Viewed from some distant place above the earth, the cars on the outerbelt were toy-like, shimmering and metallic, seeming to move by some grand, unknowable design, though one particular car – a blue sedan – was on its second pass on the outerbelt, circling surrounding suburbs and waiting for its exit. It was nearing rush hour and traffic was beginning to get heavy. To an alien observer it would appear that humans had donned their metal transport like some extra-protective skin in order to avoid mortal danger while travelling at relatively high speed, which was what they were doing, though it didn’t often succeed: some ten miles ahead there had been a fatal accident and that evening more were to come, though the passengers in the blue sedan had no knowledge of this. It didn’t yet exist in their world, which was, nonetheless, the larger world.
Inside the car, the older brother was driving and talking to the person in the rearview mirror. He said though he no longer had a younger brother, that was completely fine with him. It was a thing he unconditionally accepted. Not even that. Not accept nor tolerate nor understand. Not that at all, the older brother said. The fact that his younger brother was now his younger sister was something that simply was what it was and was a certain sort of change, sure, yes, externally, for her, the now younger sister, but internally it was not a change for him, the older brother, personally, because his younger brother, whether a younger brother or younger sister would always and only be, no matter what, in the older brother’s heart, irrevocably, his younger brother. Er, younger sister, he said. Sibling. You’ll always and only be my younger sibling. I get it, he heard the younger-brother-now-sister say from the backseat.
The older brother kept talking to the younger-brother-now-sister via the rearview mirror, which the older brother’s pregnant wife sitting in the passenger seat was slightly nervous about. But I’m not our parents, the older brother said, glancing in the rearview, his hands on the wheel kind of wrapping and gripping and unwrapping and ungripping the wheel as he drove and spoke. The older brother’s wife occasionally turned around and looked at the younger-brother-now-sister, rolling her eyes at the older brother, her husband. She mock-whispered, He’s freaked out about what your parents are going to think. Not going to think, the older brother said. Already think. Also, I’m not freaked out. No one said freaked out. Worried. Anxious. I’m allowed to be anxious. That’s a thing that’s allowed, isn’t it?
The older brother’s wife was five months pregnant and clearly showing, and the wife and the younger-brother-now-sister were both nodding and telling the older brother that, yes, he was allowed to feel anxiety, yes. A police car passed, sirens dopplering toward then away, blue lights speeding past their car on the outerbelt. The older brother braked and slowed the car as it approached a work zone, the three-lane freeway down to two open lanes. Traffic slowed to forty miles an hour. City workers in orange vests and brown work boots and white hard hats were placing cones on the white dividing lines in order to close off the left-hand lane.
Viewed from above, the traffic was reflective as water, cars moving in wave-like shimmers over the surface of the freeway as though rippling out around the suburbs and city. Like the city was some great dropped pebble that caused a strange, circular rippling around it, beings funneling and spiraling toward it, as though the accident appeared to be some kind of blockage in the rippling.
Look, the older brother said to his younger-brother-now-sister, looking at him, her, in the rearview. He had needed to say all that and he was glad that it was out of the way because it hadn’t been said yet and he’d wanted to say it, he wanted his younger brother, sister, he meant, to know that the nature of their brotherhood had not changed. Siblinghood, the older brother said. Fuck. You’re my brother, the younger-brother-now-sister said from the backseat. You can say brotherhood. Okay, the older brother said. Maybe I should say the nature of my brotherhood has not changed. Not that anything in your nature has changed. Your nature is just exactly what it is, your nature, and I’m sure you know better than anyone that your nature is just exactly the same nature it always was. The older brother paused a moment and cleared his throat and scrunched his brow. I’m just trying to say that my position toward you is the same. Just as it was before, the older brother said. He heard the younger-brother-now-sister say, Right. Reading you loud and clear.
They heard then saw a second police cruiser speed past, sirens and velocity almost seeming to shake their car. The cruiser slipped into the closed left-hand lane to get ahead of traffic and to the accident, which was still some miles ahead, and the older brother watched, wondering what had happened, though he couldn’t possibly know what it was that had occurred: ahead of the blue sedan, a father of three, two boys and one girl, had been driving when the father’s cell phone pinged, indicating a text message, causing him to look down, grab the phone, read the text that read ‘Sup Moms – did you remember my brace?’ A question posed by his middle son, thirteen years old (the father was getting a little tired of the sardonic ‘Moms’ joke, partly because the boy used it so much and partly because it constantly reminded him that he was not just a father, but a single father), who was born with a birth defect, his left arm shorter and nub-like and thin with three shortened fingers and a patch of a thumb. The boy’s arm always ached and was in danger in the sport the boy preferred, lacrosse, of being easily broken, which was why he needed a brace. In attempting to text back that yes he had remembered, the single father of three had drifted into the right-hand lane.
