Fig. 1) A picture of Dodd outside the American embassy in Cairo, Egypt. A concrete wall sprayed with black graffiti. He was assigned there three times during his career. Sometimes he lived in the embassy, sometimes he had an apartment in the city. A man and a woman are with him in the picture. They are smiling, but he is not. I recognize the other man from the memorial, Isaac Sellers. Is the woman the one who Dodd married?
My brother used to bring me weird presents from wherever he was stationed. A wooden mask from Crete. A puzzle box from Turkey. Miniature canopic jars from Egypt.
“This is what they stored the pharaohs’ organs in when they died, so they would have them in the afterlife,” he told me. The jars had animal faces, a jackal, a bird, a bat. I was twelve, I think. “This one was for the liver, this one was for the heart. But the brain they just threw away because it was junk.”
“Because it was junk,” I repeated.
I am already beginning to forget important things. The name of a restaurant Dodd took me to after I graduated college. The name of a book he said I should read. A story about how he was almost arrested for picking an apricot from a tree growing in the garden of some foreign dignitary. Now I don’t remember who it was. Who could I even ask?
He said it was the first time anyone had ever pointed a gun at him.
I never knew anything about my father to forget. I was only three when he died. I know that other people have fathers, and I can name many famous fathers from history, but when I try to remember my own father there is a warm metal wall between him and me. He wrote a popular series of mystery novels about men who led double lives. I read one of them once, but it only made me feel like an intruder in some stranger’s house. My mother keeps a million pictures of my father in albums in the attic, but they do not mean anything to me. He is just somebody who didn’t want to be alive anymore, and that’s all there is to him.
Fig. 2) An overexposed photo of my brother standing among some crumbling ruins. The writing on the back says, “Knossos, Crete.” He was stationed in Greece twice, two tours of three years apiece. No smile. He is wearing sunglasses and hasn’t shaved. It is as if someone has hired a well-tanned actor to play my brother in a movie. He has something small and black in his left hand, but you cannot see what it is.
We always had to be careful about what we said to each other, on the phone, in letters, in emails and messages. There were a lot of rules, but I memorized them all because one mistake could ruin his career. Do not use place names, or times, or dates. Do not ask him where he is. If he can tell you, he will. Do not ask him where he has been or where he is going. Sometimes he can say when he is coming home, but most of the time he cannot. Any detail could be taken and combined with other, tiny details to figure out what the military would do next in the war. A snippet of someone’s travel schedule might give away where a battle will happen next, or when a missile will go off, or which car in a convoy of six has your brother in it.
Once, someone Dodd worked with blabbed to his wife that America was about to go to war with another country, but the war was still a secret, and a little neighbor boy they were babysitting overheard it and told his Captain father, and the blabber spent many months in a military prison before he was dishonorably discharged. That’s how serious the military is about their secrets.
But I always assumed that someday, when Dodd was old and retired, and there were new wars to care about, he would finally tell me everything.
Fig. 3) A picture of my brother in front of the lion enclosure at the Frankfurt Zoological Garden. Lazy kitties. Dodd is actively scowling in this one. I never thought to ask who was taking all these pictures.
I was sick for a long time after we got back from Maryland. I was sore-legged and tired and I woke up vomiting one night. David held my sweaty hair back while I threw up until it was just yellow stomach lining snaking from my mouth to the toilet water. My eyes and nose burned and I never wanted it to stop.
David worries about me more than usual, now. I can’t understand it. I hardly ever worry about him. I only worry about elaborate things. I worry that I don’t really have as much money as I think, that there is some math I have forgotten to do, and all my money has disappeared. My brother left me his life savings, and it is a lot, but this has only amplified my worry. And I worry that my teeth look fine, but on the inside they’re rotting, and the rot is spreading up into my nasal cavity and my eyes, and I will go blind, and I will never draw again. But my biggest worry is that I am wasting all the special talent my mother said I had when I was a girl, and someday soon I will realize that it is already too late.
Dodd said, “All parents start out thinking that their children are perfect and destined for greatness, and it is our solemn duty as their children to make them sorry they were ever that stupid.”
I try looking for a new job but it only makes me feel worse. There aren’t that many schools you can teach art at anymore, and most of them won’t be hiring a new art teacher until the old one dies. Also, I am a terrible art teacher, and I would rather not be one, and I am especially bad at job interviews.
“Could you describe your teaching philosophy for us, Ms. Hall?”
“All elementary school is for is to train children to sit still and fill out forms so that someday they can sit still and fill out forms in an office, or a factory, or a prison. The best way to say, ‘Fuck you,’ to all that is to teach a kid how to draw a tree, or a boat, or a horse.”
