“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.
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!
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.”
“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,
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.