“You get everything. I get nothing.”
“Not true,” my brother would have said, in some alternative universe where he and I talked to each other. “You were everything. I was nothing.”
“But I felt like nothing too,” I would have told him.
Grandma Fannie, a heavyset woman in a floral print housedress, carts her infant grandson under one arm, as she mops, dusts, cooks. My infant brother is six weeks old. He has wispy white hair and pale skin. As soon as my mother recovers from childbirth, she hands her newborn to Fannie, her mother, and goes back to work teaching junior high school kids. My mother believes women should work and not be defined by marriage or men.
Two years later, Grandma is gone. Cancer will have eaten her nose, so she can no longer smell. It will have digested her face, so she can no longer talk. My brother is two-and-a half by then, and I am two-months old, lying in the same slatted wood crib as he did, wiggling my limbs as the world swirls around me.
I don’t remember when I started hating my brother. Though hate is too simplistic a word for the complex emotional sea I navigated. Abhorrence? Repugnance inseparable from fright, alarm, panic? Or should I say I hated how he made me feel—different, embarrassed, filled with adult-level sorrow when I was a child. Not hate then, but pity I could not stand to feel. When I was six or seven, I hated most everything about him. His unkempt hair, his zigzagging part, how he didn’t button his shirt right, and didn’t care, his shirttail hanging jagged uneven. How he’d tap the right side of his head with his right fingertips — tap, tap — then the left side with his left fingertips — tap, tap – then both sides together – tap, tap, tap, tap. He’d repeat himself as if I hadn’t heard what he said, and laugh for no apparent reason as if a joke he once heard ran like a tape loop inside his head.
Years later, I’ll ask my aunt “What went wrong with my brother?” She’ll describe a gurgling baby with pale blue eyes. “He was fine until Grandma died. Then he was left with your mother.” Was my mother what was wrong with my brother?
For years, I thought my brother was the reason I was the world’s skinniest loser. I can still picture him racing towards the marble steps of our high school, sweat dripping from his forehead, his old man’s belly ballooning out from the belt that was supposed to hold his pants up and his tummy in. Thin lips, buckteeth, his right foot pointing in one direction, his left in another, and neither in the direction his body is heading. His arms flail, and his hair shoots out in random directions as if his brain were electric or his mind on fire.
Throngs of teens have already gathered on the school steps, waiting for the morning bell and the doors to swing open. They’re pushing, laughing, trying to impress each other — who kissed who, who saw the best movie ever, who went shopping, how much they got to buy.
On one end, the Italian kids — skinny boys with wavy black hair that smells like coconut oil mixed with bubblegum, sculpted into high-rising pompadours on top of their heads. They flirt with buxom 15-year olds with the same wavy brown hair that’s streaked yellow. Their fingernails are painted scarlet.
On the other end, the Jewish kids. They are aspiring lawyers, eventual doctors, valedictorians-to-be, the sorts of people my brother will never be. I cocoon myself near their good fortune, but my brother heads for the Italian end. He likes to hang with them, “not the Jews,” he’d repeatedly brag to me, shifting his weight from foot to foot, waiting for my reaction. Intent on avoiding my brother, I don’t stop to think I am a person he doesn’t want to see.
As he races towards school, I stare at the bright morning sky, until my neck hurts and my eyes sting. I brush scruff marks off my saddle shoes, pick cotton-pills off the sleeves of my pale green cardigan. I look anywhere except where my brother might be, for fear we’ll lock eyes or he’ll wave at me. What I need is anonymity. I don’t want to be branded the crazy boy’s sister.
My grandfather wakes at 6:30. He’s lived with us since Fannie died. He makes me breakfast, freshly squeezed orange juice with more pulp than juice, and a soft-boiled egg more liquid than the juice. I nibble at the white part, avoid the smelly yellow liquid.
Grandpa shuffles around the kitchen in his brown slippers and gray and yellow striped bathrobe, checking the flame under the boiling water. He’s cooking more eggs, one for himself, two for my brother, as if eggs in the morning were a talisman.
