Life, Unscripted

There are only 48 days left until my (and Michael's) twenty-fourth birthday. I just thought I'd share that.

Sini says it's egotistical to be so preoccupied with my own birthday, but I think it's pretty significant that I'm almost twenty-four years old. The way my parents tell it, the doctors all expected that I wouldn't live twenty-four hours, much less twenty-four years. I think my birthday is worth celebrating, don't you?

I want a huge party to celebrate. Beau and Dylan liked the idea when I told them about it and they both agreed to help organize it. Sini said she'd help too, but I'm not sure she's really into it and I think she's just humouring me.

It's not that Sini doesn't like parties. She's a social creature and she's normally in her element when there's a crowd, but lately she hasn't wanted to be around too many people. These days she seems to prefer staying inside and whenever I suggest going out and doing something, she wants us to do something at home instead. Sometimes she follows me around the house as if she can't bear to let me out of her sight, and she's constantly wanting to hold my hand or snuggle or just touch me in some way.

Sini and I are both tactile people, and I'm definitely not complaining about being touched by my wife, but it's really unusual for her to be this clingy. Dylan, our resident psychologist-in-training, says I shouldn't worry about it, that she's probably just feeling insecure and self-conscious and that she wants to be reassured that I still love her and think she's beautiful. I can't imagine why she should be insecure about that. Even if I didn't say it to her nearly every day, Sini knows how much I love her. If I told her how beautiful I think she is and I didn't really mean it, she'd know that too.

My father the veterinarian says the way Sini is acting sounds like nesting behaviour to him. That explanation seemed objectionable when I first heard it. I mean, Sini is a person, after all. in retrospect, though, when I think about Sini's neediness and her desire to stay close to home - not to mention her new found obsession with good housekeeping - Dad's theory probably makes more sense than Dylan's.

In any case, I think it's a safe bet that the only person who actually understands what Sini is going through is Sini herself. Far be it from a human psychology student and a human veterinarian to determine the ways of Erisan females. At the best of times, most of us guys can't figure out what's really going on with women from our own planet, never mind trying to get inside the head of an alien woman, and a pregnant one at that.

Anyway, whatever Sini's feelings happen to be, at least she's not trying to kill my enthusiasm. When I suggested the party idea to Michael, he said it was stupid and that there's nothing spectacular about turning twenty-four.

We were on our way back from the pharmacy last Thursday afternoon when the subject of parties came up. Michael's friend Josh, the one whose apartment he's been staying at periodically during the past few weeks, is apparently throwing a big Halloween bash. While I was picking up my prescriptions, Michael had been looking around for some kind of candy to bring to his friend's event. It was raining when we came out of the store so we decided to take the bus home, and while we were sitting on the bench in the bus shelter he showed me what he'd bought. That's when I mentioned the idea of doing something for our birthday in December.

"I don't know. It's sort of a lame idea," he said. "Turning twenty-four isn't a big enough deal to throw a party for."

"Maybe not for you," I said. "Maybe you take life for granted, but pretty much every day I'm alive is a reason to celebrate as far as I'm concerned."

"There's something seriously wrong with you, Tyler," Michael said.

"What are you talking about?"

"Nobody's really this happy-go-lucky all the time. Nobody sane, anyway. I mean, do you ever listen to yourself? It's like nothing ever bothers you and life is just this big amazing adventure that you're on."

"Life is an amazing adventure," I said.

"You actually believe that, don't you?"

"Sure, why not? Stuff bothers me and I get upset and stressed out just like everybody else, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop enjoying being alive."

"Because dealing with school and work, screaming kids and a nagging wife and way too much debt is just so enjoyable."

"My wife doesn't nag," I said. "Anyway, It's about more than kids and jobs and money. I can think of ten reasons to enjoy my life every day before I even get out of bed."

"Lucky you," Michael said.

Yeah lucky me, I thought, and couldn't help smiling. You know, it's really true. There's so much to be thankful and happy about that I'm certain I really can think of ten things before my feet ever touch the floor. Sure, they may be simple things, like the sound of birds outside the window or the warmth of Sini's body tucked against mine, but no one ever said small pleasures can't be important. Recognizing and appreciating all the little good things makes the big bad things easier to cope with somehow.

