My mom used to talk about the gutters like other parents talked about soccer camp, or family vacation. She'd start out of the blue, on the way to school, or the grocery. Sometimes she'd turn a conversation about anything else into one about the gutters. She never talked about them when anyone else was around - just her and I in the car.
"That's what happens to people who don't try, Bryan. They end up in the gutter. With all the trash and filth." Sometimes she'd point to a man or a woman who was holding up a cardboard sign at a four way intersection. “Think they tried?” she'd ask me. When I was little, I'd just shake my head silently. Other kids were probably afraid of clowns or sharks or something; I was afraid of ending up on the streets.
"Know what happens when you tell your son he's going to end up in the gutter?" I want to shout at her, back through the nightmare of the intervening years. “That's where he fucking goes, you stupid bitch. Awesome parenting.”
It wouldn’t have been as bad if my dad would have…done anything, really. He was always busy, too busy for me. Maybe my mother was giving him the adult version of the gutter talk at nights; it would explain all the overtime he worked. Then again, maybe he just wanted a way out. Fuck him for leaving us behind, like we were some suitcase he didn't claim at the airport.
It wasn't like that for my sisters. My older sis got a load of egalitarian pep talks from our mom, that any job a man could do so could she, maybe even better. It was lucky for her that she wanted to go to college. That's where my parents were sending her, one way or another. Growing up, I don't think a day passed without them comparing me to her. "Becky already finished her homework, Bryan. Where's yours?" "Becky's off to volunteer at church. You gonna stay here and play your games instead?" "That girl has the nicest friends. Why can't your friends be more like Becky's?"
I wished I did have friends like Becky's, hot girls from the swim team. That would have made things a little more bearable. Instead, I spent my nights praying that she'd make a mistake, something to give me a little leeway. When she finally started dating in high school, I hoped she'd end up pregnant. I didn't want her life ruined. I liked my sister. She was all the things they said, which made it even worse for me. My sister is kind, patient, and forgiving, and all those things more than me. Even so, I remember wanting her to be a trashy teen mom.
My little sister, on the other hand, has always been a bitch. As “the baby” she was allowed to get away with it. "She's too young to understand," my parents would say when Christie screamed in the middle of a movie. Somehow she never stopped being too young to understand. "School's harder for her, so we have to make allowances," they'd say on report card day, when her C's outshone my B's. Christie idolized Becky, so she never did any of the stuff to her that she did to me. She never broke anything and blamed it on her, or acted like a brat when Becky was in charge.
Christie went to college too, even though she wasn't much in the brains department. It didn't matter to my parents when she quit after sophomore year. Instead of finishing, she was going to marry a guy with a law degree and his own business. "Looks like she got her MRS degree," my dad chuckled, ignoring how much older than her the guy was. Unfortunately for me, her husband was cut from the same cloth she was. Any day now they'll start spitting out my bitchy nieces and nephews, each more entitled than the last.
With my sisters on either side of me and my parents looking down, school wasn’t fun. Nothing was, honestly. I kept to myself. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I ate lunch with a bunch of other quiet kids, refugees from everyone else. We weren’t geeks, and we weren’t jocks; we were a bunch of kids trying to make it to the end of the day. The “also rans” of the public school system. Put a gun to my head, I couldn't even tell you their names; I doubt they could remember mine either.
I thought that if I could do half as well as Becky at college, maybe my parents would finally appreciate me; maybe I'd have a chance at being more than gutter fodder. I had a shot too, since I was pretty good at science. When I asked them about it, they just said, "We know you'll do your best." Well, that's what my mom said. Dad just furrowed his brow and nodded, subvocally parroting the party line. I swore that I'd make them eat those words.
I did well in my classes, but it didn't matter. Becky had graduated summa cum laude with a double degree, as an officer in her sorority, and with a ton of volunteer work under her belt. She didn't swim anymore, but neither of them cared. Compared to her constant over-achievement, my high marks in Organic Chemistry meant next to nothing. I tried to get involved with some organizations on campus, but my grades always suffered. That's one of the things about me, I can only handle one thing on my plate; I called it "focus", but my parents called it "short sighted."
What I liked most about college was being away from my family. Becky was four years ahead of me, and Christie was two years behind. With no one to be compared to, I got to make friends without a shadow hanging over me. I was finally "Bryan" instead of someone's brother, someone's son. My friends – I had friends! - were science dorks like me, and they got me into some cool stuff. I started reading comics and watching anime. Turns out there were whole worlds I missed out on because my parents thought that stuff was "against God." Not that they went to church unless it was something for Becky, who sang in choir on top of everything else.