“Essen,” Grandpa says, when he sees me picking at my food.
“I’m essening,” I whine.
The minutes slog by.
We don’t speak.
He coughs up some phlegm.
I try to eat.
Soon I’ll say, “I’m done,” or “Be right back,” if I think he’s going to scold me for wasting food. But it isn’t the watery eggs, the floating pulp, or Grandpa’s old person’s cough that send me running. I don’t want to be alone in the kitchen with Grandpa when the chaos erupts upstairs, as it does every morning. He always frowns, shakes his disapproving head, says, “They’re all meshugina,” what my bones know but my ears can’t stand to hear.
Upstairs, the door to my parents’ bedroom creaks open. My mother sticks her head into the hallway, her brown hair, speckled gray, wrapped in heavy metal curlers. She yells, “Bobby. Time to get up and go to school.” Her voice is caustic, like Brillo.
By now, I’m perched on the edge of my bed, my hands over my ears, yet I feel compelled to listen, intent on deciphering each muted sound.
Her door shuts, creaks open again.
“Did you hear me?” she says.
“Calm down, Lillian,” my fathers intones. By now it’s a ritual.
“Then you get him up and make him eat breakfast.”
Footsteps shuffle past my bedroom towards Bobby’s room. Get out of your room, I silently beg my brother, thinking he could, if he wanted to, stop my mother. I blame him for her inability to relate to him.
Every morning, she screams at him. “Get dressed, get out of the house. Get yourself to school,” a place he doesn’t want to be. I see and hear her, but do not protest. By now, I hold inside her dislike for the son she’s ashamed of. Still, I step into the hallway hoping my presence will deflect her. But she’s laser-beam focused on my brother. A bystander, I watch the drama unfold.
She tugs on the doorknob, tries to rattle his door open. It’s locked, so she bangs on the door, shouts, “Let me in.”
He turns up his radio, blasts Elvis or wild Jerry Lee.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” she screams.
His door cracks open. “Go to hell yourself,” he says, then slams his door. Click. He’s locked it again.
My mother hollers to my father, still in their bedroom, “Alex, do something. He’s impossible.”
I’m in the hallway trembling in my blue cotton pajamas, but my mother walks past me as if I’m not there.
Time for school: I slip on my saddle shoes, a plaid pleated skirt that falls mid-calf, the latest teen fashion, a pale green cardigan over a matching tee. I flatten my unruly hair, flip the ends into a bob just below by ears. In the mirror I see a girl who’ll pass for normal, untouched, she hopes, by the defect that’s her brother. But my cheeks are fiery and my throat’s constricted as if choking on words.
“A bissel more,” Grandpa says as I walk past the kitchen, as if he and I share a life separate and apart from the chaos upstairs.
Outside leaves drift through the crisp morning air, some cling to the trees, as if trying to prolong summer. I walk past the private homes on Bedford Avenue, the lush green lawns never thirsty for water, the flowerbeds sugar-pink with hydrangeas and begonias. I picture a brightly lit room, its flowery wallpaper dotted with lime green buds on hardy stems, a few bursting into bloom. A brother sits at a table helping his sister with her homework. His blond hair shimmers in the sunlight that pours through the windows. “That’s not how you spell convienience,” he tells his sister. “You need to cross out the first i. There you go. Convenience. Now you got it.” At school, I disappear into the Jewish end and giggle with the girls, telling myself tomorrow is a new day, though I know it won’t be.
Mornings are a secret my brother and I share, if agreed-upon silence is sharing, if averting one’s eyes is a form of acknowledgement. Neither of us talks about the morning, nor knows how to recover. I do not tell anyone I wish he’d disappear. That secret’s stashed inside my cardigan, now cotton-pill free. It crawls beneath my skin, disturbing me. I inch closer to the popular girls on the Jewish end. They wear soft cashmere sweaters and have straight teeth and flawless skin. I think being near them can eclipse the morning, make me less my brother’s sister and more like them.
