Chapter 1: This Isn't What it Looks Like
Chapter 1: This Isn’t What it Looks Like
I am leaving home on June twenty-fifth- exactly three months and fourteen days since my brother Toby was reported missing.
I zip up my suitcase, after cramming in my Metro-north train ticket, which was supposed to take me from a local stop in Riverdale, Bronx to New Haven, Connecticut, where my college campus is located. I’ve packed for a long trip: tons of clothes, underwear, toiletries, and a purse stuffed to the brim with makeup items. Looks good. Nobody would have any reason to think that as soon as I leave the house I will tear up the train ticket, that instead of Connecticut I’m headed to New York, and that I will not be wearing makeup. My suitcase is heavy. I worry it’s a little cumbersome if the case arises that I have to move fast. I consider unpacking some things to lighten the load a little, but my mother might notice and be suspicious. Anyway, I don’t know exactly how long I’ll be gone, so the extra clothes might come in handy. I notice my mother’s packed granola bars in the pocket of my suitcase. I suppose I should probably bring more food so I don’t spend too much money, but I saved practically everything I made from a waitress job I had all year, so I’m pretty loaded. So that when emergencies like this happen, I’m prepared.
It’s not hard for me to be good at saving money because my brother Toby-- when he was still here-- insisted on buying everything for me. I was kind of a spoiled little sister in that way. Even if I didn’t need it, if I told him I wanted something, I knew I’d end up getting it for Christmas or my birthday or Yom Kippur or Martin Luther King Day, or some holiday he just made up. Toby’s a very generous guy. If I asked him for a shetland pony, he would probably take out a loan and then build a stable in the backyard with his own hands, even though he doesn’t know anything about building things. He would just start teaching himself, just like that, and probably learn to be an expert at horsemanship so he could teach me. That might seem very impulsive to some, and it is. Toby is always either highly impulsive or incredibly slow and indecisive. Most of the time, in fact, he has trouble getting motivated. The more people tell him to take initiative, the more stagnant he is. The funny part is, he never knows what he’s interested in or what he wants to do, but when someone else wants something, especially if it’s me, he’ll drop everything and be totally inspired to start some new project all of a sudden. Crazy kid.
It helps, of course, that I’m his favorite person. I’m the only one in the world he can stand; I know because he told me once. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very friendly, actually, when he’s in the right mood. When he’s in the mood, everyone is his friend. He’ll just walk down the street humming, or whistling, or even singing. I wonder if he still does that, wherever he is.
I check the time: 2:00. My mother’s boyfriend, Gil, doesn’t get out of work for another three hours. My mother has her new part time job at a not-for-profit Hebrew refugee agency today (she’s an immigrant from Israel) so she won’t be home until late. I have time to kill, and I realize it’s my last chance to decide if I want to tell someone where I’m going. I should have someone to fall back on if my plan goes south. Someone to tell my parents where I am, or what happened to me. They deserve to know. I run through the possibilities in my head. Family members are out of the question. My closest friends, Ava and Rhys, can be trusted with it, but it wouldn’t be right-- it’s too big a secret to burden them with. A part of me wishes I could tell Pierce, my sort-of-boyfriend, but I know that’s ridiculous. We’ve only been dating for four months, and that’s as long as we’ve known each other. Besides, if by some miracle this crazy plan works, it would be awkward. Considering how Toby reacted when he found out that I had a sort-of-boyfriend, confiding in him would seem a little too much like a betrayal. After having just gotten Toby back, that would be a really terrific way to lose him again. The last thing I want to do, if I find him, is do anything to make him upset. The truth is, when he gets in a certain mood, it doesn’t take too much to upset my brother Toby. It really doesn’t.
As I stand leaning on my suitcase, swiping through the contacts in my phone, with the seconds ticking by, it looks as if I will not be telling anybody. So once I leave, I will be completely on my own. If something happens to me and I fall out of contact with everyone, no one will miss me because I’ve told everyone I signed up last minute for summer classes to get a head start on college credit. They would think I’m just busy, that if there was a problem the school would call my mother, like Toby’s school did, for both times he ran away. But there will be no call.
