Melissent Zumwalt

Manifestations of Love

We sat together, idling in my car, and you gestured with a nod of your head. “That’s Romy. She’s beautiful, huh?” She stood next to a dumpster, just out back of the restaurant where she worked. You were already past thirty then, and me several years behind.

I’d never heard you speak that way: so tender and full of affection. Neither of us talked like that—about love and feelings, about boys and girls. About things that would make us vulnerable. 

*

We’d learned that lesson early, hadn’t we? From Mom and Dad, and you teaching me, big brother. That it was embarrassing to love. To need someone. That love is often not returned. 

Like when Mom and Dad had just married, and you couldn’t have been more than four years old (and me a distant glimmer in their imagination). I envision your soft, cherubic curls and your blue eyes as wide and open as the sky, searching for approval from that strange new man whom you had just started to call: “Dad.” 

Mom told me he turned on you then, his nostrils flaring and tongue spitting like a snake. “Don’t ever call me that. I’m not your father.” His fiery temper taught you to strike first or be struck. Towards me he demonstrated only a noted indifference. What did we expect love should look like anyway? 

*

You and I never really talked, that brief conversation in the car one of the only few that comes to mind. Yet, as a child, I’d looked up to you. Longed for you to be my best friend, a kindred spirit, in a household that was rife with disappointment and physically isolated out in the country. Where screaming—cursing—was a common means of communication, and crying was never tolerated. Where Mom and Dad worked long hours for low pay and you were assigned to care for me. 

Though it never seemed to happen that way, did it? Because you had your own demons, and were already an alcoholic before you were old enough to drive. I guess that’s what addiction did: made you callous and cold-blooded, converted me into a sniveling, skittish thing. 

*

When Romy returned your favor, it was miraculous. None of us had ever known you to ask someone out before—let alone to be with someone as gorgeous as Romy.

That’s how we were, you and I. Kids who showed no interest in dating or school dances. No: isn’t he cute? Or: do you think she likes me? Whatever feelings we may have had, we kept them sealed tightly inside—and Mom and Dad never questioned our stoic silence. Maybe, after finishing a graveyard shift and confronting the unpaid bills, they were simply relieved not to have to deal with puppy love and first heartbreaks too? 

After all that, how did it feel to be with Romy? Like comfort? Like victory? Like you could finally get your life together? 

*

Growing up, you were pushed around by Dad. Abandoned by your biological father. Shoved into lockers by bullies at school and duct-taped to the walls while other students strolled by and laughed. I’ve come to assume those experiences made you insecure—and that insecurity hardened into meanness. Into the man you’ve become, with raging biceps and a shaved head. With a slow drawl and a quick wit and a beer can seemingly stitched to your hand. Always looking for a fight. A man who has something to prove. 

I figured that’s why you fell for Romy in the first place. That attaining her devotion served as a form of validation, a trophy girlfriend. Who knows if that’s right? 

*

It caught me off guard when I heard Romy is transgender. Words that came from Mom, never from you. Words you would never say. Would never feel comfortable saying. Still, you love her. In spite of not being able to say those words, you continue to love her. Though imagining you so freely accepting Romy, just as she is, in all her truth, didn’t fit in my mind. Because once I was old enough to walk and talk and demonstrate my personality, you never accepted me so fully. Who could say why? Maybe you mistook my timidity for disdain? Perhaps I reminded you of the innocence you’d already lost? But in spite of our differences, in spite of not being able to say the words, why couldn’t you continue to love me too? 

*

Considering that, I would have contorted into any version of myself that you found tolerable. Though, none of them appeared to do. What does it mean for a young girl to love so much, only to be rejected by her brother? Rejected by someone who should have been obligated to love her? Our relationship informed every interaction I had with a boy, expecting all others to ignore me as you had. My first year of high school, a popular junior used to walk past me at the end of third period, trying to catch my eye. The warmth of his smile bored into me as I stared at the ground, day after day, my demeanor as indecipherable as hieroglyphics. I kept each of them at arm’s length—unwilling to play the fool again. If my own brother didn’t care for me, how could a stranger?

One time, as Bruce Springsteen’s gravelly voice carved out his song, “I’m on Fire,” you snarled: “I hate this fucking song. If he’s on fire, why doesn’t he scream? SCREAM! That’s fire—like Jim Morrison, man. This guy just fucking mumbles.” 