When I ask what was wrong with my brother, I’m also asking what was wrong with me. What kind of child hates a sibling so much less fortunate than she?
Years later, I see a therapist.
I’m in my twenties, not married and worried I never will be. My problems, I think, are my brother’s fault. I’m convinced no man will want me if he knows about my brother, that I’m doomed like he is.
The therapist is convinced I must have had some positive experiences with my brother when we were toddlers or sympathetic tweens. She doesn’t understand how painful it is to have an outcast for a brother, or how crippled I now feel, even though I have a few friends, a job, a college degree. She paints a picture for me to consider: my brother and I padding around a backyard, me in diapers following him, mesmerized by my older, more agile brother. I wrack my brain, but it’s numb, like flesh calloused over.
“Take your time,” she says.
I close my eyes, picture a different brother. A child swish-swishing in the water, not afraid to put his head in, a child standing arms loose at his sides, instead of with fists clenched together. A boy tickling his curly-haired sister and making her giggle.
I tell her I don’t remember padding, swish-swishes or tickles, and that my brother was never faster, more agile or quicker than I was. I say, “All I remember is hating my brother.”
I promise I’ll think about it, but all I want is to stop thinking about my brother. Still, in the stealth of the night, images visit: an eight-year-old boy careening down a sloping green lawn, the gothic spires of a Lake George resort peaking behind him. His arms flail, as he does not enjoy running like I do. When he gets to the lake, he’s reluctant to go in. I stand on my pin thin legs in my blue and yellow bathing suit, ruffles everywhere, watching him. I watch but do not run, even though the hill’s tempting and the water’s appealing. A dread I cannot make sense of stops me from following him.
Next therapy session: photos.
“Goats, summer 1944, Vermont.” My brother has just turned four, and I’m one-and-a-half that summer. Feet firmly planted, I stare wide-eyed past the camera, my brow slightly furrowed, as if I’m trying to figure out how goats, which are infinitely appealing, are also different from me. My brother’s arms hang straight at his sides, a bit stiff, but no clenching of fists and no sense he’s been shifting from foot to foot, as he later did, in search of an elusive equilibrium. His brow is slightly furrowed, and his lips slightly parted as if he has something to say but decides not to say it. He seems a sweet boy and his trepidation makes him appear not weird, but gentle. What I notice most, though, is that I am not uncomfortable around him.
Next photo’s labeled “Florida: Mid-50s.” A 12-year-old boy on a diving board, his hands pressed together, angling towards the water. But his head is lifted, not down as it should be, and his toes are too far from the plank’s edge. Still, he leans towards the water as if he’s about to dive in, his belly hanging over the waistband of his blue bathing suit. He stares, not at the water, but at whoever is poolside taking a picture of him, a forced half-grin on his face.
“It’s a photo,” my therapist says. “Is there a memory?”
She wants a memory, but I don’t want to have one. I don’t want to tell her I was standing poolside next to curly-haired Joe, a 13-year old from Philly I had a crush on. Or how everyone poolside was staring at my brother. Or revisit how my mother, her skin crispy tan, sprawled on a white plastic chaise, was telling my father, “Stop with the camera already. Just let him jump in.” Or admit that I too wished he’d get the belly flop over with, so I could go back to flirting with Joe.
Ten years old, I leaned against the swinging door, pushed it open and plowed into the kitchen, not because I wanted to help my mother, but to ask if I could go outside, play before dinner. Transfixed, I watched a cow’s tongue descend into the pressure cooker, my mother clasping its tip between her thumb and index fingers. I didn’t know, or want to know, that the pink prickly meat was the tongue of a cow. I now wonder whether my mother, reluctant to touch the disembodied tongue, sensed the absence of cow, of its moo, or thought about the inability of humans, sometimes, to communicate.
