“Am I getting old?” Teddy asked himself, scrutinizing the skin around his eyes as he stepped closer to the mirror. He widened his eyes, the blue seeming duller than in the past, bits of gray sneaking in around the edges.
Beyond his image crowds of people moved through the department store like slow lava, red hats and scarves twisting and flowing through the aisles. Bathrobes lay on the floor in clumps, having been jostled from the hanger by flurries of women. The air had a feverish feel to it and was inundated with the musty and flowery scents of a hundred perfume sprays.
Teddy could feel sweat budding up underneath the layering of down jacket, lambswool sweater and undershirt. It was one of the coldest days he could remember. Running to the car that morning the air had been cold enough to burn the inside of his nose. Sitting in the driver’s seat his breath came out in large feathery clumps. Trying desperately to get warm, he shoved his hands under thighs and curled his spine forward. The sky was bright, as if the pressure of cold on the particles caused them to explode.
Leaving the men’s department he gave himself one last glance in the mirror, now seeing the carved lines alongside his nose that seemed to hold up his cheeks. The Botox ad was becoming more and more appealing. Looking out the storefront window he watched the snow descend in long casual drifts.
The scene evoked recollections of being in his mother’s kitchen as a child, when the small square windows fogged up from the heat of the oven. “Surely I took it for granted”, he thought, looking over the spread of watches in a glass case, “I took for granted the comforts of that life”. He looked up to the crowd, motionless in their urgency, mouths hanging open in speech or delicate amazement as their voices merged into a single buzz, one burst of adrenaline. He sighed, wishing that after so long he could stop himself from being homesick around the holidays.
When alone in the car earlier that morning the world had been effortlessly brilliant. The empty streets and slow moving pine tree branches were a smooth embrace, wrapping him in the simplicity of time. Now the world seemed repugnant, and all these people swarming around him a virus.
His eyes focused on a newly polished thick-banded gold watch, shimmering under the halogen lights of the display case. The hours were represented by small embossed dots and measured by skinny obsidian hands. Leaning in to inspect it, he could see his thick fingers as they rapped on the case.
He couldn’t remember Michael ever wearing a watch, and now he found himself struggling to recollect what his brother looked like at all. There was the boyish smile with slightly crooked teeth, one having been knocked out while playing hockey, there was the mole above his lip, the cool blue eyes, grayer than his own—those things that would never change. How did he wear his hair now, Teddy wondered, and was he still wearing contacts or had he switched to glasses? Michael had inherited the thin frame of their mother, while Teddy was thick, stout, and heavy with muscles. He had been a goalie in high school. But that was so long ago, he thought, eyes focusing on the second hand of the watch.
He hadn’t seen Michael for three years now, not since his father’s funeral, held in July East Coast humid heat amidst a dozen or so colleagues, friends, and immediate family. His father was an only child, and his mother was the youngest of four daughters, two of which had already passed. Aunt Grace lived in a single room in an elderly home, and Aunt Jane had long since retired in California. All the women had married. Paul, Teddy’s father, had been the last husband to go.
His mother hadn’t cried. She had been prepared, she told Teddy, while she arranged a plate of cookies for the guests after the service.
Michael had quit smoking by then, and now shook his foot when he stood, chewed gum, tic tacs, altoids. He watched Teddy like he was an intruder.
“It hurts Mom’s back to reach down there,” he said, when Teddy instinctively searched through the lazy susan for sugar.
“Right, of course,” Teddy had replied, accepting the sugar dish Michael held out for him. At arms length now, each took a step back.
“Mom had the whole thing redone a year or so after you moved,” Michael said, nodding as he glanced along the granite countertops, turned a bottle of wine around in the lattice.
“It looks good,” Teddy said, though he did not feel as though he were home. The old oak cabinets had been replaced by cherry with double panes of glass. When he was young he could run his finger along the bottom of the cabinets near the stove and feel the residue of cooked meals, now the wood was smooth and polished. The air smelled of lemons and Michael’s face had grown hard. The trees in the yard had been cut down, supposedly diseased.
Michael’s wife had been there, though they were cold to one another, often avoiding each other’s eyes when in the same room, and if they were by chance standing alongside one another, their bodies stiffened. Teddy wondered if they were still married or if Michael was a bachelor now. His mother never told him anything when they spoke, she just shrugged off his questions with “Oh Michael’s just Michael,” and changed the subject. He didn’t even know if he was angry anymore, or if time had just got the better of him and worn him into a habit of ignorance.
“May I help you sir?” came a voice, and Teddy jolted. The left side of his face was on the glass counter so that he was fish-eyeing the gold watch, now a blur through the fogged glass. He stood up, wiping his hot breath marks from the counter with the sleeve of his coat. The lanky man standing in front of him sighed slightly and repeated himself, not changing his tone.
“I’m just looking at watches…for my brother,” Teddy said, and looked across the counter to a young couple with matching blond highlighted hair, the woman draping a platinum watch over her pink-gloved hand. They looked at each other adoringly.
“And you were looking for gold in particular?” the man asked, opening the case and pulling out the gold fortress he had been examining.
“I don’t really know, honestly. I don’t know him that well, anymore that is.” The clerk smiled apathetically.
Michael had always had a certain image of his older brother—he was the tough one, the one that didn’t take shit from anybody, the one that had guts. When Teddy came out, Michael downright refused to believe it. For weeks he acted as if it were a joke or worse, that Teddy was losing his mind. Teddy could do nothing but hope Michael would adjust and come to accept his sexuality, but Michael only became more distant. He found excuses to miss the ESPN hockey nights at Teddy’s apartment, even after he got a big screen TV. He no longer dropped by after work on Fridays to drink a beer or talk shit about work. Soon he wasn’t answering phone calls. Their parents refused to interject, saying that they were old enough to come to an ideological compromise. Previously boisterous family dinners were now on the verge of silence, the brothers eyes’ rarely meeting.
When Teddy got job offer from and architectural firm in Seattle, he didn’t think twice. It paid almost twice as much as his current position, and he could start over. He could be himself from the beginning.
“I don’t know. Maybe he still runs, it might be better to get him a sports watch or something,” Teddy said, now feeling that this watch would be the worst present he could choose. The clerk’s eyes went to the smiling blond couple, and he excused himself from Teddy.
Teddy scowled at the watch and flung himself around. He felt his cell phone in his pocket and longed to take it out, call Michael and demand to know why he didn’t deserve to be in his life.
“Why do I have to be in this place?” he asked out loud, in a forcibly quiet voice, “why does it matter?” He clenched his teeth and curled his fingers into fists. Throwing his hands down to his sides he pressed them against the down jacket until he could feel his ribs tighten.
He threw up his hands and turned back to the watch counter, motioned the clerk over to him.
“I’ll take it,” Teddy said, pointing to the gold watch. The clerk gasped a little bit.
“Wonderful,” he said, “it really is a beautiful choice.” The clerk took his time setting the watch into its ruby red satin lined box and wrapping it tightly in gold paper, chatting happily as he did so. Teddy watched his lips move and his eyebrows rise as he entered the price into the cash register, but his voice blended into the background noise and became static. He envisioned the expression on Michael’s face upon discovering the package on his front steps and reading Teddy’s name on the corner. Would he open it at all? Would he tell their mother? He wanted to believe that Michael would wear it, that he would eventually be driven to call.
“Is this pathetic?” he asked himself as he opened the department store doors and was again shocked by the bitter cold. He breathed the air in heavily, feeling it in his throat and lungs. He looked down into the bag, watching stray snowflakes hit the gold package and melt slowly off the sides. It was something, he thought, and tucked the bag into his pocket.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED