JENNIFER DUDZINSKI

 is a senior in the Media Studies and English departments. She has been an officer for UBCosplay club for the last four years. She enjoys writing because of its expressive nature and ability to impact others.

                                                                       Lunch 

 

Most people can find better things to do than meet their sister at a Pizza Hut in the middle of an afternoon on a Thursday. My brother certainly thought it was an out of the ordinary request. Out of the blue, more like. We shared the same parents but not the same generation. With nine years and eight months between us, we weren’t close.
     Families sat in booths that lined the walls of the restaurant, but I tried not to stare as the waitress guided me by them. She led me to a table in the middle of the room, but I asked for the window. I told her that I wanted to be able to see when my brother parked. She only needed to know the half truth of that statement. With the crinkled paper in my sweaty hand, I didn’t want to be the center of attention in a crowded room.
     Silverware was wrapped neatly in napkins on both sides of the wooden, deteriorating booths. I was convinced they had gotten these when another Catholic church closed down in the area. I pushed the napkin to the side and asked the waitress for a cherry Coke. She told me there was only Cherry Pepsi and asked if it was okay. I wanted to tell her that there wasn’t a difference and that both would give you the equal amount of diabetes, but I didn’t.

     “Cherry Pepsi is fine.”
     She left me alone to observe the laughter of children around me. I couldn’t help but smile at the memory, the reason why I picked Pizza Hut. When Dad got sick, Frankie brought me here to distract me. I was only in sixth grade, right before Christmas. Dad was in the hospital, his heart was failing, and Mom was right there beside him. Even though Frankie had moved out by then, he had to come home to care for me. Frankie was still a kid himself in some ways, especially when it came to cooking. We frequented this Pizza Hut at the expense of our parents’ credit card because his earnings went towards his own rent. I didn’t know much about our father’s condition then, but I still knew that we were at risk of losing him. I knew Frankie had to be hurting, too, but he didn’t show it. Laughter was the best medicine to him. He always tried to make me laugh by making fun of people around us. His smile was contagious.

     I brought my gaze back to the plastic, checkered tablecloth in front of me, assuring myself that what I was doing was right. Since he was still nowhere in sight, which wasn’t a surprise because I was always the first one to any family function, I released the paper from my hand. My nerves had smeared the page from the force at which I held it. The creases all looked like veins and the words, written in a black gel pen, were the blood of the emotions that I poured into it. My leg bounced to the rhythm of a song I couldn’t remember as my finger followed the impressions of the pen.
     “Hey, dude.”

     My face shot up to see him standing before me. He was the tallest in the family, but felt taller now. I snatched the sheet from the table as he sat down. 

     “Hey, Frankie.” 

     He dropped his phone and keys on the table beside him, making a hollow thud.  “What you got there?"
     “Nothing.” I didn’t want to get into that yet. I changed the subject and directed the
attention to his clothing. “Did you come here straight from work?”

     His hands flashed red as the straightened his pale blue uniform shirt, pulling it down with a tremendous grip. His finger tapped on the bottom button. He must have been nervous.            

     “Yeah. I didn’t clock out yet. I can do it from my phone in a few minutes.” He had worked with a delivery company for years now and believed that he can do no wrong. A part of me wants him to get caught. Maybe then he would finally come back down to the Earth the rest of us live on.
     Frankie asked what I wanted to order and I said my usual, cheese and pepperoni pizza. Nothing fancy.

     “You’ve got to try new things. That shit you eat will kill you.”

     “I like it,” was all I could muster out. Our parents said I was very difficult to feed. Pizza was something that they could never go wrong with. Frankie made fun of me then for my food choices, but scolds me now.
     The waitress popped back over to take our order. Frankie was overly nice, flirty even, like he was with every waitress. Of course she smiled and laughed at his charismatic jokes and hysterical one liners about the food and my selection. My brother was always funny, until the joke was on him. I sipped my watered-down soda until the waitress left us.

     “How’s the wedding planning?” I asked dryly.
     He scoffed. “I don’t fucking know. She wants all this pointless shit. She spent $2,400 on
a fucking dress she’ll wear once. Just dropped $2,000 on a photographer and videographer. Had to have both for some stupid reason.” He picked up his phone and immediately started tapping on the screen. My guess was he was texting his fiancé, Maggie. When they weren’t together, he was texting her. I’ll never forget the one time I happened to glance at his phone a couple Thanksgivings ago. In the green bubble under her name, Maggie asked him how everything was going. He only responded with ‘boring.’
     Weddings were something important to a lot of people so I could understand some expenses. It was the photography that grabbed my attention. “That’s insane. I have friends who would have done it for a couple hundred bucks.”
     “No. We want them to look good.”

