Taffeta drapes hang from golden rings. A vinyl sunshade fills the window space. The single pane of glass that softens the sound of the waking world outside. Chirps of birds and caws of crows. An occasional car rolling past. A sprinkler to beat the San Diego heat. A jogger’s soft footstrikes doing the same.
The AC kicks on and flutters the frilly ankles of the curtains. I pull the crisp bedsheets closer to my chest and follow a line of sunlight forcing its way into the foreign room. It slices from the sill to the rug, then fires a white line up and onto a shelf of books. Like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy’s medallion is struck by a ray of light and a subsequent beam illuminates the buried location of the ark. I hum John Water’s score as the light scoots along spines until it shines on the one Uncle Jeff gave my sister Lisa when we were kids. The Tao Te Ching. I remember her disguised thrill. Oh thanks, she said as she held the thin book. Its blank cover. Lisa read Jeff’s inscription to the room as he nodded knowingly. It said something like, I think you’re ready for this. His words upset me. I wanted to be ready. I wanted to know the secret she held in her hands.
My attention suddenly shifts to my twisted up boxers. I arch my back to adjust the elastic band. Then I scratch my belly, my thighs, feel the heft of the comforter atop me. I close my eyes and inhale deeply. Run my hand atop my skin and beneath the loose cotton. I jump when a fingernail taps on the door. Pull my arms out from beneath. Come in, I say. The knob twists in slow motion, the door creaks open. The top of my sister’s head peeks in. You awake? I nod. How ya feeling? Fine, I say, though my head is dull throbbing. Sleep OK? I let out a lungful of air. So, so good. I always have the weirdest dreams in your spare rooms though. Lisa chuckles. Says it’s the ghosts who follow her around. Well, there’s coffee whenever you’re ready. I’m hopping in the shower.
I get up. The thick rug under my feet. The flashing brightness of the living room. The magnetic smell of coffee brewing. Lisa has placed mug options on the tile counter because, like me, she knows it matters. I choose a big one with a thick handle and an image of a windmill. SOLVANG in cursive caps across the top. I fill it half way and join Tom, her husband, on the couch in a square of light warming the living room. Balance the hot mug steady on my thigh. Tom says Good morning, but only because not saying good morning would be rude.
We don’t read the paper. Don’t flip any magazines or books. We sit and stare through the large windows and drink our coffees. Tom slurps. And after each noisy sip he exhales loudly. Before long, Tom gets up for a refill, and when he returns he asks about my upcoming trip to Southeast Asia. I mention the noted side effects as marked by stickers on my vial of malarial pills. Suicidal and homicidal tendencies. So, I guess if I’m going to kill anyone, now’s the time, I say. Tom smiles, which makes me feel like I chose the right words.
I’ve always wanted a big brother. As a kid I told classmates I had a brother in the Army. Once, a kid asked me what my brother’s name was. I said, Dave. He rides motorcycles and drives a Trans Am with a T-top and has long hair and listens to rock and roll. Dave, in my imagination, would sit on the edge of my bed and tell me stories. He’d be interested in what was going on in my life and put his hand on my shoulder. Dave and I would make plans to go camping. We’d whittle sticks with sheath knives and hunt for arrowheads. He’d let me cuss.
I tell Tom about Burmese snakes as described by my Lonely Planet guidebook. Ones that hang from tree branches and drop onto unassuming prey below. Tom shakes his head as he raises his mug to his lips. Loud slurp. Loud breath. Fuck no, he says. Ain’t no way. Tom gazes for a while out the window. When I return with a refill, he asks if I am afraid of traveling so far. Like, what will you do if something bad happens to you while you’re there? And how do you know what to do when the culture, and everything, is so different? Tom’s eyes meet mine. His face scrunches. I first laugh like it’s no big deal, but then I try to answer thoughtfully, because it’s obvious he’s truly concerned. Ultimately I tell him I try not to think about bad things, but hope I’m able to deal with them if they come. My answer feels foolish.
He then stands up, asks if I want another, and reaches for my mug. When I hand it to him, he stands in front of me until I look up at his face. When I do, his large, green eyes, open wide as he says he’s proud of me. I want to look away, but I know I shouldn’t. He repeats his words. I’m proud of you, Tom. I really am. He doesn’t turn away. Seems to be waiting for my response. All I can muster up is a generic, thanks, to which he nods, then moves towards the kitchen. I bite my lips together, trying to contain my flood of feelings. I clear my throat. Adjust my position on the couch.
Lisa bounds in and energetically announces, good morning! Everyone ready for another hot one? Tom walks back into the living room with our coffees and gives me a wink. Ready, I say. OK, she says. Who wants eggs?