It was June of 2012, and everyone in my family was getting boned except for me. My younger brother, Willy P, had his first girlfriend, who I’ll call Alejandra. Alejandra was hot. I mean, Gillian Anderson-level hot. If I were a lesbian who didn’t know that my brother had been in her orifices, I would so be into her. Every time she visited, she always brought cake or cookies or something else she baked. And besides just being pretty and being able to cook (since women are useful for other things, too) she was from Easter Island and had travelled all over the world. She was a talented singer, excellent painter, and when she talked with you, she made you feel like the most interesting person in the world. I don’t know what she saw in him. Granted, he’s my brother, but he’s also the guy who didn’t know Buck was a dog when he read The Call of the Wild in 7th grade.
With the exception of getting into college and having my cat die first, I was behind my brother in achieving every milestone of adulthood. He had a real job (that wasn’t working at our mother’s office every summer) before me. He went to a college party the week before I started college. He had his driver’s license before me, a task that I blew off after I failed the test the first time. I shrugged it off that I’ll be going to NYU, not realizing that I might be home for the summers or moving to LA after graduation. Oops.
I have a cousin, whom I’ll call Ashley, who, as of June 2012, had never left New Jersey (with the exception of once going to New York City and once to Amish Country on a school trip). Her parents had recently gotten a divorce, so my dad thought it would be good to take her mind off things and take the family on a day trip to Washington, D.C. It was going to be fun. I had the week off from the airport where I worked. (I decided I was too old to be working for my mother and I got a job as an assistant teacher for this airport that taught autistic kids how to fly airplanes. The woman who ran it was the epitome of the American Dream. She used to smoke inside the airplanes. She had about nine kids and they all ran around the airport barefoot. One of them was autistic, so she decided to run a camp for autistic kids and have them fly 4-person airplanes to beaches and parks.) Every day was an adventure, but today was going to be an adventure where I wouldn’t die at the end. Or so I thought.
Ashley wasn’t that bad. She was a little socially awkward and learned about current events a year after they happened, but not too bad. She had this boyfriend, who I will call Gabe, who came over for 4th of July that year, and when I went to hang out with them and my brother and Alejandra, Gabe told me ten times I couldn’t because I didn’t have a date like the rest of them, which was weird, because we weren’t in middle school anymore. But they were madly in love, and Ashley had tattooed his name in gel pen on her arm.
The worst part about the day was going to be my dad’s girlfriend, who I’ll call Donna. I don’t want to compare myself to God, but it’s definitely a God vs. Lucifer situation whenever we’re in a room together. This woman made fun of me for crying on the car ride to my grandmother’s funeral, because “that’s not where you’re supposed to cry.” She threw piles of garbage into my room because my brother forgot to put the ketchup back into the fridge. She used to call my brother and I obese when we were younger, even though Wil wasn’t fat at all and I was just growing boobs like a normal 11-year-old girl. She had a handyman giving her estimates on our house, and when I needed to get to the job interview at the airport, his car was blocking my brother’s. I asked the man if he could move it because I needed to leave, and she flew into a red-faced rage about how I needed to respect people’s time. The man moved his car because he was, you know, normal.
Driving our crew to Washington, D.C. was my dad, who was still managing to drive a car after our family excursion the previous year to Honolulu left him blind in one eye because Germans never give up. Sometimes he makes funny jokes. Wil and I say he is a hybrid of George Costanza and Danny DeVito.
Then there was me, Rachel Petzinger, a soon-to-be junior at NYU who was just trying to live her life. Now that I’ve established everyone in the rented van, probably exactly like Anton Chekhov would have, I’m going to break down the trip using an inner monologue to explain my thoughts and some dialogue that happened during this early summer day in a sort of 24 style.
6 AM - 7 AM
Bruh, I’m awake now. I’m going to listen to some Kid Cudi because I just learned what Spotify is! Let me Instagram doing this, because I also just learned what Instagram is, too!
Uh-oh, I forgot cousin Ashley is sleeping in the room. Music woke her up. Oh, well. Ashley comes over to me and sits in my butterfly chair. “Erase Me” plays on my computer, and she only sings along when he says, “I keep on running, keep on running,” so that it looks like she knows the words to the song. I want to tell her, it’s okay, you don’t have to show off to me that you know how to pick up on a few words.
“Do you have sex?” she asks me.
“Do you have sex?” she repeats.
“I’m not talking with this about you at 6 in the morning.”
She slaps my arm. “C’mon, tell me. Sex is awesome. I like sex.”
