My former brother-in-law once told me that he and his friends spent Friday afternoons at the gym, the tanning salon, and the laundromat before going out to clubs, which made me think of the women in those clubs—full of sadness maybe, willing to be in a dark room with such men—which made me think of my kid sister, Jen, magnificent and lost, a lover of crazy things. Which made me think of me. An apple from the same tree.
“It’s not love that is blind,” I accidentally said when she explained how she’d met someone new.
“He served the restraining order to Big Al,” she explained.
Big Al was her ex, the father of my niece and nephew.
“He’s a cop?” I asked.
“You’re dating the cop that served the restraining order to your ex?”
“Jen,” I asked after a pause. “Who do we call if a cop becomes the problem?”
He was leaning against his car in the crosswalk of the Tarrytown station when we stepped off the train. We’d expected Jen, in the usual pickup spot. But he’d apparently volunteered.
“Spoiler alert,” Gianna said grimly. She was referring to the fin on the back of his Mazda.
“If you run from me, you’re going to catch a beating—after you’re cuffed,” he explained, two minutes into our drive. This was the second time we’d met him. He drove very fast and obeyed zero traffic laws. “She’s a fucking bitch,” he said of Hillary Clinton.
He was full of bravado and, unlike anyone else on earth, scared of me. Me, not wanting to mess up my delicate musician hands in a fight. Me, constantly trying to put everyone off their guard. Me, basically the opposite of a cop.
My sister’s great and terrible beauty wielded such power.
He needed my approval, as the eldest. He was expecting someone bigger. He eyed me like maybe I have some secret martial art status.
“Bro” he said with extreme seriousness, “I love all kinds of music.”
Our parents let us know that the rhythm method failed them. We somehow knew, too, that our mother met with the pastor, to try and get special dispensation to use contraception. For mental health reasons.
It worked; Jen was the last of us. She was born ten years after I was and quickly became a major player in the depleted economy of parental attention and resources. The focus of our family shifted.
Jen’s world was on fire. She was in constant motion, either ecstatic or in crisis. Our parents kept her in cages; cribs and screened-in porches. She’d escape, and we’d find her half a mile away helping someone weed their garden.
She looked like J Lo, everyone told us.
I stole her Ritalin once, and it changed my life for a half an hour. Then I crashed so hard I had to leave rehearsal and lay down in my car.
“I knew I was in trouble when I heard you were coming,” she said with an embarrassed smile, propped up with those scratchy pillows they give you at St. John’s Episcopal. She had to take the CPAP thing off to say it.
They’d been married for half the year. Things had happened very quickly.
She seemed repentant.
My youngest brother, Joe, had spent the night in the weird lounge chair in the corner. I was more protective of Jude, our middle brother. It was as if we’d each been assigned a partner.
My arrival at the hospital signaled something closer to an intervention. There was an air of gravity.
“Joe told me to just smoke pot. I’m down to two trammies and a quarter of an oxy, but those fuckers are expensive.”
“I get it,” I said.
“How long has it been?” she asked.
“October is 19 years”
“They steal them from the dealers,” she tried to whisper, her eyes wide with emphasis. Looking around as if her new husband and his dirty cop buddies could be anywhere. Then she coughed for a full five minutes.
“It’s bullshit,” he said.
He was sitting on the front porch, between us and the door, that last Thanksgiving, in a wife-beater and enormous flowy basketball shorts.
“I can barely walk,” he explained, over the course of several minutes, while we stood there holding bags of groceries.
The koi fish had frozen solid in the pond along the walkway.
“I slipped in front of Applebee’s,” he explained.
He turned his visor backwards to show us a small bruise on his forehead. His pupils buffered like videos.
“They’re counter-suing me for fraud, but you can’t just fire a cop.”
It had been a weird year of downgraded expectations, and, perhaps as a counterweight, we decided to have Thanksgiving at their new house. This was a few months after Jen’s hospitalization. We unconsciously drew toward her, like white blood cells.
“Life is nuts,” I said to Gianni in the car.
“What happens is always so unimaginable,” I said. “But then almost makes sense.”
“Yeah, or vice-versa,” she said.
Having a cop in the family had benefits. We all got little stickers to put in the windows of our cars. Joe’s speeding tickets got dismissed. The job qualified Jen for our generation’s first mortgage. She had been living in our parent’s place prior, where she and Big Al took the living room over with his giant video game flat screen.
