"I swear, if he fucking went to Alabama again I'm gonna kill him. That bastard is dead to me."
Back in September 2004 my then-wife and I went down to her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama to catch the premiere of her brother’s movie at a local film festival (a movie initially created as a birthday video for me that eventually served as the basis for a charming feature-length film about zombies, rednecks and full-frontal male nudity). By all accounts the trip was a success. My brother-in-law’s film was received with great enthusiasm, my ex got to see her family and we all got to watch several movies for the price of a small popcorn at a Manhattan Regal Cinema. All was well in the land...at least in the Southeast.
Back in my hometown of Dix Hills, New York, however, it was a markedly different story. For some inexplicable reason my parents got visibly—not to mention quite vocally—upset whenever we would visit my ex’s family. It's not that they didn't like my former in-laws. In fact, they truly did enjoy her folks’ company. But my parents live in a zero-sum world. They are also territorial to the point that would unnerve Germans. In my parents’ world every visit to my in-laws somehow deducted a visit to my family. In my parents’ world final tallies aren't so much added but subtracted. In my parents’ world you reflect not on what you have but recall what didn't come your way. Simply put, were the Marciulianos to write their family story it would be titled This Book Should Be Twice As Long and Printed on Saffron and Platinum.
Not being the types to suffer in silence—or at least mutter inaudibly—my parents openly and repeatedly questioned why we would regularly spend a full week at my in-laws’ house after driving 18 hours from New York to Alabama but only a mere weekend after driving 30 minutes on the L.I.E. to Dix Hills. Thus, had I told my parents we were going to stay in Alabama for a couple of days that September the ensuing interrogation would have made Columbo look like a concussed Chief Wiggum. That's because to engage in a dialogue with my folks is to enter a conversational Mobius strip, in which the phrase "But why?" is repeated again and again and again and again and again. Conclusions give way to more theories. Answers only reveal more problems. There is no resolution, just ultimate rejection. And then maybe some cake.
Having ridden that loop one too many times I struck upon a plan. A devious plan. A brilliant plan. A plan that could only come from the cunning foresight God gave a retarded squirrel. In short, I would tell my parents nothing of our trip. True, an actual plan is perhaps best defined as "a prescribed course of actions" whereas mine could best be defined as "evasion" or "remarkably immature." But despite my ex’s then simply worrisome but now clearly wise assertion that such a move would ultimately bite us in the ass, hard, I could detect not a single flaw. My folks would be completely ignorant. I would be completely happy. We would all experience familial bliss. Everything, for once, would go right. And everything, for once, did go right. It really, truly did.
Then came Sunday.
As my ex, her family and myself were engaging in that favorite Alabama pastime of trying to order breakfast without bacon or fried cheese—a arduous task even when requesting only orange juice—my mom was at that very moment leaving a message on our home answering machine. She was calling to inform us that my best friend from childhood, Val, had just lost his father after a long bout with cancer. Now, not only had I known Val’s father since I was about three but Val is a big part of my life, including giving me my nickname "Ces" back in kindergarten when even I had difficulty pronouncing my full name. And although we probably could not have made it back in time for the funeral service I most certainly would have wanted to call my friend that day to offer our condolences—something we could have done had my mom also left a message on my cell phone. True, thanks to my so-called "plan" my mom had no idea we were away and thus had no reason to think we would not get her message in time. But this was the very same person who just the week before had left messages on both my home and cell phone saying "Don't forget, the Emmys are on Sunday." In other words, another call would not have been completely out of character—unless, of course, that character was either trying to prove a point or had gone funny in the head, both of which ultimately proved to be true.
As for the answering machine message, we didn’t hear it until we returned late Tuesday evening, along with another message from Val telling me of his dad's passing and giving directions to the funeral service...which, of course, was held that Tuesday morning.
Naturally, I felt horrible and rightly so. Had I a backbone (or at least a well-starched shirt) I could have stood up to my parents' lunacy and just dealt with the ensuing inquisition and irrationality. I also wouldn't be calling my friend at 11 P.M. Tuesday night apologizing over and over again for not being there. Val, however, took the news much better than anyone could possibly imagine or deserve. In fact, he assumed that since I didn't call back we were probably on vacation and chose not to leave a message on my cell for fear of putting a damper on our time...a thoughtful and kind gesture that made me feel all the worse.