I disagreed with you, though not out loud, of course. To your face, I just laughed it off. But I understood The Boss. How someone could want to be noticed—loved—with such intensity, it could eat them alive. Consumed from the inside out until breath became scarce. Because all I could ever fucking do around you was whimper. 

*

I didn’t land my first boyfriend until I was already nineteen—a young man for whom I was also his first girlfriend. (I’d felt ancient at the time, so old to finally enter that world of hand-holding and nervous uncertainties.) Five years later, we married. Did you ever regret missing my wedding? Not that I expected you’d show up. 

But thankfully, that was it. One miraculous boy. One committed relationship. One person who would carry my hopes and fears alongside me. One life raft I would cling to with ferocity for the rest of my days. 

*

Recently, I’ve started to wonder what happens to the thread of us—of you and me—when Mom eventually passes away? That the little bit I know of your current life comes from the intermittent calls you have with her. See, you existed for seven years before my birth—but the moody storms of your sky have always shadowed my earth, my world unrecognizable without you in it, even if you’re only floating on the periphery. 

Mom says when I was a baby (in that long ago time, before everything changed), you used to rush home from school to hold me. To gaze upon me with adoration in your eyes. This must be true, because I’ve spent the majority of my days desperate to get back to that place—seeking something that my conscious memory cannot recall. It might look to others like you—who have been so physically absent in my life, more like a ghost than a real man, forever haunting me—have never given a damn about me. But then, why would I have spent these past decades trying to recapture that feeling—of you wrapping your arms around me and protecting me in the way a big brother should? Why would I believe in the possibility of such love if I hadn’t felt it at some point before? 

*

In our young adulthoods, we both fled our Pacific Northwest hometown. Looking to start anew, shed our old skins, our previous pain. San Francisco, a city notorious for free-spirited bohemianism, called to me. And you headed for Mississippi, a place that felt “down-home,” or possibly just downtrodden? So downtrodden that you wouldn’t be judged there. But judged by who?

I sent you postcards almost monthly for years—from foreign countries, state parks, art museums, anywhere I thought you might find interesting—trying to span the distance (both literal and figurative) between us. On one occasion, Mom asked if you received my postcards, how you liked them. You replied with a shrug of indifference: “I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to the mail.”

*

Regardless of our past, I would still buy your love, if only you’d name your price. You wouldn’t let me pay for the dentist, to get your teeth fixed, or purchase you a new trailer when the one you lived in fell apart. But of course, you have your pride. The only money you ever took is for that truck that’s already stopped running. 

When you were a teenager, deep in the throes of addiction, struggling to cope with life and rules and Mom and Dad and law enforcement, you’d run away often. Leaving us worrying where you were, if you were safe. Me being little, it was hard to understand what was happening to you. 

Once, when you’d been missing for several days, Mom and I found you at the playground and you agreed to ride home with us, just for the afternoon. When Mom left you alone for a moment in the kitchen, I watched you from the hallway, out of sight. Your legs were so skinny, it hurt to look at them. How they jutted out from your tattered jean shorts at sharp angles. Then, you shoved her fresh-baked peanut butter cookies into your pockets, one after another, as my heart broke. The fervor of your grasp told me how hungry you were, how unstable the place was that you’d found to sleep.

All I’ve ever wanted was to know that you’re okay.

*

Although, I’ll admit, my meager gestures were not the same as fighting for you. I didn’t fight for you, for us. Not really. I cowered on the shore, watching, as the undertow pulled you away from me. Just stood there, praying for your return. Now, it seems a whole ocean has solidified between us, entrenching us in our stories. Perhaps the hourglass of our time has run out. Too late for us to ever get back to that place of our beginning, to love each other in the way I’d hoped. Do you feel something similar? Did you ever hope anything for us?

But all these years later, you and Romy remain together. It’s peace of mind to know you’ve found someone who’ll stick by you. Who brings you home leftovers from the restaurant where she works, despite the fact you still pass out drunk on the couch most nights (or so I’ve heard). 

Could this mean that, maybe, after everything, you and I have ended up with what we needed—with just enough love to feel full?

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Mellisent Zumwalt is an artist and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a 2023 Best of the Net finalist and her written work has appeared in Arkana, Hawaii Pacific Review, Hippocampus, Pithead Chapel, Under the Gum Tree and elsewhere. Read more at: melissentzumwalt.com.