"You're just as lucky as me," I said to my brother. "Your problem is that you don't see it."

Something in my expression must've pissed him off because he demanded. "Why are you grinning? Are you making fun of me?"

"No," I said. "Why would you think that?"

"I'm not as lucky as you. I'm not living your fairytale existence."

Unless you count the fact that I'm married to a woman from another planet, there's nothing remotely fairytale-ish about my existence. My coil is just as mortal as the next guy's. I've got astronomical debt, a young family to take care of, more health issues than a person three times my age, and the constant challenge of being a blind man in a sighted man's world. All that'd make for a pretty horrible fairytale, if you ask me.

Of course, I didn't say any of this to Michael. What I said was, "You know, you'd be a lot happier if you learned to appreciate what you've got."

"What I've got is a lot of problems I don't need."

"What you've got are three great kids and an amazing wife," I told him. "You've got a job, friends, plenty of food to eat and a safe place to sleep at night." After a moment's pause I added, "And you've got a brother who loves you like crazy in spite of the fact that you're a total jerk sometimes."

That pronouncement was met with utter silence from my twin. I listened to the rain drumming on the roof of the shelter and the swish of vehicles passing along the wet pavement while I waited for Michael to say something. He was quiet for so long that I thought our conversation was over and that I'd have only my own thoughts to keep me occupied until we got home.

After what felt like several minutes, I heard him draw in a deep breath. He said, "Tyler, I have to tell you something."

"Okay," I said.

There was another seemingly endless pause and then, very softly, he told me, "I need to have eye surgery."

"What?" I was startled by the unexpectedness of the statement.

"Eye surgery," he repeated.

"What for?"

"Remember, I went to the ophthalmologist a couple weeks ago? It was the Friday before Thanksgiving."

"Yeah," I said.

Mostly what I remembered about Michael's appointment with the eye doctor is how much he complained about it. I really didn't blame him, to tell the truth. Thankfully, I'm spared the particular torment of having my eyes examined twice a year, but I've still got the gastroenterologist, endocrinologist and my primary care physician to contend with, not to mention a twice-yearly visit to the dentist that I'd rather not have to think about. Nobody likes to be poked and prodded by some guy with cold hands and an even colder disposition, especially when the outcome of the aforesaid prodding might be bad news. if Michael's ophthalmologist is anything like my gastroenterologist, he'd probably delivered his diagnosis as dispassionately as someone reading aloud from the weather page in the newspaper.

I have to say, I'm a little intimidated by my current gastroenterologist. Okay, maybe more than a little intimidated. I was so anxious on the day of my last appointment with him back in June that every time I thought about stepping into his office, I alternated between feeling like I was going to cry or that I was going to throw up. Very manly, right? I don't know how Michael feels about his eye doctor, but if it's even half that bad, he deserves sympathy.

"The doctor says the medication isn't working well enough," Michael said.

For a moment, I wondered if I'd missed some vital part of our conversation. I said, "What medication? I didn't even know you were on medication for anything."

"I guess I forgot to mention it."

"That's a big thing to forget," I said.

"It's for glaucoma," he said. "Remember last year when I had all that blurred vision and everything, and I thought I needed new contacts?"

"I thought you got new contact lenses."

"I did, but the doctor said she wanted me to have some tests. After that, that's when she told me that I have this...disease."

"Glaucoma." I tried to recall what I knew about it, but the only thing that really came to mind was that our paternal grandfather has it. Grandpa Jim's eyesight has gotten so bad that he can't read his books any more. Last time I saw him, he joked that he'd soon have to learn how to use a cane like me. I said, "I thought only old people got that."

"Apparently not."

"People go blind from it, right?"

"Sometimes," Michael said. "If they don't get treated for it, or if the doctors can't get it under control."

"Could you go blind from it?"

"I don't know."