I don’t think my mother will worry too much if she doesn’t hear from me, at least not until a long time passes. She doesn’t have enough room in her head to worry about two children-- she can barely even handle worrying about Toby. When he ran away-- the first time-- she blamed herself, and went on a drinking binge. Then decided she didn’t want to blame herself anymore and went on a reading binge- stuffing her brain with empowering tips she found in parenting books with titles like Understanding Your Teen: the Ultimate Guide, that told her it wasn’t her fault and made her feel better about herself. After that she blamed society, and went on a social media cleanse in which she deleted everything except her Facebook, because that was just asking too much. Then she met Gil, and went on a different kind of reading binge- this time with the Bible- and was suddenly and totally convinced that the answer to all of our problems was to start going to Temple and have us learn Hebrew. She was absolutely positive that if she just prayed hard enough, Toby would eventually come to know and accept God and everything would be fixed.
When she expressed this wish to Toby with great gusto, he patiently explained, “You can’t convert to Judaism. The religion doesn’t take converts.”
She replied solemnly, “We’re not converting. We’ve always been Jews, even if I didn’t know enough to raise you as Jews. We can never stop being the Chosen People. It’s in our roots.” I have to admit, I was very impressed with her response, even though Toby said she was just repeating things Gil told her to say. I was still kind of proud of her though. I had always assumed this was just another phase we would only have to entertain for a little while, not much different from the time she did the Detox Solid Purge- a kind of juice diet, which she convinced herself she wasn’t cheating on by expanding the definition of juice. (Yes, it was very gross.)
“Don’t get your hopes up. It won’t last,” Toby once told Gil. “Two months ago she was a practicing Hindu.” That was true, but it was only because she liked wearing the sari.
But this seemed to be sticking longer. At some point she even became so immersed in Judaism that didn’t have the time to wrack her brain for a solution to Toby’s problems anymore. But she did hire a team of psychologists that she figured were better qualified to figure it out.
My mother means well, but I don’t agree with the psychologists. I don’t think the problem with Toby is his lack of direction or passion. In my opinion, it’s that he feels too strongly about certain things.
Let me tell you what I mean.
Toby is not a good person to go to the movies with, unless the movie is either really, really good or really, really boring. If it’s kind of lame or tacky and there are a lot of plot holes or it’s supposed to be funny but isn’t, he’ll be a pain in the neck about it. But you especially can’t take him to see a sad movie. He’ll spend all the rest of the day thinking about it. Once he went with his friends to some college drama club’s production of the play Hamlet. I swear it ruined his whole week. My brother can’t handle tragedy. He really can’t. Toby gets gloomy about things most people don’t even give a second thought about. And maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe we shouldn’t think too hard about certain things. For example, whenever anything bad happens on the news, like a fire or murder or terrorist attack in some other country, it always hits Toby hard. It’ll have nothing to do with anyone we know, but the fact that it happened somewhere in the world torments him. It makes sense, if you think about it. If something is sad, why shouldn’t we feel bad about it? But most of us, when someone happens to mention something bad, say, something like 9/11- we don’t really think about it. It’s not that we don’t care. Our brain kind of bumps into the idea and it feels sort of unpleasant for half a second because we weren’t prepared for it and it throws us off. But the next second we’ve shoved our way past that unwelcome thought and moved on to something else, like hockey, or the person we have a crush on, or the lasagna we’re planning on eating for dinner later. See how well our brains are wired to protect us from being sad? Not Toby’s though. For some reason, he was born with a deficiency of whatever chemical it is that triggers this useful mechanism, so his thoughts just stay stuck on 9/11 and all the people who got killed, and all the people whose relatives were killed, and all the people who easily could have been, until it just about kills him. Picture it this way: the negative thought or memory or possible future event is is a bomb falling from the sky heading straight above us in a line directly above our heads. Most of us are fast enough to dodge it and run to another area so we don’t get blasted to smithereens. But Toby doesn’t dodge the bomb. He looks up, sees it coming, and then he stands where he is and waits.
