Fiction

 

WHAT SASHA DIDN'T KNOW

Sasha ordered me to meet her at Victoria Park after work, in the circle of grass on the tiny island. Any of the bridges will get you to it, she said, but don’t be late. This was the Thursday after Danny’s funeral. For his eulogy I’d written, My big brother always made me laugh, and when I rehearsed it in the mirror, her nose crinkled.     

            Sasha thought she was the only one who knew how to make me laugh. The first time we met, at Oktoberfest, she’d leaned into my glum face and whispered, “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” I told her the reason we’d ended up living together, the reason I’d agreed to a date, was that she put me in stitches. Sasha liked reading people, listening for the opening, finding the best place to come in. She was a walking Wikipedia of memes. She saw people.   

           A bunch of people stood on the island, most of them way older than us, lots of them Korean or Japanese. Sasha spied me on the bridge and waved. I clumped over the wooden slats in my espadrille wedges, thinking, shit, is this Tai Chi? Not exactly dressed for it.

            “Look I’m here. What’s up?” 

            “You’ll see. Trust me. I found it online. Free—well a donation.” She nodded at a wooden box set near the bushes. 

            “Sash, I’m not really up for this…” I slumped a bit to prove my point. 

            “Jules, give it a chance. It’s new. You’ll see.”

             She had me. I was always harping on about my sense of adventure, how I loved to try new things. As a kid, I’d memorized Green Eggs and Ham. I didn’t love the hardcore physical stuff, no Machu Picchu for me, but I’d gone geocaching with her, and sweated Bikram yoga and rode horseback. She’d signed us up for stained-glass, improv theatre, birdwatching, drumming, even a full-day silent retreat (that was harder for Sash than for me). 

            When I said Danny always made me laugh, I meant, he was our family’s class clown. It was his one-liners that cracked me up the most: Your feet are so big you have to back up to a door to knock. You’re so ugly Mom had to feed you with a slingshot. 

            Those are ancient Rodney Dangerfield lines, Sasha told me. He stole them.

            Sasha didn’t like Danny, that he sold coke and other shit. She didn’t like that he drove a Harley and wore a buck knife on his belt. And that when I introduced them, he’d taken one look at her cropped hair and Timberlands and said, “Oh, so you’re the guy then.” 

            I’d caught her hand. She was pissed, and too scared to push back. Later I told her Danny liked her, liked that I liked her. Wouldn’t yank her chain if he didn’t. Sash was an only child. She didn’t know Danny was harmless, that the tough biker stuff was part of his routine. 

            You don’t steal jokes, I said. You’re supposed to re-tell them. I always forgot the punch line, but not Danny. Even his accent was perfect. “In Soviet Russia, Waldo finds you.” So funny. 

            Danny was ten years older than me, born way before mom met my dad. At home, we never said half-brother. We both loved Robin Williams. Danny before me, in Mork & Mindy, and again, when I loved him in Aladdin. Mom worked nights and Danny babysat. We’d watch the VHS over and over until we could perfectly mimic the genie. Danny told me that Robin didn’t read a script, that he ad-libbed in that manic way. When the actor killed himself last month, we weren’t surprised. Tortured genius, right? 

            But Danny, he didn’t ad lib. He’d flossed his teeth and pressed his jeans. He’d practice the same jokes over and over till the timing was just right. Danny’s accident was a complete surprise to me.

            Sasha pulled me beside her as we lined up in tidy rows. Line dancing? I looked around for a cowboy hat, a portable stereo. A short man at the front clapped his stubby hands together. Everyone went still and watched him. 

            The man put his hands on his belly and everyone around me put their hands on their bellies. He went “hee, hee, hee” with short fast breaths through a stretched grimace. “Hee, hee, hee” expelled the crowd. Then he put his hands lower on his stomach, and said, “Ho, ho, ho,” with a round toothless mouth. The people in line copied his Santa imitation.

            Breathing exercises. Is it Qigong? I looked at Sasha on my right, but she was busy moving her hands from waist to belly, hee heeing and ho hoing. The third time I joined in, because it felt ridiculous to stand in the middle and not. 