The tongue simmered, surrounded by onion, and flavored by garlic and bay leaves, a sweet savory aroma filling the kitchen. The pot hissed. “Stay away from the spitting steam,” my mother said.
She lifted the lid and sliced off a thin pink piece. “Have a taste,” she said, pointing a fork in my direction.
“Yuck,” I said.
“What do you mean ‘yuck’? It’s tongue. I need to know if it’s tender or tough. Or too sweet, heaven forbid.”
I held my ground, shook my head, so my mother took a bite.
“Oh boy, it’s delicious,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Still, I stood back, watched her skin carrots with a metal peeler, drop them into a pot of boiling water, unable to ask her to teach me about girl stuff, even though I wanted to learn about girl stuff – like how her chicken was always juicy and crisp, her brownies moist as fudge, or how a cow’s tongue could be delicious. Angry at her constant hissing and yelling, I kept my distance, vowing never to imitate her. And deep inside my psyche, where logic misses a beat, my brother’s defects made me feel undeserving of pleasure, especially when the source was his protagonist, our mother.
Third Sunday every month, around 4 p.m., my brother telephones from Mexico City, where he’s lived since 1968.
I never want to speak to him, but I do.
“Hi, it’s your brother.” In the background, I hear Gloria, his wife, say, “Por favor, hola para mi.”
I shut the door to my bedroom, so my 12-year-old son won’t come in. I do not want him to hear me be callous, cold, unresponsive to the needs of my brother.
“Yes, I know it’s you, Bob. How you doing?”
“I’m good,” he says, his voice stiff, controlled.
“Me too, Bobby,” I say, sitting on the floor, pressing my back against the door so my son won’t come in.
“If I come to New York can I stay with you?”
“You’re coming to visit?”
“I don’t know if I am.” But he wants to know, theoretically, if he came to New York, whether I’d welcome him.
I hedge, tell him I don’t know, but I do know. He will not stay with me. I will not be sucked into the vortex that’s my brother.
He changes the topic, mechanically, like reading from a checklist.
“Know what I think of our mother?” he asks. I think he’s implicitly criticizing me for having contact with her. He’s going to conjure up memories, as alive to him now as when he was three, tell me he hates her. He’s sixty. She’s ninety. She no longer walks or at least refuses to. When I visit, she complains to me about my brother, says, “He’s driving me nuts. Always asking for money. I’m not going to speak to him anymore.” My brother knows she’s given me power of attorney, that I control her money and am spending it on her care, not saving what she has left for him and me.
“Know what I think of our mother?” he repeats.
“Bobby, she’s old and dying.”
“She’ll cut me off if I tell her what I think of her.”
“So maybe don’t tell her.”
“I don’t want to get cut off.”
I tell him that’s no way to live, afraid to speak your mind, not that I think he should confront our ninety-year-old mother. But fear of abandonment is no way to live.
“If she cuts you off, I’ll give you half of what she leaves me.”
He changes the topic.
“If I come to New York, I’m going to visit cousin Michael. Remember him?”
“Of course I do.” Michael’s shared history, our families driving together to Florida, year after year. But Bob speaks as if Michael’s only a part of him, and not a cousin we share.
“Michael has a book of mine.”
“He took it.”
“He took your book?”
“Don’t get me wrong. He didn’t mean to.”
“I like Michael. I’m sure he didn’t.”
“I need my book back.”
“When did he take this book?”
“Third grade. He didn’t mean to take it.”
“He took your book when you were both ten?”
“He wasn’t ten. He’s a year younger than me.”
“So he was nine.”
“Can you talk to Michael? Get the book for me?”
“I’ve got a job, a young child who needs me, I’m busy,” I say, ignoring the subtext: need and loss.
“He has my book.”
“Bob, he’s had it for 50 years.”
“If you see Michael . . .”
“I don’t see him.”
“Will you call him for me?”
“Not about a book.”
“When you speak to cousin Michael, say hola from me.”
