I went in search of my mother’s life, and found my own.
"Do you think they’ll be coming home soon?
Dean didn’t need to ask who Eric was talking about. In the three days since Nora and Ruby had left, he and Eric had speculated endlessly about their return. Dean knew that Eric often forgot their conversations on the subject. Sometimes, they would end one discussion and moments later Eric would ask the familiar question again. Do you think they’ll be coming home soon?
“They’ll be here any day,” Dean answered. Although he always answered similarly, he wasn’t so sure, and the uncertainty was killing him. It was Nora who called every night to talk to Eric; Ruby was always off somewhere, doing publicity or “taking a meeting.” She’d talked to them only once, and although she’d said all the right words to Dean, he’d felt a distance coming between them.
She was famous now. It was what she’d always wanted, even as a little girl; she’d dreamed of being loved by strangers. He couldn’t blame her for enjoying every minute of her newfound celebrity, and he couldn’t help wondering if there would still be a place in her life for him.
Dean turned away from the window. For a split second, the sight of his brother shocked him. The past few days had been like that. Eric’s decline had come so suddenly that sometimes, from moment to moment, Dean was caught off guard. Eric was so hollow, so shrunken; smiles were becoming rare. He seemed exhausted by the simple act of breathing, and the medications didn’t stave off the pain for long.
“Can we go outside?” Eric asked. “I can see what a beautiful day it is.”
“Sure.” Dean ran outside and prepared everything. He set up a wooden lounge chair in the shade of an old Madrona tree, placed it so that his brother could see all the way to the beach. Then he went back upstairs and bundled Eric in heavy blankets and carried him outside.
It was like carrying a small child; he weighed nothing at all.
Dean gently placed his brother on the chair. Eric settled back, sinking into the mound of pillows. He closed his eyes. “Man, that sun feels good on my face.”
Dean looked at his brother; whose face was tilted up to catch the sunlight. What he saw wasn’t a thin, balding young man huddled in a multicolored blanket … what he saw was courage, distilled to its purest essence.
“I’ll be right back.” He ran into the house and got his camera, loaded it with black-and-white film, and hurried back out into the yard. He started snapping pictures.
Eric’s eyes fluttered open. It took him a minute to focus, a few more to comprehend the silvery box Dean was using. Finally, he gasped and held up a weak, spotted hand. “Oh, God, Dino … no . I look like shit on a lounge chair.” He turned his head away.
Dean eased the camera from his eye and went to his brother, kneeling down. “Come on, you put Tom Cruise to shame.”
Eric turned to him. “I used to be a fine specimen of a man,” he said, smiling crookedly. “And you wait until I look like something out of Alien to take my picture.”
Dean stroked his brother’s damp forehead. He could tell that Eric was tiring already. “I missed those years, pal. I don’t want to miss these. I’ll need pictures of you.”
Eric groaned. “Shit.” He brought a hand up, rubbed his eyes.
“You know what I see when I look through this lens? I see a hero.”
Slowly Eric opened his eyes and smiled. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”
Dean finished the roll of film, then tossed the camera onto the picnic table, and lay down in the grass beside his brother.
“Do you think they’ll be home soon?”
“Any day now.” Dean rolled onto his side and looked up at his brother. “Ruby’s famous now. Remember we saw her on Entertainment Tonight yesterday? It’s what she always wanted.”
"Yeah, well, I used to want to be an astronaut.
Then I took a ride on some vomit comet at the state fair."
“I think Ruby needed to be famous.”
Eric scooted onto his side, groaning a little at the movement. He stared down at Dean. “You think fame is what she wanted?”
“I’ve seen the media up close. I dated a super model a few years back. It can be a pretty wild thing, everybody loving you.”
“That’s not love.”
“Yeah,” Dean said, but he didn’t feel the truth of it in his bones.
“I know what love is, pal. She’ll come back to you, and if she doesn’t, she’s too stupid to live.”
Dean came up to a sit. This was the one subject they’d steered clear of, the thing Dean had never been able to ask and Eric had been too cautious to mention.
But it had always been between them. At first, it had been the size of a boulder; now, it was a pebble. But always, it was there, nagging, waiting to be released. “What was it like between you and Charlie?”
Eric made a little sound of surprise. “You sure you want to go there?”
A slow, heartbreakingly earnest smile transformed Eric’s face, made him look almost young again. “I looked at Charlie and saw my future.” He grinned. Not that this seemed like a good thing at the time, mind you. I mean, I knew I was supposed to see my future on a body that held a uterus. I didn’t want to be gay. I knew how hard it would be … that it would mean giving up the American Dream–kids, a house in the suburbs, my own family. It tore me up inside."
Dean had never thought about that, about what it really meant to be gay. To have to choose between who you were and who the world thought you should be. “Jesus … I’m sorry.”
