A story about siblings.
It’s the thick of quarantine and I’m in the thickest place to ever exist: Florida.
When I say Florida is thick—I don't mean thick-brained—though I suppose she is—methamphetamine abuse and incessant sunstroke will trigger inflammation in the best of brains. But within this specific context—when I declare Florida as “thick”—what I'm referring to is her extreme humidity. The air is pregnant here. Pregnant with hot sewer water that will never experience the relief of birth. Florida is perpetually “expecting,” which is why she’s such an emotional rollercoaster of a state. She’s hot. She’s swollen. She’s-Mickey-Mouse-happy. She’s-barefoot-at-the-gas-station-livid. She's-a-long-drive-hopped-on-Monster-energy-drinks-manic.
She’s doing her *best*—okay?
Did I mention it’s June? If Florida is pregnant, June is the third trimester and I’m the unqualified doula trying to ensure everything goes smoothly, even though I've never even held a baby, let alone delivered one. What I’m saying is I just don't know how to do "Florida." I look like a jackass in shorts, so I don't wear them. I'd rather take a bubble bath with Rudy Giuliani than wear tropical attire. Flip-flops give me suicidal ideation.
I’d like to learn how to be comfortable living in this unbearable humid jam jar, but I'm a New Yorker. I can’t help but wear my uniform of skin-tight long-sleeved dresses. It doesn't help that I currently have seventeen pounds of hair extensions sewn into my scalp which feels like I’m wearing one of those Russian fur hats that I can’t take off.
YOU: So you smug Manhattan bitch—if Florida sucks so hard why are you here?
ME: It's a GLOBAL PANDEMIC, my apartment North East is full of black toxic mold and I haven't spent a summer with my family since the eleventh grade!
YOU: That sounds a little surface, to be honest.
ME: You're right. Thank you for the call-out dear reader. I’m here because I’ve really missed my older brother Blake. And due to the withering state of global affairs and such, he’s taking a break from his one-bedroom in West Hollywood and is shacking it up in his teenage bedroom at my parent’s house in picturesque Sarasota.
YOU: I KNEW you had it in you to DIG DEEPER. Even though all those people on the internet are always saying what a vacuous idiot—
ME: Enough. Let’s get on with the story.
YOU: Yes. You mentioned Sarasota is picturesque?
Sarasota is more than picturesque. She's beautiful. She’s so beautiful that when her scenery is captured via postcard her palm-tree prettiness reads almost as...tacky. “Fake.” You know that iteration of girl who has frizz-less long hair that’s so glossy it looks as if it has been coated in vinyl? The girl whose boobs are as round and as firm as two ripe oranges? The girl who us saggy-titted regular folk' often deem “plastic” ‘cause I don’t know, babe—we were reared in a toxic patriarchal culture that pits women against each other and encourages us to question the authenticity of any BITCH who dares to be “prettier” (by society’s standards) than we are?
Sarasota is that girl.
I mean; she has unicorn sunsets! Like the whole sky turns this hot Barbie pink that’s only interrupted by neon streaks of Tropicana orange—until it softens into subtle swirls of sweet petal and faded tangerine—like one of those creamsicles you used to buy at the mall when you were a teenager—and then in an instant—the night takes over. Within seconds the colors collapse into black velvet bejeweled with dozens of twinkling little stars that sparkle like strung fairy lights around a big holographic moon beaming silver into the sparkly ocean that crashes turquoise foam into the beach sand which is as soft as baby powder and as pale as snow.
She’s a knockout in the day, too, just a different kind of knockout. At night she’s silver, in the morning she’s gold. The sun bathes everything in gold, it's like the beach has a gold filter over it. Gold-haired babes stalk the sand; their gold-kissed skin blending in with gold thong bikinis; smelling of Australian Gold Sun Oil.
Sometimes I even see Dolphins leap from her waters and I'm reminded of the Lisa Frank stationary I used to gamble with as a thirteen-year-old at an all-girls sleepaway camp in the Berkshires.
Blake and I don't believe in God or anything, but we're both genetically (it’s a thing—don’t *try* me) and culturally (also a *thing*) Jewish. This means we both are respectively depressed, anxious and teeming with unwanted thoughts of pending doom. I’ve been reading a lot of books (by which I mean "Instagram Posts") lately that provide the mentally ill with holistic hacks that promise to heal their disordered personalities naturally. All of them preach the importance of natural light first thing in the morning, so I've been on a sunlight crusade for the past few weeks. As a bleeding-heart, hopeful sad girl, I'm convinced that one day the combination of holistic dribble and man-made pharmaceuticals will trigger a FLASH MOB of serotonin to break-dance through my system and then finally everything will be beautiful and nothing will hurt.
