by Monica Strina
It’s the day of Uncle Jeff’s funeral. In front of the church our relatives move in swarms. They remind me of the beehive that formed inside our double-glazed window years ago. I’ve seen what bees will do to a different creature that dares crawl amongst them. As I stumble out of the car in my mother’s murderous heels, Nick catches my elbow.
‛Nice hairdo,’ he says, pulling a lock behind my ear. ‛Can’t say the same about the make-up, though. You didn’t quite cover the attractive shiner on your forehead, darling.’
I slap his hand away. ‛Why are you making such an effort to be a prick, darling?’
‛Oh, I don’t know. Could be because I never thought my twin would let herself be used as a punchbag. Or perhaps, because she forgot to visit me in … let’s see … forever?’
‛You know I don’t like that place.’ I waddle towards the church, clutching my (mother’s) handbag and trying not to step on my coat.
‛Really? I lllove it, you know. Me and McMurphy have tons of fun.’ Nick straightens me, so composed he looks like the sugarpaste groom on a wedding cake.
‛It’s not my fault you’re in there.’
‛But Gemma, don’t you feel guilty about getting the healthy genes while your tragic brother got the schizoid ones?’
‛You got the skinny hips and clear skin, so no.’
The bees surround us and we have to fight our way to the church door through perfumed cheek-to-cheek kisses and python hugs. Red roses spill from the coffin like dark blood. The priest keeps praising Uncle Jeff for being such an exemplary husband and father; I refuse to humour Nick’s attempts to suppress laughter. We stand when the priest says stand, kneel when he says kneel, sit when he says sit. As we kneel for the umpteenth time, Nick whispers, ‛God, this is so much fun, it’s kind of like dancing the Macarena. All together, now!’
‛Sssh,’ I giggle, knowing Mum’s laser eyes are drawing a red dot on each of our backs.
Outside, under a whirl of snowflakes, we present our condolences to our aunt and grown-up cousins. Nick hugs them and delivers great pats on their backs. Mum pushes me into their arms when she catches me trying to hide.
‛And where’s Tony?’ they ask me, looking around as though he might be playing peek-a-boo.
‛Oh, you know, he’s very busy with work; couldn’t make it.’
Years pass before we are back in our parents’ car. Everyone tries to reverse out of their parking spaces at once so we block up the road.
‛Come on then,’ Dad gesticulates towards a carful of cousins, ‛come on, you go.’
Mum’s eyes zero in on me. ‛See, Gemma, why you always come across as rude? It’s embarrassing. You never even went to see Jeff when he was sick.’
‛Yeah, I agree. Especially since poor old Jeff was so affectionate with you when you were growing up, Gemma,’ says Nick.
‛Nick, no,’ I mouth.
‛I mean,’ Nick continues, ‛he kissed, he cuddled, he caressed you all over whenever no one was looking—’
There is a crashing sound as we are thrown forward. Dad turns around, his face blotchy. ‛Nicholas! Do you realise you’re making sick jokes about a deceased man? Do you always have to—’
‛Don’t you dare, you promised, why can’t you just be—’ Mum screams over him, and I know and fear the end to that sentence but now our relatives join in, yelling and beeping, standing outside in the thickening snow, pointing at the car door through which we have just smashed. Mum steps out to assess the damage after squinting us down, and Dad scrambles after her, shaking.
‛Well done,’ I say through the palms of my hands, but Nick is no longer sitting beside me. He has climbed onto the driver’s seat, locked the doors and put the car in reverse. ‛No, no!’ I scream as he hits the car behind us (more aunts and uncles) then revs the engine. ‛Oh, we are so fucked,’ I whine.
‛Uncle Jeff was a pe-erv!’ Nick screams out of the car window. There is a collective, loud intake of breath; my father’s expression could have been painted by Munch. Can’t say everyone looks surprised, though. Then the screaming starts, just as we tear through a side road.
‛Now we’re fucked,’ declares Nick, patting the passenger’s seat. ‛Come on, sista, I’m no taxi driver.’
I cross my arms on my chest. Nick zigzags the car, throwing me around the back seat. ‛Don’t be such a stiffo. That’s exactly what you would have done if you hadn’t lost your balls on your way to adulthood,’ he says while he gets us lost.
‛You had to tell, didn’t you, Nick. Today.’
‛I timed it perfectly, I know. I was so looking forward to this funeral.’
I sigh, take off my shoes and scramble onto the passenger’s seat. The world is whitening outside the car windows, and for an instant I feel soothed.
‛You didn’t take your medication this morning, did you?’
