I felt a sense of vertigo as I went down the staircase, like I was traveling into an abyss.
Once I reached the living room, my equilibrium was only slightly restored. The room was brightly lit, overcompensating for the dark-wood-beamed ceiling and the dark orange wallpaper. No one liked the dark orange wallpaper, but they were too cheap to fix it. It was like looking at a movie screen with a flickering hair. After a moment, my eyes adjusted.
My adoptive parents motioned for me to sit down on a three-person-length wicker-basket couch in the living room, ostensibly to discuss the odd circumstances surrounding the death of my adoptive brother. My adoptive father sat on the couch with me, and my adoptive mother sat in a wicker-basket chair opposite the couch.
Where did all of this wicker furniture come from? I said to them as I looked around.
It was on sale, said my adoptive mother. It’s easier to keep clean than the leather.
But besides that, not much has changed, said my adoptive father. You see, Helen, all we did was replace the leather with the wicker.
The furniture was exactly the same, just of a different material and texture. The same family photographs and knickknacks graced the fireplace mantel, the stereo and speakers were set back in a black cabinet with a clear plastic door that, when pressed, swung open, and in the corner of the room was a smug and self-satisfied beanbag chair that the long-dead family dog used to sleep upon. I was shocked my adoptive parents had kept that beanbag chair all those years.
Who sits on that? I said to my adoptive parents.
That was Bailey’s bed, said my adoptive mother, and she had a faraway, dreamy look in her eyes.
As soon as we clarified the matter of the new furniture, my adoptive mother, in her to-the-floor flannel nightgown, got up. Does anyone want some herbal tea? she said. I’m going to make some herbal tea.
She went into the kitchen and busied herself for a while and I heard her opening and closing the wood cabinets absentmindedly.
It’s the three of us now, said my adoptive father.
He perched himself on the edge of a couch.
So how long do you think you’ll be staying with us, Helen?
Once a rather handsome man, he had taken on a shrunken appearance since the last time I saw him, and his brown hair had gone gray on top and white on the sides. The color of his hair changed because of the grieving and the loss, I speculated. What a toll it has already taken upon him and his physical appearance! It saddened me to see such a drastic physical transformation, and so soon after the death.
To answer your question, I said, I purchased a one-way plane ticket. I’m here to look into the abyss and to offer my support in whatever form it takes.
He nodded. His eyes were small and sad and brave like those of an endangered bird flying through a forest at dusk. It has something to do with the death, I thought as my gaze shifted from my adoptive father to the beanbag chair to my adoptive father’s hair, from his hair to the photographs on the mantel and from the photographs back to my adoptive father.
What a difficult time, I whispered as I scrutinized his appearance for a few more minutes, what a toll all this has taken, then I began to look at my adoptive father with the charity of a nun as I felt something foreign swell in my heart for him and his shrunken, birdlike figure. I moved closer to him on the couch, close enough to see the long white hairs growing behind his ears. Someone should trim those, I said.
I wanted to offer him as much support as possible.
Your hair looks different, I said.
We haven’t seen each other in five years, he said. People get older, Helen, people change. Besides, that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Do you have a job you have to return to? How long exactly will you be here? We will be hosting some visitors…
I was very curious, then I looked again at the beanbag chair slumped over in the corner of the living room and I let out a laugh. My adoptive mother came out from the kitchen to see what was wrong.
What a toll it has taken, this death and grieving and loss! I said under my breath, under my laughter.
My adoptive father said something to my adoptive mother.
Helen, said my adoptive mother, and she touched my shoulder. Is now not a good time to talk about what happened? Is being here at home with the two of us upsetting you?
My laughter, now hardly weltering, died away. I shook my head no.
It’s fine, I said.
What was the concept of time anyway, especially to these two ghost-figures and their grieving? A few moments passed in silence and I wondered how many phantoms were in the living room with us that night. It was an appropriate question because as I was sitting on the three-person wicker couch, I started to formulate a hypothesis that their grieving was the fourth, yet-unspoken presence in the living room and no one had acknowledged it.
Perhaps I was the only one, the chosen one, who could see it clearly in a material way. If it had to take on a bodily form, and if I had to describe that form to someone, I would say I imagined it looked like a European man in his forties, average build and height, balding, with a red nose, sitting on a chair, observing us from a dark corner of the room, opposite the beanbag chair. I shook my adoptive mother’s hand off my shoulder, got up from the wicker-basket couch, and reached out my own hand to touch their grieving and it recoiled as if I were some sort of vagrant beggar.
I am not a vagrant beggar! I shouted at it.
The European man who seemed to embody their grieving got up from his chair and left haughtily.
Perhaps this isn’t a good time to discuss things, said my adoptive mother. You see, your father and I have been thinking… We can’t be much of a support to you in a time like this, you see… do you understand what I’m saying… we can’t support you right now, as it is, we’re both trying to adjust to the situation…
Her voice trailed off and she floated back into the kitchen.
My adoptive father looked uncomfortable; I thought it might be a kind gesture to change the subject.
Will you vote yes in the stadium referendum? I said. My adoptive father covered his face with his hands.
It’s worse than a car accident, I heard him say into his hands, it’s worse than a house on fire.
My adoptive mother came out from the kitchen and set down a tray of chamomile tea and biscotti.
Helen, try to be nice to your father. Let’s be kind to one another, after all, this is a difficult time for all of us, she said.
