The Girl with Two Brothers

 

for Sarah

When I was twelve or thirteen, we lived in the house on Old Massapoag Road, and I used to dream what I thought all girls dreamt. Someone snatched me, began to work off my clothes. You were there watching. Your grey eyes troubled your face. You rescued me. You pushed him and his ski-mask aside. You yelled out various ways you would punish him. He ran through a side street, scaled a fence, disappeared. You stroked my face (how soft, you murmured). You kissed me. How marvelous, I thought. How miraculous! I’m breathing and I’m kissing at the same time. We ran, then walked past the high school, our blue sneakers breaking the dark. You saved the only thing worth saving. This is how our story always began.

My dreams stopped around the same time I thought of wanting a camera—of needing some way to record. I wasn’t thinking about shutter speed, about aperture, about flash.

My oldest brother was tired of my asking to borrow his things. Or of my borrowing them without asking. Before the idea of a camera, I thought of the usual things. Living in olden times, a secret conversation with a brave or squaw. (I was the only one who understood.) I thought of running away, of what I would save in my house in case of fire, which albums I would grab, and which dolls. I was all about orphanhood, the plane from Chicago crashing—we would have to go live in California with my father’s brothers—one of them was our legal guardian —and I wonder who thought to tell me that—is that what parents are supposed to tell, or did I ask them, knowing how these things go, knowing how these things may go. I was always asking: Who will take care of me if you go? How will I live if you go?

Did all children dream these things then, in quilts of birds and falls and forgotten red bicycles? I thought of how my parents would cry uncontrollably when I died at a young age from a devastating disease. I imagined the wake, their friends circling them, the plates of slightly-stale cake, the enlarged photos of me wreathing the walls, the scrapbook with every Mother’s Day and birthday card I had ever made, the slightly-discolored green construction paper, school glue still shining in smudges. My older brothers would cry (I had never seen them cry), but they would have to force the tears—I was dead after all! For once, the applause I had been waiting my whole life for.

Or, if our parents died, perished in a plane crash, would we refuse to be shipped off to California? Would we live in an abandoned train car, next to the elementary school, in the bramble near where the middle school kids came to smoke and flick their red and yellow lighters? Would we flee to New Jersey, to our other uncle’s house, refusing to leave the East Coast? Where would we play our secret game: the White Witch, the Purple Policeman, the Green Ghost, circling? My oldest brother had the banana-seat bike we both wanted. My middle brother had Matchbox cars he raced for hours. All I had was Lite-Bright and make-up head Barbie.

Perhaps our relatives wouldn’t want all three of us—we would have to fight to be together—we would not let ourselves be split up. Or: we’d have to fight to get to California, all three of us, crossing the Mississippi —like two cats and a dog, or two dogs and a cat. (In every scenario, I was a cat.)

I was a well-read child of all the usual fairy tales—I knew how it went. The parents never lasted beyond the first page. Some of the best ones had the parents dead before the book even began. Or the father was mean. Or the mother was crazy. Or the father was weak. Or the mother was dead. All you had was your brother, and in my case, I had two. All you ever had was your brother, and all the ways in which you hoped that he would—that any boy might—try to see you, recognize you, save you, because you were a girl, and you were worth saving. You were worth something.

 

 

We lived on Massapoag Road; it meant great waters in an Indian language no one remembered. When I wasn’t searching the ground for arrowheads or a perfectly smooth pebble, I had the regular battery of fantasies: death wishes for various family members. Imagining the grief, the unbearability of it all was one way to love them. So I wanted more than a regular camera, (I was an unusual child, or perhaps very ordinary). I wanted an instrument to record people I had thought about or had seen. I wanted to be able to show others something that existed only in my head. I wanted to be able to remember. I was young enough not to realize that it is better to just let things go. A story is just another way to let things go.

This is one way to tell the story: You and me and the girl on Chestnut Street. Here is another: I wanted you to save me. You wanted me to save you. Did you understand that was what we were really saying? Why not choose me? The mental refrain of gym class, of sweat, of fourth grade come back to haunt. A cold wind grows in me.

