mom tried to install a deadbolt herself but that didn’t work either.
“Openthefuckingdoor!” Trey yelled.
The way I drew out the i’s, was a thing I learned from my Dad. When he mixed his nightly cocktail he’d pour rum over the ice cubes and say, “ruuuuum” drawing out the u’s until he had about two-thirds of his glass full. Then he’d splash a thimbleful of Coke over the rum and say, “Coke.” It was more of a quick noise in his throat than an actual word.
“I’m going to tell Mom,” Trey whispered through the doorjamb. I knew he wasn’t talking about me eating the last of his chips. A rock settled in my stomach, the one I’d end up carrying for the rest of my life. But right then, all I knew was that if I was going to be gay, my life was going to suck.
Trey’s threat put us at a standstill. I had no countersuit yet. He was twelve and wouldn’t be labeled an alcoholic for another ten years though he hit his stride well before then. During one of his brief periods of sobriety, he confessed that he’d had his first drink when he was ten. Ruuuum and Coke. Just a sip but it was enough to set his drinking in motion. By the time he went to rehab, a sip of rum and coke was what he had for breakfast. Then he’d down a twelve pack of Pabst for lunch. Dinner was rum, hold the Coke.
But this was yet undiscovered information. I moved the chair out from under the door handle and threw the bag of chips at him.
“Here, take your fucking chips, lard ass.” It was the best I could come up with given the circumstances.
My gayness had surfaced only about a week before the Great Potato Chip Standoff. Trey was in my room pouring over KISS’ ALIVE! album cover for the hundredth time since I’d bought it.
“You know Gene Simmons is what makes KISS,” Trey said. He was goading me into our usual debate.
“Gene Simmons is nothing more than a stunt man. A dude with a long tongue.”
“Yeah, but, ALIVE wouldn’t have gone gold without Simmons.”
“Answer me this, TrAnus. Who named the band? Who writes all the lyrics?”
Trey was silent. He shifted in the beanbag chair, picked something off the toe of his sock and threw it on the floor.
“What’s that, Trey? Did you say Paul Stanley? I couldn’t quite hear you.”
“Whatever. Gene Simmons is KISS. The bloody mouth, the wicked tongue. That’s the stuff people think about when they think about KISS.” He pointed to the poster of a bloody-mouthed Simmons. Each of the four members held their place on my wall. Peter Criss was beside my bed, the others were scattered around the room.
Trey was right about Simmons being the ringleader, but I wasn’t about to admit it. I pulled the album out of his hands, glanced at the cover where Simmons, Stanley, and Frehley were prominently displayed. Peter Criss was shrouded in smoke, reduced to two arms rising above a drum set. Though it was a triumphant pose, I still felt like they should’ve used a photo where his face was visible. I opened the album and scanned Criss’ face in the group headshot. He had a quiet way about him that I was drawn to.
I had spent an inordinate amount of time staring at Criss, trying to figure a way around my feelings. Did I like cats, maybe? Did I want to be a drummer? Maybe he was just that cool. So cool that he made my dick hard. Was that possible? I wasn’t about to ask around.
I waited until my face stopped burning and stinging before I turned back around to Trey. My dick was not as willing to cooperate. I pulled my shirt down to cover up the evidence.
“You know I’m right,” I said. “Stanley is the brains behind the operation. Now get out of my room.” I picked up my driver’s training manual and hit him on the back of the head a few times to get my point across.
“Cut it out!” Trey’s voice cracked mid-way through yelling at me. I considered making fun of him but didn’t. He was almost out of my room and I didn’t want to prolong his exit.
I closed the door behind him and listened to him plod down the hallway toward his room. His door opened and closed, his radio came on. I thought I was safe.
It was Trey’s radio that did me in. I didn’t hear his footsteps, didn’t hear him turn the knob on my door. My eyes were closed, my ears were coursing with the thump, thump, thump of increased blood flow. I was seconds away from sweet release when Trey flung my door open. Even to this day I will sometimes try to make a deal with God to erase my memory of the way Trey’s face changed as he realized what he was seeing. Peter Criss’ postered face laid out across my bed, me with my dick in my hand. I could see the betrayal in my brother’s eyes. He looked straight at me for a second that stretched into eternity, then bolted out of my room and down the hall. He slammed his door and cranked up the radio.
