It was pure chance, our getting the place. Jeff was working on a major construction project with his buddy, basically ripping half our house apart, and he didn't mind me staying out of his hair for a couple of weeks. He and I both knew I'd spend the whole time whining about the noise and dirt.
Melanie, my second cousin and good friend, accidentally found the listing online, the cottage for sale or rent, and the owners were willing to do a two-week stint. I hadn't set foot in the place for thirty some years.
"We don't even know what it looks like," said Melanie, but I didn't care. So many memories; I had to experience it again.
My first thought, as I packed, was of my brother with whom I'd not spoken, other than at our mother's funeral, for fifteen years. The night before the service, Eric and his wife Kathleen, and Jeff and I had gone out for drinks. While we'd joked a bit and talked, I could see the anger in Eric's eyes. Though six years had passed since our falling out, he was obviously still enraged. While I can't describe all my emotion towards him as rage, some of it indeed was, mixed with hurt and the rest was a determination to no longer put up with his subtle and not so subtle insults. I had closed the door in his face to protect myself but not without uncertainty and pain.
Almost every year while Eric and I were growing up, my family went to Riker's Lake for at least a week and sometimes longer. Close by was Shaganeh, a cultural resort with a Seneca name meaning "water bird." The fenced in resort was on the shore of a lake of that name and less than a mile from our pond. Visitors left their cars parked outside Shaganeh and once they entered, either walked or used golf carts to get around.
Famous musicians, scientists and authors were on call and gave free (once you paid to be inside) talks and concerts. One summer, I listened to Van Cliburn practicing in the amphitheater and heard a lecture by Ann Sutton. Our family purchased day passes, though usually only our mother did since Dad was not the intellectual sort. He preferred to read police procedurals, tinker with broken things inside the cottage or take solitary walks while carrying pepper spray in case of bears, a large stick in case of nasty dogs and a .38 in a little holster in case the pepper spray didn't do the job.
"Why don't we ever get to stay inside the grounds like regular visitors?" I once whined, and Mom explained that since the cottage was in my father's family and came for free, we had to stay there instead. "Otherwise we wouldn't be able to afford coming here every year. Day passes are cheaper and we don't go every day."
I knew she hated that and like me, wished we could take rooms on the grounds in a cozy old hotel or guesthouse and eat in restaurants or cafeterias instead of having to worry about cooking and cleaning up.
Most of what I did to pass the time consisted of being with my brother discussing the complexities of being, whether we were inside Shaganeh attending lectures and concerts or playing on our own little lake. We were each other's favorite person with whom to worry and wonder out loud about life.
Upon first arrival at the cottage, Mom tidied up, sighing heavily as she labored while we carried in bags of groceries, sheets and pillows to make the beds and enjoyed the expectation of a perfect time. It never was perfect, of course – there were minor accidents, our parents were occasionally not speaking, flies and mosquitoes and spiders drove me half insane and twice snakes got into the little bathroom with its rusty old tub and bare light bulb with its long chain. Mice and their droppings were a constant enemy. An old outhouse squatted outside that I refused to use after one stinky, spidery attempt, but my father and brother enjoyed this little bit of roughing it.
In the middle of the lake, lived an actual island hosting a giant weeping willow in its center surrounded by low brush and grass. Nothing could be more romantic, to me in the sense of fairy tales or to my brother in his fantasy of pirates. The little landmass appeared very conducive to hidden treasure and dangerous adventures and the privacy of actually being on it out of range of our parents was the ultimate enticement. At night, from our cottage, we could watch lightening bugs flashing on the island, which added to its allure.
"Don't drown, you two," snapped my mother to Eric and me every year. "Because I can't rescue you and your father is a terrible swimmer. We'd have to just watch you flounder out there and die."
We believed her. Though she had made sure that Eric and I were taught to swim, she herself had never learned how and our father hated getting wet unless it was in the shower. He took his grim solitary walks in the woods or along country roads in order, he said, to keep fit, though he didn't seem to enjoy doing it.
Eric and I dawdled in a stream in the woods behind the cottage, swam in the lake, hung out on a floating raft and plotted adventure stories while docked at the island. This was long before computers, iPads and cellphones and the place did not have a TV, so we had brought board games and piles of books and comic books to read in case of rain.
When I was eleven and Eric nine was the peak of our island fantasy years. I read Nancy Drew and Beverly Grey mysteries while he read The Hardy Boys, Boys Life and classic adventure stories, all of which heightened our already active imaginations.
