Fiction

The Evolution of My Brother

When would I finally get it—that I was the one he needed to be protected from.

***

“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.”

“OK.”

“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.

“You’ll die.”

“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.”

“Ass.”

“What?” I looked at him in shock. “What did you say?”

“Penis.”

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.

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33 Comments

  • FashionHauties December 8th, 2011 4:19 PM

    I LOVE THIS.
    It is so like my little brother, who is five.
    http://fashionhauties.blogspot.com/2011/12/three-resort-2012-trends-i-want-to-burn.html

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:26 PM

      Aw, I used to wish my mom would have a baby boy every year so I could have endless 5 year old brothers… I hope that doesn’t sound as creepy as it does.

  • Ruby B. December 8th, 2011 4:28 PM

    This is just amazing and beautiful!

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:31 PM

      Thank you, Ruby! I’m so happy you are writing diary entries for Rookie now! <3 <3

  • in a while crocodile December 8th, 2011 4:39 PM

    Oh wow. That was so sad. I’m actually crying. I’m so worried about how my relation ship with my little brother will be effected when I leave home. Your story is so amazing. xxxx

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:28 PM

      Ah! I hope it was not TOO sad. It’s hard to leave home and start a new chapter of your life. Especially, if it means not being as close to your family for a little while as you have new experiences. <3

  • mangachic December 8th, 2011 5:11 PM

    I’m crying now, this was heartbreaking. I never help my brother with homework (guilt waves) but I’ll do now and talk to him for like five hours till he’s sick of me then i’ll feel less regretful. But he’s already different from what he was a year ago and he’s slipping through my fingers all the time (yup ABBA reference, that song always makes me cry)and I’m not appreciating him enough now and just tell him to go away when I feel like reading or watching useless stuff instead of talking to him when he wants to talk to me. And then I just yell at him a lot whenever our parents do too.
    Anyways now I feel super depressed. Really good, hard-hitting article.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:30 PM

      Don’t be depressed! The fact that you are thinking about him as thoughtfully as you are already means you’re a good sister. Sometimes, in my head I want to be kind to my family, but then I get distracted by stupid things (watching youtube videos of children singing Nicki Minaj, for example!) and forget to, and then feel awful about it. But all we can do is be part of this world and have love in our hearts and try our best.

  • AnnaCQ December 8th, 2011 5:20 PM

    It is eerie how much this reminds me of my relationship with my younger brother. This is so gorgeously written. Completely compelling. Thank you for sharing this, Jenny.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:33 PM

      I wonder if it’s common for older sister-younger brother relationships to be fraught and loving, all at once? I think it’s because older sisters are often compelled (& encouraged by society) to be nurturing and responsible for their little brother, but at the same time, when we’re teenagers, it’s also a time when we need to explore ourselves and be a little selfish to figure stuff out!

  • giov December 8th, 2011 5:22 PM

    let’s all feel depressed about our brothers for a moment, shall we? they say it’s therapeutic.

  • Tyknos93 December 8th, 2011 5:50 PM

    Wow you guys have the same age difference as me and my brother. I bully him and curse him alot, but I do genuinely love him. I think I’m going to go tell him that. Then he’ll be all grossed out and go back to playing his X-box or something.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:33 PM

      Ha ha! Sometimes, I try to be sappy with my brother, and he’s kind of like “Uh, get away?” But I still try.

  • steph.anie11 December 8th, 2011 7:23 PM

    I really enjoyed this story. It had some very sad elements to it. I get the impression that you (Jenny) have a very interesting relationship with your brother because the other story you wrote had a very fascinating older sister, younger brother relationship too.

  • emielou December 8th, 2011 7:34 PM

    This made me cry, reminding me of my relationship with my little brother, and, ironically, my little brother barged into my room, looked at me, and got all freaked out that I was crying. I think the older-sister-younger-brother relationship is so special; we can tell each other how it is, fight, make-up, laugh, cry, it’s nothing like anything else.
    PS, I have the honor of driving my little brother to his first “formal” dance tonight. Yay big sisters!!

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:36 PM

      It’s SO true. The older sister-younger brother relationship is incredibly special. And you put it so well: “we can tell each other how it is, fight, make-up, laugh, cry.” That’s exactly how it is! Also, how fun that you drove him to his first “formal” dance! I was driving my brother and his girlfriend (first one ever!) around the other weekend and loving every second of it.

  • mirandab17 December 8th, 2011 7:58 PM

    Gaaaahhhhh you can add me to the list of crying old sisters. That was so beautiful, and so absolutely tragic!

    It can be so impossible to capture the relationship between an older and younger sibling. It’s almost parental sometimes, but then with less responsibility, but more at the same time… because sometimes I think the siblings affect who someone is more.