The only thing that makes me feel any better is when I start to draw again. It begins like a tickle between my eyes. I see the way a bulldozer sits baking in the sun, or the way a woman sits waiting for a train, and the colors and the lines and the motion of figures all stay with me, dancing in my head for days, and then I put it all together. At first I just draw what I see out my window, to warm up. Different contours of dirt and sick, sad trees. Then people. Then people in places. Then people in places that I steal from the photographs my brother sent me. I pin big pieces of butcher paper to the bedroom wall, and I dig out my fancy pencils and a knife to sharpen them, and I stay with my drawings all day. David comes home from work and calls up the stairs. I am sitting on the bed concentrating on the way a bird’s wing bends in a little girl’s hands. It must look like it hurts. David sleeps in the guest bedroom because I am up all night scratching my pencils hard into the paper. When I take one drawing down to start a new one there is a faint outline of the previous drawing indented into the paint on the wall. I wake up every afternoon with pencil lead and pastels smeared all down my arms and face. David does not disturb me when he leaves for work.
He hates this part of me, the part that wishes I had done something different with my life. He doesn’t say it, but I know. Art is a form of misbehavior to David, a phase children grow out of. When he introduces me at parties, I am his teacher wife, not his artist wife. When we met, the fact that I had all but given up on being an artist was a sign of maturity to him.
I will hate this part of me too, in time, because it never lasts. I will run out of ideas. I will run out of energy. I will run out of time. But for now, it is all I can do. A drawing is something you can watch slowly taking shape, line by line, and the more time you put into it, the clearer it becomes, which is the opposite of life.
Let me describe my pictures for you. Imagine that you are a very angry person. You are angry when you wake up. You are angry when you go to bed. You’re not angry about anything in particular, you’re angry about lots of things, losing your job, a husband who doesn’t want you to be who you are, a mother who wants you to be something you are not, the only person you really like is dead, the days keep getting longer, you were born ugly, traffic, politics, war. Now assign each of these kinds of anger a different color, a different shade, a different thickness, a different direction. Now draw anything. A loon, a cup, your brother, a pile of shoes. Draw seventeen men building a house in the sun. Tear it up and start again. Do not even try to stop. Now let your husband find you sleeping on the floor at 7PM and ask you for the fiftieth time if you looked for work today.
That is what my pictures are like.
I do sixty-two drawings (six featuring my brother) and when I am done with each one I roll it up and put it in a cardboard tube, and I put each tube in a closet, and I close the closet door, and I push the whole house off a cliff into the sea.
David asks why I don’t try to do something with my drawings, and I say, “Like what?”
“Show them to somebody. Try to sell them.”
There is a whole other business you have to be in if you actually want people to see your pictures. You have to network and self-promote, and probably at some point put on clothes and leave the house.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say.
“At least you would be doing something,” he says.
David and I go sit in the dark at a little art theater in Dunwoody to see a film made by a friend of mine from college, Carl Elliot. It is his third film. Whatever have I done with my life? The film is about the Sealy family, a family of sleepwalkers. In the daytime, they are normal enough, but at night they each wander the house in their private dream worlds. All of them except the father, who does not carry the sleepwalking gene. Their teenage daughter drives a dream car, goes up and down the stairs a dozen times, changes into and out of imaginary clothes. One night she sleepwalks out to the garage and pees in her father’s toolbox. The ten-year-old son swordfights, gunfights, fistfights. He is the most boring Sealy, in my opinion. Helen Sealy, a beautiful, stern pediatrician with an icy tone in daytime interviews, spends her nights swaying to imaginary music in the pitch-black den, sometimes fiddling with her hands as if placing new records on an invisible turntable, pressing buttons that only she can see. The night-vision cameras that Carl has placed around the house make her luminous and green, like a ghost, and all we hear is the buzzing of kitchen appliances and the rush of traffic outside as she holds her arms around an imaginary partner.
In the film, Carl explains how he heard about the Sealys through acquaintances. He interviews each member of the family and shows them the videos he has collected at night. Even though they have lived with this peculiarity their whole lives, they are all, to one degree or another, surprised.
“Who is that?” the boy asks, pointing to his own image. On a small monitor, Carl is showing him how he silently circled the dining room table one night for an hour. The boy seems to recognize himself, but he cannot stop saying, “Who is that?”
Carl has put on weight since college, but he is still handsome in a hapless, unassuming way. He asks Mr. Sealy what it is like to be the only member of this extraordinary family who does not sleepwalk. Mr. Sealy laughs.
