Family and Other Catastrophes – excerpt
David’s childhood home looked like a modern, more expensive version of a log cabin. In front there was a wraparound wooden deck, an expanse of freshly cut grass and a tire swing hanging from an old maple tree. A well-worn wooden playhouse, painted red like a miniature barn, still stood out on the lawn. David’s father had built it when he and his brother were little and later converted it into a shed for his tools. Nick was the type of manly-man father that Emily only saw on television. He had worked for years in risk arbitrage and was now retired. He was in his late fifties, and despite being able to afford to hire people to fix things around his home, he took pleasure in home improvement: building decks, fixing pipes, woodworking.
“Hello!” he called from the front door. Emily always marveled at how excited David seemed to see his father: no deep breathing to prepare, no nervous fidgeting, no anticipation of attacks, no deployment of prearranged conversational shutdowns. Nick gave David a long, effusive hug, as if it had been years since they last saw each other. Nick and his wife, Susan, had visited San Francisco just a few months earlier, and a similar hug had occurred then.
“Emily,” Nick said, reaching out to hug her. He had a strong jaw like David’s, the same blue eyes. He had a receding hairline, short brown hair sprinkled with gray, and freckles on his nose. Sometimes when Emily looked at Nick, she wondered if he was what David would grow up to be. She could do a lot worse.
“Emily, sweetheart!” David’s stepmother, Susan, bounced over and hugged her. She was barely five feet, so Emily had to bend down. Susan had met Nick on eHarmony two years earlier. She had been living in Idaho, so they had a long-distance relationship for a year before she moved to Connecticut to marry him. She was plump with dyed blonde hair and hazel eyes. She liked to wear festive earrings that matched the season. Today she was wearing tiny dangling watermelons.
“Susan!” Emily said, giving her a hug. “You smell awesome, what is that?”
“You’ll laugh,” said Susan. “I went shopping with Mad- dyson and bought the latest Britney Spears perfume. I was worried she’d laugh at me for trying too hard, but apparently ‘only older people like Britney Spears’ anyway.”
“That’s crazy. I still love Britney Spears!”
“Well, Maddyson is eighteen so she thinks everyone is old.
So how are things in San Francisco? See any great shows?”
Susan had very limited experience with big cities, other than the few times she and Nick had ventured into Manhattan to see the Rockettes or The Lion King. When they’d visited David in San Francisco, she had insisted on riding the cable cars everywhere.
“I don’t really go to live shows very much,” Emily said. “You mean music, right?”
“Any show!” Susan laughed. “You are so lucky. Young and in a big city!”
Steven and Marla approached. Emily tensed. Her parents had met Nick and Susan before, right after she and David got engaged. Emily had delayed that encounter as long as possible because she had a palpable fear that her parents would alien- ate Nick and Susan so much that they would advise David to break up with her. Once they got engaged, she felt a little more secure, and finally told her parents that David’s parents lived close enough for them to meet up. Luckily for her, Marla and Steven only saw Susan and Nick for lunch once at a Mexican place called Cha Cha Cha Sombrero. Marla and Steven didn’t make much of an effort to see them after that, despite Susan occasionally sending them invites to events they would obviously hate, like the Fairfield Pumpkin and Gourd Festival. Emily imagined the scene at the Mexican restaurant: Marla declining to order anything from the menu, instead producing a plum and a yogurt from her bag while regaling Nick and Susan with an exhaustive list of the anti-anxiety medications Emily was prescribed in high school. After the lunch, Marla called Emily to tell her that Nick and Susan were “nice people,” which Emily knew was the real kiss of death for Marla. Later, Marla complained over the phone to Emily about a mass e-card Susan had sent her for Easter, featuring pastel cartoon rabbits somehow hatching out of eggs, which she found offensive because “she should know we don’t celebrate that.”
“Well, if it isn’t the most brilliant woman in the tri-state area!” Susan said, giving Marla a hug. “You look lovely!”