I spent as much time with my friends as I could, but it was always a choice between them and studying. Every night spent watching the latest Marvel flick was ten points I’d lose on a test, guaranteed. Classes were my gateway to a better life, one outside of the house I grew up in. I hated it, but I started skipping social time to hit the books. I felt selfish, like I was betraying my friends; all the same, they didn't know what it was like, what I was running from, or to.
That's how I passed my classes, and the rest of my college career – alone, with my head in a book. Same as it ever was, really.
Graduation day came and went. I got a card instead of the party Becky had, but that didn't matter as much as it used to - I had my degree. I could finally get away from all the bullshit. I had spent a summer interning at a pharmaceutical company. They liked me there, too. Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was the first time anyone older than me had shown some approval. I had an interview all set up, one week after graduation.
That's when the economy crashed. Housing market, job market, all of it.
The interview went well, but the words they used didn't fill me with confidence: "reduction", "careful selection", "austerity", and worst of all, "hiring limitations." I shook hands with everyone on the panel, noting their sad smiles. There were a couple weeks where I slept next to my phone, and then the letter came in the mail. They were kind enough to send me an actual letter, not a hastily signed form. Either way, it was the same news. "The position we were hoping you would fill has been cut, along with other existing positions in the same class."
My whole life up until that point had trained me to carefully manage my expectations, to not let them exceed a certain point. I allowed myself to forget that lesson, and that letter came like a punch to the gut. I remember actually wheezing when I read it, like I finished a run up three flights of stairs. Did I think the word “gutters”, then? I might have.
I got an apartment with a guy I knew from undergrad and tried to figure out what to do next. Both of us were facing an uncertain shitstorm of a future, since the market had dropped out from under us. In the meanwhile, we were lucky, for a certain definition of the word, to get jobs working at a shipping warehouse. We'd talk over beers about how we were the smartest people there. At the time, arrogance was the only thing I had on my side. "We could do so much better," I'd say, and he would nod in agreement; mutual masturbation had never seemed as satisfying.
This was about when I stopped taking calls from my parents. It wasn't what they said; it was how they said it. "You can always come back home," they'd say. "We kept your room the way it was, just in case,” the last part delivered in such a way that I knew they never had any doubts I’d move back in. Fuck that. I still talked to Becky, who had weathered the economic downturn with a solid job as a mechanical engineer. "They say hello," she'd tell me, and I'd quickly change the subject. Things went on like that for months.
From time to time I would tutor on the side for some extra money. The cash was nice, but being on campus again made me feel like a failure. I wasn't much older than the students I was tutoring, but it made me feel old, washed up; I wasn't a has been, I was a never will be. Most of the cash I made from these gigs turned into beer money. Before I knew it, it turned into liquor money too. I moved from mid-shelf to bottom shelf to stretch what I loosely called a budget, and never noticed a change in taste.
It all gets hazy around that point. Some more time passed. I remember being mad at my roommate about something, and there was a fight. I don't know how the TV got broken, just that he was pissed about it. I didn't care, because I'd go out and party with my other friends. I don't know if that's the right word; they were really just guys from the warehouse I only saw over longnecks and pint glasses. Most of them couldn't keep up with me though, so I told them all to fuck off. Maybe there was something about some rounds I was supposed to buy. Like I said, hazy.
I was making it into work and I was still talking to Becky. She had started to cry during our phone calls, though. I must have told her I was okay a thousand times, but she still didn't believe me. That made me angry, like she thought I was lying. She eventually stopped calling.
There were some complaints about me at the warehouse. I wasn’t reliable, they said, and no one liked my attitude. They gave me a week to shape up. I had to be there on time, and I couldn't disappear. That's what they called it, "disappearing." I wasn't Houdini, I was drinking in the bathroom. I had no idea how I used to deal with the endless boxes without a little buzz. It was like being told I couldn't use my thumbs to play Tetris. The job wasn't rocket surgery, and it sure as hell wasn't chemistry.