And had I this requisite backbone, I also would have spared my friend and his family from my folks' senior-cast production of An Inspector Calls that very morning. For apparently nothing but nothing brings out the detectives in my parents like a funeral. While others at the service reached for their handkerchiefs the Marciulianos reached for their notepads and pens, determined to solve the mystery that was "Where’s Ces?" The church might has well have been a Victorian drawing room. The mourners a suspect house staff. The deceased a McGuffin. Let others reflect on the passing of a father, husband and friend. The Marciulianos had come to make a statement and regrettably it was not "I'm sorry for your loss.”
My mom surveyed the people and perimeter of the church, spending most of the funeral service wandering around asking "Has anyone seen Ces?" like a bag lady inquiring the whereabouts of her invisible baby. My dad cornered the supposed accomplices. Opting for a direct approach, he sat next to Val on the front row pew and proceeded to grill him, asking over and over again "C'mon, you can tell me. Ces went to Alabama again this weekend, right?" Val just kept nodding "no" while looking straight ahead at an open casket no more than ten feet away. My dad, seeing that he had hit an investigative dead end, then tried a new tactic—"Well, then where would he be if he's not in Alabama? He didn't visit us, that's for damn sure. So where does that leave?" Yes, thanks to our nation's lackluster geography studies, my Dad was convinced there are only two places on Earth--Birmingham, Alabama and Dix Hills, New York. Well, three, when he bitched about my brother moving to Boston.
When Val proved to be of no help, and his sister Danielle rudely interrupted any further questioning by commencing the eulogy, my Dad turned to Val's mother Barbara—the wife of the deceased—and began complaining about our numerous trips down south. "They never visit us. At the drop of a hat they'll go down to Alabama but they never visit us. Can you believe that shit?" Realizing that Barbara neither knew of my current whereabouts nor could empathize, my father slumped in the pew, folded his arms and, according to my friend Val, said to no one in particular out loud "I swear, if he fucking went to Alabama again I'm gonna kill him. That bastard is dead to me." He might as well have stood up, pointed at the casket and said, "Make room 'cause I'm throwing my son in, too.”
And so the service and the scrutiny played out. My mom wandered aimlessly, looking for someone she knew wasn't there but making sure everyone else knew it as well ("I can't believe my son wouldn't come. It's his oldest friend. Where could he be?"). My dad sat in the front pew with the grieving family, wondering if the priest had any information and cursing out my name—in church—while audibly planning his own son's funeral ("And when I bury that fucker I'm not even going to show up. Two can go to Alabama."). Neither of them thought to call my cell phone and resolve the issue once and for all...although there's a good chance I would have simply lied. That’s because for some, you see, maturity is a gradual, almost glacial, process.
I wish I could say the gathering back at Val’s family's house after the service went better. I really do. But the play just continued for another act, only to turn into a one-woman show. With my dad leaving to teach his class my mom was left to uncover any further evidence of our trip to Alabama, which my all accounts she did with a vengeance. She questioned people who did not know me, friends who frankly could care less and Val, repeatedly. Perhaps she felt a certain kinship with my friend, thinking "You lost a father, I lost my son...for a few days." Perhaps she chose this time to make it known she was hurt, not realizing a far greater pain was being felt. Perhaps she had been drinking since dawn. I don't know. I do know I messed up in not realizing when to take a stand. I know my parents messed up in failing to realize when not to take a stand. I know my inaction unwittingly made my ex a de facto accomplice in a disappearance that that never was. And I now know that in general Marciulianos have an almost heliotropic craving for the spotlight, like a flower pushing a massive boulder out of the way to bask in the sun if only for a moment. The facts speak for themselves. In telling the story of my friend's loss I chose to make my plight the central concern. In attending a somber occasion my parents hoped tears would be wept for them as well.
Six years later I’d like to say I’ve learned my lesson. Six years I’d like to say I feel comfortable enough to tell my parents anything, no matter what the possible consequences. But here it is six years later and I’m worried about what my parents will say when they read this…and what I will have to say to immediately change the subject.