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The airport smells like a combination of Lysol and buttered popcorn from the stand near the baggage claim, but the fresh air isn’t any more inviting. I can see Dad leaning on the hood of the station wagon, talking to Chris and making huge gestures with his hands. I watch them for a second, gripping my duffel bag and backpack. Chris is at least six feet now, his thin frame stretching through a t-shirt and corduroy jacket. Three years ago his voice hadn’t even started cracking, but I guess a lot of things have changed. Dad looks like he lost weight, or maybe I just remember him as bigger than me, and now he looks older. His cheeks are pale and heavy and his hair is whiter than the last time I was home. I don’t particularly know why I’m here, but Mom called and I couldn’t really say no.
“We had a little celebration,” she had told me a few weeks ago.
“It’s been six months for your dad.”
“Yeah?” I had drawn little circles on the table in front of me, then practiced my signature in scrawling cursive.
“He’s doing real well, Steven.”
“I’ll pay for your plane ticket.”
“It’s not the money, Ma.”
“I know. I know. Just think about it, okay?”
And now the filtered air from the automatic doors blows my hair in my eyes, and I blink, and wave to Chris. His face breaks into a grin that makes him look seven again and I catch my breath as he wraps me in a bear hug. Dad laughs and reaches for my bag.
“I’ll get that,” he says.
“It’s fine.” I toss my stuff in the trunk and slip into the back seat. His smile fades a bit, but he gets in and starts the car. Chris is just happy to be riding shotgun.
Our house looks like something out of a Christian family magazine. I walk under the gaudy lights hanging from the roof like fluorescent fruits and push into the hallway. Our whole living room looks like Saint Nick’s circus. The tree is on the verge of collapsing under the ornaments and spray-on snow, all the presents are wrapped in glossy paper and the little Christmas town on the piano is whirring with electronic whistles.
“Looks good,” I say, after Mom finishes assaulting me with kisses.
“Doesn’t it? Don’t you just love the holidays?”
I force a smile and grab my stuff. “My room’s still the same, right?”
“Just some new wallpaper,” she calls after me.
I head up the stairs and open my door. The place is being used as a guest room. The bed creaks when I collapse on it, and I examine the bears and bunnies that traipse around the walls. I get up to stare out the window into the backyard. It’s warm as usual for a Sacramento winter, and our lawn is in need of cutting. I press my fingers against the glass, leaving prints.
One year ago, Chris and I were out on that lawn. It was nice, like this year, and we were having a mud fight, tossing thick patties and tackling each other before we would be confined to red sweaters and stiff slacks. I knew we were being cute, we kept glancing at Mom who was cooking and giggling at us through the kitchen window. But then the screen door slammed in a way that makes your whole body jerk, and Chris and I bolted to our feet, hands frozen in mid-throw. Dad’s face was red and he smelled thick and acrid, like our couch, like our liquor cabinet, like he always did when he was angry.
“Steven!” he roared and yanked me up the stairs. His hands seemed so large as he tossed me onto the couch and so cold as he yanked back my jeans. And so I couldn’t sit down to the turkey dinner, and my face was blotchy and the carols all rang dull and thudding through my ears.
“Stevie?” I hear Dad yell. “We’re going to the deli for lunch!” I walk to the landing and peer down.
“Fine.” There’s a pause as Dad starts up the stairs, then waits.
“Don’t you want to come?”
“I’m not hungry.”
He pats the banister with his palm and nods. “You sure?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I turn and shut the door behind me.
“Well, take Mom’s car over if you change your mind!” he calls.
I kick off my shoes.
Mom made me take out the tree before we watched the ball drop, so I lugged it onto the sidewalk and ended up not wanting to go back inside. It doesn’t feel like New Year’s without snow, not now that I’ve been at UMass. I rock my feet back and forth on the porch swing and light a Camel, looking for early fireworks. Mom hides the ashtray because she thinks if I can’t find it, I won’t smoke, but it just means that after a while, I flick ash onto the welcome mat.A neighbor ambles out with a black bag and tosses it into the trash can. Nodding to me gently, he shuts the door behind him.
“That guy is so weird,” Chris says, dropping into the opposite chair. I grin and extinguish my cigarette - Mom doesn’t like me to be a “bad influence.”
“S-okay,” he smiles, “I smoke too.”
“Chris,” I scold, but smirk a bit.
