I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I count the number of times he’s left me. I categorize them in a journal. “Accidental” means couldn’t be helped. “Voluntary” means the ones I hold him responsible for. In that category, I stick forgotten meetings, blown-off movie dates, family gatherings he never showed up for. Parties with friends I was supposed to have been invited to. Lovers. Marriages. Weddings. Wives.
He’s nine years older. A half-brother. My father’s son from a first marriage. He never lived with us. Full-time he was with his mother, but some weekends and most summers he came to stay with our father and me. Our father traveled a lot. Then it was the two of us, and it was easier to pretend that my family was a different kind of family, and that I was a different kind of me.
My brother’s first wife left him when he was 24. He’d been married for two years and a father for one. The rest of the family wanted to know what happened.
I wanted to know too; I just didn’t want to have to ask. I waited for him to volunteer, and when he didn’t, that was all right, too. I just made sure I was around for whatever happened next.
What happened next is that three years later, my brother has more bad news. He tells me over Christmas break. I’m a senior at an all-girls private school. I’m wearing my uniform skirt with fishnet stockings and black riding boots. We’re sitting in his favorite restaurant. We’re at one of nine tables. He took his first wife here for special occasions. This is where he asked her to marry him. I assume it was the table in the bay window.
She’s tall, he says. She’s beautiful. She’s closer to my age than his. She has a child, too. A girl.
Instant family, I tell him. From the back of the restaurant, an electric blender rackets. Someone’s ordered margaritas.
He looks to the bar. “It’s just living together,” he says. “It’s not like marriage. Nothing major.”
He hasn’t lived with anyone since the first wife left and I stayed with him for two days. “She was in and out,” I imagine him saying about my visit. “I can’t even remember what we did.” That’s what I told my mother when she asked, with an odd focus in her voice, how the visit went. I couldn’t remember. Apparently, neither could he. He never talked about it again.
And with how many girls was that the case? My brother finished and moving on, and them still hanging on, dreamy and stupid?
So sitting here at his first wife’s favorite restaurant, I’m not saying anything.
He’s wiping the salt off his glass with his index finger. What if he’s making a big mistake, he wants to know.
Around us people are gesturing with forks, drinking, talking. It’s like a movie. I can feel the slow zoom.
“What if you are?” I say back.
He’s looking at my hairline.
“I want to go away with you,” he says.
“Let’s escape,” he says, “right here in the city. Two nights of incognito.”
I’m keeping a fixed look on my face, but I’m also not really breathing.
We can get a hotel room. Somewhere fancy. His eyes move left to right across my face. He knows a place.
I bet, I think. He took a girlfriend to an abortion clinic once, and the nurses greeted him by name. Like Norm on Cheers. But my insides are doing unsurprising and amazing things. My mind flashes on a riding lesson where I learned how to do flying lead changes.
I have to decide in the next few days, I’m informed. The new girlfriend’s away on a snow-boarding vacation and is going to be back on Monday. Right now it’s Thursday.
He takes a bite of his curry. I put my dessert fork on top of my dinner fork, and vice versa.
“Why?” I finally ask. “Why this now?”
He doesn’t smile or tell me he’s kidding. His knee is bobbing, making the table shake a little. He’s running his hands through his hair. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me.
“Because,” he says.
“That’s not an answer,” I say.
“Just because,” he says.
And it’s left at that. Because I have nothing to say.
Six years earlier on a plane to China, I was filled with the kind of sentiment that you’d expect a 12-year-old to feel when returning with her mother to her mother’s homeland. My mother was more soggy with sentiment than I was, touched with herself for having dragged her daughter back to the site of oh so much of her childhood unhappiness. She got reminiscent. My mother got intimate, and ready to open up. By hour 13 of the flight, I was hair-pullingly bored with her attempts at Connection and I let her know it. She reminisced and I played hangman. Trying to scare up a little narrative interest, she strayed her reminiscences over into areas I didn’t know about. She brought up my brother. She dropped some intimate details.
Hating myself, I had to ask anyway. How did she know? When did they spend any time together?
She looked away, like someone on a soap, miming If you only knew.
“What?” I asked, annoyed. She was excited. She was Close to Something.
Didn’t I know? she asked, lowering her voice, like the stewardess cared. Hadn’t she ever told me that he’d been in love with her?
This was what life with my mother was like.
“My brother. My brother was in love with you,” I said, once I recovered. Somewhat.
She gave me a look.
“You just assumed this?” I said.
