Jill Hanley

Jill Hanley, a Philadelphia native, lives in London. She studied at Kenyon College (BA) and St. Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford (MA). 

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Two days after my thirtieth birthday, I am in Philadelphia. I can’t really believe it, but here it is, right outside the hotel doors: city of my birth, home to all the young people—younger-than-me-people—milling around, starting their lives in the ultimate starter-city, where independence has been test-driven since 1776. I’m watching them because I’m watching which bars they’re going into and lamely praying that my brother Seth is in one of them. New precedent: I’ve tailed him on numerous occasions, but never following a crisis so direct and catastrophic as imminent divorce. His binges are not usually precipitated by anything major, unless you count the original, the Great Unfairness. 

I’m going over all this, trying to convince myself this is still not out of the ordinary, and listening to the message Angela left earlier: “Call me when you get him home. To cheer you up, I’ll read you some of the latest comments on my Cecil Hotel video. Here’s a taster: This frizzle haired horse face bitch is scarier than the fuckin’ ghosts. ‘Fuckin’ spelled with an ‘e,’ no apostrophe. Another? Go die you freckly hag, just don’t haunt me, die spelled like what’s in my hair, you spelled like the letter, haunt spelled ‘h-a-n-t.’ Hope you can get a video done while you’re there. I love sitting down to watch you put on lipstick for an hour. So riveting. You know I’m joking, sweets. Gosh knows you and I can both take a joke.” 

And so Angela’s voice laughs in my ear. She’s driving out to San Jose again today to get some filler footage of the Winchester House. Palm trees, air that smells like oranges even if there aren’t any groves in sight. Then, the mansion, as anxious and fretful as me: rooms thrown about to ward off death and vengeful spirits, staircases that lead straight up to the ceiling, and doors that lead nowhere, just into another brick wall. The whole thing set in a magnificent garden, all waving fronds and flowers in pink, white, and a blue just shy of violet.

Here, it is unequivocally winter. The air smells like cleaning fluid. Philadelphia is slate-gray and sullenly unattractive. And Seth, of course, has a flip-phone: untrackable. His responses to my Where r u’s are things like Where aren’t I?

I arrive at Seth’s house on St. Albans Street. I have only been here once, when he and Winifred moved in. That was two springs ago. Instead of pear and dogwood blossoms showing up white and pink against the red brick and stucco, all I see are two lines of pale, frightened houses. I knock at door and window—lightly, because I don’t want to engage the Winifred if she’s here. But she’s clearly left, thank Christ.

Seth’s old University City haunts are unlikely. Too easy—he knows I’m looking. I text and call several bartenders, most of whom are glad to hear from me, some of whom are resentful, reminded that I managed to leave and they’re pretty much going to be bartenders forever unless something changes, like, yesterday. No one has seen him. 

I leave more messages as I walk toward Rittenhouse Square, past the limestone-trimmed, fussily Italianate College of Physicians, across the door of which hangs an advertisement for the Mütter Museum featuring a golden-toothed skull. Here, the city resolves itself from bleakness to beauty when you look up and see the wedding-cake curlicues, the careful brickwork. The brownstones get grander, with towers and turrets I would just love to lock myself in; the day gets smaller, receding, spending the rest of its effort on a sky so pearly above the intricate roofs and jutting bay windows that I have to Instagram it. Disguise it: Home in the City of Brotherly Love for a visit! All my love, always, to all y’all. Why Southern? Too late to care. Instant love on my screen, from everywhere. 

I feel my usual caught-outside-at-sunset panic. Back home in San Francisco, I’m inside by four-thirty, tops. My new fancy remote-controlled blinds all drawn, the lights simmering at a comforting butter-gold. Great British Baking Show making soothing noises. 

Other siblings would be great: other people to share this burden. I am tired of this already. Rittenhouse Square emerges in front of me and I trudge into it on my cold martyred lumpen feet. When I was in Philadelphia two years ago I would come here every week and each time the same elderly man would be out walking his gentle, bearlike dog. I look around for him now. I want to go home with the old man and cuddle the dog. The old man and his dog probably live in one of the elegant prewar buildings lining the square. They have a fireplace, an extensive art collection. Mahogany case after mahogany case of books. 

The man and the dog aren’t here today. Please don’t let either of them be dead.

