I’d hit it fairly hard the previous night. My eyes were pinched, and the damn headache was piercing a tiny hole at the back of my skull. The pain toyed with me, back and forth, disappearing a few minutes but then returning sharply. I was exhausted. Normally, I wouldn’t leave the apartment before noon. At most I would sit on my front deck behind thick sunglasses, a drink in hand, watching passersby down at street level.
But today was my birthday, and my brother Teddy’s too.
My mother and brother had goaded me until I agreed to meet them for breakfast. They were first to arrive at the diner. They were tight as mother and son. And I was the outcast, though I didn’t mind. They were always talking deeply to one another, prodding and interrogating, and then listening and empathizing. They loved their white wine. They loved emotional baggage.
Alone on my side, they sat across from me in the booth.
“Are you tired?” my mother asked me.
“No more than usual at this hour.”
“Hank, you really should get up earlier,” she said, and there was her smile like wrinkled wax.
“Since when are you such the early bird? Hmm?” Teddy said playfully.
“Oh, I’ve been getting up early since, well, since when you were both kids.”
Teddy and I looked at each other. It was a lie and we both knew it. But that was Mom.
Then I said to her, “Stop waving for Christ’s sake. The menus are right here.”
I handed her one.
As soon as she took hold of the menu, it was down on the table again. She beamed, “I’m so proud of you two. I can barely hold it in.”
“It’s no big deal, Mommy,” Teddy said.
“Oh, but I think it is.”
My mother commonly displayed the joy of someone who has just walked into a room full of gifts on Christmas morning, or perhaps the moments right after the crowd yells, “Surprise!” She was overly pleasant. It made people around her smile. Everybody who knew her had come to expect it. Except for when she drank. Ironically, that was when she often turned quiet and defensive. One would have thought it would go the other way.
“My boys are fifty years old,” she said and clasped her hands, looking up at the ceiling, “You did a great job with them.”
“Who you talking to?” I said.
She didn’t reply, and only looked down at her fork and knife, adjusting them so that they were straight.
I looked at Teddy and he was numb-eyed, his way of letting me know he was tired of the subject. But he didn’t have the sack to let Mom know that. The sensitive coddled the sensitive, I suppose.
“You getting religious all of a sudden?” I said to her. “All these years I’ve never seen you go to the dark side.”
“What?” Mom said.
“Never mind him,” Teddy said patting her forearm.
“Can we order?” I said to them. Then I looked up as a server passed. “Can we order, please?”
The woman slowed. She wore a nametag inscribed: BETSY.
“Be right with you,” Betsy said and was gone.
“So,” Mom said wide-eyed. “What are we having for our birthday breakfast?”
She had hit the sauce before Teddy picked her up. It was evident.
“Pancakes. And bacon,” I said.
“Teddy?” she said.
He moaned, “Oh, I suppose the Benedict.”
“What’s the matter?” she said.
“It’s just I get the same thing every time.”
“There, there,” Mom said and ran her hand along his cheek.
“Get a room,” I said. “Fifty years old and you’re still whining like a brat.”
Betsy approached with pen and pad. “So, are we ready?”
“I’ll have a short stack of pancakes, and a side of bacon,” I said.
Teddy sighed. “Benedict.”
“But it’s your birthdays!” Mom said to us. “You should get something different. Get a…waffle.”
“I don’t want that,” Teddy said, his eyes examining the menu.
“No, Mom,” I urged, “He wants a Benedict Arnold, so let him have one.”
“I hate it when you call it that,” Teddy said.
“Well if the shoe fits…”
“It’s both your birthdays?” Betsy asked. “You’re not brothers, are you?”
“Well of course they are,” Mom said. She clutched his hand and then mine. “They’re twins.”
“Get outta here.”
“They’re my boys,” Mom said gushing. She touched Teddy’s face. “This one’s older by seven minutes.”
“Wait a second. I thought it was three minutes,” I said.
I sipped my water pensively. “Son of a bitch. All this time I thought it was three.”
