We’re coming home from school, walking up the hill, Marco in front, his head down, his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans, Laurel behind him, the collar of her shirt spilling out of her sweater like a tropical plant, then Samantha, agitated, as if struggling to free several birds from the snags in her hair, and finally Peter, our little brother, who lags behind us and sings:
and all the people said
what a shame that he’s dead
Here’s our house, near the top of the hill, a large brooding thing with a few shreds of fog clinging to its heavy eaves. We crowd into the kitchen, where our mother has assembled an enormous array of take-out boxes on the counter. We eat with the silence of animals, while our mother sits at the head of the table and talks on the phone to her friends, her voice branching, multiplying, the strands of it twisting and twining, as she gestures with her glass of wine, with three glasses of wine, with four arms, with too many fingers to count. Eventually she rises and glides up the stairs, still talking, still gesturing with her glass of wine, her voice becoming spidery now, filling the house with intricate, malevolent things.
“Pass the Pad Thai,” says Samantha. “Pass the spicy beef,” says Peter. “Pass the prawns,” says Marco. “There’s way too much of everything,” says Laurel. “You’d rather starve,” says Samantha. “Laurel wants to be a monk,” says Marco. “Laurel would make a good nun,” says Samantha. “Laurel is a moose!” says Peter. “Peter is a mouse!” says Laurel. “Can’t we ever stop with the games?” says Marco. “Marco’s too old for the games. They’re below him,” says Samantha. “Everything is, we all are,” says Laurel. “…” says Marco.
Now we go to our rooms. We try to sit at our desks, curl up in the corners of our beds, sink into ourselves, surround ourselves with pillows and books, drape ourselves in blankets and thoughts, but we feel too restless and wrong. Samantha wants to rip off her face. She pushes her fingers into her face and makes it even more awful than it is, this round pale face that contradicts everything she feels. She’ll rip it off and grow a new one, a man’s face maybe, or an owl’s. Peter is flipping through his astronaut book. What he likes is the way the astronauts’ heads are encased inside those globes of clear glass. He wishes his own head were encased like that, everything quiet, everything calm. Marco has had enough. He’s sick of these voices in his ears, everyone trying to tell him who he is, Marco is this, Marco is that, Marco is above it all. He shuts his door, not slamming it exactly but shutting it hard, and Laurel knows that door is for her. She feels it hit her almost physically. It’s as if her body extends into Marco’s room, into all of the rooms of the house. She wishes she could make it contract, with a muscular effort, like an octopus retreating to its crack in the rocks.
Samantha wakes in the middle of the night. She hears, coming from our mother’s room, an opening and closing of drawers. Our mother must have hidden something in the dresser, she thinks. Or something has been hidden from her. She closes one drawer and opens another, rummaging through drawer after drawer, her nails scraping the wood paneling at the bottom. There’s something furious, something desperate in that scraping, and in the speed of the opening and closing, as if the number of drawers keeps increasing, as if the whole house is made of drawers, and the hidden thing flits like a particle between them. Mother can’t track it down, can’t keep up with the crazed pace of that flitting, that fleeting, and she starts to break up, to come apart, losing pieces of herself with each drawer she opens. She goes through them again, in a different order this time, or no order at all, like someone playing wrong notes on the piano, notes in no key. This is the true music of our house, Samantha thinks, as she lies wide awake in her bed. This is its song.
Laurel wakes when our father comes home. She hears the front door open and then his suitcase rolling over the floor. He moves heavily, haltingly, the weight of him creaking through the wood of the house. She imagines a kind of rectangular shape, a pinkish-grey homogenous block, standing in front of the refrigerator. She knows it’s not very nice, to think of our father in this way, as a pinkish-grey homogenous block communing deeply with the refrigerator, but she can’t help it. Now she hears him climbing the stairs. It’s such a recognizable sound, our father’s slow, laborious climbing, so full of fatigue, as he lugs his suitcase from stair to stair. Maybe one night he’ll just stop, homogenous block that he is, and be content to spend the rest of his days sitting on the stairs with his suitcase. She’ll be the one to sit with him, of course. She’ll feel bad for him. She always does.
