The Recipe 

If you get a few plastic bottles, some batteries, a little fertilizer and lye, and a pack of Sudafed, and you can cook yourself a pile of crystal meth in your own home.  Snort it or smoke it, get that high you’re chasing.  Wash out the containers, steal more supplies, and do it again.

How bad do you want it?  How deep is your need?  Do you trust yourself enough to not mess up the recipe?  Are you sober and steady enough to get it right?  Was the information you found on Google accurate?  Did you read each ingredient on the list and imagine ingesting it, consider it flowing up your nose and racing through your bloodstream?  Are you sure about this?

No, you’re not, but you don’t care.  You’re sure you need a hit, and that you need it soon and that you don’t have the money to keep paying that guy your cousin knows to cook for you.  You’re sure that willpower is the bedrock of achievement because this is America, by God–the land of dreams made real through work and creativity, of problems solved with sweat and duct tape.  You aren’t a chemist, but you could have been if school had been your thing, just like you could run the company that just fired you if you had been lucky enough to be born the son of the owner rather than the son of a mechanic.  You can be President one day, remember, if you just believe hard enough.

People would judge you if they knew what you were doing.  They always have, starting when you were a kid and your mom bought you those off-brand tennis shoes from Hills when everyone else had Reeboks and British Knights.  And then you begged her to buy you a Starter jacket because those were so cool the kids in Pittsburgh were literally killing for them but by the time she could afford one for you they weren’t cool anymore and your place was still Down There.  You started smoking then, stealing cigs from your mom’s purse because if you’re going to be an outsider at least you could be badass, but that turned out to be just another strike against you, another signifier what you’d always be: a degraded photo negative of what it means to matter.

You’re trying really hard to follow this recipe, to make sure you get the amounts just right, that you don’t pull the wrong lithium strip out of the battery.  You’re trying really hard not to breathe too deeply because there are toxic fumes, and you’ve got the fan on and the windows open just in case because you’ve heard about people who’ve done it wrong and didn’t even get to go out high.  You don’t want to be like them, but you’re sweating, and you can feel your eyelids twitching involuntarily, and this recipe isn’t all that clearly written because of course it isn’t–it’s from a tweaker with Internet access and a GED.

You graduated, at least, and you had a friend who knew a guy who stocked vending machines, and you thought that sounded like a nice way to make nine dollars an hour, but then you got that DUI and lost your license, and they couldn’t keep you on if you couldn’t drive all over the county to put their stale Herr’s chips into those turning mechanical metal spirals.  Your old man was pissed about that, said you were a bum like your uncle who was on food stamps because he had no pride in himself and spent his time pounding Keystone Lights and never was worth a damn.

So you moved in with your girlfriend and her family and you had a great time with them because they didn’t care if you worked or not as long as you shared whatever you were eating or drinking or smoking or snorting with them.  That’s when you first tried meth, and for the first time ever nobody judged you.

You went back to work, of course, because your girlfriend got pregnant and a man needs to take care of his family even if his woman doesn’t want to make it official and only promises to cut back on the dope because she doesn’t want to lie and say she’ll go cold turkey.  You’re not sure if she’s dialed it down or not, because it still seems pretty regular but it’ll probably be okay because not every smoke fiend’s kid comes out messed up–that’s just hype.  You have bills to pay and you were trying, mowing median strips along the highway, but you failed a piss test and that ended that.

And now you’ve taped the rubber hose between the two bottles and you’re pouring and there’s smoke filling up the clear plastic and little flakes of dope falling are on the inside and you can smell it with those shallow breaths and everything is going to be okay in about twenty minutes.

And you shake the mixture to speed it up, because maybe it’ll be ready in eighteen minutes instead.  Not a hard shake, you’re certain, just enough to be an encouragement, and it seems to work because there’s more smoke and the plastic feels warmer and you’re excited but now it feels hot, like you’ll-have-to-put-it-down hot, and you sit it on the counter and step back.  The smoke is thicker and you can hear a hissing sound muffled in the bottle and then it blows and the mixture is in your eyes and your nose and your mouth and everything feels like melting plastic as you drop to the filthy linoleum floor and you can hear the beeping of the smoke alarm.  You want it to stop–the burning and the choking and the beeping–because it all hurts so much that you’ve forgotten who you are and it keeps going and going and getting worse and it will not end until finally–

It does end.

