The mauve sofa is covered in plastic and it reminds me of my great grandmother, Ma, who covered all her furniture in plastic and used to call me the girl in her thick Italian accent. Ma hovered over the stove in the basement kitchen surrounded by wooden clothes racks with homemade pasta hanging to dry. I liked being called the girl; it made me feel less noticeable.
I had no business sitting in some stranger’s living room in the middle of the night. It was a bit of an adrenaline rush to break into someone’s house and sit in their chairs and on their couches while they were upstairs sleeping. We’d drive around town filling the car with marijuana smoke and doing lines off of the car manual after the bars closed. This was sort of a ritual; the start of a two or three day binge. We drove around the quieter neighborhoods until we found a house with cars parked in the driveway and all the lights off. Most of the houses on Polish hill in Johnson City left their windows ajar or unlocked. These were Endicott Johnson homes, perfectly aligned in rows. These houses were built in the early 1900’s for families who worked in the E-J Shoe Factory. My great grandparents, grandparents, and my mom all worked there, but no one ever talks about sewing the soles onto shoes or tanning the leather. Sometimes my dad will tell me about how he vaguely remembers going to work with Ma when he was a kid; he’d sit by her feet as they worked the pedals on the sewing machines. I think about my dad struggling to put this memory together when we find houses that we let ourselves into. Sometimes the front doors were unlocked and we’d just walk right in and take off our shoes out of respect. The challenge wasn’t breaking into the house; it was sitting in the living room quiet enough not to wake the family. April and I, or one of the others who could keep up, we’d practice being statues for ten or fifteen minutes then leave. After sitting on a stranger’s couch it was likely I’d wake up days later on the other side of town in a rusty claw-foot bathtub gripping a sawed off shotgun wondering if it was dawn or dusk, if I will get fired from my job at O’s pub in Endwell.
Sometimes I’d run into my brother at 3 or 4am in a crack den full of zombies; fiends willing to suck each other’s poisonous blood. We’d leave together and I’d go wherever he took me. I’d wake up under his glass coffee table or under his front porch and sniff coke cut with Viagra. He would catch me rummaging through a pile of his dirty clothes trying to find a little more and he’d kick me out. When I was little I used to sneak into my brother’s room and sleep under his bed, we called this plan B. Plan A was when I stayed in my own room and slept. But, when we executed a plan B, I’d crawl across the blue carpet, past my parents’ bedroom door, and slide myself under the bottom bunk where he hid his magic gum collection.
The last time we run into each other in the middle of the night it’s New Year’s Eve, 1999. I’m alone, running down Main Street and he’s in our parents’ black Volvo, paranoid, driving too slowly. It starts to snow and there is a light layer of white powder on the ground, my chest is naked and my bare feet leave tracks as the snow starts to stick. I somehow land on the windshield of the car and my brother scoops me up and puts me in the back seat, tells me to keep my head down. The next day I am on a bed of ice in someone’s kitchen, my brother nowhere in sight.
I don’t know this happens until I move back to Binghamton in 2010. A guy walks up to me and says, holy shit Nicole, I can’t believe you’re alive. We are in the basement of a church in Johnson City, leaving a twelve-step meeting. A woman had just shared about how she drove her car into the river in a blackout and sunk to the bottom. She said the car must have just rolled over the edge, that she was only a few blocks from home. When she came out of the blackout she was sitting in the driver’s seat and water was gushing in. Her instinct told her to roll down the windows and let the car fill all the way. After the meeting the guy asks me how my brother is and I apologize for having to ask him who he is. I say sorry for not recognizing him and he tells me that his name is Aaron. He tries to jog my memory by telling me that my mother was his dental hygienist when he was a little kid as if my mother would have shared this with me. He tells me about the night he stayed with me when I wouldn’t wake up and how he put my body on ice, that I stopped breathing and turned green. He tells me how he panicked when my brother wouldn’t answer his phone, that he has three weeks clean. When he asks how my brother is doing, I tell him he’s okay instead of telling him that he’s in prison or how he just moved from a high to a low security facility that he calls camp cupcake. I tell Aaron that I have ten years clean and that I don’t want to die. He says me either. We are standing in the parking lot of Sarah Jane church on Main Street in Johnson City and it’s just starting to get dark. It feels like we are standing in a cemetery; my body is stiff and the sky is half and half. I ask him to meet me at another meeting tomorrow morning downtown at the YWCA and he doesn’t show up. When I get to the YWCA the woman at the front desk recognizes me from when I was there teaching the women residents a few days ago. I say hello and walk up the stairs to the meeting, it is in the same room where I teach poetry classes—the walls are covered with art and I stare at a picture of someone’s green handprints decorated and shaped to look like a chicken. I disappear into this picture for a few moments and imagine the chicken jumping off the page, out the window, and running to go find Aaron.