This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina, released by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020.
Down in the River to Pray
This is what I knew:
My nephew Benji graduated from drama school. When he crossed the stage to accept his diploma, he wore a sultry Lauren Bacall wig and a cream-colored satin evening gown with padded shoulders. His make-up was perfect, his lips the color of blood and desire. My mother told me he looked stunning. And that after the ceremony he argued with his father and my sister, his stepmother but the mother who raised him.
Then he left for New York. It was 1988.
Fourteen years later, my mother told me Benji had disappeared. He came home one day from his job at a restaurant and trashed the apartment he shared with a roommate. Then he left. No one knew how to find him or if he was even alive.
Her voice dropped to a whisper as she added, “He has HIV.”
I put a story together that, at the time, didn’t need to be correct; it just needed to be a story that made sense. I thought “estranged.” I thought “We don’t know where Benji is” meant Benji moved and changed his phone number because he didn’t want to talk to his family any more. Many of us have been on one side or the other of that wall, but we know it’s a wall that exists because we agree to it. We know we can find or be found if necessary. And six years after Benji disappeared, it was necessary that I find him.
I needed to find Benji because my mother died and left Benji and her other grandchildren a little money. Because she didn’t know what happened to Benji, she stipulated that the money would go to “living grandchildren.” If Benji wasn’t alive, his share went to the eight other grandchildren, not to his father, his next-of-kin.
As my mother’s executor, I had to find Benji if he was still alive.
I thought about the last time I’d seen Benji. It was the mid- 1990s. I was in New York for business. We met at a restaurant near the Met. He didn’t mind coming uptown, he told me when he picked the restaurant. His face was freshly washed, and he wore a shirt with an open collar. It must have been fall because I remember us eating at a table on the sidewalk and Benji wearing a brown tweed sport coat.
Benji held his fork in his left hand while he cut the pork cutlet, then switched his fork to his right hand to take a bite, the way he’d learned growing up in the Midwest; he hadn’t adopted any big city cutlery affectations.
“I’m still waiting tables,” he said, when I asked what he was doing.
“But I’m rehearsing a play,” he added, slurring his words like a Chicagoan does.
I smiled. “That’s great. How often do you perform?”
He shrugged and stabbed another piece of pork, holding it on his fork, suspended in front of his mouth while he answered. “It’s just some people I know—in this warehouse space, but I think it could lead to some auditions.”
I noticed his sport coat didn’t fit well, and I thought he probably bought it at a thrift store just for our lunch. I didn’t know how Benji usually dressed, whether the satin gown at his graduation was to shock his parents, upstage his drama school classmates, or to come out. Maybe he didn’t own a sport coat because he didn’t lunch uptown that often. Maybe he didn’t wear men’s clothes. At the time, I assumed he thought I would feel more comfortable if he didn’t look showy, and I had been oddly touched. My cheeks reddened at the memory of Benji considering my comfort when he got dressed that day. The idea that Benji might have covered his flamboyance for me was touching in the mid-1990s, embarrassing in 2008.
I hadn’t been a very involved aunt. I was eighteen and Benji was five when my sister married Benji’s father, a widower with five children. It’s true that I was focused on college, on love, later on my own marriage, but I also avoided my sister, who could be dramatic, telling stories that were inconsistent with previous stories—and sometimes with reality. I could understand if Benji went dark just to avoid her.
I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child.
But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.
We don’t know where Benji is was not just parent code for Benji doesn’t want us to know where he is. It wasn’t just Benji code for My father, a crew-cut cop, is uncomfortable around me because I wear make-up, and my mother lives in her own reality. So I am not going to make the trek home for Thanksgiving when I can make some good tips if I stay in New York and wait tables.
All of that may have been true, except that Benji really had disappeared.
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