“Well, it’s a funny thing to live with. When me and Helen were first together, I used to wake up every damn night because she would be stomping around somewhere. I used to try to snap her out of it, but, oh boy, I learned that the hard way. Do not mess with her when she’s doing her thing. And when we had Kaylynne and she was old enough to walk, and then Henry Jr. too, it was just a God damn circus every night. But you get used to things. Mostly now I just feel like the odd man out, you know? It’s like they have this inside joke I can’t quite get my head around. But you can adapt to anything, in my experience.”
Later in the film it is heavily implied that Mr. Sealy is having an affair with his administrative assistant, who appears briefly in one scene.
Carl cocks his head from side to side while the Sealys speak because he thinks it makes him look thoughtful and intelligent, but it only makes him look like a confused dog.
If someone as insincere and self-absorbed as Carl can be an artist for a living, why can’t I?
“I don’t think I want to be married anymore,” I say to David.
“What?” David asks. “What did I do?”
“He didn’t do anything,” I tell my neighbor, Susannah. “I just said it.”
Susannah used to be religious. She is not what I would call a friend, but she comes over while David is at work because she wants me to drink a bottle of wine with her.
“Sometimes your heart knows it’s over before your brain is ready to admit it,” Susannah says. She is not as stupid as she sounds, but she is very drunk.
“I’ve started doing all the things you do when you don’t love somebody anymore, but you’re too chickenshit to tell them. When he tells me he loves me, I allow a little pause, maybe half a second longer than is standard, before I say it, too. I keep my voice flat. But that only makes him think I’m mad at him for some specific reason, and he tries to figure out what the reason is. He buys me flowers, these new running shoes, a water pitcher with a built-in charcoal filter and a little digital timer to let you know when it’s time for the filter to be changed. But that only makes me feel more guilty and more chickenshit. It doesn’t make me love him again.”
Susannah says, “I was raised to believe that every person was put on this earth to lift up one other person. Exactly one. And somebody was put here to raise up that person, and somebody to raise up that person, like a giant human ladder, and that the man standing on top of the ladder was Jesus Christ. I knew who I had been put on this earth to lift up (Ernest, my husband), and I knew who was on this earth to lift me (my best friend, Denise Ramses). And so when Kate and Ernest ran off together and bought a house in Tallahassee with all my money, it made it really hard to believe in the big Jesus ladder. Now I think the fewer people you can get by with in life, the better.”
“You sound like my brother,” I say.
Susannah has two boys by her ex-husband, Sam and Jack, three and five. I call them Clobber and Slobber.
“I keep thinking what if I want kids.”
“Oh,” Susannah says. Muffled screams from the hallway. Mom, he’s killing me. He’s killing me.
“I don’t, not right now. But what if I want them later, and then I have to start all over with some other man, and get used to him, and not ruin it, all to be back where I am right now.”
The real reason I do not want to have a baby is because I have a phobia about being split in two. I have heard that if the baby is very big or if your vagina is very small the baby will split you right in two, or the doctor might have to cut you with scissors. Whenever I am watching a movie and it looks like a woman is going to die in childbirth, I have to leave the room. I am not afraid to own a baby, or take care of it, or send it to college, but I am not interested in being split in two like a wishbone.
“Well,” Susannah says, “If you do change your mind, I’ve got two you can just have.”
When I look at her, I see someone who has been split in two and has never completely healed back together.
So, I had all these pictures of my brother, and all of these stories, and all of these things that he brought me. I made a list of the places he’d been over the course of his career. Greece, Germany, Turkey, Italy, England, Egypt. Then I began researching all the individual cities he had been to, their history, their art, and then something made me think to see what it would cost to fly to all of these places in one big trip, and then I looked at my bank account (with all my brother’s money in it), and then I made a decision.
My whole life I have always thought of myself as a work in progress. I was all potential. My mother believed that I was like a bank in the shape of a small girl, and I was filled with potential that was earning interest at a premium rate, and someday I would cash out all that potential, and die rich. My teachers would look at my weird drawings and they would nod their heads and whisper, “Such potential.” When that is how people see you, and how you see yourself, it is impossible to do anything because you will never live up to that much potential. So all you can do is wait.
I guess I have always been waiting for someone to tell me that I was ready, and I guess that someone was supposed to be my brother. It always seemed like he would know. But that will never happen now. So, I am setting aside the questions I will never ask him. I am setting aside the things I never told him. And I am setting aside all the waiting. Now the only person who can say I am ready is me.