As children, my brother and I would sometimes play pretend together in the crevice underneath our house’s back deck. We turned the space into an imaginary tavern that my brother, being two years older than me, got to name. He cleverly named our make-believe saloon the Dew Drop Inn. We filled jars with homemade concoctions -- elixirs made of mashed up berries, fancy cocktails made from rainwater and rocks.
One day, we discovered a mouse had climbed itself into one of our bottles, after whatever sweet liquid at its bottom, and it had gotten trapped and drowned.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of that grotesque discovery -- of the dead, bloated mouse trapped in the bottle, and the guilt I felt, and how my brother and I got older, and we stopped playing together, and how I grew up.
The other day, in a random conversation a coworker asked if I had roommates and I said no and that I hopefully I never would. I might’ve said I’m not roommate material, somehow remarking that having roommates was a little like having siblings. He asked me if I had any siblings and I said no.
I don’t know why I said that.
“Actually,” I said a beat later, “I do have a sibling. I have a brother.” He looked at me like something weird had just happened.
Since that strange interaction, I have had this strong memory I can’t shake, this memory of that earthy smell, and the feeling of guilt, remembering my brother.
My brother grew older but, in other ways, unchanged. Like Peter Pan, I used to think. A boy who never grew up. That's what happens, I have since learned, to people addicted to drugs.
Across from the house where we were raised was a dead-end street called Rauland Road. As little kids, my brother and I would ride our bikes up and down this short drive. We’d peddle as hard as we could, launching ourselves over the steep hill in the middle and careening down to the cul-de-sac at the bottom, where we’d turn around to do it again. Because it was a dead end, there were rarely ever cars; we felt safe racing in the middle of the street. In those seconds suspended in mid-air, I felt weightless and serene. It was an out-of-body experience, my first high.
When my best friend Jenny and I first started driving, we’d do something similar in my mother’s car. At night, we’d drive recklessly down small-town back roads. It was the same feeling. Radio up, car filled with smoke, with Jenny -- as I had years earlier, with my brother -- I felt safe, understood. I felt visible. I felt, if only for those moments, invincible.
I was labeled the good kid, the kid who could do no wrong. My brother, on the other hand, all our lives it seemed had been marked as bad.
I grew up and went away to college and, after that, I moved to New York with my high school boyfriend who, some years later, would become a fiancé. My brother, by contrast, stayed home. Co-opting the space in the basement that had, at one time been my father’s, my brother stayed the same. Some time in high school, maybe around the time he dropped out (knowing that he wasn’t going to graduate anyway), it was as if I surpassed him.
He was, of course, still older than me but, in my mind, he was no longer my big brother. In all practical ways, it was as if I had become the older sibling. He had become something or someone else.
Today, he lives on social security in a motel-like apartment complex near my mom’s. Over the years we have communicated very little. He has little to communicate, I sometimes assume. Little goes on in his life.
Nothing came from him -- writes Jamaica Kinkaid of her own brother, who died of AIDS -- not work, not children, not love for someone else.
My brother is not dead but for a long time I waited for the moment when I’d hear that he was. I would get a call from my mom. My mom never calls me so I would know that something was wrong. Maybe I would find my phone in my purse and see that she had called again and again and again and then I would know. I would call her back and receive the details. Sometimes, in this morbid fantasy, I’d feel guilty. Other times, I’d feel relieved.
Maybe it’s because it’s around Thanksgiving that I’m thinking of him. Tracing time back to a moment when I can remember having a brother. If I ask myself to think of holidays past I can picture the two of us sitting in the dining room of the house where I grew up, waiting for my mother to return from the kitchen. We sit in silence as she ladles soup into bowls. It’s potato soup, Campbell's soup made from concentrate that my mother announces she’s made with heavy cream because it’s Thanksgiving or possibly Christmas -- yes, it was Christmas, I remember-- and there are Bac-Os bacon bits, too.
It’s a tradition, these silent holiday meals, my mother’s obsessive preparation of Midwestern family recipes -- too much food that my mother wakes up hours too early to prepare for my brother and me and my father, when he was still around and later, for my boyfriend (who will one day become the fiancé that I will never marry) who, in my mind, replaces my father at the head of the table.
In the moment, waiting for my mother to return from the kitchen, wanting to stuff up the silence with food, food I fear will make me fat (fatness I fear, fearing I will become just like my mother), trying not to allow my eyes to rest too long on my brother, across from me -- feeling his restlessness and irritability and filth -- hoping my boyfriend cannot smell him, the smell of unwashed body and cigarettes and booze, his smell was my smell that I couldn’t wash away.
Not asking why and pretending not to notice, I had learned -- well before this moment -- what it meant to be a woman. It was a definition dependent on dependency -- a definition that scared me and so I ran the other way and kept running until I found myself in rooms full of junkies just like him, and then I understood.
They say wherever you go, there you are. Sometimes I think they’re wrong about that. Sometimes, I think I really did get away. I really did escape.
I rarely go home, even for the holidays. The last time I visited, my brother wasn’t around.
These days, I know how to notice things without it hurting so much. I don’t have the same sense of guilt. When I stop and force myself to think of my brother, I remember how I used to feel very guilty, all the time, for something I now understand was not my fault.
That Christmas vacation, I had this dream about my brother: My brother and I are in New York City, traveling in the backseat of a taxi, and my brother is sick. He is shaking and sweating and vomiting an awful putrid smelling green bile all over the seat and floor and on himself. Vomit is pouring from his mouth and his nose and I am holding him, rocking him and telling him that it’ll be alright. He is apologizing for not having any money to pay for the cab and I’m telling him that it’s okay. I don’t care about the money, I only care that he knows he is going to be alright. In this dream, I am somehow able to not think of myself -- to not be grossed out or angry or scared -- but to simply love my brother.
The next morning, in the daylight, I shook off the dream.
Your real life brother is gone, I told myself. You don’t have a brother. I told myself he was dead.
But the dream stayed with me, a comfort. For years after, I thought of it sometimes. The sad way it made me feel, I understood, was better than the anger that I usually felt. Better than the feeling of feeling nothing at all. Sometimes love, I have come to understand, means letting go.