“Lemme bum?” he says, trying to gruff up his voice.
“No way - Mom’ll freak.”
“Naw, she won’t. She's with Dad in the kitchen. I look into the house. Dad’s arms gingerly encircle Mom as she washes dishes. I’ve never seen him do that, touch something like it’s fragile. Like he cares about breaking it, or that he cares at all. I shake an extra from the pack and toss him the lighter. Occupying myself with the plastic wrap around the box, I slyly watch to see if he knows how to smoke. It takes him a few flicks, but he inhales and exhales a thin stream out his nose. I nod. Kid grew up quick. Even being home almost a week now, I’m still not used to his trim face and half-grown goatee. He peers through the window, watching Mom.
“Kinda weird, huh,” he says, gesturing toward the house.
“Yeah,” I laugh, “it is. Guess not so much for you, though.”
“Well, they only started that like a year ago. It still seems quiet without them fighting all the time.”
“Man ... when I was your age, they had this huge fight ’cause Dad just bought that humongous lawn mower. You remember that thing? You could ride on it and everything. But Mom flipped. They broke plates. Dad didn’t come back for, like, three days.”
“Steve,” Chris says, and I look up. “I was there. Think I forgot that?”
“Heh.” My laugh feels rough against my throat. “Guess not. Look at you, think you’re a bad ass,” I say, reaching to punch him.
“Hey,” he says, unflinching. I drop my arm. “You know Dad’s getting better.”
I lean back on the swing, lighting another.
“So, he hasn’t smacked you around lately?”
“You know he never hit me.”
“Look, Steven, he’s trying really hard. He goes to AA four times a week. He and Mom are at church every Sunday. Check the liquor cabinets! They’re empty!”
“Well, Mom’s had her fair share of champagne tonight,” I scoff.
“And Dad hasn’t touched a drop! How’s that for self control?”
“So what, I’m just supposed to leave it then? Like, great, Dad’s sat through some fruitcake 12-step meeting and now he’s all better? Chris, maybe you were too young to remember,” I grind this into him, my voice bitter and threatening, “but he was not someone who could just turn over a new leaf. He -”
“Fighting already?” Dad says, pulling the door shut behind him. Chris turns to flash him an innocent grin and I stare ahead, hunching my shoulders. Dad settles onto the steps and I can feel the space getting tighter, as if he’s taking in more air than us, as if I have to breathe a little less.
“Chris,” Dad says, and I wait for him to rip him a new one for smoking on the porch. “Give me a light.” I snort. It wasn’t like Dad cared, but he would have never let me get away with it if I had lit up on the porch when I was 16. He cups his hand around the cig and winks at my younger brother. “Don’t tell Mom.”
We smoke silently, staring out onto the street, a heavy cloud of gray settling above our heads. Chris suddenly snubs his cigarette and Mom appears at the doorway.
“Hello, boys,” she drawls, smiling goofily. “I’m a little tipsy.” We all laugh and I shake my head, embarrassed. Dad puts his arm out and she droops into his torso. I light another cigarette to spite Chris, and Mom tsks.
“You’re so young,” she sighs.
“I’m just saying, Steven. Just young, is all.” I smile and Dad holds her closer.
“I guess it was a bit of a dull night for you boys, huh?”
Chris and I shrug. It wasn’t like I was expecting some huge bash with family in Sacramento.
“Well,” Mom says, slapping her hands to her thighs, “this is a very, very important night.”
“Yep. Only comes once a year,” I reply. Dad grins but Mom doesn’t hear.
“Very, very important. And you know why,” she pats Dad’s leg, “because of the most important thing you do tonight.”
“Mom,” Chris laughs. Her face is flushed but full. She looks young.
“Don’t ‘Mom’ me,” she replies, leaning back onto Dad’s chest. “We have a duty. A duty.” I raise my eyebrows.
“What is that, Mom?”
“Resolutions, Steven. New Year’s resolutions.” I cross my arms and rock back a bit on the swing. Dad is looking down at her affectionately behind his thick eyelashes. Chris and I inherited those, and his heavy, sad lips which are curled into an amused smile.
“You start,” she says to Chris. He grins briefly, then leans his elbows over his knees, clasping his hands.
“I guess, you know, I’ve had kind of a rough year. Even though I’ve kept my grades up and all,” and he turns to Mom with eyes wide but she just nods, “I guess I’ve been trying to figure out how to, like, relax and have time with my friends, but also, you know, keep up with my responsibilities and all.”