While the older brother felt very good about being able to express in person to the younger-brother-now-sister that his position in regards to their being siblings had not changed, the same could not be said about their parents, particularly their father, though their mother had her own issues. The older brother’s wife looked at the younger sister in another attempt of trying make her feel at ease: rolling her eyes. The older brother continued by saying that he knew, for instance, that their mother did not necessarily see things the way he saw things and certainly his father did not see things the way he saw things, but there was also something different in the way their parents were processing the idea that the younger brother was now the younger sister, their youngest son now their youngest child. You have to see it from their perspective, the older brother said to the person who was now his sister. It’s a big change for them. And you’ve been gone so long. He was trying to think of the younger sister as a sister, not a brother, and to not just be able to say it out loud nor just to be able to think it at will, but to be able to feel it, for the change to be real to him: her. While trying to think and feel this, he was looking in the rearview mirror at the person who had once been his brother, who still looked like his brother, except for longer hair with bangs, sort of hiding his, her face, glasses, too, doing the same hiding, and he heard himself saying, You have to be the one who does the hard work. Even though I know you’re already the one doing the hard work – you’re probably dealing with all kinds of marginalization and difficulty in the workplace, not to mention difficulty with our little family situation here, but also this issue must be coming up with your friends, and then just out in the world, just being othered out in the world, I know that it must be difficult for people to understand and to accept the reality of this change that is actually not a change in you. I completely get all of it. But with our parents, if you are really serious about what you say, that you really do want a relationship with them – not that I think they’d cut you off or anything like that – if you really want a relationship, what you say is a good and healthy relationship with them, then you have to do the hard part, the older brother told his younger-brother-now-sister. Because they aren’t going to get it like me.
The younger sister had opened her mouth to speak several times while her older brother was talking. She wanted to tell him that he didn’t need to negotiate the relationship between her and their parents, but then she remembered that the older brother was the older brother and that when he spoke he was the one speaking and that there could be no other voices until his voice allowed room for another voice. It was what she knew the older brother viewed as his role as the older brother, to dictate who spoke, and also, to negotiate the various relationships between the family members, to ease tensions, to play psychiatrist, to be the ‘older brother’.
Then, as if reading her mind – an eerie connection they had had since childhood – the older brother said he knew that part of the problem here was that he often felt some sort of responsibility, both for the parents and for her, the younger-brother-now-sister, that in reality the older brother knew didn’t exist, and that part of the responsibility he felt came from what he viewed as his role as the oldest son, a privileged white male in a culture that demanded oldest sons and privileged white males to take care of their dependents, keep things in order, and be the symbolic personage who kept the family together. The older brother realized that this was a clichéd position he didn’t actually hold, and yet he felt some responsibility, he felt some onus to the role. Which was maybe just his nature, he didn’t know. He looked at his younger-brother-now-sister in the rearview mirror and tried to gauge the expression on his, shit, her face, and he said inwardly her, her, her, while looking at his younger sister and trying to decode her facial expression, but he couldn’t, couldn’t read the eyes hidden behind glasses in the rearview mirror, eyes which appeared to him to be neutral, expressionless, impossible to know. Then he watched the road again. Traffic slowed as they approached the accident, cars moving at thirty miles an hour then nearly stopped then back up to twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, breaking hard – repeating all this like an uncertain sea, waves not knowing how to break freely – as they approached the accident, which none of them knew anything about, which they still couldn’t see, miles in front of them.
The single father of three’s Honda SUV had drifted from the middle lane into the right-hand lane while he was viewing the text message from his thirteen-year-old son with a birth defect and the SUV had bumped a white BMW sedan, which caused the BMW to spin out of control and hit the concrete embankment and careen back into traffic, striking the single father’s Honda SUV, both cars spinning out of control, and causing a motorcyclist who had been following to hit his brakes, the bike bucking out of his control and sliding toward the spinning cars, the motorcyclist dragged with his sliding bike, which collided with the two cars as they spun to a stop, tires and engines smoking. Dust from the roadside momentarily enveloped the cars then settled.