I sat there biting my lip and trying to wrap my brain around the whole thing. It was a lot to take in, the fact that my brother had just informed me out the blue that he not only has something wrong with his eyes but that he needs an operation to treat it. I don't think Michael's revelation to me sunk all the way in, because instead of expressing empathy or shock or any of the other emotions that were swirling around inside me, I opened my mouth and said the dumbest thing ever. "It's not as bad as people think, you know. Being blind, I mean."

It was like time just stopped after that. Neither of us moved or spoke or did anything at all except breathe, and I felt like I was barely even doing that. Almost immediately the words were out of my mouth, I regretted what I'd said. Of course, there was no way to retract them.

When the universe suddenly resumed its normal forward motion, it was to the jarring sound of my brother striking the Plexiglas wall of the bus shelter so hard that it rattled. He said, "I should've known it'd be a bad idea to tell you about this."

"Michael, I didn't mean-"

"I'm going home," Michael said. I heard the rustling of his plastic shopping bag as he got up from the bench, and then I heard his footsteps retreating at a brisk pace.

I wasted a couple of seconds trying to decide what I should do. Concluding that I couldn't just leave things the way they were, I jumped up and started after him, shouting, "Michael! Wait!"

I don't know what possessed me, but it was only after several strides that I realized I was running. My first reaction was, I have absolutely no idea where I'm going or what's in front of me. Then, I decided I didn't really care, and concentrated solely on moving in a straight line.

And then I tripped on something.

I don't know if I caught my foot in a crack, or if I slipped on the wet pavement, or if there'd been some kind of small object in my path. All I know is that in one moment I was propelling myself along the sidewalk at a ridiculous rate and in the next moment I was skidding face first along the damp, dirty concrete. Fortunately, some instinct made me stretch my arms out so that my face didn't actually strike anything. I took most of my weight on my hands and arms.

"Ow! Dammit!" For a few seconds I lay there with the rain and cold seeping through my clothes to my skin. I couldn't hear Michael's footsteps any more or, more specifically, I could hear a number of people but couldn't tell which one of them was my brother. No one stopped to help me. I suffered a horrible moment of panic then, because it was just like one of my recurring nightmares; the one where I'm lost and alone and shouting for help to no avail. Calm down, I told myself, but it didn't work. I inhaled what I intended to be a steadying breath but which turned out to be the air I needed to yell at the top of my voice, "Michael!"

He was there in no time, and he helped me to my feet. "You idiot," he said, but there was no mocking or malice in his tone. "What did you think you were you doing?"

"Trying to catch up with you," I said, chagrined when I heard a tremble in my own voice. "I'm sorry. I just-"

"Just decided it'd be a good idea to run down the street without your cane?"

"What? I wasn't-" I began, but shut up when it occurred to me that Michael was right. I hadn't been using it and, in fact, I didn't even know where it was. That realization made me start to panic all over again because I couldn't even remember whether or not I'd been holding it when I left the bus shelter. It didn't make sense that I'd leave the shelter without at least carrying my cane with me, even if I wasn't actually using it. Maybe I had done, though. I drew a complete blank when I tried to reconstruct my memory of what happened in the moments leading up to my spectacular crash-landing.

"It's all right. I see where you left it," Michael said. "I'll get it for you. Don't move."

"Thanks."

I did as he directed, staying rooted to the spot until he returned. He pressed my cane into my waiting hand, and I winced when it made contact with my palm.

"What is it?" he said in a tone of concern that I hadn't heard from him in a very long time. "Are you hurt?"

"I scraped my hands."

"Let's see," he said. I surrendered my cane to him again, and then he took hold of my wrist and turned my hand over so that he could inspect it. "Yeah, that looks like road rash. Is the other one like that, too?"

"I think so."

"Seriously, that was a dumbass stunt you pulled. What if you fell into the street?"

"I'm sorry."

"You said that."

"No, I mean for that thing I said about being blind. It was stupid."

"Forget it, okay? Let's just go home."

"Okay," I said, but I knew I wasn't going to be able to forget it.