Peter is woken by the wind rattling his windows. The windows of the house are old, the wood of their sills has withered and shrunk, and the wind knows this, knows how easy it is to sneak into Peter’s room, slink up to his bed, and lap at his face with its wet tongues. Frog tongues, Peter thinks, and pulls the covers over his head. He hates this house with all its holes. He wants to live in a much smaller house with rooms only big enough for his own body, rooms the same shape as him, like the case in which he keeps his clarinet. That would be the best kind of room, a fur room molded to his shape, with a door that would close with a nice clean click. Now he gets up to go to the bathroom. He sees light still coming from under Marco’s door, and pokes his head in, sees him sitting on the edge of his bed, his shoulders hunched, his elbows resting on his knees.
Marco is waiting. He’s been waiting all night, for his mother to stop talking on the phone, for Laurel to stop burrowing into his brain, for Peter to stop poking his head through the door. If everyone would just stop filling the house with themselves, with their feelings, the clanging of hangers in their closets, the glooming of moods through their rooms, he might be able to think. And he needs to be able to think. He needs to figure things out. Who the hell is he, should he go to college or not, should he start medicating his brain, why isn’t he more interested in girls, why can’t he understand calculus, is he forgetting something, why does he always feel like he’s forgetting something? But the house won’t let him think. The walls are ill at ease. The floorboards are sensitive and weak. And just when everyone has gone to sleep, and it feels like the night will take the house for itself, smother it in coolness and quietness, calm everything down, and let Marco contemplate his life in silence for a while, he hears a click, the front door opens, his father has come home.
In the morning the night hasn’t happened. The night is gone, trampled under by our frenzy of showering and dressing, eating and drinking, making our lunches and brushing our teeth. It will come back, the night, or pieces of it, remnants, but for now it has no place, we’re too busy stuffing our backpacks with books, bundling ourselves into our coats, and then we’re off down the road, Marco behind us this time, his head down, his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans. We’re beginning to feel, at least some of us, the first little kicks and grunts of our futures, the first strivings and musings of our eventual selves, so completely at odds with who we are now. Samantha, when she sits down at her desk in her first class, and feels the heat of other people’s eyes on her face, takes out her notebook and starts writing words. She writes “prowl” and “nettle” and “sludge.” She writes “heckle” and “knurl.” These will be her words for the day. When she writes them down they become hers. No one else can have them. No one else even knows what they mean. She writes them again and again, her handwriting getting a little smaller each time, more contorted, her pen pushing firmly into the paper, as if she’s shaping herself with the shapes of these words, printing herself on the page.
Marco keeps hearing his name. Maybe it has something to do with who he is, or maybe it’s just the name itself, a sound people like to make, but in any case he hears it everywhere, it echoes through the classrooms and halls, and by lunchtime already there are too many Marcos in his brain, each with a different intonation, a different tone, but all of them pointing to him, all expecting him to answer them, to be Marco in exactly that way, whatever that is, Marco doesn’t know, he leaves school after lunch because he says he has a migraine and maybe he does, maybe this is what a migraine is, having too many Marcos in your brain. He goes to the park. He sits on a bench, and starts strategizing ways to get rid of Marco for good, to pull the plug on Marco once and for all. Of course he could always just hang himself. That would be the easiest way. Where’s Marco? people would say.
Laurel would actually like to be learning about rocks. She likes this class, likes the teacher, and feels like a break from the world of sentient beings is exactly what she needs. But something in her won’t let her have it. She knows Marco left school. She saw him twice in the halls, saw him wincing his way past people, flinching every time someone said his name, and now she feels the tendrils of her sympathy unfurling towards him, reaching out to him, despite her best efforts to coil them in. She hates them, these sticky, untrustworthy things, which always unfurl precisely towards the people who wound her. She wonders why that is. She wonders what made her this way. They’re not really hers, it’s like they’ve been seeded in her by something else, a conspiracy of biology and patriarchy. And what would happen if one day she decided to cut them off? What would be left of her then? Would there be anything at all?
We hardly recognize Peter. When we come to pick him up after school, he’s wearing a hat we’ve never seen, and he’s sitting with his back against a wall, elbows resting on his knees, looking like a page boy from the previous century. His fidgetings, the anxiety that lives in the corners of his eyes, have been chased away by the hat. “Where’s Marco?” he says, and when Laurel says, “He went home sick,” Peter says, “Oh.” We start walking home. He deflects all questions as to how he came by the hat. He shrugs. He says he doesn’t know. We look at him, peer into him, listen for the stream of his thoughts. There’s nothing. It’s all hidden under the hat. We walk up the road, Peter in front of us, not singing songs about death, not plugging his ears when ambulances pass, just walking slowly, pensively, as if time has sped up since we left him this morning, and he’s no longer the Peter we know.
