“One day,” I said, “you are going to have to stop missing me.” I pressed my chin against the spot on his head from where his hair swirled out. “OK?”
“Why?” he asked me.
“You just have to get used to it.” A week ago, our father had gone to Cleveland for some work business. “How come you don’t miss Dad?”
“He’s coming back Friday.”
“So what? When I go away, I also come back. Why do you miss me, and not Dad?” I wanted to shake the answer out of him. “Why do you miss me more? I want you to give me a really good answer or else I won’t ever stop asking you.”
“I don’t know. I just do.”
“Then I’m going to keep asking you. Why do you miss me but not Dad? Why do you miss me but not Mom? Why do you miss me but not anyone else?”
“I don’t know, Jenny.” He was crying now, and I shook my head.
“I’m a terrible sister, aren’t I? You ought to make me pay one day. You should make me pay for being so bad sometimes.”
“OK,” he said, tears rolling down his face, “then give me all your monies.”
“I’ll buy you a Mercedes with some of it.”
Before dinner, I dabbed some of my mother’s lipstick on my lips. Tangleberry.
“Lemme kiss you on the cheek,” I said, trying to be funny, trying to be tender. I pushed my lips together and moved in close.
“Are you wearing lipstick?” he asked me, arching his neck away from me. I had already pulled that joke on him three times that week.
“No,” I said, lightly pressing my lips to the back of my hand. “See, no lipstick.” I knelt down next to my brother and kissed his cheek hard enough to dimple it.
When we went to wash our hands in the bathroom, I remembered the mirrors and shielded his eyes with my hands as we were going in.
“You’re my robot, and I control everything you do!”
“OK, Jenny,” he shouted back.
This one time, we went around arm in arm, which was hard to do because he was so short and only came up to my waist, so I had to really bend down low, low enough that my back was sure to ache the next day, and we walked around in circles, entwined and chanting, “We are best friends! We are best friends!” until our dad emerged from hanging up laundry in the basement and watched us with an empty laundry basket balanced against his hip. He shook his head at us and laughed.
“You’re both ridiculous. Come up here, I want to show you two jokers something.”
We walked all the way up the stairs chanting arm in arm, following my father down the hallway to my room.
“You see that hole?” he asked, pointing to my bedroom door.
“Yeah,” we said.
He took the laundry basket and hurled it right through my door. It fit through the hole, no problem. There was even room to spare.
“You,” he pointed at my brother, “kicked that in because you,” he pointed at me, “wouldn’t let him in.” He looked at both of us, arms crossed. “Two minutes later, you’re running around in circles saying you’re best friends? You should be jesters of the royal court.”
We were silent for a bit. And then we said, “So what’s your point? Dad, you’re such an idiot,” and we ran all the way back downstairs, arm in arm still, and chanting a revised ditty, “We are best friends, and Dad is such an id-i-ot!”
A few months after my brother was born, we went out to a Sichuan restaurant. At the restaurant, there were too many adults I didn’t like. Everyone’s face was red and puckered from all the spices, except my brother’s face was red and puckered from crying, so I cradled him back and forth in my arms, even though everyone said it was no use, he would go on crying all night, but I sang and whispered and stroked his hair to one side, and half an hour later, he was drooling into the crook of my elbow. I was off in a corner, watching my brother sleep in my arms while everyone else was being loud and unattractive. The restaurant was stuffy, and I tried to take my turtleneck off without letting go of my brother. In the end he slept in my arms, and my turtleneck hung from my skin like brocade curtains.
Our mother came into my room when we were having a sleepover—my brother on the floor and me in front of the computer, and she had yelled very fiercely, “Go to sleep or never sleep in your sister’s room again,” and I had felt partially responsible because if it hadn’t been for me tickling my brother below the knee and making him laugh so hard that my mom heard it through the walls that separated my bedroom from hers, he would have never gotten yelled at, so I knelt down on the floor and asked him if he was OK.
“Are you thirsty? Hungry?” He nodded his head yes. “Be right back,” I said. “Don’t fall asleep.” I came back up with a turkey sandwich and a cup filled to the brim with water. While he ate I was reminded of the time when I shut myself up in my room and watched taped reruns of Late Night With Conan O’Brien for three hours because I had come back from a bad day at school, and I had just wanted to be alone for once. When I went downstairs much later, out of an obligation to make sure a fire wasn’t burning, I found my brother sitting less than a feet from the television, watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and eating peanut butter with a plastic ice-cream scooper. “Oh,” I had murmured when I looked inside the peanut butter jar: a hole right down the middle.
Even now, I wondered if I had done right by him.
Whenever my brother and I start listing our grievances against each other—who wounded who more—my brother inevitably brings up the time I tried to kill him.
“You tried to kill me. Remember?
“What? I never tried to kill you. That’s crazy.” But he swears that I did, that once, I asked him to take his plate of pizza downstairs and he wouldn’t, so I pinned him on the floor and held a knife up to his throat.
“It was probably a butter knife. You can’t even cut paper with those things.”