Michael let me take his arm, and we headed for home. For the first couple of blocks we didn't say anything to each other, and I was fine with that. It gave me a chance to try to assimilate all that had just transpired between us. I was dumbstruck by the idea that Michael had hidden not only his diagnosis but also the fact that he's been taking medication for nearly a year. I suppose it'd be relatively simple to keep a secret like that from most of the people in the house, but for the life of me I couldn't imagine why he'd want to. I wondered if Rommie knew about it, or if I was the only important person in his life he'd been keeping it from.

Despite his admonition to forget it, Michael was evidently unable to stop thinking about what we'd said. While we were waiting at a corner for the light to change, he picked up the thread of our earlier conversation.

"My surgery is going to be in December," he said.

"What day?"

"December tenth."

"Oh," I said. "That's the reason why you don't want to do something for our birthday, isn't it?"

"Sort of, I guess," Michael said. "What if it goes all wrong?"

"The doctors know what they're doing," I said.

"They made me sign a consent form because of the risks. It's laser surgery, you know."

"Cool," I said. "Lasers. Anyway, they always make you sign a consent form for medical procedures. I have to sign a consent form every time I go for those god-awful tests Dr. Hendricks likes to torment me with."

"It's different," Michael said. "This isn't a test."

"It's also non-invasive," I said. "Think of that."

"You think Dr. Hendricks enjoys doing those tests on people?"

"Yeah, in the same way jailers in the Middle Ages liked to torture prisoners, probably," I said.

"That's creepy," Michael said. 'God...what kind of twisted personality says to himself, 'I want to be a gastroenterologist when I grow up'?"

"A personality that's only marginally better than the one who says, 'I want to be a pathologist when I grow up'. At least Dr. Hendricks works on live patients, even though there are some moments when we might wish we were dead."

To my surprise, Michael laughed. I did too. People passing us must've thought we were completely insane, two grown men standing in the rain in the middle of the sidewalk, laughing so hard that we were gasping for breath. It was a very weird and surreal moment. I have no idea why we were laughing so hard, because nothing either of us had said was really all that funny. Maybe it was just our way of breaking the tension between us.

Eventually, we regained our composure and resumed our walk home. By the time we reached our house, I was shivering and my hands were stinging where I'd scraped them. I was grateful to get inside, out of the wind and the lashing rain.

Sini and Rommie were there to meet us in the porch, so I guess one or both of them had been watching for us. Sini made a huge fuss about the state of my hands and about how wet and muddy I was. As soon as I had my sneakers off, she hustled me upstairs to the bathroom where she proceeded to run a hot bath for me.

I let her undress me and help me into the water. I even let her wash me because she seemed to think I required help with that, and I didn't want to give her the impression that I didn't need her. Somehow, during the course of her ministrations, Sini ended up in the tub with me. I don't think our bathtub was really made to accommodate two adults, but it's large enough that, given the right configuration of bodies, we can both fit without being uncomfortable.

Sini likes it when we bathe together. Communal bathing is the norm on her world, a fact which I wasn't particularly surprised to learn. Erisan family groups frequently bathe together in large tubs that sound a lot like backyard swimming pools, the way Sini describes them, except that they have running hot and cold water. Evidently, Erisan cities have public bathing places too, so if you want to see your friends and catch up on the neighbourhood gossip while you wash, you can go there instead of using the family pool. I can't imagine how awkward it would be to bathe with a family member other than Sini, much less with my neighbours. Sini, on the other hand, finds it strange that Earth people generally prefer to bathe alone.

When I was done in the bath, Sini tended to my hands. She put some kind of cream on them and stuck a big Band-Aid over the worst scrape on my right palm. I'd managed to skin my right knee as well and that minor injury received some salve and a Band-Aid too. I doubted that I really needed to be bandaged, but I let Sini go for it anyway.

She started crying as she was working on my knee. When I asked her what was the matter, she said miserably, "It is awful! You will have scars on your beautiful skin."

"I'm pretty sure I've already got a bunch of scars on it," I said.

"Yes, but I do not want you to have more!"

"I don't mind them."

"You cannot see them," she said, and added bitterly, "This is all Michael's fault."

"It's not Michael's fault."