Marco is the first of us to leave. He goes to college in the east and tells the new people he meets that deciding to hang himself was the best decision he ever made in his life. “You have to live your life as a dead person,” he says. He graduates with a degree in philosophy and on a trip to Europe he meets an older French woman whose husband died in a boating accident. She says his name in a way that embalms his brain by injecting a kind of cool fluid into it, and soon he’s moved into her apartment in Nantes, where he spends his mornings in her bathtub, drowning his thoughts, clipping his nails. In the afternoons, while wandering the streets, he learns that by staring at patterns of cobblestones he can lull himself into a hypnotic state in which time ceases its forward movement and spreads out around him instead, a sea of time in which buildings sway with the slowness of things underwater. One day, while looking for a belt in the woman’s closet, he discovers that the new clothes she’s given him are in fact the old clothes of her dead husband, though Marco isn’t alarmed or even terribly surprised by this. In fact his letters from this period are some of the most beautiful he’s ever written, full of long, lyrical sentences about the generosity of putting his own self aside, making space for the spirit of the woman’s dead husband, so that she can say goodbye, make love to him one last time. Of course these letters sound nothing at all like the Marco we know, and so we’re not surprised when, a month later, he comes home, skeletal, fanatical, with a wild beard and a face that looks like a cave. He eats only toast and speaks in a low murmuring tone that’s impossible to understand, and our father stares at him with an expression so stark in its refusal to recognize this person as his son that it resembles a kind of peace. Our mother on the other hand wants to call an ambulance. Luckily he leaves before she does. We don’t hear from him for months. Eventually he sends photos of himself with his new girlfriend and their dogs, and he’s almost unrecognizable, clean-shaven, muscular, tan. We can only imagine that his girlfriend, who we learn works as a nutritionist, has performed a kind of exorcism on him, evicting from his body and brain all the manic and melancholy and anxiety-ridden Marcos and feeding into being this new, gregarious Marco who takes his dogs on long walks and talks about starting a business. We can’t quite manage to be happy for him. When he brings his girlfriend to our house for the first time, we’re appalled by the blithe aggression of her normalcy, by the way she bulldozes through our fragile family with her platitudes, and above all by the fact that Peter not only tolerates her behavior but encourages it, smiling and laughing at everything she says. A few months after they get engaged Laurel begins receiving letters from him, the most earnest letters he’s ever sent. He’s been waking recently in a sweat, unaccountable images have been surging into his mind, horrible images, bloody masses of meat and bone, eyeballs shot through with nails, and yet he’s happy, he’s never been so happy in his life, there’s a radiance to things that’s almost too bright, everything is splitting open at the seams, like fruit so ripe it bursts through its peel. He breaks off the engagement. After that we receive a few scattered messages, sent from different places, shreds of sentences without punctuation, words that aren’t even words, Marco hurtling through the atmosphere like a disintegrating comet.
Laurel has a dream in her last year of college. In her dream she’s lying on a beach. Hundreds of crabs emerge from the sea and begin detaching small parts of her body with the voracious efficiency of their pincers. They take the bits of her back to their hiding places under the rocks, where they devour her in private, mutilating her flesh with their greedy mouths. She wakes from the dream feeling exhausted, as if the fibers of her muscles have all turned to pulp. The feeling doesn’t go away, she drags herself through her final semester and when she graduates she moves to a small town a few hours south down the coast. She finds a job at a nursery. On her days off she walks along the coast, reflecting on her life, her decisions, her relationships. Loving seems like such a simple thing to her and yet somehow everyone makes a mess of it, everyone mutilates it, maybe she does as well. Convinced she prefers the company of plants, she fills the cottage she rents with an enormous assortment of them, plants in the bathroom and by her bed, the tendrils of plants crawling over her kitchen table, spider plants hanging from her ceiling. When she thinks about the future she imagines starting a hospice somewhere in a remote location where she’ll help people die in rooms full of plants. She can see herself walking between the beds, moistening lips and watering plants. There has to be, she thinks, towards the end of our lives, a simplification, a reduction. There has to come a time when the starkness of death brings everything else into relief, and loving becomes the simple thing that it always