We climbed onto the raft, made sure our life jackets were on and rowed to the island. "I am Elizabeth Greensleeves," I said, believing that a proper British name for the eighteenth century. "I am a greatly feared woman pirate who has caused a thousand men to walk the plank, every one of them madly in love with me. My hair is long and red and wild."
"I don't think it matters what you look like," said Eric. "What matters is whether we can fight off the British and French if they try to take us."
I ignored him and persisted with the wild red hair. He didn't understand the need for atmosphere. We played on, though he was unwilling to be King of the Fairies and I had to do that sort of performance alone while he read his books in the shade of the willow.
Our parents were in some ways difficult - strict and expecting of scholarly perfection. No one complimented anyone. My father would say things like, "Your hair looks like you combed it with an egg beater," or "What happened to your face?" My mother was the same; she did not hand out compliments unless stingers were attached. "You'd be a very attractive girl if only you would…."
I was unaware of whether my brother suffered the same lack of praise, though probably he did. It did appear that he was the favored child for various reasons and as we grew up, he was automatically given more privileges because, I suppose, he was male. He knew how to appear sensible and mature to our parents though when with his friends, he drove our father's car recklessly and tried drugs and drink. They considered me a bit unruly because I wasn't afraid to speak my mind, yet behind their backs I behaved conservatively. They didn't permit me to operate the stereo since according to them, I "might break it" though I had never broken any kind of equipment in my life. It felt to me as if my parents had decided to make me the screw-up of the family without anything to back it up. At this point in time, while we still went to the cottage, Eric had not yet joined in with this idea though later he would try his best to perpetuate it.
In our later teens, we abandoned the play and sneaked cigarettes to the island, where totally relaxed with each other, we expressed our views on everything, including our parents.
"I think Dad must have a mistress," Eric said one afternoon.
Mother was spending the day in Shaganeh where she had signed up for an afternoon drawing class. What Eric said had shocked me a little though it had not escaped my notice that our mother did little to enhance her looks and possibly Dad was fed up.
"Where did you get that idea?" I said with some disdain.
"Because he makes way more money than how we live. I figured out roughly what his salary probably is and anyone else making that amount would be staying inside Shaganeh. For that matter, they might be going to Europe or something. So if the money isn't going for regular stuff, maybe it's paying for an apartment somewhere, if you get my drift."
My brother was probably smarter than I was, though I was on the honor roll every year, but in this case I thought he was jumping to absurd conclusions. "He probably saves a lot," I said. "He's very tight with money as you well know."
"Whatever," said Eric, "but I have my reasons."
He must have seen something, but I let it drop. Later I would halfway learn it was true, but I was sixteen and wrapped up in myself. We moved on to discuss life on other planets, which took up a good hour and then Eric who, at the time was a bit on the chunky side, said, "I'm going to lose weight. If I suddenly become popular, that will prove that people only like you for your looks and if I don't, it'll show that I have a lousy personality."
An interesting if pessimistic experiment. "Good luck," I said. He would indeed accomplish his weight loss and would end up popular, though I never heard him again mention the meaning of that outcome. By then, I was away at college and Eric continued as high school nobility out of my range of vision.
I loved my brother and assumed that like the sun and moon he would always be in my life. He seemed an extension of myself, another me in male form. We got along well most of the time, laughing hysterically, unafraid to act like morons, happy to discuss anything seriously and deeply. But then as adults, occasional dissatisfaction entered the picture. He made an odd remark when he left his first wife and stayed several weeks with his boss, something about not wanting to stay with me because "it might ruin our relationship." I thought what is he talking about - am I such an irritating person that no one can stand being around me? Yet, I didn't ask him what he meant. I went though life not asking people what they meant.
Within a year, Eric had a new house, new job and new wife. I'd never liked his first wife. She said horrible things to people; it was as if she had no filters, no social training. She was insulting and devoid of kindness. But looking back, I wondered if she had Asperger's. Back then they didn't identify the condition. Whatever the case, she cheated on Eric and then he cheated on her and finally it was over. The new wife Kathleen looked like a much prettier version of the first one. She had an extremely easygoing personality and never rocked the boat. Eric did not like women or anyone for that matter who rocked the boat. He wanted to control the situation and while Kathleen would turn out to quietly and methodically do as she pleased, she never openly contradicted him. She knew how to deal with him and emotionally survive, possibly partly by not understanding what he was about, by just floating above it.