"It is!" she said. "He let you get hurt. He should take care of you, but he does not. He is a terrible brother."

"This isn't Michael's fault and he's not a terrible brother. It could have happened any time with anybody."

"Yes, but it did not happen with just anybody. It happened with Michael. It always happens with Michael."

"Sini, sweetheart, listen to me please," I said as gently as I could. "I don't want you to blame Michael for this. I was the one who ran after him, and it was my fault that he ran off in the first place. He's going through a lot right now, and I said something dumb and insensitive. It was all just a big misunderstanding."

Sini sniffled. "You...you are not angry?"

"Of course not," I said.

"Then, I should not be angry, either."

'I think you should try not to be, at least."

She agreed that she'd try to have a good attitude toward my brother, and I said that was the best thing either of us could hope for. I put my clothes on while she dried her eyes and washed her face, and by the time I'd finished dressing she seemed more or less recovered from her emotional outburst.

Now that I was warm and clean and comfortable, I wanted to go downstairs and see what everyone else was doing, but Sini insisted that I should lie down and rest for a while. I'm not sure what she imagined had happened between me and Michael downtown, but it was obvious she thought it'd been far more traumatic than it actually was.

"Sini, I'm fine," I said. "I don't need to take a nap, and I have a reading assignment I've got to finish."

"I will read to you later," she said.

"Fine," I said. "As long as you don't get bored and give up halfway through, like last time."

I could've protested further, but I didn't bother. I allowed her to lead me down the hall to our room and to tuck me into bed. She crawled under the covers with me. I was determined that I wasn't going to fall asleep, but Sini began to sing to me and rub my back in a way that I find extraordinarily relaxing, and I made the fatal error of closing my eyes. One of the last things I heard before I sank into the warm embrace of slumber was Sini whispering in my ear.

"I knew you were tired."

"Hmmm..." was about all I could manage, although in my head it sounded like, Can't get anything past you, can I?

She brushed my cheek with a feathery kiss. "Sleep well."

When I finally resurfaced from my nap, I felt groggy and disoriented. Sini was gone, but I knew there was somebody in the room with me. I sat up in bed and tried to scrub the grit out of my eyes. I wondered how long I'd been asleep.

"Who's here?" I said. "Pax?"

"It's me," said my brother.

Judging by the direction his voice was coming from, he was kneeling or sitting on the floor. That meant he'd been here for more than a few minutes.

I said, "Michael, what are you doing in here?"

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine," I said. "There was nothing wrong with me to begin with."

"Sini and Andromeda both gave me hell for letting you get hurt."

"I'm not hurt. A few scrapes are nothing."

The way Sini was talking-"

"Sini overreacted," I said. "She kind of lost it when she saw my hands and knee. I tried to tell her what really happened, but it's hard to reason with her when she's upset like that. Anyway, she made me lie down and she did that thing she does to make me fall asleep."

"You slept through dinner," Michael said. "I brought you something to eat."

"Great," I said. I got out of bed and slid down to sit beside my brother on the rug. "So, you want to tell me what you're really doing in here?"

"I kind of wanted to finish our conversation." He touched my hand, and then I felt the cool edge of a glass plate against my fingers. I took it from him, and he said, "Ham and cheese. I hope that's okay. And there's some chips too, and there's a glass of milk and some cookies here when you're ready."

"Room service," I said. "Awesome."

"Sini gave me a hard time about the chips, and she kept trying to tell me how to fix your sandwich, as if I didn't know."

I smiled. "You made me a sandwich? You personally?"

"Yeah. So what?"

"When was the last time you did anything in the kitchen?"

"Shut up and eat your sandwich," Michael said.

I set the plate on the floor beside me and picked up half of the sandwich. With the first bite, I realized how hungry I was. It was good; ham and cream cheese with thin slices of cucumber and tomato, and no condiments, just the way I like. The chips were the ripple kind. I ate a few before I asked, "What was Sini's problem with the chips?"

"She said the last time you ate potato chips, you got sick."

"The last time I had potato chips, I ate them with pizza, chicken wings, chocolate cake and beer. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the chips that made me sick."

