When stars fail

No one ever told me my family would be the best thing to happen to me.

There were five of us, and although the number fluctuated throughout the years, we were like the five points of a star that were invariably and permanently connected. And if we owned one thing and one thing only, it was family: greasy handprints on the stovetop on Thanksgiving, the feel of a shoulder beneath your cheek on the long drive home from Grandmother's funeral, those hairs found in a brush that are distinctly not yours but which you are willing to forgive anyway.

+

Benny was the first one to go. He graduated high school and endured the endless round of cheesy photography that followed, making a mental note to invest in Kodak stock next year. He was the good kid who pulled straight A's and majored in Economics, who blazed through college in three and a half years, interning on Wall Street for the rest of his senior year.

When he came home for the winter holidays, he told jokes that were slightly out of our intellectual range, but chewed his pot roast with satisfaction, pleading for Mom to take a job in the university cafeteria. Things were still normal then; each year he brought the rest of us presents that were slightly more expensive than they were the year before.

He never forgot to compliment Mom's cooking, though each time he seemed to develop another nervous habit - fidgiting with his cuff links, glancing at his Rolex every fifteen minutes, tapping his foot. He started to carry a cellphone, which rang insistently throughout dinner; he excused himself each time with wider and wider smiles, and gave shorter and shorter excuses when he came back to the table.

+

Sara was the moody one; she left suddenly, in the middle of the night, with only a note taped to Mom and Dad's bedroom door. They were visibly shaken the next morning, but only lamented that she didn't keep in contact. She sent letters sporadically and with no return address, and would only say that she had moved to Los Angeles to start a music career. Sure enough, a package arrived ten months later with a demo CD in it. It wasn't labeled and she didn't sound half bad, but my parents frowned nonetheless.

"She doesn't sound healthy."

"Doesn't she even want to know how we're doing?"

Amazingly enough, she showed up for the holidays, bearing an old guitar strapped to her back and not quite concealing a new tattoo. She showed it to Benny and me in her old room with the door shut. There was a single eye peeking out from behind a cloud, shedding a single tear.

"What does it mean?" I asked.

"It's symbolism, kiddo." She ruffled my hair. "You'll learn about it in your English class."

Benny sniffed. "You're going to regret it in ten years."

Sara scowled. "I'll deal with it when the time comes." Then Mom's voice carried through the doorway, calling us to dinner.

She brought me a hemp necklace that she had woven herself; for Benny, a wild psychadelic tie, which elicited the tiniest grin; and for Mom and Dad, the news of her engagement to her bandmate.

She came and went for the next four years, never staying long and always leaving a scent of incense that permeated the pillow covers in her room. For weeks after her usual hasty departure, I would sleep in her bed with my face buried in her 100% natural bedsheets and dream that God was shedding tears from behind clouds.

+

I wasn't analytical like Benny nor artistic like Sara, but I did have a knack for telling the truth. For the next four years I would notice things: the way Benny's voice was reduced to static every time he called from an airport or on a break from a business meeting; how Sara left traces of nicotine on her pillow now, instead of incense; Mom's drooping eyelids; Dad's wrinkles that he dismissed as laugh lines but I knew were not caused by mirth at all; and my own indifference to it all.

I did not leave after high school; I did not have Benny's grades or Sara's inertia. I took classes at a community college, scraping by in maths and sciences but treasuring the writing seminars and poetry tutorials. Benny and Sara did not show up for the holidays, so my parents decided to go see a movie on Christmas eve instead of setting out presents or saturating the kitchen with honeyed steam. I don't remember what I did, but I do have one artifact from that night.

On the back of the Chinese takeout receipt, I had scribbled one line: All in all the ceiling's coming down.

+

I guess even the corners of stars get worn down after too much wear and tear.

No one ever told me my family would be the worst thing to happen to me.