I tell my brother to hold a minute, place the phone at arms length, wait sixty seconds, yell, “Sure, Doug,” to my son who’s in his room down the hallway, and hasn’t asked for me. Back on line, I tell Bobby my kid needs me.
“Don’t want to keep you, Judy,” he says. “It was really nice speaking to you.”
“We’ll speak again soon,” I say.
I want to cry, but opt for nothingness instead. I don’t want memories to rush in and drown me.
I surf the net, thinking if only I knew what was wrong with my brother, I’d feel more sympathetic, that a label might free me from grief, pity, sorrow.
I Google OCD — Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD leads me to OCPD, which leads to ADD and ADHD, which take me to Autism, Asperger’s, Schizophrenia, and a host of PDs, personality disorders, broken into clusters. Cluster A: odd, bizarre, eccentric. Cluster B: dramatic, erratic. Cluster C: anxious, fearful. Some symptoms fit, though none perfectly.
Back to OCD, a disorder my adopted son is convinced he has, even though his room is a mess, Videogames strewn about, notebooks on the floor, papers everywhere. A person with OCD engages in repetitive, ritualistic behavior, like my brother’s compulsive tap-tapping, and how my son repeatedly flicks his wrist, though I think he does that to annoy me. According to Google, the OCD-er tap-taps to relieve anxiety caused by uninvited thoughts, like thoughts of maiming someone or hurting himself, or an illicit sexual fantasy. I remember my brother repeatedly opening and closing the front door, me behind him telling him, “Stop acting crazy,” until the ping of the lock gliding into place was the perfect ping, making it safe for him to step inside. What fear was he trying to dull? What frightened him? That he’d fight with our mother, feel like destroying our parents when demands, reasonable or not, were placed on him? “Stop pacing” “Do your homework.” “Eat your eggs.” “Tuck your shirt in.”
OCD-ers can be hoarders too, which my son isn’t, but my brother was. Yellowed newspaper and boxes, stacked high and brimming with clothing, papers, memorabilia, covered the mosaic tile floor of his apartment in Mexico City, making it nearly impossible to open the door and get in. At age 40, my brother developed an irrational fear of bugs and bacteria. He morphed from an overweight kid into a rail thin man and ran ten miles daily, as if speed and devotion could outwit germs. He didn’t skin pick, nail bite or hair pick, but he counted footsteps, although I do that too. And trying to land on one foot, rather than the other, when reaching the top of a flight of stairs is something I imagine my brother felt compelled to do.
The OCD-er suffers doubly, not just from anxiety but from hopelessness as well. He’s aware his obsessions are, at bottom, irrational, yet feels compelled to engage in ritualistic conduct he knows is senseless in the futile hope of dulling the anxiety that plagues him. But if my brother had an unshakeable belief his fears were rational, he suffered not from OCD, but OCPD, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Stubborn and inflexible, which my brother was, the OCPD-er believes hoarding is rational and excessive fear of germs normal.
Labels do not liberate me. Instead, they make me anxious about my son. So I surf some more, looking for causes, hoping that understanding why my brother behaved as he did will stop my obsessing about him, and shake off the fear that my stability is, at buried bottom, as tenuous as his.
I learn that mutated genes or faulty biology, like under-stimulated receptors or neurotransmitters that won’t transmit, can cause or contribute to both OCs. But psychology, too, plays a part. A childhood trauma, like the death of a grandmother who coddled and loved, can trigger a biological propensity for an OC disorder. Some theorize that obstinacy and a need to control one’s environment, characteristics of OCPD, are behaviors a child learns by copying others — for instance, an inflexible mother who’s controlling and obstinate, who believes in “right” and “wrong,” and no in between, who hoards money for catastrophes, as catastrophe’s a given, and requires others to submit to her ways for hers is the only way. Was my brother crazy or did my mother make him crazy? And if she made him crazy, why wasn’t I just as crazy as he?
