The night they announce the divorce, my older sister Nan takes me for ice cream. I’m fourteen, she’s seventeen.
Nan insists I get two scoops. Mint-chocolate chip.
Nan has cookies-and-cream.
“Everything should be a little sweeter,” she says.
“I guess,” I say, hunched over the bowl. “You wonder what would happen if things were too sweet, right?”
Nan smiles, a smile as crumpled as a dollar bill. She has circles under her hazel eyes and I want to tell her something positive. I don’t know what.
“Enjoy,” Nan inhales, pats me on the arm. “Life should be a treat, Nicky.”
“It should,” she says, brushing her chestnut-hair, in its usual blunt bob. “Everyone should have one nice thing. It doesn’t always have to be about the rules.”
“I won’t argue,” I say. “But if there weren’t rules, then what?”
“Well,” she says. “Don’t you think rules are the problem, Nicky?”
“What do you mean, Nan?”
“Well,” Nan says. “Look at it this way. Rules are an excuse to do things arbitrarily. Even if it’s idiotic, even if it’s not the best course of action for someone.”
Leaning over the dish, I think of our family. Split. As if you took scissors and cut something in half. Or ripped notebook paper with a clean tear.
They promised this was about them. You divorced spouses. Not children.
They promised new lives, new adventures. New, new, new. They told us to choose who we wanted to live with. Then they started making excuses about their jobs.
Too many deadlines at the paper. Too much grading.
We want the best for you. We want to be there.
I want the best for you.
So do I.
Didn’t we just say we did?
Look who’s talking, self-important cocksucker.
My arm brushes against the dish now. It falls onto the floor.
“You have to be kidding,” I growl.
Ice cream oozes onto the floor, slithering rapidly in several directions, as if looking for some safe place to cease its journey. People stare, looking at the mess. A little boy in an oversized striped T-shirt points and laughs. Behold, the fourteen-year old slob in his habitat.
Shut it, douchewaffle.
An older man with a walrus mustache shakes his words, muttering something low and cruel in a Sam Elliott-like voice. He is deeming me a boy without manners, an embarrassment. Or the child of negligent parents. What do I tell him?
The ice cream oozes, its journey slower now. Music drifts from unseen speakers, a labyrinth of soft, yet insistent piano notes. “Reverie,” by Claude Debussy.
I know this because Nan listens to this piece on shitty nights. She says it makes her feel like slumber is a lush green valley and there are so many places to lay your head. One hill, another one. It makes no difference. In this valley, there’s no noise at all, just the music of the night and the cosmos, the possibility of personal communion with other sleepers and tired beings.
“It’s all right,” Nan says, hand on my shoulder. “We can get another.”
I watch the ice cream meandering, trickling, almost resigned to its inevitable course. No futile resistance.
Then I shouldn’t, but I start to cry. Not soft little whimpers, but a wail. I think of Nan and me seated on a couch while they made the announcement. I think of Nan’s lips, pursed into a cold, precise nothingness. And I think of things I should have said to her. Once she said I was her little comedian. Maybe I should have told a joke. Yes, that joke about Mickey and Minnie Mouse getting a divorce, because she was fucking Goofy. She’d have laughed.
I couldn’t speak when they asked if we had anything to say. My mouth flailed, like a fish.
I should have yelled back when they started on the “cocksuckers” and “motherfuckers.”
I think of shuffled boxes, empty rooms, locked away histories, Nan’s piano recitals, my plays, Mom’s old newspaper articles, Dad’s teacher’s awards. I think of weekends and weekdays, shuffling from one place to another.
Nan whispers things, low, soothing, foreign, meaningless. She smells like sweat and Marlboros, something once tender, but now nauseous. She keeps whispering until my tears subside, while people move around us. Some still look, but most move into the night.
Then she buys me another bowl of mint-chocolate chip.
“Eat up, Nicky,” she says. “It’s really all right.”
I eat because she needs me to for whatever reason. But it’s almost tasteless. No mint-like sensation, no meeting of sharp, yet soothing chocolate chips with my tongue. Just a massive block of ice cream that seems to weigh on my stomach. One spoonful. Another. Another.
What if I hadn’t dropped that last bowl?
Behind the counter, clerks dish up ice cream. New bowls, replacements. They refill bins, toss out others.
“Nicky?” Nan looks at me, her smile completely gone now.
“Just a sec, Nan.”
But the replacements never seem to have the same shape, the same precision, the same color as their predecessors. The new bin of chocolate looks a bit lighter. The vanilla looks more diluted. Even new bins look different in volume.
An older couple hobbles in, wrinkles and crooked smiles on full display. These smiles hold the weight of knowing. Knowing the past, waiting for the future with sorrow and patience. A future of diminished checks and phone calls, a future of being alone while loved ones make excuses. Busy with our kids, busy with projects. We were just down to visit the last weekend. Why don’t you make new friends?
I crumple the half-empty cup. Nan tries to say something, but I keep going. I feel the weight of something coming apart, something being destroyed. There’s a kind of relief, a rawness to it all because I’m the destructor. I feel like a king.
When its sufficiently crumpled, I toss it in the trash, don a smile, and tell Nan I’m ready to split.