Speeding towards the sunset, listening to gangster rap, the volume all the way up, as the wind pours in and swirls cellophane wrappers from used cigars around the car; one whips me on the cheek before whooshing out the window- a kiss from the packaging of my vice. I put the Swisher Sweet back to my mouth and inhale. Ash vanishes in the violence of the tornado inside my car, and the flame on the tip of my blunt burns a brighter orange. The sunset is violet red, fading to black with each static thump of bass from my blown speakers as I hurl myself into the future on this four-lane highway. Age is not what we think it is. I exhale; the smoke burns my eyes like fire ants sting. I check the review mirror on an impulse from a source that cannot be named. There’s a police car on my tail, and his red and blues light up.
Ah yes, it's not what we think it is at all. My eyes dash to the speedometer, ninety-five, then back to the rearview and the pulsating sirens throwing their colors like splashes of paint on my interior. It sounds like pain, problems, an air raid, and I am the target. The wind screams as it rushes in my car that’s not slowing down.
Life is louder than the vibes we create. Like Jenga blocks tumbling down at the hand of a loser, anything built can be taken away because of a lapse of judgment. I flick the blunt out my window but miss. It bounces off the door frame and lands between my legs, the cherry facing me. I feel the flame burning a hole into my pants’ crotch. The heat sizzles the tip of my penis, and my whole body leaps from the seat like stirfry thrown from a skillet. My flailing foot slams down on the gas, and in my haste to swipe the blunt off the seat, my hand hits the steering wheel, and the car jerks to the right as if it’s on a rope being yanked by the devil—time changes. As the car spins out of control and throws me against the door, I become Neo in the matrix; the cars coming at me, the bullets I hope to dodge, and everything is in slow motion.
Then, it is no surprise my reality melts away, and I see my twin brother, mouth agape, screaming like he’s being burned alive as he’s crushed against me by the force of the collision that killed him and my father. I hear the blood dripping from my dad’s head landing on broken glass and the ringing from the concussion, and yelling; there was so much yelling, “He ran the light!” They shouted, “He went right through the light!”
“Your father’s a god damn drunk!” My mother always said.
It’s just her and me now. Well, right now.
I’m spinning like a plate on the hand of a circus freak into the next lane, pinned against the side of my door from the force, unable to truly process the proximity of death’s embrace before my eyes. I’m frozen, helpless. An adult man, by age, sure. Paralyzed by fear, or is it, guilt? Cars whizz by me, so close they rattle my car’s cheap interior. Then, like a hummingbird bonking into a glass building or a snake getting its fangs ripped out by pliers, my car smashes against the sound barrier. My neck snaps and the car's airbag punches me. My shoulder; something about my shoulder - it feels like a wing. There’s ringing in my ears, and the blood from my nose is turning the deflating airbag red, like wine running down a sail. It was twelve years ago when my brother died. It’s been seven since I told my mom I’d never drink and drive.
I’ve disappointed her with the things that I’ve done; I haven’t lived up to the promises we made during the grief times. Those ‘puff up your chest’ and ‘keep your chin up’ and ‘do it for him’ promises. Yes, I’ve always felt that being a twin was a burden. He stole half of what I was supposed to be in the womb; I think that’s how it works, and I felt this even when he was alive that if instead of two, we were one, I would have been special. Then, he was roadkill, his limp torso on top of me, his legs mangled and bloodied like the guts of an animal ran over too many times, and my mom told me we had to live our lives to honor him.
My 94’ BMW - I call her Rose - is totaled, like one of those cars you see in monster truck shows, but the gangster rap still blares, and I’m alive. Turning to see the rubberneckers is not an option because I cannot move my neck. Breathing is labored, wheezy, and shallow. I could never be like you, mom. I’m sorry. You’re strong. You tried to set the right examples. Unlike me, you didn’t fake it and go through the motions. You picked us both up and forged a new life. I wanted to be strong like you, to do it for him, but I can’t stop seeing the accident. I feel so guilty, mom, and you weren’t there. I’ve disappointed you too many times, and you always say the same thing: you’ll love me no matter what. But if you love me, then why would I change?
You get a call from the police at 8:05 pm, telling you your son’s been in a car accident. You’ve drank two glasses of red wine and are watching Law and Order. Dinner tonight was a bag of popcorn. Also, you’ve taken Xanax; you mustn’t forget about the Xanax.
That’s me. The officer says my son’s been taken to the hospital. The man, who I imagine has a mustache, tells me he’s concussed and probably has some broken bones, but he’ll be alright. The car - the one I bought him - is totaled, he says. Meanwhile, Ice T is talking to a bosomy redhead who’s just discovered her son’s been murdered. She asks him, “How could this happen?”
“How could this happen?” I say to the officer on the phone. Life imitates art.
“His blood alcohol levels were above the legal limit, and we found marijuana in the car.”
I suck my purple teeth and wince at his words - like father, like son - like mother?