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Pre-Party Freak Out

There is an old Asian saying:  “Clean house, clean mind.  Clean mind, clean heart.”  Anyone who knows me, or who has spent any significant time reading the posts on this blog will realize that I possess neither a clean mind nor a clean heart. It should therefore go without saying that my house is not clean, either.

“This place is a shithole,” Kristy texted me this morning.  “I am going to lose my mind!”  (I was at a meeting.)

No, she did not wake up to this realization. The problem is that we are having not one but two (!) parties tomorrow. First, there is a birthday party for my son, Ian, who is turning five.  Then, we transition into a Super Bowl party with additional guests. Many of the people who are coming to one or both parties have never been here before. 

There’s a certain level of anxiety about what new people think when they walk into your home. These situations, without fail, produce a near-crisis level of panic in our family.  

When we moved in, I told our landlord that we are messy people, but not dirty people. This is true. However, we are also surface cleaners, and that means that after a certain period of time we really do become dirty people. The same laziness which leads us to focus on the superficial rather than performing a deep clean also allows us to settle for Good Enough–or even Fuck It–when our guests are repeat visitors.  (For example: Lee comes over every Friday, so he’s already proven he has no standards.  Why tidy up?)

And so, when I returned home from my meeting this afternoon, I found my wife kneeling in a pile of toys, her head in her hands, overwhelmed by the task in front of her. The children weren’t very interested in cleaning, and there was so little time. Fortunately, after I started scrubbing countertops, she felt less alone. The kids started pitching in.  The house actually started to look good.

I think there’s an obvious message in this.  When you were together, you can accomplish great things. But that shit is hard, so just hire a cleaning service.

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No Attraction

Somebody told me Elvis Costello is God and I felt my bowels liquefy 

at the idea that the universe fell under the control of someone with such boring taste

I mean say what you will about the cruelty and horrors of the world as we know it 

(and they are numerous)

at least it’s interesting which is more than you can say about a guy whose major accomplishment 

was playing the wrong shitty song on a live television show in the 1970s 

Better for all existence to careen untethered toward a soulless black hole 

filling the vacuum of space with the pathetic fart of humanity’s death rattle

than ever hear “Alison” again.

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Cigarette Burns:  Let the Fire Burn

The first thing we see is a child, small for his age.  He sits quietly as a kindly man speaks to him about the camera that films them.  This is a deposition, we learn.  The boy is told only that he must tell the truth.  

Do you know what happens when people don’t tell the truth?, he is asked.

He responds:  They get hurt.

On May 13, 1985, a lot of people got hurt, and eleven–six adults and five children–were killed when Philadelphia police dropped an incendiary device on the headquarters of a Black radical organization known as MOVE.  Only two people inside the bombed house survived (among them Birdie Africa, the boy being deposed).  65 homes were destroyed in the fire that resulted.

Jason Osder’s 2013 documentary is about Truth, though it doesn’t presume to know it.  The film explores the catastrophe using period footage culled from news reports, press briefings, and the investigation that followed the disaster.  The film does not offer its players the benefit of hindsight.  There are no director/eyewitness interviews.  No one returns to comment Thirty Years Later, and that is Osder’s master stroke.  This is a documentary that plays like an objective evidence reel, with the audience left to weigh each piece and make its own decisions.

The dominant trend in current documentary films is for the filmmaker to pick an issue, choose a side, and cherry-pick the information presented so the audience leaves the theater nodding in agreement.  Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Alex Gibney have made a lot of money with this formula, though the number of viewers they’ve converted is debatable.  Some films of this type can be entertaining, even powerful, but they play like a march toward a pre-determined idea.  Let the Fire Burn chooses complexity over confirmation, to its everlasting credit.



MOVE began as a back-to-nature group, centered around the ideas and leadership of John Africa.  They believed that technology hindered life, and they did not use electricity or seek modern conveniences.  Their radical stances–like tearing out the sidewalks in front of their home–led to conflict with the neighbors.  Soon, the police were involved.  And that’s where stories diverge.  