The older brother had now been circling the exit to their parents’ house for nearly an hour, passing it by and then exiting several miles later and getting back on the outerbelt going the opposite direction and then, after passing the exit again, repeating the process, because, earlier, the younger-brother-now-sister had said to the older brother that she wasn’t sure she wanted to do this today. She had said she wanted today to be the day to see the parents again and to make amends, or whatever it was one did, but now that they were on the road to the parents’ house, she wasn’t sure she wanted today to the be the day, especially considering what she and the brother had discussed her first night in town. Two nights ago after the younger-brother-now-sister’s flight from Portland arrived at nearly ten in the evening, the older brother had explained to the younger-brother-now-sister that the parents were trying to be understanding, but were experiencing difficulty. He had told this to his younger-brother-now-sister, whom he had not seen in person in nearly three years – the last year of which comprised the younger-brother-now-sister’s transitioning – over too many glasses of vodka tonics prepared by the older brother’s wife, in the family room of their suburban house that the younger-brother-now-sister said reminded her of the house she and her brother had grown up in: wood floors, warped windows, brown sofa, many books. The older brother, who had become increasingly drunk, explained that while their parents had mellowed in recent years, it was important to take into account the many things the older brother and, in the past, the younger brother had done to the parents and had had done to them by the parents, because, the older brother felt, all this stuff was bound to come up in different ways, i.e., the parents were going to want to talk all this out somehow, to somehow figure all this out. This? the younger-brother-now-sister had said, and the older brother had gestured theatrically, like he had no idea, it’s just what their parents kept saying.
For her part, the younger sister had wanted to know what exactly was the older brother getting at: was he getting at the fact that the father used to, when the younger sister was very young, maybe six, get angry that the younger sister didn’t finish her meals and in his anger had fastened a seatbelt onto the younger sister’s chair at the dinner table and strapped her in until she finished her food? Was that one of the things that would come up? the younger sister had wanted to know. What about the many times when, during the period the mother had kicked the father out, the mother would leave them alone to go on dates? Remember when they were a little older, she was maybe eight and he was ten, and their mother didn’t come home for two days, they were alone in the house and it was both fun and scary, and he made all of the boxes of mac and cheese, and then it was really frightening because then there was eventually nothing to eat. Fortunately that was when their mother had come home, but still. Was that a thing that would come up? the younger sister wanted to know. What exactly was going to come up and what exactly was it that she needed to prepare for because she wasn’t going to go into this thing without knowing what she was getting into?
Sitting in the family room close to midnight, the older brother had observed that the younger-brother-now-sister was also getting drunk and he had the brief thought that they should stop talking before they said things that couldn’t be unsaid and yet he kept talking and said that the parents had definitely messed up sometimes, but the older brother felt that she was being a little dramatic. You have a tendency, the older brother had said, to only look at the bad things. The parents had definitely let them down at times, but many more times were the parents caring and attentive, if critical, if demanding of them in school and sports, yes, but the parents also taught them to care about books and movies and art as well as people. Don’t talk to me about art, the younger-brother-now-sister had said. Don’t talk to me about tortured daddy, the artist. Fair enough, the older brother had said. Look, the older brother was definitely sometimes disgusted with the parents, particularly tortured daddy, the artist, which was why he had to get out right at eighteen – he knew he had apologized before, but he was sorry he had left so definitively, so irrevocably, by the way, but she must understand – but the parents were also mainly supportive in all the small ways and while their father could sometimes be distant, sometimes be cruel, he wasn’t a monster or anything. We were never hit or abused and were generally loved, the older brother had said. I mean, Dad also gave us books and film and art and that was of value, wasn’t it?
The younger sister agreed, nodding her head, sitting on the sofa in the family room, remembering that this was one of the things she missed about the older brother, that he at least tried to be fair. She said she agreed that was true and it wasn’t all bad and she didn’t mean to intimate that it had all been bad, but had the older brother really experienced all the smaller things that she had experienced? Like how the younger sister could never be as good as the older brother, could never get as good grades, could never be as artistic or creative, never really as interesting, in general. Wasn’t it odd that the mother had kept pushing the younger sister, when she was the younger brother, to take piano, drawing, painting classes, even though the younger sister had no artistic talent whatsoever, while the father tried to get her to play sports, which the older brother also succeeded at, mainly in cross-country, and to get a scholarship in running, since the younger sister had been, and still was, tall, and since, as the father said, no scholarships would be coming from grades? Wasn’t it all a bit odd the way the mother had pushed in certain gender-specific ways, and the father had pushed in other certain gender-specific ways? And then there’s you, the younger sister said: the older brother, the most intelligent, the most talented, the most successful. Didn’t the older brother find these neat little roles to be not only disgusting but also just boring, boring, boring?
