Nonfiction by Hannah Miet

Throw the Dirt, Brother

I remember my first alcoholic thought. I was 12-years-old in a limousine on the way to my grandmother's funeral. There was no soda on board, so my autistic brother was screaming and attempting to open the car doors on the highway. But there were all of these bottles of champagne, just sitting there in buckets.

My father wrapped his arms around Gabe, holding him still with a bear hug. His eyes showed no release of tears, but his brow was furrowed and his forehead wrinkled the way it did when he read The New York Times. I tried to imagine what it would feel like if both of my parents were dead. 

"This is not the time for soda," my mother said. Gabe continued to scream.

I figured that no one was opening the bottles because they were not included in the price of the limo ride. My father believed that frugality was a virtue, but it seemed like the kind of virtue that made you feel sad more than it made you feel virtuous. I knew that people were not supposed to get drunk at funerals, or before certain hours of the day. But this was life and we were living it, regardless of the timing. Living every goddamn second of it, stuck together in a limousine.

Gabe’s flailing arms escaped my father’s grasp, hitting him square in the jaw. My aunt began crying tears that were loud and wet into my uncle’s blazer. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on mourning. You're supposed to try to think about a person after they die, to shut out the rest of the world and think about them.

My grandmother was my favorite relative, the least judgmental human I had ever encountered. She had an uncanny ability to tickle me, like her fingers were made just for tickling and for playing the piano, which she did very well even after she lost her memory. She used to sing "The Itsy-bitsy Spider" and her hand would be the spider, crawling up my arm. I would stand still for as long as I could take it, but when the tickle got too intense I would scream and run away.

***

When I ran away from the suburbs, the daily phone calls began. I moved into a railroad apartment in Spanish Harlem with a lesbian film student who had advertised the space as “420 friendly” in her Craigslist ad.  I changed my ring tone, semi-ironically, to “Maria, Maria” on move in day, a song I was then regaled with whenever Gabe bought a new rap album or Tommy Hilfiger hoodie and wanted to share the news. He would call me when he had a crush on a teacher, a social worker, a waitress, or his therapist. He would call me when he thought that the same people he had crushes on were trying to kill him by force feeding him Swedish Fish or collaborating with the terrorist organizations that had him on their hit list. He would call me three times a day, at minimum, and I soon became the fact-checker for his myriad paranoia.

I had moved to the city with intention to become a “serious” journalist. I had purchased a voice recorder, a digital camera, a two thousand dollar laptop and every book that Norman Mailer ever wrote. I put it all on a credit card I couldn’t pay off and sat on my stoop with a 40, taking notes on the people that walked by. But on the phone with Gabe, I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t a street reporter. I was a journalist in my own life.

Hannah Miet: So we’ve never spoken directly about the fact that you were recently dual diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and Schizo-affective Disorder. I’ve wanted to know how you feel about that. What do those things mean to you?

Gabe: I have trouble looking people in the eyes and understanding if a person is interested in what I’m saying. I also talk over people and cut them off, but that’s all that there is to my Autism. It’s minor.

Every second of my life I have what I call “mind creations,” where I believe a fantasy about something that didn’t happen. Sometimes it has to do with something I’m excited about and sometimes it’s something I’m upset about. I’m always very afraid when I think about them.

Sometimes, my mind creations mix with things that are true because I was loaded on medication at the time of the memory. For example, lately I have a mind creation that, when I was about 15, our babysitter Deanie Mezulla gave me the death sentence, and in the last weeks of my life she let me experience her body naked. Deanie Mezulla would drive me in her sports car totally naked.

Hannah: How did you determine that this was a “mind creation?”

Gabe: The fact that the story was just so long and weird. I was on so much medication that it felt real, but the truth is, if I were to get the death sentence, it would be from someone tougher than Deanie Mezulla. Deanie Mezulla also would have gotten arrested for driving me around naked.

Hannah: Probably. What is a death sentence?

Gabe: Sometimes minors who do illegal things, things that I was doing at that time, like being manic and pointing knives at family members, get saved from going to prison by getting the death sentence. I think I was given the death sentence then, but my body was too strong for the medication, so it didn’t rot my body like it was supposed to. I lived, but I also died.

Hannah: Once you identify that you’re worrying about something that’s not real, how do you stop?

Gabe: I don’t even know how to describe this. It’s like saying “I don’t want to do my chores because I want the aliens in space to do my chores.” I try to stop obsessing over mind creations because they prevent my body from growing into a man’s body. Your body develops depending on what goes on in your brain. If you don’t stop thinking about mind creations, you won’t become a man.