“I wanted to talk to you about it, but you were sixteen years old. And I was afraid you’d hate me. So I kept silent. Finally, what I felt for Charlie was more important than everything else. I loved him so much and when he died, a huge part of me went with him. I wouldn’t have made it without Nora. She was always there with me …” He closed his eyes. His breathing made a fluttering sound. Then suddenly he woke up, angled forward. “Where did I leave my eraser?”
Dean touched his brother’s forearm. "It’s on the kitchen table. I’ll bring it to you.
“Oh.” Eric immediately calmed down and sank back into the pillows. “Do you think they’ll be here soon?”
Dean stroked Eric’s forehead. Any day now. When he heard his brother’s breathing even out into sleep, Dean lay back in the grass and closed his own eyes. The hot sun felt good on his face, and if he tried really hard, he could almost pretend that this was an ordinary summer’s day from long ago. That he and Eric were exhausted, sleeping on the beach after a day spent swimming in the cove …
He woke when a car drove up. “Hey, Lottie,” he called out, waving sleepily. He didn’t bother to get up. It felt so good to lie here with his eyes closed.
“Is that any way to greet your newly famous, still ringless fiancee?”
Dean’s eyes snapped open. Ruby was standing beside him, arms akimbo, blocking out the sun’s rays.
He scrambled to his feet and swept her into his arms, giving her the kisses he’d been counting since she left.
She drew back, laughing. “Jeez, I’m going to have to make a point to leave lots in our marriage. Coming home is great.” Taking his hand, she bent down to Eric, who was still sleeping. “Hey, Eric,” she said softly.
Eric blinked up at her. “Hi Sally.” She frowned at Dean.
“He’s getting pretty bad,” he whispered. "Keeps forgetting where he is.
Ruby sagged against him. Dean anchored her in place with an arm around her waist. ‘We watched you and Nora on The Sarah Purcell Show. You were great."
Ruby grinned. “It was fun. In a reporters following-you-into-the-bathroom-stall sort of way. Being famous is harsh. I turned down the sitcom offers.”
“I took a book deal. A novel this time. I figured it was something I could do up here.”
“Hey, guys!” Nora shouted, waving. She came beside them, limping on her brand-new walking cast. She touched Dean’s shoulder. “How’s Eric?”
Dean shook his head, mouthed Not good.
Eric’s eyes opened again, focused. “Nora? Is that you?”
She knelt beside him. If she was shocked by how bad he looked, she showed no signs of it.
“I’m here, Eric.” She held his hand. “I’m here.”
“I knew you’d be here any minute. Have you seen my eraser? I think Sally hid it.”
“No, honey, I haven’t seen it.” Her voice was throaty.
“But do you know what day it is?”
Eric looked at her. “Monday?”
“It’s the Fourth of July.”
“Are we gonna have our party?”
“With sparklers?” He smiled sleepily.
“You go ahead and sleep for a minute. I’ll get your brother to start the barbecue.”
“Dean’s shitty at barbecuing. He drops everything onto the coals. You always let me cook the fish.”
She stroked his forehead. “I know. Maybe you could supervise.”
“Yeah.” He grinned up at Dean. “Just take the meat off before it bursts into flames.”
Nora leaned forward and kissed Eric’s cheek. By the time she got to her feet, he was asleep again. When she turned around, Dean saw the moisture in her eyes. He reached for her hand, held it. The three of them stood there, holding hands in the middle of the yard for a long, long time. No one spoke.
Finally, Ruby said, “Let’s get this party rolling.”
Dean gave Nora a last, heartfelt look. “Thanks,” he said softly. June hadn’t yet rounded the bend into July, but this party was exactly what Eric needed.
While Nora and Ruby set the groceries and supplies out on the picnic table, Dean went upstairs and turned on the stereo. Music had always been a big part of their celebrations. He stuck the old-fashioned black speakers in the open window, pointing them toward the yard. Then he found the local golden-oldies station (none of them needed to be reminded now of the passing of time), and cranked the volume. For this one night, he would do his best to turn the clock back a dozen years.
As if in answer, the first song to blare through the speakers was Dire Straits“ ”Money for Nothing."
By the time he got back outside, Nora and Ruby had everything ready. The corn on the cob had been shucked and wrapped in tinfoil; the store-bought macaroni salad was in a pottery bowl and ready to be served; and the salmon was seasoned and layered in slices of Walla Walla Sweet onions and lemons.
The music changed. Now it was "Crazy for You by Madonna …
Dean looped an arm around Ruby’s shoulder and drew her close. They moved in time to the music. “God, this brings back memories.”
She pulled him away from the picnic table. “Dance with me.”
He took her in his arms and danced back in time. If he’d closed his eyes, he would have seen the high school gymnasium, decorated in glitter and tinfoil and tissue paper. He would have seen Ruby, wearing an ice-blue polyester dress with braided spaghetti straps, with her long hair flowing down her back.
Only he didn’t close his eyes, didn’t look back. From now on, he only wanted to look ahead.
When the music changed again, to Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Do Ron,” Nora limped out and started dancing with them. On the lounge chair, Eric was doing his best to clap along to the song.