“You don’t look alike,” Betsy said.
“But they used to,” Mom said.
I pointed to Teddy. “He smokes and drinks boxed wine. He also likes big breasted girls.”
“Hank!” Mom said.
“Well, Hank here can take down whiskey by the gallon. Has a liver the size of Texas,” Teddy said and held his hands out to illustrate.
“At least I’ve still got my eyes,” I said. It was a weak comeback, but it still got everyone to stare at his thick glasses.
Teddy closed the menu so that the laminated pages whapped. He locked eyes with me. “Let’s not measure dicks.”
I looked up and Betsy was smirking. She said, “So I’ve got pancakes and bacon for you, and a Benedict for you.” She looked at my mother. “And for you, honey?”
“I think I’m fine,” Mom said, and then with a perk, “Actually…I think I’ll have some sourdough toast, buttered. And a Chardonnay.”
Teddy pressed his lips together. His fingers started working on the table like he was typing. “I’ll have one, too.”
“Chardonnay?” Betsy said.
Teddy grinned nodding.
And then, damn it if all three of them didn’t turn and look at me.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Really?” Mom said with such surprise it made the server lift her eyebrows.
“It’s no trouble,” Betsy said. “I can make it three.”
They all waited. I stood my ground.
“No thanks. Besides, I don’t drink that piss.”
Betsy finished scribbling on her pad, sighing through her nose. Then she left us.
“Taking the day off?” Teddy asked with marked patronization.
“More like a week,” I said like a braggart. I couldn’t help it. They had brought it out of me. Though it wasn’t what I had intended to say.
Mom was quiet, her lips zipped. Teddy was less civilized. He guffawed so that the others in the diner looked at us.
“Whatever you say, Hank,” he said and started the imaginary typing again.
“Well, I say, good for you,” Mom said, spreading out her words. This was a sure sign of mocking. Everyone in the family did it. But Mom was the worst. She reached over and patted the table’s surface in front of my hand. “It’s good, to take time off, here and there.”
“Sure it is,” Teddy said staring blankly out the window.
Silence came over the table. We were seldom like this. I looked back and forth at them.
Then Teddy moaned, “You can’t be serious. A whole week?”
“It’s not a big deal.”
He chuckled under his breath. My eyes scorned him. I wanted my fiftieth birthday to be special, and if not special, then different. Maybe it could be the starting point to something new, something unknown. I was confused, and it annoyed me that I felt as such. Teddy was acting like it was any other day, like most people our age I gathered.
Betsy returned and placed the two glasses of wine in front of Mom and Teddy. Immediately Teddy reached for his, drank, and smacked his lips as he swallowed.
“It’ll pass,” he said effervescently.
I was trying to be realistic about the wagon. Maybe it wouldn’t last a week. Maybe it would. I’d tried it over and over, year after year, and it never stuck. My gut told me, it’s not who you are. You are a drinker. But that was a hard pill to swallow at times. Vices were like black sheep; their mention was avoided whenever possible. They were metaphorically swept under the rug. Turn the other cheek, instinct said. And that was what we did to ourselves. It was a difficult thing to confront the madness. I was like anybody else in that regard. But today was a notable day. It was important that I tested myself.
“Is everything okay?” Mom asked.
“It’s fine. Quit worrying,” I said, “I just want to clean out the body a little.”
“Oh. I see.” She took a sip of wine and her eyes wandered toward the walls.
I looked too. There were framed prints of lilies and tulips and other flowers I didn’t recognize. It had been many years since I’d bought flowers, for a date, for my mother, for anyone.
“You want some flowers, Mom?” I said. My mind was whirling from self-abasement. I needed a shining light to help me along my way.
Teddy cut in. “So, did you see a doctor?”
“Now why would I do that?”
“Just asking.” And there was that smirk he’d been coaxing me with since we were kids.
“Shit,” I said softly.
Teddy was enjoying himself, “Like I said, I’m just asking.”
I held the irritability down. Calmly I picked up my water glass and drank. My fingers became wet from the sweating glass.