I shut off my computer and say to her, “That’s great. I’m going to take a shower,” and I escape to the bathroom.
Three minutes later I hear a knock on the door. It’s Willy P.
“I need to take a shower,” he grumbles through the door. I ignore him. We had a fight over the bathroom a few days ago that got a little out of hand, so now I always spend more time than I need in there.
I get out of the shower and there’s another knock at the door.
“Willy P, ya scrotum, leave me alone, I’ll be out in five minutes!” I yell.
Only it’s not Willy P. It’s Donna, and she’s mad at me for wasting water with my 4-minute shower. I wonder if it would be a waste of water to drown her.
I don’t realize that I say this out loud. Now my dad is mad at me.
The day is off to a good start.
7 AM - 8 AM
Alejandra’s parents arrive. They are nice people. We think that they are involved in some Chilean spy organization because they are pretty quiet about their personal business, and then sometimes they go away for weeks at a time, but that’s awesome because my family is as boring and suburban as can be and we don’t know any spies. I’m just chilling in the back of the van, playing with a lighter, thinking about putting myself out of my misery for the day, when they knock on the door and I greet them.
“So you’re going back to Easter Island on Monday?” I ask.
They nod their heads. We have that sort of discussion you have with people you’re on the brink of being comfortable around, except it’s useless because they’ll be gone forever in five days, taking Willy P’s sexy slam-piece with them. Then my dad comes out with a camera bag and has me put it in the trunk. He makes small talk in a high-pitched voice—you know, the kind of voice people use when they’re trying to be really nice, and it’s not like they’re anti-social, but they haven’t quite yet mastered the art of talking to people they’re not friends with in their normal voice.
My dad goes back inside to tell Donna to hurry up. Alejandra’s parents ask me what we’re going to see, and I explain to them that we will probably just go to the touristy stuff, because Ashley has never been anywhere outside of New Jersey, with the exception of two places. They are amazed by that.
Wil makes me move seats so he and Alejandra can spoon in the back. Ashley puts a helmet on her head because her mother warned her about my dad’s driving. And with that, the Petzingers are en route to Washington, D.C.!
8 AM - 9 AM
Driving. I invite Ashley to watch Slumdog Millionaire with me on my iPhone because she needs some culture.
If I never find love, then I would at least like to be the badass older sibling, as Salim is to Jamal. Who needs a Latika when you can have 1 million rupees?
9 AM - 10 AM
We stop at a rest stop in South Jersey. I pass by a Burger King along the way to the bathroom as Donna is behind me. She sees a heavyset woman, and says (which she thinks is under her breath), “Ugh, if I ever get to be that fat, just kill me.” I walk ahead of her.
Ashley looks like a poor baby animal lost in the rest stop. American rest stops are really only full of diddlers, truck drivers, bikers, happy families going on vacation, and angry families going on vacation. I buy me an iced coffee and her a Cinnabon because she has made some good progress. Ashley says her boyfriend really loves Cinnabon.
I go over to Willy P, who is on his phone as Alejandra is in the bathroom.
“Sup,” he says, without making eye contact.
“You gonna miss Alejandra?”
A long silence. I take a Snapchat of him and draw a peener in his mouth. He is not amused, unlike usual. So I go back to the car and play the waiting game.
10 AM - 11 AM
We almost arrive in D.C. I regret drinking that iced coffee because now I really need to winky-tink. I ask my dad repeatedly to pull over but he doesn’t because we’re on a non-existent schedule.
“Rachel, help us find parking!” he yells.
“But that starts with P, and I have to pee!” I cry. It hurts. So I go on my phone and look up some tricks that have helped me to this day. Did you know that if you are sitting down, you are not supposed to cross your legs? That puts pressure on your parts, so you should sit with your legs separated. You are welcome.
We park, and it is a photo-finish as I run into a Subway and ask to use the bathroom. The cashier lets me go without buying a sandwich because D.C. is technically the south and people are pleasant there.
When we get out Ashley spots a Barnes & Noble. She asks if we can go in.
“You’re joking, right?” my dad asks. We walk past it.
11 AM – 12 PM
“I have cramps,” my lovely cousin announces as we stop at a deli.
“Kay,” my dad responds.
“What do you want us to do about that?” Donna asks.
“Can we go back?” Ashley suggests.
My dad laughs.
“What kind of cramps?” I ask her. “Cramp cramps or cramp cramps?”
So we go to a CVS. “Do you need lady-time stuff?” I ask her. She insists she is fine.