“No,” my brother insists. “It had sharp edges. You were going to kill me with a sharpened knife.” And then, I always admit to remembering that I was angry, and that I did pin him to the floor because I had made him a lunch of microwaved pizza, which I had cut into 15 neat little squares because he was such a messy kid and a fussy one too, like whenever he peed he would immediately need to change his underwear because he couldn’t stand the one drop of pee that didn’t make it into the toilet, and despite having cut his pizza into the shape of a square and the size of a bite for him, he didn’t care at all, he didn’t bother to eat a single square or even put the plate in the sink when I asked him to, so I took the knife I used on the pizza and held it up right to his face. I pinned him down to the floor with my knees and held his chest and shoulders down with my free arm. I remember how I had borne down on him with all my weight, and I remember telling him, “You deserve to die. You make me want to kill you sometimes. Maybe this time I will.”
It was an act of desperation, I wanted to tell him later. I would never hurt you. I wanted to say, I would set fire to any tree harboring branches that might one day fall on your head, cut the neck off the first boy who tries to punch you in the face, pave down and smooth over the bumps on our street where you always trip, go into your nightmares and vanquish the beasts who chase you so you would never ever ever have to be afraid, hurt, or scared. But how could I say that? When would I finally get it—that I was the one he needed to be protected from.
In a dream once, I dreamed that we were fighting on opposing sides of a civil war, and when the war was over, I knelt down by my brother’s body and hacked him into four pieces. I had only two hands and couldn’t figure out in my dream which parts of him to carry back and bury, and which parts to leave behind.
One winter, when I was home from school, I went outside in the dark, crossed the playground behind my house, and followed a narrow road up a hill. I forgot my glasses, and all night I sat on a patch of grass and looked out, trying to fit street and tree together—if that was an oak, or if that was a maple, if the street where I grew up was a street that I could see once I left the world that covered me like snow on flat rooftops. Looking down at the town where I grew up, the lights were as big as tangerines—blurry and orange like looking through a window with wet eyes.
What I wanted was for someone to come looking for me, for someone worry about me, for two adults to argue about me. I wanted everyone I knew and everyone I could know one day to wonder about me, to think of me as if I were the last popsicle on earth, and oh no, before anyone got to eat me, I had already gone ahead and melted! And what I wanted was for someone to kneel down on the ground and lick the red sugary water of mememememememe curving and rolling down the streets half paved in asphalt. I worried about a world where my existence barely mattered. Maybe a world where I did not exist at all. Maybe that was the world I was headed to. Maybe that was the world I deserved.
After one month in kindergarten, my brother still couldn’t write his name on a sheet of paper, and the teacher, Mrs. Notice, was worried and sent my brother home with a note for our mother. I told him that it was OK, that we would spend the afternoon figuring out how to write “Johnny Zhang,” or at least “Johnny,” and our mother would never have to see the note.
“A notice from Ms. Notice,” I said, skipping all around our living room, the happiest I’d been all day. He smiled when I ripped it up into four pieces, but pulled at my sleeve when I put one of them in my mouth.
“I won’t.” We worked on spelling his name for a good hour, but he kept writing the “J” on the bottom of the page and the “O” on the far right hand corner of the page.
“They’ll think you’re retarded,” I said. “Retard.”
“What?” I looked at him in shock. “What did you say?”
I felt tired. I felt on the brink of a deep sleep. “Let’s go outside and throw the ball around,” I said, taking the pen from his mahjong-tile fingers and flinging it across the room. “There,” I said. “Homework time is so over.”
We went out in the lingering September heat, and I threw the ball up. Neither of us caught it. Then my brother picked up the ball and threw it into the tree. It was stuck up there. We both looked at it.
I said, “You’re good at throwing. I’ve never seen a ball go so high.”
He said, “I know.”
I wanted to hug him, to kiss his cheek until it was sore, but I knew he was getting older. He would protest, he would one day no longer hug his arms around my legs because he was short, or grab onto my hand when I picked him up from school, or crawl into my bed with his wet hair and face, no longer say, It hurts me to leave you, before going to his friend’s house, or I missed you all day, after coming back from his friend’s house, because he would get old, and I would get even older, and there might even be a day when we have our own children, our own families, and by then, who knows what will be left of days like this in my old, dilapidated, shit-for-brains memory.
II. I Didn’t See Him Grow and Now He’s Older Than I Remembered
I am learning things about my brother every day. We talk on the phone maybe once a month, and I ask, “Do you miss me?”
He says, “Yeah, I guess, kinda, but sometimes I forget about you.”
I say, “I would never forget about you.”
“Do you want to talk to Mom,” he asks.
Last week, he ate a penny. When he was five, he told me he had put his finger down his throat and accidentally threw up a bit.
“But, I swallowed most of it back down,” he had said at the time.
When my brother was starting third grade, and I was starting senior year of high school, my grandparents came and lived with us in New York for six months, and they brought with them an electric bug racket from China that had a tag attached with a picture of a skull and crossbones above big bold letters that read, “WATCH OUT! ELECTROCUTES PROBABLE.”
“What the heck is electrocutes,” my brother asked me.
“Oh, it’s a typo. It means you could get electrocuted if you touch the racket when it’s on. So don’t touch it, OK?”
“Never,” my mother said, popping her head into my brother’s room. “Never never never never never never never ever touch.”
“OK, OK,” my brother and I said. “We get the point, Mom. Can you please get out?”
But my brother was haunted by the racket. He rolled up pieces of paper and pressed the tips against the racket.