house of gingerbread, ceiling of stars

We are at my sister’s house. In the room we sleep in, the ceiling is covered with stars. When we turn out the light, they glow. We lie there in bed for a few moments, taking it all in. Then we talk softly. Ask the questions we’ve not been able to during the tumble and roll of the day, with its gingerbread house assembly, its trips to the market, the seemingly endless washing and drying of dishes.

After dinner on our last night together, my sister asks to speak with me privately. I follow her into her bedroom. She shuts the door. She says, “Please know that I love you,” and I am instantly afraid of what will come next. My heart is racing.

“I am sorry you had to go through so much when we were little,” she says. “And thank you for all that you protected me from.”

This is not what I was expecting. “I hardly protected you at all,” I say. “Look at all you went through.”

“You did, though,” she says, “because you went first.”

We talk for a while about our childhood, and the different ways in which we experienced it. There isn’t time to go deeply into anything. We left M. out at the dining room table and the others are on their way back from their errand. So we make a few jokes and laugh a little. We hug. We reassure each other of our love.

One night in college, I took a bag of popcorn over to the apartment of the man I was seeing. I brought a couple books, too, although I didn’t expect to get any work done. It was late and I was bored. My housemates were away. I shimmied between the juniper bushes beneath his window and tapped on the glass. He slid the key out onto the sill and I let myself in.

He had papers strewn out across his desk and spilling onto the floor. A coffee mug nearly overflowing with the broken ends of cigarettes. He was standing in the middle of the room barefoot, in a dingy white t-shirt and black jeans with the cuffs rolled up.

I held out the bag. “I brought you popcorn.”

He gestured for me to put it down. I did. I tried to approach him, stepping gingerly over the papers. “This isn’t the best time,” he said.

“It looks like maybe you could use a little break,” I offered. He shook his head.

“You should have called. I’m in the middle of a thing…”

“Just for a minute. And then, I’ll go.”

He looked at me then, for the first time since I had arrived. He inhaled deeply, then let it out slowly. He had dark circles beneath his eyes. “Just for a minute?”

I nodded, smiled.

“OK.”

I sat down on the worn green sofa in the corner of his room and he came over and sat next to me. He apologized and explained that he had been working on this play for weeks and he felt like he was finally making progress. “I haven’t slept in three days,” he said. “I can tell,” I said.

I woke on the green sofa to the sound of furious typing. It was barely morning. The light was still blue. He didn’t look up as I crossed the room or as I placed the key on his desk.

There are some things that even as they are happening, you know that you will remember them imperfectly. My cousin was born with a genetic disease that left one leg shorter than the other. This imbalance caused his spine to grow crooked and as he got older, the condition became more pronounced. He walked with a limp. I adored him. He played guitar and the walls of his room were covered with dark depictions of men dressed in leather and women in chain mail bikinis. Tigers lurked in the background of these scenes, a constant threat of impending violence. I was eight and he was fifteen when he asked me if I could keep a secret. I told him I could. I didn’t know then how long I would have to keep it.

When the playwright graduated, two years ahead of me, he left me his mattress and his bookshelves for my new apartment. He invited me to brunch with his parents. “They want to meet you,” he said, as he adjusted his tie. I imagined trying to sit across a white linen covered table from them. They drove up from their Central Park West brownstone. His father a partner in a huge downtown law firm, his mother a celebrated painter. I had seen photos of her work in exhibit catalogs. I was not prepared for this. I declined. “Are you sure?” he asked, “I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m sure it will be very, very expensive.”

“Yes. I am sure.”

For the rest of his short life, my cousin struggled with the myriad complexities of his condition. He battled addictions, spent his twenties and thirties in and out of jail. Over the years, I have heard bits and fragments of stories about him. About the situations he was found in at the time of his arrests. About the articles of clothing found in his car when it was searched. A routine surgery several years ago had unexpected complications and he died in the hospital where he had been born. Where he had spent more of his life than any young man should.

My sister says: “It was something I didn’t know about until just this year. You protected me. And I never knew to thank you.”

This afternoon, we head back to our lives, which have been held in abeyance these last several days as we have returned to our own pasts, lingered there, poked around the cupboards and closets of our youth. We’ll load our bags back into the van - all we brought with us, mostly. We are leaving things behind, of course - the gifts we had wrapped, sparkly and beribboned; the things we baked and bought for our meals together. And we’re taking a few things back with us, too. Some we will use right away: the set of cutting boards and measuring cups from my aunt. The board games from my sister. But there are, I think, a few things that we won’t yet know that we’ve carried. Those will only reveal themselves slowly, over years.