Returns

By Ryan Healy

I’d been sober for six years the night I met up with my brother John in the old neighborhood. I waited for him on the steps outside of the bathhouse over on East 10th Street. Some time had passed, and I could see the subtle lines and tugs around the crests of his face. 

“Don,” he said, and gave me a hug. 

“Don? That sounds so grown up,” I said. Everyone had always called me Donnie.

“When’s the last time you’ve been to this place?” he said, his hands at his hips, staring up at the awning. 

RUSSIAN AND TURKISH BATHS.

“Not in a few years," I said. He looked thin and his face was full of color. "You look good.”

“I started running,” he said, “I don’t remember the last time I was here.” 

We walked in, popping a vacuum of humid air as we crossed over a mosaic of blue tiles. A man stood at the counter over a magazine, a yoke of white towel around his neck. Below him the counter display was full of tee shirts and coffee mugs with the same blue and the same text as the awning.  

“Two, please,” John said.

“Forty,” the man said. He didn’t look up from the magazine.  

I reached into my pocket for my wallet.

“Please,” John said.

“Are you sure?”

He laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure.”

He took two twenties from his wallet and laid them out, away from me, on the counter. The man looked up at him before he walked down to the other end. He returned with two stacks of towels, robes, flip-flops, trunks and locker keys on rings made from coiled telephone cords.

“Change downstairs,” the man said, and went back to the magazine.

We walked past a pair of kitchen doors with a slow leak of boiling potatoes blooming with onions and vinegar and the sweaty machinery of clanking pots under running water while few women yelled back and forth over some radio music. 

We walked down a flight of narrow yawning stairs and rounded a corner to the men’s locker room. The light down there was fluorescent and lifeless. We changed out of our clothes and slipped into the one-size-fits-all trunks which sagged on both of us. 

“The last time I was here was with you,” he said, and slid the key ring around his wrist and let the key dangle towards the floor.

“That was a long time ago.”  I slid my feet into the flip flops. The rubber arrow was clammy against the tops of my feet. I didn't remember. 

“How’s Rosalie?” he asked.

“Good,” I said, “we’re good.”

John shook his head. A faint smile ran across his lips.  

“How long have you guys been together, now?”

“Forever.” I laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“I don’t know. Us? Being here? This was a hell of place to pick out.”

“Oh, yeah. Why’s that?” John said, and ran a hand over the grit of his chin, audible over echoes of running water.

“Because of pop.”

“I have a cold coming on.”

It was a lie. We both knew it. John was the type of man who remembered things through that pick-and-choose-salad-bar-memory of the prideful. I knew, down in my bones, that our father had been the same exact way.

“Oh,” I said, and then said something else to cover the stink of the earlier moment. It fell flat on the tile floor and he looked at me.

“You still think about that guy?”

“Sometimes.” 

“Well, don’t,” he said, “that’s a surefire way to be a loser.” He slammed the locker door shut. For years we both had tried our hardest to bury the old man who was still out in the world, somewhere, pretending we didn’t exist.  

 Back up the stairs, our flip-flops slapped against the steps like fish feet. Across the lobby, John led us up another set of stairs, past wood-paneled walls with framed photographs that documented the last few decades of men sweating.

We entered a dark room where humid air met with a wading pool of iced water in the center of the room. A membrane of fog rolled towards our feet. As my eyes adjusted to the light, a man in trunks with a woman in a burgundy one-piece passed us by, headed down a long hallway lined with a few wooden doors.

“In the schvitz your pores open up,” the man said, as they passed, “in the sauna you sweat out the poisons.” 

A moment later an old man walked out of the radiant heat room and right into to the ice pool. He emerged, breathing and hollering and waving his arms.

"We could do that, you know?" John said.

"No thanks."

"What's a matter?"

"Not my idea of a fun time."

"Well, you've had more fun than most."

"Yeah, I guess so."

John walked off towards the saunas and steam rooms whose doors were made of heavy oak. Shellac sealed up the wood. In the center of each door was a porthole. John pulled on a door to a steam room. Its humidity exhaled into the hall. We walked in on the couple. She quickly pulled her hand away from under his towel. They left the room. I heard them laughing out in the hall. We sat down on wet tiled bleachers and breathed.  