Society trains us to process information as a series of binary choices–good/bad, right/wrong.  Most films would push you toward one side or the other, either MOVE or the police.  Instead, what’s obvious from watching Oster’s movie is that neither group was pure.  Organizations are no better or worse than their members.  Like individuals, they are imperfect, prone to poor choices, and often irrational.

In the years leading up to the disaster.  MOVE members were often arrested.  Their home was raided.  One was beaten by a group of police officers (who were subsequently acquitted).  They owned weapons and brandished them on the roof of their building, but they claimed this was solely in response to police harassment.  They believed this attention was a direct result of their political activism, the angry response of an establishment that represented spiritual death.

But there were ugly rumors about MOVE.  There were stories of malnourished children, of threats to the community.  They broadcast obscene rants over a speaker system, cursing the world. Residents worried about the group’s history of violence.  And there were homemade steel-plated bunkers on the roof, which raised the stakes considerably.  In 1978, a police officer died during a shootout with MOVE.  Nine members went to prison, though they claimed he died from friendly fire.  

By 1985, there could be no compromise.  Each side saw the other as a manifestation of societal sickness.  

So how do you remove armed people from a building without bloodshed?  When there are children inside?  Everyone in Philadelphia’s government knew this wouldn’t end well.  (District Attorney Ed Rendell acknowledged that he realized someone would die during the police action, though he wasn’t sure on which side the victim would be.)  The city ordered the neighbors to evacuate and a day-long standoff ensued.

There’s a lot to untangle here. Systemic racism, the cult-like nature of MOVE, situational ethics, police brutality.  Who’s lying?  What is each witness’ motivation? Who is at fault?

Some of you have probably already made up your mind based solely on this essay. Maybe you’re a law and order type, the kind of person who thinks that the police should be able to shoot a non-violent suspect who attempts to flee.  Or maybe you think the government is hopelessly corrupt and the police are an instrument of oppression.  

Let the Fire Burn, in its dogged refusal to provide clear-cut answers, points toward something more horrifying than crazy revolutionaries or corrupt cops.  What if both things are true?  What if MOVE provoked a standoff through their dangerous behavior, and the Philadelphia police–furious and scared after their colleague’s death–wanted them to die?  This is not an either/or situation.  This is messy and brutal and challenging.  Real life usually is. 


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Marlene:  A Brief Bit of Fiction

Señora Grundy hated me, but not as much as I hated her. I’m not sure what bothered me most–the intense cherry red of her obviously dyed hair, the voice so squeaky it could give a nearby dog seizures, or the desk so carefully organized that even her paper clips were stacked neatly. She moved through her classroom like a rag doll traipsing its way across an active battlefield, her elastic legs always too far in front of her elongated trunk, as if she might fall backwards at any moment.

Before I took her Spanish III class during my freshman year at Union City High, I had actually liked Spanish. I enjoyed the creativity, taking lessons learned in school and combining them with curse words from the Internet to construct filthy jokes for my friends. Growing up as I did in small-town Western Maryland, I could use Spanish as a sort of secret code, because most of the locals (my parents included) believed strongly that citizens of the United States of Americs were born with the God-given right to speak only English and be universally understood.

My middle school Spanish teacher had spent a year of her college education living in Chile, soaking up the culture until she practically smelled like downtown Santiago. Señora Wilson loved the people, the music, the food. She spoke of the language and people with warmth and love, all in an accent that could have fooled Pinochet into thinking she was a native. It was beautiful, full-bodied. So was she.

There was no evidence that Señora Grundy, on the other hand,  had ever been to a Spanish-speaking country. She spoke with all the authenticity of a person who learned the language while working at a Taco Bell outside of Pittsburgh, albeit with less enthusiasm than that implies. The moment she opened her small, permanently puckered lips to speak, I despised her.

I know now that wasn’t fair, and I knew it then. I am not unaware of my own emotional shortcomings. That very first day, as I pondered how I fit into the new-to-me world of Union City High and struggled to put my initial feelings of unease with her class to rest, she destroyed any chance to earn my respect.