“I wouldn’t assume a thing like that,” she said, irritated that I’d think so.
Which led to unpleasant thoughts and images. She must have seen some of them on my 12-year-old face.
“We never did anything, silly,” she said.
“He told you? He did something?” I asked. The man in the seat in front of us turned around. I had seven hours of flight next to this woman still to go.
“You’re going to make it something it wasn’t,” she said.
I cried intermittently the first four days after landing. My Chinese grandmother assumed I was having a psychotic episode. She gave me special tea and the special tea gave me diarrhea. The diarrhea made me weepier. Finally my mother in exasperation called over from her palette in the middle of the night that she’d only been kidding, for God’s sake; he hadn’t said or done anything. What was wrong with me?
Nothing was wrong with me, I thought, lying there, fixing my eyes on her outline in the dark. I didn’t need the light on to see how beautiful she was. Her beauty was the kind that made people who were determined to hate her reconsider. Nothing was going to be wrong with me again.
The next day, as far as anyone knew, I was fine.
“Don’t ask me what that was all about,” my grandmother said, after having satisfied herself that it was over.
My brother wasn’t bringing up sex with me out of the blue. The second of those two nights I stayed over when I was 15 and his first wife had just left him, we had wine and danced in the dining room with the lights out. He took me by the back of my neck. We stopped dancing. We sank to the floor, breathing hard, sweating in the darkness. I opened my shirt. I was cross-legged on the rough carpet. I combed my hands through his hair the way I’d seen him do it himself. I pushed his hair back, kept my hands buried in it, and brought his mouth to my breast. I thought of my mother.
I waited for his mouth to close around me. I waited for the rest of it. I waited for the cue to arch my back, to let my mouth give myself away.
I waited for the last bit of proof that I’d been right all along. That we had known.
But he pulled back and took me by the wrists. He pulled my hands down away from him, and held them against the carpet, between our crossed legs. He did it smoothly. And I knew then even at 15 that it wasn’t making love that my brother wanted. He wasn’t saying yes and he wasn’t saying no, and that was him all over. He raised himself a ways up—a limbo move, he called it later—until my mouth was at the right level. He unzipped himself, since one hand still had my hands. I thought while I was doing it that I was doing it for him. I think he thought so, too. I also thought it might be a way of hurting my mother. And of making something.
On Saturday afternoon, he’s waiting for me outside my eye doctor’s office. My mother is with me. She’s thrilled to see him. She looks both ways and strides across the street to where he’s leaning against a parked car. I follow slowly, my eyes sticky and weird from whatever the doctor did to me.
I watch them hug and kiss. They always kiss on the mouth. My brother does with everyone. My mother wants to know what he’s doing here.
He points at me. “I’m here to sweep her away,” he says.
When I stand next to my mother I’m a 500-pound sack of concrete. I’m a sub-basement. In most cases, hearing him say he’s here to sweep me away would be like opening the fridge and standing in the cold air. In this case, the effect is a little weirder. Is he playing with me? I give him a Don’t play with me look. At the same time, I try to communicate warning: Don’t say anything else about our secret.
He pulls me to him, and I note as always how well I fit under his arm. “We’re off to have a brother/sister thing,” he says. He kisses me on the cheek and lets his hand fall to my rear. “Well, at least that’s my plan,” he goes on. “Your daughter is waffling.”
“Yes,” my mother says as if I’m not even here, “she can do that.”
He rests a hand on my mother’s shoulder for a beat too long. He says, “You’d run away with me, wouldn’t you?”
My mother tells him to stop flattering himself, but she hasn’t taken her eyes off him. She tells me to call if I’m not going to be home for dinner. Her assumptions about what could and couldn’t be going on here are clear. I want to wave my hand and make her disappear. He knows I want this.
Does he think I’m stupid? Okay, fine, I think. You want me? How much do you want me?
“Nothing’s going to happen anytime soon,” I tell him flatly. “This is a bad time. Maybe Tuesday, or even Wednesday.”
He’s not particularly discombobulated. In front of my mother, who hasn’t said a word for the last minute, he reaches out and strokes my cheek. “Wednesday’s good,” he says. “I can wait until Wednesday.” Part of what he’s saying is: To hell with what anyone knows. To hell with what your mother knows.
My mother’s expression has changed, to my immense satisfaction. She laughs a little. “Who knows what either of you is talking about,” she says.
And I think that in fact this isn’t a game I know anything about; I don’t know the first thing about what any one of us is up to. What are we talking about? What do we mean? But that is thrilling. I am thrilled.
