I tend to feel bad for people in movies. Those embarrassing situations become excruciating when amplified and projected across 25 feet of screen. I would hate to have people in a dark theater watching the humiliating incidents in my life while laughing and eating handfuls of popcorn. The worst, probably, would be today, when the reflection in the mirror is that of a red-faced boy with watery eyes and tears and wobbling chin - the whole dramatic deal. Imagining that expression vomited across the cinema screen is enough to make me start crying again.
Today, May 5, started out fine. Mom and Dad were up before me brewing tea and coffee and I came downstairs to the smells of morning in our house. We sat, the three of us, at a table with four chairs. Your place is still set here, and has been ever since you left. Not with silverware, we leave it empty. Or, Dad and I leave it empty; Mom might be glad to see us take the chair away or erase you somehow. You don’t know how you linger in this house. We still call your room “your room,” even though you’ve been living thousands of miles away for some time now.
Dad and I plan a cake: chocolate, dense, decadent. That’s what the cookbook calls the recipe, the Decadent Chocolate Cake we bake for birthdays. A special routine, we assemble the ingredients, opening and closing the fridge for milk, butter - lots of butter - and bittersweet chocolate in gold-foil wrappers. Twenty-three candles might look impressive, but we don’t have that many.
The flour and sugar go in one bowl; the milk, vanilla, and eggs in another. I watch Dad sifting and mixing, the muscles in his arms and neck working. This cake seems more special than most; we didn’t bake it in the usual bundt pan but a flat one and I smile as the batter fills the buttered form. We sit back as the smell of chocolate fills the house.
You can’t possibly know what it meant to me. You had absolutely no idea. I’m your kid brother, after all, the one who pulled your hair from my car seat and interrupted your dates and begged you to play Legos. It was your birthday on May 5; you were 23; you had dropped out of college two years before; we baked you a cake. You never showed.
Today I imagine you driving through the rain to see us from wherever you’ve been: Montreal, a bar, Dave’s cabin, all the strange haunts you have. That might be the movie montage: you in the car with some acoustic guitar music that is always the traveling music in these movies and you’d be singing as the road slides away beneath your wheels. I imagine you driving although you have no license; you never had one. I imagine you driving but that’s not the case or you would’ve been here.
I set your place, the place that’s empty, to the left of me and right of Dad and across from Mom. Dad and I remove the cake from the oven and it’s perfect. We set it to cool and I walk to your room, the guest room that could never truly be a guest room because it smells like you. Mom set the bed up for you and I look around the room for the pieces of you that are still here. There are the photos and masks on the wall, journals in the bookcases, and that smell of you and chocolate from the kitchen. I close my eyes and inhale.You might be here if I fill my lungs up with you.
It gets difficult at dinner when you haven’t arrived. We eat and ignore your absence until seven o’clock, then eight and nine and it’s late and I’m tired.
Dad and I decided that icing would be too much on such a rich cake so we just sprinkled powdered sugaron top, like snow. The dark cake looks elegant on the marble countertop, colorful candles beside it and the white-on-black effect of the sugar.
The clock in the kitchen reads nine-thirty when Mom takes the silverware away from your place.
“Don’t! She hasn’t come yet.”
“She’s not here; she’s not coming.” She said what I knew but not what I wanted to hear and I watched her return the silverware to the drawer.
“What is it with you?” I cry. “You never let her come back and when she does, you can’t stand it. She doesn’t come home because of you!”
“It’s not her home anymore,” Mom says quietly before walking to her study. I run to my room and bawl like a little kid and use up all the tissues in the house. Dave had said you might not arrive. Maybe you’ll call, but you’ve just got so much going on in your life, don’t you?
I don’t like feeling bad for myself; instead I feel bad for those faces on the screen but right now nothing seems more tragic than this family and this pathetic teenager who shouldn’t cry at his age over his big sister. I’ll try to be understanding like a mature person but I swear, I swear you would have liked this cake. No plot or script could create a scene more pitiful: the little brother in his room crying and the father somewhere maybe crying to know that his son is crying, and the mother somewhere coldly ignoring the chocolate cake.
That seems the worst of all - that cake, the beautiful cake, waiting. Me and Dad, waiting. The audience could tear up on a long, slow shot of that black-and-white cake. The thought of a room of those people watching me with their candy and tickets brings me downstairs to stand in front of that cake.
I cut a slice and lift it onto a plate. I settle with it and a fork at the table, at your place, and look at the world from where you used to sit. I lift the fork to my mouth and the cake is good, great, delicious. I get up as the fork falls. Mom hollers “Baby?” and at the noise as I run to the bathroom and kneel over the toilet. I gag again and again, but the image is of you somewhere drunk and hurling out the door of a bar. I wipe my mouth, sweaty and salty and tired but only one thought comes: Is this what bittersweet tastes like?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.