But the father had also given the younger-brother-now-sister poetry, the older brother had said. That doesn’t line up with your little theory. The older brother watched the younger-brother-now-sister’s body almost jump at this comment, which caused her to knock her drink off the arm of the chair she was sitting in, the gin and ice spilling on the floor, the younger-brother-now-sister apologizing and getting up to clean up the dampening carpet and the older brother telling her to stop and then standing and grabbing her shoulders and sitting her back down. When she was sitting down again, she said, The fact that you say it like that, that he gave poetry to me, that he ‘gave’ it to me, that’s just one of the most disgusting, one of the most male-centric ways of saying it that I’ve ever heard, the younger-brother-now-sister had said. Like he penetrated with his poetry. His poetry was his cock. All poetry was his cock. Is that how he says it? The older brother had looked at the younger-brother-now-sister and nodded, and said, Fuck, look at you. You think you’ve somehow abstracted yourself out of the family dynamic. The family black sheep. The rebellion against hetero-normative ways of living. You live in Portland and make beer. You go to drag shows and participate in nude runs and independent porn festivals. Even your little rant right now was affected and queer – look at my pained past, look at what my parents did to me. You forget you were going on family vacations until you were eighteen and loving it. I loved it because they let me drink, she had said with what she knew was a dramatic little flourish of her right hand, waving off the vacations. The older brother had shaken his head and said, You can’t deny that some of their pushing us was helpful. Maybe necessary. Sure, the younger sister very clearly saw that the parent’s pushing, in their view, was good for her in some ways. She did need some pushing. She admitted that, but it was still odd the ways in which they pushed, as though their worlds were not really their own, but had been given to them or something? And wasn’t it even more odd that the abuse they suffered at the hands of their father was a form of violence, very gender-specific, a forcing, almost a penetrating. For instance, their father’s food hang-ups were a kind of forcing, forcing food into them. While their mother’s abuse was more emotional, or emotionless, a lack of caring and nurturing, wasn’t that all just so specific it was almost clichéd? As though you made this up yourself, the older brother had said. As though you’d never seen some version of what it is to be who you are on television or a movie or through someone else? The older brother had watched the younger-brother-now-sister look coldly at him, which had caused the older brother to say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about saying it like that, but you know what I mean. She said she guessed she knew what he meant, but what she meant, more than anything, was this: was it or was it not the nature of each and every family to somehow ruin the children in the family? The older brother had watched as his younger-brother-now-sister, who was very drunk he saw, allowed this seemingly profound statement to set in, and the older brother let it be there, knowing what he was going to say, and then said it: So you’re ruined now? Now that you’re out and being who you really are, what you’re saying is that this is a somehow ruined version of you. Fuck off, his younger-brother-now-sister had said. You know what I mean. The older brother had said that he didn’t know, he really didn’t, but what was her point? I don’t know either. I can’t, for the life me, think of why I came here, she had said and got up and went to bed.
From the backseat, the younger sister tried to look around the older brother’s head to the accident. She couldn’t see anything and undid her seatbelt and still could only see the glinting of chrome and paint and window of traffic. She could not know that the single father of three had woken from the accident as though into some new reality.
There was a ringing in his ears and his heart was beating so hard he thought it might literally explode. He felt a searing pain above his right eye, which came away sticky and red when he touched it with his fingers, and an inability to extend his left leg. Then the world through the cracked and splintered windshield resolved like something out of an apocalyptic movie: the smoking BMW and a man with blood on his shirt holding his stomach and trying to pry open the crushed passenger door of the BMW and, some distance ahead, a dark male figure on the ground face-down, not moving, and behind him, scraps and pieces of metal and plastic leading up to the motorcycle. Cars passed carefully by, faces turning to see. The single father of three looked back at the procession of cars and then ahead and slowly began to get out of the car, he was safe, he thought, his leg was killing him, but he was safe, and then he had the vague thought of his children living without him and having no one and then was trying to remember what it was he was supposed to be doing with it, his body, his existence clarifying into a thought: get out of the car.
The older brother listened as his younger-brother-now-sister said that she understood that their parents missed her and wanted her around and wanted to be in her life to some degree, but she also knew that they missed another version of her, who was not her, and she wasn’t going to be that person, could not be that person ever again. The idea of talking with the parents again, of seeing them too much, of being once again inside their way of seeing things, of being inside their world felt exhausting, even exhausting to think about. And she knew the older brother had encouraged her to visit because their parents missed her and she also knew that he had supported her right to be herself and to not have to alter herself for them – which she appreciated – but at the same time, she didn’t need the older brother to be involved here. That doesn’t make sense, the older brother said. You involved me. You asked me to talk to them and now I’m talking to them. I never asked you to talk to them, the younger-brother-now-sister said. I asked you to let them know that I’d be visiting and that if they wanted to meet, I wanted to meet. But I had to tell them something, the older brother said.
