– Non-Fiction by Derek Dubois –
Sometimes it comes in fits and starts and sometimes all at once in a deluge, but when you’re edging thirty years old, riding passenger—your father behind the wheel of his Toyota RAV4 with the Black Eyed Peas’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” blasting through the stereo—the crippling sadness is all too real. It’s Friday evening. My father had just swung by my apartment to pick me up. Two taps on his truck’s horn, the bleat of a lamb to the slaughter. I kissed my wife goodbye, reminding her to lock the door behind me so as not to be raped, and hopped into his idling vehicle.
“You ready for this?” he asks. He’s referring to more than just the party, of course, still adjusting somewhat to the idea of his gay daughter getting married in a week.
“Mm-hmm.” I grunt, flushed with Mountain Dew.
The low sun sinks below the horizon, painting the sky a milky indigo. Our destination is Lonnie’s Lanes and Games, a small-town bowling alley regularly advertised in the town’s weekly penny saver as an oasis of fun for suburban families. Hell, it even has laser tag.
I crack my window to let in some fresh air. My father chain smokes, and the RAV4 reeks of stale Newport Lights. Summer in Southern New England usually arrives cloaked in heat and humidity, so any unseasonably cool evening such as this is one in which we seek refuge from air conditioning. It’s a seven-mile stretch of highway to the strip mall. As my father fiddles with the radio, the truck edges over the boundary lines, causing my foot to spring for a nonexistent passenger brake pedal.
He cranks the volume, really getting into it the way dads do, singing along in harmony: “Lose your mind, like sista time.”
“What did you say?” I ask, stifling the urge to laugh in his face.
He lowers the volume to a whisper. “What’s that?”
“Did you say ‘sista time’?”
“So what? I’m just singing along to the song.” His mustache bristles and his hands turn the wheel slightly as we curve over the I-99 split.
I want to explain that he had the words all wrong (correct lyrics: “this is the time”), but he’s already two choruses ahead and, besides, that would imply I’m familiar enough with the Black Eyed Peas to know when someone’s fucked it up. There’s a name for this, when people get the wrong words in their heads. Mondegreens. They have names for everything.
My father is a retired cop with a bristling salt-and-pepper mustache and thinning strands of swept-back hair. Tonight, he is dressed in a striped polo tucked into a pair of low-slung jeans buckled just beneath the overhang of his belly. I’m thinner, a few inches taller, but losing my hair at a ravenous pace in sweeping arcs over my temples. Each passing year, I see more of my father in the mirror’s reflection. I often wonder: which of us will die first?
“I hope you didn’t have to cancel any plans,” he says. His eyes narrow on the darkening road.
There’s an undercurrent of discomfort in the air, like the smell of a fart which no one claims. My father and I don’t really know how to handle ourselves when it’s just the two of us. Uncomfortable silences between fathers and sons may be the last remaining refuge of American masculinity.
The invite from my cousin Candy arrived only three days ago. “I’m not quite sure on the details yet,” she had typed, “but I do know it will not be the typical strip club atmosphere.” Thank God for that. There couldn’t be anything more humiliating than sitting between my sister and my father at The Cadillac Lounge while some tattooed coed in a G-string rubs her tits in our faces to the rhythm of Ginuwine’s “Pony.”
The truck finds a spot at the back of the lot, and when it comes to a stop, I’m struck ill, fixating on what I imagine Jenny’s face will look like walking into some bowling alley with just the three of us waiting for her. Set phasers to despair. My father gets outs and veers off to the right. “Where are you going?” I ask unnecessarily, following him into the cold, fluorescent glow of the Party Store next door.
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” prepares customers for a Halloween still two-and-a-half months away. The store is empty save for one attractive brunette in a black sweater whose name tag reads Tiffany. She directs us to an area at the back—an oligochromatic world of silver, black, and hot pink. (Cause I can hear you moan with all the girls who dance in their tribe).
The shelves are littered with ballroom masks marked “Tease” and “Flirt,” plastic tiaras that light up, glow sticks, shot glasses, and pink velvet cowboy hats with “Bachelorette Crew” written in loopy cursive. They are the props for a bowling alley-themed re-imagining of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a nightmare projecting against the back of my eyelids. My heart is a thundering roar. Somewhere above us, over worn speakers, Vincent Price cackles, loudly.
