Twenty: Freaks in Comfort
Between Rachel's anger, and grief over Gabe's death, I hadn't an ounce of energy left over for anything. I crawled to my room and lay face down on my bed, and fell into a deep sleep. I woke about seven, pulled off my sweatshirt jacket, kicked off my shoes, pulled the blankets over me, and went back to sleep.
At five in the morning, I woke with a start, realizing that I had shirked dinner and family and writing and fencing practice. As my stomach churned with its emptiness, I remembered that my fencing instructor had cancelled my Wednesday lesson (everything seemed to revolve around the school district's schedule) and collapsed again, waking again at six, ravenous and feeling almost human again. Michel was not yet awake, so I closed his door to the bath and showered, being as quiet as I could.
I was the first one downstairs. Dolores greeted me before I had reached the Little Dining Room. "What would you like for breakfast, Mister Owen?"
"What did they have for supper last night, do you know?"
"Is there any left, please?"
"Yes, yes, but no garlic bread or salad."
"I don't care about the salad, but could you be so kind as to find me a double portion of the lasagna? Thank you so much." My stomach growled mightily at the prospect.
She scurried off to inform the chef, but before I could sit down, returned. "To drink? You would like milk?"
"Tea, please, wait -- just hot water and a tea bag, and some honey."
Perhaps drinkers of coffee, the kitchen staff tended to produce teas that were so dark and bitter they seemed poisonous. Aunt Sully always brought her own tea with her, eccentrically using one bag for the entire weekend. "I want no surprises at breakfast," she said. "I hate breakfast surprises. And I don't want to drink a cup of tea that will corrode my stomach."
"Parmesan or Romano?" Dolores asked, appearing again at the doorway.
"Romano, please," I said.
She poked in the door once more. "Do you want eggs, too?"
"No eggs, just lasagna. No salad. Lasagna." My mother, in the same position, would have just stared at Dolores until Dolores figured out that the first explanation had been enough. Grandmother Claire might have ticked off an entry on a special list of whom to replace on staff. Uncle Bodie explained long ago that over-helpfulness was a kind of compensation for feeling inadequate in a position. Aunt Sully looked at him sideways on that occasion, and then snidely said, "Watch how your sisters are treated. If they get the same subservience and pestering for more service, it's compensation. If they don't, it's a cultural thing."
Uncle Bodie did not look at her, but observed, "Never expect your aunt to be overly helpful. It's a cultural thing." When the pillow she hit him with slopped his lemonade into his lap, he merely rose, and before he left the room to change his pants, said, "See?"
Uncle Bodie was also the next family member downstairs. He saw me in the breakfast room, and after speaking with Dolores, joined me. "You okay?" he asked.
"Yes. I was just worn out yesterday. I kept thinking about Gabe all day."
"I understand. He was bigger than life. For a long time, he had free run between our two yards; when Sully was at work, we were at home, and he stayed with us. He was our dog, too. Andersol and I missed him a lot when we moved here. For a while we talked about getting a dog of our own, but ... it wasn't having a dog that we missed, it was Gabe."
I nodded, my mouth full of lasagna.
"Change of plans, but good ones," Uncle Bodie said. "When John heard about Gabe's death, he got a flight out here. He'll be here tonight -- don't tell your aunt, though, in case his flight is cancelled. He's coming through O'Hare in Chicago, and they're expecting thundershowers." He stood when Dolores appeared with a tray. Though the dishes were covered, I could smell clearly that there was a dish of oatmeal and another plate of eggs and potatoes.
"Will John's mother and Mr. Albert be joining us, then, too?" I asked.
"No," he answered, "we invited them but Mary thinks John should pay attention to Sully." With the tray in hand, he went back upstairs to pamper my mother.
Kelsa and Michel staggered into the breakfast room, dressed and showered, but only barely awake. Michel sniffed. "Ew. Lasagna for breakfast? Good thing we're not going to school -- Eleanor Roosevelt would love your garlic breath."
He was neatly dressed, so I could not insult him on that account. And he was clean, so that was no help either. My only recourse was a low blow. "Just try to walk upright today instead of on all fours," I said to him as I left the table. Dolores was hot on my heels to pick up my plate and napkin and silverware; I left and went back upstairs to brush my teeth again and gargle with mouthwash.
