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1999: Fiction

(Jacqueline Cosse)–

Your name, as I’ve been told, was Alexander.

Eight pounds, fourteen ounces, born November 28th at 1:24AM. Born into the year of the disconnected gas, and no car, and the occasional line of ants on the window sill. Born into the year of lukewarm iced tea, unemployment, and most importantly, the year of papa’s dandruff. It started in the bathroom at first, but if you weren’t awake at that time in the morning you couldn’t really tell. Dad would always clean up after him, and so when I went to brush my own teeth after the two of them had gone side-by-side, I didn’t suspect a thing. But before I knew it the flakes were back three hours later around the time that papa had to go to the bathroom. It was always right before lunch. He’d had two or three cups of coffee by then and was just itching to go. Then he’d leave; door open, seat up, and white small flakes next to the soap dispenser. I’d get so excited and scream, “DADDY IT’S SNOWING.”

And dad would groan, and say “Michael, your damn dandruff is getting everywhere, I’m not cleaning it up again for you.” But then three or four more hours and a kiss on the lips later, the countertop was pristine once more.

You were born into the year of “I’m just in between jobs right now.” The year that dad spent all of our money on getting you to be a part of our family before getting fired over “creative differences.” When I asked about the term, papa said that dad called his boss a bad word, but I didn’t mind it so much. It meant that dad got to be home more, and that I got a little brother in exchange for giving up new crayons and “fruit rings” instead of omelets for breakfast. The old crayons were mutilated from my insistence on jamming them as hard as I could into the page to make sure the colors were the “bestest and brightest colors,” but I made do. Dad always made sure to tell me that there were some kids that didn’t even have crayons, or a loving family. He told me I had two wonderful dads who loved me, and that I was getting a wonderful new baby brother. I was lucky in that regard.

I drew so much in those months, content to ignore the days we skipped breakfast all together. I drew deformed looking cats with heads 4 times the size of their bodies, small purple butterflies, and big blue sports cars. Papa told me that dad had always wanted a shiny blue car, so I made several for him. To this day, there’s still one taped up in his office. I drew pictures of the landscape outside our window: brown wiggles for the barren trees, and a big rectangle for the bridge. Dad’s “sports car” was featured in that one as well, speeding down the highway as a furiously drawn in blue circle. But…mostly…I drew vague depictions of you. My soon-to-be baby brother.

 

 

You were born into the year of blanket forts in place of warming my hands by the radiator, the year of children’s Motrin in lieu of doctors visits, the year of gray hairs on dad’s head, and of movie nights. It all started five days before you were born—dad and I were sitting on the sofa flipping through channels and he stumbled upon The Wizard of Oz. I don’t remember much from when you were born, but that moment is crystal clear to me. Dad knew half of the lines from the movie, and every night for the following week we would have this exchange:

“Daddy, tell me again what the lion sings when he meets Dorothy.”

He would roll his eyes each and every time. “The lion? Lions can’t talk, you silly.”

“Daddy no! No the lion talks daddy, you know! Tell me what the lion sings.”

“Stella…”

“DADDY THE LION.”

Dad laughed a lot back then. And he’d always smile, and he’d say “Alright, Stella,” and our song would begin. He would start the first verse and I’d always chime in with my wonderful screeching of “if I only had a brain” when the right moment arrived.

When we got the call five days later that you were about to be born papa scooped me up and ran with dad the whole ten blocks to the train station that would get us to you. Papa had never held onto me that tight, and even through his thick hoodie and the 42 degree weather, I could feel his sweat seeping through the fabric. He was athletic, sure, but age was catching up with him after years of doing nothing but sitting at a cubicle at his old job, and then coming home to sit around with us. Dad always used to be the one to chase me if I’d run away at home too, which didn’t help papa’s stamina much. But despite his lack of athleticism we made it just in time. We found three seats on the train car—it was 1:30 in the morning, so it wasn’t exactly crowded—and I crawled in between our parents and curled up against papa’s side. I nudged him a few times and asked him to entertain me, but papa was pretty antsy to meet you, he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings too much.

So when talking to him didn’t work, I naturally turned to dad to do his impression of the wicked witch. I remember papa took my hand when I started to giggle, even after people on the T started to stare.

“Daddy. Daddy ‘m sleepy. Do the witch.”

Dad was distracted, too. It’s not every day you get to meet your new child. “Sweetie we’re almost there, I promise—”

“No, daddy the witch. The wicked witch.”

“Now?”

