Fiction

The Evolution of My Brother

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

“I saw sparks,” he told me later.

“Johnny. Just stop obsessing over it. Leave it alone, OK?”

But he couldn’t. He wanted to put his finger on the racket. He said his friend Harrison touched his lips to the racket and had to wear a bandage over his mouth for a month. All the parents we knew were calling up their parents in China to tell them to stop bringing over the electric rackets.

“Do you want your children to have lips or not?” I heard my mother asking my grandmother down in the kitchen one evening.

“I touched it,” my brother told me the same week his friend Harrison burned off his lips.

“Oh my god. Why did you touch it?”

“I had to. But only for a second. For some reason my brain is telling me to touch it again.”

I took the batteries out of the racket and threw them into our backyard. The next day, my brother was outside sifting through our lawn with a branch, pulling out the new grass my father planted last summer, and balling it up in his fists.

The year after that, I went away to college, and in my extended absence, my brother found the electric racket hidden behind a suitcase in the basement. He told my parents to please get rid of it permanently, or else he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about, and they had laughed and called me on the phone and said, “Your brother is still our little sweet baby. He’s just trying to get attention, you know?” To that, I said, “Please. Please pay attention to him then,” and to that, my mother said, “Of course I’m paying attention. You think I just ignore him?” and with that, I said, “Mom, why do you always call me when I’m trying to study? Every minute I talk to you is one point less on my midterm next week.”

It was only years later, several years after my brother tried to burn his lips on an electric bug racket, and several years after I accidentally burned my brother’s hair with a candle, that I realized he would sometimes light candles without me and stick his index finger back and forth through the flame. Sometimes, he held a knife up to his own throat and inched it along the growing hairs on his neck, daring himself to get close enough to draw blood.

These afternoons, I spend my time making to-do lists on Excel spreadsheets, reading This Side of Paradise on bartleby.com, and writing coded emails to my boyfriend when my boss isn’t looking.

To: myboyfriend@whydontyouwriteback.com
From: imatwork@sokillmethanks.com
Subject: Think of the complete opposite of the bolded words in this email

I really want to help someone live because really really good, kindhearted, not incredibly stupid people deserve to be gently caressed and not treated like that one Japanese schoolboy was treated by that girl in the yellow jumpsuit who’s really good at torturing in that movie. Bye!

Love,
Jenniers

As for my brother, he spends his afternoons alone, in our house, where I no longer live. He waits by himself, in our dark and slippery house—carpeting and wood paneling everywhere—and he refuses to wear slippers over his socks, which is why he’s fallen down the stairs twice this year now. My mother comes home at seven and makes dinner for two, because these days my father works in the city until 10, and then he takes a two-hour train to get home long after everyone’s already gone to bed.

After my brother ate the penny, he called my mom at work and told her that he had eaten something he wasn’t supposed to and that his stomach felt weird and he wanted to go to the hospital, so my mom weaved through traffic on the LIE and took my brother to the emergency wing of the hospital, and behind partially closed curtains, a doctor with a glass eye put his finger up my brother’s butt and said, “You have some hard stools lodged up there. Other than that, everything’s fine. But tell me something. You’re 13 years old. Most of the kids who do this kind of thing, eating pennies and quarters and tree bark and tacks and Happy Meal toys—most of the kids doing things like this are four and five years old. You’re 13. Don’t you know better than to eat things you can’t chew?”

“Did it make you feel bad?” I asked my brother after he told me this on the phone.

“No,” he said. “I didn’t care that the doctor put his finger up my butt. Why should I care about that?”

“No, no. Not that,” I said. “I mean when the doctor said the thing about you being too old to eat pennies.”

“I wasn’t eating pennies.”

“Swallowing, whatever. Did it make you feel weird when the doctor said the thing about you being too old to try and swallow a penny?”

“I guess. Don’t know.”

“Why did you eat the penny in the first place?”

“No,” he said. “Not eat—”

“—Whatever, whatever. Why did you try to swallow the penny in the first place?”

“I thought maybe it would vanish. Like maybe I was capable of making it disappear,” my brother told me. “I knew it wouldn’t. I’m not stupid. But I just wanted to try and see what would happen.”

When my parents bought our house in Glen Cove, our real-estate agent told us that one the perks we were getting in our overinflated and yet still somehow below-market-value price for this house was that we had extremely sound-proof walls. “A person sleeping on the second floor will never hear the person watching TV on the first floor. Never,” was what she said.

But I don’t think she was right. Between the ages of nine and 17, I was always the first person to come back to the house in the afternoon. I had about 45 minutes to myself before my brother came home, five hours before my mother came home, and six or seven before my father came home. When I was alone in our house, I could hear everything that had ever happened. I heard the phone ring, the sound of the bed sheets rustling, the springs creaking when my brother and I jumped on and off my parents’ bed, which we were absolutely not allowed to touch, the sound of the floors creaking and the split-second irrational fear that the floors would cave in, the sound of the blinds being scrunched up or let down when I got home, which depended on whether or not I was scared of being in the house, and whether or not I wanted everyone to know I was home, eating cake and drinking coffee, and that I was the one who took care of everything that anyone could see of our house, not my mother and not my father, but me.

***

A few weeks after the penny incident, I call up my brother with an idea. “Come live with me in San Francisco for a summer. I’ll take you to any place you want to go.”

“No.”

“Please.”

“No.

“Please. I’ll give you 20 dollars.”

“Mom and Dad already gave me twenty dollars to eat Chinese vegetables last night.”

“I’ll give you 500 dollars.”

