Authors: Miriam Gershow
After my brother went missing, my parents let me use their car whenever I wanted, even though I only had a learner’s permit. They didn’t enforce my curfew. I didn’t have to ask to be excused from the dinner table. The dinner table, in fact, had all but disappeared, covered with posters of Danny, a box of the yellow ribbons that our whole neighborhood had tied around trees and mailboxes and car antennas, and piles of the letters we’d gotten from people praying for Danny’s safe return or who thought they saw him hitchhiking along a highway a couple states away. I didn’t have to do any more chores.
Years later, I joined a support group for siblings of missing or exploited kids. It was amazing how a group of like-minded individuals could make the most singular and self-defining of circumstances feel simply mundane. I suppose for some, such a thing
would be normalizing, since everyone in the circle of couches and folding chairs had experienced equivalent tragedy. For me, it was deeply disconcerting. I had no idea how to compete with other people’s misery. It was in that group that I heard about the two types of parents: clingers and drifters. The clingers became microman-agers and wildly overprotective, tightening the reins, imposing new rules, smothering their kids with unwanted attention, buying gifts like a canopy bed or a new stereo system. The drifters, on the other hand, lost themselves to some mysterious netherworld, existing on coffee and crackers and minutes of sleep per night. They forgot to take the garbage out. They let the kitchen floor grow sticky. They looked like they were listening when you spoke (they became expert at empathetic nodding), but really they were staring just past you, glassy-eyed. The concerns of the corporeal world became incon sequential to them, except for the fine, red-hot point of finding their child (not you; their other child). Aside from that, they, well, drifted.
My parents were drifters.
We couldn’t keep the refrigerator stocked; its contents dwindled to bread heels and condiments in a matter of days. My mom started smoking again, years after having quit. Her energy was both frenetic and focused: she designed posters, concocted overly elaborate phone trees to recruit people for the area sweep searches, and added to her steadily growing stack of index cards, each one scribbled with a “clue” to help the police.
Allergic to penicillin,
she scrawled on one.
she wrote on another.
Born on night of a full moon.
My father became quietly obsessed with the TV news—local, national, international, as if he couldn’t rule out any possibility. Maybe Danny was part of the throngs of Bosnian Serb refugees; maybe he’d been victim to the floods in the Philippines.
Dad could go days without speaking. He could sit for hours (six and a quarter, I counted one day) in his sunken chair without once getting up. And we kept running out of toilet paper. Over and over again we had to use tissues instead, until those ran out too and we moved to paper towels, which quickly clogged the pipes. I’d never before had to think about the supply of toilet paper in our household. It had always simply been there. I was fifteen. Up to that point, I’d believed that the world more or less worked—toilet paper sat on its roll, dinner was served hot at the table, everyone came home at the end of a day—simply because it was supposed to and it always had.
“There’s no proper or improper way to grieve,” the woman who ran the support group would say. I did not return after that first visit; the impulse, it quickly became clear, had been a mistake. The woman’s face was chalky with powder, her cheeks too bright with rouge, her eyelashes clumped with mascara. The collar of her blouse rose up around her neck, tied into an improbably flouncy bow. The look of her offended me. She was all wrong; how was I supposed to take her as an authority? Other participants hunkered down low in their chairs, weeping appropriately into soggy tissues. Or nodding appreciatively. Or wringing their hands. They had the raccoon-eyed, red-veined look of the haunted.
Finding myself backed into the overly familiar terrain of heart ache and desperation brought out the worst in me. I was cornered, wanting to scream or kick my chair over or run my nails along the chalkboard where the woman had made us brainstorm a list of feeling words about our siblings
(love, confusion, fear, sadness,
the list began, predictably). I wanted to reel off my own list of shitty things Danny had done to me when we were teenagers (calling me
the tit-less wonder,
mashing my face in a pillow once until I couldn’t
breathe, ignoring me in front of his friends). I wanted to be irreverent and inappropriate. I wanted to shake up the righteous anguish. Going missing, I wanted to yell from some deep, dark pit in the middle of me, was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done.
In the first weeks after Danny’s disappearance, I drove. I would spend long minutes in the garage before starting the car, adjusting the rearview and side mirrors, moving my dad’s seat up and down and backward and forward until I had just the perfect view of the world behind me. I’d practice looking over my left shoulder to see past my blind spot, imagining that the bushy maple in our yard was a semi trying to barrel past me. Finally I’d back down our long driveway, my head out the window, the warm summer air making my cheeks feel blushed.
The whole act was fraught with a particular anxiety. Aside from being not strictly legal, I could never forget the smallness of me compared to the bigness of the car and the gaping margin for error created by the contrast. One wrong move and I could easily swerve into the oncoming lane or plow through a red light into a bustling
intersection. The very act of driving—the successful negotiation of feet on pedals and hands on steering wheel and eyes in mirror—felt death-defying.
But I kept going back to it, night after night, and not just because it was a way to get out of the house and away from my parents and whichever well-meaning, wet-eyed neighbors or family friends were visiting. Even with the nervous thrum in my belly, driving managed to calm me down, focusing my attention on palatable, bite-sized fragments of data—two yellow lines, a green arrow, a bright red taillight. I had just finished the summer-school offering of driver’s ed the month before and my stops were still jerky; I often overestimated how much gas I needed and regularly peeled out from stops; I scraped the curb on the few occasions I tried to parallel park. I was drawn to it in the same nagging way I was drawn to anything I wasn’t yet good at, like when I’d spent the summer before eighth-grade algebra learning polynomial and quadratic equations, or when I’d spent weeks memorizing every strait in the world after losing the middle-school geography bee (Joshua Belson had beaten me, knowing that the Naruto Strait connected Awaji Island and Shikoku in Japan).
So each night, after my parents absently nodded in my direction and the raspy-voiced neighbor or family friend leaned in to hug me or place a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, I slipped out to the garage and into Dad’s car. But I didn’t have anyplace to go. I’d spent the bulk of my life up to that point either in school or in my room studying or in my best friend David Nelson’s den paging through books and listening to music and generally lolling around. Most nights now, I’d deliver stacks of Missing Person posters to the ring of businesses surrounding our city. In the beginning, the sympathetic attention of strangers was still intoxicating.
The lady in the Kroger made an
noise as she promised to
hang it on the community bulletin board at the front of the store. The manager at the Blockbuster called me
and offered me a coupon: rent two, get one free. The kid who scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins said he’d take two because he worked another shift at the store in Belvedere. He looked, honestly, like he could cry. It was months—sixty-three days, actually—before anyone told me no. The guy behind the counter at the Texaco Mini-Mart just shook his head and said, “Sorry, ma’am.” He couldn’t post it in the window. Company policy.