She had already created a seating chart–an entirely reasonable thing, of course–and she was organizing us alphabetically by last name in an alternating boy-girl pattern. (This said volumes about her to anyone not too stoned to pay attention.) What bothered me, as I watched her traverse the classroom with that distinctive Slinky-like gait, was her insistence on personally assigning every student a Spanish name. She announced each student’s chosen name as she pointed them to their seat, settling on the most obvious option for each person. Joseph Atkinson became José; Maria Bennett stayed Maria.

“Paul Chernitsky?,” she summoned me, indicating a seat in the second row, near the window. “Te llamo Pablo.”

“Un momento,” I interjected. “Mi nombre es Salvador.” In middle school, I had taken this as my name in tribute to the late Chilean President Allende, assassinated in a 1973 coup. Señorita Wilson practically broke her jaw, she smiled so wide when I picked it.  

Señora Grundy shook her head rapidly. “No,” she squawked. “You’re Pablo. No one choose their own name.”

¿Por qué?” I hoped she would recognize my eagerness to speak the language and encourage it.

Porque this is my class, not yours. Now plant your butt in that siento, Pablo, or kindly remove yourself from this room!” 

Puta, I cursed to myself. I realized then that it would be a long year.

The Señora wasn’t one to let a grudge pass her by. Every day, she found reasons to criticize me. My accent wasn’t right or my Rs needed rolling or I needed the preterite tense instead of the imperfect. Everything I did was mierda. I took it, let her scrunch her face into a smirk, watched her reflexively brush non-existent wrinkles from her blouse.  

You could never accuse this woman of laziness. Every moment involved speech and motion. She walked and talked and straightened her room as she went, ensuring that every textbook spine was flush to its neighbors or that the Kleenex container was simultaneously perpendicular to the window and parallel to the stack of dictionaries and the filing cabinet. Hand sanitizer was applied in 15 minute intervals, followed by a sip of coffee. When she had to sit at her desk for any length of time, she fidgeted absent-minded ly, turning a small stone paperweight between the fingers.

I can’t recall the exact moment I understood that she had OCD–in those days, I might not have even known the medical terminology–but I do remember the first time I tested her compulsion. On a whim, I turned her perfectly placed tissue box 45°. No one noticed. It wasn’t a big deal. Still, within five minutes, I saw her eyes lock onto the offending item, and she moved quickly to correct it.

After that, I took every opportunity to toy with her. I ran my finger across the window glass, leaving a smudge. (She buffed it out with a tissue during our class.) I dragged my pen along her bulletin board while throwing trash in the garbage can. (She changed the entire thing that night.) I “accidentally” opened the hole-punch in front of the fan, scattering tiny white circles for ten feet. (She called a custodian immediately, but couldn’t wait for him. She kept teaching, on her knees, using a small brush and dustpan to collect the debris.) These incidents did not go unnoticed by my peers. Each time she had a minor freak-out, scattered giggles broke out. It became a running gag.

I decided to take a few weeks off after that. She knew I was responsible, had seen me open the hole punch, and Gave me detention for it. I knew she was watching, and besides, I wasn’t sure how to top that mess short of getting suspended.  

You don’t always have to do the wrong thing to get into trouble. I was trying to lay low. I was just getting out my notebook and pen, preparing for class when Joey Atkinson entered the room. He passed by her desk, grabbed the blue stone paperweight from its position in the exact center of a stack of tests and dropped it into her half-full coffee mug. Señora Grundy was on hall duty, blissfully unaware.  He smirked at me and sat down.

It didn’t take her long to notice that something was wrong.  She began her lesson with confidence but hovered close to her desk, scanning it first with her eyes and then with her hands.  Her voice trailed off, fading mid-sentence.  She opened drawers and rifled through their contents.  She knelt, stretching her bony arms under the desk.

“My stone,” she said finally.  “Did anyone see it?  The blue one that I keep on my desk.”

Silence.  Señora Grundy paced around the desk, examining it from all angles.