This morning, like most mornings, Blake and I gather in the kitchen around 6:30 a.m. I’m wearing the faux-silk robe I bought off Amazon in the “salad days” of quarantine and my hair is an obscure macaroni blonde. I’ve gained ten pounds and it’s gone straight to my face. Everyone keeps telling me it’s in my head but I know what I saw in the bathroom mirror. The other day during my evening stroll through the neighborhood I felt my double chin sway in the wind. My brother isn't looking much better. He's wearing the same swim shorts he wore yesterday and the day before that—but who am I to judge? I look like a chipmunk storing nuts in her cheeks and my hair is the color of Velveeta cheese.
“Do you want some brain octane oil in your coffee?” I ask Blake because my paralyzing depression comes with a lovely side of brain fog that I’ve been trying to clear since the Ides of March.
“Will it make me shit my pants?” Blake asks.
“Yes,” I answer, dutifully, like the honorable soldier I am.
“Then definitely," Blake sing-songs cheerily.
I understand his glee as I'm sure you do, too, sweet reader. Only psychopaths don't absolutely love shitting their pants.
Minutes later we're sitting in my parent's backyard, clutching our oily coffees, waiting for the caffeine to kick in and the sun to work her alleged depression magic.
“GAH!” I scream flicking a mosquito so jacked it looks as if it's been injected with steroids off of my forearm. I furiously claw at my flesh with my fingernails. I'm suddenly itching in places I didn't know I had.
Blake follows suit and begins pawing at his skin with stubby, bitten-down hands. “THESE FUCKING BUGS," he shouts. The climate is so dense the screech can't travel so it just hangs heavy in the humidity, suspended in the air like a cloud of cigar smoke, for several seconds. Blake and I continue to scratch violently, like junkies. For a moment I envision a different version of us. A version in which we're itchy drug-addict siblings, starring in one of those Netflix documentaries; a raw glimpse into the opioid crisis in Appalachia; the kind you watch at 2 a.m. when you're in a dark place; a pint of ice cream your only companion.
I can hear the ZING ZING ZING of a fly circling around the halo of frizz standing tall on the crown of my head. The fly looks like it has gout. Florida flies would have gout. I squeeze my eyes shut. “I can’t deal with this climate!”
“It’s so hot, it’s UNHEALTHY!” Blake bellows, pounding his hairy fists against his hairy chest, like an ape.
“LET’S GO BACK INSIDE.”
“LET ME FINISH MY CIGARETTE!”
“FINE,” I concede, even though I am a cracked egg frying on the pavement.
This is our morning routine.
“It’s like Vietnam out here,” Blake observes.
I nod my head in agreement. “like 'Nam,”
I’ve never been and neither has he, but we both cite “Platoon” as one of our favorite films of all time.
We trudge into the kitchen; sunburned and sweaty; eager to bitch about politics in the air-conditioning. I’m pretty sure we’re both allergic to Florida in June. We are desert Jews, after all. Desert Jews are as wildly out of context in tropical environments as Mitch McConnell is sipping a Cosmo at The Stonewall.
I feel a wash of sadness crash over what remains of my soul. It's the kind of sadness that isn't rooted in anything, it is a biochemical forlornness. I remember that it’s time to take my ~Wellbutrin~ X ~Prozac~ morning cocktail and feel a twinge of relief. The song GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRL by Mötley Crüe starts playing in my head, except the lyrics go PILLS, PILLS, PILLS. I can't help but notice that the orange prescription bottles are the same exact color as my hair. I snatch them out of the wicker basket my mother has discreetly tucked them away in. I pick them up and begin to shake them in the air above my head like they’re two wooden maracas. The small white pills make a nice rattle as they slam up against their plastic RX homes. I have no rhythm but I got for it and passionately shake them to the “beat” with the confidence of a person who does have rhythm. My brother finds this hysterical. The whole scene is morosely funny: depressed Ashkenazi female, a prescription bottle blonde, laden with mosquito bites the size of gun wounds uses her psychotropic meds as musical instruments; cloaked in a cheap faux silk robe purchased unethically via Amazon Prime for a whopping $21.99. Unshaved anxious Ashkenazi male wearing yesterday’s swim trunks cryptically cacklin' along. Both are in their thirties. Both are living with their parents. Both enjoy the occasional benzodiazepine. Neither can keep their cars clean for long periods of time.
