I. At Home With My Brother
We were alone most afternoons. On one of them, we searched my room for candles—the kind that smell like cinnamon, or mint, or are dressed up pretty with seashells, and are exchanged as Christmas presents between two friends who, in fact, aren’t very good friends at all. We found one that I liked: white with Columbian coffee beans clustered around the bottom.
“Eat it,” I said.
“No,” my brother said, furrowing his eyebrows, turning away.
“Eat it, eat it, eat it, eat it, eat it,” I said, backing him into a corner with the coffee end of the candle pointed at his mouth.
“Stop it Jehhhh-nee,” he said, stepping back, “or I’ll enable my force shield to turn your bones into dirt.”
“OK fine,” I said. “Let’s light this and then blow it out. Let’s do it like 20 times in a row. It’ll be just like our birthday.”
“Why 20? That’s too many times.”
“Fine, 28 it is.”
“No. That’s more than twenty.”
“OK, OK, fine. Fifty-five, if you insist.”
We set the candle on our living room coffee table. I told him to stand back while I lit the match and touched it to the wick.
“You first,” I said.
He crouched down on the ground, closed his eyes, and leaned in close. At the time, neither of us had expected his hair to touch the flame, to curl up immediately, to change color, as if he had gotten a badly bleached body-wave. If he were old enough, I would have laughed and said, “It looks like you’re growing blond pubic hair on your head.” But instead, I covered his face with my hands and pulled out the burnt ends. The little crisps disappeared between my fingers when I rubbed them together. It smelled just like popcorn.
“Let’s not tell mom.”
I picked out the burnt strands, and the two of us ate them from my cupped hand, on the couch, with my arm around him and his feet wiggling like noodles in boiling water, our eyes staring straight ahead, as if the opening credits were coming on.
The next summer, I pulled him inside my room and locked the door. I was supposed to be teaching him addition, but I tossed the workbook on the floor and stuck a pair of headphones on his head.
“Good thing your head’s so big.”
He was five. He was starting kindergarten in three weeks. I made him listen to the Clash, the volume knob turned up halfway.
“So the casbah is like a huge palace,” I instructed.
When he started to get that distracted look on his face, I turned up the volume and told him to pay attention. “This is important,” I said. “When kids on the bus ask you what you’re listening to you, you just say: PUNK ROCK MOTHERFUCKER!” I showed him how to hold up his hand: I pressed all my fingers down into my palm except for my forefinger and pinky. “And maybe bulge out your eyes. No, no, don’t actually. That’s for geeks.”
“What?” he shouted. I pushed one of the headphones away from his ear and held him by the shoulders.
“Look at me.” I looked straight into his face. “You’re listening to punk rock music, the most rockin’ music ever made in this extremely unrocked-out world. So you just listen to this on the bus and school the shit out of the other kids about rocking out.”
“Why?” he asked me.
“You’re a punk rocker now.”
“Can you make me cereal with milk downstairs?” he asked, handing me the headphones.
He came in wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and holding two pieces of ham stuck together in his hands—clearly dressed and supplied by our mother. She had a habit of shaping food into hard spheres the size of small tangerines before feeding him. I felt bad whenever I saw my brother wearing turtlenecks underneath sweatshirts and chewing on so much food that his mouth couldn’t close all the way. I was reading a magazine when he walked in, pretending not to notice, pretending I liked so much to read about the new sweater-skirt combos for fall. When he wouldn’t leave, I told him, “You have to.”
“No,” he said, folding a slice of ham into his mouth. “No, I don’t.”
I got this great idea to nudge the back of his shoulder. “Yes, you do,” I said, bumping the other slice of ham out of his hands.
“Hey,” he said, butting his head against my stomach. We started using knuckles, fingernails, pillows, and magazines. He kicked my leg, and I struck his cheek, the ham-side. His mouth opened, full of ham.
