III. My Brother Is Always in Jail
I crawled back into the bedroom through the window. We used the door and the window indiscriminately. A white cat with beige spots that I’d never seen before tiptoed off the bed and down the hallway, like a naked girl heading to the bathroom after she’s had sex in an unfamiliar apartment. Nicolas was there sleeping on the bed fully dressed. I realized that he had probably been out on some sort of score.
It wasn’t that extraordinary that Nicolas had chosen this path. Being a criminal was an obvious job option for someone during the recession. It paid about as much as working the cash register at a bakery, but you got to work your own hours.
Sometimes Nicolas would put on a ski mask and rob a gas station. It was easy in winter because it was nothing to break into a place wearing a ski mask and then to leave and blend in with all the other people wearing ski masks as they went down the street.
Nobody had more than $30 in the cash register. But that was enough for Nicolas. He would do a holdup, stick the gun in the back waistband of his pants, and then go to Guy La Patate and order a souvlaki and a Coke. He might use the rest of the money to see a movie and come back home and climb into bed as broke as the day he was born.
He had never been arrested for anything serious. People were always calling the cops on Nicolas for things that weren’t even crimes. There was a woman who called the police on him because he was practicing karate moves in her backyard in just his shorts and T-shirt. The neighbors called the police because he was singing a Jean Leloup song at the top of his lungs in the shower. Once we were at a restaurant and he yelled at the waitress that she was a tease because she wouldn’t bring the ketchup over. The cops showed up five minutes later.
It was nothing for the cops to be at the door looking for Nicolas. It was the only time that we would get up early. Nicolas would pick us up these Chinese dumplings in Chinatown on his way home after being booked. He would be home sometimes before we’d gotten out of our pajamas.
I curled up in Nicolas’s arms. I turned and looked him in the face. He opened his eyes.
“You wouldn’t believe what I got up to today at the Ukrainian Center.”
Nicolas didn’t answer. He just stared at me with a strange, unhappy look.
“What?” I asked.
“Est-ce que ça te dérange? We don’t even know our mother’s real name.”
I flipped over, not wanting to hear what Nicolas had to say next.
“I bet she hasn’t even thought about us for years. I bet she doesn’t give even two shits about us.”
“Don’t do this again. It’s insane. Whenever something is bothering you, instead of dealing with it, you go on a rant about our mother.”
When Nicolas was little and was mad at Loulou, he would lie on his bed and whimper, “I want to go live with my mother.” It seemed impossibly strange. Where in his head did this missing of our mother exist, since it seemed not to exist in mine?
“She’s real. That’s what you don’t understand. She’s out there drinking tea out of a porcelain cup that matches the teapot. She’s scratching lottery tickets. She’s watching television. It creeps me out to the bone. It’s unholy.”
“What do you want to do? Find her and make her love you?”
“She fell for Étienne’s charms. It’s her fault that I’m stuck being alive.”
“You blame her for everything.”
“You blame her for nothing. Which is even worse, because everybody deserves to be blamed for something.”
We didn’t say anything to each other after that. We just lay there with our hearts beating. There is nothing as frustrating as being consumed with rage over someone and knowing that you aren’t even on their mind. You want your enemy to be engaged in a struggle until the death with you. Otherwise you are fighting yourself. I mean, we are all essentially only in wars against ourselves, but we don’t like it to be so painfully obvious.
There were all these things that I had wanted to say to Nicolas, but I couldn’t because he had been so worked up. I had wanted to tell him about signing up for school. And I wanted to tell him about the beauty pageant just to get it out of the way. Tomorrow so many other things would happen. How on earth would we ever catch up? I wondered. Then I drifted away.
IV. Bon Voyage
A week later, Nicolas was reclining on his bed in his underwear and a T-shirt while I was getting ready for my first day of school.
“Let’s go see a movie at the library,” he said.
Unless Nicolas had just held up a gas station, they were the only types of movies that we could afford, since they were free. Nicolas had always liked those black-and-white silent films when he was little, where the woman looked as if she had a toothache.
“You know I have school.”
“So that’s it. You are kiboshing our Tuesday movie nights?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“You’re always working now. You’re no fun anymore.”
“Oh, for crying out loud. We’ve had enough fun for one lifetime, don’t you think? You didn’t want to sign up for school with me, remember? You were absolutely adamant about it.”
I headed out of the room. Nicolas got dressed as fast as he could in order to come after me. He wiggled into his jeans like a raindrop coming down the car window. He put on a black jacket that was way too small for him. It made him look like a matador.