“Now.” And so, he picked me up and placed me in his lap. He positioned me so that I was facing him, leaned down so our noses were touching, and whispered, “I’ll get you my pretty.”

“And…mmm…and the doggy too. Daddy can we get a doggy?”

He sat up straight once more and pulled me close. His shirt was stained as well, but his had small dark spots under the arms, barely visible against the maroon fabric. “How about we get you a baby brother, first?”

 

 

You were born into the year of paper snowflakes cut out of old newspapers and of track shorts. Dad (quite literally) smacked some sense into papa when he refused to get up at four in the morning one night when you started cackling from your crib. Papa knew at that point you wouldn’t sleep unless you were walked around the house, and at four in the morning, he “didn’t have the energy.” Dad apparently smacked papa on the shoulder and threatened “withholding.” At the time, I didn’t know what it meant. Thank god you never will—it’s not pretty. But it had the desired effect, and papa ambled out of bed and walked around the living room with you for an hour so you’d quiet down. After that morning, he finally started moving around, even fished out some of his old college gear from his lacrosse days. Needless to say, once that jersey didn’t fit, papa started working out.

And so, months later, papa would trill his lips and run me around the apartment on his shoulders pretending to be a speedboat just to watch your toothless six-month-old grin. Your squeals were even louder than mine, and dad would get so angry at papa for making a ruckus—the neighbors downstairs weren’t exactly the nicest of people when it came to noise complaints. But dad was never really mad at papa. I’m not sure how actively involved papa was with me as a baby, but there was something about the way that papa moved around with the two of us that really made dad smile. Most of all, though , dad loved to see you smile, more than anything in the world. It’s what he misses the most.

Well, that’s what papa says anyway. Dad doesn’t really like to talk about you much anymore.

 

 

You were born just before the millennium. It was only the four of us on New Year’s Eve 1999—you, me, papa, and dad. Papa’s family didn’t really talk to him after he moved in with dad, and dad’s family lives back in California. But papa made the place beautiful. He said, it’s a new century, we have a beautiful new baby boy, a stunning little princess—he kissed me on the cheek at that point—we deserve a god damn celebration. It’s all on tape. You can see papa stumbling a little, courtesy of the large, red plastic cup in his hand. But I haven’t seen him that happy in a long time. He trudged through the snow late one night while you me, and dad were sleeping and bought streamers and hats and confetti at the dollar store to put together the party you can see on that tape. Dad wasn’t even angry about the mess the confetti made. He handed the camera to papa before taking the confetti and throwing it over my head. He said, “now she’s just like you Michael.” Papa shook his head pretty hard, and small white flakes scattered all over the floor and the rug. They even mixed in with the rainbow sparkles in my hair. I remember screaming, and dad freaked out, while papa seemed incredibly hurt, asking what was wrong. The encounter is one that papa loves to watch and re-watch after dad has gone to sleep.

I started jumping up and down and ran to dad and tugged on his sleeve. “Poppy poppy. POPPY. LOOK.” It’s what I used to call dad when I was younger. Poppy was easier than papa, for me, for some reason. I’m not sure why.

It was dad who answered, though. “Use your words, sweetheart. And try and keep your voice down, okay?”

“But dad I’m just like poppy now.”

Papa took a step forward and reached out to brush the dandruff flakes out of my hair but I shrieked and took a step back before he could touch me. But it was dad again, not papa, that reprimanded me. “Stella Anne, I told you to lower your voice.”

“But dad, poppy was trying to get rid of my snowflakes. Then I wouldn’t be beautiful anymore.” Papa, he smiled so widely, I could see the little crinkles around his eyes scrunch together. The heartbreaking adoration in his eyes was obvious to anyone who wasn’t blind. It’s all on film.

And you? You were just sitting there, gurgling in the background. Happy, at just a few months old.

 

 

You were born the year everything changed. Some things changed for the better—papa finally got a job. He was teaching Italian to high school kids despite his PhD in German Literature, but it was a job that gave us health insurance. Papa cried the entire night he found out. And you cried too, for the first time in what seemed like weeks. Dad was pretty surprised, and papa was too caught up in emotion to really notice anything. Maybe that’s why dad doesn’t like to think about you. He’s the first one that noticed you crying.

You cried, and you cried, and you wouldn’t stop. And the irony was that we’d just gotten health insurance—but the doctors didn’t seem to know what was wrong with you. I don’t remember much of it, I was young, and it’s the one thing that dad and papa never really went into detail about. But life still went on. I helped papa give you bubble baths, held my hand over your face to shield your eyes from the suds when we washed your hair. Dad fed all three of us breakfast before I had to go to school, and papa woke up to teach. Dad took some time off a while, after we found out you were sick. And then, just like that, you were gone. And four became three.

