The Price of a Cure
Grandma Sophia hobbled over to the table with another armload of plates, listening for cues from her daughter-in-law as they rushed around among a sea of aunts, older cousins and other wives carrying platters and bowls and big plastic cups. Henry was in the living room, quietly reveling in the fuss and surrounded by friends asking for favors. Henry had always been in a position to make decisions. “Henry? Would you like apple sauce or pudding after dinner?” to which five-year-old Henry would decide on neither. He would ask for pie; blackberry pie, from MacBeth’s Bakery, hot, with vanilla ice cream. He would glance easily with barely a smile at his mother, Andrea, who kept the house peaceful. “He’s a sweet boy, and sensitive, too,” she would tell their friends. “He’ll make a great man one day,” she would offer in defense. She preferred to imagine him a leader of sorts, a strong man. But, a foreboding thought led only to personal isolation and neglect as the years would pass.
But, on this day, Henry would turn sixteen. He was cut from a strange mold, one that applied more plaster to the bottom half than the top. His shorts would often get stuck in the folds of his buttocks and between his thighs. His father’s size 46 Peter Millar golf trousers gave clue to Henry’s unfortunate predicament. For now, his posturing was well-concealed beneath a young man’s muscular shoulders, a rather large head, wavy brown hair and couture shorts. The ladies beckoned from the atrium on the far side of the house and Henry slid into unusually tattered docksiders and took up a casual jaunt between his friends, setting the pace. An array of dishes greeted the boys as the women stood back with pride and the younger cousins and siblings restrained their chatter without understanding why. The hum of young men, the forceful clatter of serving spoons, the distant deep tones of their older selves on the veranda; this made the women feel alive and useful as they busied themselves in a catering charade of pleasantries. The protected bubble of masculine promise moved beyond the doors and past the older men like a caravan onto the lawn where the tables were shaded. Henry, Sr., guffawed a joke at his young protege to which the entire group roared with blue-blooded insight. The buffet table looked barely touched as the men elbowed and rocked down the line of fine foods and the women intermingled, wiping beads of sparkling sweat from their decolletes. Lunch was served.
The group bustled in and out of the house for seconds and thirds before settling into their chairs for a round of stories and salutes. The stories were never completely true and the salutes were blatantly disingenuous. Henry sat with youthful embarrassment at the cockamamie show of affection before indulging in the group’s squirmy demeanor. At the tail end of his mother’s courteous laughter, he interrupted the group with a sigh and a barely detectable nod of thanks. As though cued, the group picked up their glasses to drink while their own sighs and ridiculous dialogue filled the air and killed the time. Henry clinked his Jagermeister on the pinnacle of glasses in front of him and quietly toasted someone he’d named, “Sloppy Susie.” No one asked, but the group laughed. At this point, a dozen conversations had sprung up and the laughter was more an epidemic than a reaction to legitimate humor. Henry’s family and friends were enjoying a deliberate bliss at his silent request. Life had bent down and kissed sweet Henry square on the mouth.
Andrea invited the group inside for red velvet and a song, which Grandma Sophia led. Although her English was fluent, she sang the song in her mother tongue to which the young men found ridiculous, but sweet. Henry smiled genuinely for her, an anomaly his mother envied. Sophia began, “Joyeux anniversaire, joyeux anniversaire, joyeux anniversaire nom, joyeux anniversaire!” Applause, smile, kiss on the cheek, another shot of Jagermeister and they were off to the lake leaving his revelers in a red velvet haze of relief and gluttony.
Henry, Sr., and Andrea married out of need and expectation, as opposed to romance. In some marriages, one turns into the other, but, in their case, the only thing that morphed was need into expectation and expectation into need. Every box they ticked: jobs, houses, purchases and a child, was simply that, a ticked box. Henry, Jr., was a sticky glue they couldn’t remove and he honed in on his adhesive skills for leverage in a loveless, joyless family. For now, they had plateaued. Senior’s company was breaking records and his golf game was peaking. Andrea had reunited with her mother-in-law and was taking ballroom dance classes. Henry was successfully drinking a quart a day under the radar and was dealing acid and Ritalin. He had sexted with at least seventy girls from his junior class, more than any other guy in the school, and claimed to have slept with a Latin prostitute from Springwood. His parents gave money to the school and their love was a car, a phone, a credit card and few rules. Love was limited expectations and extensive assumptions. Henry’s privilege would be his passage.
At dusk, Henry and his friends ambled in through the back door and began chatting up the adults. The room seemed hollow, like a practically vacant bar with a shitty band. Clap. Clap. Clap. He waited for his parents to stumble through their half-baked presentation while meticulously planning his indebted performance. For a moment, he felt enraged that the speech was still underway several minutes later, but, he had already formed his mouth into a smile that he used for a multitude of emotions that no one dared dissect. Without further ado, Senior stepped forward and delivered a shiny Audi emblem attached to a key fob to which Junior pretended to wrestle with a flood of gratitude. There were hugs all around, pats on the back, teary ladies and giddy young cousins. In one final moment; a celebration, a communal feeling of satisfaction, and a smile on a boy’s face. But, Henry pitied his parents and they knew it. Everyone knew it. With a final kiss on Grandma Sophia’s cheek, he clutched his new key and was gone, friends in tow. With an enthusiastic wave that wouldn’t be seen, Senior and Andrea glanced at each other, desperate for validation. Their son was a product of expectation and this truth was evident in the superficial interactions of their everyday lives.
Later that night, Henry, Jr., would fall into a deep sleep behind the crushed steering wheel of his new car. Many people paid a price that night, including four of Henry’s friends and two strangers. Despite their confusion and grief, his parents also knew they were finally free of the glue that bound them.