Floating

I don’t have much to pack: a small wad of cash, deodorant and toothbrush, a duffel bag’s worth of clothes. My brother would probably prefer that I take the copy of Dharma Punx I gave him months back, but he’s not here to argue, so I leave it.

Before skipping town, I head to CVS to pick up a Gatorade and some Advil to nurse my hangover, which admittedly isn’t so furious, more of a dull thrum. It’s a Wednesday morning, and the sidewalks, the storefronts, are lifeless. There’s an empty Chinese restaurant, a florist, a Super Cuts. A squirrel resting on a branch. A playground and a soccer field tucked beside a schoolhouse. A dented tall can, courtesy of my brother, lying placidly on the sidewalk he and I had walked down the night before, after we left Dingo’s Den.

On that walk, as we trudged onward, my brother had gestured to the road with an outstretched arm and said, We could be anywhere, couldn’t we? We passed a church made of stone, and a stuffed clothing donation bin. I glanced at him: his gaze slipping, his nose scrunched. I said, Yes we could, and left it at that. His response: hacking phlegm out of the back of his throat, spitting it out. Turning inward, sullen. I think he wanted me to offer a meditation on something profound or spiritual, maybe, like how we could spend not just a month but a year in this town and still not know where we are. For we’d often felt that before, crossing from Maine to New Hampshire to Vermont to New York, from Portland to Concord to Brattleboro to Schenectady. Since mom passed and dad relocated to Florida, we’ve started over many times, scooping up jobs, finding housing, hoping that in this new place, in these new lives, we might feel at home. You know: the stable income, a fixed residence, the routine of it all. But that’s never been the case. Give us two months, three, even six, and we wake up and look at each other, sharing a bed or sleeping in separate twins in a basement apartment, in a motel, in the attic of a multi-family home. A thought will pass between us, a grimace, and we pack up, drive fifteen or fifty miles and try again.

I park in the CVS’s parking lot and head for its front door. The sun has crested above the horizon, and the morning’s chill has started to thaw. Beside the CVS’s entrance is a boy, a teenager, digging through a patch of grass that separates the sidewalk from the curb. He’s crouched, lurching forward, and in his hands are dandelions. He’s mushing the seeds and stems with his thumbs, destroying one before he plucks another. Acne has blossomed on the boy’s face, running up and down his cheeks, riding his jaw.

I want to get moving—on the off chance that my brother was discharged from the hospital, I don’t want to risk him seeing me still in town—but I feel compelled to ask the boy, What’s this for?

The boy looks up.

They were there, he says.

So that means you gotta mash ‘em up?

He wipes what’s left of the dandelions from his hands, then wipes his palms on his pants.

Just something to do.

The boy goes to the corner, crosses the street, and heads into a stout apartment building. There’s stillness, and then the curtains hanging in the windows of an apartment on the second floor get drawn. A wind chime outside the building’s entrance sways with ease.

The boy had opened the building’s door and then, with a turn and a step, he was gone. Almost like he was never here—just like my mom, whose passing five years back was so swift, it almost felt like I missed it. An infection, a trip to the hospital, a failed surgery. It took twelve days, the whole thing. When I think of her now, I don’t think of her in the hospital. Instead, I think of her movements: how she sat at the kitchen table, slouched as if in prayer, digging into her meal as if she were shoveling dirt; how she yanked open the door to our family car—a steel-gray Civic with a rusted frame, the car I use now—with her whole body, putting a hand against it and wrenching the other back so that her wrist touched her side, a pained smirk on her face; how she’d jocularly march in place inside the doorframe of my bedroom on school-day mornings when I refused to get ready. These movements don’t do a half-decent job at encapsulating her large personality or her role in my life, but they have motion. They’re alive.

“Give us two months, three, even six, and we wake up and look at each other, sharing a bed or sleeping in separate twin’s in a basement apartment, in a motel, in the attic of a multi-family home. A thought will pass between us, a grimace, and we pack up, drive fifteen or fifty miles and try again.”

Inside, the store is empty. I grab my supplies and rush to the checkout counter, trying to save what time I can. Behind the register is a blonde woman with dark eyebrows and a square jaw. She looks Scandinavian, maybe. Kind of like the woman I saw at Dingo’s Den last night. Is it her? No—that woman was a few inches taller, with a broader torso. She was the one who goaded me and my brother to leave, who said, You guys should find somewhere else to be. I was hesitant to reply—a familiar shame was descending upon me—but I eventually nodded, then said to my brother, who’d started to pick a fight with a stocky man at the other end of the bar, That’s enough. I put a hand around his waist and tried to pull him towards the exit. He pushed against me, his attention fastened on the stocky man, but he soon relented. In my embrace, he gripped my shoulder and squeezed his fury into it.