What I don’t search for on Google is me. The girl who, through no fault of her own and not because of a black stroke of magic, was born into a home with a damaged brother. She is thin, self-reliant, has quick feet like her father’s, and strives to be as perfect as her brother isn’t.
I can’t stop thinking about my brother.
A memory gnaws, disturbing my sleep, making me feel what I want to avoid: pity. It starts out ugly, gets uglier, spirals out of control, and then as if I’d risen to the crest of a very bad wave, I slide, for one precious moment, into a fog-free valley where I can see.
My family’s seated around the dining table, about to eat dinner. My mother has cooked her very delicious pot roast, rare, spiced with pepper and served simmering in its juices. I sit opposite my 12-year old brother, trying not to look at him. Age 10, a visceral sensation ripples my gut at the sight of him.
My father sits at the head of the table, his broad shoulders proclaiming “I’m in charge,” though we all know he isn’t. Years later, his shoulders hunched, his wavy hair thinning, he’ll tell me, “I should have worn the pants in the family.” He thinks a real man would have been able to control my mother.
My mother places the platter, laden with beef, in front of where she sits, next to me and opposite my brother. When he reaches his fork across the table, my mother grabs his wrist.
“Where are your manners?” she says.
He pokes at the meat, my mother clamped to his wrist. “It’s my food,” he says. “I can do what I want.”
Take back your stupid fork, I think. That my mother has no self-control frightens me less than whatever is wrong with my brother.
She lets go of his wrist, picks up the platter, his fork still jabbing the meat. She slams the platter in front of my father with such angry force that I think it will shatter, the juices run loose, stain the tablecloth. “Alex, you deal with it,” she says, and leaves for the kitchen. My father stares at the platter, caught between a wife who’s out of control and a son who is unadulterated disappointment.
My mother returns with a wooden salad bowl filled with carrot bits, shredded iceberg lettuce, cucumber slices, chopped scallions, and green olives with pits — my favorite. She places the bowl next to my elbow, out of my brother’s reach.
“Please (pause) pass (pause) the (pause) salad (pause),” my father says, pronouncing each word more slowly and carefully than normal people do, demonstrating for my brother how one obtains food at the dinner table without fighting with one’s mother. My brother begins to eat, purposely chewing, I think, as loudly as he can, oblivious to my mother glaring at him, waiting for him to reach across the table for salad. I try to ignore my brother’s chomp-chomp, but the harder I try not to hear him, the louder the sound, drowning out the whirr of the overhead fan, the hum of the refrigerator, the birds chirping in the backyard, the thump-thump of the neighbor’s dog, chained to a fence, its tail wagging.
But I cannot ignore my brother’s sounds, ever strain to hear his tap-tap, even if it’s telltale from a different room, or his radio buzzing behind a closed door, or footsteps if I think he’s pacing. I hate his sounds yet listen for them. I listen to make sure I cannot hear them, and in this way have become as compulsive as he.
“Stop chewing so loudly,” I say to my brother.
“Close your mouth when you chew,” my mother chimes in.
He parts his lips, stretches his mouth open, and bellows a lion’s incomprehensible roar, both defensive and threatening. Slamming her hand on the table, my mother says, “Get out of here.”
Guilt alone would have been punishment enough, but having struck the match that ignited the fire, I feel exposed and frightened. And afraid I am, at bottom, as mean as my mother. Whether out of guilt or sympathy, I do something I rarely do; I follow my brother. He is slumped on the bed in the guestroom, as if his spine can no longer bear to hold up his body, fondling a wooden bendy snake, painted chocolate brown with bright yellow dots. A fake pet my parents picked up in Mexico. We’d named him Stanley.
Bobby twists and hinges each joint, as if testing its range of motion. Gently, though, as if the snake were alive, not inanimate Stanley, with a tenderness I rarely see in my brother, as if he is responsible for its wellbeing, is its father, its mother. I stand in the doorway, not sure whether to go in. Bobby lifts his head. His eyes are a pale milky blue.
“Nobody loves me, except Stanley,” he says to me.
