Peter Middendorp – Cousins
Only after buying a beer and a 7-Up and making my way back to Arie do I remember that he’s not supposed to have sugary drinks. The sugar can cause pneumonia if it enters his lungs when he swallows.
On the other hand, there’s such a thing as being too careful, I think as I sit beside him against the back wall and we look out over the deck together—the rows of tables and chairs all unoccupied aside from a few hikers and cyclists. What are we trying to save or preserve here? A tough question to answer, when you look at that wreck in the wheelchair.
There’s nothing wrong with his sucking reflex—as soon as you hold the straw to his lips, he starts drinking. I lay a hand against his cheek, gently, so I don’t startle him. His skin has turned leathery, as if he’s spent the whole past year smoking and standing out in a cold wind. Enjoy your 7-Up. Could be the last one you’ll drink for a while.
I’m not proud of what I’m about to say. About what happened. What it was like for me, what it meant to me, what it did to me when I saw him lying on the sidewalk. It’s a tale of despicable cowardice, which probably won’t make the slightest impression on him, but all the same, I have to tell it. If you want to be with someone, you have to be honest, to share everything with each other, the good and the bad.
It begins on the afternoon that Arie came by to tell me he’d sold the whole operation to Eddie Meta—all the weed, all the tents, and even the use of my room—and that he was planning to study part-time to teach primary school, because he was a father now. His farewell to weed was, in practical terms, a farewell to me.
When it’s always been the two of you, inseparable, and the other goes off in a different direction without you, and you can’t go with him, you start to feel hollow, deeply hollow, a well without water, not the boy in the barrel but the barrel itself, an empty barrel without a hoop.
That’s more or less what must have gone on between our fathers too—as if history were repeating itself in a new form there in my room that afternoon. My father was two years older, like me, and his younger brother was like Arie: the smartest, the most likable, and the fastest. Arie’s father used to explain everything to my father—same as us. He always knew better—same as Arie. His father had a way about him—not just with his hands, not just with his words, but also with other people, with the opposite sex, the promised sex, the Leegstra sisters across the canal, or to be more precise, the younger sister. They didn’t really care for the other one—the beauty had not been divided up equally between them.
My father, being older, had assumed he had the first choice, that it was his by right as the firstborn, a law as ancient as Esau and Jacob, but before his manhood began to emerge from its shell, even before he’d popped all his pubescent pimples, his little brother had already made off with the pretty sister, and he had no choice but to settle for the other one, the one who was not quite as sweet and bubbly, the second choice.
They found a place on our side of the canal, a couple of houses away. On sunny days, my father could see them sitting in their glass sunroom sipping tea, glowing, gloating, and having a grand old time. Never shouting, always happy together. The kind of people who don’t have to worry about the rest of the world because all they need is each other.
We were sitting in my room. We always sat in my room, Arie on the bench and me on the chair at the desk by the window. We were smoking a joint. We were in the habit of smoking joints, we had plenty of the stuff around, bags, boxes, and sacks of it. You could take as much as you wanted, and no one would notice, no one would care.
It was cold and grey, the street was gauzed with drizzle, but he was glowing with health and self-satisfaction, as if he’d just come home from a two-week vacation with Nadia. To him it was no farewell, but a beginning, a smooth segue to a normal life: classes and a couple of days of assistant teaching, his own house, his own household, a fully functional family with a wife and child.
I knew I was losing something, something huge, some big chunk of the ground beneath my feet. A teacher couldn’t come by and hang out every day. A father had to go straight home from work. It felt as if he’d parked our car somewhere along the highway and left me behind there, with traffic thundering by and no one at the wheel.
That’s how it is, buddy, he said, with an unfamiliar look in his eyes, glazed over, almost dreamy. Nothing I can do, but it has kind of given me a new perspective. I really look at things differently now.
That’s what he said. Like it was something he’d bought from the store, something you could order. Have you tried the new perspective? I’ll take a size large, cause I’ve fucking had it with my old perspective.
It must be weird for you, I get that, he said from the bench, still holding the joint as if nothing had changed, as if the life we’d led could go on as it always had, because he was just spouting shit and would come to his senses any minute now. The truth is, it’s all pretty new and weird for me too, he went on. If you’d told me a couple of years ago that one day I’d be saying what I’m saying to you right now, I’d probably have laughed in your face. The thing is, you can’t see it coming, you’re not prepared, you can’t even imagine it, but then you’re a father and that turns everything upside down.
