“How is he?” Mona asked my mother once we found her. Mona had a lead foot and we beat the others by at least five minutes.
“I told you to stay home,” my mother said wearily, slumped over in her chair. She suddenly looked older than her age as she stared at the floor. Since it was the usual beige carpeting, I knew it wasn’t the fascinating design which held her attention. “The boys are coming, too, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they are,” Mona said, her tone aggressive. “How’s Ba?”
“Still in surgery,” Mom said, her own tone wan. “I haven’t talked to a doctor since I last called you.”
“How is he?” Hank shouted as he ran down the hall. The others were far behind him as he skidded to a halt. Mom went through the explanation again, and we all sat down to wait. Rafe sat besides my mother and was whispering something in her ear. I was too proud to try to eavesdrop, but I was dying to know what he was saying. I vowed I’d corner my mother later and ask her. I had a hunch it had to do with something from Rafe’s past that he wouldn’t talk about, and it irked me that he’d tell my mother something he wouldn’t tell me. Whatever it was, it seemed to make my mother feel marginally better, so I was thankful.
It seemed like hours since we arrive at the hospital, and it may have been so. Time had slowed down to a crawl. Every time I looked at the clock, it was only minutes after the last time I checked, and yet, half an hour chunk of time managed to get swallowed up before I could blink. I watched as desolate people shuffled by. Some had that dumb look of agony in their eyes which could only signify death. Some were bleeding profusely as they waited to be served. One man had a dazed look of joy which I took to mean that his wife had just delivered. Mostly, though, there was every shade of pain known to humankind. It’s ironic that while hospitals were necessary and even helpful, most people were deathly afraid of them. I wasn’t, but I didn’t particularly care for them, either.
Every time someone in hospital scrubs scurried by, I’d look up hopefully. Surely one of them carried news of my father. None even glanced at me as she or he hurried on to his or her destination. Crestfallen, I would look down again until the next person in pale blue crossed my path. Did they know that such weight was placed on their comings and goings? Did they realize how desperate a person could get sitting for hours in a waiting room and not hearing a damn thing? I knew they were busy and doing the best they could, but would it have killed someone to stop and give us an update on my father? Every time my mother tried to find out, she was given the runaround or told to sit and wait. So wait we did.
By the second or third hour, some of the natives were getting restless. Beth had class the next day as did Hank. Sidney was fretting over leaving her son with his grandmother for so long while Mona was wearing a hole in the floor. Rafe wasn’t saying anything, but I knew that he had to get up early to go to work in the morning. As for me, I had to go back to FunLand which meant rising early myself. I wasn’t leaving, however, until I found out about my father. The others could do what they wanted, but I was staying put. My mother insisted that Hank drive people where they needed to go as he was the best driver in the family. He didn’t want to, but she persisted. He gave in and left with Beth, Sidney, and Owen leaving Mona, Michele, Rafe, and me to be with my mother.
“Can I get you anything, Van?” Rafe asked solicitously. “How about a cup of coffee or a sandwich? You must be hungry.”
“I can’t eat,” my mother said, smiling at Rafe. “Why don’t you kids go to the café?”
“Not me. I’m staying put,” Mona declared, still pacing. She didn’t eat when she was agitated. Michele shook her head; she wouldn’t leave Mona when Mona was in this state.
“I’m hungry,” I announced, standing up. It was nine o’clock, and I hadn’t eaten since noon. Rafe and I went to the cafeteria to scrounge up some food. “What did you say to my mother?” I asked Rafe as soon as we were out of earshot of my family. I expected him to be coy, but he answered right away.
“I just told her that while it was hard to have someone in surgery, he was in good hands. My uncle had his gall bladder removed at this hospital, and they did a bang-up job of it.”
“You have an uncle who lives in Minnesota?” I stopped walking because I was so distracted with the news. “Why haven’t I met him?”
“He’s not exactly, uh, meet the girlfriend material,” Rafe said as he continued walking. I had no choice but to commence walking again or be left behind. However, I was not to be distracted.
“I want to meet him.” I was huffing a bit keeping up with Rafe as he was walking as fast as possible. Even though he was only a few inches taller than I, his legs were longer as I had short legs. “Come on, Rafe,” I said angrily. “We’ve been going out for six months and I haven’t met a single member of your family while you’ve met my whole clan. It isn’t fair.”
“Believe me, you do not want to meet my uncle,” Rafe said, not breaking his stride. I let it drop as we reached the cafeteria so I could decide what I wanted to eat. As soon as we had our food and were sitting down, however, I picked up the subject again.
“Do you have other relatives in state?” I asked before taking a big bite out of my cheeseburger. It was lukewarm, the cheese was slices of American and the lettuce was wilted, but I ate it, anyway.
“Drop it, Bet,” Rafe said imperiously, digging into his hamburger. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What about your mother?” I asked. Anger was growing inside of me, and I wasn’t going to back away from this argument. “Can you tell me something about her, or is she off-limits as well?” I didn’t bother to hide the sarcasm in my voice because I wanted him to hear it. Rafe stopped eating and set down his burger, giving me his full attention.
“What is this about, Bet?” Rafe asked, his eyes staring in mine. “I know you’re not getting this worked up about my mama.”
