“I always knew I wasn’t normal,” Hank thought to himself, eyes folded into his chubby baby fat face in the mirror on the visor. Even at twenty-six, he looked like a fat baby, hardly any beard yet. He never felt grown up. Maybe because he stayed back a couple times.
“Hey, wake up. We’ll be at the station soon,” said his big brother Al, “I don’t know why the hell you’re going now, Hank. You couldn’t wait till after the holidays?”
Hank sat up higher in the car seat. This was his time to say goodbye to everything familiar and painful. “Nah,” he muttered. “I gotta go now because they invited me for Christmas, and I don’t know if they’ll ever ask me again.” He ran his hand nervously through his black hair, smelled the Vitalis on his fingers. Bad habit, he knew he would have to stop doing that when he was with strangers. He’d have to stop thinking abnormal thoughts, too. “And I don’t have any friends here…I never did.”
“You got us, ya dummy! You got two little nieces who love you.”
“Fran doesn’t like me that much; the girls are okay with me,” Hank muttered out the window of the Desoto, which he’d rolled open because he was sweating out so many secrets. That his heart broke to leave the girls. He loved holding them, the way they clung to his leg, and he dragged them through the house. That he couldn’t let his big brother know he had to leave because he was attracted to men, not women, and not in a normal way.
“Ah the hell with her. I’m the boss in my house, and you are my goddamn brother!”
And mostly the goddamn brother had to leave because he’d been in love with Al since they were kids—one of the biggest ways he knew he was abnormal—and he knew he could never tell him or anybody else around here how hard it had been to roughhouse, or go swimming with him, to suffer his jibes. He cast a glance toward Al’s profile, pretty much like a movie actor’s, his shiny black hair, his strong shoulders. Soon he’d never have to look at his brother’s good-looking face or body again. And he’d be free to be whatever the hell he was supposed to be.
Maybe in California, he could become the whole him.
Hank took a long look out the passenger window as they passed his old red brick high school on Chapel Street. The high school where he got beat up by a bunch of classmates when he was sixteen. It was because he wrote that paper about sex, a subject that fascinated him. And he got an F minus. Not because the paper was bad. He did a lot of work on it at the library, knew it was good, was very proud of it. Because the old maid teacher was a prude. She was embarrassed by it, so she flunked him and wouldn’t discuss it with his mother or anybody else.
He thought about sex a lot, read about it a lot, probably since he’d never had it, and he wanted to have it, bad. Even in the service when there were lots of chances, he could never bring himself to touch anyone with the tenderness he felt so keenly. But those guys knew something even he didn’t let himself know at eighteen. They flirted and teased him, walked around with their muscled chests bared in the barracks even on cold nights, passing by his bunk more times than necessary. He hated his two and a half years in the Army.
With its snazzy white stripe on a sleek green body, the sleek Desoto, spotted with mud and rock salt around the bumpers and white wall wheels, pulled up in front of the New Haven Station. It would be great to get away from another slushy winter and feel some sun.
“Well, okay, Al, thanks a lot for the ride,” he winces and smiles sidelong at his brother, opening the car door, heaving himself over to get out fast. He didn’t want to cry in front of Al.
His brother’s face reddened. “Hold your horses! You got twenty minutes; what’s the rush?”
He kept his back to Al. “I gotta use the boys’ room.”
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“C’mon, wait five minutes! So, you stayin’ with Evelyn and them out there?”
Hank sat back on the edge of the car seat. “For a few nights. Then I’m gonna look around a little, maybe go up to San Francisco.”
His brother growled at him in envy. “California. Boy, I wish I was goin’. You can make a lotta money out there, y’know.”
“Yeah. I wonder what kind of food they have out there. No New Haven Apizza or fried clams p’rolly.”
Al jeered, poked at his gut, and Hank recoiled. “Ah, you always find enough to eat. Wouldn’t hurt you to lose a few pounds.”
“I try; it’s hard. I love food, especially at night.”
“Make sure you get back in time for Memorial Day cookout—kosher hot dogs splitting open on the grill, eh? With Mom’s sauerkraut recipe? I make it good.” Al turns off the car. “I’ll get your bag, walk you in.”
“Nah, no need.” Al, jumping out, slamming the door, never did listen to him. It was like Hank’s voice disappeared in the air just outside his mouth, never to be heard by anyone but himself. Al pulled the medium suitcase out of the trunk; Hank took his bloated briefcase under his arm and pulled himself up out of the car, stepping over a frozen drift at the curb. The two, pelted with stinging sleet, dashed into the station’s waiting and ticketing area with its monotone drone announcing comings and goings of trains on the PA over the hushed bustle of excited travellers happy to be getting the hell out of New Haven.
“So? You wanna talk about anything?”
Hank felt on the spot. “Nah, not really.”
Al sat down on an ancient wooden bench and pulled him down to sit, too. “I want you to have a good time, okay? I know it’s been hard since Mom died. For me, too. For you, the hardest”
Hank grunted “yeah,” and was suddenly overcome with tears. Al was taken aback.
“Hey, hey! I know you miss her; we all do. She missed Dad, so it was good she had you living there with her those last years.”
“It’s not just that…” snuffled Hank.
“What is it??”
“I gotta go to the bathroom, Al. I’ll see ya, okay? Take care, okay? Tell the girls I love them.” He got up to gather his stuff.
“Okay, Hank, okay. Write us a postcard when you get there, okay? Hey! Gimme a hug.”
Then Al grabbed his kid brother and pulled him chummily clumsy but close, saddened to feel big sobs coursing through that big body of his.
“Hey, hey, hey….” Hank’s face crumpled into his brother’s shoulder for a moment—it was the closest they had ever been—then he wrenched away and ran with his stuff, as if unhinged, toward the train portals and away from everything he knew. And everything that knew him.
Melanie Chartoff is a lifelong stage and screen actor residing in Los Angeles. She is a first-time author of “Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories,” rated 5 stars on Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.