If I didn't have something to drink at work, the words "box jockey" would just repeat in a loop in my head. Sometimes it was my voice, sometimes it sounded like my parents. Four days into my "shape up" week, I heard Becky's voice call me a gutter jockey. I took the box I was labeling and threw it down the conveyor belt. I heard a guy shout "Hey!", but by then I had another. And another. I hit one guy in the face, and I watched his eyebrow bust open. After that, a bunch of them came and grabbed me. They hit me and dragged me outside into the cold. Cold? That's right, it was December. Or was it January? Shit, I didn't know.
One of them pushed me into a snow drift, and the others laughed. I recognized some of the guys from the bar. Someone had gotten my stuff out of my locker and threw it top of me. "Don't fucking come back," the manager told me. I laid there until I was too cold to be mad, too cold to feel anything. I went out to my car and got the bottle I kept in the glove compartment. That warmed me up enough to drive home. Halfway up the steps, I noticed there was a note on the door. "Eviction Notice" it said, and there was a shiny new padlock next to it. I pounded on the door, screaming.
Sooner or later, one of the neighbors must have called the cops. I was bathed in blue and red lights, and then blinded by a flashlight. "You're gonna need to come with us," one of the officers said, and I swear he sounded like my dad, when my father bothered to say anything. I took off running, but tripped over a welcome mat. It didn't take them any time to corral me into the back of the squad car.
I spent a night in the drunk tank, surrounded by the voices of my family. "Box jockey," they'd whisper, and “gutter jockey”, so low that no one else could hear. None of the other guys came near me as I murmured and swatted at the air. I fell into a dark, feverish sleep. I woke up the next day to the sound of the bars being slid back and pain in my back. "Alright boys," the officer said, "file out." I climbed to my feet and staggered out with the rest of the trash. I felt like shit, mostly because I was sober again.
Outside, I winced at the bright winter sunlight. The cold air burned my lungs. I heard my family again, but I ignored them. I started to walk. Where was I going? I had no idea. Back to my car, I guess.
"Bryan!" came my sister's voice, even louder. I squinted. It was Becky, actual and real, wearing snow boots. She had a coffee in each hand, and gloves that matched her scarf.
"Take this," she said, handing me one. I've never liked coffee, but I drank it for the warmth.
"Take this," she said, handing me one. I've never liked coffee, but I drank it for the warmth.
"How?" I asked, trying not to notice that she wrinkled her nose when I got closer. It was hard to look at her, the way the sun was glinting off of her blonde hair. Even with the hot cup of coffee in my hand, I struggled to believe she was real.
She shrugged in a decidedly solid way. "I was coming to visit you for Christmas, but I saw the note on your door. I asked one of your neighbors, and they told me about the big scene last night."
"Look, it's not that bad," I explained.
She shook her head, mouth set in a line. "No, sweetie, it is that bad. Your neighbors told me you were screaming about losing your job, about your roommate suing you. Is that true?"
I looked at her sideways, and saw she had that earnest look on her face. "Yeah," I said. "Yeah, probably."
There was no hedging with her. "Okay, it is! Alright? I lost my job, my apartment, and now I'm a washed up loser who can't handle a bunch of fucking boxes. Is that what you want to hear? Is that what they want to hear?" Without realizing it, I had made both my hands into fists. The coffee lid popped off, and steaming black liquid cascaded over my naked hand.
“Fuck!” I shouted, making Becky flinch backwards. I shook my hand, watching steam rise off it.
She frowned at me and moved closer. "Bryan, I'm here because I want to spend the holidays with my little brother. I have the whole week off, and there's no one I'd rather be with."
"Yeah, right," I said.
"I'm serious! I had a fight with mom and dad."
"What?" I was stunned. More than anything else, that convinced me I was still back in the drunk tank, fighting the ghosts of my family.
She sighed, and looked at her feet. Her snow boots were pink. "I wanted to quit my job and take another one in a different state. It's farther away, and they said I couldn't. Can you believe that?"
Becky smiled at that. It was a little smile. "So I asked them what they meant. They said I had to stay nearby, in case Christie needed anything. She's just started seeing this guy, and they don't know about him, you know? Then they said they weren't getting any younger, and someday they'd need me to care of them. I asked them what about what I wanted, and they said I had always gotten what I wanted. I told them I always got what they wanted for me, and it got worse from there.”
There was a pause.
“It was also probably not the best time to tell them I was a lesbian.”
I stopped shaking my burned hand, shocked. I could tell how vulnerable she was, even through my hangover and mild conviction that this was a delusion. Her words hung in the air like snowflakes as she watched me for a reaction.
