We bob in the muddy green water of the Chesapeake Bay, off the shore of a private beach where our father works long hours in the sun on a rich lady’s summer home. Because dad has agreed to take us to work with him, we’ve gotten out of summer camp for a week, which we hate anyway. It is hot and the sun is high for hours, but for some reason it feels like just the three of us exist here in this quiet place of sand and water and forest. There are no children. Waterside in the summer, and there’s no one here. The houses are nice, with fancy landscaping and boat ramps. When the water’s low the ramps rise, thick concrete spines jutting from the earth, their ridges caked with clumps of algae and tarry black slime.
The swimming area is a rectangle marked off with plastic bobbers and polypropylene rope, once white but now a dull brown. In the center there’s a wooden pallet tethered to the sand beneath and buoyed by a fat tire. For hours, we pull ourselves up and leap off. We have jumping contests. We warm ourselves in the sun.
One day I plant my hands on the edge and heave my body straight up from the water on the wrong side: I catch my thigh on a rusty nail sticking out two inches from the slimy wood. It tears open the flesh above my right knee and I panic: blood and rust mean tetanus. You are more upset than me, but work hard to stay calm. You look at the jagged cut spilling my blood. You take my hand and help me back into the water. We walk to shore to find our father.
In the bathroom, I sit down as our father rummages in the cupboard for peroxide. You are quiet, holding my hand as Dad pours peroxide onto the wound, but your flushed skin and the puffiness around your eyes tell me you’re worried. I squeeze your hand. I’m glad you’re there. The peroxide burns and I squeeze harder. Tiny white bubbles froth up from the bright blood, a tiny chemical volcano on my skin.
Later that week we go fishing. Summer is officially drawing to a close. We’ve gotten out of day camp for the last time, but soon school will start. Your tackle box sits open in the shade, its corners resting in cool sand. It’s cream and green, painted with two thick red first-aid crosses left over from when it was our mother’s nursing kit. In it are meticulously wrapped coils of clear and green fishing line. There are metal hooks, single and triple, with barbed edges to tear through a fish’s lip and take hold there. There are the lures, a kaleidoscopic burst of all sizes and colors. There are yellow and orange feathers, tufts of green and red, strands of blue. Sardine-sized decoys with precise detail: eyes, scales, fins. Shiny metal discs of gold, silver, and copper glint at me. Jigs, surface lures, spoon lures, flies, spinnerbaits. My favorites are the swimbaits. I flatten their squishy bodies between my thumb and index finger and let go, watch them spring back to a tubular shape. They are transparent and flecked with glitter, curly tails dangling from their plump bodies. I like the feeling of sliding them onto the hook, the pressure beneath my fingers as I urge them past the barb, snug into place.
You stand at the edge of the water with your fishing rod, the line 20 feet out. No luck. You reel in, check the lure, pinch the end of the line to the pole and cast again. There is a scream. I look up before realizing it is you, your hand clasped to the side of your head, your mouth wet and open. The line–it went too soon, and the barbed triple hook lodged in your scalp.
I grab the rod and your free hand and walk you back to the house, glancing at the blood running down your fingers. Our father cuts the line. Under the harsh yellow bathroom light, I watch his calloused fingers prod the area. You are crying and I am holding your hand, waiting for Dad’s instructions. I hand him the bottle of peroxide and you squeeze until my knuckles are white.
After minutes of trying, Dad can’t remove it. I get you into the pickup truck and we head to the emergency room. There, they removed the hook and gave you a tetanus shot, but I remember nothing of the visit – just the sterile examination room with cupboards of light, grainy wood.
After, you burrow your head against my shoulder, eyes closed for the ride home.
Years later when I ask, you tell a more detailed version of events:
I was running to the edge of the shore towards the water and I was casting at the same time. The forward momentum with the cast motion pulled it straight ahead and then upwards after the treble hook on my lure met my skin.
Basic laws of physics: how to lodge a hook in your head. Treble means three. Simple motions. Hold, run, cast. You tell the story for show now, choosing words carefully, measuring impact, showing ownership of memory. I can tell it too, that is the subtext of what you’re saying. But you’re not trying to compete. You are sharing. This is our memory. You should have some say in its resurrection.
In the emergency room:
I was terrified of [the] hospital but I didn’t feel a thing when they did it. You and Dad were right there watching. He was sitting, you were standing. When they clamped forceps on the hook they twisted so much. Dad was wincing as he watched. You were watching him more than me.
This surprises me but I realize it’s probably true and I feel guilty.
My brother and I hadn’t spoken for months until one day in late fall.
“Hey, come over, just for a minute,” he said on the phone. He sounded almost giddy.