We stop to ask for directions when we see a smartly dressed crowd gathered in front of a restaurant surrounded by an orchard. Nick parks the car and walks out, and as I watch him I feel as proud as I did back in music class, even after boys started making fun of him. Despite everything, he retains the grace of a poem. He approaches two men in tuxedos and says something; they laugh. In between snowflakes I see him point at the car where I’m sitting and gesture for me to join them. I shake my head. His lips mime the word ‛chicken’. Walking towards someone while still out of earshot makes me self-conscious; only when I stumble close enough to talk do I lift my head.
‛Gemma, these are Adam and Steve. Adam is an old school acquaintance, would you believe it?’
Would I? Trust my brother to run into a schoolmate who looks like a statue of Apollo on a day like this. The guy standing beside Adam resembles him but looks more human; he shakes my hand while Nick continues his overexcited spiel.
‛They were just telling me that there’s no point in travelling to town in this weather. We’d be stuck in traffic for hours. So they invited us to their sister’s wedding while we wait out the snowstorm. Isn’t that sweet?’
The temperature of my face might melt the snow all around us. ‛Oh, wow, thank you, but we can’t just–’
‛Sure you can, it’s our parents’ restaurant. No problem with adding two guests a little late,’ says Adam (the statue).
‛Come on, I’m starving,’ Nick whispers in my ear as he drags me in. ‛Something smells nice.’
‛Give me the car keys, you crazy bastard.’ I kick his ankle as hard as I can without being seen, then try to get to his pocket but he slaps my hand.
‛Gemma dear, you should know that I’m very sensitive to my condition being defined in such crass words. And by the way, you could have worn something more cheerful. You look like you’re going to a funeral.’
At least we get a free meal. The waiters hurry over and add two covers. I watch my brother chat with each one of the eight people who sit at our table, help the old lady beside him crack open lobster shells, organise a toast for the newlyweds, sing Bon Jovi’s ‛Living on a Prayer’ in perfect pitch when the Karaoke starts, dance with a little girl stood on his feet. I see the way people look at Nick, men wishing they were him, women (and some men) that he would notice them. Surrounded by pastel colours, bows, white roses and smiles, I can’t help reliving my own wedding. Mum and Dad approving of something I’ve done. Tony’s eyes as I walk towards the altar. His grip on my wrist later, when we’re alone. A memory of Uncle Jeff’s hairy hands. I know we should go back, apologise to our parents, but I am weary. We’ve both turned off our mobile phones when Mum’s number (and Tony’s) started appearing and now there are only wedding music and chatter.
The way the bride looks at the groom depresses me. Happy couples make me feel even more stupid. She has large hands and feet, and tends to slouch, so that the white lace she wears seems to belong to somebody else; the groom is sweating through his silvery suit, yet beaming. Nick asks me to go see the orchard with him. Through the glass door I spot Adam and Steve waiting outside.
‛Oh Nick, please.’
‛Give me your rings for a sec.’
‛Do you think I’m an idiot?’
‛Sure I do, since you insist on wearing such monstrosities. Hooray for Tony and his impeccable taste. By the way, did he also give you that ghastly watch?’
I look at it. God, how haven’t I noticed that it looks like the watch on the wrist of a corpse on CSI? ‛The company gave it to me. Ten years working for them.’
‛If that hasn’t inspired you to commit suicide, I don’t know what will.’ Linking my arm he drags me out. I stop to steady myself on the heels and, at the sight of the garden, don’t breathe for a little too long.
‘Stunning, isn’t it?’ asks Steve as my eyes fill with the silvering branches and the slow dance of a million snowflakes.
‘The roads will be impassable,’ I say.
‘Where else would you want to be?’ He smiles with a side of his mouth. Nick asks Adam to give him a tour of the garden and they disappear.
Steve and I settle on a stone bench. It feels like sitting on a gravestone. Out here, the music is muffled, and nothing moves but the snow. I like the way the cold air numbs my feet so I can no longer feel pain. There is a small shaving wound on Steve’s neck at which he keeps picking with his long fingers.
‘I’m not into dresses. Or heels. These aren’t even mine. We were going to a funeral,’ I say.
Steve looks at me. Really looks. ‘I hope this is a bit more lively. And your husband didn’t come with you?’
I feel the heat despite the snow, in my collarbone, and tinting my neck red, and under my eyes, and in the roots of my hair. ‘Why don’t you take a better look?’ I slap my hand on the seat and lift myself towards him, pulling my fringe back. ‘No, I didn’t fall. I didn’t slam a door in my face by mistake. Yes, it was a punch, so what? Come on, tell me I should leave him. That I should be brave. That I’m not the only one it happened to. That I have my whole life in front of me!’
Steve catches my fingers and moves them gently away from my bruise. ‘My mum’s got some arnica lotion upstairs.’ He keeps my hand as he walks me to a side door and up two flights of stairs. ‘I’m back living with my parents for a while. Since the divorce.’
