Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Illustration by Maxine Crump.

I’ve witnessed my brother grow from a chubby, earnest toddler into a full-fledged human man. His once fat little fingers have stretched into thick joints where dark tufts of hair spring from his skin; my once flat chest is now curved and my cheekbones slim. As my 18th birthday approaches, the rate of our change slows, and we reach our physical peak—before the inevitable decay—he has become a breathing reminder of the temporary nature of things, of me. My mind questions who and what he and I are, and whether we are all destined to become just like our siblings.

He is currently holed up in his room, writing his dissertation. He has essentially neglected to tell me what it is about. When I encounter him in the mornings—red eyed, curly hair tousled, inhaling copious amounts of coffee in a desperation to stay awake—I’m lucky to receive a few aimed grunts in reply to basic questions. I usually have a little fun by engaging in a game: I use up all the milk then provocatively place the empty carton back in the fridge, rubbing at his thin patience until the friction becomes too irritating. Then he will manage a “DON’T PUT THE EMPTY BOTTLE BACK IN, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?” My favorite tactic is to skip into the kitchen with a maddeningly sunny expression and chirp, “Good morning! Did you sleep well? Did you hear the wind in the night? How’s the work going?” In response, he will promptly tell me to fuck off and stop bothering him. By lunchtime, he can manage handle a vague conversation. My mother, eyeing my brother with concern asks, “So, what is this dissertation about again?” He replies with a murmur of “Oh, you know, political philosophy,” and an impatient wave of the hand.

During his holidays from university he sits at his desk in the room opposite mine, on the fringe of my existence. I spend my time stumbling about in wonderland, going for walks by myself, drawing disturbing characters for wildly inappropriate, dreamt-up children’s stories and reading in my soft, sheet-lined bed/coffin. I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality, the empty afternoons devoid of social interaction creates company in my mind. This is mostly owing to the fact I don’t attend school and instead have the occasional tutoring session that doesn’t require a lot of homework.

Apart from the period following my birth, when, I am told, he refused to acknowledge my existence, my brother and I mostly get along well. As small children I, unable to stomach his full name, referred to him as “that boy.” He’d reply by occasionally fastening his grip around my forearm and twisting the skin in opposite directions. Nowadays we are easy in each other’s company. He evolved into a generally kind, serious-thinking, occasionally playful, hounding cross-examiner. When my psychologist points out that I often neglect to mention him and wonders aloud what he is like, I find him difficult to describe. It is often the case that the people in close proximity are hard to see. They become so mind-boggling complex and so, just themselves, that it takes an outsider to point out a characteristic. Or perhaps I am so wrapped up in my brain that people rarely make camp and let off fireworks on my radar.

A few weeks ago, I neglected the regimented morning routine that has become so vital to my sanity. It involves several hours of rousing myself, stream-of-consciousness writing, and a light run to shock my dopamine into action. I lay in my martyred nest wallowing in the hole of depression that comes to visit me occasionally as a reminder of the horrors of last year. I mused over how mental illness has wormed its way into everything I do and think about like a sick, limp shtick. That evening, my parents went out and left money for us to eat at the local Chinese place. After hiding behind my brother’s tall frame from someone I recognized from my former school on the walk there, we sat. Our silence flooded onto the menus imprisoned beneath the plastic table top and bounced off the dark mirrored walls. He was recently elected president of his university’s debating society so, of course, our meal descended into an argument about what society we would make if we could decide pre-birth, with no idea of our race, sexuality, or gender. After being told that no, I couldn’t live on my own in the desert where no one could bother me, I opted for: “A basically egalitarian hunter-gatherer society with people existing in small-ish groups. And my own cave where no one could bother me.”

“So you would be the dictator?”

“Well, all right, if you put it that way.”

“You said it was going to be egalitarian.”

“I don’t know, but I want my own cave space.”

“What will you do about waste disposal?”

“What the fuck does that mean.”

“Well, where are people going to poop?”