Over the years, I had assumed that Eric liked my husband. Jeff ran a profitable contracting business and built houses in New Jersey and Bucks County. Eric who worked for a well known nonprofit as a financial advisor and whose coworkers were mostly upper middle class, privileged sorts, liked to "hang out" with blue-collar workers on occasion. At the time, I believed he respected my husband but later wondered if he considered himself "roughing it" when with him after he happily described how much he enjoyed playing pool with a maintenance man at his place of work. Something in his description raised a little alarm in me. Had he really needed to make it clear the guy was "blue-collar?" Why not just say he had a friend he played pool with? When Eric visited us, he and Jeff drank shots of whiskey on the roof and I felt good about this but suddenly it stopped.
"It stopped," said Jeff sardonically, "when Eric realized I made more money than he did."
"You think?" I remember saying.
"I didn’t stay 'in my place,'" said Jeff. "Eric wants people to stay in their place."
This was a brilliant observation, which I would ponder some more once Melanie and I had unpacked and settled into the cottage. On our second day, she said she had work to catch up on and I rowed out to the island. It hadn't changed much, though the blue berry bushes had disappeared, replaced by ferns and invasive buckthorn. The willow tree was much larger and still looked healthy. It must have been fifty years old by now and that was extremely old for a willow. Maybe it was magic just like I had believed back then.
With some difficulty, I anchored the raft and climbed off. It felt strange and possibly not safe to be there, though what was I afraid of? A quick walk around demonstrated that no one else was there and my phone had two bars showing. It was doubtful there were any dangerous animals on the little landmass, certainly not a bear. I remembered sitting under the tree when a child but now that looked uncomfortable and I feared bugs would crawl up my shorts. I remembered Eric and me staying there for hours in spite of these discomforts, but children don't seem to mind those things.
Finally I moved a couple of rocks, checking them first for spiders, and made myself a little seat. A damselfly couple landed on my knee to make love. Something rustled behind me, a bird of some sort, followed by a flutter of wings. The water lapped softly against the shore and in some places, glistened like diamonds. I felt sleepy, my eyes half closing. The place seemed pointless without my brother. When I allowed myself to carry this thought further, I felt a terrible stab of missing him or rather what we were back then and for many years later before our relationship fell apart.
It was hard to imagine how we once played together – how had it worked? Did we run around holding swords and pretending we had a ship and captives? Did we actually act it out? If so, why hadn't we felt silly? And later, when adolescence hit, we switched to serious discussions about our disgust with how we looked, the annoying qualities of our parents and our social ranking at school. We hid little about ourselves, or at least I didn't. We were the best of friends or so I thought.
The sun was beating down, I was thirsty and had to pee, but I held it in, struggled with the raft to get the anchor back up and took off across the lake. Mosquito welts were already popping up on my arms and legs. This didn't feel like fun now. I was hot and sweaty and itchy and it took forever to row home. I felt afraid; what if I dropped the oar? What if I got stung by a bee and had suddenly turned allergic. They would find me dead, my body on the aimlessly circling raft, flies crawling on my swollen face.
Melanie had just pulled into the little driveway, her arms full of groceries. "Found a liquor store," she said. "They have my kind of vodka."
"I need it too," I said, and she poured me some over ice.
We sat on the little deck overlooking the water. "Tomorrow we should visit Shaganeh," she said. "See what famous whoevers are there. Walk around with the academics and intellectuals."
I smiled but said nothing.
"What's the matter?"
"I just don't understand how it happened. Why Eric suddenly turned into an asshole. Why all of a sudden, he was mean and dismissive to Jeff, why he wasn't proud of me when I had some successes. Why he backed out of that trip with us. I just don't understand what happened."
"You can't keep banging your head against the wall," Melanie said.
"I'm a person who likes to know why. Was it something I said or did? I know I was irritated with him complaining all the time about how Kathleen let their kid eat crap and do whatever he pleased. I told him once to get some balls. Maybe that did it? Whatever, they came to visit; it was the day they were leaving. Jeff had to get back to work and had already left. Eric came downstairs and said, "Who did that painting in the bathroom up there?"
"Some tenant of Jeff's when he lived in New Jersey." I remembered Jeff's story about the guy, some slacker who never paid the rent and who had copied a painting from an insurance ad in a magazine. It was a decent amateur copy though not fabulous and definitely not original.
"'Well,' said Eric, 'that is a really good painting.' He emphasized the word 'that' to let me know that all the other paintings in our house, mostly all made by me, apparently suck. I said, 'Really? In a house full of my own art, you have to made a point of saying you like the one I didn't do?' and he said in vastly superior tone, 'Well, there's no comparison!'"
