Photo by Christina Schmidt
Not Exactly a Morning Beer
The first time I met Dave Russell he may have been shirtless with a cowboy hat, swaggering between tents at a music festival, a little high and drunker than he appeared, and when my sister, Rachel, introduced us, he may have glanced at me so briefly that there was no mistaking how little he cared about meeting his friend’s little sister. Or the first time might have been at The Rongo, the bar where he and Rachel both worked, where he mixed me a strong drink and leaned across the bar and tried to convince me to learn to frame houses. He could teach me. I was looking for a job, and if I could learn a useful trade it might redeem me a bit for that useless Ivy League education that he just had the misfortune of learning about. Or the first time might have been upstairs from the bar, in the brick-walled loft he shared with the woman who would become his wife and later his ex-wife, where I sat mute on a futon while he leaned back, drunk and sullen in an armchair, peering with heavy eyes through the room’s dim orange light. Each time I met him could have been the first, because for those first few years, he always looked at me like a stranger.
Dave was charismatic and handsome in a weather-beaten cowboy way, and he fancied himself a sort of redneck da Vinci. If you drove by his house on a Saturday afternoon, you’d be as likely to find him hammering at a typewriter or reading a history book as you would be to find him shooting at a snowman with his shot gun. He scoffed at conventions like “college” while simultaneously reminding anyone who would listen about all the careers he could have had.
“I’d be a great history teacher.”
“I could be a lawyer. I could pass the bar right now.”
He was only in his thirties but said he couldn’t sling a hammer and bartend forever and that it might be time to find himself a cushy career. And sometimes he almost seemed to mean it. But physical labor was the only work he seemed to respect. Besides, starting a new kind of life meant starting at the bottom, and Dave preferred to be the king of his domain.
Rachel lived in Trumansburg, New York, a little town outside Ithaca, a few hours from Albany where we grew up. Dave lived there too, though they had met years earlier in Binghamton, where Rachel went to college. Binghamton was a depressed city with too few jobs and too many crack heads and falling-down houses rented to college students, but something about the gritty life there appealed to Rachel. She attended the state university, but she made more of a mark as an adopted local—frequenting townie bars, working at a jewelry shop, a garden shop, and as a cocktail waitress in a dive bar that had never thought to have a cocktail waitress until she suggested it. For a time, she was Binghamton’s darling. Dave was dating one of her coworkers, and he and Rachel became fast friends. I’m not sure why they never dated—maybe it was just a matter of timing, or maybe it was because they saw each other so clearly. Rachel loved a side of Dave that was smart and thoughtful and sad, but knew how often his cocky facade ran the show. Dave loved how Rachel’s sweet, coy exterior belied her cutting insights and her quick temper. In each other, they saw a side of themselves they kept tamped down. A year after college, Binghamton’s bleak, empty streets had started to wear on Rachel and it was time for a change. She chose Trumansburg somewhat on a whim and moved there alone. Dave moved up shortly after.
I eventually moved to Ithaca—after living in Oregon after college, I wanted to move back east and thought I’d land temporarily in the familiar town that Rachel loved so well—but when I met Dave, I was an out-of-towner finishing up my degree at Harvard, and then an out-of-towner living across the country. Each time I came to visit, I’d see him, and each time he’d show little sign of recognition. He had a way of appearing busy and distracted, even when doing no more than drinking a beer—a way of making me feel that my presence, while perfectly welcome in his peripheral vision, wasn’t worth his focus.
“Dave is so full of shit,” Rachel would say, as a way of telling me not to care about his inattention. When Dave was drunk, he told the same stories over and over like an old man. He was becoming that kind of a guy, the kind whose company you could enjoy just so long as you didn’t take him seriously. Rachel refused to let him off the hook so easily. She didn’t laugh at his stories of madcap misadventure, and when he acted like an asshole, she told him so. “He doesn’t pay attention to anybody other than himself.” Their love for each other was something like the love of siblings—unquestioned, overlooked, and volatile.
When she was in her late twenties, Rachel stopped working as a waitress and went to graduate school. It was hard to tell from the outside that she and Dave were old friends. The connection between Dave and Rachel’s boyfriend, Phil, made more sense to the outside world. They both hunted, they both worked as builders, they both loved smoked meats and bluegrass music and hippie girls and sitting on the porch drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. People who hadn’t known them for long assumed that they were the ones with the decade-old friendship and that Rachel was just the wife tasked with tolerating Dave’s frequent unannounced visits.