The same summer I gave my brother a blow job our dad rented a house by a lake. I would refuse to leave my brother’s room when he wanted to change. I made him uncomfortable. I made him lower his voice. He tried various things, coaxed, bribed, and threatened until I walked out.
Sometimes I came back and looked. His door was always half open. I was in a dark hallway. I watched him undress. He’d pull his T-shirt off the way boys did, reaching behind his head, pulling up and over. His muscles rolled with the movement. He had hair on his narrow chest, a little, around his nipples. My blood roared in my ears while I stood there.
The three of us meet for lunch the day after the new girlfriend gets back. Tuesday.
“You could be full brother and sister,” she says while we’re still opening menus.
People tell us we look alike. Cuban, people guess, or Mexican. “But we’re not,” I remind her. My brother throws me a smile.
“He’s always gone out with women who look like him,” she whispers to me later, when we’re putting on hats and scarves, checking ourselves in the mirror by the restaurant door. She thinks it’s a moment of female connection.
He’s already out on the sidewalk waiting for us. “No danger of that here,” I tell her, reaching out to flick the ends of her blond, blond hair.
I, on the other hand, always went out with boys who looked different. Blonds.
Big blond boys. Prep-school boys. Boys with last names for first names. It may have been my way of getting a little power back: See? If you’re oil, I’m attracted to water.
Nazis, my father called them.
Hitler Youth was my brother’s term.
They were boys who couldn’t compete, couldn’t keep up with me, not unless I showed them how. Which was not how I felt with my brother. Somehow he’d gotten out there in the lead, and not just because of his age. How had that happened? Why had I let it happen?
“l could marry him,” I said to my father. I was nine. I’d just come back from watching my brother leave for college. “If I married him, he’d have to stay.”
“Sure,” my father answered, deep in his favorite chair. He was absorbed in unlacing his shoes. “Marry him. Just don’t have children.”
Children, I thought. That would make my mother a grandmother.
As the three of us walk down 57th Street after lunch, the new girlfriend tells me that Nicky really loves me.
I look at my brother, whose face is not particularly readable.
Nicky, I think. Who is Nicky?
“No,” she reiterates, though I haven’t asked for reassurance, “I mean really. You mean so much to him.” She says this like I’m the soon-to-be-stepdaughter. “He cares about you so much.”
“Is that true, Nicky?” I ask, leaning across her as we walk. “Do you care about me so much?”
His smile is a little sickly. She smiles. And for one terrible moment, I think they have been confiding in each other. And for another, I think of that hotel room.
“God, too bad he’s your brother,” friends say when they meet him.
“For Chrissake, he’s your brother,” my father tells me when I get possessive.
“You’re never going to find someone like him,” my mother says, every so often.
“I met someone who’s perfect for you,” my brother said, two weeks after our dance in the dining room when I was 15.
“Oh yeah?” I said, with enough judgment in my voice that he didn’t call me back for two weeks. “Who?”
Once we were in an airport together when I was 14. He was married. The wife wasn’t with us. A woman in tight jeans and a suede shirt was staring at him. I liked that it was us against her.
My brother told me that she was trying to decide if I was his sister or his date. He wove our fingers together.
On the plane, that same woman came down the aisle looking for him. I feigned sleep against the window. The ultimate sign of trust, he once told me. As she neared our row, he put his hand across my lap and took my earlobe in his mouth.
We’re playing odd man out and it’s not clear who’s who. We walk all the way from 57th to 81st as a trio. He moves to the middle at 72nd and walks with his arms around both of us. We’re his parentheses.
We turn up Madison. The new girlfriend peels off to more comprehensively check out some shoes in a window display. “So I’m thinking,” he says in a low voice to me. “Of you.”
I glance past him to her. She’s looking at her reflection in the store window.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks, leaning close, touching the edge of my ear with the tip of his tongue.
She comes back and takes his hand. She wants to know what we’re talking about.
He squeezes her closer and says, “We’re talking about how people are wondering which one of you I’m with.”
She smiles like it’s an inside joke. Like I’m an inside joke. It is an inside joke, I think. On any number of us.
Before the China trip, that was the way we used to walk down Fifth Avenue: my brother in the middle, an arm around my mother and me.
I have a running tally of the number of times he’s touched me. A fair number involved my toes. As a joke he pulled and tugged them until they cracked. That night in his apartment when I was 15, when we were still sitting in the living room, I confided my lifelong belief that they were long and ugly. Not ugly, he told me, holding them in the curve of his hands, reaching them to his mouth.