Hannah: My next question is about a time in high school when my boyfriend broke up with me. I was sad for a while, but then we got back together. Soon after, you threw food at my boyfriend’s face. I think I acted mad at you. But I wonder, in retrospect, if you were trying to defend me. Do you remember this at all?

Gabe: We were at Andrea’s Sweet 16 party. You and Sam Bronstein broke up because he had a sexual affair with some other girl. At the party, Sam Bronstein kept saying “leave us alone, we’re talking.” That pissed me off, so I threw snack mix at him.

That year was a really weird year for us, because I was on a lot of medication and you were both suicidal and homicidal.

Hannah: I was suicidal? I was homicidal?

Gabe: Yeah, you were extremely suicidal. You were into grunge bands like Nirvana.

Hannah: So because I listened to Nirvana you thought that I wanted to kill myself, and also other people?

Gabe: Yeah. Well, you were homicidal meaning you wanted the world to die. You wanted the world to go away.

Hannah: And now?

Gabe: I think you’re much better now.

***

The cemetery was massive. Rows of dead people stretched for miles and miles, but there was only one bathroom. Gabe and I stood in line, watching the mourners fasten their yarmulkes with bobby pins. We were raised to be strict Atheists, but when someone died we had to be Jews.

"How do you think the old people without hair keep their yarmulkes on?" I asked.

"I think they use invisible bobby pins," Gabe said. "This isn't fair. I want soda."

"I think they just have to balance their yarmulkes on their bald spots. I want a beer." 

A man we were possibly related to with a long, graying ponytail wore his own custom-made yarmulke. It was embroidered with the colors of the Jamaican flag. He knelt down to us with a sad smile.

"I'm sorry about your loss," Gabe said.

***

Gabe’s boarding school is closing. The state cut the funds for his program. I know this now, but Gabe doesn’t know this yet. He just called to talk about a girl he likes. He assumes I know this girl by name, because he thinks I know every person on Earth by name. 

The girl Gabe likes works at a grocery store in our hometown. He wants to invite her over for dinner, but the problem is that if he asks her, he might die.

This is because God is in the supermarket.

Gabe said that the supermarket has the power to shorten our lives if we fuck with it. An example of “fucking with it” is doing something cruel, like asking an attractive supermarket employee over for dinner. He said that it is especially cruel to invite a girl over to our parent’s house, since we have such a sad family.

I asked Gabe how the supermarket goes about killing people. He said the supermarket usually gives people two months to live so they can say goodbye to their families. Then the supermarket employees chop the person who did the cruel thing into tiny pieces in the supermarket bathroom, or otherwise they just shoot the person with a gun.

He said that all people die this way, unless they die of cancer or from being old.

“So why is God in the supermarket, out of all places God could be?”

“A lot of Catholic people buy groceries at the supermarket. Catholic people believe that people should die when they do cruel things like invite girls to meet their sad families.”

“Why do you think our family is sad?”

“Hey, Hannah, did you listen to Lil Wayne’s Rebirth? Did you know he’s in prison now?”

“Yeah. I think he got put away for how awful that album is. Why do we have a sad family?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sad. It’s you and my mom and my dad that are sad.”

“Your mom and your dad are my mom and my dad too, you know.”

“I know."

"Why are we sad?"

"I think it’s because a lot of people have died and you're sad about that. You get sad about things that I don’t get sad about. If my mom or my dad died, I would be devastated. But if anyone else dies, there are other things. There are other things in life.”

“What about if I died?”

“Oh, I forgot about you. Well, if you died, I’d commit suicide.”

“Gabe, don’t say—“

“Hey, Hannah, did you listen to Ludacris’ new album, Battle of the Sexes?”

“Not yet.”

“Want to hear it?”

“Sure,”

“I can put the phone up to my boombox.”

“Go for it.”

***

It seemed appropriate to cry while the rabbi was speaking in Hebrew. I didn't understand the words, but his voice was deep and his speech sounded sad. My father and my mother were holding hands, occasionally breaking to wipe their tears. My aunt's head never left my uncle's blazer. Gabe was getting antsy, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He hit me in the ankle with his swinging guitar case. He didn’t know how to play guitar.

"If you stay quiet until the rabbi is finished, you can go first," my mother whispered in his ear.