Blake picks up his bottle of Zoloft and starts shaking it and for a moment we’re a family band! We’re the Osmonds! A darker, not-Mormon, far more maudlin version! We’re…The Barries.
“How often do you see your psychiatrist?” I inquire because nothing is more interesting to me than getting the dirt on how the mentally ill keep their heads above water.
“About every other month. She’s really expensive.” Blake emphasizes the word "really” very dramatically. I can tell that he wants me to ask him how much his brain doctor costs so he can gloat about the fact that he lives in glamorous Hollywood.
What he’s neglecting to remember is that I live in the *only* place on the planet that’s far more glamorous than Hollywood, could dream of being: Manhattan, bitch. “Not as expensive as mine. Nothing is like New York.” I purr, puffing on a proverbial Virginia Slim.
“My psychiatrist is in Beverly Hills, Z,” Blake says curtly as if to shut down the conversation.
But I don’t let any man win, not even my blood brother.
“That’s cute. But I don’t think Beverly Hills is nearly as expensive as Manhattan. My psychiatrist is in Gramercy.” I'm suddenly the woman I’ve always secretly longed to be: A cold Madison Avenue Woman. The heiress to a tampon tycoon. A rich bitch with a Birkin who hasn’t blow-dried her own hair in a decade and owns a condo in Aspen she hasn't visited in years. Who sits in sedative-induced-silence next to Katherine Harris, at monthly Republican Wife brunches, hosted by THE FOUR SEASONS, PALM BEACH.
The kind of woman I’ll never be because I’m a soft-hearted lesbian who spent her twenties making shillings running a youth outreach program at Planned Parenthood because she so believed in the cause, who thinks real fur is disgusting, who'd rather shoot herself than an animal, who prefers Drag to the orchestra, who thinks Chanel Number 5 smells like a dead grandmother. But you know: A girl can dream!
But you know what’s better than dreaming? Acting. I swan-dive into character, without hesitation. In this moment I’m no longer wearing a cheap robe. I’m in floor-length baby mink and I reek of stale nicotine and La Prairie beauty products and old money. I flash a diamond tennis bracelet at Blake.
Blake glares at me. “Gramercy?” he scoffs. “I’m sorry but we’re talking about BEVERLY HILLS. It’s not like your doctor is on Central Park South.” He is suddenly the son of Murdoch. Rich and tasteless.
“Beverly Hills is full of people who pretend to have money," I twist a proverbial blood diamond around my pinky. "We all know real California money is in Montecito, honey.” I suddenly have a third home next to Oprah Winfrey and had a secret lesbian affair with Danielle Steele in the '70s. I’ve always imagined the upper echelon of California to be impossibly glamorous and full of sapphic undertones—don’t you?
And that’s when it hits me. This is why we’re monsters. We’re arguing over whose psychiatrist lives in a more expensive location. And neither of us is remotely rich. We both rent apartments the size of shoe boxes and have a habit of asking the other for small loans right before payday graces us with her ever-fleeting presence. We’re staying at my parent’s house, not at the Ritz Fucking Carlton beach resort. Yet, just like true proud flag-flying depressives, we take great pride in our ability to maintain a bougie psychiatrist, despite our economic status. One that doesn’t take insurance and has a chic office with a prime view in a premier location. We care more about that than we do about designer clothing or nice cars or good wine, even.
Give me a sought-after shrink or give me death. And then I'm smacked with yet another epiphany: I love being a monster. And there’s no one in the world I love being a monster with more, than my older (arguably "bigger") brother. What is the point of having a sibling if you can’t unleash your inner wonder-brat and let her run wild without judgment? I release a low, guttural chuckle. I can feel it vibrate in my lower abdomen; my sweaty stomach flesh sticking to my faux silk robe. I twist my burnt hair into a high bun. It shoots out of the top of my head like a dagger and stays in place without a hair elastic because it’s so damaged from a lifetime of abuse. Bleach, Flat Irons, Chlorine, And Seawater: A Memoir of Hair Survival.
“Yo, Z, want anything from Dunkin?” Blake asks, his pupils so big and lit up he looks like he’s rolling, but it's just that he's viscerally turned on by the bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches from Dunkin Donuts.
My stomach growls so loudly the dog jumps. “Yes," I answer, decidedly. It feels good to say yes to food I’d normally deprive myself of because I’ve been a life-long pawn in the toxic diet culture scheme. But the one good thing about quarantine is this: I let myself eat what the fuck I want.