has been. Gradually she feels the vernal world of her private cottage restoring to her body and her embittered brain the vitality people have sapped from her. It’s around this time that our mother begins leaving long, scattered voice mail messages in which she intimates in increasingly unsubtle tones that Laurel has to come home. Everything is slipping away from her, she says, our father is ill and hardly gets up from the couch, he just stares at the empty spaces of rooms and she hasn’t heard from Marco in months, she thinks he might need help, and Samantha is so curt with her, she won’t tell her anything about her life, Peter is a darling of course but she doesn’t understand him at all. Laurel comes home for a weekend and is alarmed by the state of the house, the refrigerator stinking with rotting things and dishes encrusted with the remnants of meals in a towering heap in the sink. She spends most of the weekend washing and sweeping and mopping and dusting while clots of our mother’s harried words reclutter the spaces she clears. After several more of these weekends she gives up, she gives in, she quits her job and moves home, though she keeps paying rent for the cottage and has a colleague at the nursery take care of her plants. At night, when our mother has retreated upstairs, Laurel sits with our father in the living room. For the most part he seems resigned to his condition, which worsens a little every day, and Laurel feels almost grateful to him, assuaged by him, as if he’s giving her something she needs. But occasionally something startles him from his sleep, a thought or the beginning of a dream, and his eyes flash open, the whites of them suddenly gleaming and big, and he looks around, without moving his neck, just his eyes shifting, jerking, as if they’re horrified to find themselves stuck in his head. Laurel touches his arm, to remind him where he is, that she’s there with him, and his eyes soften and settle back into their sockets. But she’s left with the memory of those other eyes and knows they can always come again.
In her first year of college, at a party her roommate drags her to, Samantha looks around at the lurching world of sweat and breath and says, to no one in particular, “None of this is real.” Over the next few years she’ll find herself saying this again and again, mostly to herself, sometimes out loud. When she graduates she moves into a house with six other people and finds a job at a bookstore. In her attic room, at a desk in front of the little window that looks out over the city, she writes scraps of things, descriptions, the beginnings of stories, dreams. There’s a feeling of concreteness, of precision; even if her sentences are broken and bent, even if they’re frayed at the edges, they have the brokenness, the frailty, of reality. Her housemates are vague, spectral presences that drift without purpose from room to room until she presses them into a sentence. The changed thing is the real thing, the definite thing; everything else is forgettable. At the bookstore she meets a person named Julian with painted nails and furtive eyes, slender wrists and accentuated temples. When she writes him down she has the feeling she’s missing something and so she sees him again, and again, and there’s always more to write down. There is, she realizes, the possibility of too much reality. He is gentle but also intelligent, funny and mysterious and strange, and serious, and playful, with jittery brows and flecks of light that dance in the centers of his pupils. She feels a loosening somewhere inside her, an unbinding; parts of her start spilling out, and she can’t regather them all; she stoops down to pick one up and others tumble from her arms. Without intending to she begins identifying, with a kind of anatomical precision, his soft spots. She needles them, probes them, wounds him and then mocks him for reacting to something so small, so trivial. When eventually he limps away to lick his wounds she becomes furious with herself and begins making notches on her arms, carving her fury into her skin. She quits her job at the bookstore, finds work as an editor at a magazine, and moves into her own apartment. She works mostly from home, cutting and manipulating other people’s sentences until they have the concision she demands. In her own writing she becomes increasingly fascinated with broken bodies and the ways they can be soldered back together. She writes a story about a woman who wires shut her jaw. She writes a story about a man whose limbs are held together with string. The first of these stories stirs up controversy and suddenly people are saying and writing her name, attributing meanings to her she didn’t mean, peeling up the words she’d pinned to the page. Now those words flutter around her with the directionless frenzy of moths. She wishes she’d kept the story in her desk, where she keeps the rest of her stories. She stops going outside, and when we see her, for the first time in a year, at our father’s funeral, we’re startled by her stillness and pallor, as if she’s hidden behind a portrait of herself, retreated behind her own eyes.