“No doctors,” I said, “I’m just taking a little time off. That’s all.”
“What’s the point? It won’t last.” And then he emphasized, “I’m your brother. I know you.”
“Did you know I hid your wine in the backyard under the canvas?”
“You did that!”
“That was the most recent time.”
I had been hiding my brother’s wine the past months. It was my way of getting back at him for berating me in front of his daughters. I hadn’t minded the berating so much until his eldest daughter started doing it too. She was his spitting image, only she didn’t have a penis.
“I thought I was losing my marbles! Where else did you put my wine?”
“You’ll find it,” I chuckled.
Teddy grew dejected. I hated that damn self-pity.
“Grow a pair,” I said. “It’s not like I got a shovel and dug a hole. It’s not worth that much of my time.”
Suddenly his tone changed. Now he was sardonic. “You know what? I think I’ll come visit you. Yes, I’ll come over every single day and see how long you can keep up this charade. And just wait till the withdrawals kick in.”
“Oh, put a sock in it.”
“You put a sock in it.”
“Boys,” Mom cut in, “Let’s not be snippy. This isn’t the time for it.” Her eyes pressed themselves on us the same way they always had. Their authority calmed us, albeit unwillingly.
“We’re just talking,” I said.
“Yeah, we’re just talking, Mommy,” Teddy said.
Teddy took another sip of wine. My mother, without watching him, followed suit. It was maddening, but I wouldn’t show it to them. My head was still aching, though not as sharply now. At this point I couldn’t tell if it was from last night’s hangover or from the coming withdrawals. And I had those damn tremors in my hands. I kept my arms at my sides so they wouldn’t see. A week seemed eternal now. Suddenly I felt a fraud. There was no way I would last.
Teddy narrowed his eyes. “So…” he said stretching it out.
I turned to my mother. “Did Sam give you the books?”
“She did,” she said dismissively and rearranged her fork and knife again.
Expecting more gratitude, I shook my head.
“What books?” Teddy said. He held up his empty wine glass and Betsy nodded as she passed.
“Old ones,” I said, then to fend him off, “You’ve already read them all.”
“How do you know?”
I burst, “Because I know, damn it! You think I don’t notice you dog-earring the pages? What the hell is that?”
The staff was watching me. My mother watched too, though her expression was blank.
“So you gave the books to Mommy just because of a few creases? Boy, you’ve really got issues. Remind me the next time I’m over and I’ll crease the hell out of your first editions.”
Teddy was probably the only person who could so severely get under my skin. I recalled when we were toddlers how much I envied him for his outspokenness. I had been very glad we were twins. But with each year that passed I grew to resent him in varying ways. He possessed the insecurity of a sibling who always needed to have a hand in everything – every conversation, every conflict, every achievement. I suppose he got that from my mother.
“Teddy, do you want the books? I’ll give you the books,” Mom said, looking over at his empty wine glass and abruptly finishing her own just as Betsy arrived.
As Betsy set the wine down I said, “She’ll need another. Sorry to run you.”
“No problem,” Betsy said, “Food will be right out.”
I smiled as she left, appreciative of her seasoned demeanor. I dug into my pocket.
“I’ll come over later and take a look at them,” Teddy said to Mom as though they were alone.
Somebody’s glass clacked ice and I looked to see it. But it was just iced tea. Betsy returned with an armful of plates. She set them in front of us. I was relieved. Finally there was something to distract me from my thoughts.
Before she could leave I touched her arm.
“No singing employees, okay?” I said tenderly. This diner was notorious for embarrassing birthday patrons with loud singing and a slice of pie. My eyes gestured to my hand. She finally realized and dropped her hand and secretly took the crumpled bill from me. Her eyes thanked me, and then she was off to the kitchen.
“You’re picking them young these days,” Teddy said chewing his food open-mouthed.
“How’s your toast?” I said to Mom.
She was strangely quiet, staring at her empty glass. I deduced it was the wine overtaking her.
