This Is How It Happened

By: Jo Barrett

“Don’t you dare tell me I have to be strong,” I say.

“You have to be strong,” Ronnie says. He’s ignoring his food, which is odd for him, because that guy can really pack it down.

“How long has it been, Maddy? three, four months? And you’re still obsessed. You think killing Carlton is going to bring you closure?”

“I know it sounds crazy, Ronnie, but I think it’s the only sane thing to do,” I mumble.

“Ask yourself why,” my brother replies. He likes to do this. It’s a counseling technique.

I decide to ignore the question.

“Mange, mange,” I say, pointing to his food.

He pushes the basket away from him. Okay. Stop the presses. My brother never does this. He can usually pack away a cheeseburger, maybe two, and still manage to stay rail thin.

He swings around on his bar stool and stares at me, his fist pressed against his thigh. His green eyes are bright and flashy so I know he’s upset.

Ronnie and I are both full-blooded Italian on our father’s side, and while we each got the naturally tan olive skin and thick dark hair, my brother got these flashy green Italian eyes—while I was stuck with boring, run-of-the-mill hazel. Ronnie’s eyes are so expressive when he’s angry, he could make even the biggest felon in a motorcycle gang take two steps backward. My brother isn’t a big guy, but he’s got enough Italian Stallion in him to make other men think twice.

“What’s going on with you, Maddy?” he says, slapping his hand against the bar. “You’ve never been like this. You’re the bounce-back kid, remember? Always Miss Positive. Where’s the person who says if life gives you lemons, put on a party dress and go out for cocktails? What did you do with my big sister?” he demands, and his face is dead serious.

I swirl an onion ring around in ketchup. Pop it in my mouth. Chew.

“You don’t know all the facts,” I say.

“I know Carlton was a shit head,” Ronnie says. “I knew it from the first day I met Prince Charming.”

“You should’ve told me!”

“I did. Remember? I said, ‘Maddy, watch out for this cat.’ I wouldn’t trust a man who looks at himself in the mirror for that long—especially after he takes a freakin’ piss. I swear we were in the john together and he was gussing around with his hair like he was the Prom King!”

I think for a moment. I don’t remember my brother saying this but I was so blinded by Carlton’s sun, it wouldn’t have mattered.

“You don’t understand, Ronnie. I can’t sit back and let him railroad all over me!”

“Cut your losses,” my brother says. “Start a new life—without dick face.”

I shake my head back and forth.

“You’ve gone through way more trauma than this, Maddy! Remember when Mom and Dad died? You told me it was God’s will. And that they were in a better place. You were solid as a rock. What are you saying? That you got taken by some lousy guy. So what? So now you’re a wet noodle? Some weak-willed, whiney-ass girl?”

“I’m unemployed, Ronnie! I sank everything I had into that company!”

“You got sucker-punched by that bastard. But what are you gonna do? Lie down and let him kick dirt in your face? Or stand up, brush yourself off, and tell him to go fuck himself? I mean, c’mon, Maddy. You can get a new job. A woman with your talent and credentials. Fuckin’ A, Maddy—you started that company from the ground up and ran with it. You made him successful. He was the face of the operation. But you were the brains. The woman behind the scenes. You can do it again.”

This is, apparently, my brother’s idea of a pep talk. He doesn’t realize how hard it is to jumpstart a brand new company. How I spent four years working my tail off—day and night. And how, after this sucker-punch, I just don’t have it in me.

I realize, suddenly, that I need a major chocolate fix.

I raise my arm in the air, wave crazily at the bartender, and say, “Yo!” The bartender strolls over.

“Have you decided to get shit faced?” he asks.

(P.S. I really hate it when people say this.)

“Do you have chocolate milkshakes?” I ask.

He wipes his hand on a bar towel and informs me, “I’ve got milk and ice cream but none of that chocolate syrup. So I can make ya’ vanilla.”

My brother reaches down and pulls a Hershey bar from his messenger bag. “Use this,” he says, slapping it down on the bar.

“This is my little brother and my hero,” I tell the bartender.

“Aw, how sweet,” the bartender says in a deadpan voice.

My brother shoots me a look.

“You know, Maddy. Real assassins don’t drink chocolate milkshakes,” he says.

I guess he has a point.

“If you want me to kick his ass, I’ll kick his ass.” Ronnie grabs his basket and finally bites into his cheeseburger.

I try to imagine my brother and Carlton scuffling around on the ground. My brother would win, of course. Assuming that it was a fair fight. But I wouldn’t put it past Carlton to use some cheap, dirty trick. Like throwing sand in Ronnie’s eyes and punching him in the kidneys.