The older brother’s pregnant wife, who had been intently listening and holding her belly and feeling small kicks, enjoying the kicks and hoping the baby wasn’t experiencing the same tension she was experiencing in this car, now said, But that’s what your sister just said. That you’re making this about you and it’s not about you. She’s grateful for your support. But she doesn’t want you helping your parents understand. That’s not your place. I couldn’t make them understand if I wanted to, the older brother said. But I’m trying because I thought that’s what she wanted and it’s something I thought would make this trip go easier. The wife in the passenger seat said that the older brother wasn’t understanding that his sister needed an ally, someone to be on her side, because it was hard enough telling one’s parents that one did not feel like a boy, er, male, anymore, that one felt like a female, (is female right? It was. Good.) and then asking them to please call him, her, a different name, the name the parents had given now gone. That was a really difficult thing to ask one’s parents to do and it was not the older brother’s place to make the parents understand or accept that. It was his job just to support, and the wife wanted to know why the older brother, her husband, was being so selfish here and making this into how helpful he was being? Why couldn’t he just support his brother? Sister, she meant, feeling annoyed at herself for continually making the mistake. Sister.
An ambulance passed, the sirens cutting off the older brother’s wife, lights flashing, the older brother braking and slowing and merging the car into the right lane. The brother’s wife watched as the ambulance cut through traffic and into the closed lane and their car slowed more, traffic stopped now, or inching along, the wife getting glimpses of heads above the accident. She wondered if everyone had survived and who was at fault and what exactly had happened.
After waking from the brief blackout the single father had not known what to do and had sat in his SUV trying to understand if this had really happened or not and if he had been the cause of it or not, though of course he knew he was the cause of the accident, and in this knowing he viewed the man at the smoking BMW, a white man, trying to open the passenger door – there was a woman, a white woman he saw, inside, sitting in the passenger seat, who seemed very calm or dazed – and he viewed the man who was lying face-down like he was napping and the single father of three considered that he was a black man driving an SUV and had just caused an accident and he thought oh my god, oh my god, haltingly, with each breath, as though each breath was something he had to remind himself to do, was no longer a natural functioning, and along with each breath, the thought oh my god represented a realization that the single black father did not want to put into words because it made him hate himself, but the realization was already there: what if the man on the pavement was a white man? What if that man died? Then the force of the thought ‘get away’ caused action: he got out of his car and fell immediately, his left leg injured and pulsing with pain. He managed to stand and made his way to the concrete barrier and tried to limp along it toward the motorcyclist and knew he couldn’t make the distance and so tried instead to get over to the BMW man who was much closer and was trying open the passenger door of the BMW and the single black father of three tried to think the thought that he wanted the motorcycle man lying on the pavement to be alive because he was a person, but he couldn’t not think the thought that he wanted this man to be alive because it appeared that the man lying on the pavement was a white man, and if a black father was deemed at fault for this accident, being a black man, a single black man, a father of three, with a fourteen year old with a birth defect, what would happen to him, to his sons and daughter, and he tried not to think any of this but just tried to have the thought that he wished he hadn’t hurt another person, just another person, thinking or trying not to think of this other person as a white person as other cars passed. The people inside those cars wondered what had happened and if everything was alright and my god that man was bleeding and was that woman stuck in that car and holy shit was that a man up there on the ground who appeared to be napping, was that man, was he dead or dying?
Okay, yeah, support. He was being supportive, and that was the fucking thing he was trying to get at, the older brother explained to his wife, as they made their slow way toward the twin dorms of the state university, the huge stadium field. He was trying to do this in a way that was as considerate as possible. He was trying to be considerate here, while also being supportive, while also trying to represent as objectively as he could what’d been revealed by the parents, the mother in her own ways, the father in his. He was very happy to offer his support, and he wanted his younger sister to know that she had his full support. He felt momentarily glad that he’d remembered: she. But at the same time, he said, it was difficult to offer that support and not try to help the parents understand, though he now understood that he was out of bounds here, he was sorry, shit, for trying to help, for trying to help his younger sister out, and next time the parents asked about it all, he’d just say nothing.