“You can have my wine, Mommy,” Teddy said setting his in front of her. “I’ll drink the next one the girl brings.”
But she didn’t even look at it. Her eyes were far, far away. And then I realized it was another of her episodes. The acute lapses of sadness were jarring. She had never gotten a diagnosis. And it had gotten increasingly worse over the years. Teddy pretended not to see it, like a spineless son. But I refused to do that. I would talk her through when the episodes came. Maybe it was futile. Still I felt there needed to be someone to talk her off the ledge.
“Mom, you’re okay. You’re fine. It’s a happy day. We’re having a nice birthday breakfast,” I said.
Teddy chuckled looking at his wristwatch, “It’s nearly noon.” Then he took a sip from the wine glass he had set in front of my mother. He looked around. “Where’s that girl with the wine?”
“Settle down. She’ll bring it.”
“I think I’m going to buy a new TV as a present to myself,” Teddy said burping and chewing the afterbirth. He gestured, “A big one that covers the entire wall.”
“Like that’ll help.”
I kept watching my mother, concerned.
“I’m a little tired,” she said finally coming back to us.
“Eat your toast,” I said, giving her my eyes until she fixed on them. Again I emphasized, “Eat.”
She examined a piece of the toast, turning it to see the other side. She took a tiny bite. Unimpressed, she set it down.
I stuffed a piece of bacon into my mouth and worked through it. Then I took another slice, repeating the process. My mother consumed me now. So I placed the third piece of bacon atop her toast. She looked at it with discovery, picking it up and eating it with the most satisfied expression.
Betsy brought the glass of wine and left the paper bill in her wake.
I eyed the wine, my head throbbing now. Impulsively, I reached for my water and gulped the remainder. It caught and I gasped choking. My loud hacks caused a stir among the other tables. People looked on warily.
“Wrong pipe,” Teddy said and smiled at them like it was no big deal.
The onlookers went back to their conversations.
I held my chest, taking a while to recover, coughing repeatedly as they looked on. When it subsided my eyes crawled to my mother and stayed on her.
She looked me in the eyes, and then suddenly as though realizing she urged, “Here, take my wine,” and slid it toward me.
Instinctively, I picked up the wine glass and held it there, temptation screaming at me to swig it, all of it. It didn’t matter if it tasted like piss. They were all related.
“Well, go on,” Teddy added.
I inhaled then exhaled, cautiously, like it was a test run. Fifty years old, I thought. You can treat it like any typical day, or you can grow a pair and hold off. My free hand was trembling at my side, my fingers acting like they wanted to scribble in the sand. I never got used to the involuntary movements. It was like watching a dying robot. Suddenly paranoid of their watchful eyes, I set down the wine and clasped my hands in my lap.
What was the point if I was only going to scrutinize every damn sip I took? It was no way to do it properly. It was about doing something and doing it with fervor, positive or negative. That was why I enjoyed watching movies where the bad guy got away with it. I liked seeing the other side of things. I liked seeing how he went about it. It was about his perspective, and not his persuasion. We were a society black and white, labeling things with huge letters BAD and GOOD. But it wasn’t realistic. Life wasn’t like that. We were all bad and good in our different ways. If a person led you on that they were the perfect model citizen, they were the ones to be wary of most. And the others who acted the craziest were often just scared and harmless. The way I saw it, at least I was being honest with myself. Yes, I wanted a damn drink. In fact, I’d probably dive into it once I got home. But there, sitting in the diner with my family, it was important that I at least make an effort. I was tired of folding at the first sign of temptation. I was no pushover. Goddamn it, I was no pushover.
“Maybe later,” I said, “But you two have at it.”
I expected Teddy to start in on me when I said that, but he didn’t. He settled back in his seat and sipped his wine. Mom held up her glass.
“Happy birthday,” she said looking at us.
Teddy clinked glasses with her and they drank.
I waved Betsy over.
I said, “I’ve changed my mind. A slice of pie suddenly sounds good,” and then with gusto, “Bring on the singing platoon.”