“It’s not just some rock, you know.  My husband gave it to me on our first date thirty-eight years ago.  It means so much…”  I could hear Joey Atkinson snicker.  I wanted to laugh, too.

“He told me, ‘Marlene, carry this with you and think of me and you’ll never have to be nervous because I’ll be right there with you,’ and I have taken it with me everywhere every day since then.”

Her face contorted, and her black rat-eyes moistened. I felt bad for her, honestly, but not enough to look away. 

She raised her coffee cup to her lips and tipped it back–not her usual petite sips, but a gulp, like it was medicine.  Suddenly, she gagged amd clutched her throat, dropping to her knees as her face reddened. Her tiny eyes widened. A girl from the swim team rushed forward and began to perform the Heimlich maneuver.  The little stone squirted out of her mouth with an audible pop and arced through the air for a few inches then fell to the floor.

Señora Grundy remained on the floor, her thin chest heaving, trying to claim all of the room’s oxygen as her own. The swimmer released her and backed away slowly but did not return to her seat. Every eye focused on the spittle-coated stone drying on the gray linoleum tile.  Except for Señora’s, which were locked on me.

“Pablo,” the Señora gasped, “get the fuck out of my classroom.” The class readjusted its collective gaze from the floor to my face.

“What?,” I whispered. I could not connect what I’d seen to what she was saying, and hearing her swear in a wheezy version of her squeaky Yinzer voice startled me. I tittered nervously.

“We are done, Pablo. I want you out of here.” She raised an arm to point at the door, a skeletal finger extending toward it.  I gathered my things and went to the office, knowing she would call them.

But we weren’t done, because she pressed charges against me. Theft (though I had taken nothing) and assault (though I had done nothing).  I could have told the truth, could have brought Joey Atkinson into it, but given my history, who would have believed me?  The principal suspended me to the school board, and they expelled me.  My mother had to enroll me in the small Catholic high school where all of the local troublemakers mixed with the children of the overly devout.  The expulsion kept me out of the top-tier colleges I wanted, and I had to slog through four years at West Virginia University with drunks who burned their own couches whenever the football team lost.  Every time I smelled scorched foam in the air, every littered beer can I walked past on campus, every redneck yokel who played Candy Crush on his phone during a lecture I attended, I cursed Señora Grundy.

I was back home with my parents the summer I turned 21.  One Tuesday in July, my mom, who read the newspaper daily even though she knew about the Internet, called my attention to the obituaries.  A man named Thomas Grundy had just died at age 67. 

“Marlene, his wife…  That’s the teacher who got you expelled, isn’t it?” 

I took the paper from my mother and read through the details.  I nodded to answer her, but my mind was already on other things.

I pulled into Ritter’s Funeral Home at 8:15 that evening, glad to see that the parking lot was full.  I entered and took my place in the long line of family and friends waiting to console Widow Grundy.  All the while I scanned the room, searching for an opportunity.  Just before I reached the front of the line, I saw what I wanted.

It had been seven years since my expulsion, and I had changed a great deal.  I had gotten taller and broader, gained twenty pounds, and grown a closely-trimmed beard.  When Señora Grundy reached out to shake my hand, she smiled softly.  Clearly, she didn’t recognize me.

“You’re a former student,” she squawked.  “I know it!”

“José Atkinson,” I smiled, taking her hand and pulling her into a warm hug. “I’m sorry for your loss, Señora Grundy.”

“Thanks, sweetie.  But call me Marlene, okay?  I’m not a teacher any more.”  

She asked what I was doing and I lied about work and then I asked how she enjoyed retirement and pretended to listen attentively.  After a minute, we said our goodbyes.

I knelt beside the casket and bowed my head.  I counted silently to fifty to be sure my prayer looked genuine.  I could hear the widow talking to the next mourner, and I knew she was distracted.  I stood and peered down at Mr. Grundy, a round little man with a walrus mustache and a bad combover.  Clutched in his hands, in what Señora Grundy no doubt considered a symbolic gesture, was that same blue stone the bitch had almost choked on.  I patted the dead man’s arm as I had always seen my grandmother do at viewings, and then I palmed the rock and walked out.

