I want to drive my car over the cliff. It would be so easy; there’s no barrier holding me back. Timing would be all that matters, falling in with the waves high so they catch the car and pull me out to sea. That would be a nice way to go, rocked to sleep by the water while safe inside my metal case.
Tryan watches me; I can feel his eyes on mine. He’s the only one that gets me, but even he’s far from guessing my thoughts. What would he make of them?
He’s a lot like me, Tryan, minus ten years. If I was his age I bet we would be friends. That’s what I tell him anyway. I’m lying though, at his age I hadn’t yet hit puberty, I was still little and nerdy, carrying too many books in my hands because they weighed down my pack and hurt my back. Tryan is almost as strong as me now. We mess around and I punch him and he punches back and it actually hurts.
“Is my poem still there?” He asks. His voice low, a tone that has become too familiar in him. Already I know I’m going to have to make him cry before we go home.
“Yes, surrounded by university students’ poems. People always stop at yours.” They don’t, but Tryan smiles. We watch the sunset in the distance. The waves below the cliff roll in in-sync with our breathing. The stereo is on, a CD by Imagine Dragons. I let Tryan choose the music when I see something really bad bugging him. So the indie music of bearded men trying to sound soulful marks our soundtrack. It would be nice, this scene, a university student talking to and guiding his younger cousin, the symbolism of the old car and new music written on our faces: but the moment is far from scenic.
The tears come suddenly and without warning. It’s always like that; the silence builds and builds until he can’t take it anymore and he talks. Tears fall down his cheeks and he removes his glasses to wipe a sleeve across his face. Without his glasses we could be twins. His skin, like mine, is an earthy shade of brown that shines red like mud in the dying sunlight.
“I got in a fight with dad again,” he says simply. He doesn’t look at me when he talks. His glasses go back on and glare a bright red. I know what he’s going to say, it varies a bit each time, but the structure stays the same. It starts with his mother; it ends with his father. Tryan doesn’t cry around them; they don’t have a clue. I don’t think it’s fair that they get to break him and then he comes to me to get fixed. But how would I begin to explain? Hey aunty, hey uncle, I don’t know what goes on in your house, but every time I hang out with Tryan I have to make him cry before he starts acting like himself. I could show them pictures for contrast, it’s obvious juxtaposed. I have a picture of when Tryan turned 7 and I took him to the two story Lego store in the mall. His cheeks in the picture are still full of baby fat and his eyes shine in wonderful concentration. I should print the image out and glue it to their refrigerator; I should yell at them that I want him back.
“What happened?” I ask. I’ve done this enough times to know that if I want Tryan to snap out of his funk he has to do most of the talking. Silence resumes. The sun in the distance touches the horizon as if testing the water before descending.
“My mom wanted to go to the gym, the one on the corner with her friends. I said I didn’t want to go, that I wanted to stay home. She asked me why not and when I told her I just didn’t, she got mad and yelled at me.”
He stops talking but I know there’s more. There’s always more. It begins with the mother but ends with the father.
“I told her I didn’t want to sit in a smelly gym all day and then Lily came in to say she didn’t want to go either because she had homework. Mom said it’s my fault Lily is talking back to her like that and then Sephina came in to say she didn’t want to go either because Ellen was on. She got angry and when dad came home she told him I was talking back to her.”
The tears come faster now. Tryan doesn’t sob, his tears are silent, and because of his glasses, even those go unnoticed. Only the red shadows beneath his eyes and a wet chin give him away. The truth he cannot see, I think. The last line of the poem he wrote the day I brought him on campus. He liked my university, liked the history. Almost everything he knows comes from YouTube, and YouTube claims my mental institution turned state university is the second most haunted place in America. He liked that, kept asking me to take him to the abandoned parts of school. I had already made him cry that day so he was being himself, running around and gawking at things. When I opened the gate to the abandoned sections of campus, the hallways still laden with old mental institution equipment and aged with asbestos fibers and cobwebs, we were both shaking in terror and shining our smartphone flashlights at every noise. I took him to the English Corner before we left, a sliver of a hallway that acts as the bulletin board for English majors. There’s a poetry wall where anyone can post a poem, an impressively large lending library, and worn in leather couches where English majors crash after all night writing sessions. Tryan pulled out the moleskin journal I had given him and ripped out a poem. He found a tack and nailed it to the poetry board, next to one I’d written freshman year. I glanced at it but pretended not to so he wouldn’t feel embarrassed and take it down. I went back the next day and read it. It was about his parents.