I stiffen, take my hand back. Upstairs, the carpet is long-haired; I leave heels and coat at the door and am led through a living room with a central, stone-built fireplace, and a lot of books lined up on shelves. My fingers tingle with the desire to touch them. In a bathroom that smells like rose soap bars, Steve sits me on a low cabinet and covers my bruise in lotion with his fingertips. I close my eyes and imagine his large hand can absorb the harm – not just the pooled purple blood but also the pain of the blow, the fear, the disappointment in myself. He leaves me sitting there and reappears a few minutes later with a jumper, tracksuit bottoms, socks and runners.
‘The clothes are mine, sorry about the size. The shoes are my mum’s – they might fit. Don’t worry, she has stopped using them.’ He comes back in when I’m finished and rolls up sleeves and cuffs. The black bundle of dress and tights inside the bin receives only a glance. I catch my image in the mirror and grimace.
‘Cut my hair.’
‘What? No, no way.’ He lifts his hands, palms towards me. ‘I cut one of my sister’s Barbies’ hair when I was seven. She tried to stab me with the scissors. It couldn’t have been a very good job.’
‘Steve. This is my mother’s haircut. I’m thirty-five.’
In the living room, Steve surveys my new hair as he carries two mugs of hot chocolate towards me. He tilts his head and smiles his corner-lip smile.
Sitting on the carpet, I take a sip. ‘Mh. You make a mean hot chocolate.’
‘Too rich, according to my ex.’
‘She’s obviously a bitch. Good riddance,’ I say, and his own laughter seems to surprise him. ‘You two have kids?’
‘Nope. I suppose it’s better that way,’ he answers.
I talk without looking at him, trying to flatten the mug between my hands. ‘I’m pregnant.’ I can no longer hear him breathe. ‘We thought we couldn’t. For years. And now it’s happened. Now.’ I look up at him. He is making fists.
‘Does he know?’ he asks through tight lips.
A key turns in the lock; Adam and Nick spill into the room. They don’t look as tidy as they did when they walked into the garden. Theirs is a shameless beauty.
‘You look like a plucked chick,’ says Nick. ‘Big, big improvement.’ But his voice is different, lower.
Steve looks guilty. Adam’s laugh only touches his mouth; the rest of his face is marble-still.
‘It’s stopped snowing,’ says Nick, and a couple of minutes later we are stepping into the car, and Adam is not in sight. Steve looks like something left out in the snow. Only when I look up at him does he come closer. He leans across me and attaches my seatbelt.
‘You know how to get back here? Gemma!’
I frown. He asks Nick to wait and runs into the restaurant, then reappears. His breath settles on my skin as he hands me a business card. The details of the restaurant are on it, as well as a photograph of the façade and the orchard; a phone number is scribbled – etched – on the other side. His eyes touch my bruise, my stomach. Last, they settle onto my face.
‘Do notlose it,’ he says.
Nick drives. The orchard falls behind but stays inside my head the way beautiful, impossible dreams do. In my pocket, or Steve’s pocket rather as these are his trousers, I push the palm of my hand against the card until I feel as though the numbers are embedded in my flesh. Nick is silent and his fingers are burrowing into the driving wheel. His expression is the same as when we were children hiding in a tent in our bedroom, reading White Fang with a flashlight, and Mum said God saw us when we were bad, and Nick heard the voices coming. When he stops at a guesthouse and lies on the bed in his suit and stares at the ceiling, I lay on the bed beside him in my borrowed clothes and stare at the ceiling.
‘There are monsters in the plaster,’ he says, pointing. What enchanting hands; our music teacher said he could have become a pianist. ‘There, and there.’
‘I know. But I can’t see them. Not on the ceiling.’
Nick looks at me, then reaches for my left hand. He slides the wedding and engagement bands off my ring finger and hurls them at the ceiling. They roll out of sight.
‘I think I hit one of them.’
‘Fuck, Nick. He’ll kill me.’
‘Fuck Tony. You’re not a victim, Gemma. At twelve, maybe, but not now. Take some fucking responsibility. He will kill. Both of you.’
‘Both? How do you know?’
He looks at me, at my stomach under Steve’s jumper. ‘We’re twins, remember? Besides, you’ve started to look like you might actually want to live.’
I thread my fingers through his and kiss the back of his hand. ‘Adam?’ I ask.
‘We’re not what our folks were expecting, are we, Gemma?’
‘Nope, Nick. Not even close.’
He shatters into tears. I wrap myself around him, his protection from the monsters gawking from the ceiling, from the voices. He jerks his head as they scream obscenities, dirtying the avenues of his beautiful brain. His sobs hit my shoulder like the recoil of a rifle. I know how tonight will be; I am familiar with the varieties of my brother’s madness. The walls will taste his forehead and blood, the floor his tears.