Michael laughed. "Josh's birthday."

"Yeah, Josh's birthday." Nothing further needed to be said about that misadventure. I finished the first half of my sandwich and then held out my hand for the glass of milk. Michael knew what I wanted without my having to ask. He handed the glass to me. I said, "So, you were saying something about our conversation from earlier? I didn't realize we weren't done."

"There was something I wanted to ask you."

"What was it?" I tasted the milk and discovered that it was room temperature. Michael really had been sitting here for quite a while. I opted to drink the milk anyway and not say anything about it being lukewarm.

"It's about my surgery," he said. "It's day surgery and they let you leave the hospital a couple of hours after they do it, but you've got to have somebody with you to make sure you get home safely and everything."

"I know all about day surgery," I said.

"Yeah, I guess you would. Anyway, I wanted to ask if you'll come with me when I get this thing done."

"Of course I will."

"I already checked with Josh, and he said we can crash at his place."

"Hang on. You don't want to come home afterwards?"

"No," Michael said.

"Why?"

"It's complicated."

That was a cop-out if ever I heard one. I wondered briefly why Michael was being so evasive, but then the answer occurred to me suddenly. "Rommie doesn't know about your surgery, does she?"

"No."

"She doesn't know about any of it. Your diagnosis, the medication or anything."

"No, she doesn't know, and I'd kind of like to keep it that way."

"Why?"

"Because I don't want her to turn the whole thing into a big dramatic production."

"Rommie wouldn't be dramatic about it," I said. "Besides, wouldn't you rather have her taking care of you after your surgery? Me and Josh are going to be poor substitutes. I mean, if I were in this situation, I think I'd rather have Sini looking after me than you or Dylan or Beau."

"Well, you and Sini have a different kind of relationship. You can actually tell her stuff without her freaking out about it and...I don't know. You guys are better at dealing with stuff than Andromeda and me."

"That takes practice, you know," I said. "Sini and I didn't get that way overnight. And since when did you stop calling Rommie by her nickname?"

"Does it matter?"

"Yeah, it kind of does."

"We're not on the greatest terms right now."

"I figured out that much," I said.

"It's complicated, okay? We've got some pretty different opinions about how the future should look, and I don't know if there's much we can agree on at the moment."

"So, your solution is to do what? Stop speaking to her and more or less move out of the house?"

"She told me to sleep somewhere else," he said.

"I'm pretty sure she didn't mean on the couch at Josh's place."

"She said she didn't care, as long as it wasn't with her."

"Oh," I said, because I couldn't think of a more appropriate response.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Michael said.

I didn't know whether he was talking about his relationship with Rommie, his surgery, or about his life in general. Either way, I didn't have any answers for him. The bottom line is that none of us know what's going to happen. We all wake up in the morning unaware of what's coming. I mean, when my alarm went off last Thursday morning, I had no idea that I was going to take a walk in the rain, skin my hands and find out a bunch of my brother's secrets that day.

I wasn't sure if Michael wanted my advice or not, but I told him the only thing that made sense to me at the time. "I think you and Rommie really need to talk."

"I think we've done all the talking we can. We're through with talking."

"No, you're not. If there are important things about you that she needs to know, you're not finished talking at all."

"Trust me, we're done," Michael said. "I'm not interested in talking any more."

"What about her?"

"If she was interested, we'd be talking whether I wanted to or not."

"Maybe you guys need professional help. You know, marriage counseling or something."

"I don't want to do marriage counseling."

"You can't just give up," I said.

Michael sighed. "Tyler," he said. "I already gave up a long time ago."

There was nothing I could say to him after that. We sat there together for a long time until Michael finally got up and left the room.

The situation has been eating away at me ever since. I've told Sini the whole thing, but she's no better equipped to come up with a solution than I am. Maybe there's nothing Sini and I can do anyway. As much as we want Michael and Rommie to be happy together, they're the only ones who can make that happen. Still, knowing that doesn't make me stop wishing I could do something to fix things.

I guess all we can do is wait and hope everything works out.