My family is downstairs yelling at each other. They’re not arguing, that’s just how they talk. It’s a Greek thing. That’s what we say, but the truth is whenever we visit Greece, people remark on how loud we are, and we respond, “It’s an American thing.”
I’m in my old room at my parents’ house after getting into a fight with my brother, Arthur. He was going on about e-books signaling the end of physical books. Lowering his voice to just a yell, he said, “In the future, no one’s going to want your precious little books, Iris. The book will be rendered completely obsolete!” I told him he was wrong, that people love books. Then he said, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah,” and I lost it and ran upstairs.
So, now I am up here digging out old swimming trophies and dance costumes from under my bed. I have a trophy from 1992 that says, “Highest Achiever.” I dust it off and think about bringing it back to my apartment as a decoration. Maybe I could turn it into a cigarette holder or something.
I try on a blue ballet costume and am excited to find it still fits. I look at myself in the mirror and think about Zelda Fitzgerald. She was my age when she took up ballet. Taking stock of my reflection, I am struck by an insight into her insanity. Something about an out-of-shape 28-year-old woman in a tutu is just off. I turn and notice my thighs are thicker than they used to be. I put on my point shoes and attempt a few poses in front of the mirror.
After a while, I change back into my regular clothes and go downstairs again. Everyone is standing around the kitchen table, yelling at the top of their lungs, agreeing that Bush has betrayed the Party. I hold up a hanger with the tutu on it and ask my mom, “What’s the best way to remove wrinkles from Tulle?”
“What do you want with that old thing now? Just throw it out.”
“No way!” I say. “I can’t believe you had it all scrunched up in a bag. I could use it for a Halloween costume. Or for my author photo in this new web magazine that’s going to publish one of my stories this spring!”
“Oh, god!” she says giving up. “Steam it, maybe. Hang it in the shower.”
I pull at the blue tulle contemplatively, before sitting at the end of the table and listening. I don’t know how to talk to them. All my family ever talks about is politics. And, as an “artist,” I feel it’s not in my interest to have opinions on politics, especially as my ideas tend toward the right. You can’t have those kinds of opinions in creative or academic communities in New York City. You’ll find yourself involved in all sorts of futile arguments that result only in people deciding that they don’t like you. You’ll be a pariah, just because you don’t believe man is responsible for global warming, but that spontaneous changes in the earth’s magnetic core are to blame; just because you say things like, “We’ll be in space, by the time we’ve used up the Earth’s resources!” Just because you say, “It costs more money and energy to recycle, and anyway landfills can be beautiful! They made a great ski resort out of one in Vermont according to John Stossel’s recent report on 20/20.”
I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut.
Also, my views are somewhat paradoxical. For example, idealistically speaking, I am a rugged individualist. “The government is a necessary evil,” I like to say, “like boyfriends.” But practically speaking, were it not for my parents, I would need government handouts more than anyone. I am prime welfare material. During the election, trying to assuage my father’s disappointment in the McCain candidacy, my mother told him, “On the bright side, if Obama is elected, the government might help us support Iris.”
It’s pretty well understood in the family that I can’t take care of myself, which is why it’s so important that I marry, so as to preserve my identity as a rugged individualist. If I were forced to rely on the state for support, my whole ideology would crumble. I don’t approve of social programs! FDR ruined this country with his pinko rescue plan! Let those in need pull up their socks! I say, all the while dreaming of the day my parents’ burden (me) might be transferred to a worthy husband, and then I might continue cultivating my sense of the pioneer spirit and American dream without having to work or anything.
Arthur, a programming consultant, is the opposite of me in that he is a financial success. He is a computer wizard much in demand. If The Terminator were to come true, my brother would side with the machines. He’s the villain. Sometimes, when home for the holidays, I pretend I am a visitor from the future and that my assignment is to change his mind by appealing to his heart so that he doesn’t destroy civilization as we know it. Arthur thinks I’m an idiot.
He’s very well informed, spends most of his time staring into his computer, swears by the Drudge Report, says he’s a libertarian and believes all social security is a corruption. He reads everything online but my column—which would be, I admit, a waste of time for him. What would he learn from my column? How his prodigal sister spends her free time? It angers him enough that I was born at all. He still has not gotten over my having “invaded the nest.” “If we were birds, you’d have been pushed out,” he says sometimes, and I imagine myself quivering and featherless on the tile floor of our mother’s kitchen. I laugh because he is joking, but feel bad, because it’s true. He calls the financial help my parents give me I-fare, “like welfare but for Iris.” He says, “Why should she be rewarded for her failure, and I get nothing for my success!” “Bureaucrats!” my brother calls my parents. The whole family believes in small government.
My parents have cut McCain out of the campaign photo of Palin and McCain that they got after donating money. Now there’s just a picture of Sarah Palin propped up next to a picture of me in my tap shoes and sequins costume for one of my dance recitals when I was 10. They say she energized the campaign. That’s why they’re all trying to destroy her still, even after the election, because she’s special. I can relate to that. I’ve been trying to destroy myself for years for the same reason, I think, feeling hungover and remembering some of the more idiotic things I said at a holiday party the night before I came home.
My family suspects me of being a closet Democrat, like a spy. It’s because I live in New York City, am artsy and work occasionally in academia. Also, the magazine in which I was last published included poems by Amiri Baraka and a cover announcing an essay entitled, “Why I Am a Socialist.”
Arthur smirks and asks me, “So, who’d you vote for, Iris?” Everyone waits. Will she finally come out? I deal with it the way I deal with almost everything. I make a joke, which no one else seems to get. I say, “I didn’t vote. I can’t see my way clear to allow either for a black man, a woman, or a senior citizen in the White House. I am just too racist, chauvinist, and ageist to do it!”