So what’s different, I say, what exactly? Sorry, but you’re being too abstract for me. A new perspective. What was your old perspective, and what’s the new one? What changed, just tell me that? And why did you have to up and sell everything to Eddie Meta?
He looked at me as if I’d asked a dumb question. But he was wrong, it wasn’t dumb, it was normal—a good question, even, an important one. I said, what I mean is, of course it’s great news you’ve got a kid, I wish you two health and happiness and everything, you know I do, but what does that have to do with this? Can’t you just enjoy being a dad without having to sell out to Eddie Meta?
You know… he says, leaning back and staring up at the ceiling, you just kind of realize how stupid the whole thing is. I hate to tell you, but it’s… trivial. When you’re having a kid. Most things, I mean. Money. Weed. Deals. The grow tents, checking on the cuttings and the plants, everything I always used to get so worked up about. The first time I took that child in my arms, I knew right away, all the cannabis stuff is over, it has no place in our new life together.
That child was a girl, Julie. I’d already leaned over her crib and said how beautiful she was, winning an approving smile from her proud mother. But in those early weeks, I kept calling her “the kid” and “that kid,” trying to keep my distance even as she invaded my life. Arie went along with it for a while, probably because to him having a child stood for so much more than his one particular child. Maybe he saw it as some kind of primal cosmic force that snapped your life into two parts, Before and After, which no longer had anything to do with each other. One half was carried onward by the current, while the other half washed up on the beach.
He seemed to consider passing me the joint, but there wasn’t really any left for me. How’s Sandra, by the way? How long have you two been together? A while now, right? Doesn’t she ever talk about children? You think it might be time to settle down? To be frank, she seems like the type for it.
Yeah, I guess she is, I said, surprised, because I didn’t immediately grasp what Sandra’s reproductive urges had to do with our conversation.
Well, there you go, right? That’s how it starts, just you wait. Don’t worry, it’s a natural process, some things just happen. He stubbed out the joint, got up, and rubbed his belly, looking relieved to be leaving his old life behind, with me inside it. I gotta go, he said. I have groceries to do.
The island is in sight, the tattered fringe of dunes and woods rising from the water, with the red lighthouse and the white lighthouse and the harbor stretching out to sea on the long arm of the dike. The ferry needs a little more time to nestle into place before the doors slide open and the passengers can pour out onto the landing, but even so, they gather up their things and head for the exit to spend the final portion of their crossing in a clump by the doors, breathing in each other’s faces.
I did it, Arie, I tell him, grabbing his hand and laying it in my lap, his warm, slick, clammy hand. I’ll tell it like it is. I’m the one who ruined your life, and Nadia’s and Julie’s along with it.
Arie goes on staring straight past me as if nothing has happened, but I’ve said it now, I’ve spit out the words that stuck in my throat for more than a year, the whole time I’ve kept quiet, and often blocked it up completely—there were days when I couldn’t swallow my food and felt like I was choking.
You didn’t know, did you? You had no idea. I wanted to tell you earlier, but I couldn’t, never got the chance. I never had a moment alone with you. Whenever we FaceTimed, someone else had to hold your tablet. Other people don’t need to know what happened, no one needs to know.
We did everything together, you helped me with everything. I know for a fact you didn’t even need to use my room, but you decided to do it for my sake, so that I’d always have money coming my way, because you didn’t think my freelance editing career would ever put food on the table.
Without the supplementary income my life would have been like it has been for the past year. No new clothes, no used Fiat, no nights on the town, no restaurants, no parties—like the party where I met Sandra. Would I have had any shot at her that night without the extra cash? What could I have said to her? Hi, I’m Robert, and these are my only good clothes. I last a week on five kinds of vegetables and a small bag of chicken nuggets from Aldi. Here I am. Want to come home with me?
I give his hand a gentle tug, as if trying to pull him back to reality, to this side. You helped me through my childhood, I tell him, you led the way to the city, you made sure I had enough to get by, and that allowed me to preserve my dignity. And once you’d had enough of our hustle, once you’d got me on my feet, you sent me walking into life, straight into the arms of love and happiness. And then I let you walk out. Then I left you alone like this.