People have been trying to figure out why Toby is like this for years. Mom first got it into her head that he should start seeing a psychologist in fifth grade, because of all the detention slips and poor grades he was getting. She didn’t know what I did- that Toby was the go-to scapegoat for lazy teachers who didn’t feel like doing their job. If no one in the class was understanding the material, it was Toby’s fault for being such a distraction. If they were behind in the school curriculum, they blamed Toby for forcing them to waste class time because they had to interrupt their teaching to yell at him so often. In fact, whenever anything bad happened or looked like it might have happened, like some kid getting punched in the schoolyard, they usually punished Toby before they even knew all the facts. If Toby was within a one-mile radius of the fight, everyone knew he would get blamed for instigating it or causing the most damage or whatever they decided to scribble on the incident report. He probably could have been absent and still would have gotten written up. But it’s funny; until he was labeled the official “troublemaker” Toby was, for the most part, a pretty well-mannered kid, who followed the rules about as much of the time as most other kids, and he hated violence. He used to get punched in the face a lot in the boys’ bathroom and he avoided fighting of any kind like the plague. Toby was no tough guy. If he saw a fight he ran the other way. The only time Toby had ever initiated a fight was that time, because he’d been trying to defend the kid who got a black eye from the other guy. He just didn’t say anything because he was tired of getting yelled at for “talking back.” At least, that’s the way he told it- but it probably also had something to do with the other guy’s threats to drop kick him over the fence if he didn’t pick up the blame.
In middle school, Toby spent so much time in detention that he hardly ever got to make an appearance at recess anyway. Sometimes I would get in trouble on purpose just so I could hang out with him. He was two grades above me, but everyone got detention in the same room. Whenever I wanted to see him I would say I didn’t have my homework, and look really guilty, which was necessary because I was such a good student that my teacher always found it hard to believe when I did something wrong. When Toby saw me coming into the detention room, he would always cheer up right away. He would scold me for getting myself in trouble, but you could tell he was happy I did it. I’d always start by telling him how boring recess was and how he really wasn’t missing much out there. Then we’d spend the recess period flicking around a paper football or playing table hockey with a bottle cap or seeing which of us could take apart our fountain pen down to its spring and ink cartridge and then put it back together the fastest. Sometimes we couldn’t get away with that because the teacher would confiscate our pens or whatever we were playing with, because it looked like we were having too much fun, and told us we had to take out something to work on. In that case, we would usually entertain ourselves with practicing the literary device of satire-- which was really just drawing mean caricatures of teachers. For example, the gym teacher was a snarling, slobbering pitbull. The science teacher with huge teeth and gums that showed too much and sort of flaring nostrils when she smiled was a tacky looking horse with glasses. The detention teacher, who wasn’t the brightest, was something new every day: a pig, a sheep, a toad... or a dragon whose deadly morning breath had the the power to kill. Once we made her a fat little pug that growls and tries to be threatening and scary but only succeeds in tiring itself out and falling asleep in a puddle of doggy drool. However, I did raise the concern that this might not have been a fair representation. A pug is way too smart. That might have sounded rude. Let me explain. I’m not calling Mrs. McGuillicutty stupid. That would be insulting… to stupid people. Let me explain what kind of stupid Mrs. McGuillicutty was. If she ever got suspicious and demanded what we were working so hard on, we would both launch into a fervid literary discussion about the many uses of satire we were learning about in our English classes using all these pretentious vocabulary words we’d looked up in the dictionary that nobody uses in real life, until she nodded in approval and went back to watching porn or whatever the heck she was doing on that laptop of hers.
I’m only speculating of course. I don’t know about porn, (though I have my suspicions) but one thing she was a sucker for was gossip. Celebrity gossip mostly, but any gossip would do, even gossip about other teachers or students, which really ended up came in handy. Sometimes, if Toby was really down in the dumps, I snuck him out of detention by distracting her with some fantastical story I would make up about some unsuspecting student or faculty member. I told them so compellingly, that she believed every word I said, hanging on every little detail with her squinty little pig eyes as wide as they would open, making little gasps and exclamations of “Really!” and “Who would have imagined!” throughout the story, and she would keep asking questions too, so I had to think on the spot. How it worked was, Toby would ask to go to the bathroom, which she would usually give him grudging permission to do, and then I would look up at her from the front row, smile confidentially, and say in this exciting, hushed voice: “So, Ms. McGuillicutty, have you noticed Ms. Carter’s new boob job?” and she was hooked.