I want to say that’s not true. But I know it is. Is love the same as unbearable sorrow? In that moment, as brief as it is, I might not love my brother, but I know what it feels like not to hate him.
In 1968, my brother moved to Mexico, where my parents often vacationed, a country familiar, not foreign, to them. Still, my brother told me, “I’m getting away from our parents,” his voice stiff, like an over-starched shirt, and brittle, like age, though he was in his late twenties. His adamancy grated on me. You’re stuck here, with them, he seemed to be gloating.
A few years later, a fiery pro-comunista, Bob renounced his U.S. citizenship, denouncing our parents to me as sold-out, materialistic bourgeoisie, concerned only with respectability. How deeply he believed, I do not know, but I was convinced his politics (much of which I shared) were about annoying my parents who’d been Party members in the ‘40s but became anti-communist liberals by the ‘60s. Then Bob changed his mind, denouncing Lenin and Fidel as demagogues, infidels, as angry as a betrayed lover. Still, if Fidel wasn’t the answer, my brother didn’t want to be American, Jewish, from Brooklyn. Yet emancipated was what he never would be.
He married a sweet, obese Mexican woman who spoke no English, and they had a son. The three lived in an apartment my parents bought for him. Whether my brother asked for help, or my parents just swooped in, he remained financially and emotionally entangled with them, unable to leave the nest that never really nourished him. Then the nest bought a condo in San Miguel de Allende, a few hours from Mexico City. “To be closer to your brother,” my parents told me, even though he’d moved to Mexico to get away from them. “He’s troubled. He needs us,” my mother said, implying I didn’t, and should not act like the selfish lucky one.
I last saw my brother in 2010. He came to New York, “to see old friends,” he told me, though I didn’t know he had any. He rattled off names. “Joey from the third grade.” “Philip who lived around corner.” “Cousin Michael.”
We met at my house, so Bob could meet my son. Doug was in his room, anxious to finish his homework, or at least tell me he had, so he could play Videogames. We knocked on Doug’s door. It was locked. My son liked his privacy. “Let us in,” I said.
“Nice to meet you,” Doug said to the tall, lanky man standing in the doorway, his hair disheveled, his eyes struggling to focus, his baggy pants pinched at the waist by a thin leather belt, sweat forming above his upper lip. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, like when we were kids.
“I told you he’d be visiting,” I said to Doug. “It’s my brother.”
“Wow. Sorry, Mommy,” Doug later said to me.
I stood in the hallway, my brother’s shadow looming over me, feeling frightened for my son, afraid he might—not because of his birth mother’s genes, but because of who I was—
become hopelessly lost like my brother. Dear God, I thought, please let my son be. Suddenly, I needed to know whether my brother had hated me.
“Yes I did,” he said, quickly adding, “When we were kids.” It had never occurred to me to wonder how the brother I hated might have felt about me.
“Our parents did that to us,” he said, sounding saner than me. I didn’t realize that my brother even thought about me, or that I needed forgiveness and not just by him. I’d still like to erase how unbearably crazy he was, but some memories, I’ve learned, are better felt than feared.
Bob and I slog up the hill to the neighborhood Starbucks; I order a venti black coffee for Bob and a tall latte for me. Two coffees down, he starts to complain about our mother.
“Want to know what I think of our mother?” I know; I just can’t bear to hear it.
“She’s dying,” I say.
“I can’t risk her cutting me off. I need the money.”
“So don’t make her cut you off.”
“She’ll cut me off if I tell her what I think of her.”
“So decide what you want to do.”
“She’s got a bank account in Brooklyn she’s hiding from me.” I know where my mother keeps her money. Is he talking about me, not my mother?
“I don’t think that’s true, Bob,” I say.
“I’m going to Brooklyn.”
“When did she tell you about this bank account? I thought you weren’t talking to each other.”
“She didn’t tell me.”
“You just said she told you.”
“She didn’t tell me. It slipped.”