I never had problems with this before Barry died. A mother's pain in losing a child feels like a piece of her heart was flayed. Then, as a mother of twins, well, you can imagine, I had to hold my breath every time I looked at his brother. It felt like I was drowning, so it was my ocean of pain to live in. Depressants beget depression, but Dr. Mizel told me the pills were fine. Of course, the bottle says you’re not supposed to drink while taking them, but the real problem is that they’re such small pills, and I sometimes forget I’ve taken them at all, then it’s too late.
The officer tells me the name of the hospital, and I thank him as if I’ve just ordered pizza, and as soon as the call ends, my program cuts to a Cialis commercial I’ve seen a hundred times. Yet, I can’t look away. The TV is like a tractor beam, which sometimes happens when I’m on the pills. I blindly reach for my wine and knock the stemless glass off its coaster. It shatters on the tile floor, and still, my eyes linger on the TV for a moment longer. What is real anymore?
A good mother keeps a clean house - that’s one thing I know. I also know I need to go to my son, but at this moment, I feel nothing would be right if I didn’t clean. I pause the television, and I realize it’s a recorded show, and I don’t need to watch commercials, but that doesn’t matter now.
Within minutes I’m on my hands and swollen knee - I have a bad knee, which my doctor tells me could be fixed with physical therapy, but I haven’t been able to prioritize that - and I get to cleaning the stain. You don’t need to buy fancy cleaners; a small amount of dish soap with hot water and a sponge usually does the trick with spills like this. Of course, for very stubborn ones, you can get some bleach and baking soda and mix it together; that should take care of it.
Once the stain’s clean, there’s the glass to worry about. Come to think of it; there are bits of glass stuck in my knee. Nothing to worry about; it’s just those tiny splinter-like shards that wipe right off with a wet paper towel.
Soon, I’m sweeping the area free of glass, and I get so into the motion of it that I can’t stop. It’s not old-fashioned to think keeping your home respectable and clean is worthwhile. Yes, I understand I need to think about my son, but if a mother can’t keep a clean house, what does she have to show? One son? I do it as much for him as I do it for myself. I can’t imagine what he would think of me if he saw that the house wasn’t spotless - he’d probably think I was losing it. Obviously, we can’t have that; one of us has to persevere. I’m trying to set a good example for him by showing that we can keep going.
I sweep around the living room and dining room table, the hallway to the bedroom, and the guest bedroom. I empty the dustpan three times and then take out the vacuum cleaner because there’s no point in stopping now when I’m this far on. As I’m mindlessly following my usual cleaning course, I lose sight of how far I extend the power nozzle and knock over a picture on a particular shelf that I try not to look at too much; it’s a shelf full of pictures of us as a complete family before the accident.
I stand the vacuum erect but don’t turn it off. I lift the picture frame from its fallen position and set it just where it was. Looking at his face makes me drown; really, it does. Poor Barry. He looks so much like his brother, but they are very different - were very different. Barry was just so… the problem is my son doesn’t understand how to move on from the accident. He doesn’t get that days, weeks, months, and years are not a given. Birthdays aren’t guaranteed; age isn’t what he thinks it is.
I don’t know how he can’t see that it can all be taken away instantly. I try to tell him he needs to think about his future. I keep my house clean, you know? I go to work. I cook dinner. Sure, there’s the Xanax, but he doesn’t see that or the wine. I don’t ever drink around him. I mean, sure, if he’s in the house, I’ll have a drink, it’s my house, but I’ll do it after he’s asleep or in a room he’s not in. I just think back on what I would give to be his age again. He has his whole life ahead of him if he can get past this accident.
The vacuum cleaner’s damn loud, and I realize I’ve been staring at this picture long enough for a pool of saliva to collect in my gullet, and when I swallow, it’s one of those half swallows where not all of the liquid goes down your throat, and you choke on what remains. So I’m choking in front of the paused Cialis commercial, with the vacuum on but not moving anywhere. I cough until my throat burns and my eyes water, and when I can finally swallow normally again, I have my hands on my knees, and I ask myself what I’m doing cleaning the house when my son is in the hospital.
But I’ll go and see him, I tell myself. And besides, it wouldn't make any difference even if I got there ten minutes ago or ten minutes from now. I’d just end up in a waiting room, waiting. But I tell myself I will go to him. I promised him I’ll always love him.
It hits me just then how uncomfortable the hospital will be and how I’ll have to be careful on the drive over there since I’ve been drinking. If there were ever a time to take the edge off, it would be at the hospital, waiting on what’s left of my sons. Of course, I’ll bring a Xanax for when I get there.
Parents love their children; we're there for them even when they make mistakes. I’m a good mom; I remind myself. Then a nagging thought enters my mind. I think of Barry and what he’d be like if he were alive. I can’t help but think he’d be doing something amazing. He wouldn’t be living at home or working as a waiter in the city. He was so determined. My heart aches to go to him, and I feel like I’m drowning again. If his death’s taught me anything, it’s that love and loyalty are not the same.
The house is clean now, and I have to get his brother.