The last facility I was at I spent a lot time meditating. Finding some sort of center within myself through my breathing, learning how to return to the breath. It was out in the desert. It got so quiet there at night. Growing up in the city, I had never known such quiet existed. At the start, my imagination produced phantom rags of ice cream trucks and the plate tectonics of subway trains. After a month of breathing, the city's insistence atrophied. I was forced to listen to myself. 

“What’s going on?” John said, rubbing his face with his hands. A question that loosely translated to: What was so important that you needed to drag me out of Fort Salonga on a Tuesday night?

“I need some advice,” I said.

“Oh Jesus,” he said. “Did you knock her up?”

“What? no?”

“Don’t lie to me—never lie about a pregnant woman, Donnie. The cat always comes out of the bag.”

“Christ, no, I haven’t knocked up Rosalie.”

“What, then?”

“You know that diamond guy you know?”

John tapped his feet against the wet tiles. It sounded like rain. He coughed and that made me cough.

“My little brother,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. 

“You’re going to pull the trigger,” he said, and it sounded less like a question than it did a command.  

“If that’s okay with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t come here to ask your permission. I just want the goddamn diamond guy’s number.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said, and slid over to me, a sweaty knee touched mine.  “Listen, I’m happy for you. Really, I am,” he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. “What spurred this on?”

“It wasn’t spurred. I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”

“How long’s ‘a while?’”

“A year.”

“That is a while. His name’s Anshel. He and his brothers own a bunch of apartment buildings out in Brooklyn. I do electrical for him. Sometimes, HVAC.”

“You trust that guy?”

“He’s earned it,” he said, looking up at the pipes above. “You’re going respectable.” John tapped my shoulder.

“How much do you think it’s going to cost?” I said.

“Well, how much you got?”

“Walking around? About fifteen hundred.”

“Good,” he said, as if breaking down the numbers in the steam. “We’ll get you a good price. You know what? I should go with you. We could do it together. I’ve been there. Make sure you don’t get taken.”

“I thought you said I could trust that guy?”

“Oh, no. You can. But, at five o'clock, he’s still just a business man. Business is business and family’s family.”

“Sure,” I said, “sounds like a solid idea.”

“Of course it is. The two of us walk in there? Forget it."

“Christ, John. You’re more excited than I am.”

“Oh please,” he said. “I already got the wife, the kids. My life’s sold. I’m just making the payments.”

“It gets that good, huh?”

"It’s good. You just might not know it for about thirty years," John laughed and smacked me between the shoulders blades. The sound resonated hollow against the tiles. 

“How are you going to pop the question?”

“I haven’t thought of that yet.”

“Want my advice?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Don’t go big,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean. Don’t go big.”

“Why not?”

“Because: you’ll have nowhere to go but up. Every time you don’t go big for an anniversary or a birthday, she’s going to stockpile that somewhere deep inside that intuition of hers. ‘He doesn’t do special things for me anymore…not like when he proposed.’ She won’t use it for a long time. And that’s the rub. The expectation will wear her down. So, don’t go big.”

“What do you recommend?” I said.

“I don’t. You’ll know it when it comes to you. It'll be this vacuum moment in your life and only have meaning for the two of you.”

“That’s the most elegant thing I’ve ever heard you say,” I said.

“Go shit,” he said.

“And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen.”

“You don’t want my advice? Fine.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really appreciate it. You know me. I’m nervous. I make jokes.”

“You think she’s going to say, yes?”

The steam kicked on. For a few moments my brother disappeared. It bought me a moment. Concentrate on the breath. I thought of Rosalie coming home from work and not finding me there.  

“Since we got back together I come home every night to cook dinner,” I said, “it’s our routine––how we stay on each other’s radar. If she works late she calls and asks me to tell her what I am cooking. Sometimes, she asks me to hold the phone over a pot of boiling water. I don’t know what that is but it’s what I want.”

The hiss of the steam began to settle down. I heard John clearing his nose, his quick snorts, like a Brangus bull, echoed all around the room.  