“No,” he said. “Wait, what’d you say?”

“Too bad. You lost your chance at 500 dollars, Jon-Jon.”

III. Now That We Are All Grown

He wrote stories on my computer, and I only found out today. Some of them were about me. He wrote an autobiographical poem that went like this:

My name is Johnny,
I have a sister,
Once she chased me,

With a big metal thing.
I found a yellow plastic bat
And I fought back,

With courage!

Most of these poems were assignments for school. He drew a picture on my computer of magenta, lime-green, and teal-blue stick figures on brown mud, and he named it “Fight on Dirt.” I found another picture called “Power Rain,” which I didn’t open, and I remember wondering for years and years what power rain looked like. I dreamed of ocean water droplets, each one fat enough to contain miniature people—planets falling to the sky.

I am home this week, visiting my old house before I go back to my life in California. As soon as I entered the front door, I felt like my old self—insecure, weird, happy, affectionate, constantly nostalgic. Today, I opened up the photo of “Power Rain,” and for the first time, I realized the full name of the file was actually “Power Rain Jurs,” and I cried. Power Rangers. I should have shown him the proper spelling.

How many times had I felt like it took all the energy I had in my lazy life to spend another two hours helping my brother put captions on all his comics? And the number of times it felt like I would never revive from helping him with four hours of math homework, and how every question he asked me turned my voice into a pencil and his searching eyes into an electric pencil sharpener that sharpened my voice to an unbelievably thin point when I just wanted to be left alone. I should have been better. I had failed him. This house was furnished with proof of that.

To be the older child is to think of your younger sibling in this way that is so impossible, so fixed and misunderstood that it’s better not to think at all. And to be the younger child is to have loved someone who mysteriously disappears, and that love, like the physical disappearance, makes a similar move. When I think of this, I open up my secret drawers behind my bed and pull out my brother’s cup that I saved from my mother one day when she was rummaging through the house and trashing old papers and furniture and art. It was one of those sippy cups that had three tiny holes to suck juice from—I saved it because I loved being reminded of the times my mother added water to his juice so he wouldn’t get so hyper, and the times my grandmother chopped greens so fine that it looked like she was sprinkling green period marks into his Coca-cola, just to get him to eat some vegetables.

“Why do you keep bringing it up?” my brother asks me whenever I start talking about the past. “Why do you keep talking about that?”

“You look so old,” I told him this morning. “You’re going to be taller than Dad.”

“Get your hands off me,” he said. And I did the same thing I’ve always done. I told him to be good, and ran away, laughing like an idiot, crashing into every wall that crossed my path.

***

At night, I write the word SNEAK on my face, arms, legs, fingers—pressing the marker down extra hard on my weird thumbs that bend all the way back to my wrist—my ears, and even on a few strands of hair, and when everyone else is asleep, I move slowly to the beat of my father’s snoring down the hallway towards my brother’s room. He finally isn’t afraid to sleep on his own anymore. Last year, I helped my dad remove the mattress that we hid beneath my parents’ bed—at night, they pulled it out and put a pillow and blanket on top for my brother who had nightmares and never told me.

My mother told me everything later. When I came home to visit last year, I went and took a nap on that little tiny mattress and woke up with crust in my eyes that made everything look spotted whenever I blinked. I was delirious so I yelled out, “Leopard!” in reverence of the time my brother and I got this crappy CD-Rom as a “joint-birthday extravaganza gift,” even though there was nothing extravagant about it, and even though we gave this so-called friend of ours a great birthday and Christmas gift, and though we were hopping mad that we had to share this awful present, we were quickly appeased and started playing the CD-Rom every night.

It was a CD-Rom that taught children about animals. It started off with a theme song that showed all these shots of animals in the wild, playing with each other, fighting, eating, washing, roaming, and I taught my brother to shout out every single animal’s name with me when they appeared on the screen. We even looked up in the encyclopedia how to pronounce platypus, and when the leopards came out, racing each other down a sloped African meadow, we clapped because it was our favorite part, and I’m pretty sure we also hugged each other unless my brother was sitting on my lap, which he often was, in which case I hugged him and kissed both his cheeks, and probably put my chin over the tiny swirl in his hair that I have not had a chance to touch in years and would like to know now if it’s still there, that little beautiful swirl.

I creep into his room at night, and he’s just the way he’s always been, sleeping so hard he doesn’t notice when I turn on the light or tickle his side just a tiny bit because I’m feeling wild, and because I’m feeling wild, and because next year he will be in high school, and when I was in high school, I had a kid brother who grabbed my leg and walked with it in his arms through our house when it was cold, sat on my shoulders when it was hot to get closer to the ceiling fan, and slept in my bed when he missed me, which back then was all the time, and because when he is in high school, I’ll be who knows where, maybe gone again, maybe finally back here, but never really the same presence for him that he was for me, because of all these things, I take the liberty to kneel down by his bed and kiss him on his cheek—no longer the small pillow cheeks I remember from years ago, now grown in and dotted here and there with pimples, but the touch and the feeling is still the same. “Don’t forget me,” I say to him. He stirs, and I know full well that we all forget the people who loved us the most when we were children.

I’ll be gone from this house in a week, and he will maybe tell my mom about a dream he had where he was swatting this giant bee away from his cheek, and finally, it came right for him, and no matter how much he ducked or swung his head, the bee was still an inch away, and when it finally stung him it was a soft puff, not bad at all, and then it was on to the next dream.

Author Jenny and her real-life brother on her 17th and his eighth birthday. Photo credit: their dad.

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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.