I’d expected a beating. Yes, if I’m honest, and I am honest, that’s what I expected. An old-school whupping like the kind my father used to give me when something got under his skin, the kind you get used to eventually. Maybe I even expected the fists to come down a little harder, heavier, meaner than back then, with less concern about causing visible damage. But to be honest, I don’t quite remember what I was expecting. You forget these things in time, the memories fade.
I was lying in the guest bed in the attic of Arie, Nadia, and Julie’s house. There was a little window through which I could have stuck my head to look down at the street below, but I didn’t, I didn’t have to see what it looked like, I knew it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
Maybe I’d even expected a little more than a beating. Yes, I admit it, I’d expected worse, I must have. After all, I had gone into hiding, slept in their bed—not because I was scared of a bruise or two. I mean, I know how a beating feels, I know what it does to you. It makes you smaller, but there’s always a next day, a next week, a month later you’ve practically stopped thinking about it.
But I hadn’t expected them there. Otherwise I would have gone somewhere else. I don’t think I expected them on that street, expected Arie to take the beating that was meant for me. For days and weeks, all I could think about was what Meta’s men would do to me, what they had in store for me, but I could never have suspected they would take vengeance for so little weed with so much violence.
And on top of all that, he had such an unlucky fall. On a day like that, nothing goes your way, all news is bad news.
It was a little after eight when Arie left the house to go to work. He was teaching third grade that day. I woke with a start when I heard the shots. Or no, I woke up just before that, when the scooters came roaring down the street. Or when the front door banged shut behind him—to be honest, I had one eye open then. When he flushed the toilet. When he went to the toilet. When he brushed his teeth. When he made coffee with that noisy machine of theirs. When he had breakfast, when he took a shower, when his alarm went off, I was already awake, to be honest, honest as a judge. Half-awake, at least. Drifting in and out. Lying low between sleep and waking.
I hadn’t told them a thing. Not a word. Yes, that my father was dead, but they already knew that, they’d been to the cremation. I hadn’t said a thing because I didn’t think I there was any reason to tell them everything, and I didn’t want to burden them. Isn’t it better to let sleeping dogs lie?
I don’t like saying everything. Something happened, or something is going to happen, and then you have to talk about it too, and as if that weren’t bad enough, you tell the whole story. You answer the questions they’re bound to ask if you tell them you’re looking for a hiding place, a safe house, because a couple of psycho criminals are after you. Saying everything about what happened or what’s going to happen has to be bad for your mental health, at least if it’s bad news. It’s like doubling the pain.
But I should have told them something, I should have warned Arie, I should have said, stay inside, you look much too much like me, before you know it they’ll mix up the two of us. I should have said, If you have to go outside, let me go first, there’s a chance of something going wrong. Someone making trouble. Someone getting beaten.
Arie didn’t know that anything could go wrong. He was a body double who didn’t realize he was a body double, a clueless lookalike with a potentially lethal lack of information.
I am a crow. An image offered to me by Nadia. She said it out loud, a conclusion, a judgment, heavy with disgust. As if any human being were all bad. As if there were such a thing, pure badness without any good—no, that can’t exist. People are always a mixture of the two. At most you can say that one predominates.
She said it on the phone. I don’t know who she was calling, I didn’t poke my nose into her business, but I happened to be in the next room and could hear her. That guy is a fucking crow who led the wolves to the victim.
It hit me hard. When I think about it, and I think about it often, it still hits me hard, because she was right, as hard as it is to admit it, to let the full significance sink in: however I may try to dress it up, I am a crow, I led the wolves to the victim.
I didn’t do it on purpose, like the crow in Nadia’s version. We don’t have crows like that around here, I should add, because we hardly have any wolves, and no wolf packs. The crows in Lapland have a deal with the wolves and lead them to sick, dying animals—sometimes even to lost, exhausted hikers on the verge of death. Come on, the crows call from the sky or the trees, follow us, we’ll show the way, we’re hungry too.
At least, I think I didn’t do it on purpose, but after an event like that, it’s hard to untwist your own thoughts and motives back into their original shape, so that you can stand back and study them, evaluate them. It’s not possible, not how the mind works, not how memory works.
But anyway, after the event, it doesn’t matter what your motives were. Who cares if you meant well when you’re guilty as hell?
And I have to admit, in all honesty, that like the crow I am, I gorged on the remains, on the spoils the wolves had left behind for the birds.
Translated by David McKay