“You’re a lucky man to have a woman like that wade through all that shit you caused. I didn’t think she’d take you back. And, about what you said before—about it being, 'what you want.' How do you know it’s what she wants?” Now the steam moved off of him.

“I asked her. She told me. Listen, John, I already made my amends with everybody I could think of. I don’t smoke anymore. Hell, I don’t even put sugar in my coffee. I’d love to be a part of family who could forget.”

“Then we wouldn’t be a family,” he said, “you’ve taught us these habits.”

“What habits?”

“Reactivity,” John said. He stared right at me long enough that I wished the steam would swallow him back up. I knew that it wouldn’t. I was left with my older brother’s eyes on me. 

“To be honest, Donnie, I haven’t missed you all that much.” He tugged on his nose as he exhaled.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Don’t get me wrong. You’re my only kid brother and I love you. When I think back on the last ten years there’re maybe three or four with you that I choose to recognize. Remember that summer I got to go to summer camp? Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco.”

“Where they filmed that slasher-flick?”

“You stayed behind the whole summer. I never wanted to come back. But, I had to because I was still a kid. But that’s how I feel now, out on the island. I’m at camp all year long and you’re stuck at home.”

“I remember you calling home, crying to ma to come and get you.”

“It’s okay to get angry Donnie. Trust me, I know. But there’s no point in not being honest with you. It’s either honesty or another few years.”  “I’m not getting angry. I just don’t know what I else I have to do. I’m either treated as a thief or an invalid. I’m just wondering what does it take?”

I sat there, blinded by the truth of his words, which hung silent in the air above. One thing you must learn in treatment is to surrender. Not to the things that are going to kill you, those are the things that got you there in the first place, but to those that keep you breathing. Living with the disease became my life. At some point I wanted to feel something more. I’d betrayed John so many times. Most of which I can’t even remember. The anger I felt towards him had the barbs chemicals leave behind when they were gone. I had almost forgotten it. It was true that my life with Rosalie was a small and quiet one, by necessity. It’d also always felt conditional. I could throw the tumblers on the whole thing by walking into the wrong place. 

“I don’t know what you could do. Things heal, I guess, over time.”

John stood up and placed one hand on my shoulder to prop himself up. His knees cracked and he groaned, "Let's hit the sauna." 

The desert heat made my nose hairs curl up like frightened ferns. It smelled like pine and sandalwood. We sat down on the wooden benches that lined the walls. They were white hot against the bottoms of my thighs and I had to ease into sitting down. 

“It’ll stop in a few minutes. Just suck it up,” John said. He just plopped right down and his method for dealing with the heat was to simply adjust his weight from side to side.

In a corner by the door, ribbons of heat rose off the bed of hot rocks and blurred the air. We sat there and said nothing. I started feeling my pores open up and small, audible streams of sweat running down my back, bunching up on the shoulders of my towel. It was okay to breathe, to sit there and allow myself to be angry which can be like fumbling around in the dark for a light switch. If you’ve ever been in the dark long enough then you might've reached a point when it can become desirable surrender to it and not to be a part of anything. Anger’s the same in how it takes away accountability and logic. But, when the lights come on or the logic is reinstated you’re caught in whatever embarrassing position you’ve put yourself in. I’ve been angry my entire life. It came from some place I couldn’t talk to or control. Breathe. Concentrate on the breath, return to breath in an attempt to hear it. 

“I understand,” I said, “I hurt a lot of people.”

“Yes,” he said, "You have."  

"It's funny how the past clouds over."

"For you, maybe. Like I said before, you're the one who had all of the fun. The rest of us were worried about you. You wore us down. Care, concern, empathy, compassion: these things run out. And now you're sober, a long time, too. Unfortunately, trauma and emergency always take the oxygen out of accomplishment, Don."

"Donnie," I said.

"Fine...Donnie. Jesus. You're sober, you want to get married and you're still a kid."

I had to bite my tongue. My brother's anger towards me aged enough that it had reached a place of normalcy within him. Which was probably why we hadn't seen each other in three years. Most of the time it’s easier to let the anger lay in wait. Before the desert I'd been angry at him. It disappeared with the noise in my head and I was left with regret and shame. 