“Spit it out,” I begged him. But he kept chewing, and crying, and gulping, and I stood there, trying not to look, trying not to remember what food tastes like when you cry, how long it takes for a piece of ham to go down when everything inside you is coming up. How afterwards, if you were eating your favorite food at the time when someone made you cry, it would never really taste good ever again, and that was not fair. It would be my fault later in his life when he wouldn’t take packed ham and cheese sandwiches to school, and even later in his life, when his middle school teacher made a phone call to my mother and implied on the phone that he was being a spoiled brat who was too good to eat the boxed lunches that the cafeteria had prepared for the Boston trip that the seventh graders of Finley Middle School made each year in the Spring. It was my fault. It had always been my fault. It would be my fault again in the future, and it was endless.
“Please,” I whispered, covering my eyes. His mouth was wide open, and the pieces of chewed up ham almost slipped out of his mouth before he sucked them back up again in between stopped breaths.
“Please,” I said, cupping my hand together and offering them to him, “just spit it out in here.”
When I was midway between 13 and not-so-angry, and he was halfway done with being four, we spent all of July in Shanghai, visiting relatives, rubbing heat off our backs with sheets of looseleaf. On one especially hot night, our grandmother took us to see a magic show. We both got nosebleeds in the taxi on the way there and had to pay ten renminbi extra for getting blood on the backseat.
The first magician said in Mandarin, “Call me Ti-ti.” My brother found that hilarious.
“Like pee-pee,” he whispered into my ear. Ti-ti placed a wooden box that looked three feet deep on the table in front of him. He pulled out scarves, a life-size stuffed donkey, a string of red firecrackers, a bamboo pole taller than the magician, even with his top hat on.
“Jenny,” my brother said, tugging at my sleeve. “How big is that box? How big is it really?” The magician stacked the pole on the table against the box for comparison. The audience cheered.
“Really big. It never ends.”
“You mean like infinity?”
I laughed. “Where’d you learn that word? Yeah, like that.”
“Infinity means goes on forever.” I nodded my head at him.
We watched the magician turn the box on its side, then lift it a few feet in the air, rotating it at this angle and at that.
“Jenny,” my brother said.
“What?” I had my eyes fixed on the box.
“You sure that’s infinity?”
A couple of weeks after my brother’s sixth birthday party, my mother pulled me into the kitchen and told me about my brother and his friend Christine locked up in the bathroom, weekend before last, doing who-knows-what, until Christine’s cousin Harrison came running up to the adults, shouting happily, “They’re playing private parts, they’re playing private parts.” As she was telling me this, I thought of all the times my mother’s complained about the two of them locked up, splashing faucet water all over the toilet seat, shaking her head, saying, “I just can’t get them to stop playing with that faucet.”
It was the kind of thing I wanted to make a joke out of. “Well now you can’t get them to stop playing with each other!” But it seemed inappropriate at the time because my mother had my brother by the wrists and was making a very serious face at him. Some faces are better than others, so I showed my brother my face, which I had stretched out with my hands to make myself look as stupid as possible, and for a second, I thought maybe no one would cry that night.
At a birthday party we went to together, his friend was turning five, and my brother was pretending the whole time I didn’t have a name, or a face, or a voice, or anything really, until I put my arm around his neck to give him a kiss on the cheek. Then suddenly, it was like I was a piece of poison oak that had dropped on his cheek. Later that night, he still came into my room, after having a shower, in his PJs that make him look like the Karate Kid, and crawled into bed with me.
“I thought you didn’t want me near you?”
“When?” he asked, digging his knees into my back.
I spent three weeks in California when I was 15. When I got back, I asked my brother if he missed me.
“I cried every day. One time for three hours and 22 minutes,” he said, precise as usual. “That day I didn’t even have time to play.”
“Because you were crying so much? You’re exaggerating.”
“What about the time you called me and all your friends were over playing baseball with you? You didn’t cry that time, did you?”
“Yes, you cried?”