“Helen! That is highly inappropriate!” she would whisper, looking totally interested. “Who told you that?”
“Everyone knows about it, ever since she hugged Joe Fisher at the science award assembly. He said it was like hugging rocks.”
“Bless my soul, I knew it all along,” said McGuillicutty. I would keep her in this trance the whole time so that she wouldn’t notice that Toby never came back from the bathroom. The only problem with this was that it worked a little too well. Students overheard me talking to McGuillicutty and started whispering, and rumors began to spread like wildfire around the school. Pretty soon it became common knowledge that our math teacher was a former Calvin Klein model for men’s underwear. Our music teacher had tried out for the voice four consecutive times and still hadn’t made it. Jerry Thatcher wasn’t on vacation, he was actually in the hospital with lead poisoning from the time he stabbed himself with a pencil. When he got back he was confused when, instead of being jealous of him, his classmates asked him if he was okay. No one except the little kids actually believed most of the stories, but that didn’t stop students from telling them. The funny part was that no one could figure out how they got started. Whenever some angry teacher or student asked me if I knew who was going around saying this or that about them, I would give them someone else’s name, and have them going around in circles. Eventually, the other kids in detention heard what I was doing and they started begging me to get them out of detention too. The problem was, you couldn’t have too many people leave the room at once, or even old McGuillicutty would start to realize something was up. You couldn’t have too many people asking to go to the bathroom either, that would never fly. Well, you can imagine the struggle that I, giving and generous person that I am, went through trying to figure out a way for me to please everyone while not being caught. In the end, we found an arrangement that benefitted all of us: I agreed to break one person out of detention a day, for a reasonable fee of just ten dollars per customer. Payment was in advance, no refunds. I mean, it took a lot of time, skill, and expertise to come up with a bull-cocky story and execute it to a level of semi-credulity. Toby was a lot of help with that. Like I said, it might be hard to get him into something, but when he does, he goes all in. We drew up an organized schedule of who would be released on what day. Sometimes, if I was feeling extra confident or if Mrs. McGuillicutty was looking extra ditzy, I would agree to squeeze in two people on the same day. I even sold gift cards to regular detention-goers who knew they would require my services more than once in the same week, but after that week was over they expired. No cash back. Business boomed, and the school was buzzing with shocking rumors and conspiracy theories. When Erika Harvey fainted during chapel prayers, I cried demonic possession; her parents were so concerned they took her to see an exorcist. When Nikki Springfield had a screaming and thrashing fit in class because she thought she’d had a spider in her hair, I said she had epilepsy. By that the whole detention group was in on it. We all worked together to promote the rumors. The best one we ever did was the rumour that there was a drug problem in our school. We managed to convince the younger grades that the packets of soy sauce in the cafeteria were actually a new form of some drug in disguise, and we kept it up by “secretly” trading the packets to each other during lunch. When the news about her medical condition, which entailed that if she didn’t get breast reduction surgery every year she would die, reached Principal Nevins, she called a staff meeting to get to the bottom of this offensive slander. No one stepped forward. Mrs. McGuillicutty was too embarrassed to say she’d heard it from me and passed it on. I was a little nervous when it got that big, but at the same time it was a really great feeling that this little thing my brother and I had started had grown to such proportions. They were honestly the best work of our middle school careers. They really were. Some of them even changed people’s lives: when I said that Joe Fisher, who regularly had a string of drool hanging from his mouth, had been tested and found to have an IQ of 145, people started treating him differently, and he actually started doing a lot better academically.
Somewhere along the way Toby got left back a year, so I was in eighth grade when he started high school, ready to move onto bigger and better shenanigans. It was the year our mother first started seeing Gil. Not coincidentally, it was also the start of the House Party Era.