“So, Fifteen Hundred?" John said. "We’ll get you something real nice for Fifteen hundred.”

We left the sauna not long after and put on our robes and headed up to the roof. There was a bite in the air as we lay down next to each other on patio chairs beneath an old oak tree that had grown up and out in between telephone lines. One of the tree’s heavy limbs hung over the roof and swung in the breeze. We ordered pierogi off the laminated menu, with kielbasa and stuffed peppers. I hadn’t been that hungry in a long time. I thought of Rosalie sitting alone at our kitchen table picking at a plate of food she’d prepared. A sparse plate of vegetables, chicken. Nothing like the meals I made for hours after I got home from my part-time job. We’d leave the same time in the morning and I’d be home by three. We lay there and allowed the heat to leave our bodies. 

“Here it comes,” said John.

The woman carried the three plates in her arms and set them down on a table between us. She asked us if we wanted something to drink. John ordered a red wine. I ordered a club soda or as they call it in meetings, beer without the fun. We sat upright over the food and ate.

“When do you want to do this?” John said, drinking his water down.

“Don’t know.”

“Sooner than later?” 

“Yes.”

I nodded and finished a pierogi with grilled onions that I’d managed to spear with my fork and dipped into sour cream. I'd lost track of the amount of food I'd eaten. A softball-sized lump of starch and meat grew in my stomach, robbing my limbs of blood.

When we finished we lay back and the swaying oak branch lulled us into a light heated sleep. Twenty minutes later, the sound of the waitress taking the plates away woke us up. We stood up and stretched and walked back down the stairs. We walked past the door to the radiant heat room where men yelled on the other side. On our way out we passed the ice pool. A short blonde lady knelt in front of it, taking its temperature.

"Is it okay?" John gestured to the woman.

The woman stood up and shook the thermometer, "Yes."

John took off his robe and jumped in. 

"Dunk!" the woman said, and John took a deep breath and sat down in the pool. He popped up quickly, yelling, like that old man from before.

“Come on,” John said,  “it’ll wake you up.” He had chicken skin and hopped up and down in the pool. I recoiled as a few drops of the water fell on my foot.

“I don’t remember this,” I said.

“You go," the lady said. She stood a foot shorter than me and folded her arms–which were more muscular than mine.

“Yeah. You go,” John said, and laughed as he climbed up the stairs and toweled himself down. “Don’t be a chooch.” he said, excavating one of our old history book taunts from whatever tomb it had been buried. Chooch. I forced myself in. The water rose up to my balls both of whom retreated inside of me. 

“Jesus…Fuck!” I said.

“Dunk!” They both said.

“Okay!”

Beneath the surface my vision went white from the cold. Electricity. Dying. My muscles contracted and locked. I felt the heat inside of me seep out.  

John stood next to the woman now and clapped. He nudged her with his elbow and she started clapping as well. “There he is folks. My little brother, the polar bear!”  

The woman laughed.

“Having fun?” I said.

“Oh, yes. We are having fun. Come on, Don,” he said. He handed me my towel.

“There you go with ‘Don’ again.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Makes me feel like I’m in trouble.”

John shook his head and said, “Okay DONNIE. There is that better? You want a goddamn noogie, too?”

He ran his towel over his head giving it a bowling ball’s polish after which made his short graying hair stick up in spikes. He exhaled to fight off a chill and slipped his flip flops back on. The towel was draped around his shoulders. My brother stood there, taking in the place, perhaps he gauged things the way I did. A unique occurrence to growing up is returning to the places you lived as a child and remarking, to yourself or aloud, how small those spaces actually were. But, we never came here as kids. As teenagers, sure, once in a while. We got dressed and I insisted on paying for the food on way our way out. John just put his hands up in the air and said, "thanks." Outside the bathhouse, we said, goodbye and how it was good to see each other.

A few weeks later, I went and got the ring myself. After, I called John and told him. "Oh," he said, like he'd forgotten about the whole thing, "Hope you didn't get ripped off." I told him that I hadn't. He said, "good," and then, "good luck, Don."