The setting sun coming through a wash of stratus clouds caused a yellow-orange light to cover the faces and bodies in the stopped cars on the outerbelt, but because of the cloud, the light was not ray-like and direct but diffuse and almost fuzzy and it appeared to emit from the bodies inside the cars, the interior of the cars seemingly glowing from the skin of the passengers, a light which no one commented on or noticed, annoyed instead, putting on their sunglasses or pulling down sun visors, trying to patiently maneuver through and around each other, cars now no longer in neat lines, but instead jutting around each other to try to view the accident ahead, or cutting into the one clear lane only to stop halfway through, or swerving out of a lane to glimpse the accident ahead and assess how long they would have to wait only to almost collide with another vehicle trying to switch lanes. This same light upon the single black father of three now who stood near the concrete embankment, his injured leg pulsing through the entire left side of his body, trying to give his statement to a white police officer, while in the distance, the motorcyclist was being put on a stretcher, the black father trying to think only of the motorcyclist as simply a person he hoped would live. The BMW man and woman were talking to their own police officer, a highway patrolman, giving their statement. The single black father of three tried not to listen to them. Instead he tried to focus on relaying a statement to his own officer, a white officer, saying how he couldn’t make it to the motorcyclist because of his leg, here showing his injured leg, which was bleeding, but he was able to limp the short distance over to the BMW and help the man driving the BMW to open the passenger door, which the BMW driver couldn’t open alone because his left arm had been broken in the accident, and when the passenger door was finally opened, the woman nearly poured out like water into the arms of the man and away from the car, which was smoking, and right at that moment, the first police car arrived, effectively closing the right-hand lane. The single black father explained to the white officer that the other officer, the one who had arrived first, had exited his vehicle and jogged past the father and the BMW driver and passenger, asking if they were okay, all of them replying yes, they were fine, and the officer went jogging toward the motorcycle man some forty or fifty yards ahead lying face-down on the pavement. The officer the single black father of three was currently talking to stopped writing on his pad and looked at the single black father of three and said, Okay, that’s fine. But what happened? What caused the accident?
The younger sister wasn’t exactly sure what the older brother was trying to convey here because she hadn’t asked him to make their parents better understand her. But see that’s the thing, the older brother said, the car fully stopped now. That’s the thing that you’re not understanding and that maybe I’m not conveying very well. They ask me. They want to know what I think because they think that’ll help them understand, and so they ask me. So that’s, uh, maybe why I’ve tried to help them understand because they asked for me to do it. Then when they know what I think and it doesn’t help them understand, they then begin asking me even more about you. What am I supposed to say to them then? I don’t know, he heard his younger sister – noticing again that he was doing it, he was convincing himself – say as he inched the car forward. What did you say? The older brother put on his blinker, merged lanes again, still attempting futilely to find the faster way around the accident ahead. They could see it up ahead now: several stopped police cars, an ambulance, smoke rising into the air above the cars. Behind them a fire truck and an ambulance were trying to get into the closed left-hand lane. I tried to answer their questions, the older brother said. But I also told them I was only speculating and that they should ask you. What did they say when you said they should ask me? the younger sister said. Car, the wife said. Stop, STOP. The older brother braked hard and the wife told him to pay attention, shit, they could talk about this once they were away from the accident. She held her belly, her baby, looking at the older brother, her husband. The older brother said he was paying attention, he was watching the road now, he could watch the road and talk, he was watching now. So what’d they say when you said they should ask me? the younger sister wanted to know. The older brother took a deep breath, saying that he didn’t want to be the one to discuss this with her. He really didn’t, the wife said to the younger sister sitting with her arms crossed in the backseat, sitting now in the direct middle of the backseat, their car stopped in the heavy traffic and only occasionally creeping forward. The wife told the younger sister that the parents, the mother in particular, would not drop the topic, refused any refusals of answering, it was all very frustrating, very challenging. The older brother had tried to explain that there was nothing for him to explain, but they demanded, basically demanded explanations. About what? the older brother heard the younger sister ask, clearly irritated and vexed. They said that that they didn’t understand how it could be that you still liked girls, the older brother said. They, it was Mom mainly, said that she didn’t understand how you could feel you were a girl and then still like girls. Didn’t that mean you were just a boy? I’m summing all this up, it went on for much longer, the older brother said. Their car was unmoving and ahead, though they couldn’t see yet, on the pavement, the motorcyclist’s body was being worked on by paramedics, who were breathing into his mouth and making his heart pump blood by pushing at ordered intervals on his chest. On the freeway, one officer was checking a box for Male and one for White and one for Female and one for White and another officer was checking a box for Male and then a box for Black and was making notes, making notes. The single black father of three was standing, holding his cell phone, along with the white man who had blood on his shirt and his white female girlfriend, each holding their cell phones, watching as the paramedics worked on the man who had been riding the motorcycle, the single black father of three visibly distraught and fighting tears and having a hard time getting a full breath as now