Please don’t let Seth be dead either, of course. He isn’t in the square, but I knew he wouldn’t be. He is not the stumble-around-in-the-park, go-up-to-people-and-mumble-scarily-at-them drunk; he’ll be indoors somewhere. He takes care of the heavy lifting himself at home, but he likes his total obliteration to be served to him, expensively garnished and usually extravagantly named, by a pretty cocktail waitress in a beautiful setting, with the highest concentration of beautiful girls to look at. Hence, Rittenhouse. 

I can understand the attraction. Were beautiful girls not our first loves, both of us? Didn’t I stare at them, standing next to them in the bathroom at school, watching them bend down and then swoop back up to swish their hair into ponytails, expertly plumping their lips with cherry red or mulberry or plum (plum was big in high school; that was the era of purple, with disastrous consequences for eyeshadow). How far away is my high school? I crane my head. Estimate. Fifteen minutes that way? When Seth picked me up from school I pretended to be disgusted with him for eyeing my friends. I was a little disgusted with myself for objectifying them, for employing a gaze with no romantic feeling behind it. No desire, really, to see their innermost souls. But I get it, have always gotten it. A beautiful man is nothing next to a beautiful woman. The soft heft of her lips as she purses them at you, the soft heft of her everything, can slurry your insides. And true, I think as I duck into the nearer bars and restaurants, which are full of people who should be doing other things on this Tuesday late-afternoon-into-early-evening—true, Angela and the Internet claim that she is not beautiful strictly, but how else do you explain the nearly catastrophic joy I get when I look at her face? I love beautiful things, have made a career helping people to make themselves into beautiful things. I know one when I see one. 

I should be finding Seth—this is continually hammered into me, every time I catch the eye of someone else in all of these bars who should indeed be doing other things than what they’re doing right now. You can tell by the manic glint in those eyes, in each and every place: the one-room exposed-brick small-plates place, the full-of-itself speakeasy with upstairs tiki bar that advertises itself as an iPhone repair shop, the bland Irish pub that serves green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. They’ve all been driven in here by the early sunset, maybe. The desperation will lift. Soon they’ll forget that it’s dark out, that things have been left undone.

I finally get hold of Rachel—I think she still works at the Rittenhouse Hotel bar. It’s called The Library or some pretentious shit—like you’re going to go in there and drink brandy and read Proust. Even at The Library the clientele are more likely to be slamming shots and singing the Eagles fight song. But it does have its aesthetic charms, and it has Rachel. Seth used to stare extra hard at Rachel back then, when we all used to hang out on random nights, because she would never wear a bra. In high school she used to say “I’m such a nerd” all the time, in a way that really said “I’ve read Hegel and you haven’t.” Went to Harvard, I think, then came back here to serve drinks.

“He’s not here,” Rachel says, in a way that really says He is here and is making threatening gestures at me, so I’m not going to tell you he’s here. 

A waterfall of relief-tingles starts at my head and pours down my body. “I’ll be there soon.” I hang up. 

I look in the direction of the Rittenhouse Hotel for a long time. I think, Hotel. Bar. Library. Go. I don’t go. I start walking in the opposite direction. I think, Stop. I think it like a mom sternly said it to her child on the plane over here to try to get him to stop screaming, which he didn’t. Stop. 

Around eight the alcohol smells start to arrive outside, snaking out into the air from open doors, mixing with girls’ perfumes. They all smell warm, scrumptiously spiced, like the mulled wine I had in England once. The girls are so beautiful. All skin tones turned otherworldly under the neon lights in the upscale sports bar I finally stop at, because of course I’m going to. The bartender recognizes me, can’t stop gushing about my videos, shows off the cat-eye she finally mastered thanks to me. It’s good she did, because her eyes are really close together; this helps visually separate them a bit. I gush right back at her: “You are beautiful,” “Get on with your bad self,” etc. She plies me with shots, which are all different colors under the lights: some of them are a queasy pink like formaldehyde, others are the same indignant blue as that stuff they pour on sanitary products in commercials to show how much they can absorb, and to make you forget that you bleed bright red blood every month. But it seems now I’m the knots in my stomach are warmly sighing loose. This whole situation is comical, it is an SNL skit—no, it’s an irreverent indie movie. The bartender’s bleached little-girl bowl haircut and the sardine can tattoo on her bicep is helping that second conclusion along. The only things that jar are the neon lights—an indie movie would have been more tastefully fairy-lit—and the bartender’s slackjawed South Philly accent, turning her name from Olivia to Olivi-uhhh when she tells it to me. 