“We’ve been dating for six months and you’ve told me jackshit about your family,” I exclaimed, setting down my own burger. “I didn’t even know you had a sister in trouble until a few days ago when you slipped and mentioned something about her. I just don’t understand why your past is such a deep, dark secret.”
“It’s not a secret,” Rafe replied, still staring at me. His mouth was set in a thin line, and it sounded as if he was talking through gritted teeth. “I’m just not one of those New Age wimpy guys who emote all over the damn place. You want that, find yourself another man.”
“I’m not asking you to emote, god forbid,” I retorted, my voice rising. “You do enough of that as is. I don’t think it’s too much to want to know about your family. They are a part of you whether you like it or not, and knowing about them will help me know you better.”
“You want to know about my family?” Rafe’s tone matched mine as he leaned forward. I had never seen him so upset, but I didn’t budge. I knew I was in the right, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. “Fine. My father got my mother pregnant with me when he was sixteen and she was fourteen. You see, she learned to fuck so early because her brother—the uncle who lives in state—began messing around with her when she was nine and he was fourteen. When my grandfather found out about my mother and my father, he forced them to get married. I was born seven months later. My father and mother moved to New Jersey because my father got in some kind of trouble here. Two years later, my sister was born. A year after that, my father was gone. Where, I don’t know. My mother tried to raise us as best she could, but she was a fucked up seventeen year old who had learned that life is a whole lot easier if you’re numb from drinking. She worked, but every penny she earned went right down her throat.” Rafe paused to take a sip of water, but would not allow me to say anything before he continued.
“The childcare worker took my sister and me away. She placed us with a foster family, but allowed my mother limited access as long as my mother promised to clean up. Rachel and I were lucky because we were placed together. I took care of her as best I could. We stayed with our first foster family for a year until my mother sobered up, then we were returned to her. She had a job as a waitress which barely was enough to feed us let alone clothe us or pay the rent. She supplemented her income by turning tricks after her shift, mostly of guys she picked up from work. Some of them were ok, but most of them were shitty. We never went hungry though. I give my mom credit for that.”
“Rafe, you don’t have to tell me any more if you don’t want to,” I said, breaking into his flat recitation. What upset me more than his story was the way he was telling it—emotionlessly as if it had nothing to do with him. I knew that people only became that way through constantly numbing themselves to the horror of the story they were telling. I hated to think what it cost Rafe to be able to tell his sad story so calmly.
“I want to tell you,” Rafe insisted, his voice still flat. “You want to know, so I’m going to tell you.” He propped his chin up on his fist then continued. “Things were ok for the next ten years or so. Both my mom and I made sure that my sister was taken care of. She grew up to be a beautiful young woman who was as sweet as she was beautiful. She was very popular in school as well. Unfortunately, the year she turned thirteen, my father came back into our lives. He was still a drunk, and he quickly pulled my mother off the wagon. In a year, she was as bad as she ever was, and he was worse. My sister and I got shipped to another foster home while my mother was told that she had to sober up again if she wanted us back. Rachel was fourteen and I was sixteen. Mom didn’t sober up, so we didn’t live with her, though we still saw her.”
Rafe pulled out his wallet from his pocket and fished out a picture. It was of him and his sister at that age, I assumed. While Rafe was a younger version of himself with an engaging grin, his sister was stunning. She was about my height, but thin and willowy. Her black hair fell straight to her waist in thick waves. Her dark brown eyes looked as if they were laughing with you, but never at you. She had a smattering of freckles across her nose, and if it weren’t for the slight crookedness of her front tooth, her appearance would be flawless. She and Rafe have their arms around each other’s waists, and I could tell how much they cared about each other.
“She’s beautiful,” I said quietly, handing the picture back. My anger was spent even though I still felt I had the right to know something about his family. “Where is she now?”
“I’m getting there,” Rafe said, carefully tucking the picture back into his wallet before returning his wallet to his pocket. “She started dating the oldest son in the foster family. He was two years older than she, and really bad news. I tried to warn her that he was no good, but she wouldn’t listen. She said he was misunderstood and that deep down, he was a great guy. When I tried to get stern with her, she just laughed and said that she could take care of herself, that she was a big girl.” Rafe stopped again to drink some water. This time, I respected his need for a break and didn’t say anything. I knew this story didn’t have a happy ending, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it. I had demanded, however, so there was no way I could back out now.
“She went out with him one night, to a movie, she said. I waited up for her, but her curfew came and went with no sign of her. Rachel was a responsible girl, and she would have at least called if she couldn’t make it home on time. At one that morning, the doorbell rang. It was the cops. Tony—the boyfriend—had been in a gang of sorts and had done something to a member of a rival gang. They decided to get him back when they spotted him downtown. They pulled out their guns, and he, in turn, pulled Rachel in front of him. That fucking asshole used my sister as a shield and escaped. He was badly hurt, but he wasn’t killed even though he deserved to die. My sister, who’s only mistake was to love an asshole, took the bullets meant for him. When my mother found out, she freaked out. She kept saying it was her fault, that if she hadn’t fallen off the wagon, Rachel would still be alive. The damnedest thing was that I agreed with her and hated her for being so weak.” Rafe paused again, closing his eyes as he remembered.