I had been watching the same YouTube video on my phone for about an hour when Celeste came and stood facing me. The clip is from The Empire Strikes Back: Luke is in Cloud City. Darth Vader ambushes him, they duel, and Vader severs Luke’s hand. From the catwalk where they’d been fighting, Luke retreats to a perch—he’s pitiful, just putting distance between himself and Vader. That’s when Vader slaughters him with, “I am your father.” Luke jumps into the abyss. I must have watched the video twenty times.
Celeste knew what I was watching. Forty-five minutes earlier, she had checked out the video over my shoulder.
I feel defensive. I was not being juvenile. I know that’s what she is thinking.
I put my phone on the coffee table and meet her gaze. I am wedged into a corner of the couch like a slob. I sit up like an adult.
Celeste went to the gynecologist today for her annual, and because she wants to get pregnant. Her gynecologist said that Celeste and her husband should get genetic testing before conceiving. At dinner, she asked me when we can see the genetic counselor together. Her question surprised me.
I don’t like surprises.
That’s what Celeste tells me.
Now I tell her: “My father had Hungtington’s.” I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how to preface things. And Celeste is sharp. She can fill in all the transitions for me.
I watch her face as she weaves the threads of our conversation into something domestic, like a potholder.
“Is that why he committed suicide?” she asks.
I order fries with my iced tea because Angelo is having a beer. That’s my justification, but Angelo eats my fries. And he’s on his third beer.
“What’s the big deal? You gotta die of something,” he says with his mouth full.
Angelo is a dick, but I love him because I have no choice. He was my next-door neighbor whenever it was that my memory started—four or five, and we’ve been friends ever since. We did kindergarten, primary school, high school, and University of Maryland together, and now we both work in Baltimore. I’ve moved three times in my life, and Angelo is still my neighbor. I guess it helps that Baltimore is a small city.
“I’m happy now,” I say. I can’t say more because I just can’t, and anyway I don’t need to: he knows how hard won my happiness is.
“How’s knowing if you have the Huntington’s gene gonna change that? You think you’re gonna be happier if you give Huntingon’s to your kid? Trust me, you won’t be,” Angelo pronounced. Then he speculates, “Can’t they run your sperm through a sci-fi strainer? Filter out the bad seeds?” Angelo is actually swishing the beer around in his mouth, which is already full of the chewed-up mush of French fries that I ordered.
“Do you think beer is Listerine?”
“I would use Listerine if it was.” He grabs more of my fries and jams them in his face. “Anyway, think how good it’ll feel if you find out that you don’t have the gene.”
He’s annoying me. “I’m done with all that.”
Angelo looks astonished.
“My dad’s done enough to me. I’m done.”
“What’s this got to do with your dad?”
How can Angelo not get this? He’s a dick, sure, but usually he’s not the kind of stupid dick who needs to have the obvious spelled out. “It’s his gene.”
“So it’s bad.”
“Yeah, but that’s not like something bad your dad did to you,” Angelo pushes away from the table to burp. I can see from the set of his jaw that the beers have put him in an argumentative mood. “His genes aren’t his actions. They’re not something he can change. It’s not like your dad being drunk all the time, or raping your mom, or not giving you birthday presents when you were—”
“—I said I was done with all that.”
Angelo ignores me: “It’s not his fault. It’s just a gene. It’s not good or bad—”
I can’t believe that Angelo can talk so much shit. Huntington’s is fatal. Bad fatal. Losing control of body-and-mind fatal.
“—You’re not making any sense,” Angelo continues. “It doesn’t matter where the gene came from. Who cares? What does it matter if you got it from your father, or from someone your great-great-great-grandmother cheated on her husband with?”
He talks more, but I don’t listen because I love him and don’t want to have to kill him. I sip my iced tea. When he pauses his monologue to cram more French fries into his mouth, I change the subject: “Remember The Empire Strikes Back? You know, the scene where Darth Vader tells Luke that he’s his father?”
Angelo makes heavy breathing noises and imitates James Earl Jones: “Luke, I am your father!”
“Why did Luke jump after he found out that Darth Vader was his father?” I ask.
Angelo shrugs. “He wanted to get away.”
“Yeah, but he was in Cloud City, and he jumped. He had to know he was going to fall far.”
“He used The Force.”
“Do you think he was trying to kill himself?”
Angelo stops and looks at me. My question shifted him. He’s no longer a dick. Sitting across from me now is a person I have known and loved all my life. A constant.
“No,” he says.
At my AA meeting that night, my sponsor isn’t there. It doesn’t matter. Talking to my sponsor isn’t going to change anything.
I listen. Jesus F. is an alcoholic who bottomed out, got sober, and now has a life. He makes good money as a pipe-fitter. Next, Serafina T. is an alcoholic who bottomed out, got sober, and now has a life. She is mother to a healthy baby boy.