Now I’m in another bar. Do I remember it? Yes, I came here on my 21st birthday. I vaguely miss Olivia. I miss Angela a lot more. I call her to tell her this, while drinking a delicious cocktail called Good Night & Good Luck, rye whiskey with chili absinthe somewhere in there. I ask how the Winchester House was. 

“I feel so stupid. I went in knowing I was just going to get some more in the red room with the organ, you know, blah blah, but I was secretly hoping I would get some activity too.” 

My voice is caught on a barbed-wire fence. My mouth is mushy, my sentences collapsing. I don’t even think I make any noise, so all Angela hears is the bar. 

“Wow, it’s really loud!”

“Welcome to my nightmare,” I say, inserting the eyeroll into my voice: Ugh, Seth is so stupid. I mean really. Some people.

I need to do this to my voice because Angela doesn’t know that my share in Seth’s affliction has, as of a few minutes ago, switched from past to present tense. I have remembered some old tricks; it seems I’ve suddenly regained the ability to make my voice sound like a regular voice no matter what’s happening to me. I’m careful to inject some pathos, though, as I lie: “I have no idea where he is.” Then I’m half-crying, half fake-crying. “I hate to ask this, but could you come over? I’ll get your ticket?”

Angela is laughing. Angela thinks that my crying is laughing. Now I am also laughing. The situation is comical. 

“I think you need to go to your room and just rest, OK?” 

My room, my lovely room at the Ritz that I got because I could, because it was the first hotel that came up on Google, because I remember going there with Mom for tea once when I was five. “I kinda need to find him. If he gets himself into any hospital in this place, my dad will know in like a second.” The Mad Doctor has friends everywhere.

“At some point, though, you have to think of yourself. You’ll be useless without sleep.”

I know her language. People have used it on me. Or rather, I’ve heard them use it on me, through in-person and online grapevines that bear the bitter fruit of “You need to think about you” and “She’s a big girl and needs to take care of herself” and “She’s weighing you down” and “She’s poison.” Most of my boyfriends ended up seeing shrinks shortly before they broke up with me. They’d come home and say all conversationally “So I started seeing this shrink at work” and three weeks later it would be “My therapist says I need to eliminate toxic people from my life.” The thought of Angela using this language about me in the future makes me want to throw up. Which I go outside and do. Then I go back to the sports bar. Olivi-uhhh is nowhere to be seen; perhaps she’s on a break. I order and consume a plate of chicken fingers, tater tots, soft pretzel bits, and French fries with three different sauces. 

After this I’m ready to go to The Library. I imagine vlogging it—although I only vlog now if I’m visiting another city for a convention. I’d hold the phone up like so: His name is Seth, and he is many things—medical researcher, Zelda-player, chef specializing in the beginner dishes from the Joy of French Cooking, unlikely favorite of babies and small dogs, player of hick instruments like banjo and mandolin, and proud bearer of a mid-noughties-era flip-phone. But today he is an alcoholic, and he has disappeared into the city, and I have to retrieve him.

 Seth said, last time I was with him, that when I’m drunk I talk like a nineteenth-century novel. It was at the house on St. Albans Street, two years ago. I can’t remember if I was drunk or not. It was during a time when I was really not supposed to be drunk.

When I get to the hotel, I walk in like the marble and yellow-and-gold carpeting and artful holiday arrangements of holly, poinsettias, and white roses are things I’ve seen every day for the past week, because I am a guest here–definitely not a guest at the Ritz, oh no—from as far out of town as you can possibly get without leaving the country. The bar beckons. I duck through what seems like room after room, but then I realize it’s only two rooms; there are just so many people it takes me forever to get anywhere. It seems there’s some kind of work event in here and the room is filled with suited mannequins. I fall over and decide to stay in a ball on the floor for some minutes. Someone eventually, laughingly, pulls me up. He is not a jerk. I have a conversation with him about Merchant & Ivory films, how we like to watch them whenever we want to feel “cosy.” His name is Jake.