From the moment Peter appears in his hat, he’s lost to us, like a radio station we used to listen to that’s suddenly gone from the dial. And yet, in a strange way, he stays more in touch than any of us. He calls all the time. He just wants to check in he says, see how we’re doing, say hi. The sound of his filtered voice on the phone becomes the sound of the new Peter. We can’t fathom him. We can’t make the link between the Peter we knew, febrile and hounded by fears, and this new, agreeable, eupeptic Peter. We know that he finds some kind of job that involves sitting in a room with other people and having ideas about things. He sends us photos of himself on his boss’s boat, which he helps sail down to Mexico, and we see him pictured standing on the bow in the calm brilliant water of Baja, his blond hair swept across his brow. But this isn’t Peter. The old Peter must still be in him somewhere, tied up and gagged in some secret basement in the new Peter’s brain. When he comes home for holidays, he plays host, takes everyone’s order for take-out, makes the calls, gives back rubs, fills the gloomy, potentially volatile silences with his insatiable chatter. But we’re all thinking the same thing. Where’s Peter? When he sees Marco in one of his low moments, muttering incomprehensibly from behind his wild beard, he sits down with him and talks about things that might help, exercise and regular massages, skydiving and swimming in the sea. He seems completely impervious to the way Marco looks at him from the lost rooms in his brain. Even in those lost rooms we have a sense of where Marco is. Not Peter. Peter is promoted and develops a passion for real estate, he amasses properties, investing, speculating, purchasing houses and apartments he’s never even seen. There’s a zeal in him now, an almost evangelical fervor, he’s always on the phone, always taking calls, always putting someone on hold. He weeps copiously at our father’s funeral and thanks everyone for coming, giving them hugs, telling them how much it means. We can’t quite believe this is real. Marco gets angry when we voice our doubts, he tells us to let Peter be, we keep hitching him to his former self, which was miserable, we should remember, which was always singing songs about death, that’s apparently what we want for Peter, to sing songs about death all his life, because the suffering Peter has to be the real one, suffering is always real, isn’t it, happiness is always a lie, isn’t it, so let’s bring back the other Peter, please give us back the miserable Peter full of forebodings of doom, that’s the real Peter, that’s the only Peter Peter can be. “So you think this is really him?” says Laurel. “I don’t think anyone is really anyone,” says Marco. Maybe he’s right. Laurel remembers the deranged look in our father’s eyes and she’s just had to give up her cottage, the one thing that was really hers, and our mother is gradually ceding ground to the thicket of her most vicious thoughts. She thinks Samantha is trying to poison her. She thinks Peter is plotting to take her out of the house and lock her away in a tidy little box. “It’s called a condominium, Mom,” says Laurel. “It’s called a tomb,” says our mother.
We’ve just had lunch with our mother, at her new condominium, and we’re walking up the hill, Peter in front, talking on the phone, gesturing wildly with his arms, Samantha behind him, her hand clasped like an iron claw to the neck of her coat, then Laurel, the collar of her shirt drooping out of her sweater like an unwatered plant, and finally Marco, lagging behind us, his face hidden by straggles of hair.
We pack boxes. We thought there wasn’t much left to do, we thought we’d be done in an hour or two, but we’ve grossly underestimated the house’s capacity to squeeze more things from its crevices. We make piles for the dump, piles for the Salvation Army, piles for the children of the future. Marco wants to throw everything out, he doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t discern, and Laurel has to go around rescuing things from his ruthlessness, salvaging things from his gloom, until she realizes, no, he’s right, he’s actually right, and starts jettisoning everything as well. It’s Samantha who slows us down, Samantha who keeps getting stuck on things, lost in them, sitting down and flipping through yearbooks, finding art projects from junior high, photo albums, cassette tapes, journals. Peter is nowhere to be seen.
He appears later with too much food. Samantha goes out and buys three bottles of wine. We pour it into plastic cups. We eat with plastic forks and knives. We feel depleted. Even eating is somehow exhausting. “Pass the dumplings,” we mumble. “Pass the fried rice.” “Pass the rolls.” “You can almost hear the echo of the food,” says Laurel. “You can almost hear our mother on the phone,” says Samantha. “This is such a beautiful house,” says Peter. “Such a beautiful corpse,” says Marco. “Pass the bones,” says Samantha.
We go up to our rooms. Marco flips through Peter’s old astronaut book, the one thing he’s secretly saved, and drifts off to sleep with those weightless bodies floating through the ether in his brain. Samantha is reading one of her earliest journals. She’s appalled by the loops and lobes of her adolescent handwriting, but there’s something in the words she recognizes, something in the sound of them, already a rasp, already a snort and a cackle. Laurel feels herself peeling away from these floors, these walls, these windows, those trees. As for Peter, who knows. He’s probably not in his room at all. He’s probably already elsewhere, he’s flying, he’s soaring, he’s on his way to the moon.