“Five years ago. She wasn’t thinking. It slipped.”
I want him to stop living in a past that may never have happened, to stop being my crazy brother.
“Will you come to Brooklyn with me?” he asks.
Categorically no, I think. But I don’t want to seem impolite or stiff-lipped absolute, so instead of cutting it short, I ask, “For what?”
“The bank account,” he says.
“The account that slipped?”
“There’s $150,000 in there. I’ll give you some.” I tell him I can’t go to Brooklyn, blame it on my job, my kid.
Then my brother wants to talk about the first time he had a boner.
I used to think the tragedy of my childhood was that my mother hated my brother. But by the time Bob and I were in Starbucks, I’d realized my tragedy was that I’d hated him too.
Light of my life my father used to call me. Shining-light perfect was what I wanted to give him, and what my father needed me to be. He didn’t want to see my aches and pains, know I was sinking, bones cracking, under the insufferable weight of hating my brother. What if I hadn’t had a damaged brother? Or parents who had no idea what to do with him? What if I were a child who hadn’t hated her brother? What if a lot of things.
What if I could have loved him?
Bob died in Mexico City, age 72, both of our parents deceased by then. What caused Bob’s death, I can never be sure. His son telephoned, broke the news. “Bob’s in the hospital. He fell, hit his head.” Next day’s call, “He didn’t hit his head. It’s his heart.” Then it wasn’t his heart. “It was maybe a stroke.” Two days later, my brother was dead.
My nephew is a sweet boy, “and very intelligent,” my mother often said, and I think both are true. But he’s living on welfare, unable to hold a job, tells me he has a mental disability. After Bob died, my nephew telephoned, anxious about money, wanting to know how he could help his mother in Mexico City, now a widow without income. He was convinced my brother had invested in a casa paqueno somewhere south of Mexico City. But the deed was nowhere to be found, and Bob’s wife had no idea where this casa paqueno might be. Meanwhile she’d been cashing my brother’s Social Security checks and withdrawing money from his bank account, as if her husband were still alive.
“You’re a lawyer, aunt Judy, tell us what to do.”
I threw an apple at a window, usually jammed shut for safety reasons, but the lower pane was up a few inches that spring morning, siphoning in fresh air. The apple missed the crack at the bottom of the window and boomeranged back into the classroom where our math teacher, Mrs. Goldberg, was chalking the day’s trinomial challenge onto the blackboard, her sleek frame, dressed in black, facing away from the class.
What possessed me to toss an apple at a window that day? I was a tightly wound bundle of I don’t make mistakes, a paradigm of perfection — top of the bracket in everything academic, A’s in conduct and flawless penmanship when I was young. Fear of sliding, non-stop, down the slippery slope from A+ to purgatory kept me that way. My parents called it self-directed. “What a relief she is,” they’d say.
But like a spanking new car, it was only a matter of time before a scratch appeared on the shiny surface . The thought of the scratch, of its inevitability, obsessed me.
I stared at the crack, thumbing the apple’s cool smooth skin, Mrs. Goldberg’s voice dissolving into a haze of gray and white static. I felt the opening inviting me, luring me in, telling me get the worst over with.
At the sound of ker-plop, a startled Mrs. Goldberg turned from the chalkboard to face the class. She scanned the room, suddenly doomsday-still, except for the apple rolling down the aisle towards the trinomial chalkboard.
There was no chance I’d confess. Throwing the apple was the limit for me. I wish I could have explained to Mrs. Goldberg that I was so tired of trying to be perfect that I decided to pick up a rusty nail and make a dent in my parent’s favorite car, a Dodge Spitfire I wanted to tell her. “What nail? What fire?” she would have said. She’d think I was crazy.
As the apple rolled towards the now angry Mrs. Goldberg, I chose anonymity. But what unnerved me that day and has haunted me for years, was not so much that I threw the apple, but that I felt compelled to toss it at a crack at the bottom of a glass window, when missing was one-hundred percent certain.