 

 

It was the 8th, and it was raining. Cold, dark, we arrived at the hospital at 3:18 in the morning. I remember standing in the corner with papa, glancing at the bright green numbers on his digital watch, the numbers shaking with his quivering hands. Dad was crying, nearly thrusting you at the nurse begging them to help us. You’d never been that pale, you’d never spit up blood, and the red-spotted rag on his shoulder was barely visible amidst the chaos.

But hospitals are good in that they take the most severe of cases first. At a shaky 3:24, we were on our way into the pediatric ICU. At 5:04, you were gone. Papa had flung his watch against the wall of your room when they called it, and it ricocheted off of the stucco paint and skidded towards my shoes. I’d pocketed it, and looked at it the next morning. The battery or something had been damaged. Whatever it was, 5:04 was frozen onto the screen, the little 4 at the end refusing to turn.

I still have the watch in my dresser drawer.

 

 

You were born just before the year of Stoli, the year of Evan Williams, and (on those rare nights) the year of Tanqueray. You were born into the year of broken glass strewn across the kitchen countertops, the year dad stopped doing Wizard of Oz impressions just as quickly as he’d started. You were born into the year of Dark Side of the Moon, and when dad smashed that record to bits, too, in November, it became the year of Debussy. Papa picked out the Debussy as a Christmas present for Dad. I helped wrap it. And just as quickly as Christmas had passed, New Year was upon us once more. Papa pulled out the video camera for some reason again, and clicked it on.

“Michael for gods sake—” Papa stopped pretty abruptly. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but judging from the way the camera shifts down a little I assume that dad gave him some sort of look that said behave.

“Michael, what are you doing.”

“We recorded the new year last year, and we’re going to record it again. Stella,” papa turned to me. You can even hear in his voice how uncomfortable he was trying to figure out a way to include me without worrying me about papa. Not that it helped much. I was young, but not blind. “Stella go by your dad.”

I walked over to him. He was wearing a royal blue shirt that you could only tell was from Target if you took a close look at the tag on the back. It was ironed, pristinely so, and each button was meticulously fastened, which was saying something. Dad had some pretty complicated tops. He was wearing slacks, white ones, and a pair of old shoes from your…from the day we said goodbye to you. But if you hadn’t known that, you would have said his outfit was perfect. He hardly looked like he was a mess, at the very least.

“Now,” papa fiddled with the camera once more, “2001 new years resolution. Go.”

Dad stared at the camera a moment, his head tilted ever-so-slightly to the side, expression blank. “You know what I want, Michael. Please don’t.”

His words were quiet, but they resonated through the room so strongly he might as well have yelled. But as much as dad was off, he at least remembered me, moving to kiss me quickly on the top of the head before ducking out of the room.

You weren’t there, and even at that age I knew exactly what he was thinking. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the new year unless it involves my son. Or at least, that’s what I can picture in hindsight. You were who he was looking for at the bottom of each bottle, who he saw in the mirror in the kitchen before it was destroyed. People always used to joke about you, to him. They told him, “for someone who isn’t actually your son, he sure looks like you.” And dad…oh dad. He would get so defensive. He would tell people you were his son regardless of blood, while tacking on a few choice swear words. He’d tell people that calling the most important little boy in his life anything but his son was “a disgrace.” People used to get pretty unhappy with him, because they thought they were paying him a compliment. But papa always used to tell me, “your dad just loves Alex so much, and some other people don’t really understand that. He just wants the world to know.” He’d say, “he feels the same about you, you know that baby. You’re our daughter no matter what anyone says, okay?”

And then I would roll my eyes and say “duh” before asking to keep walking.

 

 

You were born two years before my seventh birthday, two years before “the argument.” The one where papa and dad started screaming like I’ve never heard them before. And nothing physical happened—if there’s one thing you need to know it’s how irrevocably in love our parents were. They would never hurt each other in that way. But I’ve never heard screams like that, particularly at god knows what time in the morning. I was confused, afraid, and I hid under my covers, face pressed into the pillow, hoping the screams would disappear into the darkness, that it was all some figment of my imagination. But the screams wouldn’t stop, and eventually, mine joined theirs. I wailed, and I wailed, and I was lost enough in my own cries that I didn’t realize theirs had stopped until papa was at my bedside, eyes rimmed red, stroking my hair and murmuring all kinds of apologies. Dad stood in the doorway. I couldn’t tell you what his expression was, through my blurry vision, but I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. But he was there, at least. It was progress.