After paying, I leave the CVS, get back into the Civic, and wrench the keys in the ignition. It takes a few tries before it starts; it has a lot of years on it. Dad got this car when my brother and I were boys, back when we needed car seats, and we stole it from him the evening he told us he was moving to Florida—without us. This came only a few weeks after mom passed. We worried that he’d report the car stolen, but he never did. I guess he didn’t have the energy to deal with the situation; he probably didn’t have the constitution, either. He was generally apathetic towards us, mom, himself. He existed without grace, without affection, and he felt that everyone else should, too.

The Civic blows hot, stale air, and the radio tells me it’s sixty-one degrees out, 7:04 a.m. I turn around to back out of my spot—there are only two other cars in the lot, nobody nearby—and notice a quarter-sized stain shaped like a malformed skull on the backseat. It’s from my brother, I figure. He must’ve spit up something last night when I laid him down and drove him to the hospital.

In the hour preceding that drive, we’d returned to our studio after our walk home from Dingo’s Den. Leading the way, I threw open the door and fell onto my side of the bed, allowing my heavy eyes to close, while he rummaged through his pack, then stepped into the bathroom, quiet as a vole. Lying on my back, my head was warm and for some reason, I felt tears start to form behind my eyes. I didn’t understand their appearance, and I didn’t want to understand, either. I placed my palms on my forehand and tried my hardest to fall asleep.

After some time, when I realized I wasn’t yet tired enough to sleep, I rolled onto my side and looked at the clock we hung on the wall: 2:15 a.m., twenty minutes passed. I looked up, expecting that my brother would’ve come back and laid beside me, but he was still gone.

I got up and stumbled to the bathroom door. Knocking, I said, You in there? Nothing. All I could hear were footsteps coming from the apartment above ours, then a few short claps, a pair of shoes being beaten together. I tried the knob—locked—then came back with an expired Costco membership card and jimmied it open. And there he was: sloped against the sink, eyes lightly opened, pinned pupils. His cheeks were starting to turn blue, his fingertips purple. A syringe lay beside him, half a thimble of blood pooled in its well.

My brother’s not like most addicts I’ve met. Rather than scheming for the twenty or forty or hundred dollars he needs to get well for the day, he saves up his money for weeks or months and then lets loose—I imagine that must take an ungodly amount of willpower—leaving the apartment for forty-eight or seventy-two hours at the end of a work week before crawling home to come down, slipping into bed, and weakly clutching our quilt after calling in sick with the flu. He refers to these types of binges as floating. Like, when he dreams about mom, recalling how she’d once put him in her lap and combed through his hair after it was announced that there’d been a lice outbreak at school, her warm hand on the back of his neck, he says that he needs to float.

Having used up all my Narcan—his ODs have gotten closer and closer together this past year—I took him to the nearest hospital. Pulling in to the emergency entrance’s drop-off ramp, I couldn’t remember New Hampshire’s rules on dealing with someone who’s OD’d. Would I get in trouble for being with him? Would they assume I’d been using, too? I didn’t know, didn’t want to risk asking someone. And I was buzzed driving, either way. I doubted they’d ignore that. So I parked the car, opened the back seat, picked my brother up, and gently laid him down outside the door to the Emergency Room.

With the harsh fluorescent lights coming from the entrance’s awning and with the waves of darkness at our sides, coming from out past the hospital’s property where there were no cars or buildings or stoplights, only dense, shifting woods, I wanted to say something to my brother, but I didn’t know what. All that I felt like saying seemed too cruel, too laced with resentment and panic to properly address what I really felt. So instead, I leaned down and kissed his forehead, before scrambling to my feet and sprinting back to the car and onto the road. That, I thought, was the best I could do.

And now, as I turn the Civic out of the CVS parking lot and head for I-93, feeling a tragic commingling of hope and abandon, I’m able to put into words what I’d wanted to say last night: I have to go. Not because I believe that you will be cured by greater suffering—the risk of more ODs, of homelessness, of loneliness—but because I believe that, if we stay together, we will never be able to unravel. We will remain wound-up, unknowable to ourselves and the outside world. Hidden, we will keep holding onto mom, our shared loss of her, and dad’s flight, like a punctured raft, deflating, sinking into oblivion.

We will always be floating.

Benjamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jersey. His work has appeared in decomP, Literary Orphans, Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander, and other publications.