“Whaddya think?” he asks with his hand out, palm up, as if to invite me to a buffet line.
“Nope,” I say. “This isn’t her style.”
“Well, I want to get her something.”
“What if we just offend her? I don’t want to get it wrong.”
“Chill out, ok?”
We slide several feet to the right and settle on a few black baseball caps with “Groom’s Crew” bedazzled onto them, a giant Mylar balloon festooned with the words “I DO,” and fistfuls of plastic Mardi Gras beads. Tiffany rings us out.
Growing up, though our bedrooms had been side by side, my sister and I led our lives as strangers in adjoining motel rooms. Jenny was heavyset like dad. She struggled in school, always continuously on the verge of getting held back. I was evasive and moody—an unlikable asshole who needed to be the best at everything, and turned everything into a competition. Who could brush their teeth fastest? Who could memorize more of the cable channels by name and number? The only things Jenny and I ever shared were a last name and the same bowl cut in fourth grade. When we weren’t sniping, temporary ceasefires were just each of us pretending the other didn’t exist.
There’s one recurring memory seared into my optic nerve. Wild meltdowns in JCPenny back-to-school shopping where we would pick up all of the clothes our mother would put on layaway. Over the muzak, Jenny sobbing, dragged kicking and screaming, through the frilly girl’s dresses: “I wanna wear boys’ clothes!” The ritual repeated every year. Back then she just seemed weird. We didn’t understand her. We never even tried.
The crash of pins and thumping pop music resounds within my stomach. The lanes are filling up. In struts Candy and it’s hard not to see her as the nine-year-old cousin at weekly Sunday dinners at my grandparents’. What I know about her: she’s a single mother who posts a lot of selfies in painted-on yoga pants on her Facebook page. Her attention is on the two young men behind the shoe rental counter. She runs her fingers through her hair, retying her dyed-blonde ponytail. The air is sticky-sweet with disinfectant shoe spray.
She flitters over and I ask her about the plans for the evening.
“I figured we could rent a lane and bowl,” she says.
I wait for her to finish the itinerary (dancing at the club, limo rides into the city, paint-and-vino) but nothing comes, and I find myself elated that tonight should move pretty quickly.
Candy returns to the service desk, has a quick conversation with one of the teenage boys behind the counter, and returns. “Twenty-five bucks.” She winces. “I’ll get us a lane for an hour.” It dawns on me that much of what I had mistaken for her hastiness—or just lack of effort—is really just that Candy doesn’t have the money for anything grander. I am not even sure how close she still is to my sister.
I reach into my pocket, pull out some crumpled bills, and hand them over. “Here,” I say. “Take this.” That’s the price, twenty-five bucks, for me to come out of this feeling like a hero.
It’s only a few minutes later when Jenny arrives, accompanied by a burly, older man named Butch. She is draped in baggy clothes that look more like the cover I wrap around my Weber grill for the winter. She’s wearing a baseball cap which she promptly trades in to become part of the “Groom’s Crew.” Her eyes glisten. Her smile, wide. The size of the party, the strangeness of our group, none of it makes one goddamn lick of difference to her. I stand off to the side wondering about the lifespan of the average diabetic lesbian with no advanced education.
It starts with the hollow thud of my father’s gutter ball. My left front pocket bulges with my strand of plastic Mardi Gras beads. Everyone else has the beads jangling around their necks after my father ceremoniously knighted Jenny with them.
“Don’t think I’m gonna do too good,” Butch says to me, snapping me out of a daze. The first words we’ve ever spoken. His behemoth frame rises and falls with ragged breaths like a rickety oil derrick.
“Not much of a bowler?”
“Well,” he grumbles, “they just drained my knee last Tuesday.” Pivoting, he thrusts out his right leg. The flesh of his knee is soft, undefined, bruised in black and purple blotches that poke out from beneath the frayed hem of cargo shorts. He will become Jenny’s father-in-law in a week. Five-eight and three-hundred pounds, he sports an unruly mustache, a shock of gray hair, and is covered head to toe in tattoos of Disney characters. Across his flesh, Pongo, Baloo, and Simba give chase. He makes good on his promise and promptly throws two gutter balls.