“Thank you, Susan. Such unique earrings.” Marla hugged her, then gestured toward Susan’s earrings as if she had just received an underwhelming piece of noodle art from a seven- year-old.
“Aw, thanks. There’s this adorable little jewelry place I went to when Nick and I were visiting Beantown. I thought of you the whole time. What a kick it must have been to grow up there. All the shows!”
“It was nice.”
“Do you get back there often?”
“Not that much. The last time I was there— God, I don’t think I’ve been there since my last Harvard reunion.”
Never misses a chance, Emily thought. “Ooooh, Harvard! I forgot you went there!”
“Oh, let’s not get into Harvard,” Marla said, waving it off, a few bangles clinking against her narrow wrist.
“You know who you’re like? JFK! Funny factoid, but he went there, too.”
Marla smiled weakly, and Emily could already see beads of sweat forming on her mother’s freshly waxed upper lip. “Well, I don’t think I’m that much like JFK, but I’ll take the compliment.” Marla had a distaste for Catholics that made little sense. It was an attitude more typical of lapsed Catholics with nightmarish memories of parochial school. Marla said her anger came from perfectly justifiable outrage over anti-Semitism, but Emily thought it seemed odd to single out Catholics for that. She was fairly certain that Marla’s prejudice had more to do with a girl from her high school in Boston named Colleen Sweeney—a transfer from a Catholic girls’ school— who in 1973 had won both the Latin award and the science award, two awards Marla believed she deserved. The Colleen story had been told to Emily various times over the course of her childhood, with a different moral each time. Once, the takeaway was that even if you fail at something when you are younger, you can always grow up to prove your critics wrong. (At the end of the story, Marla gleefully revealed that Colleen later turned out to be a stay-at-home mom.) Another time, she ended the story with the assertion that even if you are brilliant, if you don’t work hard enough, some “idiot” with a better work ethic could beat you.
“So how is the psychiatry racket going?” Susan asked. “Psychology, actually.” It was a distinction that Marla wasn’t proud of, and Emily was surprised she even owned up to it.
Susan turned to Emily. “What a kick, growing up with a mom who’s a therapist! Did she ever diagnose you with anything?”
“Um, yes.” Emily dug her heel into the lawn. “I mean, she diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. And some other stuff that she later revised.”
She regretted saying it as soon as the words left her mouth. Susan placed one hand over her freckled chest, another over her mouth, her eyes widening as if she’d just found out that Emily had a terminal illness.
“It’s not a big deal,” Emily said. “Honestly.”
“Marla,” Susan gasped. “I had no idea! I am so sorry.”
“It’s nothing to feel bad about,” Marla said. “Emily has had her fair share of challenges, but it’s very important to us that we strive to help her function as well as she possibly can.”
“Mom, I’m literally right here.”
“Well, this is nothing you don’t know. I never wanted you to be treated differently because you struggle with anxiety. It was hard enough that you were profoundly gifted. Trying to help you assimilate socially proved challenging for me.”
“Okay, I’m getting some food now.” Emily took David’s arm and waved goodbye to the four parents. She panicked for a moment, worrying that in her absence Marla would unleash embarrassing stories about her worst anxiety attacks—like the time when she was fourteen and she cried in a restaurant because she suspected a waiter had not washed his hands after using the bathroom and her parents made her eat her baked ziti anyway. But knowing Marla, she would try to keep her conversation with Susan as mercifully brief as possible.
“They’ll be fine,” David said, squeezing her hand.
Nick went to man the grill, donning an apron with a corny Mr. Good Lookin’ is Cookin’ slogan next to a cartoon of a goofy, big-eared and big-nosed barbecuing man with a head two times bigger than his body. Nick sometimes made Emily wistful; she couldn’t help comparing him to her own father, who spent family dinners deriding other faculty members he was convinced were trying to sabotage his chances at tenure. “My dad has already texted me since I’ve gotten here,” David said, looking at his phone. “Why does he do this? This one just says, Dave, so proud of you! You have really become a man!”
“It’s cute. He cares about you, and he still thinks texting is new and fun.”