It seemed appropriate to cry when we were instructed to shovel dirt onto my grandmother's coffin in the ground. The custom was awkward, felt awkward. We each performed it awkwardly. My uncle escorted my aunt to the shoveling, and as she dropped the dirt onto my grandmother, she groaned in a manner that reminded me of widows wailing by the sea in old movies. My mother stood too far away and undershot, missing the hole in the ground, and had to re-shovel. My father looked distressed and pensive. He shoveled for just a few seconds too long and watched the dirt fall slowly, as if in a trance. I tripped over Gabe’s guitar case on my way up to the shovel and the speech I had written about my grandmother fell into the actual hole she was lying in. There were several audible gasps of horror as I made my way back to my family. Gabe showed us all up. He shoveled without difficulty.

It seemed appropriate to cry when the Rabbi announced, in English, that the immediate family would now come up to say a few words about the deceased. He added an extra syllable to the word, so it sounded like “deceaseduh.” Deceaseduh. The Desceaseduh. Some words to honor the deceased, duh.

"I'm first!" Gabe yelled out, taking the place of the Rabbi as if stealing an invisible microphone. He removed his toy guitar from its case. One string was missing and the rest were tragically out of tune. Gabe began strumming. Several of the unidentified relatives began stirring, unsure of how they were supposed to react to the cacophony. The man in the Jamaican yarmulke covered his ears.  "I'm going to sing a song called 'Love Me Tender, ' " Gabe said.

I leaned in close to my father, looping my arm into his. "Was “Love Me Tender” a song that your mother particularly liked?" I whispered.

"No, but it's a song that Gabe particularly likes," he said.

***

“Hey, Hannah,” Gabe said, as soon as I picked up the receiver. “I know this is weird, but I’ve been having a lot of mind creations about your best friend, Mya Sullivan.”

“You tend to have mind creations about girls you like,” I said.

“Is it true that Mya Sullivan runs a secret organization that steals kids from their parents and puts them into rough group homes?”

“No,” I said. “That would be false.”

“Oh. I thought that when you lived with your best friend Mya Sullivan, her room had a secret portal to hospitals and group homes and she stole kids with bad behaviors and put them through the portal.”

“I hung out in her room a lot. There was no portal. Mya worked as a secretary to a gynecologist.”

“Oh.”

“Mya doesn’t even live in New York anymore. I don’t know where she lives now. She won’t talk to me.”

“Oh.”

“What happened was that she wrote a Facebook status update that said that she and her boyfriend were visiting Africa to explore their ‘third worldliness.’”

“What?”

“I wrote a response to the status that said ‘a million starving children just died as you typed the phrase third worldliness.’”

“What?”

“And then she unfriended me on Facebook.”

“Oh. Hey, Hannah--”

“I know that you liked her. I really liked her too.”

“It’s ok. I understand.”

“I don’t think I understand. There are a lot of things I can’t process. Things that are so absurd, I don’t even know if I feel sad about them.”

“Hey, Hannah, do you know the rapper Young Jeezy?”

“Yeah, but I don’t like him. Do you ever talk to your friends at school about your mind creations?”

“No, they wouldn’t understand.”

***

 Love me tender. Love me sweet. Ne-ver let me go.

Gabe was singing off key, but there was a softness in his voice that stood in contrast to the clamor of the strings. My mother grabbed my arm, the one that wasn’t holding my father’s. I rested my head on her shoulder.

You have made my life complete. And I love you so.

“This song is about a lover, mom. This is so weird,” I whispered.

“He means well,” she said.

Love me tender. Love me true. All my dreams fulfilled.

Gabe’s voice strained at the high note, his eyes blinking out the sun. I’d always imagined funerals in thunderstorms, the rain cascading off umbrellas in cinematic glory. Funerals were supposed to be metaphoric and systematic; contained expressions of grief. You weren’t supposed to drink champagne in the morning, no matter how much you wanted to. You were not supposed to sing Elvis songs, or play guitars you don’t know how to play. There were rules. There were supposed to be rules.

For, my darling, I love you.

My eyes flickered across the crowd, gauging their reactions, but the scene felt frozen, already retrospective. A crowd full of mannequins staring at my brother, the only one still breathing.

And I always will.

The room where my grandfather smoked his pipe was a playroom when Gabe and I visited. There was always something undiscovered, a dusty book of fairy tales, or a stuffed dog in a box that bore the logo of an animal rights organization. While my grandmother cooked us dinner and my grandfather read the paper, Gabe and I took refuge in the smell of wood and decade old smoke. I sat him on my lap and read him books where frogs or bunny rabbits could speak like humans do. The books had happy endings, and taught important lessons about life. There were beginnings and middles and ends, and at the ends, the characters were happy.

 “He means well,” my father repeated. And just like that, I began to cry.

 

Hannah Miet is a Brooklyn-born journalist living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, Pank Magazine, and the Rumpus.