Last Saturday night, while my brother was at the hospital about to welcome his first child into the world, I was at a kitchen table three blocks away, drinking bourbon and swapping stories with his best friend.
“What I want to know is, how come you and your friends never caught the shit like we did?” Chris demanded. “Ohhh man! Mr. Miller gave us so much hell!” …pause… “I mean, now I admit we were asking for a good killing, but, man, you guys! You were–you did crazy things!”
All this is true. Vanessa and I pitched tents in the basement, stocked our campsite with costumes, paint and wax crayons, radio, craft supplies, snacks, and boxes that made suspiciously liquor-bottle-ish clinks as we snuck them downstairs. Then, we dropped acid and spent the night painting our feet and braiding our heads together. We sipped straight vodka and played dress-up, photographing our kneecaps in saggy pantyhose, pretended we were sleeping-bag snakes, and visited the pantry to fetch whatever struck our wacked-out fancy.
At sunrise, we’d greet my dad in the kitchen while we fixed some toast–he, on his way to the commuter train; we, covered in the dregs of dress-up, circles like red wine pooled beneath our eyes. Mr. Miller would give us the once-over, suggest, “What say you ladies go get some sleep,” then pick up his briefcase and turn his back on the obvious drug use going on in his home.
I think he was just relieved that, if anything went awry, we were in his basement, not crawling around a ditch on the outskirts of town or riding in some dude’s car. Some dude like my brother’s friend, whose vintage van was painted with purple sparkle-flake and had wall-to-wall shag carpet in back. Chris was, and still is, a good guy, but his van was enough to make even the most laissez-faire father’s blood run cold.
While my girlfriends and I giggled and played “Guess Which Reptile I Am” in the basement, my brother and his friends flaunted their substance abuse in less subtle ways. The night Darryl threw open my parents’ bedroom door on a dare, fired at them with a toy laser gun, slammed the door and ran away still comes up at dinner. So does the time my brother got in the shower to cover up his barfing, but forgot to run the water.
Right there, you have two excellent reasons why they drew heat while my friends and I skimmed along under the radar. No matter how much fun we were having, we sequestered ourselves where sound wouldn’t carry, and if we got careless and someone came to check on us, we had time to get the paintbrushes out of our noses and stash the hooch under a pillow.
Keep it down, and hide the evidence–words to live by.
In contrast, the boys would roll through the front door shortly after twelve, whip it shut so hard it shuddered on its hinges, then do things like drag a spare mattress from storage up three flights to my brother’s room so they could sleep together, in separate beds. I bet they even narrated the route, calling out to each other to watch that nasty turn after the fourth step: “Dude, we are sooo almost there! Shhh! Total silence! Aw, fuckin’ hell, you pinned my head against the banister!” Apparently, that particular night didn’t end so well, with my dad kicking them out till morning, but not before he blasted the boys with such an incredible scolding that Chris lay on the floor and played dead.
The worst part is, I made it easy for those boys! I wore deep ruts in the path of alarming behaviour: dated guys with (legit) ID and their own apartments; met punks downtown and crashed at their sketchy one-room flats; got tattooed at 16 in a friend’s basement–he was just learning and needed some practice. Plus, he would do it for free, and didn’t even expect me to make out with him in return! (My mother claims the $1,500 cover-up I paid for ten years later was better punishment than she could have dished out for that one.)
One night, a friend lamented my curfew–which was quite generously late–and urged me to stay at a party. “Come on, what could happen? Like, just tell them you lost track of time!” I assured him the only excuse my father would accept was that I was duct-taped to the floor and unable to move. So, my friend tackled me, duct-taped me to the tiles, and telephoned Mr. Miller to inform him of my predicament, swearing I would be home right now, if only I could get there.
So, as we sipped Jim Beam on the rocks last weekend, I had to admit, if I got away with all that, maybe my parents really did love me more than my brother and Chris. Or maybe, I wheedled, Chris was holding out on me? There must be more to it than he was confessing, some really dreadful event that tipped the balance of lenience in my favour? No, nothing, he replied, adding that the exhaustion in my dad’s face each time he told them to quiet down was heartbreaking.
We poured another round and moved on from simple drinking tales to war stories of our small town that had bloomed into a bedroom community. A place where kids with solid safety nets lived a block from households where topless dads pounded Canadian Club in the driveway after breakfast and ordered their kids to fukkin’ get more smokes when the pack was all puffed out. My brother and I had the net. So did Chris, but his shadier neighbours threatened him in broad daylight and chucked bottles at his long, freaky hair.
By the time the boys were shooting laser guns and playing dead, I had moved away from our little town. A couple years later, the boys graduated too, and announced they wanted to take a summer road trip. Permission was granted without contest–maybe I’d broken the seal on moving away, or perhaps my parents were just grateful for a good night’s sleep. A week later, the boys pointed the sparkle-flake van east and headed for the coast, breaking down somewhere deep in Francophone New Brunswick. At least by then they’d dipped their feet in the Atlantic and were halfway home.
My brother sent me a postcard from Halifax, with a little sketch of the purple van, which made me so homesick I booked a flight back to Ontario. I figured we’d arrive about the same time. I could stay only two weeks, which seemed like forever until I touched down. Suddenly I felt like my visit was practically over, and resolved to wring those two weeks till they’d nothing left to give. When I had only two days left, my mom called me into the kitchen and plainly said, “You’ve hardly seen your father. He wants to spend some time with you, but doesn’t know how to ask.”
It took awhile to articulate, but the pinch I felt when she said that was my heart flinching like a salted slug. My dad was the safety net the kids around the block didn’t have. He let us behave like a pack of undomesticated animals, and the worst he did was kick us out for a few hours, until we’d regained our senses. When Vanessa and I came home sporting matching beetle tattoos, he didn’t ask why a bug was more important than a chat with my dad. He just shook his head, pronounced the bugs disgusting, and hoped we had enough fresh bandages.
My family favours cautionary tales and threatening caveats to parables and sweet fables.
“One day,” my grandfather warned me, “your brother will be bigger than you, and he’ll get you back for that!” We’re in our thirties now, and I’m still about an inch taller, but Sean demonstrated years ago that he can toss me over his shoulder and pin me face-down.
“One day,” my mother predicted, “you’ll have kids of your own and then you’ll see what it’s like! They’ll be just as bad as you and then some, I’m sure!” I suppose my brother’s about to learn how that one turns out.