By the time Rachel and Phil were married, Dave was married and divorced and had moved into an ancient house around the corner from them. He started renovations on it and then let it flounder. His daughter, Grace, stayed there sometimes and when she did, he stayed sober and brought her around for family dinners. But when she was with her mom, which seemed to be more and more the case, Dave drank all day.
After I moved to Ithaca and came around more often, Dave learned to treat me as a fond and familiar face, but our conversations ran on a script. For a year or two, he’d say, “You live in Ithaca now, huh? How’s it treating you?” as if I had arrived in town the previous week. I could have chalked it up to forgetfulness or to the near constant tipsiness with which he moved through life, but instead I was certain that there was something willful in his nearly senile inability to remember the first thing about me. I had failed to make an impression. Who was I but a girl who knew how to take tests and obey the rules?
When Rachel was pregnant, she asked me to be there with her when the baby was born. Phil, of course, would be the primary companion, but she wanted me there, too—to help, to entertain, and to distract her during her labor. I was determined not to fail her. I read The Birth Partner and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I watched The Business of Being Born, a documentary about the medicalization of childbirth, as well as YouTube videos showing home videos of real births. I needed to know how to be there for her, which meant I needed to know what to expect. No surprises. In unexpected ways during those nine months, I found myself responding to primordial emotional triggers I didn’t even know I had. In every birthing video, at the moment when the newborn infant’s head emerged, I cried a little. I imagined every scenario I could: talking with Rachel about whether the labor was too painful to endure without meds, holding her hand and smoothing her hair while she pushed, and running to the cafeteria to buy snacks for Phil.
A few days before her due date, Rachel and Phil dropped their car at the mechanic—they needed to get the brakes fixed and wanted to be sure to do so before driving the baby home from the hospital. They asked me to drive them to the hospital if Rachel went into labor before the car was ready which, of course, she did. And so it went that on the morning that my nephew Finnegan was to be born, Rachel was waiting in the backseat of my Toyota Corolla, huffing through contractions while Phil and I hurriedly packed the car and prepared to drive her the thirty minutes to Schuyler Hospital. Cayuga Med was only ten minutes from their house, but her midwife didn’t work with that hospital, so we were heading down to Montour Falls where the midwife’s birthing suite awaited. I packed up the trunk and when I closed it, the following items were locked safely inside:
Food. When Rachel had called me at 7:30 that morning to tell me she was in labor, she told me not to rush, to wait for another call. What was an expecting auntie to do but head to the supermarket? Phil is a sandwich man, and I suspected the hospital cafeteria would be found lacking, so for him I bought sliced turkey, peppered salami, provolone cheese, bread, lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo. For Rachel, granola bars. Six bagels and veggie cream cheese. A protein shake. A half dozen apples. I’m not sure where I imagined we were going.
CD player and CDs. Rachel’s request that I select some music that could function as soundtrack to her labor seemed at first an easy request but ended up causing hours of anxiety. How many folk singers interrupted their gentle ballads for one shrill moment that might cause prenatal stress! How many classical piano pieces that start slow and lilting erupt in thumping bombast three quarters through! But could I really endorse Enya as the soundtrack to creation? I compiled a stack of options to suit every birthing mood: a Zen meditation mix featuring reed flutes and distant drumming, something called Shiva’s Garden that a yoga teacher friend lent me, a mix of mellow classical tunes I made for an insomniac boyfriend several years earlier, Enya, and Nick Drake.
An inflated balance ball because Rachel heard that some people find it a comfortable place to sit while laboring.
A diaper bag, clothes for the baby, clothes for Rachel.
The car key.
The car key. The key necessary to start the car that would drive my contracting sister and her husband to the hospital for the birth of her first child. The 1998 Toyota Corolla VE had no frills. No auto locks. No power windows. No clock. And no trunk latch. I packed up that trunk and slammed it closed and knew immediately what I had done. I could see Rachel’s head through the rear window. She sat in the back, behind the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead, waiting.
Some people make little absent-minded mistakes all the time. They press Send on emails they haven’t finished writing, lose twenty-dollar bills, forget dentist appointments, and spill their coffee on their work pants. They drunk-dial ex-boyfriends, sleep through their alarms, forget their mothers’ birthdays, and rack up parking tickets. Not me. People knew me to be reliable, practical, careful, on time—in other words, I was on top of my shit. I wonder now if there is a quota of error we must each reach in our lifetimes, and those of us who stride through daily life skipping over puddles may be due for an occasional grand fiasco to make up for lost time. This was one of mine.
I only gave myself five seconds or so to feel the panicked no no no pummeling my head and racing through my veins. Then, after one futile tug on the closed trunk as if it might make a bargain with me, I turned from the car and walked up the stairs to the front door of their house, where Phil was walking toward me with the last bag. If love of a sibling can be measured by how stupid you’re willing to appear during their time of need, my lack of excuses and time-wasting explanations should count for something.
“I locked my keys in the trunk.”
His response, “okay,” was slow and steady, as if Rachel and the fetus, sitting in the driveway out of sight below, would smell any hint of panic from afar.
When Dave drove up, he didn’t bother pulling into the driveway. He left it idling at the curb and hopped out. He wore jeans, an unbuttoned shirt, and no shoes. He’d been sitting around his half-renovated kitchen drinking his morning coffee when Phil called to tell him they needed his car, now, and he concluded that there was no time for proper dressing. Rachel pushed herself to standing and walked gingerly from my car to Dave’s passenger seat. Phil took the driver’s seat. I wanted to apologize and to be reassured that I wasn’t an idiot, but there was no time for that. I said goodbye and that I would be right behind them, that somehow I would get there soon with all their things, but they weren’t really listening and or looking at me. I had become irrelevant.
They drove away, and I stood stunned in the driveway. I knew there must be a set of logical steps to embark on next, but the only signal my brain was sending was a throbbing awareness of things going wrong. Of things going wrong because of me. The emotional alarm system had been activated and was impervious to the realization that everything was probably fine—that Rachel was safely en route to the hospital, that the baby would be born whether or not it heard Enya, and that Phil would become a dad even without a salami sandwich. Dave cocked his head toward me and smiled. When he smiles, creases appear at the corner of his eyes and at the sides of his mouths like a much older man with skin that folds like leather.
“So what the hell’d you do?”
I could see him mulling over how everything he knew in life was true: Girls like me with their fancy degrees proved once again to be idiots when it comes to living. Guys like him were there to save the day.
He didn’t believe that there was no way into the trunk from inside the car, but after ten minutes of searching for secret latches in the glove box and under the steering wheel, he gave up. I knew a spare key existed, but I hadn’t seen it in months. I needed to get to my apartment to look for it. Phil’s truck could be driven, but I didn’t drive stick, so I needed Dave’s help. I stood before him feeling pathetic and needy, a version of me that most people had never seen. Of course he’d drive me. He didn’t hesitate. We stopped at his house for his coffee and his shoes. He told me to relax. There was no hurry. When his ex was pregnant with Gracie, she was in labor for ten hours. I’d get to the hospital with plenty of time to spare, and maybe I should just take a Xanax.
“Seriously, you need to relax,” he told me. “You sure you don’t want something?”
We stopped at the supermarket—the truck needed gas and Dave wanted beer. I waited in the truck, staticky with nervous energy, but because I didn’t want to appear impatient or ungrateful, I agreed that there was no rush, twenty minutes more or less wouldn’t change a thing now. He reappeared with a twelve-pack of Genny Cream Ale, hopped in the driver’s seat, and cracked one open. If I wouldn’t take his Xanax, at least I could drink a beer, so I took one, too. I held the can on my lap and examined it. For the first time since Rachel called me that morning, a thought occurred to me that did not pertain to her. Genny Cream Ale?
“I thought you only drank Molson Canadian.” Dave was known for bringing his own supply wherever he went. It was his trademark.
“Sarah.” He sounded exasperated, as if I should have known better. I felt like a student faced with a teacher’s faraway sigh. “Sarah, it’s not exactly a morning beer.”
While he drove, he told me about the current state of his life—about how he’d been working on a crew building Panera Bread franchise locations around the Northeast, about how Gracie kicks ass, how he’s got all this freedom now but couldn’t bring himself to have a one-night stand anymore, how he came to this realization when a cute girl at a bar wanted to go home with him and he said no. He seemed fascinated by this event, as if it revealed layers of depth he hadn’t suspected of himself. He asked me what I was reading, and I told him that I was trying to get through Don Quixote. He looked pleased. Don Quixote was a thing he could get behind. He didn’t know I was that kind of girl. Where had I been all his life?
He talked and I replied, and the conversation may have sounded normal to him, but I felt I was listening from underwater. Events on the surface felt warped and distant. Every few minutes I would mutter, “I can’t believe I did this,” and he would try from a new angle to persuade me to take the edge off.
“If you just take one, you’ll still be fine. You’ll just be a little . . . calmer.”
“Yeah, great, and then I can be out of it when I get to the hospital.”