both police officers and highway patrolmen were asking him what happened while now a third officer was asking the man and woman from the BMW what happened and the single black father of three thought of his children and that he didn’t have to say anything about looking at his cell phone and watched as the paramedics worked on the motorcyclist and wished the man wasn’t white, hating that that was his thought, and before he could keep his mouth shut suddenly all that could be heard from any of these people was the father’s pained, It was my fault, he’s dead isn’t he, it was because I wasn’t paying attention, it was me, and the officer who had been trying to take his statement now asked if the single black father of three had been drinking or doing drugs today and the single black father of three replied that he was a father of three and going to get his son’s new brace, and then shook his head and said the accident was my fault, I was checking my cell phone, though the single black father of three couldn’t know that the white driver of the BMW had had his hand in his girlfriend’s pants and was watching her moaning reactions and wasn’t paying attention to the slight drift the Honda SUV made into his lane nor could the father know that the motorcyclist had been going nearly ninety miles an hour and had cut between several cars in quick swerving movements, and then rode between two lanes on the white dotted lines on the freeway, speeding between cars and driving very fast simply because he wanted to, it felt like something he wanted to do, and in so doing was unable to brake properly when he saw the SUV drift into the right-hand lane and collide with the white BMW because the white BMW could not make a simple maneuver because the driver’s hands were in his girlfriend’s pants and the white BMW driver’s left hand had slipped off the steering wheel and actually turned into the drifting Honda SUV rather than simply away, and the motorcyclist who had seen this strange series of events though couldn’t prevent them knew in a flash he couldn’t stop himself and had to hit his brakes and swerve at the same time and it caused him to lose control of the bike, a jolting turn of the handlebars whipping the bike onto its side where it smacked the back of the spinning BMW and sent him and the bike headlong down the outerbelt, not sliding, but rolling, flipping, metal crashing.
Dad wanted to know if you now being a girl and still being attracted to girls meant that you simply hated men. He became very concerned that you hated men because he had raised you wrong. That he had somehow taught you the wrong things or encouraged you into the wrong activities. And then Mom joined in with this, claiming, near hysterically, that no, she knew it was her, that she’d wanted you to do these creative things and that that wasn’t like you at all and then she’d claimed that she was a bad nurturer when you were younger and that she didn’t breastfeed you as long as me. Dad at that point became very dark, his head down in his glass of whisky. He said he knew the cause of it. He told Mom that she had done so well as a mother, and he had a confession to make. He said that several times. He had a confession to make. He said that you must want to be a girl and only have sexual relations with girls because he somehow trained you to think that men were bad. I remember that Mom was crying then, saying that Dad hadn’t done anything wrong, and I was saying that that wasn’t how it was, that I was a boy still and I liked girls, and that you too like boys, only as friends, not as lovers, and Mom said that that just didn’t make any sense, that you couldn’t feel like a girl and then still like girls, though she said she could understand if you felt like a girl and then liked boys, that made a certain kind of sense to her. Dad was very much blaming himself, shaking his head at Mom, saying, Then what about gay people? Just straight gay people? Or regular gay people? People who have not changed their gender, who were gay, a boy who liked boys, for instance, Dad said to Mom, and Mom said she didn’t know, she just didn’t know, but it didn’t make sense to her. She could not understand how a boy, who felt they were a girl, could then like girls. Didn’t that simply mean they were a boy? To which Dad was almost yelling at Mom that that didn’t make any sense, that by that logic that would mean that gay people, like a gay man, was actually a man who felt like a woman, so it was a woman who liked a man, and Mom said well that was the only way she could make any sense of it. She simply couldn’t make any sense of it any other way, so then Dad was saying, What about your cousin Jimmy? You love your cousin Jimmy. This is not about love, Mom immediately said. I love our son unconditionally. Our daughter, I mean. I just want to understand. Well how do you ‘understand’ your cousin Jimmy? Dad said. He’s gay. He’s a man. You’ve never wondered about whether or not he was really a man or felt like a man, he’s just always and only been a man, and that makes sense to you, so why can’t a man who turns into a woman and then likes women, why can’t that make that same kind of sense? To which Mom said she sort of understood but also just didn’t, she just didn’t get it. It’s not funny, the older brother said into the rearview mirror looking at his younger sister. He felt himself smiling despite himself. It was fucking intense, he said. I mean, you should’ve seen them. The younger sister tried to stop laughing, but her laughing had started the wife laughing, and the wife was saying, I thought your Mom was going to just collapse all of a sudden. When your Dad asked about cousin Jimmy, I swear her face did a kind of flicker, like a robot miscalculating – I thought she’d just fizz out, a little burst of smoke from the ears. What else? the younger sister wanted to know, trying to stop laughing, and taking big breaths and going, Ah, that’s fucking funny. Was that how it ended? No, not at all, the older brother said. How it ended was that once their argument settled down, Dad went to this pretty dark place. I didn’t want to tell you this because I personally think it’s Dad being Dad, the older brother said. It’s Dad, you know, trying to figure everything out, that’s all, really. Tell me, the younger sister said. What’d he say? He said he was afraid that maybe he was the actual cause of this. He said that when you were a young child he was afraid he had done something that had changed your nature. He said that he’d always suspected it.
