Computers and Bill Clinton’s penis consume the world. Meanwhile, from behind a desk, my older sister becomes my teacher. She’s twenty-six. I’m fourteen.
Attired in her usual lavender, a throwback, I always say, she prods to me to proclaim causes and effects, the source of Nicholas II’s downfall, Russia’s military shortcomings. She smiles when I recite facts and figures on cue. She murmurs approval, an almost electrical and overwhelming hum.
She praises details I slip in for her benefit. The languages X leader spoke, Y leader’s favorite meals, the precise date of someone’s birth. Trivialities.
But I generally stick only to the facts.
Some nights, the two of us alone, Nan says I can be a professor, a diplomat, a teacher myself. I just need to dig deeper, deeper.
“I know you can achieve, Nicky,” she says, firm words replaced by a tentative tenderness. “You’re not Mom. Or Dad.”
She surveys me, hazel eyes holding great weight. Sometimes, I think she wants to walk away from history. To say something else. But what? What do you want? Tell me the saddest thing in your life?
Our life has been history. When we talk, even beyond school walls, we talk of politics, movies, even. The Big Lebowski, Bill Clinton, the burgeoning power of the Internet.
“Where’s the logic?” she always says about Lebowski. “It’s amusing, but where’s the logic in mistaken identity and rugs micturated upon.”
“That’s the point,” I say. “Some logic can’t be conveyed by neatness.”
“But rugs, nihilists, destroyed Corvettes?” Nan says. “That’s just emotionally disturbed.”
I could retort. But I know too many causes, too many effects. We both do. Quixotic ideas, booze, ruptures, cracked laughter, words, goals clashing, hamster wheels, too little space, destroyed drywall, fusillades. Wanderlust, headlights disappearing.
The problem is Nan holds causes and effects, like a blanket. She walks with grace and straightness.
I’m Nicholas Alexander Botkin, age fourteen, connected only by birth, by chance to Mom and Dad. But Nan’s big on genetics, Romanovs, Clintons, what-have-you. She talks of legacies in class. How did X influence Y? Tell me, Nick. Tell me.
And now I’m Nan’s charge, in her custody, to use the parlance of legalities. We share a three-room apartment with beige walls. Our bedrooms are adjacent, but yet they seem sixty feet apart. From Nan’s room, I hear only Tchaikovsky and stirring strings, the rustle of pages. Sometimes, I listen for a sob, for something, anything. Even a giggle.
I want to turn the clock, when Nan wasn’t a teacher but someone who exchange dirty jokes and safe spaces. Once she taught me how to mix kindness and sarcasm, cast vulnerability aside. It was only two years ago, before all this happened, before they disappeared.
“Always sneer a little,” she said, huddled in my room one dark night. “No one messes with a sneer.”
But sneers turn to frowns. Even when Nan laughs, she frowns.
Once, she took me to movies like Billy Madison and did her horrible, lovable Adam Sandler imitations. Once she envied Adam Sandler drifting in a pool, in boozy somnolence. And once she said the world was something to throw rocks at.
Now her lips are pursed, while she reviews revolutions, depressions, familial breakup during the 1930s. But she asks questions, asks, asks, watches. She never disappears. If I remain too quiet, she darts from around a corner. And to be honest, here’s a certain soothing quality to the clickety-clack of her footsteps, grace and order, not the thump of falling and cracked laughter. There’s some sad relief not looking up and down bare streets, waiting for logic and parenthood to return.
Nan sits behind a desk. I know her centrifugal point in the world.
Sometimes, I’ll pretend not to know an answer. Sometimes, I’ll do a Billy Madison voice or quote The Dude. I’ll watch her face crumple like a dollar bill and feel a kind of relief. Dark, perverse relief. And I’ll crumple within because she can’t laugh at it. Because she can’t just call me a chucklehead, like a few years before.
Knowing, knowing, knowing, what a long freight train.
But how I want.
I want to walk into the night, walk down a street, fueled by whim, the arc of a streetlamp, the glow of a movie theater. I want to feel the openness of sky, tree branches blowing and shifting on spring nights with grace. How I want to absorb the moon and accept that she’s a luminous mystery.
I just want Mom and Dad to reemerge, explain their fights, even if it’s an excuse. A platitude. I don’t want a soliloquy, a monologue. I just want to know how you can try to take over the world, fight corporate lickspittles and then give into despair. I want to know how you can up and leave with such ease. But I’m not sure I want the historical version of that answer, the root causes, the catalysts, the powder kegs, what-have-you.
I want to question what it means to be fourteen. I want to question and answer Nan’s questions with another question: Why me? Why must I achieve? You’re the history teacher. Is that not enough? Intellectuals aren’t immune to idiocy. Just look at them. Say fuck it, fuck it, like the Dude, like the world.
I want to imagine myself something, anything. A jazz pianist, an actor, a rapper, a painter, a writer, someone who can color beyond lines and explanations. I want to be able to come and leave with ease, to traverse spaces. Power, power, what a word.
I just want Nan to tell a dirty joke about Nicholas II, make an off-color comment about Rasputin’s penis, rip a history book. I want a smile. I just want to tear the past, piece by piece, except for the good parts.
And I just want history to explode, rupture. I just want something blank. But Nan wants, wants, and adolescence grows, adulthood leering.
Nan keeps pushing history. The powder keg growls, waiting, waiting. I don’t want it to erupt, but it will, if logic is any guide.
I also want one last movie, one last time with Nan, throwing popcorn at logic and hurling Junior Mints at naysayers. One last, fleeting screen, flickering with warmth. That I’d love to see in a history book.
I want a smile, a laugh, Nan to stand up on a desk like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I want her to leap, jump all over genetics and crush it in swift descent.
I just want.