“Yeah, but I’m like ten feet away from him.”
“I can’t really blame him. When you come home it…well, I think it reminds him of your mom.” Emily still felt uncomfortable approaching the topic of David’s mother. No matter how angry she got with Marla, she didn’t think she’d be able to go on if Marla died. She didn’t understand how David didn’t break down crying now and again. She liked to think he showed that people could bounce back from tragedy, but instead his calm attitude signified that she was just far too emotional compared to normal people, and that if and when her mother did die, she’d suddenly collapse and die too.
“I just don’t need to hear how proud he is of me every time I eat a Hot Pocket,” David said.
“At least he’s proud of you.”
“Yeah, well.” He took a swig of beer. “I guess when my brother is the only other child he has to compare me to, I seem like Richard Branson meets Nelson Mandela.”
She wondered if David ever felt that her praise and affection was too smothering. He never said so, but if he found it so irritating coming from Nick, he must occasionally feel the same way about her staring at him while he watched basketball, putting cute little notes on the bathroom mirror for him, and sending him heart emojis for no reason during the workday. She had tried to play hard-to-get when they were first dating, but it was so difficult not to fall off the wagon and start inundating him with kisses and compliments.
Emily looked over at the barbecue guests through the haze of smoke and f lies. There was Jason, T-shirt slightly too small and revealing his belly, raising his arms in the air in what appeared to be a low-effort version of the Macarena. He was drunk.
“We are going to have an epic wedding week!” he cheered, raising his Heineken. He had finally stopped sulking about Christina’s presence. It helped that she avoided him as much as possible. She had taken a liking to Joss, one of Susan’s fifty-something granola-ish friends from the cat shelter where she volunteered, and the two of them were huddled in the corner having girl talk.
“You do you,” Emily heard Christina say.
“Your brother is getting drunk,” David said.
“No shit,” Emily laughed. “Hey, where’s your brother?” “Hmm, I don’t know. I assumed he’d be out of his cave by
now.” He looked for Nathan, and finally spotted him at the back door, half-hidden by a wooden column. He called out to him. “Nathan! Aren’t you going to say hi?”
Nathan trudged over. He was only a few years younger than David, but Emily often thought of him as if he were a teenager because it was hard to remember he wasn’t. He lived at home with Nick and Susan, and although he was usually eager to boast about his superior intelligence, he didn’t have any work history or accomplishments to show for his self-evaluated IQ of 170. He was rotund, with flappy triangular man boobs out- lined in sweat on his black T-shirt. His shoulder-length brown hair was gathered into a greasy ponytail. Growing along the underside of his double chin was an untrimmed beard with the texture of pubic hair. He was wearing his uniform: a faux leather trench coat, cargo shorts, white Nike sneakers, and a gray tweed dollar-store fedora.
“Salutations, David,” he said. “Susan suggested I wear le hat for such a fancious occasion.”
“It means fancy. I believe that it’s a Middle English term but I could be wrong.”
“Well, I’m really excited to have you as a part of our wedding,” Emily said. She gave him an awkward hug, patting him on the back and trying to avoid the smell of his ponytail. She had met him once, last Thanksgiving—they had spent the holiday with David’s family because Emily’s parents were in the Vineyard—but hadn’t spoken to him very much. He had spent the vast majority of the weekend playing World of Warcraft in his room, and at one point he proudly announced at the dinner table that he had made a thirteen-year-old cry after debating him online about atheism.
“So, Emily, do you have any fair ladies-in-waiting who would be pleased to make my acquaintance?” he asked. “Anyone looking for a gentleman?”
“Ladies-in-waiting?” “Bridesmaids, as the plebeians ay.”
“Well, my friend Gabrielle is the maid of honor, but she’s pregnant and married…”
“You didn’t make your sister the maid of honor?” He looked horrified. Even someone as socially inept as Nathan knew how weird that was. Emily blushed.
“I just…it’s a long story. She’s kind of anti-wedding. I didn’t think she’d do a good job at it.”