Her new house was bigger than anything anyone in our family had ever lived in. There was a room for each kid. I painted Ninja Turtles on the wall above my nephew’s bed. There was room for a proper sit-down meal. None of us were going to end up on the couch with a plate of food on our knees.
Jen seemed to have access to an endless line of credit, or cash, too. She bought a giant dining room set with ornate, tall-backed, chairs. Pallets of goldfish crackers, juice boxes, and other kid snacks were piled so high we couldn’t close the double doored pantry. The sink had one of those hoses you spray pots with; the faucet had an imposing swan like spout.
Their master bedroom—the most uncomfortable feature of any obligatory tour—had the biggest bathroom we’d ever seen attached to it. There was a car sized hot tub shaped like a seashell in lieu of a bathtub. There were two sinks. We laughed when Jen showed us the gun safe next to the toilet. Our family had a tradition of keeping weapons in the bathroom.
My brother-in-law’s non-stop monologue shifted up a gear after they moved in. It folded in on itself and consolidated; all he spoke about was his disability case. Every conversation found its way back to the complexities of our city’s legal system. He’d answer my sister’s phone and ask to “run something by me” before Jen grabbed it from him.
By Thanksgiving he’d stopped working entirely and grown a beard. His “Blue Lives Matter” t‑shirts looked boxier. He wore socks under huge Adidas flip flops instead of shoes.
He positioned himself around the house strategically, so it was impossible to avoid him. I’d round a corner and he’d step behind me, chess-like, cutting me off from the larger family conversation. He had the upper hand; he knew the terrain. He caught me in the breakfast nook and ask if we had a savings account he could deposit a check in for tax reasons.
The meal was bedlam. Like the battle scene in Saving Private Ryan but composed of children. Some form of pet or a child slid past my leg under the table at regular intervals. My nephew dragged a giant mallard around, the kind you use as a hunting decoy. It weighed him down and he was having trouble keeping up with the other kids. They mostly moved as one like a school of piranhas.
We complemented Jen on the turkey, and I, the senior sibling, got to eat the pope’s nose. After dessert, the kids went and jumped up and down on the sleet-covered trampoline. Their screaming heads appeared then disappeared in the window above the kitchen sink. We’d always wanted a trampoline when we were kids. I cheered them on while I did the dishes.
“We have a dishwasher,” Jen said.
I laughed. “I don’t know how to work them.”
The post prandial chore frenzy had a competitive energy to it. There weren’t enough to go around. Gianni almost cut her thumb off on the giant industrial roll of tin foil we used to box up leftovers.
“Do you like this?” my brother-in-law asked, fully ambulatory now, waving incense from a giant ceramic dragon at us. “It’s called Red Dragon.”
Yonkers’ finest picked her up in the Elantra. She had her Glock, the double barreled 16 gauge, a crossbow, and two machetes in the trunk. She’d only macheted the dragon, she said, but they charged her with assault anyway. She’d fled with the kids, hoping to make it to Betty Anne’s.
“The Weeper called his buddies,” she said, ruefully. “He knew I was going to turn him in.”
My brother-in-law and I had the same name, and he was prone to making his points by crying, so we called him The Weeper to distinguish us. His bouts of confessional and weirdly timed family speeches had increased after his suspension hearing.
Jen had threatened to email the Office of Health and Human Services. It was her ace in the hole during their fights.
Our parents remortgaged the house we grew up in and got a lawyer. Jen spent the weekend somewhere inside the Yonkers Police Department, and it was mostly community service, piss tests, and ankle bracelets after that. And more restraining orders, of course.
Ankle monitors had gotten smaller and more precise looking since the summer Joe and I played 007 nine hours a day. For the longest time, we couldn’t figure out if it was the Nintendo or his foot that was making the beeping noise.
It took one more marriage, but things evened out. gradually though, like plants toward a window, or a chess match in reverse. We joked about the hospitals. We talked about car repairs. Her oldest is a year away from puberty now. The trampoline in the backyard is surrounded by long grass.
Jason Sebastian Russo is a writer, composer, and artist based in Brooklyn and central New York state. His work appears in The Nervous Breakdown, Hobart, Ghost City Press, No Contact, and beyond. He has toured and recorded with Mercury Rev, Pete International Airport, and Hopewell, among others. Find samples of his work on jasonsebastianrusso.com and follow him on Twitter: @retsoor