     I held my tongue. I had friends with all sorts of interests and photography was one of them. A couple even went to school for it and their photos were a still from a moment in time you would never get back. But he wanted them to look good. I knew they were going to look fake.

     His finger had finally stopped tapping and he leaned forward in his seat. “How’s school? You still smart?”
     Frankie and I were the only two children in our small family. When it came to school, Frankie was the one that didn’t care at all. He was forced to go to a private school he hated, forced to take the bus, forced to obey our parents’ rules. He wanted to be the rebel without a cause. At least he graduated. That’s all Mom and Dad had hoped for. I was the one that thought I had to prove myself. I worked extremely hard in school from about third grade on. I strived for A’s and settled for no less than that. I was going to be the first in our family to graduate college.
     “I guess. Graduation’s in the spring.” A small part of me wanted him to be there for
graduation. I wanted to know that he was proud of me. But the reality set in. He would go, of
course, but only because he would feel obligated to.
     He placed his phone face up on the table once more and rubbed his bald head. That ran in the family. He started balding on the top of his egg shaped head before he even finished high school. He just shaves it now to create an even, bright reflective surface.

     “What are we doing here? And please don’t make me ask again, dude.” Dude. Frankie hardly ever used my name. I was Dude, Tank, Kid. Maggie picked up on the habit, too. I was Your Sister to her.
     “I just wanted to get to know you better.”
     Frankie smiled an unhappy smile. “Alright. You could have just texted me.” Texting was our primary form of communication. I only called when I really needed something. He never called me. I had to text him to meet me here today.

     “I’m tired of feeling alone, Frankie. You’re my brother and I know nothing about you. I know our age difference makes it a little difficult, but we’re both adults now. We should be able to get around that. I want a relationship with you.”
     “How are you alone? Don’t you have friends?”
     “They’re not my brother,” I replied, my voice breaking a small bit toward the end. I loved my friends. I really did, but there was a gap in my heart that I believed I could repair if I just built up a relationship with him.
     “Fine. What do you want to talk about?” He leaned back in his side of the booth. To anyone passing by, they would have believed that he was extremely comfortable, but he wasn’t. He managed to cover it well, but an open conversation was anything but comfortable to have between a thirty-one-year-old man and a twenty-two-year-old girl. That’s how I was viewed, a girl.
     “I…” My heart beat tried its hardest to stay at a normal pace, but my nerves took over. Instead of the sixty beats per minute that doctors tell us our heart should be operating at, my cardiovascular system wanted to be an overachiever with something over one hundred. As a result, my palms sweated more, this time, leaving a light smear on the white paper. “I made a list of things I wanted to ask you.”

     He smiled again under a high pitched chuckle. There was something I said that he found
genuinely funny. “You made a list?”
     I nodded a child’s nod when they admit to doing something wrong. “There’s a lot I want to know.”
     “Okay. What’s your first question?” The waitress came back with the beer he ordered. He
thanked her, grabbed the glass, placed it to his chapped lips, and gulped. When he pulled the glass away, his eyebrow flicked. “Fucking warm,” he mumbled.

     “Are you serious?”
     “Yeah, I’m serious. What’s your first question?”
     My hand smoothed the paper. I was torn between asking the serious questions that I had written and making up stupid questions first. My mouth decided for me. “What’s your favorite color?”
     Disapproval filled his face as more beer filled his mouth. “That’s not a question you really have, is it?”
     “It is,” I lied.
     “I’m not answering that. Ask me what you really want to ask me, dude.”
     “Um.” What question do I start with? Do I dig deep and find the ones really bothering me? Should I go with something that he would actually be comfortable answering? In all honesty, I didn’t know what ones would make him uncomfortable. I only knew the ones that peaked my curiosity.
     My brother grew tired of watching my indecision. “You know what? I’m leaving. I’ll text you later, Liz.”
     Liz. He used my name. “Wait. No. Okay. I’ll ask you something. Just, please stay.” The thought of him leaving now pinched my heart. The day he moved out, he'd said the same thing to our mom. Instead of “text” it was “call.”
     “Okay, then. Go.”
     The first question on the list. “How did you meet Maggie?”
     “I told you that.”
     I shrugged. “You didn’t. I don’t even know how long you’ve been together. Every time Mom or I asked you always said you didn’t know and that it didn’t matter. I know you’ve lived together for six or seven years because that’s when you bought the house and, for some reason, you wouldn’t propose. Until you did.”
     He breathed in deeply, no doubt sucking in the stale pizza smell that blasted from the kitchen. “She went to the same high school as me, but I didn’t know her then. After all the bullshit with Lily, I met Maggie through some friends.” Lily was a name I hadn’t heard in a long time. My posture stiffened at the sound of her name. “Do you remember Lily?”
     Lily was the woman Frankie dated in high school. She was older and he was in love. From what I remembered, she always treated me well. The two of them had no issue with letting me tag along. Mom hated her, didn’t trust her. Maybe that’s when their relationship started to crumble.