They were coming up to the accident now. The brother merged lanes to get into the one open middle lane. Two police officers were waving cars through. They could all see the white BMW with the smashed hood and a white couple standing nearby, the man with blood on his shirt cradling his arm and the girlfriend’s hair in disarray, and then a blue Honda SUV with a destroyed driver-side door and smashed right front hood and the solitary black man clutching his phone and further ahead, the debris leading to the motorcycle leading to the motorcyclist who paramedics were working on while he was lying on a stretcher.
He said that when you were a little boy, he put his hand on your knee. Your leg. You would be driving somewhere, sitting in the passenger seat, and he’d put his hand on your knee, your leg. He said he viewed you as more feminine. He thought you were maybe more feminine, which was why he was hard on you concerning sports and other masculine things, but he – he had nearly been crying now – he felt you were more girl-like, less a little boy than a little girl, and he imagined that what a father would do with a young boy was ruffle their hair or pat their back, but maybe with a daughter would pat their knee, squeeze their knee. The older brother looked at his wife, who was holding her stomach and baby in the way the older brother knew meant she was nervous. After a moment, the younger sister said, I don’t have any memory of that. The only thing I know about this is what you’ve told me now. You can tell him that, the older brother said. I’m not going to tell him anything, if that’s what he thinks. That he ‘caused’ something, the younger sister said. You can tell him that nothing he did, nothing he said, changed me at all, she said. The older brother’s wife looked at him and the older brother looked in the rearview and said, You can tell him yourself. The older brother saw his sister wipe her eyes, saw the pained expression on her face, and in an attempt to deflect the attention from herself, heard and saw her say, Pay attention, indicating the officers waving him through.
The two officers waved them through, their car moving slowly. The horizon was a burning orange, outlining the buildings and trees. Ahead, traffic was light and moving quickly. As they passed the remnants of the accident, neither the brother nor the sister nor the wife wanted to look though they all wanted to look, which was what they did, it was in their nature to look, half in concern and half in interest, not in curiosity but in the need to confirm what they are sure they know but don’t understand. They all looked at the same moment that they were looked at by the black man, the BMW driver and passenger. The eyes of all these people somehow meeting then separating and when they came to the motorcyclist, who was now on the stretcher, the legs of the stretcher being extended by the paramedics, preparing to load him into the ambulance, they all looked despite knowing they shouldn’t, and the motorcyclist, his neck braced, his face bloody, part of his pants ripped away, the flesh of his right leg ripped away, his shirt cut open and chest bloody, someone pumping oxygen into him through a mask on his mouth, his one good eye found their eyes through the car window as he was being loaded into the ambulance, and in that seeing and meeting, the same as with the father and the BMW driver and passenger, there was nothing except recognition – whole and complete and nameless and infinite like all time collapsed to now in the link of their eyes – and then they were through and gaining speed and it was behind them and they were among the other cars driving freely on the outerbelt. The sister moved back to her seat directly behind the brother, her seatbelt fastening and clicking. The soft glow of the sister’s cell phone lighted the interior of the car. The light of the phone drew the boundaries of the car. The brother let one hand off the steering wheel and cleared his throat, felt something loosen in him, but didn’t speak. The wife, the soon-to-be-mother, felt private and disconnected in the passenger seat, feeling the tension between the brother and sister subside momentarily and wondering if the baby inside her in the dark warmth of its own little universe had felt any of this tension, anything from the larger world. None of them noticed the small chunks of metal and remains of tires and kicked up pebbles left by the other travelers on the side of the freeway, nor the wallet, some thirty yards away from the destroyed motorcycle, which had landed splayed open, pebbles already on the face of the license, the license, which was now unnecessary, behind the clear plastic holder, showing a calm young white male face: Nathaniel Dustin Antrim, Sex: Male, Eyes: Hazel, Hair: Blonde, Height: 6’1” Weight: 180, 444 Woodbriar Court, Apt. 1-D, Atlanta, GA, 30303.
Photograph © Spinster Cardigan