“Andrew, I can’t.”
“Just for a second. I have something for you. Real quick. I’ll run right out and you can leave right away.”
I pulled into the driveway. He walked outside barefoot in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, a huge plastic Indians cup filled with bright red Kool-Aid in his hand. He smiled and handed me a plastic bag.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Memory. For your computer.”
I opened it. Inside there were small cartridges, additional memory sticks for a specific model of Dell laptop I didn’t own.
“These are Dell,” I said. “I can’t use them.”
I thanked him and left as it started to rain.
A week later, he’s arrested for drug possession and sentenced to three years in prison. Suddenly everything is so obvious, and my simple observations are now clues I missed: bare feet. Tired face. The strange gift. The thought that somehow, the random computer parts would have meaning to me, would be some consolation for something. Or maybe there was nothing strange about these things at all. Maybe it was just unbearably sad, the way he stood on the porch watching me pull away, one arm crossed over his chest as the other dangled a cigarette, its orange ember the only color against the grey of everything else.
Anne Carson writes Antigone in Antigonick (Sophokles): “You ask would I have done it for a husband or a child my answer is no I would not. A husband or a child can be replaced but who can grow me a new brother. Is this a weird argument, Kreon thought so but I don’t know. The words go wrong they call my piety impiety, I’m alone on my insides I died long ago.”
Antigone. Anti-gone. Do not leave, do not go.
In the weeks after his sentencing, I am lost. I don’t know whether to grieve or mourn, to push or scream. I do it all, alone and in a vacuum, and nothing works. This is how I begin to learn the word “gone.” Where I start to translate its strange implications. Here is my formal initiation: I struggle. I push against it. My tongue doesn’t want to cooperate, is dry, cemented to the roof of my mouth. I try to let it be. I ask the universe to tell me: what is the proper state of being for this? How do I survive this? Each time the answer is a silent one. I search and search for what it means and each time I come up empty.
There’s something about exile that seems worse than total loss. The object of desire, practically and completely unreachable, still appears deceptively within reach. The reality is that he is a three hour drive away, but three hours might as well be thousands of light years. Our communication is reduced to one or two letters a month. Written words and phrases become interchangeable with my dreams of him, and the two become nearly indistinguishable from one another. I’m alone on my insides.
The dreams are the only way I feel truly close to him. Sometimes I think I hear his voice, his laughter, but I’m not sure if I remember the way he sounds. I don’t trust my own memory, it’s so informed by my longing. I am suspended.
My brother writes from prison:
Mom and dad definitely rely on you as the co-dependent glue holding them together. Maybe your moving out will force them into learning how to communicate. You would think after over two decades of marriage that they would be better at it by now. Anyway prison life is okay. I don’t like it but I can handle it…
I am falling into a bout of depression. I am stumbling through my days in a daze. There is no rest. Anxiety rules me over all else. I just try to remember to breathe…
I have to keep reminding myself that I am down to a year. Only one more year and I will be out of here. July 29, 2013 I will be out. I’m scared. I know that right at this moment I am not prepared to re-enter the free world. This time has branded me–left a mark on me. A scar of a memory I’ll never forget. This time is like the proverbial belt notching ritual…
I’ve written some things but none of them makes any sense. There is a drought within me. No creativity has been spared. I feel flat. Numb. Plastic.
They assigned me to work as a shower porter. Several of us go in the showers every day and scrub everything for a half hour. It’s hard work but it is over before I know it and once I’m done I have the rest of the day to do whatever I want…
I am really happy for you. You are accomplishing great things in life and as always I am proud of my big sister…I hope to hear from you again soon.
Because it is hellishly hot, there are more sirens in the city than usual. In seconds the puppy is at the window, tail poker straight, ears peaked. I am thinking about all the ways I will fail her, the ways I have failed others.
I am thinking about failure, obsessing really, because my brother gets out of prison in two weeks and I am counting the ways I have let him down. Here is my list: I didn’t write to him enough. I’m not writing him now. I didn’t visit him in Lorain. I didn’t visit him in Mansfield. I didn’t visit him in St. Clairsville. And now, to top it all off, I’ve started smoking again, weeks before his release.
It’s been almost three years since he went away and I haven’t kept track of time well. My brain is muddy: things are not linear, do not follow from A to B to C. The only thing I know is someone who is there-but-not-there will suddenly be there again.
I go home to spend time in his childhood room. It’s in general disarray, filled with clutter he’s known for. There are signs of my mother’s attempts to clear some of the debris: trash stuffed in contractor bags, boxes full of items he might want to keep. But soon she stopped trying and for the past two years, most of the mess is just as he left it.
