Continued from Vol. 5...
At 5:42, Kevin buzzes our apartment. He’s one of those horribly obnoxious visitors who rings the buzzer incessantly until you either let him up or come downstairs. I am only halfway dressed when he gets there and so we have to listen to him play Old Macdonald on the buzzer for a full three minutes because I refuse to let him up to meet Mel.
“You look slutty for a dead dad dinner,” Mel says, looking up from her book as I put on my coat.
“Thank you for your opinion. Wish I’d asked for it,” I snap. “I’m going now.” She stands up and darts in front of the door. “Mel. I’m going. What are you doing?” She says nothing, and just starts hugging me.
“I know I was a bitch just now.”
“No shit.” She makes a horrible, almost crying face that looks particularly devastating on a pretty face like Mel’s.
“I’m really sorry, Kenz. About your dad. I’m so sorry about your dad. And-- and, you know what, also for what I said about Kevin. Because... You’re an adult. You can make your own decisions.” She sighs like she doesn’t quite believe that all the way.
“I’m serious. Really all I want is... I just want you to get through this. No matter how you do it. I just want you to be happy again.” She’s getting overly emotional, which is annoying. But I sort of love that she says “happy again” as if it’s been decades since she last saw me smile.
“I’m not unhappy, Mel. Thank you, but I’m okay. Really. Unfortunately, now I’m also late, so...” She gives me a final squeeze and moves out of the way, nodding. “Don’t wait up. You know how my mom can be.”
Kevin is wearing a button front shirt and jeans now. The shirt is sort of an ugly beachy print, but even still, it’s nice to see him in real clothes.
“All right, baby boo! Let’s do this thang,” he says, like a tool, when I come out of the building. He throws his arm over my shoulder as we walk toward a small, bright yellow Saab. It’s so fittingly obnoxious, I can hardly believe that this is what he’s driving for the evening. “Good god, You smell great,” he says, his face in my hair. I swoon and hate it. As we walk I can feel myself getting angrier and angrier that he’s here at all.
Then for the whole drive, Kevin won’t shut up about how great it is to be hanging out with me again. I’m full of one-word responses and somewhat coherent grunts. You fucking moron, I keep thinking. If you didn’t want him here you should have just told him. You should have told him as soon as you saw him.
But I keep not telling him. I feel guilty but by now I’ve convinced myself that it’s better to let him think that we’re about to have the best time. Then I start thinking maybe I’ll never have to tell him, that somehow magically it just won’t come up. But of course it will. And so, as we are pulling into my mom’s driveway I say, “Just so you know, my dad died yesterday. So. This is going to be that kind of dinner thing.”
It’s not better. My face flushes hot, and I want to scream because I don’t feel any better. I feel guiltier and ugly and mean. I glance at Kevin, and see that he is completely paralyzed, and I’m completely ashamed of myself for everything.
This is the kind of cruelty I learned from Gerald. How to manipulate a situation to make the other person feel as terrible as you possibly can, and over the years I got frighteningly good at it. Fights between he and I turned into championship matches of wit. Who could play the other person into a corner first? When I was young we just yelled, but as I grew up we began speaking in quiet, and disturbingly rational tones while we ripped each other to shreds. It upsets me to admit how addicted I got to playing this game with him. To admit that I would provoke him, just to see if I could win. All too often the afternoons we spent together ended this way. It would start as a disagreement over what TV show to watch, and before long he would say that I was acting like a bitch. Just like my mother. I would bite back, telling him he couldn’t be mad at her for being the parent he had failed to be. He would then say that I was a disappointment, that I was virtually impossible to love. And I would tell him that anything I was he could blame only on himself. That he was nothing but I scared little boy masquerading in a grown man’s body. He’d threaten to leave and never come back. I’d threaten to kill myself. And we would just go back and forth until he stormed out, slammed the door in my face. It was unthinkably painful, but somewhere in me I knew he’d come back. He’d drink it away, he’d forget and he’d come back. And, eventually, we would play again.
Suddenly I can’t stand to be in the car with myself anymore, so before Kevin has time to say anything I get out, walk up the path, onto the front porch and ring the bell.
It takes everything in me to force a smile when the door finally opens. Mom is wearing a magenta apron that Jimmy got her for Christmas. It’s customized and reads, Head Chef: Elizabeth James on the front in a swirly script. It is evident that she planned her entire outfit around wearing this apron tonight, and, with the exception of her concerned mother expression, she is the picture of domestic bliss when she comes to the door.