They’re shocked and no one says anything, except for Arthur, who unfazed, begins asking me trick questions trying to catch me in a contradiction and expose my dirty bleeding heart.
I cut him off and continue, “Further, as the leader of the woman’s anti-suffrage party, none of my issues were addressed in this election. I will not rest until a woman’s right to vote is repealed!” I bang the table and stand up. “Of course, getting such legislation passed is tricky, as my constituency refuses to speak until spoken to about this issue, and it also doesn’t help they we can’t vote for it ourselves, on principle. My only hope is to encourage men to my way of thinking. Which is why I date.”
My parents look horrified. I sit down and eat my baklava, happy to have weighed in during our political congress. “What time’s dinner, Mom?” I say loudly. “Do I have time to go upstairs and type up some pamphlets before guests arrive? I have this idea for a “good society” that I might write about this week for my column. “Arthur, do you ever read my column?” I ask innocently, spitefully.
Before dinner my dad fetches a bottle of Wild Turkey. He doesn’t drink, my dad, but he has it around the house because he’s been using it to self-treat a toothache. My father hates doctors and believes he can cure everything with either a t-shirt or peroxide. The Wild Turkey is a new addition to his medicine chest; it’s to ameliorate the pain. “Wild Turkey for Turkey Day!” he festively announces, and we all have a few fingers full. I remind him that it’s Christmas not Thanksgiving and he says, “and what do we eat in this house on Christmas?”
I don’t like to drink with the family, because I can’t drink as much as I want to. But since I am hurting from the previous night and also worried that the scent of whiskey is emanating from my pores, I decide to have one drink as camouflage. “A little hair of the wolf that mauled me…” I say, pouring myself after everyone else.
My mom eyes me, checking the level on my glass. “She drinks like a Kennedy!” she sighs.
“The swimmer!” I answer, and gesture toward a picture of me in a bathing suit at one of my high school meets that they’ve framed and arranged next to a pastoral of the Reagan ranch.
“That’s not funny.” My mother says. “That poor girl died on that bridge. You see what happens when you drink?” she warns, referring to the Chappaquiddick scandal of which I wrote an in-depth report for my seventh grade social studies class.
My mother declines a glass herself and then tells me to set the table. At dinner the topic shifts to television, to politics, to prices and then we talk about pain. Neck pain, joint pain, headaches, whatever. My mother mentions a lower back pain she had three days ago and my father explains how he had her roll up a t-shirt and position it beneath the affected area while asleep. “I’m all better!” she says.
“And so’s the pain in my ass,” my dad kids.
I laugh and then sneeze and my dad suggests I cover my head before I catch cold. Leaving the room, he returns with a t-shirt, which I wrap around my head like a turban.
I finish my glass of wine and make a show of refilling my glass with apple cider.
“Good, stop drinking now!” my mother says.
“I only had one glass! And now I’m having cider.”
“You smell like a hobo,” she says.
“It’s from before, I got a paper cut and Dad poured Wild Turkey on it. I lift my hand and flare my bandaged whisky soaked finger.
After dinner my mother shows me a dress she’s bought for my cousin’s daughter, and throws me a look that says, When are you going to get married? “Isn’t it beautiful?” she says holding it against her.
“It’s beautiful, but a bit small for you, no?” I kid and return with her to the den where as a family we’ve begun watching a heartwarming film about Italian immigrants that’s on TV.
“I know it was you, Fredo, you broke my heart,” Al Pacino says just as I walk in with the bottle of Wild Turkey. I pour my brothers a glass, but not one for myself, careful to show off my self-control.
An hour later The Godfather II is over and my family is yelling at the TV, which they’ve tuned to Fox News. “How about we watch this?” I introduce a DVD: Grey Gardens. “It’s a documentary about Jackie Kennedy’s crazy cousins, a mother and daughter Bouvier Beale, aristocratic beauties living in squalor in an East Hampton mansion. It was made into a Broadway musical,” I try to persuade them. “Like Xanadu!”
I pop in the movie. Annoyed, my brother disappears into the basement to watch C-Span. I am left alone with my parents watching the two women eat cat food in the corner of a dilapidated mansion. The film opens with a shot of the daughter, Edie, 50 years old yet peculiarly childlike, standing in their overgrown garden. With something wrapped around her head, she looks almost chic, but finally crazy.
“What’s she got around her head now?” my mother says in the next scene.
“It looks like a sweater pinned with a broach,” I say. We continue watching in silence, as Edie recites Robert Frost poems from memory, makes allusions to Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, and dances around the house, speaking often about how she could have been a great dancer, about all the men she might have married but didn’t. The mother, Edie, speaks glowingly of her daughter Edie’s poetry, for which she won awards in high school. What potential! I squirm in my seat, and try to not to look at my parents, worried that in her, they see me. We watch the rest of the movie in delicate silence.
When it is over, they say nothing. I want to say, “That’s not me. I am fine! I am not going to end up eating cat food and dancing around with a sweater on my head, past my prime and full of regrets about never having married!” But I can’t. Worried that they are worried, I want to assure them and try to think quick. Rushing to provide proof that I am in fact going places, that my career is taking off, I tell them of a new short story I have coming out in a lit magazine this spring—“No, it doesn’t pay anything, but it’s a very important magazine!”
And then I switch tacks. With the t-shirt still wrapped around my head, I jump down from the couch, and standing before them, I offer to show them my Tarantella. A joke, I think. I’m hilarious! But you can’t laugh at your own joke, another paradox, like my not being able to vote for the repeal of women’s suffrage. So keeping a straight face, I begin bouncing and twirling all around the room, waiting for them to get it, waiting for them to break out laughing and join me on the other side of the joke. But my parents’ faces remain frozen in horror. For staring up at me from the couch as I bounce and spin, their worst fears are confirmed—the Democrats have gotten to me.