I ripped the posters off my wall, tore them up and pressed them deep into my garbage can. I cried. I bargained with God, promised to give up KISS and all things related. I packed up my sexuality and tucked it away under a mass of shame. And so began the game of my life.
The first time Trey was in rehab he was court ordered to go. He’d wrapped his car around the tree in our neighbor’s front yard. I didn’t know what to expect when I went to see him, what he would look like as a sober person. Turns out I had reason to worry, he looked like shit.
“You look good,” I said.
Trey nodded at me. He was busy making up for ten years of lost calories, going at a fried chicken leg and a wilted baked potato like I’d never seen before.
“The food good?”
“It’s alright. Nothing special.”
I scanned the room. Recovery Village had a reputation for having housed a couple of radio show hosts. Local celebrities, really. I didn’t see anyone I recognized, though. But it did remind me of something I’d been meaning to tell Trey.
“Hey. I heard Gene Simmons just got out of recovery.”
“Yeah?” Trey wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He’d just started in on a firm square of Jell-O sitting on a Styrofoam dessert plate. I thought he sounded hopeful.
“Shit, man. Half the band has been in recovery,” I said.
Trey was liquefying the Jell-O, pushing it back and forth between his teeth like he did when he was a kid. I waited for him to swallow it down. Waited for him to say something that would indicate progress toward recovery. His face was pinched up in deep thought.
“I wish I could’ve partied with KISS, just once before … this,” Trey said.
He eyed the room as if he hadn’t taken notice of it before then. The place reminded me of a prison with its dull gray cinder block walls, and the dining room furniture bolted in place. The lobby was plastered with posters of white-capped mountains and calming beaches. The serenity prayer was posted about every five feet, along with the slogan, “One Day at a Time.” The aged couches with their depleted cushions showed me that Trey’s path was well-worn territory.
Trey picked up his chicken leg then set it back down without eating any. He started rubbing the dry, sparse hair on the top of his head and kept his eyes fixed on his tray.
“Those guys knew how to party.” His voice was a loud whisper. It was the same voice he’d used when he was little and he would come into my room with his blanket and a pillow and tell me he was scared. He always laid down right next to my bed making it was impossible for me to get out without stepping on him.
“Yeah, Trey, but they don’t really know when to stop.” Shit. What was I supposed to say here? I glanced around, wide-eyed and panicked. Some guy in a polo shirt with a nametag smiled at me, nodded. The asshole did not look the least bit concerned that I might’ve just undone Trey’s sobriety with one stupid statement. The place started to bother me. They were getting my brother sober, keeping him from killing himself by way of his liver. Probably even teaching him to say he was sorry. But they never bothered to tell me what to say to him. Or not say. If someone would’ve pulled me aside maybe I wouldn’t have said that shit about Gene Simmons.
Trey picked up his spoon and held it out level, horizontal, with great care. He stared into the contents – likely picturing something a little more powerful than Jell-O. He was back down memory lane, like an all-star athlete recalling his game-winning touchdown.
“Did I ever tell you about the time Robby and me went down to Tijuana? Fuuuuck. Talk about your top shelf tequila.”
“Trey, maybe we shouldn’t talk ab—“
“—And pussy. Man, that was some goooood pussy.”
And there it was. Anytime Trey and I were in the same room the gay/straight chasm would manifest itself. It sort of hung in the air between us like an aborted ghost child. I cleared my throat in warning. But he kept going.
“Robby and me were fucked up, man, and we were banging this Mexican chick, two on one when—“
“Hey! Enough. You’re in rehab for Christ’s sake.”
Trey pushed his meal away and hung his head. He had grease smeared across his forehead. He didn’t look so good then, sitting there trapped in the pain of his fate. At least Trey had the opportunity to recover, though he never did. He was lucky, really. To have the chance to recover from his disease and have everyone look upon him as a survivor and a hero for overcoming. Me – I had to live inside myself, trapped in my own little world of unacceptance.
After I had made the mistake of mentioning Gene Simmons and stunting Trey’s recovery, I did the only thing I could think of. I asked about my mother.
“Has Mom been around to see you yet?”
“Nah,” Trey said. He waved his hand like he was shooing away a fly.
“She’s probably just waiting for day pass clearance.”
“I’ll ask when I see her.”
“Is she actually talking?”
I shook my head no.