“Sweetie! Oh, you’re here, you’re here, thank goodness!” She envelops me in one of her weird hugs. She hugs you all the way with one arm and then uses the other to pat you vigorously on the back. I don’t know where she learned to do this, but it has been the same way my whole life. At this moment, I don’t even care. I squeeze her so tightly I hear her back crack. “All right, sweetie, all right,” she says, pulling away from me and looking nervously over my shoulder. “Where’s Kevin? He did come with you, didn’t he?”
“Oh. He’s just taking his time getting out of the car,” I assure her. “He’ll just be a second.”
“Well, why don’t you come in out of the cold? I’m so surprised it has gotten so cold tonight! It was such a beautiful afternoon. Did you get out and spend some time in the sunshine?”
“I went for a walk this morning.”
“A walk! How lovely! Such a good way to get some fresh air and some exercise. You know,” her voice goes soft, and she leans toward me, “your father loved to go for walks.” I know she’s trying, but I roll my eyes. Is this how it’s going to be now that he’s dead? Will we be leaning in to whisper about him for the rest of our lives?
I hear Kevin’s car door close behind me just as my mother shrills, “There he is!” Before she goes bounding down the steps to inflict one of her hugs on him.
“Mrs. James,” he says with his arms wrapped tightly around her shoulders, “I am just so sorry to hear about Mr. Adams. You’re so brave to be having us here like this. You are an incredibly strong woman. Truly inspirational.” Kevin is speaking in a voice I’ve never heard him use before. It’s very formal and genuine, and it catches me so much by surprise that I have to double check that it’s actually him. He looks me in the eye for a second and then looks back at my mother.
“So sweet of you to say that, Kevin darling. You always know the right thing to say.” He rubs her arm and smiles warmly down into her face. “You know, I was so pleased to hear that you and Mackenzie have made amends. We’ve missed you around here.” She sighs this big, heartfelt sigh and puts her hand on his face. For a moment it feels like she’s been reunited with her long lost son. I clear my throat and shift awkwardly on the porch. Finally she turns back toward the house, taking Kevin by the hand. “All right! Well! Come in, come in, you two. We’re just putting the finishing touches on dinner, but there are little snacks in the meantime. Crudites, and that sort of thing if you’re peckish.”
Inside, the house is still decorated for Christmas, with poinsettias on every available surface, and mistletoe hanging in the doorway between the living and dining rooms. Jimmy has put on Ella & Louis and built a fire in the fireplace. The tree is dried out, but still twinkling with all its lights and ornaments. There is a holly wreath on the door to the bedroom and another one on the bathroom door. The stockings are still hanging, one for me, Nathan, Jimmy, Mom and a small one for the cat, Dexter. The only notable additions since the last time I was home are the photos of my father on the mantelpiece and on the dining room table, surrounded by votive candles. This particular decorating choice makes it look a little like my father may in fact have been the baby Jesus.
“Look at this. This house is as beautiful as ever,” Kevin says as we’re taking off our coats. “You have a gift, Mrs. James.”
Mom smiles, saying “Oh, you,” and goes bustling up the stairs of the split level and vanishes into the kitchen. I start to follow her, but Kevin stops me, grabs onto my arm and motions for me to hang back with him for a second.
Once Mom is out of earshot, he scans my face, and then says, calmer than I’ve ever heard him, “So, what was that? In the car?”
As hard as I try to be reasonable, it makes me uncomfortable that he’s being so kind. I didn’t earn his kindness. Before I can stop myself, everything in me regresses, and I become this horrible bratty teenage girl. “It’s whatever,” I say, folding my arms, and rolling my eyes. “Sorry I didn’t tell you he was dead before. But... You wanted to come.” As if this could all be his fault. I am so mad at myself, but I can’t stop making it worse. Instead I shrug it off and try again to leave.
“Mack,” he takes hold of my arm again. “Come on. Don’t be like this. You can talk to me.”
I want to yell at him to stop forgiving me but my head won’t make the words. I want to hold him and cry, but I can’t. So,
I laugh out loud like this was the funniest thing he could ever have said. “No, I can’t! I can’t talk to you, Kevin. And I don’t want to.”
He stands with me for another few seconds and then shakes his head and goes into the kitchen. I hear him hugging Alice and telling her how thin she’s looking. I hear Walt say “watch out there, son,” and laugh heartily to no one. I hear Jimmy asking Mom where I am, and Mom say she thinks I must have gone to the little girl’s room. And the whole time I just stare at the floor and stare at the floor and stare at the floor, and think about my “I Am” sentences.
I am Mackenzie.
I am 23 years old.
I am angry.
I am pathetic.
I am scared.
I am sad.
I am to blame.
I am Gerald’s daughter.