    Today I will listen to him. And tell him I love him. Even though he’ll get grossed out too and walk away and I’ll temporarily feel hurt and rejected but I’ll keep that to myself, and not turn that hurt into spiteful words, which I often do. And it only makes the initial rejection hurt more.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:40 PM

      You guys are going to make ME cry! It’s totally true that when you’re the older sister, sometimes it feels like you’re almost a third parent, except slightly more immature and permissive! I do think the sibling relationship can sometimes be more powerful than the ones we have with our parents. My little brother was always more likely to listen to me than he was to my parents, and I feel like we understand each other a lot better than our parents understand each other, which is understandable because we don’t have quite as big of an age gap. Okay a lot of “understand’s” in this comment!

  • Bren December 8th, 2011 8:14 PM

    I have 3 siblings.
    There’s Raul, he’s 17 and Autistic.
    Kate, she’s 6
    and Ricky he’s 3.

    And I love them more than anything in the world.

    And sometimes I worry about how much they lean on me, even though I’m not even in the same country as them.

    My little sister was telling me over Skype last week about how a boy at her school told her he was going to bring a gun and killed her, and I told her she had to tell her teacher, and that that wasn’t okay.

    But it terrifies me that she’d rather wait a week than to tell me, than tell my mom who can at least do something about it.

    I love them with my whole entire life.

    • Bren December 8th, 2011 8:15 PM

      So many typos. Urgh.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:41 PM

      Oh, you sound so close to your siblings! I know what it’s like to have a co-dependent relationship with your siblings, and to love them so fiercely. Something very similar happened to my little brother when he was in elementary school–this other boy threatened to bring in a gun and shoot him, and I remember crying myself to sleep that night because I didn’t know what to do! I hope you reunite in person with your siblings soon. <3 <3

  • rachele December 8th, 2011 9:35 PM

    This is the exact age gap between my youngest sister and me. I’m leaving for college at the end of this year, and I worry about having to get “reacquainted” when I come back home to visit. It’s scary to think that I won’t be here to watch the development of her as a person… It’s a little unsettling, not that we’ll both change so much in the time we spend apart, but that we won’t be able to monitor those changes in each other day by day, so that when we meet again, the differences will seem more glaring.

  • brynntheredonethat December 8th, 2011 11:08 PM

    I cried. My little brother is 13 now, and even though we’re only three years apart, I feel weird seeing him as a teenaged boy among other teenaged boys acting like a teenaged boy and doing teenaged boy stuff. I miss when he was six and I had to walk him down the hall in the dark because he was scared.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:45 PM

      Your comment made me tear up! My brother definitely went through a phase when he became super sullen and surly, and I was all like WHERE DID THE HYPER, GIGGLY, WEIRD OLD YOU GO? Except I only said it in my head, because he basically ignored me all the time! But then he grew out of that, and now we’re close again. But I definitely still have dreams about my brother being six years old again, and we’re just chasing each other around.

  • roseinthewild December 9th, 2011 7:28 AM

    You are a beautiful writer, Jenny.

  • stephanie4786 December 9th, 2011 1:42 PM

    it’s so weird to see a different perspective on a brother sister relationship. my brother is 3 years older and we don’t talk to each other at all, never have, it’s so strange when i hear stories such as these that display so much sibling bonding, as well as rivalry. beautiful piece.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:47 PM

      Thanks! Every sibling relationship is different huh? I sometimes used to feel self-conscious about my relationship with my brother. It felt embarrassingly intense and I used to wish for a sister because I had this thought that sisters don’t fight at all. But then my friends with sisters were like, Are you nuts? I’m always fighting with my sister. And other friends were like, Oh my siblings and I hardly ever bother each other. But in the end, every type of sibling relationship is precious.

  • AthenaP92 December 9th, 2011 3:46 PM

    This is beautiful. Me and my younger brother used to be pretty close, and then one day we just kind of stopped talking. Like, I literally have not said ten words to him in the past five or so years. This really makes me regret that. More than I’ve regretted anything I think.

    • Jenny December 9th, 2011 5:48 PM

      Wow, I’m sorry to hear that! I think it’s pretty common for brothers to suddenly become sullen and quiet. My mother said for years when her brother was a teenager, he insisted on walking on the opposite side of the street from her because he didn’t want anyone to know they were related, and now they are close. I hope one day you and your brother reconnect and start chatting again. Much love to you <3

  • Sandra December 9th, 2011 6:10 PM

    I cried so much when I read this, because I am so afraid of growing up and growing apart from especially my brother. God, I’m such a baby! I just can’t stop crying!
    Thank you for writing this, it was incredible.

  • heygirl December 10th, 2011 8:39 PM

    Jenny Zhang! I’m so glad you’re writing for Rookie! I read your fashion comments religiously on Jezebel and I really like your voice and style of writing. Keep it up!

  • Ayla December 11th, 2011 6:28 PM

    This was so hard for me to read!I had a constant stream of tears.

    I’ve been away from my brother for a year now and in my teenage years I was his stand in mom because ours lives on another continent, so being away, knowing he’s not doing well in school and life is killing me.
    You don’t really realize how much you shape a person until you’re grown and then it’s too late.