When we gathered by the front door to see off our mother and rub in that she had to work while we oozed around at home, Oesha asked, "Will dinners tomorrow and Friday be formal, or casual?"
"Casual," Mother said, "but not grubby. Wear something agreeable to the eye. Think 'nice restaurant,' not 'ballpark.'"
"No bare feet," added Uncle Bodie as they got into the van.
"Yes, Owen, please cover up your deformities," Michel said, "for the sake of us all."
"Michel!" reprimanded Mother. "That's a disgusting thing to say!"
"No shoes, no shirt, no service," Marca muttered to her twin, who chuckled with muffled sounds.
Kelsa, who had overheard, began to bray laughter.
"Enough!" Our mother yelled.
We subsided, holding our mouths closed with our hands, vibrating silently with gusts of held-in giggles. That we were defying our mother by continuing to laugh only made it worse. As they pulled away Oesha hissed, "Everybody line up and wave goodbye, like a Disneyland commercial!"
We all bowed and with big grins, waved beauty-queen goodbyes. Knowing we had irritated our mother into shouting at us, and having had the last word, in a sense, put all five of us into a good mood to begin the day.
The first day off school in a long break is magical, I wrote in my journal. No odious educational classes, no assignments other than to "be good." And how easy it is to be good when my office is in my mother's wing of the house, where my brother and sisters are not very likely to pester me.
That was a bit of a stretch, as they could not have cared less about where I was or what I was doing. Oesha was having a manicure, Michel and Kelsa were in their art room, and Marca was watching crappy daytime television, probably one of the entertainment channels. Once I waited for them to leave the downstairs, I went up the dark stairwell off the old ballroom and for all practical purposes, disappeared. I would hear them coming if they tried to find me; I could step inside the closet of the office, shut the door, and they would have the entire rest of the estate to search, giving me plenty of time to hide again. Kelsa would be smart enough to feel the computer to see if it was still warm, though. I continued to write.
Modern technology does have its drawbacks -- there is an electronic trail of breadcrumbs left behind from our works for the colony of insects to follow.
A colony of insects. Why in God's name had I thought that being funny with Rachel would patch things up? There she was, feeling lonely and out-of-touch and homesick, and I blurted out an insulting insinuation about her former home. I made a row of asterisks on the page.
You're dark, and I'm fair
Your eyes are like the daytime sky in summer
Mine are like the oaklined pools of the creek in winter
When people meet you, they smile
Their smiles fade and they edge away when I approach
You're wonderful, and I'm an idiot
Dad, what was it like the first time you thought you had a girlfriend? Not that riding on the bus together made Rachel my girlfriend, by any means, but I had to admit that at the very least, I wished she was my girlfriend. Did you think it was love? Or did you know it wasn't really love but just felt the way love ought to feel? I met this really pretty, funny girl, but I pretended to be someone else so that she wouldn't see dollar signs sprouting out of my ears. I hate it when someone meets us and acts like
I had been about to write, "a fawning dog," but the only dog I was ever close to was Gabe, and he fawned on no one. He acted like he was one of the team, ready to take on anything, an equal -- and even the hero of his story. He hadn't been a pet as much as Aunt Sully's partner.
acts like they can't stand up straight in front of us. I think I like it better when other kids find out we're really human and just sneer at us because they wish they were rich. Anyway, the girl found out about me, and she's mad because I lied to her. I want her to like me, and I'm unhappy that's she's mad, but I also feel like a selfish, spoiled brat because I'm worrying about a girl I just met when Aunt Sully lost Gabe. I guess that's what I should be thinking about, not Rachel. Aunt Sully has been with me since I was born, I owe it to her to help her while she's sad, and lost her bodyguard and personal jester.
After tucking the journal in back of the bookcase, I picked up my book and went down the hall deeper into my mother's wing, to her sitting room, shut the french doors, and read until lunchtime.
Sweating with the exertion of my fencing exercise later in the day, I was surprised as I trudged up the staircase, Kelsa shrieking from the top of the stairs, "Aunt Sully's here!" It was still fairly early in the afternoon; we hadn't expected her to arrive until the evening. At the top of the stairs, I turned down the hall into the doorway of Aunt Sully's study.
