I’ve been thinking a lot about my sister Evie since Ernest Scared Stupid during the annual free weekend of HBO. We don’t speak that often, mostly text messages separated by hours or days. But yesterday, I called her, and to my surprise, I did not receive that message that the “user’s voicemail box is full.”
It was the first time we spoke in months. Not for any dramatic reason; just how it is with me down in Queens and her still living upstate. That’s what we tell ourselves.
She was watching Ernest Scared Stupid, too, she says. She’s working at the same factory where Mom worked while going to nursing school. We were talking during one of her breaks, while she was outside smoking a cigarette with the middle-aged dudes that also worked there the summer I was temping, the ones that called me “the little college faggot” behind my back (and to my face). I was just relieved they weren’t being racist. I forgot what she and I’d been talking about–I was probably resisting the urge to tell her to go back to school or find a better job–when she brought up that she was now dating someone I might remember.
“Do you remember the night you threw up in my car?”
“The night I got all my graduate school rejections?”
“If you say so, buddy. You remember things better than I do.”
“Was this in your Hyundai?” I ask. “The one that always smelled like Tommy Boy cologne and cigarette smoke?”
“Yes. Until someone threw up in it.”
“Yes,” I laugh. “Until that.”
She heads back to work before she tells me who. She says she’ll call me back soon. But Evie’s “soon” is not as predictable as other people’s–I think she thinks it makes hers more special.
It’s no big deal–we’ll talk when we talk.
And when we do, the sound of her voice will bring me home. Not brought, past tense, meaning I’m just remembering it, but present tense, brings, because I’m home, I’m home.
The memories we share exist in the present-tense. Not just re-told but re-lived.
What follows is kind of a work of fiction.
Growing up whenever we said “the city,” we always meant Rochester. When we got our license and could go anywhere we wanted, each of us chose there. We were still so taken by the sight of the skyline from I-490 when the setting sun illuminated the clouds purple, orange, and pink. On this night, though, there is no time to enjoy it because Evie is desperate to find a spot to pull over because I’m feeling ill in her backseat.
“Okay, Chris,” she says. Then in her best drill sergeant impression, modelled after our own dad’s cadence when he brought it home, “Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry. Go! Go!”
Still buckled in, I lean the top half of my body out of her car and vomit. I’m trying to think of ways to describe it, even as it’s happening. The image in my head, then and now and always, is of an out-of-control fire hose flailing about and coating everything in foamy spew.
Evie and her friends stare ahead, so I don’t feel self-conscious. But at the time, I just wonder why they’re not looking at me. I start to think that I’m not really with them, there in the car, that maybe this is a dream.
“You, stupid,” Evie laughs. “If you’re done, close the door, so we can keep going. I’m starting to smell it.”
We continue to the bar where Evie is performing in a drag show. I’m tagging along because I had nothing else planned, except sitting in the house by myself and drinking because I’d gotten the last of my graduate school rejection letters.
That’s me, vomit on breath, flirting with Evie’s friend in the backseat, this girl named Roslyn, even though I know she’s a lesbian and I don’t have a chance. Roslyn’s playing along, though. At one point, she even calls me “cute.” Why is it so hard for me to relax and talk to straight girls like this? In Evie’s words: You, stupid.
Evie leads a sing-along of the New Kids on the Block CD she’s playing. Evie has always been my best friend. Together, we endured our parents’ divorce, that time some white kids hurled racial slurs and rocks at us as we walked home from school, that other time we tried to beat them up but got beat up instead. Our fates linked, always linking. On this night, she’s the reason the four of us are in the car together (the fourth person is Evie’s girlfriend at the time, Susie, who won’t factor into the story really. I bring her up simply for logistics. Goodbye, Susie, I never actually got to say goodbye to you. I hope you’re well, wherever you are and whoever you are these days).