Trey started chewing on his fingernails, going from one to the next in a methodical way. He’d been biting them down to the quick, drawing blood, ever since Mom went nuts. If she’d been loud about her insanity it might’ve been easier for all of us. But she’d gone quietly crazy all the way up to her breaking point. It had been my job to explain her behavior to Trey and pretend it was no big deal.
“Why is Mom so afraid of meteors hitting the house?”
“Oh, she probably just read about it in a Reader’s Digest or some other magazine. She’ll get over it.”
“Mom said the government is sending her secret messages through Johnny Cash lyrics?”
“Hm. Really? I think you might’ve misunderstood her.”
“Today when I asked about dinner Mom said something totally weird. She said, ‘Keep flaming museum screen.’ Then she started laughing like it was the funniest thing she’d ever said.”
“That… is weird. Maybe she’s been drinking.”
My mother didn’t drink. In fact, I’d never seen her take a single sip, not even when my dad would egg her on to join him.
Mom’s breaking point came on Trey’s fourteenth birthday. When we got home from school an odd smell filled the house, reminding me of Thanksgiving with all the different aromas. But something was distinctly off. Unpleasant.
Trey’s eyes lit up at the sight of a cake sitting on the table. The year before Mom had completely forgotten Trey’s birthday. She had moved on from worrying about meteors striking us down to thinking our neighbor lady was out to get us. (The same neighbor whose tree was later involved in a one-car accident). Mom would spend all day peeping out the living room window over at Mrs. Humphrey’s, mumbling and jotting things down in a tiny notebook. That was a tough thing to explain away.
The sight of the cake signaled to me that maybe my mother had finally come around. That we could possibly get on with being a family again.
Trey dipped a finger in the frosting, avoiding the unidentifiable globules in the center of the cake.
“Wait for Mom,” I said. He smiled at me, beamed really. Probably he was thinking the same as me, taking this cake to be a good sign. Hope had the better of us that day.
I called to my mother but she didn’t answer. I went around the house, stepping over piles of laundry and around stacks of used up notepads. Mom was in her bedroom, sitting on top of her perfectly made bed. She was dressed, which was a change. Jeans and a Rolling Stones t-shirt I’d seen her wear pretty regularly when she was still getting dressed. Her hair was brushed back into a ponytail. She looked good. Normal almost except for her glassy eyed stare.
“Trey’s waiting for you before he gets into the cake.” I motioned for her to come with me.
She grinned and patted the present beside her. It was a small package wrapped in paper that had “Joyous Noel” written all over it. Still, it was more than she’d done the year before. Way more. She edged herself off the bed and followed me down the hall.
We gathered around the kitchen table near the cake. Mom set the present on the table in front of Trey. She tapped the box then tapped Trey on the head lightly in a similar manner.
“Open it! Open it!” She started bouncing up and down and grinning so wide her eyes pressed shut.
Trey pulled the gift closer. He looked over at me. I nodded at him. “Go ahead,” I said.
He ripped the wrapping paper off and set the box back down on the table. Between him and my mother I couldn’t tell who was more excited.
“Open it! Open it!” Mom said again. She’d added a small clap to her bounce.
Trey eased the top off the box, just a corner of it. It did not appear, according to his face, that this particular present would be bringing him a Joyous Noel.
“—It’s what little boys are made of. Shit and snails and puppy dog tails.” My mother was in a full-blown jig by then. Laughing so hard tears streamed down her face.
Trey and I locked eyes, panicked uncertain eyes, while my mother continued to toss her word salad. I quick-stepped past her and opened the box. Two dog turds, aged white and hard, rolled together inside the box. She grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into her dance. I shook her off, harder than I meant to.
“Cake time. Time for cake!” She sang out.
Trey was crying, furiously wiping the tears off his face.
Mom lifted the cake plate off the table and started twirling around singing louder and more nonsensical. “Doggy doo-doo for my Dodo.” She let go of the cake like she was flinging a Frisbee. It crashed against the floor, spewing discs of fried Spam and frosting all over the kitchen. The gelatinous glob on the top of the cake splatted against the baseboard and oozed onto the tiled floor.
I picked up the phone and dialed 911.
It was midnight by the time I heard back from the hospital. Mom was under observation in their psychiatric wing. I was to call back in the morning for more information.
“She’s fucking crazy,” Trey said from under his blanket.