The metal bed frame is missing a mattress. My mother removed it, hauled down the hall, down the stairs, through the living room doorway and out onto the front lawn by herself. Things seem to be in a calculated state of askew – each imbalance, every assault to symmetry carefully orchestrated in a gross violation of the laws of physics. The curtains are gone. The rod is crooked and hangs awkwardly, its grooved end rusted metal, undone. I try to put it back, but the places where things once fit together don’t match anymore. The windowpanes are surrounded by pale, unfinished wood and the color reminds me of sickness, nausea. Frayed edges of black builder’s paper stick out. The light, the edges–everything is so exposed. I sit down. I think. I cannot remember when he last had curtains.
I am afraid to touch things so I move through the room slowly, my fingertips barely grazing the surfaces. Notebooks, half-full dented tubes of paint, sketch pencils and loose sheets of paper look like they’ve been caught in a bout of tornadic activity then settled like dust. There are opened books and boxes with cheap jewelry chains dangling out, making it seem like he disappeared while in the middle of something–searching for an answer, casting a spell, like he was raptured without time to wrap things up here.
There are photos of him and our family taken when he was young, frameless and flimsy, leaning against a jar of marbles. Tucked between trinkets. Sticking out from the headboard of his bed. The sketchpads on the floor, fanned out into a jagged white half-circle. Seashells. Witching hour. Magick. I touch these, I can’t help it, because of all the things in this room I know he touched these last. I leaf through the pages and while I half-heartedly look for clues, for some concrete revelation to satisfy a myriad of curiosities and doubts. What led him here, was he crazy, what was he scared of, will any of us be okay? I trace over the marks of graphite and smudges of pastels, learn the thick ridges of dried acrylics. A map of his brain. I know my questions are unanswerable. I close my eyes and my throat tightens, the threat of wet tears. I rock back and forth, locking my body into a slow rhythm, my sobs a thick quiet hum deep in my chest. All animal. Nothing vocal. My mouth breaks open and no sound comes out, but I hear every word in my head. I don’t believe in God but this is how I pray.
The closest I’ve come to him was on a highway to Pittsburgh to visit my boyfriend’s family. I held my breath and stared out the window as we passed signs from St. Clairsville. From my limited vantage point the town looks like nothing, stuffed down into small pockets between tree peaks. I’ve made the drive enough to know there are four visible vistas of the town from the road, but only remember one: tiny, sleepy homes yellow-lit in the dark, tucked close in a valley, telephone lines dangling naked overhead. I’ve seen it in snow and in thaw and in the warm burst that is summer. It is the closest I’ve been to him in three years, and he doesn’t even know it.
The air in my body feels sharp, like it’s trying to punch its way out of my lungs, and this is how it feels to not cry. I want to say stop, I want to say let me out, but the impossibility of the situation–my inability to stop, the constant hurtling forward of time, the linear trumping anything in memory–overwhelms me. What would I do? Show up at the gate and hope someone lets me in?
Three years is the longest I’ve gone without my brother. The longest I’ve held my breath.
Two weeks later, in late July, my brother is released from prison. He takes a bus from Belmont Correctional Institution in St. Clairsville three hours north to Sandusky. Before his release, I have several conversations with my mother, all with the same refrain.
“I hope he can get his life together,” she says. Her voice is soft and close to crying. She repeats this phrase every time we speak on the phone. Finally I tell her I cannot do anything more than I am doing: providing moral support, offering him advice on setting goals and making lists and trying to get it all on track.
“Just be the good sister. Be the sister. You don’t have to be the mother, just be the sister,” she said. She sighs. “He’ll be mad at me forever.”
I think, I don’t know how anymore.
The first time I see him I’m parked at Dick’s Carryout, waiting. I fiddle with my phone. And then there he is, taller than I remember, walking down the sidewalk in the bright August heat. He’s wearing khaki shorts that hit mid-thigh, a fitted t-shirt and running shoes, a purse over his shoulder. His stride is confident, self-assured. My first thought: his legs, tanned, toned and smooth, are nicer than mine.
He’s dressing like a woman now and wants to be referred to as female. My mother officially broke the news to me, a week earlier, calling me in hysterics after she saw him for the first time post-prison.
“He was wearing makeup, Ashley. He was wearing a dress.” She practically spits the words.
I admit that part of me is not surprised.
He tells me he’s felt this way for a long time: that being female feels right, he’s more confident than he’s ever been. It’s your lit-tle SIS-ter, call me ba-ack, he says sing-song into my voicemail. Letters he sent me from prison expressed some of these feelings – he mentioned wanting to do drag, going to beauty school. He signed some of his letters “Star.” I am now trying to understand what “living as a woman” means: I don’t have a brother. I have a sister. Once I had a brother. Now I don’t.