I’ve never seen Chris nervous, but he’s like a cartoon character, biting his lip and stuttering. I remember that Mom caught him smoking pot a few weeks ago, so he must be referring to that type of “relaxing,” but he seems earnest in his attempt. He’s reminding me of the time I told him there wasn’t a Santa and he argued with me for hours, hands closed into fists, cheeks puffed out, repeating over and over, “I know there is!”
“I guess my resolution is to keep a good balance with all that.” Mom smiles dazedly and rubs Dad’s leg.
“What a great resolution,” she says, looking up at Dad. “What a perfect son we have.” She presses her fingers to her lips, “I am so proud of you, Chris. You know that, right? You know that.” She stands a little unsteadily and rubs his shoulders. He’s embarrassed, but reaches up to kiss her cheek and lets her squeeze him. Mom looks at me, pressing a hand onto my arm.
“I’m not next,” I say, grinning awkwardly. She turns to Dad, who shrugs.
“Okay! I’ll go,” she proclaims,
settling back onto the step. “My resolution ... my resolution is to keep loving my two beautiful, beautiful sons,” she gazes at me for a few beats then continues, “and my most wonderful, fantastic husband. To keep loving them forever and ever. Because you know, Steven,” and I look up, “loving someone is a perfect feeling. And you sit there all tough,” she slides her foot to kick my boot, “and all mean, and you’re this big college boy now,” she sighs, “but loving someone is a perfect thing.”
I nod slowly, self-conscious.
“You haven’t been here in a long time,” she says, like she’s just realizing this. “We miss you sometimes, Stevie. I miss you all the time,” and she laughs sharply, sort of hard. “But we love you. I love you.”
I smile, reminding myself that Mom always gets mushy when she’s had a couple of drinks, but I can feel my throat choking a little bit.
“And,” she suddenly continues, “and you’re such a good boy. Such a good man,” she corrects herself, “and brother, and son, and ... person. Yeah.” she looks at Dad, who nods.
“Well, I’m sort of making a fool of myself,” she says softly, “but I’m just telling the truth. Just telling the truth.” She laughs quickly again, then looks expectantly to Dad.
“Me?” he says innocently, then grins. “Okay.” He pats his hands on his thighs, and there’s a sense of expectation as we all wait for his words, like they could tip all of us one way or another. Like he used to just be able to flip everything, turn sugar sour, oil sticky, New Year’s into a bitter memory. He sucks in a breath.
“My resolution is to ... keep going with my program and to keep working on that. To remember that I am powerless against events, and people, and things,” his cheeks look heavy and his voice lowers, “and that there are a lot of things I can’t control. But,” and he looks up to me and Chris, “I have responsibilities. I have things I can control, and now,” he smiles a little to himself, “I’m getting a little better at doing that.”
He pauses, and when he looks up, his eyes are glossy and milky, like someone has spilled clear syrup in them.
“Because I have an example to set for my boys. And especially for Chris,” I look at him, and Chris is watching Dad, letting a tear spill down his cheek. My chest constricts, but I clench my teeth.
“But I have something more important, I have ... I have, forgiveness, to ask from Steven.” His eyes fall on me and now they’re extremely clear and extremely blue. I look at my shoes and wait for him to continue. “Because I know I’ve made some big mistakes.”
I scoff. My throat feels acidic and tight, but I grit my teeth.
“So mine,” he says slowly, forming his mouth around the words, “is to start to ask for forgiveness.”
He lets out a long, long breath. I can see Mom and Chris crying in the corner of my eye. It’s fine for them to cry, I think bitterly. They’ve got it easy. They’ve got new memories. They’ve got freakin’ Beaver Cleaver holiday seasons. They don’t flinch at belt snaps. And I look at Chris, who just watched, who was too small. And Mom, who turned the other way. And at Dad’s heavy eyes that I’ve inherited, his sad lips. They all look at me now, grouped together like they’re in some kind of club. Family, I correct myself, like a family. That’s how they’re supposed to look. Remember?
“Steven,” Mom whispers, “it’s your turn.” I swallow, look down, and fumble for another cigarette.
“I guess then,” I kind of laugh, but then I see a teardrop land on my lighter, “I guess mine is to start forgiving.”