I have this sudden urge to tell everyone in the car how important Evie is to me, but “Hangin’ Tough” comes on and we get distracted. And then the girls start talking about song choices and outfits for Evie’s performance. I should’ve said it, though–if only for Evie’s sake. Because sometimes I don’t think she knows. I say it a lot to her now when we talk, but only because I have less else to say.
These days, we talk like we’re following a script: How are you? What’s up? You know I love you, right? Right. I know.
It is only in memory that our words are effortless. It is only in the past, when time is most static, that it passes so easily.
I’m watching Evie on stage that night and she kills it, just kills it, doing a rendition of “It’s Gonna Be Me” by NSYNC. Although I can recognize the hard work and detail she put in to resembling a man, I still see my kid sister who used to follow me around, the perpetual Robin in our games of Batman. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail and tucked inside a baseball cap. She’s wearing a black T-shirt with an open flannel over it, faded jeans strategically ripped at the knees, and pristine-looking sneakers. On her face is the pretty and symmetrical facial hair that only exists on boy band members. I joke that if genetics were any indicator, her facial hair would actually be stringy and grow in patches: “pube-y,” as she always teased me about my own.
A little while afterwards, Evie gets me at the bar, and I join her and her friends at a corner table outside on the patio. I take a seat next to Roslyn, the only seat left.
“Saved you a seat, good-looking,” Roslyn says. When she smiles at me, she does it with every freckle on her face. There are other freckles on her shoulder blades that I glimpse when her oversized shirt slides down. I rest my head on her shoulder, kind of jokingly, and I nestle in when she doesn’t push me away. Her skin smells like fruit and sweat where I kiss her.
Evie and her friends buy each other drinks and talk about an upcoming regional drag competition that awards the winner a hundred dollars. They’re all trying to get Evie to sign up because she’s seriously that good. But Evie refuses and won’t budge. Instead she suggests other performers that I’m sure have a fraction of her talent.
The beer feels good in my empty stomach. Roslyn’s hand feels soft and warm on my leg. I slip in and out the moment as I try to take it in. My gaps in memory keep me from ever rendering it whole. My limitations as a writer make it worse.
Evie and her friends never stop making each other laugh: about what, I don’t know, I can’t keep up. They’ve known each other just long enough to do anything for each other and always will. At some point, I start to believe that they will, too, and that maybe I might be there for some of their nights together. I wonder if Evie, like me, sometimes wonders what they’re up to these days.
Evie is looking at a friend talking to her. But I can tell that she isn’t hearing a word: she’s bouncing her knee and absent-mindedly biting her nails. She’s been itching to leave since her friends tried to persuade her about entering the competition. She gets so antsy when people give her attention. I always admired her bravery for coming out in high school knowing some of her friends and members of the community would turn their backs on her. She was so strong, still is. But sometimes, I catch glimpses of what those experiences have taken from her.
We’re family, so we always try to build each other up. But it’s so much easier to hide behind lines from our favorite movies and sing-alongs to our favorite boyband songs. Our adolescence taught us that we’re two zeroes, and Zero plus Zero always equals the same.
“Is this your brother?” someone asks Evie.
“We’re the only two brown kids at the table. Obviously!” she says, summoning the same charisma and charm she observed and obsessed over in our dad whenever he was in a party setting. “He’s just a lot uglier than I am. But that’s because he’s sad.”
This memory can’t exist without others.
Evie used to joke that I was always “sad” about something,” or as she’d say, “Chris being a pussy.”
For a few years, while she bounced between jobs, in and out of school, the slightest remark from someone in the family would set her herk off: How’s school, hon? Oh, you don’t work at _____ anymore? Oh, you and ____ broke up? That’s too bad. She seemed nice.
Once at Christmas, she started screaming at mom for asking when she planned on graduating college. From the couch, I told her to relax. The flashing lights from the tree, unperturbed. On the television, the Grinch again out to ruin Christmas.
“Oh, wow, she speaks,” Evie responded. “Why don’t you go write a poem about it?”
“I don’t even write poems,” was the second thing I could think to say. The first thing would’ve been too mean.
