"I think a bit more rosemary should do the trick."
Meg started for the window garden when her phone rang. She stopped and grabbed it, checking the screen before answering.
“Hey mom, how are you?”
“Good honey, I’m fine. But listen, I don’t want you to get upset, but Mark just called to say he’s not coming tomorrow.”
Meg’s heart let out an audible sigh.
“Oh, I don’t know really, you know him. Something about stock sales and shorting options and whatnot. I guess some big trades went through today, and in any case, he’s beat and needs the weekend to recover.”
Meg didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.
“Honey, are you still there?”
“Yes, mom, I’m here.”
“Are you ok sweetie? I know it’s disappointing, but look at it this way, we can still celebrate tomorrow, just you, me and Dad. It will be fun! And I’ll be bringing Mark’s gifts down to him on Sunday, so we can…”
“Why are you bringing his gifts to him?”
“Well, he thought it would cheer him up, since he was going to be missing the party and all. And that reminds me, can you bring your present for him with you tomorrow? That way I can bring it along with the others. Unless you want to join me on Sunday? A drive into the city, a good old-fashioned Mom-and-Meg date, just like back in the day. What do you say?”
“Sure, mom, whatever you want. That sounds fun.” It didn’t sound fun in the slightest; not in this mood, and not in this light. But at this point, Meg just wanted off the phone, so she said whatever it would take.
“Oh wonderful. Alright sweetheart, I’m going to go start dinner for your father. I love you so much and I’m looking forward to celebrating tomorrow. And don’t let this bother you, ok honey? We will have fun no matter what.”
“Ok mom, I won’t,” Meg lied. “I love you too, and give dad hugs from me.”
She hung up the phone and tried to shrug off the bother, but it wouldn’t shake. A blend of sadness, anger, and confusion muddled her mind, and it kept her from knowing what to do next. Cooking dinner was now the furthest thing from her mind, but what was the closest?
Her fist suddenly slammed the counter as if demanding action, and her eyes welled with tears. Feeling unable to do anything else, Meg kneeled, and let the weight of her heart pull her to the ground.
“He’s always pulling this stuff. Always. It’s always about him.”
She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She knew she was upset about something more than just her brother missing their birthday, but what?
As if answering the call, an idea arose from her mess of emotions. She lifted her head and the tears ceased. She sat for a moment, unconsciously holding her breath while processing the thought. She could hear and feel her heart beat, and it seemed to be signaling instructions.
Then, like a pawn to a Grandmaster, Meg began to move with a resolve she didn’t recognize. Her hands pressed her off the floor, her feet carried her into her room, and after a moment in the closet, her body emerged with her arms holding Mark’s gift.
The game continued and Meg moved toward the door. She knew what she was doing, but her volition was not her own. And not knowing what else to do, what else could she do but oblige? Before opening the door, her eyes fell upon a particular piece of art hanging on the wall. It had been a favorite from one of her 2nd graders; one she loved so much that she had it framed. The simple picture showed a little, green heart at the bottom of a mountain. Its long arm was extended and its three fingered hand was grasping the top, as if rock climbing and traversing the entire mountain in one go. How brave, she thought, before her own heart brought her back to the matter at hand. She turned and pulled on her coat, stomped into her snow-boots, and headed to the car with Mark’s present in hand.
Meg had been driving for 20 minutes before noticing that traffic was non-existent. How strange? She thought, before remembering the day and time; I-87 was usually a nightmare, but on a Friday at five, one could travel into the city easily as the working masses were heading out, rather than in. In that same breath, she noticed she hadn’t turned on any music; another slip of the mind, she thought. Her mind had been elsewhere, but where?
“What am I doing?”
She knew where she was headed and why, but it didn’t feel like she was in charge of any of this. If it were up to her, she’d turn right around and head back home, trade cooking in for Thai takeout, and curl up on the couch to binge on reruns of Abstract, all while suppressing this part of her that insisted on driving to Mark’s instead.
What was she doing?
Chaos filled her brain. She hadn’t turned on music, but she suffered the tunes that played in her head. Conflicting songs, but all in her brother’s tone, created a cacophony that Meg didn’t know what to do with.
“Is that what you want? Me to be hurt?”
“Ahh Twinnie, you’re the best.”
“It’s obvious you are just being selfish.”
“How lucky am I to have a sis like you.”
“You would kill yourself just to help others, wouldn’t you? Everyone but me, of course.”
“You know you’re two minutes older than me? But I love you anyway, old lady.”
“You obviously can’t handle it. Good thing I’m here, as always, to help you get through.”
He never really yelled, but a sharpness in his words seemed designed to harm. And when he spoke praise, these words stuck too, but more like dressings created to suffocate, rather than heal, the wounds underneath.
“He loves me, He loves me not…”
Nothing ever seemed real. Or stable. And although his fickle words always struck Meg to the core, Mark always left encounters unfazed. His words, once spoken, never registered again; not in his psyche, and definitely not in his life. He could issue an oral slaughter and the next moment, turn and smile, ignorant of the battle he just provoked.
But the thing was, he only spoke words. And nothing he ever said was sincere, or even real. The only thing that rang true was how Meg felt in the end; vilified, along with a dose of shame for good measure.
“Sticks and stones…”
The childhood rhymes grew louder in Meg’s mind, and the vacillating images of Mark’s fake smiles and foul snickers faded to the background. As she stepped out of the car, she furrowed her brow, and set out to do what her heart had devised.
Meg took a deep breath, and pressed the intercom button outside her brother’s building.