My dad makes me carry the big camera bag as we make our way to Capitol Hill.
12 PM – 1 PM
Wow. So that’s Capitol Hill, where Congress does its thing.
Ashley looks at her phone. My dad and Donna argue over a map as my brother and Alejandra lay down on the grass.
I remember this one time in 2009 when my class went to DC as part of a weeklong field trip. I was new to the school that year and really had only a handful of friends. There was this girl, Elyssa, who I thought was my bud, but then for some reason on that trip she flat-out stopped talking to me. It was weird. I remember on these steps three years before, after we got off and our teachers said to meet them back here in three hours, I was lost, since Elyssa was being such a bitch. Then a classmate came up to me, and I thought he was going to say I could walk with them, but then he just asked me to take some pictures of his group of friends.
I had this one really cool French teacher who was on the trip. Literally the only French teacher I ever had who never had that attitude that all French teachers have. But later that night we all gathered in front of the White House. I was with some group of people I didn’t really give a shit about, and she came up to me and pointed at a lit window in the White House and said, “Pensez-vous que Obama est là?”
I laughed, “Peut-être, oui.”
Then she introduced me to this group of people, who actually turned out to be people I still keep in contact with today.
I had this revelation on these steps of wisdom, if I can’t have a significant other, then I’ll help people! At least I could help my cousin when she only had me on the trip. My cousin was on her phone, shaking.
“Hey, cuz. What do you think of the city so far?”
“Huh? Yeah,” she responded.
1 PM – 2 PM
We make our way to some fountain. I sit with Ashley as she continues on about her boyfriend and how much she misses him and how she is so excited to go to the beach with him tomorrow.
“You know, beaches are great, but, like, aren’t you happy to be here? With your family?”
“Yeah, I guess. I like New York better. There are more streets.”
“We have literally been here for 2 hours. Isn’t it kind of cool, the buildings are what you see everyday on our money. Or the people? Everyone is super friendly. Or at least knowing you’re in the same city where there is so much of America’s history?”
“Yeah, well, I mean, the history is great.”
My cousin’s intelligent argument is disrupted by my brother yelling, “Alejandra!” Everyone in the city practically turns to see my brother jump into the water to save her digital camera she dropped in. Alejandra thanks him and laughs, “I’ll just go put it in rice when I get home.” She is pretty casual about it, while my brother and father ask her if it’s all right, treating it like it’s a baby about to go on life support. Ashley sniffles a little bit, because that’s something her boyfriend would have done. And she misses him. And can’t wait until they are at the beach tomorrow.
2 PM – 3 PM
The National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian is pretty far out. Alejandra told us we should buy space ice cream at the gift shop, which is really the only reason we went. My dad and Donna went off to go look at rocket ship stuff, and my brother and Alejandra fed each other their space cream. Ashley stared at them for more than an appropriate time, so I took her by the elbow to look at some airplane models.
I said something along the lines of, “Gee whiz, isn’t that airplane swell,” but when I turned I saw her crying. I had never before seen anyone cry over an airplane that wasn’t about to crash. “What’s the matter?” I asked her.
“Just seeing Wil and Alejandra feeding each other. It makes me miss Gabe.”
I tried to block her face, so she wouldn’t be embarrassed. “But, you’ll like, see him at the beach tomorrow. Willy P and Alejandra may never see each other again. She’s going back to Easter Island in five days, for Christ’s sake.”
Ashley shook her head. “You don’t understand. You’re not in love with anyone.”
“What do you do when you have to go to work? Or in school? Do you cry that you miss him then?”
“No, because he’s near me. He’s halfway around the world, now!”
3 PM – 4 PM
I alert my father to Ashley’s tears. He asks her what’s wrong, and she just says her cramps are really bad.
“Rachel, give her something.”
“Ashley, what do you need?”
“I’m fine! I just want to go home.”
I want to tell Ashley to give it up—my father is not one of those guys who would let a thing like cramps get in the way of a day trip. Perhaps Ashley had forgotten, but my father is blind in one eye, and he doesn’t let that stop him from flying airplanes, let alone driving a car. “Give it up, cousin,” I try to tell her with my telekinesis.
But it falls upon deaf ears and brain stems. My father shakes his head and says, “We’re not going home.”
“I would like to go to that Indian Museum,” Donna chimes in.
“Indian is not the preferred nomenclature. Native American, please,” I have to remind her. She is confused and whispers something to my dad.
4 PM – 5 PM
We watch some movie about oppression at the Native Museum of the American Indian. Ashley leaves, not because it bothers her how badly the white man had treated those different, but because she needs to talk to Gabe on her phone.