"What did you say?" asked Melanie.
"I freaked. I let him have it, how all these years he never has any of his sister's art in his house when I've sold many paintings and had them published in magazines! Don't you think it's weird that my own brother won't show any support for me or anything that I do? My God, if he likes a certain style of painting, I'd be willing to make one in that style for him. It's not like I'm rigid about that stuff!"
"He was obviously looking for a fight."
"Yeah, I see that now, but why? What was he mad about? That remark about having balls? But he'd backed out of the trip we'd planned to go on together before I ever said that. I got the feeling that he grew to imagine he was better than us, that Jeff and I are low class compared to him, but any of his other friends that I've met weren't so classy and while the people he knew from work were, he didn’t socialize with them. He goes on trips with Kathleen's friends who are certainly no more educated or well off than we are. I just don't understand the meanness and why he would treat his only sibling like this."
"Not just you, but Jeff too," Melanie said. "And Jeff is a gem."
I was quiet for a bit, thinking. "He used me, calling about five times a week in the evening to talk about his work problems or to have me entertain him with interesting conversation, yet if I needed to vent about something, he didn't want to hear it. When I confronted him about that, he said 'all my problems were self-manufactured.'"
"Well," said Melanie philosophically, "you could probably say that about everyone, couldn't you? Unless the person gets cancer even though they took extreme care of themselves, or is hit head on by a truck. Even then, suppose karma is real and you choose these things to experience before you're born, who knows? Life is a mystery."
"It seems to me," I said, "that siblings ought to look out for each other, champion each other. Even if, say, one of them isn't up to Nobel Prize material or whatever Eric imagines a person needs to be to merit his superior support. Quite frankly, I don't see what wonders he has performed in his life. We used to play pirates here and I look back and wonder if there were any clues then that this kind of things would happen."
"Yeah," I said quietly, "and other things. I thought he liked me or did he only like having an ally in our home where our parents were rather difficult. Maybe that's what I was, an ally, not someone to cherish."
"How long has it been now?" Melanie asked. "Since the blow up?"
"Fifteen years," I said. "Fifteen years."
The next day we walked over to Shaganeh and purchased day passes. "The going theme seems a little religious," said Melanie. "Not really my thing."
"Methodist, if I remember," I said, "but on the liberal side."
I looked around and felt an inner shock. The place seemed different to middle-aged eyes than it had to those of a teen. Back then, it was romantic – the colorful Victorian houses and quiet lanes, the aroma of the grass and flowers and early morning dampness, the knowledge that famous speakers, authors and musicians were close by on the grounds. There had been mystery involved.
Now the other visitors were preppy in their khaki slacks and L.L. Bean tops with pink or yellow sweaters tied over their shoulders. Everyone was very NPR. Though I normally loved NPR, I felt weirdly out of place and said so.
I looked at my cousin and laughed. "You especially." She was wearing her usual New York black with a brightly colored, fringed Boho scarf slung around her hips, purple sandals with wrap around ankle straps and giant brass tribal earrings. Her hair, as usual, was a tangled mane of brown sugar and gold. I, meantime, had on slightly battered jeans, a Star Trek T-shirt, aviator sun glasses and big silver hoop earrings.
A slightly bent over old man approached us. "I'm sorry," he said, "but jeans are not appropriate attire for the Institution."
For a moment, I was too stunned to speak. What had my brother and I worn when we were kids here? I couldn't remember. Mom always wore dresses.
"What are you supposed to wear?" I said, unable to keep sarcasm out of my tone.
"You can wear khaki if you like to wear shorts or slacks," he said.
"So what are we supposed to do?" asked Melanie. "You mean to say that we can't walk around unless we change?"
The old guy kept a straight face. "That would be advisable," he said.
We turned around and walked back to the entrance, exited and headed to the lake. "Are we returning?" said Melanie.
"Hell no," I said. "And by the way, you look gorgeous. Screw them."
"Did you see back there that it cost $88 per person to see the concert this evening?"
"What? I don't remember that when we were kids. I thought you paid your entrance and that was that."
"Everything changes," said Melanie philosophically.
We strolled back to the cottage, flapping our hands at bugs and dodging a persistent bee.
"I miss my brother," I said. "Even if he is a shit."
"I miss a lot of people and a lot of things," said Melanie. "And some things I don't."
About the Author
Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, The Speculative Edge and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. She has stories included in several sci-fi and literary anthologies, published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.