 

 

You were born four years before dad got himself together.

You were born two and a half years before the cold sweats, the anxiety, the muscle aches, the nausea and vomiting. Two and a half years before dad started sneaking in drinks at work instead of trying to get better, and two and a half years before he finally got professional help. I’m not saying it was easy on us as a family, but we’re certainly no anomaly. Every family has problems, every family, everyone has their skeletons. This was one of ours. But dad, he did it. He went to a place, a clinic, and stayed for a while. Papa and I visited every day, and I brought him pictures of his very own sports car. Dad wasn’t working, but I’d gotten new crayons for a recent birthday. I was getting better, and my drawing resembled a car-shaped-blob with little square windows as opposed to a simple circle. Occasionally, I brought dad drawings of you—chubby cheeks, laughing, black hair sticking out in tufts. Those were his favorites, and he taped every drawing I brought him up in the room they had for him. He never commented on them much, but the fact that he’d pin them up gave me hope. I slept with papa when were were home those few months, even though I was probably a little too old to be doing so. We couldn’t be apart, not with dad so far away. But he did it. Somehow.

 

 

You were born five years before the year of bouquets, invitations, and seating arrangements. I was ten. We drove to some remote location in Canada called the Yukon, I believe. It was small, but same-sex marriage had just been legalized there, and dad and papa had always wanted to go on a vacation before. We saved so, so much. By some stroke of luck dad was able to get a new job after he finished his stay at the clinic, and we saved an incredible amount for gas money and trekked across the country and up to Canada. In the end, dad says we probably would’ve saved more flying, but the pictures that we have from traveling are incredible. You would’ve loved it, I swear. Especially New York City. It was a little scary with all of the lights and the people but I’ve never seen anything like it.

Papa and dad invited a total of ten people. Four close friends, one co-worker, four family members, and dad’s sponsor. I stood next to them—in my light blue dress, with a white silk sash expertly tied in a bow around the middle—and smiled the whole way through. Papa started crying when dad mentioned you in his vows. It was in a good way, though, which is what’s most important for you to know. Even after all that time, they loved you just as much as the day they met you. They still do.

 

 

Today, you would’ve been starting your first year of high school. Can you imagine? You could’ve taken off of school, come to see me off as I moved into college. You could’ve been my aloof, seemingly disinterested thirteen year old brother—too cool to appear interested in anything about my new school, but secretly upset that I was leaving. You could’ve missed me, you could’ve complained about the loud noises, the subway trains, the bright yellow taxis.

There was something, Alex, something about those bright New York City lights that drew me in when we first visited all those years ago. It’s what I’m sure I would’ve told you. But you’re not here, and it’s the 8th again, and I’m here two weeks early with papa and dad, and despite everything it’s the first time dad’s smiled like this in a long time. We went to the top of the Empire State Building and papa spun me around in a circle (much to the guard’s dismay) while dad laughed at the fact that a “grown college woman” could still get twirled around by her father.

You were born in 1999, in the year disconnected gas, and no car, and the occasional line of ants on the window sill. Eight years before I started calling papa “papa” instead of “poppy,” three years before papa and I told ghost stories under the covers while dad was away, thirteen years before my eighteenth birthday. You were born the year I knew what it was to have a baby brother. But even after all this time, I still believe that I have one. Maybe not physically, sure. But in this new city, at 1:30 in the morning when papa and dad are snoring in the hotel bed next to mine, I know you’re somewhere out there, waiting another hour or so to start gurgling. Because when our newly insomniac father (papa, not dad) gets up at 4:30 in the morning as he has the past few nights that we’ve been in New York, he’ll grumble “Alex, it’s 5 in the morning, let me sleep.” before getting up anyway to make himself a peanut butter sandwich.

If you are interested in submitting whole or excerpted fiction writing for publication on the site, contact Marie Lambert at mlambert15@amherst.edu.

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One comment on “1999: Fiction

  1. Lolade (Lola) Fadulu
    May 10, 2014

    What a lovely and powerful piece. The repetition of “You were born…” is beautiful. I really love how the narrator’s parents are queer. I’ve never read a story before with queer adults/queer parents. Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi has been advocating for literature encompassing ALL experiences (Check out her TED talk called “The danger of a single story”). You’ve done a great job of writing a “new” story. I was really able to latch onto this family. Well done!

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This entry was posted on May 10, 2014 by in Fiction and tagged , , .
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