We’ve kissed once. The first time I visited him in his own apartment. He was 19. I was 10. He got me on the lips, full and square. He left no time for indecision about which cheek to turn. “Come on, come on,” my mother said. “We’re going to be late for dinner.”
My almost-breasts once, that night when I was 15.
I only count my hands when he took them. Where? Restaurant booths. Beach blan- kets. City parks.
My chin once, on a picnic.
“You know,” my mother reminded me when I was 15, the night I got back from my brief stay at his apartment. “Your brother could’ve been a real writer. Not just news bits and record reviews. Novels,” she said. “Poetry.”
At the time I was editor of the school literary magazine and the newspaper. I brought issues home and my mother marked them up with what I’d gotten wrong: small facts, street names, dates.
The night I got back I was brushing my teeth with special force. I felt like I’d turned some exciting and disgusting corner, and this was the kind of stuff she was telling me. Everything about me was telling her: who loves who now?
It’s Wednesday. We’re on our long-ago scheduled annual Christmas-shopping walk. We’re on Madison again, between uptown and midtown. He wants me to pick out something. I have the feeling I’m the last person left on his list. We’re in Agnes B., where everything I’d want costs too much to suggest. I’m carrying my own bag and some of his Christmas packages, and things are awkward, and neither of us says anything.
We pass a bus-stop billboard of a windswept model in denim.
“That’s one of my favorite models,” he remarks.
I hoist one package while another slips a little lower in my arms. “Thrilling,” I tell him.
He tells me he thinks she’s stunning. He volunteers that that’s the kind of thing he can’t tell his soon-to-be. It’s the kind of thing he can tell me.
“Thank God for me,” I say.
He stops me and turns me to face him. He reaches around and under all the packages I’m carrying and finds my hips. Why isn’t he carrying anything? He rocks me side to side. “So?” he says. “Here I am.”
He knows I know what he means: you’ve been staring at me for however many years like a dog without a bone. So: all right, then. Come and get it.
After he was finished when I was 15 I hugged him and we got up and I slept on the bed and he slept in the chair across from the bed, and I woke up early with the garbagemen and thought: what did this mean? What did it mean? Did it mean anything? Why would I think it meant anything? How could it not have meant something?
He was awake, too, watching.
I told him I hadn’t heard him moving around.
“You’ve been out completely,” he said.
“The ultimate sign of trust,” I said.
And we lay there like that. He asked what was wrong.
I told him I guessed I was just tired. He got up and trooped into the kitchen and ate some cereal.
He said it would probably be best if I went back home. And I did.
Now on our Christmas walk, when I don’t answer, and he lets go of my hips, and we start walking again, he tells me he’s getting married.
It feels like one of his smoothly delivered fuck-you’s. I’d only ever seen them delivered to other people.
Packages slip and jostle. “Congratulations,” I tell him. “Who’s the lucky girl?”
“Very funny,” he says.
Everything’s tentative, but right now they’re looking at right after the summer. Los Angeles. It depended on schedules and timing. They were waiting and seeing.
I don’t say anything.
He gives me the nicest smile. “But you’ll be there, right?” he asks. “I mean, whenever it is.”
He is something else.
“You’re something else,” I tell him finally.
He stops and points up. I follow his gesture.
Apparently we’re at the hotel he’s picked out.
Heat waves refuse to roll up the back of my neck. Something like calm settles over me.
“I’ll be there,” I say, dumping my packages down around our feet. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He looks a little concerned at the welfare of the packages. I think of my mother’s face, stricken at his first marriage. Or mine, at this next one. But I will be there. I’ll smile and throw rice. I’ll pose for pictures, and I’ll wait.
I’ll wait for him to turn around and find himself, once again, with his sister ready to jump. I’ll wait because I know this feeling that can’t be imitated or duplicated or tricked into being. This ecstatic friction, this violence against family.
I take his face in my hands. I tell him to keep his eyes open, and I kiss him. Our eyelashes are practically touching. It hurts to look at him this close up. In his eyes, I see the reflection of my own. And this: my legacy, my inheritance, what I have made, what I deserve.
Karen Shepard is the author of the novel An Empire of Women (Berkely Pub Group, 2002). Her short fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Southwest Review, and Mississippi Review. Her second novel, The Bad Boy’s Wife, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in April 2004. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, novelist Jim Shepard, their three children, and their one very strange dog.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee