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As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood's dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.
To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions...For the god
wants to know himself in you.
--Rainer Maria Rilke
I wondered bleakly if it were possible to cause someone’s head to explode simply with effort and intense concentration. I’d seen a Sci-Fi movie like that once, when I was little. A murderous telepath, bent on revenge for some slight, could bestow upon his enemies a calculated look of evil that eviscerated their heads in an impressive explosion of blood and gore. I’d practiced for weeks after that, staring resolutely into my bathroom mirror as my temple veins bulged and pulsed and the blood rushed into my face. Eventually, after my mother had caught me at it and casually observed that maybe my head would be the one to explode, not that of my annoying older brother, I’d given it up as a bad job.
Still, in times like this, I was inclined to return to my training. The same annoying older brother sat across the table from me, chewing unsuspectingly on a spear of asparagus, as I calculated the possibility of some bloody pyrotechnics. Would his fiancé be too terribly upset? She sat beside him, glass of wine poised in her hand, absorbed in conversation with my father. She probably wouldn’t notice until she went to take a sip of Chardonet, belatedly discovering a piece of my brother’s scalp hanging over the side of her glass.
“Yes, well, Emily’s been accepted to Stanford.” Dad was saying, eying me fondly over his own glass of wine. I reluctantly left off my bloody imaginings, looking up and smiling blandly.
“Stanford? How wonderful.” My brother’s fiancé pursed her lips slightly as she sipped her wine—an attribute that could be contributed to the dryness of said wine, but which I was more inclined to think ran along the lines of disapproval. My brother had met her at Yale University, and both were inclined to think of other schools as substandard ruffian resorts. “And what would you like to do?”
“She hasn’t decided yet.” My mother chirped in. “They encourage students to wait until sophomore year before declaring a major. Give them some time to settle in, get down their basics…”
“Skip class on a regular basis, shack up at the local frat-house…” I muttered under my breath.
“Surely you have some idea?” Vanessa pressed, setting down her wine and fixing me with a speculative, yet oddly feral, gaze of interest.
“Well…” I said, putting down my fork and smiling slightly. “Sort of. But it’s…I don’t know, it seems kind of far-fetched.”
She gave me what I thought was supposed to be an encouraging look of interest, but what greatly resembled a baboon sucking on a lemon.
“Can’t be more farfetched than art school, can it?” My brother Kevin chimed in with a shackle-raising guffaw. I cast an extremely dirty look at my mother, who pinkened slightly before taking a draft of her wine. She had caught me filling out an application two weeks before, and after scolding me briefly, had promised not to tell anyone.
“Go on, then.” Vanessa prodded. Seized by a sudden flair of wickedness, I felt my smile broaden.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile.” I bit my lip in supposed uncertainty, shifting my glance around the table before continuing. “And I really think it’s the way I want to go.”
My audience leaned forward breathlessly, urging me on…all except my mother, who was eying me with a look of knowing wariness. I took a moment to savor the anticipation before continuing. “Not only is this of pivotal importance to the public good, but it’s a job that is often unpleasant, you know---unheralded by the people who never think about it, never realize what’s going on behind the scenes to make their lives safer.”
“A noble ambition.” Kevin said, nodding. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen A Few Good Men, but I personally thought Colonel Jessup had the right ide—“
“Kevin, please.” I said calmly, holding up a hand. “I’m speaking.” I rather enjoyed the looked of indignant shock that flitted across his face at that, but struggled not to let it show through my cool demeanor. “As I was saying, a job of immeasurable societal good. A job that will benefit others, strangers and loved ones alike. A job that will make the world a little less…putrid.”
“What is it, then?” Vanessa asked eagerly.
“Well, you know the engineers that dispose of public waste?” I speared a Brussels sprout with my fork. “I’d like to be one of them.”
Shocked silence met me while I chewed the sprout. Moms eyes narrowed at me as I swallowed. “Well,” I continued. “It’s always fascinated me. How can we make the waste system more efficient, reduce water intake, make the sterilization process lest time consuming and costly? How are we to accomplish this? Where does all of that poop go? It’s a problem I’ve often contemplated while alone with my own thoughts. I really think I can be helpful in that field. I don’t know, I suppose you could say I feel…called.” I sighed happily, setting down my fork and fixing my delightfully dazed brother and his fiancé with a business-like stare. “Vanessa, what exactly do you do?”
“Was that really necessary, Emily?” My mother leaned against my doorway, her arms crossed over her chest. She was always a stylish woman, her closet full of the archetypal, suburban-housewife’s wardrobe of pencil skirts, pastel blouses, and tan pumps. Her hair was styled with muted blonde highlights, cut in a well-tended bob that fell just above her collarbones. She was, to the casual observer, the quintessential queen of suburbia. It was only sometimes, between her bake sales and PTA meetings and wine tasting, that I would see a glimmering spark of something…other. A wry, ironic streak of humor so similar to my own, or a flash of wistfulness, as fleeting as a snowflake’s progress through the sky, as she walks into my room and sees the Nirvana poster slung across my wall.
“Quite,” I was sitting at my desk, paper strewn out in front of me, as I attempted to commit Kurt Cobain’s brooding face onto the blank white surface.
Here’s another thing: my mother has bequeathed me with the most singularly unremarkable name ever. I can imagine her holding me close minutes after my messy birth, whispering her desires against the crown of my head… “Be normal. Be stupidly, unequivocally happy because you never learned to be anything else.”
“Mother,” I took a break from the agony in Kurt’s eyes to look into my mother’s. We shared the same light green eyes and dark golden hair, though she lightens hers. We had the same smattering of freckles across the bridge of our noses and the same rounded-off jaw. Her name was Adele: a pretty name that manages to be somewhat unique while still squeezing into the limiting contours of the mainstream.
“You really upset your brother. And Vanessa, I think.” Mom broached the distance from the door frame to stand beside my desk. She gazed down at my rudimentary sketch for a few moments.
“Come as you are,” She murmured, placing a hand gently on my shoulder, like a butterfly fluttering from the unknown to land tentatively on an outstretched finger. I fought the sudden, inexplicable urge to shake it off.
“As I want you to be,” I finished. Her hand fell away of its own accord.
“Waste management, huh?” She strolled toward the door, the hint of a smile pulling up one side of her mouth. “Well you can’t say that’s not creative. Goodnight, Emily.”
I stared down at the sketch for a while longer before pushing away with a sigh of frustration and adding into my bathroom to complete my night-time ritual. Even I have rituals, and I’m fairly certain Kurt Cobain and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix had them too. So I didn’t feel overly derivative as I completed the typical circular motions with my electronic toothbrush, and tie my hair up high on my head before I washed my face with cetaphil. I changed into a pair of soft, flannel pajama pants and a worn Beatles t-shirt, one of the few gifts from Kevin that I didn’t surreptitiously dump in the garbage or ship off to Goodwill.
I flipped off the lights and climbed into my venerable, full-sized bed equipped with the feather mattress, duvet, and pillows that mom had purchased from the Pottery Barn the next town over. I knew that tomorrow, at around 7:30, I would roll reluctantly out of bed and prepare myself for the day ahead…a ritual usually consisted of throwing my hair up in a messy bun, slapping on some clothes, and grabbing a thermos of coffee from the kitchen. Then I would go to school. School…the rigid social tradition that constrained me to a set schedule and was slowly driving me insane. Life in general had the tendency to drive me insane, really, but school was an especially heinous aspect of my unappealing existence.
It was while lying there, my inert body sinking slowly into sleep, that a distinct clattering jolted me awake. I sat up, the expensive duvet sliding from my shoulders, and looked wildly around my darkened room.
When the sound occured again, I belatedly recognized it only from the countless sappy movies I’d inflicted upon myself over the years: some moron was throwing rocks at my window.
I hauled myself out of bed—much earlier than anticipated, I might add—and marched toward the window. It’s either the chubby, zit ridden potential Unabomber from my calculus class, or Brandon Marks, childhood crush and the only boy for whom I will ever wear makeup, I thought as I approached the window.
A chilly blast of air accosted my face as I hauled it open and peered down into the yard below. I squinted to make out the shape beneath me, and my mouth fell open in astonishment.
“Kevin?” I called, my voice heavy with incredulity.
“I didn’t want to wake Mom or Dad,” His stage-whisper carried well on the wind. “Plus I don’t know the new security code. Come down here. I have something I want to show you.”
I had a sudden image of Vanessa lurking behind my brother in the shadows, an axe clutched in her manicured hands. “Is it lethal?”
“What? Come on. It’s freezing down here!”
Feeling as though my mother’s Pomeranian had suddenly informed me of its burning desire to become a literary agent, I staggered confusedly toward the door, grabbing my coat as I went.
I stole quietly down the stairs and through the empty foyer, pulling open the heavy front door and slipping quietly into the yard. Kevin was waiting for me, stomping on the ground with his hands shoved in his pockets.
“Kevin, you are certifiably insane.” I snapped the second I was out of the door. “What could be so important you couldn’t just show me at dinner?”
“You’ll see.” He nudged me with the toe of his shoe. “Let’s go.”
“If I disappear, everyone will know who did it.” I advised his hunched back. He smiled over his shoulder at me, shaking his head and burying his hands deeper into his pockets.
“I went to Yale, remember? I can get away with anything I want. Now move it, soldier.”
I grumbled something highly unkind under my breath, which made a swirl of fog in the frigid night air as Kevin led me around to the side of the house, where his new sedan was parked on the curb. He reached in the passenger’s side door and pulled something out while I stood in the grass under the streetlight, rubbing my hands together to keep warm.
“Happy early graduation.” He said, pushing the thing into my hands. “Vanessa and I are heading back to New Haven tonight, and you know we’ll be on our honeymoon when the big day comes. I wanted to give it to you myself.”
I glanced down at the thing in my hands, expecting to see a card with some money, or a brochure about Yale, or a coffee mug. Instead, I was holding a brown leather photo album, an old picture of our family set into the cover.
It was right before Kevin went off to Yale and got too big for his britches. We’re in front of some pumpkin display at the state fair. Dad has his hand clapped on Kevin’s shoulder, mid-laugh, and Mom has her arms wrapped around us both. I’m eleven, my smile displaying a mouth full of multi-colored metal. One hand is occupied brushing my new bangs out of my face, and the other is loosely clasped in Kevin’s.
There was a letter scrawled in my brother’s hand on the first page. It read: Dear little sister,
I know you will go many places, just like in that Dr. Seuss book mom used to read to us, remember? You’ve always had such a unique way of looking at things, and those around you, and I know that will serve you well in the future. Graduating high school and moving on is an important part of life, but there are some things you’ll miss…that’s why I made this photo album for you, so you can pull it out and see your family whenever you get homesick. I know you can’t comprehend the possibility of missing your family, not now, but trust me…you will. I’m so proud of you.
Your big brother Kevin.
Brothers, I thought as the tears welled inconveniently in my eyes, were singularly inexplicable creatures. One moment their carting you around like a designer handbag (the early days) and defending your honor at the local play-ground, the next their secluded in their rooms impervious to and appalled by your existence, and when they get to the point they can stand to be in the same room with you again, they go off to college and lose touch with you altogether.
PS. I was totally kidding about the whole art school thing. You know it’s my job, as your brother, to give you a hard time. I’ve always wanted you to further your talent, and I hope you do!
PPS. The whole colonel Jessup thing was also a joke. I’m not that much of a cad.
I gave a choked little laugh as I closed the book, to embarrassed by my emotion to flip through it further. Kevin was watching me somewhat nervously, gauging my expression.
“Do you like it?” He asked.
“I…it’s fantastic, Kev. You couldn’t have given me anything better.”
Then, for the first time in at least four years, I stepped forward to initiate a hug with my brother. He smelled exactly the same as that ten/fourteen/nineteen year old of my youth: cotton and linen and, unaccountably, the fresh smell of pine trees. His arms tightened briefly around me before letting me go with a brisk pat on the back.
“I’ll see you at the wedding?” He asked.
“Duh.” I rolled my eyes before winking at my frustrating, incomprehensible, hopelessly loved older brother.
“You know…” He idled by the door to his car, his fingers juggling his keys. “Vanessa really likes you.”
“She does?” My eyebrows jumped up of their own accord.
“She does.” He assured me. “She’s…difficult to understand, at first. Almost chilly.”
“You could say that.”
“But what I’m trying to say is that she’s more than that.” Kevin shifted his weight. “She had it tough—her mom was an alcoholic and her dad…he wasn’t around. She probably wouldn’t want me telling you this, but you’re practically family, right? Anyway, the only thing she wants now is a normal life. She hardly even knows what family is. So I need your help to teach her, okay?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Sure. No more waste management jokes.”
“Vanessa has a great sense of humor, believe it or not. Just take it slow.”
“Maybe I could start with port-a-potties, build my way up.” I suggested half-halfheartedly. Kevin smiled and opened his door.
“I love you.” He said, settling into the driver’s seat.
“You too. Have a safe trip.”
I clutched the book to my chest as his car’s engine cut through the silent street. I watched as his taillights disappeared around a corner before turning and heading back toward bed.