I drove around for a little bit, thinking about what I’d done and the nervous breakdown it would likely cause.  I pictured Señora Grundy digging around in the casket, wailing.  I imagined her heart stopping.  I thought about her slashing her wrists in despair.  I smiled.

I rolled down my window, feeling the warm summer night rush over me.  Without slowing down, I threw the blue stone into the darkness and kept moving.

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Mass Shootings and You

Another day, another mass shooting.  We average more than one per day in the United States, which is not a left-wing talking point, but verifiably true.  The President called it a pattern, which is understatement on the level of waking up each morning has become a pattern for me.  Everyone acknowledges this, but no one will do anything.

Yes, someone will introduce legislation into Congress.  That person will give a speech, and then their bill will die in committee.  The entire American citizenry knows this.

The other side of the aisle will offer prayers for the victims.  These die not in committee, but rather at the moment such hollow words cease vibrating the listeners’ eardrums.  This, too, is common knowledge.

Think about all the places where mass shootings have occurred this year:  Churches, universities, medical clinics, political rallies, parades, markets, banquets…  It’s frightening, and it’s supposed to be.  The gunmen planned it that way.  You can’t run tight security at most of these places without a) spending a boatload of money, or b) tarnishing the spirit of the place/event in question. 

Now extrapolate that idea out to your life.  How often are you in a relatively crowded place with little or no preventative security?  You have the places above, plus shopping malls, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, movie theaters, Little League games, dance recitals, playgrounds.  I could go on, but you get the point.  We cannot make ourselves safe, both because it is physically and fiscally prohibitive within the current paradigm and because there is no political will to change the current paradigm.  Every small change–adding a security camera or hiring an extra security guard–is like giving a sick child NyQuil.  It doesn’t cure the illness, but it helps the kid sleep a little better while you cross your fingers that the problem will magically work itself out.

I’m not trying to fill you with fear, but I do want to encourage your empathy.  Consider the horrific stories of the survivors and the searing pain felt by the families of the dead.  The people going through this hell could be your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends, your family, you.  Empathy prompts action.

If this situation is going to change, we need to change a lot about our culture.  Yes, that involves updating gun laws, but it’s more than that.  It involves improved social services and better access to mental health care.  It involves changing the way we talk about guns and crime–killing the myth of the heroic armed civilian, de-glamorizing vigilantism and revenge.  It involves changing the way we talk about the mentally ill–bringing them out of the shadows, removing the stigma of their illnesses, and offering them acceptance and love.  It involves de-escalating the War on Drugs and offering treatment, not prison.  It involves toning down political rhetoric that demonizes the Other or casts political issues as righteous crusades.  Eliminate hatred and fear.  Promote tolerance and dialogue.

This is a lot to ask for, I know.  It will take political leadership, including the ability to compromise and the courage to seek solutions rather than contributions.  Our leaders will need public pressure and public support to do this.  You and I have to talk earnestly without yelling slogans at each other.  We have to listen rather than plugging our ears.  We must share ideas and concerns, acknowledge our own biases and limitations.  We need the best way forward, not an ideologically-pure program.

Can we do this?  I suppose it’s theoretically possible.  Will we do this?  Probably not.  We take bold action only in dire situations.  We needed the bombing of Pearl Harbor to eradicate isolationism.  9/11 caused a full renovation of our national security apparatus.  To borrow a 12-step phrase, we had to hit bottom.  What does that look like when it comes to modern gun violence?

A sitting US Congresswoman getting shot in the head?  31 college students killed at Virginia Tech?  26 kids and teachers slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary?  I guess not.

Now is the time to begin the process.  It’s already too late, honestly.  But you know and I know that we haven’t hit bottom yet.  I shudder to think what that might be.

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Excerpt from NaNoWriMo 2015

The following is a portion of an in-progress novel. Comments and feedback are appreciated.

Denise Fox’s sister, Haley, has recently been murdered.

My earliest memory involves my sister Haley. 