“Cold, m’lady. But I remain intrigued. Prithee continue.” David frowned. Emily could tell it was taking all his restraint not to punch Nathan in the face.
“Oh, my other bridesmaids? Well, there’s my friend Jennifer but she’s…” She didn’t know how to finish the sentence without saying “out of your league,” so she just said, “a lot older than you.”
“How old?” “Twenty-nine.”
“Hmm. Five years older than myself. That’s pushing it, but I’ll consider her if she enchants me. Women that age sometimes have a certain…je ne sais quoi.”
David shook his head. “Nathan, don’t. Just trust me when I say no.”
“And well,” Emily said, “the only other bridesmaid is… Maddyson. But, ha-ha, since she’s your stepsister that pretty much…” She trailed off, unsure of how to finish the sentence.
“Don’t be so quick,” David said. “Nathan has been hung up on her ever since Susan married our dad.”
“He’s being oversimplificated,” Nathan said. “I am not hung up on my stepsister. I merely admire a beauty such as she.”
Emily involuntarily cringed.
“Dude,” David said, “she’s way too young for you. I am not doing this with you again.”
“Eighteen is legal, for your information.” “Yeah, but it started when she was sixteen.”
Nathan put his hand over his chest in a bad imitation of a pearl-clutching old lady. “Dear Lord! Sixteen! Reproductive age, legal in almost all of Europe and fully able to make her own choices! Whatever must we do with this pedophile?”
“I don’t get why you can’t just date girls your own age,” David said.
“The older women get, the more demanding they become. If I were to approach a twenty-five-year-old, for example, she would be attractive but wouldn’t have Maddyson’s fertile, nubile looks. And to make matters more unsavory, she would look down on me for not having a so-called traditional job. Maddyson doesn’t have a job, ipso facto, we are actually a good match. Moreover, if we lived just a few hundred years ago I would be the natural first choice to take her maidenhood—intelligent, wise, generous, successful—and in the same family line.”
“How are you successful in any way?” David asked. “You just said you don’t have a job.”
“In days of yore, my good sir, I would have been successful. The trades in which I am highly skilled are not valued by our declining society. Sword fighting, for example.”
Emily looked over at Maddyson, leaning against a column. She had wavy brown hair cut to her shoulders with a streak of pink. (Emily had objected to the dye job because Maddyson would be in the wedding party, but she wound up allowing it for fear of looking like a bridezilla.) She wore a pair of frayed acid-washed shorts, Converse sneakers and a large white T- shirt that looked intentionally splattered with green paint. She was looking at her iPhone with her eyes glazed over, giving a surly, slightly openmouthed expression to the screen. Emily noticed that Nathan had seen her staring at Maddyson, so she quickly averted her gaze.
“She’s beautiful,” he said with a knowing smile. “No shame in looking.”
“It’s fine. All women are slightly bisexual.” “Nathan,” David said. “That’s enough.”
Nathan shrugged. He was relatively immune to criticism. Emily couldn’t tell if it came from abnormally low or abnormally high self-esteem. Either he was so used to negative feedback that it no longer affected him, or he was so delusional that he refused to believe that anything could be wrong with him. Perhaps she’d ask Marla to analyze him. She was sure there would be an interesting cavalcade of diagnoses on the ride home. All of Emily’s ex-boyfriends had earned their places in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, from histrionic personality disorder to borderline personality disorder to chronic depression. Marla followed up each assessment with, “not that I’ve personally examined him or anything” as if trying to avoid liability. She had diagnosed Christina with narcissism back when she and Jason were dating, and Matt with compliant codependency. David was the only one who had evaded a diagnosis so far, probably because Emily had rigorously prevented him from spending too much time with her mother.
(c) Alexandra Borowitz. excerpted from Family and Other Catastrophes, Published in 2018 with permission from Mira Books
Alexandra Borowitz has been writing since she was six, and her family and friends provide endless inspiration. She was raised in New York, and spent her first years out of college in San Francisco working at advertising startups. Family and Other Catastrophes is her first novel.