What a difficult time! I acknowledged again and again. What a toll it has taken! It had been less than 48 hours after his suicide. What would the weeks, the months, the years do to them, these ghost-figure survivors? I estimated they would live for another twenty to thirty years, meaning two to three more decades of post-traumatic living. Meanwhile, my adoptive mother and adoptive father sat on the wicker furniture and ate their crackers nervously. I attempted to explain that I was partially employed as a supervisor of troubled young people at an after-school facility designed to keep them off drugs, out of gangs, etc.
So you look after people? said my adoptive mother. You take care of them?
She looked at me incredulously.
Of course, I said, they are troubled.
Then I went into explicit detail about what my troubled young people encountered and endured. I told them in the quietest voice possible about the drug-addicted family members, the daily abuse meted out by once-trusted relatives, teachers, and coaches, the rapes and tortures. My adoptive parents shuddered.
I stared in disbelief at the beanbag chair. Dirty beanbag chair, shabby polyurethane-filled piece of shit! Their entire lives, they each had trouble hearing difficult and upsetting things; it astonished me that they were even able to accept the fact that their adoptive son committed suicide. I continued to stare at the disgusting beanbag chair. Over a decade ago, when the family cat died, they refused to remove the dead body. Everyone loved the cat, because it acted like the dog. They left the dead cat in the foyer, where anyone who entered the house encountered it. After two weeks of the dead cat on the floor, I became so disgusted with the sight and smell, I had no choice but to call pest-control services, the same service that scraped the dead animal out of my adoptive brother’s closet. After they removed the rotten cat-body, everyone, including my adoptive brother, became very angry with me, and refused to talk to me for two months.
Do you remember Chad Lambo, Helen? Does the name ring a bell? He’s been supporting us like we’re part of his own family. He says he went to school with you, that you might know him.
What Chad? I said. I don’t remember a Chad.
You don’t remember Chad Lambo?
I don’t know a Chad, I said, and I don’t care to.
My adoptive father gulped down his tea, got up from the couch and went to the cabinet above the stereo and took out a bottle of gin, which he proceeded to pour into his empty teacup.
So it’s just the three of us, I said, echoing my adoptive father.
They each frowned. I thought they were displeased, but it could have been about anything; there was nothing good in the situation. My adoptive father looked particularly angry. I thought he was going to ask me to leave the house again.
Helen, he said, I think it’s time to go to sleep.
Had it really been five years since we had seen each other? Or was my adoptive father becoming senile?
I’ll put fresh sheets on your bed, said my adoptive mother, and she stood up.
Tears the temperature of near-boiling water sprang out of my eyes for no reason, no reason at all. It was humiliating to cry in front of them as an adult. Ashamed, I ran up the stairs.
The first night back in my childhood bedroom, after a five-year-long absence, I sat on the carpeted floor and arranged my clothes and items into neat piles, I distracted myself from the miserable circumstances that brought me back to the fortress. To put my clothes and things into order was better than meditation, I thought, and much more productive. Arrange your room and you can arrange the world, I said to no one. Once I was finished organizing my things on the floor, I made my way into the closet, a walk-in filled with objects in chaos: a poster of silver dolphins swimming peacefully in a neon-green radioactive ocean, several books about crime including the O.J. Simpson trial, JonBenét Ramsey, Jeffrey Dahmer, one acid Western paperback, a photo of ten nude men on a ten-seated bicycle, aviator sunglasses, a fisherman’s hat with the initials BC, a high school yearbook, two Fiona Apple CDs, a poster of Fiona Apple in her underwear crawling out of a couch, a worn Dover edition of The Odyssey, with many lines enthusiastically highlighted in the first few chapters. I set it down and paged through the yearbook until I realized it wasn’t my yearbook, because I couldn’t find a picture of myself; it was my adoptive brother’s, 2003, a couple years after I graduated. I examined the well-meaning end-of-school-year messages from a few friends, I counted five signatures, inscribed with black markers and pens on the inner cover. I remembered one of the friends, Zachary Moon. He wrote: HAVE A GOOD SUMMER YOU FAGGOT. Smiley face. There were crude little drawings of bongs and breasts and vaginas and cars. YOURE MOMS CUNT. YOURE SISTERS TWAT. As I paged through the senior portraits, I became enchanted by all of the mocking and bitter faces. Everyone was broken and ruinous.
I crawled into bed, exhausted from my arranging, and immediately I felt the flower-patterned comforter from my childhood smother my adult female body. It made the skin under my breasts sweat, and the sweat soaked through my nightshirt, a gigantic men’s XXL Hanes V-neck I found wadded into a soiled ball on an empty seat in the F train on St. Patrick’s Day. I took off my shirt and threw it onto one of the piles on the floor. My breasts were the size of small, shrunken apples. The horse-pulling-the-cart image came into my mind as I wiped the sweat onto the comforter, and instead of the smell of apples, the smell of cucumbers wafted into the air, causing me to gag. I expected to find peace in my childhood bedroom, but not even opening the windows to let the room air out for hour after hour would release the stench of death and cucumbers permeating the room, and the house, a house of death.
Once upon a time the house was infested with silverfish. They came out of the cupboards and closets in great numbers, they came out of every single crevice of the house, from the cracks in the ceilings to underneath the doors. Some men in hazardous-material outfits drizzled pesticide over the entire house, a pesticide which left a chemical residue that we were forced to inhale for weeks upon weeks because my adoptive father was too cheap to put us up in a hotel while the poison tapered off. Sometimes I thought we might have become brain-damaged from the fumes, each of us sustaining catastrophic brain injuries, it would have explained so much.
Patty Yumi Cottrell is the author of the novel Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s). Her work has appeared in Vice, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, and other places. She was born in South Korea and lives in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, click here.