I didn't know what to say. I settled for, “I’m sorry, sis. I guess they didn’t like that.”
“No,” she said, “they didn’t.” She broke eye contact to brush some imaginary lint off her jacket. “They especially didn’t like thinking that their perfect daughter was some deviant. That’s what they said, 'deviant.' Like I ate babies or something.” She brushed her nose, and we stood in silence.
Her eyes were wet but firm when she spoke again. "That means there's nowhere else I'd rather be for Christmas."
"What about Christie?" I asked, knowing how our little sister had always looked up to Becky.
"Oh, Christie's a bitch. You know that. And she steals my clothes." I doubled over with laughter, and Becky joined me. Giggles at first, then big peals of laughter to match my own.
"I'm just glad somebody else finally sees it," I said around laughter.
We walked together to the parking lot, talking some more. When we reached her car, she said, "So? Are you gonna make a girl spend her holidays alone?" She cocked her head to the side with a grin.
"No, I guess not," I said. And I meant it. Between the cold air and the burn, I felt a little bit like myself again.
And that’s how I came to spend Christmas with my older sister at a Motel 6. We had garlands strung between the adjoining doors, and microwaved hot chocolate in styrofoam cups. We even had a tree, a twenty dollar Wal-Mart special that oscillated between colors like a holiday disco ball. Becky made me wear reindeer antlers, and I made her wear elf ears as payback. We spent hours talking about what it was like to grow up in that house. She learned some of my stories, and I learned some of hers.
When we were kids, she said she envied me because of how much stress they put on her to succeed. All the things she did, all the clubs, all the activities, it was all their idea. She explained that she didn't feel like a real person for a long time; she felt like she was a character in a play that mom had made up. At some point in high school she developed an eating disorder, just so she could be in control of some part of her life.
A year into her job, she met a girl at a company Christmas party who understood. She had been through something similar; not the same, but close. They dated for awhile, and Becky said it was the first thing she ever did for herself. It was the first step she took in becoming a real girl, she told me. She had suspected before, because of some feelings she had, but she didn't know until then.
In return, told her how I used to envy her because at least they thought she could be something. She never heard the things mom used to tell me, or that dad hardly talked to me. She knew they were hard on me about grades, but that was true for her too. I even confessed the thing about wanting her to be a teen mom, and she laughed. “Not like that was going to happen,” she said. Apparently, I never had a chance with the girls from the swim team.
Though we grew up in the same house, there was so much that went unnoticed. We got scared when we wondered how much of that was by design.
When our parents called her Christmas morning, she let me hit ignore. It was the second best Christmas gift I got. The first was in the box she handed me. It was small, like something jewelry comes in. I lifted my eyebrow at her, but she just looked expectant. I opened it, and inside was a little circle. It said "One Week" in gold letters.
"Do you get it?" she asked.
I nodded. I hadn't had a single drink when I was around my sister, worried about what might happen if I did. Apparently, she had noticed too.
"It's not an official one, of course. But it still means something." I agreed, and hugged my sister. It was awhile before I let her go.
“I got you something too,” I told her.
She stared at me, her mouth open. Becky didn't suspect her brother, who was learning how to brush his teeth with the DT's, was capably of being crafty. I had slipped out of the room when she was in the shower one night though, running on shaky legs to the 7-Eleven next door.
I walked through the adjoining door, and fished out a plastic bag from under my bed. I handed it to her, wiping sweaty palms on my pants.
She slowly pulled open the crinkly, semi-translucent plastic. When she saw what was inside, she gave a little gasp.
From the rustling bag she pulled out a small bobble head angel that looked like a Precious Moments knock-off. Inside its protective plastic bubble, its oversized head waggled. I had scraped off as much of the sticker as I could, but there were still bits of fluorescent green paper stuck to the dome.
“I tried to find one that was blonde like you, but all they had was brown. I remember you singing in the choir, standing up there in your white robe. And...” This was the hard part. “I don't think I'd be here right now without you. So...thanks for being my angel.”
Becky lost it then, grabbing me and crying. I cried too. It felt good to cry.
I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me if I wanted to sort my life out, but now I knew I wouldn't have to do it alone. I also knew that Becky needed someone too, and I could be there for her.
I knew that a family wasn’t the people who shared your blood; a family was the people who shared their lives with you, the ones who had your back when no one else did.
They'd pull you out of the gutters if you fell in, and you'd do the same for them.