I thought of the boy with the pink button-down shirt, who pulled me into his room one night when his roommate was out getting ice cream and took pictures of me blushing. I thought of how much I missed California, missed the sweetness of a boy telling me cheeks were meant to be pink, and so, I was meant to be in this world, and I thought about my brother, up in his room, crying while his friends were running each other into trees down in our backyard. How does he do it? How does he find his way into everything I can remember, ever? Even in my most private memories, the ones I tell no one, sooner or later, he shows up, the perpetual invader, his small face asking me if maybe I’d watch him play a scary video game and stand in front of the TV to block out the ghosts when they suddenly appear.
“You’ll drive a Mercedes, and I’ll drive a Porsche when we grow up,” he said to me while we sat on the curb, waiting for the ice cream truck.
“I can’t even freakin’ ride a bike,” I said, staring down the street, waiting to see if anything was coming.
We were playing the game. The one where he sits on my knee, and I shake him up and down until we can hear the trills moving through his breaths. I liked the sound of his voice when his head was bobbing up and down. It made me feel maniacally protective of him.
“Ask me a question,” I said.
“Can we drive there?”
I sighed. “Nope.”
“What about fly?”
“How about teleport?”
“No, teleportation is impossible.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Fine, then I don’t want you to go to college.” He slid off my knee, and I went to open the door that led to our kitchen deck. It was summer, and last night’s rain made our house feel bearable. I could tell from the way the trees were bent over that the whole town was miserable. In a few more weeks, the sun would permanently dim, the wind would have a noticeable chill, and what else? We’d all mourn the end of summer, I was sure of it. Everyone agreed: time went too fast, and children were only children for a split second before they no longer wanted to be picked up, kissed on the cheek, chased in the streets, or taken to a store that sold candy, chips, devices that made farting noises, and pieces of goo that you could mold into your favorite sibling, animal, or food.
On my ninth birthday, my mother was rushed into the hospital. Ten hours later, she had given birth to my brother.
“Please don’t name him Johnny,” I said into the phone.
“I love you,” my mother whispered back.
Later, when we were both old enough to care, our mother told us that he was born at 10:22 in the morning.
“When was Jenny born?” my brother asked.
“9:30 at night. But that was in China,” she reminded us. “It’s a 12-hour time difference, plus you count an extra hour for daylight savings.”
“So?” we said.
“You two were meant to be twins,” she insisted, “but somehow you,” and she pointed to my brother, “were stuck in my belly for an extra nine years. So lucky, you two.”
We rolled our eyes. “Whatever.”
My brother wanted to hook up his PlayStation to my TV on the one afternoon I actually had a friend from school coming over to watch three movies in six hours, so I picked up one of the videos I had planned on watching with my friend and flung it across the room.
“You always do this,” I yelled. “I have to spend every single day with you. Every freaking day and every freaking hour with you. I’m sick of it. I’m so sick of it.”
“So?” he said. “So what? I still get to play in here ’cause mom said.”
“Mom said crap. Get out before I push you out.” He didn’t get out, so I had to push him. I grabbed him by the ankles. He pulled little white curlies out of my carpet as I dragged him out into the hallway.
“Never coming in,” I yelled out after slamming the door against his outstretched palms. A second later, he was pushing his hands through the wedge of space underneath my locked door. I took my slipper and whacked the tips of his fingers like he was a bug. I heard him crying on the other side. His fingers were touching my rug again. I took a glass of ice water from my desk and poured it all over his fingers. I could make out the sound of my mother’s footsteps, thumping up the stairs from the basement den.
I threatened him as hard as I could. “I won’t stop until you stop.”
“I won’t stop first, I won’t stop first,” he repeated. I slumped down against the door and reached out one of my hands to stroke his little wet fingers, but the footsteps had stopped outside my room. I heard my mom scoop up my brother and knock on my door.
“Say sorry,” my mom said.
I took my slipper and started hitting my fingers as hard as I could.
“Say sorry,” she said, louder. “You can kill yourself if you want, but first, you have to say sorry to your brother.”
I took my dictionary off the shelf and dropped it on my fingers.
“Don’t you dare throw things around in your room,” my mom said, hitting her elbow against my door.
“Ye-yeah, mom, mom’s ga-going to punish y-you.”