It’s not going to be like before.
It’s nothing but a stupid, meaningless mantra that shatters against your reflection in the bathroom mirror each morning as you hold the razor to your cheek and wonder what if. You don’t look like you anymore because you’re not you anymore. Sometime not so long ago you started your descent into the unseen void, little by little, and sometime not so long from now you will disappear completely. Not that it matters. The world is burning, and we’re all headed to Hell together. Or so you’ve been told.
Except you know the truth. You’re the only one that does. You know that fire is only the beginning. The real show premiers right around the time we’ve all gotten sufficiently used to tossing fistfuls of hate and slander so quickly into the damaged air that we no longer recognize the cause. When free thinking becomes a punishable offense; that’s when the violence happens. We’ll take each other out one by one while blaming everyone but the guilty ones. We’ll slowly realize that we’re fighting the wrong enemy, but by then it will be too late to stop it. Then we will self-destruct.
You know this, and still you say it isn’t going to be like before because maybe this time it won’t be.
Maybe this time Saul won’t immediately call you a fag for listening to NPR, and his kid won’t belch in your face during dessert, you say to the voices in your head as you swallow two Xanax pills.
Maybe this time your old man will want to discuss something other than what he heard on Hannity the other day, you say to the voices in your head as you add a splash of Tanqueray to the cup of coffee you’d forgotten about.
Maybe this time you’ll get all the way through the meal before someone calls you a fucking fascist and leaves the table in a huff, you say to the voices in your head as you carefully remove all of the cash from your wallet because you always seem to come home with a few less bills when Jennie’s there.
Maybe this time one of them will acknowledge that this stupid little hobby that they call a business and you call a burden is broken and bleeding, and the economy is not getting better, and no one is coming to save them and no one’s made America anything but weak, you say to the voices in your head as you grip the steering wheel and will yourself to let go.
Don’t feel obligated, Brenda told you as though you had a choice. Hers is the only voice free of subtext. You have a choice, of course, but you don’t. Not really. Your obligation is to Brenda, who is not your mother and deserves so much more than a corner-lot life with your old man. So you’ll go. And you’ll wedge yourself onto the saggy end of the second hand sofa and try not to think about how long it will take to lint-roll the dog hair off of your jeans. And you’ll sit at the ash-covered table and eat the turkey that the old man swears he nabbed himself, and you’ll listen to Saul’s meathead kid wax philosophic on the best rifles for shooting a deer’s head off. And you’ll watch Jennie stare at her phone as if it's her ticket out while her baby cries from somewhere in another room.
Maybe this time it’ll be fine, you say to the voices in your head as you wait for someone to grant you refuge from the chilly afternoon air that reeks of charred meat and Miller Light sweat.
And you’ve barely gotten your coat off when an already glassy-eyed Saul claps you on the back a little too hard and asks if you’re still driving that pansy-ass Subaru. Your old man grunts in your general direction, which you choose to interpret as a genuine welcome because your old man doesn’t believe in obligation. The pronounced patchwork of lines and crevasses etched into his face by time and hard living has deepened since the last time you saw him; which may have been last Christmas, but you can’t remember. He’s a scarecrow made from second-hand parts that you never really recognized in the first place.
Brenda, whose hugs smell of Downy fabric softener and oven grease. Brenda, whose eyes don’t spark quite as often as they used to. Brenda, who got up with the sun to prepare a meal that they will all unironically devour without a shred of compassion or care for how it got there. They’re parasites. And you know that you are, too. You’ll recognize her effort because she’s the one person that deserves it. You’ll make your own effort to help, but you both know that it means nothing. Her effort comes from love; yours is born from guilt, and that’s the difference. She doesn’t have to stay. You’ve only said it to her once, and she told you not to be silly. She stays, she told you, because she loves the old man, and she loves the kids, and she loves you. She stays, she said, because she loves this life. It’s bullshit, and you both know it now just as much as you both knew it then. But you can’t change anything and you can’t save her, because she’s not your mother.
“I’m selling the shop.”
You say it before the turkey. You say it and it shocks you just as much as it shocks them, because you were sure that you’d lose the nerve. You fight the urge to say that you’re sorry. You fight the urge to explain yourself. They don’t care about either. There are storm clouds in your old man’s eyes, and you know he’s silently reevaluating your rank in this stuffy yellow kitchen with the mismatched chairs and sticky vinyl placemats. You’re no longer the bank. You’re no longer untouchable.
Saul calls you a fucking faggot asshole. He calls you a selfish goddamn loser. He calls you a jealous prick. He throws a plastic plate across the room and when it shatters, guilt bubbles in your guts for the first time. You know that Brenda will be the one to clean up the mess. All of the mess.
Jennie’s kid cries out from somewhere as you leave without ceremony. They’ll all be fine. They don’t know that, but they will. You’ll leave the cash with Brenda, and Brenda will make things right again just as she always does. They’ll remain as they are, and they’ll hate you for it. But it’s okay, you tell the voices in your head as you disappear under your covers, because you’re not in control, and the world is burning anyway.