Fun Family Dramafrom Tell Me I’m an Artist (Catapult, 2022)
“They should make ranch soda,” I said after three ginger whiskeys. I had just drunk the crumbs from the end of the Pringles can and felt inspired.
“I think I saw that in Germany,” Suz said.
“When did you go to Germany?”
“I went after high school graduation with a few friends from my class. It was a gift from my parents. I mostly just got wasted and went to museums.”
On my thirteenth birthday my mom had handed me a velvet jewelry box, a gift. I opened it and saw a delicate gold bracelet, the same one I had seen in her jewelry box for as long as I could remember. An heirloom. I was touched. Mom then kissed me on the mouth and I smelled her vodka breath. She lay on the couch and attempted to hand me the remote control but couldn’t hold her arm up. “Birthday television,” she slurred. I turned on Nickelodeon, and when she fell asleep a few minutes later, I put the bracelet back in her jewelry box, not wanting to be accused of theft. The proximity I now had to a frivolous teenage trip to Germany embarrassed me so much my face turned red. It felt as if I had invented the idea of international teen travel just to piss off my family. I pulled out my phone to atone.
Hows it going? I texted my mom. I dropped a pizza roll into my mouth.
My phone vibrated and, seeing it was my mom, I pressed the button to make the noise stop.
“I’m having a sudden nostalgia for ‘Kissed by a Rose’–era Seal,” Suz said.
“Is there any other Seal?” I said.
My mom called again as soon as my phone showed that the previous call was missed. Couldn’t I just send a text without it turning into a thing? But then I imagined her sprawled on the side of the road somewhere in a hit-and-run that almost broke her phone but not quite fully—it is still able to call me and, somehow, only me.
“Hello?” I said.
“Did you ever talk to Jenny after I told you to call her?”
“No,” I said. “I’m kind of busy. What’s up?”
“Well, have you heard from her at all? She’s missing.”
“She’s missing? In what way?”
I stood up and made a gesture to Suz like, one minute, this is nothing, and left her bedroom to stand at the farthest point of her hallway, near the front door.
“She hasn’t been home since the police thing last week and I finally got ahold of Katie and she said Jenny left a few nights ago saying she was going over to some guy’s house who owed her money and she never came back. I have to go to work in five hours and I don’t know what to do with him. I can’t stay home with a baby and I have no idea where she is and she isn’t answering her phone. I’m going to lose my job.”
“Shit. Can Alicia watch him?”
“She’s in Vegas on her honeymoon,” she said, sounding angry with me for making such an unhelpful suggestion. Or maybe she was angry with Alicia for having a honeymoon.
“Okay, sorry. Maybe that neighbor lady again?”
“I have to go,” she said, sounding even more pissed. “Please pray for Jenny to come back by this weekend. I have a nail appointment.”
She hung up but I said, “Bye,” into a dead line anyway in case Suz was listening.
“Who is missing?” Suz said.
I considered the two paths that diverged in front of me. The first path was one where Suz continued to believe that my upbringing was only mildly, playfully trashy, something that you’d see in a movie about how fun it could be to be poor, one in which I used Scotch tape to make a line on the floor to divide my side of the room from my sister’s and our mom cries, weeps, at the Scotch tape money I wasted.
The second path was the one where I told Suz my sister was a crackhead, that I hadn’t tried to help her, that nobody really had, that nobody really even thought about helping, that our mom was too busy dating and drinking to bother with anything other than keeping her job, which was, in itself, a miraculous achievement, a job that fed my entire family, and also that I had abandoned my family not in search of answers or help, but to understand myself through art, that Suz herself was an actor in this trashy play, and by being present and funny and cool in every way I found important, she made me feel like I had gained entry to something exclusive, she was guiding me away from my home, making me believe that home was a synonym for past and that a “friend” could be someone I actually enjoyed talking to.
Telling her about my sister would invite her to have private thoughts about my morality, or about the costs a friendship with me could incur, or change her valuation of me as a person. Knowing I chose not to help my own sister in her most helpless moments would paint me as an untrustworthy person. I wanted Suz to trust me, and count on me, and believe that I would help her if she needed me. And? I wanted her to need me. I wanted to fulfill that need. Maybe I wouldn’t fulfill the need. Maybe I would, in the moment, turn my back to her, just like I do to my crackhead sister whenever the opportunity presents itself. Maybe I am indeed evil and want to see others fail as a way to see myself as ever so slightly better. But I would never know unless someone else needed me someday.
Not telling her was the truth, too, in a way. Things can be true without going into great detail about them. Things can be shrouded in mystery. Some people like mystery.
“Nobody,” I said. “Just some fun family drama.”
I adjusted my face to remove whatever worry or panic might’ve been on it, and looked down at my hands.
I always look down at my hands when I feel like I’ve betrayed someone.
“Oh okay. It sounded serious.”
“No. My sister is kind of a party animal. My mom always freaks out when she isn’t home in time for dinner.”
I opened my sketchbook and showed her the drawings I had done of her earlier in the night, flipping through the pages and looking up to see her reaction.
“I love these,” she said, scooting closer to me on the floor. “You really captured the movement.” She pointed to one in which she is bending over to put a pan of pizza rolls into the oven.
Chelsea Martin is the author of the novel, Tell Me I’m an Artist, the essay collection Caca Dolce and the novella Mickey, among other books. She lives in Spokane, WA with her husband and child.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.