We say the serenity prayer in closing. I say the words along with everyone else, conforming to avoid drawing attention to myself. But I am not serenely accepting the things I cannot change, courageously changing the things I can, or wisely telling the difference. I am just making sounds.
Despite my efforts to avoid scrutiny, Baruch C. notices enough to ask me if I am okay. I nod. But he’s not an idiot, so he doesn’t believe me. He recommends taking refuge in my higher power.
“Good advice,” I say.
He lets me go.
I walk down the hall, but instead of leaving, I detour into the janitor’s closet.
I close the door. The closet is just big enough. There’s a wheeled mop bucket on one side, brooms and mops lean in a corner, and dust pans hang from pegs on the wall. I can’t see any of this because the closet is dark—I don’t turn on the light—but I know the layout. I’ve been here before.
I don’t know why. I haven’t been in a cathedral in years. My wedding wasn’t even Catholic. But I was confirmed, and it just feels right to go into a confessional if I need to get with my higher power. If I try that in a cathedral, all I’m going to get is a priest. Here, at least, I’m with the clean up equipment, and that feels right, too.
I turn my back to the mop bucket and face the side wall of the broom closet. I don’t have anything to confess. My chest feels so heavy that I slide down onto my knees. I’m not thinking; kneeling just feels like the natural thing to do.
I rest my forehead against the side wall. I haven’t done anything wrong. Why should I have a fatal gene to cause me a miserable death if I didn’t do anything wrong?
I guess it’s proof that my higher power loves me because I get to ask it the tough questions. The questions are so barbed that they’d tear my throat apart if I tried to say them out loud. Like, am I turning into my father?
How could my higher power do this to me? Deliver me into a world where I’m fated to die a horrible death, be a horrible person—what did I do to deserve this? Doesn’t my higher power love me?
My dad was a bad man, and his seed was bad. But could he still have loved me? Do bad fathers love their sons? Did my father love me?
What does it matter whether my dad loved me? Why do I care?
Why does it hurt so much to know that my dad was bad?
Huntington’s disease causes neurological degeneration. The genetic counselor speaks slowly and without affect. She is giving us information for informational purposes. There’s nothing to get emotional about. Motor control degrades until the sufferer cannot move on his or her own. Depression, psychosis, and other mental illnesses are also present. The progression of the disease is slow and agonizing. The toll on the sufferer and the patient’s family is incalculable. The genetic counselor wants us to be informed about what could happen so we can prepare ourselves in case I lose my job or my health insurance before I lose my life.
I knew all that already.
The Huntington’s gene is found at 4p16.3. The genetic counselor tells us that 4p16.3 is like an address that describes where the gene lives: right at the tip of the short arm of the fourth chromosome. In every cell of my father’s body, a mutated gene lived at that location.
I didn’t know that before. 4p16.3 is the closest I will get to a physical locus for the rot of my father’s soul. I didn’t make it up. The headwaters of his evil are tangible. They’re a place, a geography. I have the directions, now, to hell—the go-to source, possibly, for the contents of my own soul.
The amount of my blood in the tube seems too little to carry the significance I put on it.
Before we get in the car to drive to the genetic counselor’s clinic to get my results, I make a little speech to Celeste. It’s a speech because I practiced it. I had to practice it, or else I couldn’t have said it. And I had to say it. Here’s my speech:
“If I have the gene, I promise I won’t make you take care of me while I lose control of my muscles and my brain. I won’t put you through that. I won’t do that to our kid. Or kids. It’s not fair. I’ll go away.”
Celeste gives me a look that acknowledges the significance of my speech. She knows I had to practice saying something like that. But she’s not like me. She retorts on the fly: “Don’t be a dick. I’ll help you die if that’s the way you need me to love you.”
She’s not flustered by what she’s said, but I am. I confess I have never done anything worthy of the love she gives me. I gaze at her, this person I know and love. A refuge.
She watches me being useless and awkward. I should hold her face and kiss her and tell her how grateful I am, but I am too overwhelmed by my feelings to move.
She helps me out of my paralysis. “Why do you think Luke jumped after Vader told him he was his father?” she asks.
I grimace. “I think he was committing suicide,” I admit.
She shakes her head to let me know how sad she is that I’m so thick-headed. “It was a leap of faith.”
I contemplate her face. She is confident and unpitying, so I clasp her fingertips and draw them to the band on my ring finger. I want to do something else. As it is, it’s an inadequate gesture. I let Celeste slide the ring off, roll it between her thumb and forefinger and, with a small smile and downward cast eyes, replace it. As she does, I remember that the hero of that scene is not Luke Skywalker. It’s Princess Leia. She’s the one who turns the Millennium Falcon around to rescue Luke’s sorry, injured ass.
© Maya Alexandri
[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin. Read Maya’s interview]