These days, depending on what exit I take from my work building, I sometimes pass the Stonewall Inn. Each time I do, I think of when Evie taught me about the riots. I’ve mentioned that she should come down and visit, that I could take her there so she could see the place for herself. Last time I did, she declined because she said she didn’t care for crowds, which really meant that her girlfriend didn’t like crowds. Evie’s relationships all take the on the same dynamic: her and her girlfriend drinking coffee and watching television, just the two of them, all day all night.
“Just the two of us against the world. Right, baby?” she always says. I know where I fall in that dichotomy.
Back in the car ride home that night, Evie and I are the last ones awake. I roll down my window and smell pollen and tar. I listen to the steady hum of the engine as we cruise down the thruway towards home. Evie decelerates just as we approach the bend where a cop car usually lurks. She is talking to Susie without realizing that Susie is asleep. I don’t say anything because it’s so funny how soft and playful Evie is speaking.
“Baby?” she says.
“Shut up, bitch, I’m trying to sleep,” I say in my high-pitched voice that I use to represent all girls.
Evie and I laugh but not too much because we don’t want to wake the other people in the car. She turns to Susie, still passed out. I start to wonder if Roslyn is spending the night and, if so, where she’ll sleep.
“She won’t have sex with you,” Evie says, reading my mind.
“I know,” I say. “I’m not her type.”
Evie makes a face then looks back at me all serious. “Neither are girls, dude.”
“I’m probably going to pass out when we get home, anyway.”
“Before you do, you never told me what you thought of my performance. Did you think I was good?”
“You were great,” I reply. “Really.”
Not only was she great but she was great when it mattered, with other people watching. One of us has to succeed. Like Evie joked, we’re just two poor brown kids from upstate New York trying to make it. But our story only means something if one of us does.
We hit a bump on the road, and Roslyn’s head rolls onto my chest. Her hand flops into my lap near my crotch. In the rear-view, Evie watches Roslyn cuddle up to me. “Watch it, Chris,” she says. “I’m telling you.”
“Telling you what?” asks Roslyn, half-awake.
“Nothing,” I reply. “Evie was saying that she’s not good enough to enter that competition in a few weeks. I was telling her she was.”
“You should enter, Evie. Me and your brother will come and cheer you on.”
I agree and then shift Roslyn’s hand closer to my crotch until it’s on it. She pats it gently, without urgency, like it’s a puppy she’s trying to lull asleep.
“Well,” Evie says. “For what it’s worth, I’m happy you’re home for at least another year.”
“So am I,” I say. Because sometimes a good brother lies.
This is about the time that we started to think of different places when we say “the city.” For me, it’s becoming New York, where I think I need to live in order to become a writer. A year later when I make it to Brooklyn, it becomes Manhattan, where I’ll spend my time chasing after people and sometimes catching up with them, whether or not they notice.
“And who cares what anyone else says? I like your stories,” Evie says. “There’s no reason for you to feel bad because of some asshole’s opinion of them.”
“You put so much pressure on yourself, dude,” she says. She looks at me through the rear-view and smiles. “Enough for both of us. Don’t be in such a rush to leave me. I’ll miss you like crazy.”
I’m staring out the window, wondering how I can describe this scene later, all the little details that I might lose if I don’t pay attention, but all I see is our reflections, occasionally washed out when we drive under a streetlight, just me and her and me and her in these little moments that belong only to us.
I think that we’re unique because we can quote boy band songs and Ernest movies like no one else.
I think we’re unique because we grew up poor and brown.
Really, what makes us unique is each other.
Last time I got off the phone with her, Evie said she would call me back. I wait for her call because her voice sounds like an idea of home that I realize, the older I get, maybe never existed. At least when we say “home,” we know we are thinking of the same thing.
Our lives (N)sync whenever we look back.
What’s so bad about talking about the same things, telling the same stories, when they mean so much and make us happy?
What’s so bad if they give us something to say until we can finally say what we should?