            After about ten rounds of that, the leader tilted his face toward the sky, opened his arms wide and laughed. A long laugh. I looked up. What was so darn funny, above the park on a Thursday after work? I expected to see a plane pulling a funny sign, or a penis-shaped kite, or even “Surrender, Dorothy” in white wispy clouds. Nothing but blue sky. 

            People in the front row started to laugh. I heard a high-pitched giggle and saw a man bend over his knees and chortle. The first man was now taking in big breaths of the cool, fresh air between long laughs. His face looked delicious, his glassy eyes unfocused like he was watching John Candy on a movie in his head. 

            The island shook with laughter. Neat lines of people broke apart, some people clapped each other on the back, two people hugged and laughed. Sasha was laughing in small bursts. “Laughter Yoga,” she crowed and then she snorted, the way she did to contain herself, like when I farted during sex, and she rolled with glee. I was fake laughing too; I couldn’t help it. 

            Then I saw Danny. A few rows up, his hair in its usual ponytail. He wasn’t wearing leathers, he had on a pressed pair of acid-wash jeans. Danny had this way of holding his body still when he laughed, just his hands flapped as he shook his head. He gestured at the shorter girl beside him, gave the air a little push as if to say, “No way!” 

            I laughed for real then, my sheepish you-got-me laugh. The laugh I gave when mom told the story about the Halloween when I was seven, how Danny held me in front of a dark mirror with a candle and chanted “I believe in Mary Worth.” He’d fooled me. I practically scratched his arms raw getting free. 

            In the park, I turned to Sasha, so happy about Danny’s ultimate prank, deliciously happy that they’d made up, that Danny had charmed her into getting me to the park. Sasha, who’d forgiven him, who’d bought a black dress for his funeral. In the cacophony of laughter, I pulled on her sleeve, pointed out Danny’s ponytail and yelled, “Oh my god, you guys.” 

            I stepped around others to go to him. He’d gathered the girl beside him in a hug and she was writhing up to him, giggling madly. Then they crouched on the ground, she almost in his lap, trying to duck out from under his arms. They twisted together down low, her running shoes kicking desperately against those perfectly creased jeans.

            His face turned to me before I got to them, and his nose was flat and his forehead bald and it wasn’t Danny. My body froze mid-step. I slid sideways off my wedge heels and landed on my knees in the spongy grass. Loud annoying laughter assaulted me. Robotic laughter, like the laughs of Tickle-Me-Elmo, the doll Danny had hilariously run over with his bike. 

            “Heh, Julie, heh don’t.” Sasha had grabbed my fingers hard the first time I playfully ran them along her ribcage. “Stop it. Tickling is torture. It’s not nice.”

            I watched on my knees as the girl turned into the man’s embrace, as they collapsed together, still laughing. He cupped his hands around the back of her head, kept her hair out of the mud. 

            Sasha was beside me. Her eyes ran forward to the couple as they got up and turned back to the front. She recognized the ponytail. 

            “I’m sorry, Jules,” she mouthed in my face. “We can go.”

            The manic laughter around us had subsided into staccato chuckles and smothered giggles, with little bursts of joyful squeals. I didn’t get up. High in the sky a plane left a stark white scar in the sky. I felt my face as wet as my cold knees. Sasha didn’t see it.

            When I was very small, not yet three, the front door banged open and heavy boots kicked a kitchen chair into the wall. My mother screamed, Dan, get her at the same time his strong hands pulled me up and out of my chair. As the back door slammed behind us, Danny turned me facedown across his arms; one arm under my chest and the other at my knees. He began to jog, bouncing across the yard and along the fence. In the dark I saw blue lights beyond the fence. Danny was giggling, holding me aloft with his warm mouth pressed to my ear, so all I could hear was his laugh and his singsong rhyme. 

            “Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane…. it’s Superman.”

 

Author Bio:

MJ Malleck is a first-generation university graduate who grew up on the Canadian side of the US border and still likes her weather in Fahrenheit degrees. Her work has appeared in The Temz Review, Entropy, and Wrongdoing. She is working on a story collection and her first novel. Twitter @MJMalleck

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