I tug on my dad’s sleeve. “Should I go out there?”
He shrugs. “She’s fine. Just watch the movie.”
We meet her outside afterwards, and my dad is not happy with Ashley because that movie had cost five dollars to get in. My dad asks her why she acts the way that she does, and Donna interrupts, patting her mouth like it’s a drum, chanting “Hey-yuh-yuh-yuh, hey-yuh-yuh-yuh.” A Native American family walks by, sees what she is doing, and they collectively shake their heads. To keep my laughter in, I run over to Willy P and Alejandra. My brother has his arm around her, but I think she put it there.
“Do you see what Donna is doing?”
Alejandra giggles. “I won’t miss her.”
Wil rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “I know he’s blind in one eye, but he still should see how retarded she is.”
The museum is about to close and my dad tells me to leave Willy P and Alejandra alone and watch Ashley just in time for Donna to visit the gift shop.
“I’m not bothering them,” I argue.
“It’s upsetting your cousin to see them together. Just keep her company – away from them.”
“This is bullshit. And I’m sorry. But I like Alejandra. Just because I’m not boning her doesn’t mean I won’t miss her when she’s gone either!”
It’s pointless arguing, though, and Ashley and I sit on a bench in the museum.
“It’s just hard to see them,” she keeps repeating.
A voice on the intercom announces that the museum will close in five minutes. Ashley grumbles, “I hate your dad’s girlfriend. She’s gonna get us locked in here.”
“Would you just chill out?”
“You don’t understand, Rachel!”
“Yeah, everyone keeps saying that to me.”
“If we get stuck here overnight, then I can’t go to the beach with Gabe tomorrow.”
“But we won’t—“
“You don’t have a boyfriend, you don’t understand.”
“I don’t need a boyfriend to understand that a museum won’t lock you in after they close.”
A minute passes. She wipes away a tear and says, “Can I ask you something?”
“Are you a lesbian?”
“What?! No. Why would you even ask me that?”
“You’re always talking about how hot Gillian Anderson is and stuff.”
“Oh my god, I haven’t even mentioned Gillian Anderson once on this trip.”
“Still, you do it a lot.”
“Gillian Anderson is a very attractive woman and I appreciate her accomplishments in film and television. Besides, I talk about Christoph Waltz all the time and nobody says anything.”
“Well, you’ve never had a boyfriend.”
I stand up and then passionately yell, “OH, I’M SORRY, I DIDN’T REALIZE THAT IN THE GROWN ASS ADULT HANDBOOK THAT IF YOU ARE 20 AND STILL HAVEN’T HAD SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH A GUY, THEN YOU ARE AUTOMATICALLY A LESBIAN.”
That made Ashley cry a river, and my dad wasn’t too thrilled about that.
5 PM – 6 PM
We try to find the car for about an hour. This makes Ashley upset because if we can’t find the car, we can’t get back home. My father wants me to hold the camera bag on my back in lieu of being Ashley’s sole advisor, but at some point I cough up a storm and Ashley hits me really, really hard on my shoulder four or five times, probably not realizing that you can’t just slap a person anywhere on their body and they will stop coughing.
It has been forty-five minutes and we still cannot find the car. We grab the attention of a homeless man, who speaks to my dad in Spanish. That’s when Alejandra comes in and she and him have a conversation. At some point after Alejandra says something and he looks at Ashley and laughs. I meant to ask Alejandra later what they were talking about. He got us to our car and my dad gave him a granola bar.
6 PM – 7 PM
We get in the car and assume our usual positions, which means Ashley sulks in her seat. My dad drives around some city sights that we didn’t get to see, just for Ashley.
We pass the Lincoln Memorial. “Hey, Ashley, look, it’s the Lincoln Memorial.”
We pass the Washington Monument. “Hey, Ashley, look, it’s the Washington Monument.”
Next is the White House. “Hey, Ashley, think Obama is in there?”
7 PM – 8 PM
Fell asleep, woke up to my brother putting a lime in my mouth.
8 PM – 9 PM
We stop somewhere in Maryland to get dinner. My brother and Alejandra hold hands the whole time, and my dad, Donna and I, all try to separate their hands as a joke. My dad takes a knife and pretends to go all Norman Bates on him. Ashley drags me to the bathroom with her.
“I hate Donna,” she grumbles. “That museum stuff with the Native Americans, that wasn’t cool.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t, but you don’t have to deal with her on a daily basis, and she has been surprisingly okay on this trip.”