“Mark, it’s me, Meg.”
“Meg? Twinnie? What are you doing here?”
“Happy Birthday, Brother. Surprise.”
“Haha yea, surprise alright! Happy Birthday to you too Twinnie!”
The door to the lobby buzzed and Meg let herself in. But as she walked through, each step seemed to strip away her courage. Her car-ride confidence drained from her body, and the old mental tunes resumed. But this time, they played in her own self-loathing tone:
“How could I be so stupid?”
“I’m totally overreacting.”
“Mark was tired from work and didn’t want to make the drive this weekend; that was all.”
“I’m being outrageous and crazy. What is wrong with me?”
As if waking up from a nightmare, she frantically looked around and considered her options. She wanted to run, to hide; to do anything other than what she came here to do.
But she had already talked to Mark.
Seeing escape as futile, Meg resorted to shifting her mental perception instead. Maybe it would be nice to just stop by and surprise her brother with his gift? She hadn’t seen him in a while, and she knew he would be happy to see her. These thoughts immediately restored a comfortable, internal order that Meg was used to, and with her reconstructed resolve, she walked with assurance toward the elevator.
A big smile crossed Mark’s face as he opened the door.
“Twinnie! What are you doing here? I would have imagined Friday nights are your night to, what, sit solo on the couch while chowing down on Thai and binging on Netflix?”
Meg’s mind accepted his accuracy, and her ego took the blow. He opened his arms for a hug.
“Happy Birthday sis.”
“Happy birthday to you too, brother.” She returned the gesture, although something inside her did not want to. She spoke, trying to perk up, and hoping to shrug that something away.
“Mom told me you weren’t able to come tomorrow, so I thought I’d drive down to surprise you. So, surprise.” She held out the gift. But nothing felt perky, and the something didn’t budge.
“Aww, thanks Twinnie.” Mark took the gift and placed it on his high-top counter.
“This means a lot. And hey, I am sorry about this weekend, of course I wanted to come but with the way today has rolled out and all, I just needed a break. And I got your gift too, I just didn’t get a chance to pick it up from the store yet. So next time I see you, it’s yours, ok?”
“Ok.” But she wasn’t ok.
An awkward silence filled the space between the twins.
“So, should I open it now? Or wait until I’m officially 25 tomorrow?”
“Do what you like.” Meg’s voice didn’t sound like her own, but Mark took no notice.
“I think I will wait until tomorrow. Mom said she was coming up on Sunday to bring gifts too, right? So, I’ll save this to cheer me up tomorrow when I’m all alone.”
“Good idea.” But then, the something inside her couldn’t help itself.
“Or, why don’t you come back with me tonight?”
“Yeah, why don’t you come back to White Plains tonight. I’ll drive, so you can rest, and we can all celebrate together tomorrow. Then mom can bring you back Sunday. How does that sound?” It wasn’t hope motivating this dialogue; pure intent was steering this ship. Meg knew what her will was doing, and she was back on board.
“I don’t think that will work Twinnie. I have some things I have to wrap up this evening, and well, like I said…”
“You can wrap it up back at my place. Come on, Twinnie, let’s do this.”
Mark’s joyous demeanor slipped as his gaze rose to meet Meg’s eyes.
“I don’t think you get it, Meg, as you usually don’t. I have things to attend to. And I’m tired from such a long work week; a feeling you wouldn’t understand.”
Meg had been pulled down rabbit holes like this before. Retorts of truth never worked; in fact, they always pulled her deeper into the mire of her brother’s gas-lighting brain. So, this time, she took a different path.
“You’re right, Twinnie. I wouldn’t understand.”
“Exactly. So why don’t you just head back home, to your cushy little life where you can go back to understanding so little, and let me get on with my night.”
Sticks. And. Stones.
“You’re right, Twinnie. I think it’s best for me to just go back home.” She headed toward the door, paused, then turned to add,
“And Happy Birthday, Brother. Just know that I love you, and that I am done.” She turned back and strutted out the door.
This time, conscious or not, Mark noticed the change in her tone, and stormed after her.
“What do you mean, you’re done? Done with what; I asked you to leave!”
Meg turned. Her eyes were sharp, and her voice was filled with a potent fierceness;
“I’m. Done. With. You. With your selfish behavior. With the way you treat me, and Mom and Dad. I’m done playing your one-sided games, and I’m done wanting you to be a part of my life. Goodbye, Mark.”
Meg had never felt so powerful in her life. And even though she knew a heavy hit was headed her way, she knew none of it would stick. How beautiful and free she felt; untethered for the first time from his convoluted lines. They were just words. But she meant every last one of hers, while Twinnie’s would now fall on deaf ears.
“Ohhh right, now here’s drama Meg. Did you drive up all the way to tell me this, on the eve of our birthday, no less? How pathetic.” Any retort would be like fighting quicksand, so she remained silent and continued walking away. “Go on then, go back to that laughable life of yours. And thanks for this dramatic nightmare that will now keep me up all night. Wait until Mom hears about this, I wonder what she will think?”
His words charged down the hall without a victim to hit.
Maybe Meg had snapped, or maybe she had hit a breaking point. Or maybe turning 25 imbued a level of no-nonsense confidence in her psyche. Whatever it was, she didn’t care. All she knew was that she felt good, and that was the only thing that mattered.
Mark’s unravelling continued, but Meg took no notice. She hit the button on the elevator, walked inside, and closed her eyes. As the doors closed, she breathed a sigh, and her own little, green heart settled in, contented with the new view.