Jake goes somewhere and I stand under a Gothicly black jet chandelier, looking around, drinking in the books on the shelves, the walnut leather of the chairs reflecting the fireplace flames, and the smoky brown walls. This color is greatly exacerbating my need to sleep. Rachel finds me here, I don’t know how much later.

“He’s here,” she says. I say I know. She says she’s begged off work, traded shifts or something, and she’s going to take him home to her apartment. She sounds strident, as if expecting an argument. I say fine; I’m coming, too though. She wilts a bit. 

Seth has been sitting, or rather sprawling, in one of the leather chairs right in front of my face. I haven’t recognized him. No excuse really, other than that I am drunk and he looks too normal. He is clean-shaven—a surprise—and is wearing a pale blue shirt and chinos and a Dexter-ish belt that doesn’t make him look stupid, like it would most other men. He is an eerie apparition of the well-to-do, smugly superior college kid of yore. 

I do a quick check and he is, indeed, alive. This has officially been a waste. I should have called one of his old insufferable college pals and been done with it. I could be at home, eating Malaysian food under a blanket. 

Rachel and I manage, with the help of a burly coworker of Rachel’s, to heave him up without anyone appearing to notice, including the manager. You can get away with a lot of things as long as you do it with a razzle-dazzle grin to the right person at the right time. This is how I rope the burly coworker of Rachel’s to help us get Seth out of the back entrance and so out of the hotel, into our waiting Uber. 

Rachel lives in a third-floor walk-up on 13th and Pine, and I don’t let myself think until we get him up the last excruciating stair and onto Rachel’s ugly grey Ikea sectional. The brawny lad helping us gives us all sympathetic looks, says something, and then leaves. When he leaves I feel as if the last good person besides Angela that I’ve ever known has died. I check Seth again: steady pulse, robust breaths being transmuted into equally robust snores, warm skin. Reacts when I slap him, swats at me and says “MOTHERfff.”

“She’s dead,” I say at his face. I want to be mean. 

Rachel offers me tea, which I accept out of a mug that has not been washed properly. There are blurry, furry green things everywhere which, after I blink, turn out to be Christmas garlands. 

“You can have the bedroom,” she says. “I can stay here with him.” I tell her to go away. Her mouth twitches. She is wearing one of the warm, spicy perfumes I smelled outside, but on her it’s the olfactory equivalent of a mouthful of cinnamon. She peaces out with a last pouting look at Seth’s handsome idiot face. Her bedroom door closes. 

I turn out the lights, get Youtube on my phone, and watch Angela’s new Winchester House video before falling asleep. 

Sarah Winchester was living in New Haven, Connecticut, grieving her deceased husband and child, when she was visited by a Boston medium who told her that the spirits of those killed by her husband’s rifle would seek revenge unless she moved to California and built a house for all their troubled souls to traverse throughout eternity. To distract and confuse the spirits, she built a labyrinthine mansion with trick doorways, a staircase leading straight into the ceiling, and even an upside-down room. The idea was that the spirits would never tire of exploring the house, and so would never think to turn to Sarah for their long-awaited revenge. Now, we at Spirited will be among the first teams to sleep over in the Winchester House. Who—or what—will we see? 

When I awaken, there is a ghoul moaning next to me on the couch. It is just Seth’s blurred, white face and gaping mouth, but I scream and seize as if I’ve been electrocuted. I count to fifty. No noise from the bedroom. Rachel is still passed out.

I ascertain that Seth is not a corpse yet. Get up, walk to the two windows. In the city it will never get fully dark, save for blackouts, so I will never not live in a city. The sky is a washed-out navy and the light that spills in is gray. 

I sit on the floor. Close my eyes. This doesn’t seem stupid. Remember from Angela the how ancient peoples utilized the connection between spirits and spirits: there were many ways to get in touch with the dead, and ritualized consumption of alcohol was one of them. And that birthdays were—still are—days in which the forces of the universe became attuned to your purposes. I’m a couple days late, but it’s worth a shot.

“Mom,” I say. 

Pause. A shift in the air. I open my eyes to a gray-tinged woman standing over me who appears eyeless. But then I realize I’ve opened my eyes while hers were closed, mid-blink, and her pitch-dark eyeshadow has smeared everywhere. It cakes in the hollows under Rachel’s eyes, falling into the wrinkles and creases there. Soon we will all be old. 

“I thought I heard a noise,” Rachel says.