Then she throws a paper towel in the mirror. “Can you tell your brother to stop holding hands with Alejandra?”
I walk out and say to my brother what our cousin said. Then I suggest perhaps the entire restaurant should have a giant orgy on this table. Willy P likes that idea, minus the fact that I would probably just be watching. Ashley orders just a plate of French fries for dinner, while my meal has a side of French fries, like normal. When she finished, she just kept eating all the fries off my plate. My brother had my back and put up a wall of condiments between the two of us.
9 PM – 10 PM
We drive home. At this point, Donna sits next to me because my dad wants to talk to Ashley about some things. The four of us have our own conversation about the day, then I sit in between Willy P and Alejandra in the backseat and tell her about the details of Wil’s diary when he was little.
“What was in it?” Donna asks, feeling like one of the cool kids for once in her life.
“Dear Diary! I just got my first period!” Willy P recites.
From all the way up front, Ashley says, “That’s funny, Wil, because normally only girls get periods.”
A long silence. “Shut the fuck up, Ashley!” he shouts.
I’m surprised that Donna doesn’t say, “Watch your language.” My dad looks in the mirror and sees I’m not in my seat, so he makes me go back.
10 PM – 11 PM
About ten minutes from the house, my dad breaks the silence in the car and says to Ashley, “Hey, it’s getting late. I don’t think you should drive back to your house tonight.”
“NO! I HAVE TO.”
“It’s dark out. You’re tired, we’re all tired. You can leave in the morning.”
“Uncle Bill, I have to leave tonight!”
“Ashley, it’s dangerous. There are weirdos out there.”
“Uncle Bill, I deal with weirdos all the time!”
Then I butt in. “Ashley, you live in Flemington. The only weirdo you deal with is your father.”
We pull into our driveway, and because it is on a hill and of the way it is structured, a car cannot get around it if another one is parked on top. My dad stays right there.
She flies into hysteric tears, but my dad calls his sister and she insists her daughter stays there. Alejandra’s parents show up and see Ashley crying in our basement.
“What happened to her?” her dad asks.
“She misses her boyfriend,” I tell them.
Alejandra’s mother looks at the floor. “Ungrateful, she is,” she mutters.
With all the chaos going on in the back, I almost forget that this is the last time I might see her parents.
“Will you ever visit?” I ask.
They smile. “For your brother, we would change the weather!”
Alejandra comes over. “I think I’m coming over tomorrow. Good luck with your cousin,” she says, and hugs me.
11 PM – 12 AM
Ashley reminds me of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre with all the sounds coming from the basement. My dad comes upstairs, wiping his forehead, like I imagine a guy does when he’s witnessing his wife giving birth or something.
“What’s wrong with her?” I ask.
“She’s just going through a difficult time. We need to get a new rocking chair.”
“You know, I go through rough times, but I don’t make things miserable for anyone else.”
“Rachel, one day, you will have a boyfriend, and you’ll understand.”
“Man, I can’t wait to have a boyfriend and finally understand what it is that makes people so crazy.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “I love you, Rachel. Truly. Don’t go downstairs,” and he goes to bed.
I go downstairs to see what all the fuss is about. Ashley has barricaded herself in and has broken a lamp and a rocking chair.
“They don’t understand… they don’t understand…” I hear from a corner.
“Hey, buddy,” I say slowly. “You want some Tylenol?”
“No… I didn’t have cramps. I just wanted to go home.”
I should have known she didn’t really have cramps. She’s one of those chicks who every time she’s over says she’s on her lady-time.
Upstairs, Willy P does pull-ups in his room.
“Hey, buddy,” I say.
“You wanna get lunch with me and Alejandra tomorrow?”
“Nothing would so much as pleaseth your fine maiden greater.”
He lets go of the bar and gets in his bed.
“Where are we getting lunch?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I don’t know. We might not. But Alejandra wants to see you.”
“Will you miss her?” I ask him quietly.
He looks me in the eye and nods.
“You should lock your door tonight,” I say.
“Why, are you gonna have your way with me?”
“No. It’s just that there’s a crazy person in our basement and there are knives in the kitchen. And you’re an asshole, but you’re my little asshole, and I don’t want you to die for a long time.”
He laughs. I leave his room and I hear the door close and the lock set in place. Then I lock my door.
As I fall asleep, I hear the moans of a wounded animal rise from our basement.
Rachel Petzinger is a writer and comedienne. She writes and stars in Dear Rachel, a comedy web series.