“That might be better than being all wound up like this.”
He asked why he wasn’t just driving me to the hospital. Why was it so important to get into the car? What was so important in the trunk, anyway? When I told him there was salami and mayonnaise at stake, he was finally convinced of our mission’s urgency. He sat upright and leaned ever so slightly into the steering wheel, shifting into a posture of exaggerated attention.
“Salami! Why didn’t you say so?!”
At my apartment, I tossed the contents of desk drawers onto the living room carpet, rifling through piles of old keys, supermarket discount cards, pens, binder clips, and post-it notes. Dave meandered slowly from room to room, glancing at books and photos. He picked up a picture of me and my old roommate, Jenny.
“What’s the deal with Jenny Griffin?” he asked. Jenny was a gorgeous Trumansburg native with high cheek bones and a way of coyly biting her lower lip that send men into gutless tizzies. “She’s cute.”
When I first met her, I was jealous of all the attention she got. At this point it didn’t faze me.
“She’s actually dating a woman right now,” I called back to him, knowing that this would only make it worse. He appeared in the doorway, nodding his approval.
I didn’t find the key, but I did talk to a locksmith who said that he could be out there in an hour or two. He told me that you cannot pick a trunk lock. He’d have to cut a new key. I imagined hours passing. Surely it would take too long. I couldn’t wait. Dave agreed to drive me to the hospital in the truck and return later to drop off my car, after the locksmith worked his magic. It was half an hour to the hospital, two hours of driving to make two round trips on top of the time he’d already spent.
“Dave, I feel bad asking you to do this.”
His response was fierce and immediate.
“Rachel is family. I would do anything for her. Anything.”
Rachel was family. Our family.
By the time we started driving to the hospital, Dave had stopped offering me pharmaceuticals. His words of wisdom had started to feel less like mockery and more like comfort. He had spent two hours helping me out and wasn’t nearly done yet. My panic about missing the birth was coming and going like waves of nausea. I knew Dave was right—it might be hours before Rachel gave birth, but I also knew that I was not where I was supposed to be, next to Dave Russell in the cab of a pickup truck instead of by my sister’s side. Soon, though, I’d be there.
After a few miles of driving in silence, Dave remembered something.
“Shit! I should have brought my bow.”
The archery supply shop was out near the hospital, and he needed a repair on his compound bow before hunting season started. But he didn’t say anything else. He didn’t ask to turn around. I looked out the window at farm fields, imagined Rachel bearing down without me. I looked back at Dave. I’d been trying since we met to convince him that I was different from what he thought I was, but really I was trying to convince myself. I wanted to convince myself that I could be both the straight A student and the girl who drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and Jim Beam at a dive bar. I wanted to be both the girl who coached her sister through labor and the girl who said she was nowhere ready to have kids of her own. I wanted to be a girl who everyone could count on and the girl from whom nobody knew what to expect.
I asked him if he wanted to go back for the bow. I’m not sure if I was still trying to prove something about myself or if I was just feeling grateful for his help. He looked me in the eyes and paused.
Yes, it was fine. What difference will fifteen minutes make? He swung the truck into the gravel driveway of a brick Greek Revival sitting close to the road.
“Are you sure? Thank you. You’re awesome.”
I arrived at the hospital at 1:00 p.m., and Rachel gave birth to Finnegan at two. Somehow he was coaxed into this world without the soothing tones of Enya or Nick Drake. The birthing suite had a real double bed with a wooden headboard, and a large whirlpool tub awaited anyone interested in a water birth. But when it came time to really push, Rachel rejected the bed, and she rejected the tub. Instead, she opted to sit on the toilet where her body gave way most readily to pushing. And when the final minutes came, she didn’t try to make it back to the bed but sank onto the tile of the bathroom floor, surrounded in the narrow doorway by Phil, the midwife, a nurse, and me.
It was not the birth we had imagined, but it was exactly right.
Dave dropped my car off a few hours later. As he crossed the room to Rachel and the baby, his face was a knot of muscles straining against emotion. A one syllable cry fell from his mouth and he looked like he might collapse.
“Look at you,” he muttered, and he kissed Rachel’s cheek.
I walked out a few minutes later to get the sandwich fixings out of the trunk. A sticker from Arnot Forest Archery shop shone on the upper corner of the Corolla’s rear window. It was one of the transparent stickers that adheres to glass by static cling and can be removed with the flick of a finger, but I did not touch it. It stayed in the window for the five years until the car was totaled, and now, somewhere, that car is sitting in a junk yard still wearing Dave’s seal of approval.