Over breakfast Nick cranks up his swollen eyelids and says, ‘Let’s run away.’
We plonk our mobile phones into the toilet tank. We see a pug outside the guesthouse and give it a new collar – my watch suits its bristly hair. Wearing the same clothes after our showers feels seedy. We buy only toothbrushes, toothpaste and knickers, food and water, petrol. The passing of weeks, months, is measured by my girth. Lying on a field of daisies after the snow has melted, we let pollen tickle our noses; hear the music of rebirth issue from the damp earth.
‘Are there monsters in the clouds, Nick?’
‘No. Gemma …’
‘Want to know what scared me the most in there?’
‘You’ll tell me anyway.’
His breathing quickens. With his eyes closed, he is a sculpture of Anguish. ‘I thought that, if the medication succeeded in killing my madness, it would also take away everything else. The books we read as kids and that grass slope we used to roll down. That day you hit the boy who tried to steal my lunch. Your first literary prize when you bought us ice creams and hula hoops. How to read music and what each key on a piano means. Everything. My image of mental health is a blank sheet, and it terrifies me.’
I watch a monarch butterfly land on Nick’s hair and become part of the sculpture. ‘I have no idea what mental health looks like, Nick.’
‘Maybe it looks like Mum,’ he says.
We sneak into the Museum of Modern Art to use the toilet and figure we might as well take a tour, so we walk amongst people who wear clothes they were not wearing yesterday and the day before that. I tilt my head to show that I am studying the artwork, making an effort to understand and appreciate it. Now and then I say ‘Mmh’ and nod.
Nick stops in front of an enormous painting. On the canvas are strokes of violent colour twice the length of our bodies. He narrows his eyes, catches his chin with his thumb, index and middle fingers, hunches his shoulders and gives the painting ten minutes of undivided attention. A white-bearded man with the air of a university professor notices my brother’s devotion to modern art and nods his approval. The staff member who sits in a corner surveilling the room looks impressed. My twin has always been better than I at blending in. Or else, he really understands what this means, which makes things even worse for me.
Then Nick’s shoulders start shaking. From his throat come strangled sounds. He turns towards me with tears dangling from his eyelashes. ‘Seriously!’ he hiccups. ‘A one-year old could do a better job. All these people go “Oooh” and “Wooow” and learn invented meanings off books so they can look good. Why doesn’t anyone admit that they’re worthless wiggles? This dude couldn’t even draw!’ He is laughing with a hand on his belly, doubled over, holding on to the wall beside the canvas for support. He is laughing with his eyes closed and tears of pure mirth.
Every room where we stop along our way to nowhere turns into our childhood bedroom at night. We read from the same book, with a flashlight, waiting for Mum’s voice to scare us out of the pages. Work schedules and medication times start dissolving as we keep still and take time to breathe. Walls crumble without a sound. And sometimes, while we watch the sun set, Nick’s fingers glide on the invisible keys of a grand piano.
‛We’ll live away from everyone and everything. We will play music and write poems and read all night. We’ll never sleep.’
When my runners start falling apart, I remember who they belonged to, and whose legs once inhabited these trousers. Who wore on his skin this jumper that is lifting like a tent above my belly. The only bruises I wear now are on the inside. In his suit, Nick is a fallen movie star: now he looks like what he is rather than what you are supposed to tell the neighbours.
We are found some time after my cards have run out, sitting somewhere along the coast, our hair and the lining of our nostrils encrusted with salt. Our mother always said the sea was too dangerous and we never lost our fear. Neither of us knows how to swim, but seawater heals your cuts, we have discovered, and corrodes chains. We have made plans to learn how to float inside it, alone together again, in silence.
When we see them coming we hold onto each other. Nick’s hand reaches for my pocket and pushes something into my hand. I feel the softened corners of a card and my skin remembers the number on it, the same way it remembers punches.
‛But you and I … we are the only ones who understand,’ I say.
‛You could let him try. And, Gemma, promise me something. Start writing again.’ My twin’s running steps are a fast dance, and as he enters the water there is no more fear nestled between his shoulders. I cannot follow, yet the sea has come to me. It is trickling out of my womb, down my legs, clear, clean, alive. It is time and I wait, with my fingers curled, for the next wave.
About the Author:
Monica Strina was born and raised in Sardinia, Italy, but moved to Dublin as a student and decided to stay. She has published stories in literary magazines such as An Sionnach, The Ogham Stone, Silver Apples, The Bunbury and TQR Stories. In 2010, her short story ‘The Fisherman’ was awarded the Lonely Voice award by The Irish Writers Centre. Monica is working at a collection of stories and a novel.