I was about 12 or 13 when J ran away. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear, but one day he was really gone and we didn’t know to where. I admit that I did worry for a moment, until he called from Colorado and told us that he and D had left to get away from the crowd they had been hanging around with and that he was okay. Mom and Dad told him they would send him a bus ticket whenever he was ready to come home and reminded him to keep calling and checking in. That was that for me. I was in junior high had other things to worry about than my middle brother, who may have been infinitely cooler than me but was in no way smarter than me. He would come home. Mom and Dad would handle the worrying. I wasn’t going to miss him teasing me or being obviously embarrassed by me or telling me to go away. I wouldn’t miss the police cars dropping him off in the morning or the green ink stains on the bathroom rug from where he’d tried to dye his hair again. And honestly, it was nice the way the kids at school reacted when I told them my brother and D had run away. Concern, amazement, awe. Finally I had something interesting to talk about.
Eventually he and D ended up in California. They got clean and learned to surf and make bagels. Then when he did come home, he had changed. He was still way cooler than me but now in a way that I actually wanted to be. He was clean and healthy and confident. He got a smart, pretty steady girlfriend and ran for student office and won. What a loser…
Things changed at home, too. Mom and Dad started fighting more. They went to counseling. And when Dad’s contract at the college expired and he got another teaching job in a different state, he moved and we stayed behind. We stayed so J could finish high school and Mom, who had just gotten a promotion, could get a little experience in her new position. The plan was to move to be with Dad after J graduated.
Dad came home for the weekend sometimes. I would come in the front door after school and hear the vacuum running and know that he was there. And I would feel disappointed because that meant I couldn’t watch “Santa Barbara” and that there would be fighting that weekend. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my father or miss him; it was just easier, less tense, when he wasn’t there.
One evening, somehow, Mom, Dad, J, and I were all sitting at the table eating dinner together. My oldest brother wasn’t there, but he had moved out and rarely ate dinner with us. We were eating and talking and the tension was building, like it usually did when we were all in the same place together, and then my dad broke his tooth. He exploded. He swore and then shouted, “YOUR MOTHER WANTS A DIVORCE!”
That kind of ended dinner.
My mom came into my room later to check on me. She had already talked to J; I’d heard her go into his room and knew she’d come to me next. I was doing something random, reading on my bed or lying on the floor or something. She said, “I’m sorry, sweetie. That wasn’t how we wanted to do that.”
“That’s okay,” I said. And it really was.
“Why aren’t you crying? Everyone else is crying?” she asked.
“Everyone?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Even J.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I’m just not surprised.”