I get out of the car and walk toward him, my walk decidedly less confident than his. His face breaks out into a grin and he hugs me and despite the clothes, the manicure, the walk, it feels like the same Andrew.
“It’s so good to see you,” he says.
I take him to Taco Bell to get something to eat. I can tell he feels somewhat uncomfortable around me, like he’s trying to gauge my reaction. Mostly I feel protective of him. I watch the clerk’s facial expressions as he takes my brother’s order. I make eye contact with the other workers as I watch them for signs of ridicule or disgust. I am preemptively angry because I know he’ll be dealing with more prejudice than he’s ever experienced in his life.
We spend the rest of the evening sitting in the grass and talking and laughing at the park overlooking the bay. He picks at scabs on his legs and I tell him I will always support him in whatever he chooses, whether he wants to live as a man or a woman. I am sad, but not for myself. I am sad to know that the path ahead for him will be hard and unforgiving, that he will see the prejudices of many people come to light in ugly, forceful ways.
I tell him I just want him to be happy.
Later, my mother asks me how he was dressed.
“How do you think?” I ask. I don’t want to have the conversation again.
“Well, I guess your father is going to have to be informed of your brother’s new life at some point.”
I nod, careful not to convey the idea that I might volunteer for such a task.
“I’m not sure I can be the emotional broker for this,” I tell her.
“That’s a good way to put it,” she says.
It’s the beginning of November and the birds have flown south for the winter. My brother tells me he has HIV.
I take him to a neighborhood bar and he is sweating, beads dotting half his forehead. His face is red and puffy. He looks like he’s sleepwalking, here but not, mind elsewhere. I order drinks: Christmas Ale for me, Jack and Coke for him. He takes a long drink.
“Am I sweating anymore?” he asks, nodding to his half empty glass.
I shake my head.
“Anxiety,” he says.
Later, we go to park. This time it is cold and the wind is brutal. We smoke cigarettes on a bench next to the marina. The shapes of gulls circle overhead, perch on park lamps, coast across the dark sky. He puts his arms around me and begins to sob.
“I miss having you in my life,” he says.
“But I am in your life,” I say. “I’m right here.”
“I feel like you’re so far away and it’s not just the distance.” His body shakes and I wrap my arms around him. “I missed three years of your life,” he said.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know you and I hate that.”
“I feel completely disconnected, not part of anything.”
“Sometimes I feel like I should be back in prison, because that’s the only structure I’ve had in my life.”
“I just need someone to tell me what to do.”
“I am so lost, Ashley.”
My responses don’t matter. I just hold him there: rub his back in slow circles, stroke his hair, rock him back and forth.
When we get up to leave, I link my arm through his.
“Are your hands cold?” he asks.
He clasped my hand, locked my fingers in his, and put it in his pocket.
When I return to my parents’ house that night, I am exhausted. The hole in my chest that had been there for a week was overflowing with loss and dread. I didn’t know what I was mourning, only that I was, and now the mourning makes sense. I go upstairs to my brother’s old room. I step into the middle of the metal bedframe, the only thing left of his bed, and lie down on the floor. I curl into the fetal position.
My brother’s blood is my blood, too. The body knows when something goes bad. And although the disease isn’t a death sentence anymore, I bawl. Not for my own loss but for his, that he will never be – or even know – what he could become. I consider going to the bathroom to throw up.
The paint on his bedroom ceiling at our parents’ house: “Take my will and my life.” A reminder of recovery, a prayerful surrender. “Show me how to live, Amen,” it finishes. Since I feel I can’t any longer, show me indeed. Amen.
This Christmas is the first Christmas my entire family is together in over three years. My brother shows up in a faded long-sleeve shirt, jeans too loose for his frame, and worn out tennis shoes he got from the Care and Share. As soon as he walks through the door, our parents fuss around the house in search of clothes to give him. Our father hands him some flannel shirts, tells him to try them on. He struggles to get his arms through the sleeves. He shuffles through the house slowly, his body stiff, a side effect from the antiretroviral drugs he’s taking.
After dinner, he lies down on the couch and is asleep in minutes. Our father covers him with a blanket, tucking the edges in around him. I settle back in front of the woodstove and watch his face, light from the flames casting shadows over him. His mouth is slightly open and he looks peaceful.
Later, after he leaves, I go up to his room. I sit down inside the naked metal bed frame and draw my knees to my chest. I cannot tell the future, but for the first time in three years I can laugh in the center of chaos, tears streaming down my cheeks. Later, I will tell him about all of this and he will laugh with me.