There I was immediately struck by not having to defend my crotch and knees from Gabe's welcome. The room was strangely larger, the floor not defined by a big dog. Aunt Sully stood to hug me and say hello. She resumed her perch on the sofa, and I sat beside her. "I'm sorry," I said. "The room seems so empty."
"My house is so quiet -- I hadn't realized how accustomed I'd grown to hearing his sighs and grumbles, even the sound of his breathing ... "
"I'm glad you're here," I told her. "We'll take care of you."
She looked a little startled by my words, stared at me hard, then nodded. "Thanks. I appreciate that."
Kelsa came bounding in; the rest would be arriving in short order. "I'm going to purge myself of perspiration, if you don't mind," I said, over Kelsa's immediate chatter, "I'll be back once I am again hygienic and devoid of any evidence of sportsmanlike conduct."
"Just like you were this morning!" yipped Michel at my elbow. "You should have heard him in the breakfast room, Aunt Sully -- he was stuffing cold lasagna into his mouth with his hands and saying, 'Owen eat lasagnas. Lasagnas is Owen's best friend.' Well, he wasn't very hygienic at that point, I suppose. Just the 'devoid' part."
I smiled benevolently as I went down the halls to my room. Michel was coming along in wit; his "deformities" comment this morning was good enough to make me wish I had thought of it first.
Rachel's anger still disturbed me while I showered. I hoped that she would forgive me; my sisters might know something of her, but I was reluctant to ask them, for all the obvious reasons. My sisters might tease her about me, which would be obnoxious; or they might denigrate me volubly to her in revenge for my tormenting them for years. Or they might explain to her that I was a walking booger, and not worth bothering about as a friend.
Should I have gazed deeply into her eyes and kissed her passionately, asking her to be my wife? I rinsed the shampoo out of my hair and chuckled at the melodrama my mind was supplying. There might be a story in all that speculation, but life was unpredictable and larger than fiction most of the time. She probably just hated me for making her look like she didn't know what she was doing, and planned on avoiding me.
And I couldn't blame her. I should have introduced myself by my real name and let her decide how she wanted to proceed, either with awe and sycophantic, money-worshipping lust, or as a real person meeting a real person. Probably Rachel would have fallen into the latter category.
Then I remembered that my older sisters didn't really have any "friends" in school. They didn't when we were in our last days in the snooty little private school, either; no bosom buddy kind of friends, none of us. Probably Marca had more friends than any of the rest of us. Soccer team friends, anyway. All of those girls were so aggressive and fierce that they were like a pack of wild animals. Marca had never invited them all over for a party, so I thought maybe she felt they'd wreck the place, and had avoided the trouble.
Friendships were not something that the five of us had ever discussed, and I wondered if it wasn't time to do so. We were insular, family-oriented. Marca's soccer games and Oesha's choir concerts were the only school-associated activities we (sometimes) attended. And the rest of the week, we were wrapped up in family stuff.
Maybe that's what made us freaks to the rest of the world. We'd been brought up to believe Family was first, socially. Dining nightly as a family, in rather formal surroundings, was a given. Might we have all fluttered off to play with friends and have pizza with friends under different circumstances? Perhaps. Had we lived in a tract home and our parents been too tired to rise to family dinners each night, we might have been cut loose to fend for ourselves, going to get pizza downtown with pals, carloading through the taco slop place and then heading down to the waterfront to whoop and throw bits of burrito maximo at one another.
But that wasn't our place in the universe. We were born to, and lived at The Estate, and all of us had set roots there, that place that Lambert E. Reich had bought and built upon in 1838, with an eye toward establishing a home and haven for all his ancestors. I know many would see the estate as a prison, entwining us in social rituals and responsibilities, but honestly, it was as much a comfort as Lambert E. had conceived. Here, I was home and unassailable, and if my brother and sisters chose to spar verbally, I could always just leave the room, and the protocol would be that I would not be followed for further torment. Maybe to the rest of the world our lives were outrageous, but the dynamic worked for us.