“Dad came home from work. He didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t arguing or telling the girls to argue. He said I’m the eldest and I have to be an example to my sisters and I can’t fight with mom. I told him why does mom have to go to the gym, why can’t she workout here so that we don’t all have to leave. That’s when they started fighting. Dad told mom she shouldn’t be arguing with me and that I had a point because she doesn’t work and the house is a mess and she didn’t make dinner so why is she paying to go to the gym when the apartment looks like shit. She ignored everything and yelled back that she’s not going to be taking orders from a kid, but the way she said it I knew she wasn’t talking about me anymore. They started yelling and I took the girls to my room to watch Netflix. Dad left. He slept in the car again. I saw the blankets in the morning when he took me to school. He told me I have to be responsible and not fight with mom, and when I repeated I wasn’t arguing he yelled at me to stop lying.”
He stops talking. His chin still wet and his glasses foggy. I remember the time he got a C in math and his father told him he expects so much more and was disappointed in him. It took a week of crying to snap him out of it. I’d walk into his room in the evenings when I was home from university and sit on his bed and let him cry under his pillow. He wouldn’t cry until I came over and he stopped when I left. On the third day I came over he stopped what he was doing and climbed into bed. On his desk was the moleskine journal, black and bent and half full. It was open to a poem that started I’ve gotten used to being worthless/ two steps behind the starting line/ Father man moves the finish line/ I can never make it in time. The poem scared me enough that before his dad got home from work I took him to Krispy Kreme donuts and filled him with enough sugar to jump start the dopamine in his head.
“Your dad was just tired,” I begin. The walk is fragile; I tread lightly, making sure not to blame anyone or make him hate his parents. That’s not what I want, that wouldn’t fix anything. “Your dad spent the day at work, you know how stressed he is now that he’s manager. He wasn’t really mad at you. Your mom doesn’t make things easy for him. She doesn’t need to stay home and clean, I’m not saying that, but she has to do something. Your dad works all day and when he gets home he has to resolve fights and make sure you guys take showers and brush your teeth. He’s just stressed. He didn’t mean to yell at you.” My words do little. What can I possibly say to a child that thinks himself a failure to his father and a burden to his mother?
“They love you, you know, that’s what matters.”
“I know,” he whispers, “I just wish they wouldn’t blame me for it.”
I frown and ask what he means.
“Dad still hasn’t come home. When I call him before bed he says he’s working late. In the mornings he’s waiting outside in the car.”
Now it’s my turn to think. The sun is gone; and without it the moment grows dark. They love him, that much is true, but they hate each other more. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Tryan if I had left like I planned to, dropped everything after high school and gone north, lost myself in a new city. I’d always felt regret for staying, a personal kind of failure. But slowly, Tryan reached out, started calling me in the evenings to see if he could stay with me while his mom went to work – back when she still had a job. He’d sit at the kitchen table with me for hours, him with his math, me with my books until someone picked him up. Sometimes they forgot.
I stop thinking, there’s nothing more I can say at this point. It’s been obvious, aunty and uncle have been falling apart for years, they married too young. In his mid-thirties, my uncle looks weathered, skin so dry his hands look ashy and burnt. I can’t even remember the original shade of brown he was. And my aunt is even younger; only now does she have the time and friends to act it, though she’s exploiting it. Sometimes I think she forgets she has children. The father has too many responsibilities and the mother acts clueless. This would be fine, it’s the natural stage of a relationship coming to its end, frayed out by time, except there’s Tryan and his sisters in the middle of it.
The thought of Tryan going home depresses even me. And soon Lily and Sephina will be old enough to notice the fights too and I fear for Tryan even more. I can imagine the talks, Tryan playing my role, trying to reassure his sisters everything will be okay despite it all.
Maybe that’s why he reached out to me? Here I am feeling so stagnant, fantasizing my car falling into the ocean, that I didn’t realize Tryan wants to leave too.
The Imagine Dragons album finishes and the car stereo shuffles onto another disk. I’m about to turn on the car to leave when I hear Tryan start giggling, a sound so foreign that I can’t help but stare. “Donkey!” He yells, laughing even harder, a deep gurgle erupting from his stomach. “Get out meh swamp,” I add, making us both laugh.
All Star by Smash Mouth plays on the stereo, the first song on the Shrek movie soundtrack. Shrek was the first movie we saw together at the cinema when Tryan was four and he became conscious of memory. Also, Shrek memes are his favorite. He pulls out the moleskine journal almost full now and opens it to a blank page. ”Somebody once told me” He stops and thinks, pen resting on lips. I take the journal from him and tell him I want to add a line. I want to drive my car over the cliff. We go back and forth until he’s in a good mood again and talking about the new Marvel movie coming out and will I take him to see it. Then Tryan stops and frowns.
“Will you be here in the summer?” It takes a moment to understand what he means. I’m graduating, and once I do I’ll finally be able to leave, or rather, I’ll have no reason to stay.
I don’t tell him that.
“Sure, I’ll be here.”
– Published in The Island Fox Literary Journal