Gil’s the first orthodox Jewish man mom’s ever been with. Before her re-conversion to fundamentalism Toby and I never really knew much about our Jewish side. She might be a really hardcore Jew, but before that, she was a really laid back Christian most of the time, in between some manic intervals of eastern religions because she’s always liked the idea of reincarnation, which Gil’s still working on curing her of. We went to a private Catholic elementary school and we liked pork and bacon and Christmas, so we harbored just a little tiny bit of resentment when Mom started forcing us to go to temple and celebrate Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah with Gil’s relatives.
Now, I feel differently; maybe Mom’s getting serious about her Jewishness was sort of a good thing. It helped her get her life together and it got her a job- I remember how excited she was to be doing something “meaningful” on her first day of work at the Israeli refugee center. She seems happy; maybe she really has found her calling. And Gil’s actually all right. I can tolerate him, for the most part, except for the fact that he constantly tries to set me up with one of his nephews. “You’d love him,” he says. “What’s not to love? Nice family. Father’s a doctor. Great hair. Reasonable nose.”
Even Toby thinks he’s okay now. But in high school, we despised that yamaka-wearing freak. Toby had a distinct way of showing it. Every weekend that my mother would stay over at Gil’s, Toby would throw a huge party in our home. He would insist on making it big, inviting everyone he knew, even older kids, like Roy Murphy, who everyone in our neighborhood used to be scared of because he used to hide behind dumpsters and jump people who walked by. Roy and his friends would trash the house every time they came over. That’s how Toby started making connections with questionable people; he’d give them a place they could safely smoke their bongs and pop pills, and in return they’d let him in on the merchandise. To use a gross under-exaggeration, some pretty wild Saturday nights went down at our house. Toby showed a suspicious lack of concern for getting caught, so it all came down to me. I would set my alarm, be up early and sober after a sleepless night, and set to work scrubbing all the spilled alcohol, vomit, and miscellaneous crud out of the carpet. I’d mop the floor, vacuum, replace anything that had broken, pull back the shower curtain to check for that one kid who always managed to be snoring in our bathtub the next morning- a pitcher of cold faucet water over his head usually did the trick. Sometimes there’d be a few more stragglers on the couch or the floor that had to be woken up and kicked out. When that was done, I would go downstairs and assess the damage in the basement- and do it all over again. Once the whole house had been cleaned, and everything back in its place- I’d have taken pictures of how the rooms looked before, just so when I had to move the furniture back and replace all the sofa pillows I would get it exactly right- I would have to collect all the bottles and garbage and lug them by myself down to the supermarket dumpster. I was there so often, all the homeless people knew my name. And all this had to be done before our mother returned sometime in the afternoon. Toby’s famous parties may have been really fun for a lot of people, but for me they were always just a prelude to the exhaustion and shot nerves the day after would bring. I felt like an orphan from the “hard-knock life.” Where was Toby during all this? Usually unconscious for most of it; I would often have to shake him awake before mom showed up, make him drink water and take a shower. If he was up he would help me much as he could, but getting down on all fours to clean up a party with a raging hangover while having to run to the bathroom to be sick every ten minutes isn’t all that helpful.
Soon it became a mutually understood agreement. Toby would be in charge of taking all the measures necessary to have the party: the solo cups, the pong tables, the illegal substances- in other words, all the fun stuff. My job was maintenance and damage control. I learned to be extremely cautious, to only let people smoke out of the backyard window, to close all the curtains and dim the lights- but remember to open them the next day- to turn the music back down whenever some idiot cranked it up. Thanks to me, we never got shut down by cops, and our mother never suspected anything- which I think Toby secretly wanted to happen. I admit I was a little relieved when Toby went away to college and the parties stopped.
After that things felt very quiet for a while. I half kept in touch with Toby through social media, though he didn’t call often. When we got the phone call that he’d run off again, at first I didn’t worry much about it. I didn’t take seriously enough the fact that we weren’t in middle school anymore, that we didn’t even live together, that I couldn’t have his back. I didn’t realize the impact that my not being there for him would make.
I won’t ever make that mistake again.
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