When my brother met a new girl, who grabbed his attention for longer than five minutes, disappearing for a few days was to be expected. His romantic adventures offered him the perfect excuse to escape our parents’ mutual indifference for each other, masking itself in long, overbearing silences that echoed with an intensity one could almost mistake for a tranquil family environment.
The lack of affection between our “makers” had an eerie quality to it. Alex and I liked to stay up at night talking about what we thought had made them this way: We hypothesized about evil mother-in-laws and terrible family secrets that sucked every bit of warmth out of their bodies. No matter how creative we were though, we never made sense of their alienation and, by extension, our own existence.
Growing up we were like one person that had morphed into two different beings who fought through their differences the same way they laughed about them: intense and loud, almost as if we struggled to fill the void of sounds in our home, replacing it with our torrent of deafening emotions. I felt closer to Alex than any of my friends. When I had an argument with someone, I knew I could count on my brother to listen to me complain about it, no matter how tired or busy he was. He would nod along while I explained what had bothered me, and then he’d make some stupid remark that made me laugh and forget about why I was mad in the first place
Now, sitting at the dinner table, eating away at the delicious meal my mother had prepared, I couldn’t help but think of the postcard Alex had sent from Paris. He had written to say he was having the time of his life with his new girlfriend – a girl called Céline, with big, brown eyes and the voice of a ten year-old girl. I didn’t exactly know what he saw in her, but I guessed it must have had something to do with the way she pronounced “r“, or frowned at the mention of ketchup as a substitute for tomato sauce.
He had made me promise I wouldn’t tell our parents about her. He couldn’t stand their stoic reactions when he revealed his “earth-shattering” news to them; he couldn’t even stand thinking about their restrained, germanic enthusiasm to his happiness. So, he had made me swear on my Jim Morrison poster.
I thought my mother would have grown used to him fleeing our family nest every now and then. Instead, the meals grew more complicated and time-consuming with every disappearance. Almost as if she measured her worry in ounces of flour and litres of milk. Last time he had vanished she cooked an elaborate five-course dinner, a feat astonishing even for her standards, as well as a silent cry for help in my eyes. As soon as Alex had returned, broken down and love-sick from his last endeavour, the meals grew smaller and more modest, still delicious but without the side-dishes of despair and mortification which accompanied the previous culinary gatherings.
This time was different. Though assured that he was happy “living the dream” with the small French girl, even I kept having an eerie feeling of imminent doom hovering over the heavy bird on our small table. Unable to control my hunger, I plunged into the oblivion of its juicy taste.
When dinner was over, my mother waited until my father went to his arm chair to doze off in front of the T.V. and then put her hand on mine. She squeezed it tightly and looked me in the eyes. I looked back wondering when she had grown so old.
“Fiona darling, is he alright?”
“He’s fine, Mom,” I said and quickly drew my hand away. She hung her head, picked up the plate with my left-overs and walked to the kitchen. I looked at her, wishing I could tell where he was and what he was up to. I wanted to offer her the comfort she needed so that she could finally have a good night’s sleep, relieved from thoughts of her only son being in some sort of horrific, mortal danger. As much as I hated to see her suffer though, my promise to Alex was more important.
I looked down at the remnants of the bird on the big plate in the middle of the table.
“What are you looking at?” I whispered to it. I picked some pieces of meat from the serving plate and wished I didn’t have to think about Alex while eating them.
When the phone rang a week later, I picked it up thinking it was my friend, Jenny. Instead I heard my brother’s charming voice.
“Hey monkey-face!” Alex’s hoarse voice put a smile on my face. Monkey-face was the closest he had ever come to calling me his sister and right now it sounded like princess to my ears.
“Hey, keep it down.”
“Mom is worried sick about you. She actually asked me if you were okay.”
“Why didn’t you call? I am a human being too, you know. I would like to know what’s going on over there in baguette-land. Is the caviar black, the cheese moldy and the wine old?”
“What’s with the attitude? I thought you’d be glad I was living the dream.”
“What’s with you and ‘The Dream’? What’s so great about France anyway? Can’t you live the dream somewhere closer to Germany?”
“Look, I’m sorry I left you there alone. I really am. But I can’t come back. That’s why I’m calling. I’ve decided I’m not coming back this time. Will you please tell mum?”
“No! You are not doing this to me. You tell her!”
“I can’t. I have to go. Our train is leaving in an hour.”