“Something’s not right. Maybe she’s just upset over Dad leaving.”
“He’s been gone for a year, Marcus. A year.”
“It takes some people a long time to get over divorce.”
“She’s fucking crazy.”
After the conversation about my mother being by to see Trey, I stood up to leave. I needed to get out of Recovery Village before I broke down and handed him a flask full of vodka. I made some excuse about needing to get back to the office even though it was six-thirty at night.
Trey stood up, too. “Yeah, man. Thanks for coming.”
By Trey’s fourth go in Recovery Village, I knew the process well. We’d been through countless therapy sessions. I’d written a dozen lists that all started with Dear Trey, Your alcoholism has affected me in the following ways. I’d read the literature and learned the language of recovery. I could recite all twelve steps. I veered away from any mention of my mother. I knew which subjects to avoid that might serve as triggers for Trey. That didn’t leave much to talk about.
The therapy session with Greg ended as it usually did, with the gentle chiming of an alarm he’d set. Greg turned the timer off and sent Trey on his way to a group session.
“Same time next week?” I asked.
Greg was finishing up writing on his legal pad.
“Actually, have you got just a minute, Marcus?” He closed up his pad of paper and looked at me. I was slipping my arms into my coat, more than ready to leave.
“Well, I have some errands to run…”
“This will just take a minute.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I want to ask you a question, Marcus.”
In all the sessions I’d been to, Greg had never talked to me alone. I felt sure he was going to tell me some bad news about Trey. A relapse I hadn’t caught. Or, shit, something I’d done wrong that’d caused Trey to sneak a drink or two hundred.
Greg tucked his hair behind his ears. Yes, I had definitely fucked up somewhere along the way.
“In all the time you’ve been coming here, has Trey ever once asked about you?”
“Well, no. But he’s in recovery, he’s probably got a lot of shit on his plate right now.”
“Okay. How about when he’s not in recovery? Does he ask you about your life then?”
“I don’t see him much,” I said.
Greg was silent. It was a therapy trick I knew well; remain quiet and let the other person fill in the silence with a stream of consciousness. We waited each other out for a few long seconds, until I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Trey doesn’t ever ask about me. He’s an addict. He doesn’t care about anything but his addiction,” I said. I’d read that in the literature, figured it was a safe thing to repeat to Greg.
“Maybe so.” He shrugged.
We dipped back into silence but this time I didn’t wait long to break it.
“What’s your point?”
“My point is that it may be time for you to stop coming to these sessions.”
“What? Just give up on him? That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“No, no, no. I’m not suggesting you give up on Trey. Maybe just stop trying to make him responsible for keeping you whole.”
It was my turn to shrug. My brother wasn’t capable of brushing his own teeth, how could he possibly be responsible for keeping me ‘whole?’
“Look, Greg, I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at here and I probably should get going.”
“Marcus. All the time you spend running back and forth between Trey and your mom, it isn’t helping anyone. Least of all you. The only way your brother has a chance at getting better is if you let go of him.”
I started to cry. Hard enough that I had to sit down on Greg’s couch again. Greg rolled his chair over to me and stretched a box of tissues out in my direction. Several minutes went by before I could speak.
“I wouldn’t even know what to do with myself,” I said.
“Go fuck a giraffe. Or an elephant. Your choice,” Greg said.
His humor caught me off guard. Probably another therapist trick for defusing a crying jag. Still, I laughed.
“You know what I mean. Go. Live. Your mom and your brother need to sort their own lives out.”
“Yeah, how likely is it they’ll actually accomplish that?”
“I’d say the prognosis is grim. But you don’t have to suffer their fates with them.”
I went home. I didn’t bother to put any lights on, just sat on the couch mulling over what Greg said. Eventually I dozed off. When the sun started to rise I got up and put KISS’ ASYLUM on the turntable. When I’m Alive came on, I cranked the stereo all the way up and sang along. Then, I called Greg’s office and left a message on his answering machine.
“I settled on the giraffe,” I said. “The elephant was a little out of my league.”
Amber Hart is a recent graduate of The Writer’s Loft, a creative writing certificate program offered through Middle Tennessee State University. She lives stateside on a small farm in rural Tennessee, along with her husband, two children, and a slew of guinea fowl. Her short story, “Teddy’s Dead” can be found in forthcoming issue #41 of Neon Literary Magazine.
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