     “She was the one that said she was pregnant with your kid. Mom wasn’t convinced.”
     “Didn’t matter in the end.” Frankie’s eyes dropped to the stained red carpet. Lily lost the baby. Dad said it was drugs. Mom said it was alcohol. Frankie pretended to be relieved, to be free from her grasp. I knew better.

     “Did you ever want kids?”
     Frankie bit his bottom lip before shaking his head. “No. Maggie doesn’t want them. Dogs are expensive enough."

     “I didn’t ask if Maggie wanted them.”
     “Don’t push it.”
     I had developed the habit of listening to him when he demanded things of me. This was a topic that was off the table, but I got my answer. Unfortunately, that answer brought on a question not on the list. “Did you want me?”
     “What?”

     My nerves had finally settled. It may not have been on the list, but it had become a top priority question. “Did you want me?” I repeated sternly. “Mom told me that when she told you that she was pregnant, you didn’t want a little sister.”
     “That’s not true-“
     I knew he was going to argue with me, but I kept going. “I was so much younger. Mom and Dad both worked so you had to look after me. You resented them and me for it.”
     “Stop. I don’t resent you.” His voice was low and ground through his teeth.

     There was something in my brain that egged me on. There was more to the story and I demanded to know.

     “You left at eighteen and hardly ever came back. I missed you, but you weren’t there.”
     His scalp reflected the flickering lamp above us as he shook his head. “I did come back.”
     My words escaped my lips quickly, fearing that I would lose the courage to speak them at all. “When Dad almost died and when he got better, you took off again. Was it something I did? Something Mom and Dad did? I remember so many happy times between us, then you turned into a teenager and all those happy memories were gone. It was like you didn’t want to spend anymore time with me. You show up to big events and that’s it. Frankie, I just want to know. Did you want me at all?”
     My brother was always the loudest at every event, the polar opposite of me. He didn’t mind his presence being known. The silence that fell upon us in that moment was the most deafening he had ever been. My ear drums begged for crickets.

     The waitress’s face wore a fake smile as she dropped off our pizza and asked if we required anything else before she was to leave us.

     I broke the silence between us and copied her fake grin. My voice raised in pitch, trying to cover the fact that my heart was breaking right in front of her. “We’re fine. Thank you.”

     Nodding, the waitress left us alone once again.
     His chest grew as he inhaled the pizza air surrounding him. “No. No, I didn’t.”
     A strange sense of relief flooded my core. “Well, it’s nice to finally hear you admit it.”
     My stomach had always growled at inconvenient moments. This was no exception. I reached for the spatula, grabbed the nearest piece with three pieces of pepperoni on top, and plopped it down on my plate.
     Frankie didn’t move. “It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. You know that right?”
     “Pass me the Parmesan,” I said, unrolling the napkin and taking the fork.
     “No. You always dump too much on anyways. Hey. Liz, look at me.” My eyes met his. I never noticed that our eyes were the same shade of brown until his were staring at mine intently. “You know I love you, right? I would do anything for you.”
     Of course I knew he loved me. He wouldn’t have walked me to school or driven me around if he didn’t. And I knew he would do anything for me. Even in our adult lives, he was still protecting me. Earlier this year, he stopped a creep from coming onto me at the Fourth of July Parade. He and I could put drinks back, but I had a little too much that day. Frankie was proud of because I could keep up with him, but he still made sure I was safe.