“Your train? Where are you going?”
I could tell he was smiling on the other end of the line and I felt a sudden urge to beam myself over there just to punch him in the face.
“Céline has friends who study music there and we’re going to visit them.”
“Alex! This isn’t fair. You can’t leave me stranded here. You drop this on me, expect me to destroy Mom’s hopes of you coming home and then go on like nothing happened. How am I supposed to break the news to her?”
“Then don’t. At least not yet. Come with us. I’ll text you our address.”
“Sorry, have to go. Big hug monkey-face. Bye!”
And just like that he was gone.
When I told my parents I had decided to use my high-school graduation fund to take a small trip to broaden my horizons, my mother took to baking the largest black forest cake I had ever seen. I ate my piece after dinner, tasting every bite with equal amounts of pleasure and relief at the realization this was the last piece of guilt-ridden dessert I would eat for the next month.
My brother was waiting for me at the gate and had brought his little French accessoire with him. She reminded me of the little porcelain dolls I used to wish for when I was little, with her perfect alabaster skin and shiny, black hair. Alex was no longer wearing his beloved sandals or khaki shorts. Instead, he sported a pair of loafers, dark jeans and a fluorescent pink polo shirt. His welcome seemed like a censored, polished version of what it should have been.
“Hey! You came!” he said, opening his arms in an expectant embrace.
I blamed his lack of a more heart-warming welcome on the little midget next to him and her mind-numbing influence. We hugged each other and I held onto him a little longer than usual.
“Little sis, this is my better-half, Céline” he said when we let go, his eyes beaming with what I assumed was pride. I smiled and shook her miniature hand.
“Nice to meet you better-half Céline.” Half is about right. It’s the ‘better’ I‘m not sure of.
I turned to my brother and took his polo shirt in my hand, examining it closely.
“Is this pink?” I asked, daring him to answer. I remembered a conversation we had had some years ago, when Alex advocated the opinion that pink clothes were for men of ambiguous sexual orientation.
“Yeah…” Alex hesitated for a minute, looked briefly at Céline, who smiled at him, and then faced me. “Céline says it brings out the blue in my eyes.”
“Is that what Céline says?”
The little French girl fixed me with her big, brown eyes and didn’t flinch as she explained herself.
“Ouí! After all, Aléx has the confidence needed to wear rose vif!” she declared, ending the sentence in that French accent I supposed Alex found irrrresistable.
“Yes, I do,” Alex said smiling like a buffoon, and approached me to take the luggage from my hands.
“Céline’s friends are waiting for us in a tapas bar in the city. We’ll drop off your suitcase at home and go meet them afterwards. You have to try the bacon-wrapped dates,” he said eyes flashing with excitement, “you’ll love them!”
I followed my brother out into the city as he dragged my bag, without letting go of Céline’s petite hand. As soon as we left the air-conditioned staleness of the airport and stepped out into the street, I felt the sour aftertaste of my introduction to her fade. The streets were filled with people and exuberant noise. I enjoyed the sun’s stroke on my pale white skin and let its warmth fill me with hope for the upcoming days. This vacation was not about letting my newly acquired distaste for anything French antagonize my brother’s latest fling. So what if he had been brainwashed into wearing clothes that attracted bees faster than you could say merde? He was still the same dorky boy who had made me laugh a thousand times with his impersonations of our teachers and had defended me repeatedly from grave danger that took the form of eight-legged insects to wobbly, canteen rice-pudding.
I would enjoy my stay in Spain as if Céline was another one of his friends. Alex and I would have the same fun we used to, before he had decided to become an honorary French man. After all, I was his sister. Nothing could change that.
The tapas bar we went to, had a window display with all sorts of food I had never seen before. I looked at the floor littered with napkins and cigarette butts and asked my brother why nobody cleaned this mess up.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be, little sis. The filthier the place, the more people come here, which means the food is good. It’s a Spanish thing.”
When he translated my question to Céline’s friends they all laughed in amusement, looking at me as if I was a puppy that had peed inside the house. I considered rubbing my tortilla in their faces but it tasted too good. I decided laughing along seemed like the better option, so I delved into the plethora of unknown dishes that tickled my taste buds and revealed exciting and baggage-free culinary worlds.
Alex continued talking in French and I sat there nodding when everyone else nodded, smiling when everyone else smiled and frowning when everyone else frowned. I felt stupid, pretending to understand when I didn’t. Lost in the storm of foreign words flying around, bouncing off me, I wondered if traveling all the way from Germany to be once again secluded by language was worth it. At least at home I wasn’t being laughed at.
I was eating churros at 7 o’clock in the morning, after a night of partying and intense linguistic confusion which clarified itself as soon as I had drunk enough and a cute Spanish guy called Javier appeared. After that, all I needed to make myself clear were my hands. I explained to Javier what “Sturm und Drang” was by leaning towards him and touching his biceps. Javier understood me quite well. He whispered sweet Spanish mumbo-jumbo in my ear and we made out next to a pin-ball machine.
Just as I had tasted the first churro and was losing myself in its chocolatey oblivion, Alex announced that he and Céline were going to tie the knot in Paris as soon as they returned from Spain. I smiled and swallowed, the taste of the chocolate turning sour in my mouth. I asked if we could drink a café con leche alone to talk some more about it. A couple of hours later we were sitting at the Plaza Mayor, eyes wandering about, fingers clenching onto napkins, words hovering above us like invisible flies.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I said finally. “You are going to marry Céline? A girl who thinks pink fiv-whatever highlights your eyes? She can’t speak a word of German, she claims to be a great cook but can’t prepare a decent stew, she thinks porcelain clown figurines are the best way to decorate your living room … for Christ’s sake, she likes Celine Dion! Do I really need to go on?”
Alex just looked at me. When he finally spoke, his voice was barely audible.
“I don’t know where this is coming from, but whatever got into you, you better get over it. This is my life, my girlfriend, my decision. If you don’t get yourself together, I see no reason talking about this… ever again.”
He waited as his words landed on my hung-over head and went on this time sounding a little more calm.
“I know you think my behavior is crazy and superficial. I know you want me to come home, but face it, little sis: I can’t stay at home waiting for my life to begin. I’m twenty-three years old. I want to start my own life and that is with Céline. With her I feel… good. So the sooner you accept that, the better for all of us.”
I didn’t look at him. The square was beginning to come to life with every passing minute. Waiters were taking the first orders of the day, old men sat at their usual spots, children passed us by, shouting and laughing on their way to school.
My eyes burned as Alex’s words sank in. I put my sunglasses on, grateful for the early sunlight. The longer I went without talking the more Alex seemed to regret his initial outburst. He nudged me and said, “Who knows? If you really get to know Céline you might even become good friends.”
I smiled, trying to force the thought of him never coming home again away from my mind. How he was now more part of Céline’s life than our family’s, how I would never spend an entire night talking to him about the boyfriend I didn’t have over beers and jokes about mom and dad. So this is what people meant when they said it was “the end of an era”.
A couple of days later Alex, my sister-in-law-to-be and I, walked around the city admiring the architecture, while staying off topics that included the words “marriage”, “clown figurines” and “Céline Dion”. I tried to smile as often as possible. After the third time my face hurt, so I stopped.
In the evening we went home to enjoy a night of doing nothing, watching films and licking our still open wounds from the Churro Day. When we arrived home, Céline asked me if I could help her in the kitchen. She had already started peeling the potatoes and there were all kinds of vegetables waiting to be washed and diced for our stew. We stood next to each other preparing the food when Céline spoke.
“Do you like cookín’ in your family?”
I frowned at her and wondered what was going through that petite skull.
“Alex never bozers wiz what we eat. But sometimez, I come ‘ome and he ‘az preepared a three-course meal and we seat and eat in silenze, like we are in church. I wonder about zat sometimes.”
I smiled and thought about my answer and how much of our disturbed little universe I wanted to give away. I was glad there was still a part of our family that Alex carried with him even in a galaxy far, far away from provincial Büsnau. Even though that very part was probably the reason he had fled the nest in the first place. Did that make me a bad sister?
What made him cook these extravagant meals? What thoughts crossed his mind when he roasted the meat and washed the salad? Did he reminisce about Mom’s mashed potatoes, dad’s not-so-funny jokes, or my dancing to the Beatles in front of my full body mirror? Maybe marrying Céline didn’t necessarily mean losing him to the mysteries and complicated ways of French cuisine.
“It’s just something he likes to do every now and then,” I said.
Céline seemed satisfied with my explanation. And just like that, I felt light again as we stood side by side, preparing our meal in shared silence.