When I was three, I had a ceramic piggy bank sitting on top of my dresser, a pastel green, totally-70s number that probably came from a yard sale. I must have wanted to play with it, because I pulled my miniature wicker rocking chair over to the dresser’s edge and stood on it, arms outstretched, reaching desperately for that pig. I was able to crook a finger around one of his front legs, but as I shifted my weight to get a better grip, the chair moved beneath my feet and I fell. My finger pulled the bank, which tottered on the side of the dresser for a moment and then dropped, shattering on the thinly carpeted floor of my bedroom. Coins and shards of painted ceramic scattered.

My mother, summoned by the noise, began fluttering around, brandishing a broom and delivering a high-pitched monologue that began as concerned inquiry, morphed into parental rebuke, and then settled on frustrated self-pity. I watched her quietly, my face hot and wet with tears, waiting for her to reassemble my bank, knowing she would make everything whole. When Mom dumped the broken pieces into a garbage bag, I realized for the first time that some things, once broken, can never be repaired. I began to wail.

Mom sat me on my bed and spoke softly, telling me that I was okay. I hadn’t been seriously hurt in the fall; the mess was all gone. I didn’t have the words, at three, to express why I was really upset.  
Haley stood in the doorway watching our mother attempt to console me. She had been in the dining room, working on her kindergarten homework, coloring a large letter E. She said nothing. I saw the twirl of her skirt as she ran back to her work.

Two days later, Haley called me into her room. She had gone directly there after school, ignoring our usual routine of watching DuckTales and Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers. Her floor was covered in scraps of construction paper and on her bed sat scissors, Scotch tape, and a black marker. In her hands, she held a shoebox wrapped in green paper. A roughly drawn face hung perilously on one of the box’s narrow ends. It was a pig, or at least Haley’s re-imagination of one. There was a hole cut roughly from the top of the box–a place for me to deposit my money–and after I squealed with delight, we put all of my coins in to the pig and placed it on the dresser.