A waitress brings a round of drinks. Jenny has a vodka on ice. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen my sister with an alcoholic beverage. Candy orders a Bud Light. The rest of us temper the evening with sodas. My father picks up his glass for a quick toast. “To Jenny, best of luck in your life with Michelle.”
Clink. Clink. Clink.
I watch my sister pick up her ball and chuck it down the lane. She cackles, high fives Candy, pinballs joyously between Butch and my father. I know nothing about her likes or dislikes, how many times her heart’s been broken, nor even really what she does for a living. Statistically speaking, there is at least a 50% overlap in our DNA. That seems absolutely impossible.
There are different stories here, one in which I sour the entire evening with a priggish contempt for everyone around me and one in which I’m the liberal, heroic brother who comes through for his sister in her time of desolate need. I guess they’re both true, though filtered through the prism of exaggeration—some way for the brain to make sense of the self.
I don’t hate Jenny because she’s gay, but I’m terrified it comes off that way, so I do my best to throw polished balls down long lengths of polished lanes while wearing a polished smile. Stories like these are no different from Facebook selfies in tight yoga pants: just a different way of crafting a version of myself that can be sent off into the world for others to consume.
After our hour, the lane locks up, and we trade in our bowling shoes. The lobby has a bank of large-screen televisions playing retro music videos, and En Vogue are suggesting women everywhere should free our minds. It’s getting about that time when we’re ready to break for the evening, waiting for the first person with the guts to say, “Well…alright, then.”
A flashing red light catches Jenny’s attention. Her face brightens with unmitigated delight: “Laser tag!”
Laser tag is a fucking blast.
My father and Butch sit out, two middle-aged men stranded amongst over-caffeinated children, while the rest of us slip into a windowless room and shoot each other in the dark. Blue versus red. A maelstrom of sound and fury and virtual artillery. Through extraneous flashes of brilliance, I vow to rack up the most points.
A crescent sliver of moon anchors the sky. I have my window down even though the air now borders on frigid. I’m overheated. The entire party lasted ninety minutes. I shook Jenny’s hand before we left, smaller and softer than I imagined it would be. The next time I see my sister will be at her wedding. I make a mental note not to forget to pick up the lime-green tux that she and Michelle had selected for me. They decided on a rainbow color scheme.
Certain members of our family, descendants of the French-Canadians—carriers of Tay-Sachs and God-fearing Catholics—haven’t yet decided if they’ll be attending a lesbian wedding. A few months back (on Jenny’s birthday, no less), the Supreme Court had voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Justice Kennedy’s ruling noted: “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.” I read somewhere that gay couples had been quoting excerpts of the ruling in their wedding vows. My sister’s vows would use lines from New Year’s Eve, a film with a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I am my sister’s brother. On paper, anyway. But it doesn’t feel real. It’s more of a role that I perform in the presence of others. Always strained and awkward. In photos, you’ll find me standing just outside of the group at the edge of the frame. Is it some flaw in the genetic material? A personality defect? Did I never quite progress appropriately through the psycho-social stages of cognitive development? Alongside my sister, I feel like the echo of a brother, some misheard fragment. I’m a mondegreen.
The RAV4 turns from the on-ramp back onto the highway. The wind drowns out all sound, icing the sweat dotting my skin. I roll up the window, lay my head against the vibrating glass, and close my eyes. There’s a deep, gnawing shame in my guts. I keep my face turned away from my father, gazing out into the night sky and the constant flicker of street lamps.
He can read the feeling in the air. I never give him enough credit for that. “You know,” he says, “tonight made her very happy.”
I know I should talk to Jenny about this, about everything, but it seems too much trouble.
My fingers run along the strand of hot-pink plastic beads now roped around my neck. I grab for the radio. “How about some music?” I ask, changing the subject. Fergie’s crooning gets the party started. I crank it up loud as we drive further into the darkest reaches of the night, heading back home to all of the comforts of the familiar.
About the Author – Derek Dubois
Derek Dubois is a writer, filmmaker, and an adjunct professor at Rhode Island College and Clark University. His stories and essays have been published in The Evansville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Sonder, and Senses of Cinema. *Bachelor Party was previously published in North Dakota Quarterly.
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