My Sister’s Honeymoon: A Videotape
There is a moment or two of vertigo in the beginning, that kind of cinema verité thing that all the young future filmmakers back at school were so crazy about for a while. The date stamp in the corner of the screen holds steady: 8-11-94, it says, but the time stamp moves swiftly. PM 12:01:46, and the second counter babbles through a garble of numbers, almost too rapidly to notice. 12:02:01, and there is nothing recognizable on the screen. Many seconds scroll by until we can recognize that the blur of color and darkness has some purpose. 12:03:56 before the camera comes to rest on the motion of the landscape passing outside the car: the blurry silver stream of an interstate guardrail sliding past, impressionistic dapples of green and yellow vegetation, and the sky. We’re moving forward. 12:04:28. 12:04:51. It is almost 12:06:20 before part of the dashboard rises up and we see a map. One of my sister’s red fingernails appears hugely in the corner of the frame.
We hear her voice: “Do you think this is working?”
She is not very steady. The camera jerks and bobs—the window frame, the glint of the rearview mirror, her feet, barely recognizable in the dimness below the dash. She points the camera at the map, focuses.
PM 12:59:03 8-11-94
My sister’s husband’s grip is firmer. He makes a clean sweep over an orchard of apple trees, an orderly orchard made quaint and picturesque by its many boughs of bright, heavy fruit. A red van crosses in front, obscuring the view for a moment, and then my brother-in-law arcs slowly over the trees again.
“Old apple orchard,” he murmurs solemnly, as if reading aloud to himself, as if narrating for a blind person. “Along the side of the road. Lots of apples!”
He zooms in for a close-up of a particularly bountiful branch. Another red van, or the same one, drives across the picture.
PM 1:18:32 8-11-94
Deer are eating grass by the side of the road. The couple doesn’t say anything.
It is about three in the morning, and I lean back, taking a slow drink from my beer. I don’t know why I’m watching this videotape—out of boredom, maybe, restlessness, insomnia. I’m not sure why I’ve come here after all, to my sister and brother-in-law’s new house, not far from the small town where my sister and I grew up. I guess one has to be somewhere at Christmas, and I am single, unconnected, and we used to be close, my sister and I. You haven’t seen your new niece yet, my sister said to me. You’ve got to come. But my sister goes to bed at ten every night, and the quiet seems to expand and expand, radiating out from the newly occupied house. In a nursing home five miles away, my mother lies in her bed, her thumb and forefinger moving against each other in her sleep, the late early stages of Parkinson’s. Across miles, in a distant city, my empty apartment sits in darkness. The faucet drips slowly into a pot I didn’t have time to wash before I left.
On the screen, the camera tries to zoom in on a doe, who is now lifting her head suspiciously, but the picture won’t focus properly. High weeds obscure the view of the suddenly alert animal; the frame is mottled with blurs of leaves.
“They’re sure not scared of people, are they?” my sister says at last, in a stage whisper.
PM 2:14:05 8-11-94
Here are my sister’s thick bare legs walking along a narrow asphalt path. She is wearing sandals, her toenails are dull red, a polish that is almost wood colored. Other legs can be seen in front of her. The camera rattles; the microphone jostles hollowly as they march.
You have to wonder about a shot like this, especially when it continues on and on like it does. Has my brother-in-law turned on the camera accidentally, or does he completely lack imagination, any sense of aesthetics? Can we read this as a representation of his mental process, some secret symbolic system that isn’t clear? Maybe it’s merely his sophomoric sense of humor—the camera lingers as she tugs at the back of her shorts, which have ridden into the crack of her buttocks.
Everyone else in the house is asleep. My sister and her husband are spooned together under the comforter in their king-size bed; their baby is motionless in her crib. The living room is dark except for the slow-blinking colored lights on the Christmas tree my sister has erected. The shadows of wrapped packages extend under the blinking lights, expanding and contracting in a creepy way, like something breathing.
It’s a larger house than I expected, more nicely furnished. There is a plush beige sofa, new; glass coffee table; big stereo; wide-screen TV. “Forty-eight inches!” my brother-in-law informed me, and I was, like, “You’ve got me beat, buddy.”
He finally takes the camera off her backside. We move upward, and there is my sister, turning her head back to say something I can’t catch—the sound is turned very low, so as not to wake anyone, and I’m already so close to the screen I can touch it. It seems like she says, “Nice one,” but what is she referring to? She laughs after she says whatever she says, that old edgy, cynical chuckle I’m familiar with, though it’s more polite than I’m used to, tempered by something—by love? By the fact that this is her honeymoon and the weight of the “fun” and “romance” she is supposed to be portraying is pressing down? Is it simply that the camera makes her self-conscious? My brother-in-law turns the camera from her laughing face abruptly, revealing a railing with a magnificent, high-cliffed vista beyond. There is a river far, far below; we zoom in and back.
PM 2:18:17 8-11-94
The Royal Gorge, that’s what it is. We see the words on a historical marker, in large capital letters, underneath which is a brief text explaining the gorge’s history and significance.
The camera doesn’t move. Unbelievably, we pause before the placard and stay there. I watch as a minute clicks by, and then another—the video camera has automatically superimposed the time and date of the taping in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. Even the seconds seem to crawl by. The focus is adjusted obsessively.
I refuse to read it. There is something irritating about having this thing thrust on you, the camera’s dull, plodding insistence that we take it all in, every last word. It says a lot about my brother-in-law, I think—you can see how pushy and oblivious he is.
I don’t really know him that well. We’ve only just met. But this reminds me of the way he directed me on a tour of their house, each room with its specific, unvariable focal point of something he had to fix or something he’d recently purchased.
“Here’s our new bathtub. We’ve had big plumbing problems here, so I had to go into that there wall and . . .” “Here’s the baby’s room. We put up the wallpaper ourselves, and that crib’s the one my mom just bought us. This is the toy box I built, and as you can see, it’s full of toys. She’s got a lot of them, doesn’t she?” And then the minute he was done talking he’d say, “Moving right along.”
I think he bullies her. I noticed right away when I got here that there was something subdued, something submerged about her now. I noticed little things. The night I arrived we were sitting down to dinner, after my sister had put the baby to sleep. She’d prepared the meal, set the table, even poured his beer into a glass for him, but the minute she lifted her fork, he said, “Is that the baby?” We were all silent. Nothing. The conversation started again, but before too long he raised his finger. “Shh,” he said. “I think she’s crying.” Again, we heard nothing, but I watched as my sister got up from the table and went to check. He got his way.
Four full minutes of screen time pass before we are allowed to turn from the historical marker. I wait, feeling a bit bullied myself, wondering if it had really taken my brother-in-law that long to read the text. At last, we get some views of the scenery, the gorge from various angles, and even—for a moment—my sister herself. She stands at the railing and smiles at the camera he’s pointing at her. The wind lifts her long hair. She looks down, over the edge, and he comes closer. We stare down at the rushing of the rapids, see a raft, bright orange, whisk past.
“It doesn’t look that deep, does it?” my sister muses. “But I guess it is.”
Excerpted from Fitting Ends by Dan Chaon. Copyright © 2003 by Dan Chaon. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.