“This one won’t break when you try to play with it,” she reassured me.
I used that shoebox piggy bank until I went away to college. My mom threw it out during my first semester, and I could have killed her for it. The green paper had long since faded to a dull grey, and the hole in the top had grown large enough that I could reach inside to scoop up the change I needed, but that bank was love, above all else.
Haley was a good playmate–attentive and giving, willing to follow along with my suggestions. The typical older sister/younger sister dynamic never applied to us. She treated me as an equal, not an underling. I don’t remember fighting over toys or getting my hair pulled or being told to mind my own business. All of those things probably happened–she wasn’t the Second Coming of Christ, after all–but nothing traumatic jumps out at me.  
It wasn’t until I started attending elementary school that I realized what a pain in the ass Haley could be. Not that she had changed, mind you. No, she remained cheerful, kind, loving Haley. But now I found myself traveling in the wake of her reputation, always held up and examined for comparison to my older sister and always found lacking. 
The school year would begin with the teacher paying extra attention to me, always smiling, a slight lilt to her voice. I was special for a time, the new Fox girl who looks so much like her big sister. And then, after a quarter or so, the smiles were gone and the voices were flat, and I was moved away from the teacher and to the middle of the room. I wasn’t bad, or stupid, or lazy. I was just ordinary, a B-plus kid stuck with an A-plus sister. I loved Haley, but I began to look for chances to vent my frustration towards her.  
When I was in second grade, my parents allowed her to buy a Siamese fighting fish with her allowance. She named him Groucho and talked about him as if he were another sibling. She bought a plastic castle for him to hide in and kept his bowl clean and clear. One Sunday, I overheard my parents bragged to their friends about sweet, responsible Haley and her fish. When they spoke of me, their praise was qualified with adverbs like Usually and Mostly and Almost. That night, I snuck into her room while she practiced piano downstairs, and I overfed her fish. She found him dead the next morning, and she wept bitterly for ten minutes, then pulled herself together and flushed Groucho in a toilet paper shroud that read “A Good Fish.” She never replaced him.
Looking back, I realize that my parents were wrong. If you were comparing me to Haley, I wasn’t an Almost. I was a Nope, a Failure, a Disappointment. I view the young me the same way my teachers did–as an unworthy follow-up.
My therapist tells me I’m too hard on myself, that the murders have colored my memories, erasing subtleties. I am, she says, remembering my own judgments about Haley and myself as common perceptions held by everyone who knew both of us. Maybe she’s right, but I can’t forgive myself, not when I never apologized to her when she could hear me.
And I don’t mean the fish, either. I’m talking about Alvin.
She started dating him her freshman year at Johns Hopkins. His mother had died when he was young, and his dad was not in the picture, so when the Thanksgiving break rolled around, she brought him home to stay on our couch. He was handsome, with curly brown hair that coiled out in all directions and a closely trimmed goatee. He must have weighed less than 150 pounds then, a bit too thin for his height, which was over six feet. The top of her head barely came up to his shoulder, but they looked good together. Haley wore her dirty-blonde hair long then, tucked behind her ears to frame her soft, warm features. She had the body of a gymnast, thin and compact, not an ounce of fat. (I, on the other hand, had an ass rounded out from eating too many cookies.)  
After dinner, the three of us drove to the Blockbuster and rented a movie, some piece of crap horror film about a snowman who kills people. My parents went to bed early, leaving us to our movie. 
“You wanna smoke?,” he asked Haley, pulling a small bag of weed out of his pocket. I waited for her to throw him out, but she giggled and nodded. I hadn’t expected that response from Perfect Haley, but perhaps I should have. They looked at me.
“Well, yeah,” I said. It wasn’t my first time. Being a disappointment isn’t all hard work, after all.
Alvin rolled a joint while Haley grabbed a lighter, and then we took turns hitting the trees in the bathroom with the exhaust fan running. I was good and baked before we put the movie on.
Weed makes me prone to laughing fits–always has. It’s perfect for a B-level horror movie, where I can revel in bad acting and terrible effects. Haley, though, tended to prefer more solitary trips, sitting in the dark with her headphones on, riding the music. She wasn’t enjoying the movie, so halfway through she apologized to her boyfriend and kissed him goodnight, heading off to her room and her own head-space. I barely noticed her leaving.
The two of us kept watching the movie, which got worse and worse. Alvin has a sharp sense of humor in the most sober of moments, and it is only enhanced by marijuana. My body convulsed with laughter, it rocked and fell over, and the back of my head ended up in Alvin’s lap. I was laughing so hard that I could barely breathe. I stayed there, on top of him, trying to catch my breath.
He wasn’t trying to do anything. He kept his hands to himself and his eyes on the television, but I could feel him getting hard, which made me laugh even more. I rolled over to examine his hard-on’s outline. I poked at it, the way a child might poke a hornet’s nest with a stick. I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Don’t do that,” he said, but he was chuckling, too. I poked him again. He was really hard now. “Denise, come on…”
“Well, what do we have here?,” I asked, unbuttoning his khakis. He tried to brush my hands away, but I already had one hand inside his underwear, stroking him. He gave up.
This was not the start of a life-long affair. It was a one-time fuck on a couch twenty years ago, quick and dirty. We didn’t get fully undressed, didn’t kiss, didn’t cuddle afterwards. He pulled out and came on my thigh, and I wiped it up with a sock, and then we finished the movie.  
In the morning, I slept in and came down late for breakfast. Haley and Alvin were sitting together and she was forcing him to try quiche, holding out a forkful and making airplane sounds as she maneuvered it into his mouth. She saw me and smiled.
“Alvin said the end of the movie was better than the beginning,” she said. “Sorry I bailed. I just wasn’t feeling it.”
If Alvin had been just another guy, someone she dated for a few months and then cut loose, maybe my stomach wouldn’t drop out every time I see her picture. Betrayal is not a simple Yes or No concept. It varies in intensity, from killing a pet fish to fucking your sister’s future husband.  
I should have told her that morning,while his mouth was full of quiche. I should have faced the consequences, but I was scared. Not physically frightened–Haley wasn’t violent. No, what I was scared of was the idea that the truth would make me a Disappointment to her, too.  
And that first moment of dishonest silence bred the next, and the next, until I found myself toasting their marriage as the maid of honor and I thought the time for honesty had long since passed. Only years later, when the phone rang in the middle of the night and my father was crying on the other end, did I realize what Too Late really meant.

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