     I rested the hand holding the fork on the table. “Then tell me why.”
     Steam rose from the black pan that held our pizza. It’s heavy clouded texture covered Frankie’s face. I could barely see him through the smoke imposter. “You weren’t my kid. I spent so much of my time with you when I was supposed to be a kid myself. Mom and Dad were never around, so someone had to take care of you. That became my job. It wasn’t you that I resented. It was them.”
     “I’m sorry,” was all I could muster.
     “It’s not your fault. I just grew up. I left because it was Mom and Dad’s job to take care of you. You turned out fine.” He finally joined me in eating the pizza. He bit the end right off the piece he had chosen. Before I could ask what he meant, Frankie asked, “What’s your next question?”
     I was shocked that he was so willing to do this at all, let alone be eager about it. “I kinda
want to enjoy the pizza right now.”
     His head nudged to my side of the table. “I don’t have all day and you’ve got a whole lotta stuff written on that piece of paper.”
     I stopped eating. “I know it’s a lot. We don’t have to cover it all today.”
     “Why not?”
     “We could always do this again.”
     Frankie grabbed his red Coca-Cola glass and gulped his warm beer. His face scrunched as he placed it back down. “We could, but it would be impossible to find the time. With all the wedding bullshit, I’m working nonstop. What you want is cool, but I just don’t have time.”
     The fork dropped onto the table. A tear decided that it wanted to form in the corner of my eye, but I demanded that it go back. He can’t see me cry. I cried a lot as a kid, but toughened myself up. Because of him. “I see my friends brag about the relationships that they have with their siblings and I want the same for us. Can’t you just try and make time?”
     His mouth, full of the cardboard they called pizza at this establishment, stopped chewing. “Maybe sometime next year, after the wedding?”

     The pounding in my chest ceased to exist. “Next year?”
     “Yeah,” was all he could add.
     The tear that had tried to sneak out had burned up from the intense heat of my skin. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. “You’re amazing; you know that?”
     “What’s that supposed to mean?”
     “You know exactly what it means, Frankie.”

     He stared at me blankly, not showing any emotion. That pissed me off more.

     “Why are you making it so hard for me to connect with you? The only time you ever even talk to me is when you need something. But, for once, I need something. I need my brother.”
     He swallowed hard and his face finally developed some kind of expression: anger. “Would you stop being dramatic?”
     “Dramatic? I’m being dramatic? I idolized you! I listened to your music, played your video games, used your slang. I thought you were the coolest because you were my big brother. All I wanted to do was spend time with you, but you constantly pushed me away. You talk to me like I’m less than you. I’m not a fucking child anymore. Stop leading me on! Next year? What a generous offer, but I think I’ll pass. I ask nothing of you and the one time I do, you can’t even take it seriously?” I wiped my mouth the the napkin. “You know what, I’m not hungry anymore. This was clearly a mistake.”
     Frankie called my name as he watched me shuffle through my purse. “Stop. You’re acting like a fucking baby. I’m trying to give you what you want.”
     “You’re not, though. Next year is the next time you’re available? Give me a break. I can’t keep doing this anymore. I wanted a relationship with you because I’m close with Mom and Dad, but no-one else in our family. I thought I would start trying to reach out, but it backfired in my face. I’m done, Frankie. I can’t do this.” I finally fished my wallet from the bottom of my purse and pulled out two twenties. I tossed them in his directions on the table. “Here. It was my idea so lunch is on me.”
     “You don’t have the money for this.”
     I wrapped the strap of my purse over my shoulder and ripped my body from the booth. “Nope. I got it. I’ll text you later, Frankie.”
     “Liz!” He didn’t stand until I was out halfway out the door. It was too late. I wasn’t
stopping. I couldn’t be weak. He at least taught me to toughen up.

     I started my car and sped out of the parking lot before I even buckled my seat belt. I left him standing in that restaurant, hopefully feeling like a fool. I hoped he felt half the pain I did. I pulled up to a stop light when my pocket started to buzz. I pulled the seat belt over me and I grabbed my phone. Frankie’s name flashed with a picture of the two of us five years before at a concert I barely remembered. I tapped ignore, but it immediately lit up with his name and face. I tapped ignore again and tossed my phone in the backseat.

      The light changed to green, but I didn’t push the gas pedal. My shoulders released all tension and my arms took over. My brain told me to keep driving and forget him, but my heart gained the power over my whole self.
     Before I knew it, I was pulled into a parking lot of a nearby convenient store searching for my phone in the backseat.

NAME Magazine UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO 2020