I found this old record–Sonny and Cher, Look at Us–in a box of my dad’s stuff in the basement, the summer he told us he was moving out. He’d boxed up all his records, after the books, after the stuff my mom didn’t want, like he was saving the best for last. Like boxing up the music made it more real somehow.
On the cover, Sonny and Cher didn’t look very happy. The cover was faded enough to make them look old. Sonny was wearing this fur vest like he was dressed up for the Renaissance Festival. They both had long bangs, and Cher was looking right at you, like an alien, not very friendly, while Sonny’s eyes were on something up in the trees. I put the record on and lay on my bed. The first song is super famous–you hear it in TV commercials all the time–but the second one wasn’t something I knew all that well. It was called “Unchained Melody,” even though those words aren’t in the lyrics. Cher sang it by herself.
My little brother walked in right as the song was playing.
“You wanna get high and watch Cosmos?” he asked me. Stanley is nine and has never smoked a joint in his life. He says crap like that just to get my attention.
“Not right now,” I said. I flipped over the record cover and examined the people on the back, the members of the band, their photos arranged above short bios that all started with “Look at . . . “ This one lady, Judy Moll, looked frosty and sort of severe, I guess would be the right word, like this teacher Stanley and I both had for our gifted class in third grade. She was wearing a turtleneck and a cable-knit sweater. Gross.
Even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could practically hear Stanley judging my taste. My little brother, half my age.
“What is this crap?” he asked.
“Look at Us,” I said, because “Sonny and Cher” would be too obvious.
“Isn’t this the song from that movie?”
I flipped over and looked at him. Stanley sat down on the floor. Criss-cross applesauce. You’d think he was still in kindergarten. He started picking at the carpet.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “What movie?”
“You know, that one,” he said. “That movie. With that song in it.” He kept picking at the carpet.
“Mom’s gonna be P.O.ed,” I said, “if you keep doing that.”
He looked at what his hand was doing like it was a separate entity. “I’m pretty sure the carpet is the last thing on their minds,” he said.
Our parents are well-educated, generally decent people, but when they get to fighting, they can turn into real animals. All that reading Russian literature and listening to pretty decent music and watching PBS with us on weeknights, all of that goes right down the toilet when they get to fighting. I was on my way out, so it didn’t really bother me anymore. But I could tell it was taking a toll on Stanley. I’m his big sister, after all–how could I not tell these things?
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You know how they are.”
Stanley stared real hard at the floor. When he’s upset, he gets super quiet. The total opposite of our parents.
“I wish he’d just leave,” he said. He started raking lines through the carpet with his fingernails. “He keeps saying he’s going to. But I’m so sick of hearing him say it, I sort of wish he’d just do it. Then we wouldn’t have to listen to this crap anymore.”
“Which crap is worse?” I asked. “Mine or theirs?”
He smiled a little. He was trying to hide it.
“This actually isn’t so bad,” he said. “It’s better than that Beach Boys tape Dad tried to get us to listen to, that one time.”
“Check this out,” I said. I passed the record cover down to him. “Isn’t it cool how they have a little thing about everybody in the band? Bands never do that anymore.”
“That is cool.” He looked at it closely. “‘Look at Judy Moll,’” he read aloud. “‘She is our secretary. She is also a beatnik. We hope by the end of this year, we’ll be able to talk her into wearing shoes.’” He frowned. “I don’t get it. Hey, June. What’s a beatnik?”
“They were, like, people,” I said, “who wore berets and dressed in black and banged on bongos and stuff.” I looked at the ceiling. I could hear them downstairs, their voices muffled through the walls, but they were going at it, all right. I kept going. “And they smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and pot and read poetry all the time. And I guess they didn’t wear shoes, either.” I suddenly wouldn’t have minded a cigarette myself. But Stanley doesn’t know I smoke. He’d kill me if he did. I clenched the bedspread in my hands. “They were like, you know, cool. The essence of cool.”
“Judy Moll doesn’t look all that cool,” he said. He put the record cover down, so that Sonny and Cher were facing up, and kept raking his fingers through the carpet. “I wonder if Mom and Dad were ever like that,” he said. “Back in the sixties.”
I laughed. “Well, I don’t know. I mean, they were pretty young back then.”
He didn’t look at me. He sniffed. Here we go, I thought. I slid off the bed onto the floor. I pulled my knees up and hugged them. Even though it was August and still warm, I was wearing the striped knee socks Stanley had given me for Christmahanukkah the year before. Our parents couldn’t even agree on which holiday to celebrate with us.
“I wish they’d both go away,” he said. “I wish they’d both leave, and we could have the house to ourself.”
“Ourselves,” I told him. “I can’t stay here.”
“You could,” he said. He looked up at me, his eyes all shiny. “Chad’s brother did this thing? He, like, deferred going to college for a year? He’s, like, going to Europe first, and then he’s going to college next year? You could do that.”
“I have to leave,” I told him.
His nose was snotty, all red and sore-looking like a busted knee. I handed him a tissue, but it was one of those cheap flimsy kinds, the kind our dad buys when he gets the groceries, and I knew it would just mess up his nose even more. So I got up and went downstairs to get him the fancy moisturized kind our mom buys, the puffy kind in the boxes with flowers or paintings on the sides. When I came downstairs my parents were sitting at the kitchen table, silent. I stood in the living room. My mom looked up. My dad was hunched over, his back facing me, his hands gripping either side of his head like he had a migraine. The light hanging over the table made it look like an interrogation.
“June,” my mom said. Her face was calm. “It’s Tuesday, right? You move in Tuesday?”
“Monday,” I told her, even though the dorms didn’t open til Tuesday morning.
“Fine,” she nodded. “Monday. We’ll take you Monday.”
“Fine,” I said. I swallowed the big knot in my throat. I had this vision of me and Stanley camping out on the quad until the dorms opened up. We’d pitch a tent right in the middle of the grass and talk about everything except our parents.
My dad turned slightly in his chair. “New dinosaur,” he said. “Did you see that, June? I saved the article for you. They discovered a new dinosaur. Big as a house.”
“Cool, Dad,” I said.
I went back upstairs with the box of Kleenex. The record was over, just kept spinning around and around with the needle scraping the top of it. Stanley had stopped crying. He dabbed at his nose anyway, just to be polite. I flipped the record cover over on the floor. We sat there, looking at Judy Moll.
“What am I going to do?” he said.
I thought about it for about two seconds. “Same things we always do,” I told him. “Except now, you’re going to do them by yourself.”
As we sat there, listening to the record popping under the needle, I got the feeling he knew more about what was going to happen than I did. It was like he had this talent, a talent nobody would want–he could already see what was going to happen, all the stuff I would do and people I would meet while he had to stay behind and deal with our parents. I wanted to say I was sorry, but I couldn’t. I’d hate him if he’d done it to me. ♦