Older brother #1 says: We’ll kick his ass.

Older brother #2 says: What is that music you’re listening to?

More books would have kept me out of trouble, but I welcomed her: running at night next to the horse farm, beer and fish tacos across the middle of the day, crouching by the guard rail, fiddle music on high; driving down 91, through Connecticut. We were on our way to New York, so there was no way to avoid Connecticut. I had always disliked Connecticut: connect and cut: telling you both things at once, not unlike a boy. When I was younger, maybe six or seven, I knew that states were male or female. Connecticut was clearly a boy. Vermont: a girl. New Hampshire is a boy: Live Free or Die. What girl do you know who would say that? We might say it, but we don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.

I always said more than a single girl should: dropping the names of old boyfriends, stupid words collecting in the corners of my mouth. These are all different ways to say: You are the absence that lingers.

Older brother #1 says: Remember my friend Pete, the mathematician? He’s a nice guy.

You said you would soon know all my stories. As in a fairy tale, every week, I felt I had to give you a reason to leave, manufacture a reason for you to stay. You pointed out that you were turning into one of my stories. Even if this story is about you (and you knew there would be one) how do you know what I will squander to make the story better, and what I will keep, afraid?

I looked you up in the dictionary. I found you under save. There were many definitions and every one of them fit. Everything was about avoidance. The prevention of fatigue. As in: to save one’s longing. This is what the dictionary said. To anticipate one’s desire and so to prevent. To save one’s own hide or skin: To reserve or lay aside. To keep from harm.

Older brother #1 says: I think you’d like him. He works for Intel. He knows how to ice skate.

This, then, is the frame; this, without a lens. I decided to take fewer classes. Shoving back folders, I instructed you in sun salutations in the living room, still in my work clothes—blouse, skirt, nylons. I watched you watch me, the candy-colored stripe of underwear when my shirt lifted away; we stripped in kitchen blind-sunlight after downward dog, after upward dog. We laughed through plank. Your mouth, disarming the buttons of my skirt. The sunlight, splitting us. Your nails, ruining my nylons. CD one on repeat, CD two on repeat, beer spilling onto the kitchen floor, beer spilling from your hand, your hand knocking everything over.

We walked to the pond they call lake and sat listening to the birds (loons? swans?). Something large from Canada. I wanted to believe they were a sign. Birds herald something in every book I ever read, and we all know how much books can help us in this world, can save us in this world.

Brother #1 calls me Chris, as in Evert Lloyd. Older brother #2 calls me Bjorn. They ascertained, together, that I hated those names. We watched tennis growing up.

I learned to take photos on a point-and-shoot. I learned only recently about light meters, about middle gray.

The inanimate objects are speaking: the damp towel darkening the back of the door. The coffee pot, empty, but still on. I walk outside to toss papers at the recycling bin. It is difficult to return to the quiet of where I live.

Older brother #1 calls, but I don’t pick up. He reminds me not to miss Brother Two’s birthday. He leaves the mathematician’s number on the machine. No pressure, he says.

There is no surface I did not wash or vacuum when you left. Let me be clear here. Everything has been picked up, held, and replaced. It’s not that everything was bad. I had been craving something. What you gave me was something. It felt, at the time, like something.

Hey, my brothers say: You should have more than just something.

I didn’t know the language that contained Massapoag. In the dictionary, I found Injun: Any of the hunted players in the children’s game of cowboys and Indians. There was also India ink, Indian path, Indian meal and Indian yellow. The last was something my second brother would like: an orange-yellow pigment obtained from the urine of cows fed on mango-leaves. It would make him laugh.

I don’t want you, now, to know anything real about me, but you know this. I hated to get off the phone with you. You said you knew I would immediately dial another number: Brothers One or Two or my mother. Anything to fill the space. Learn to live with it, you said. You are stronger, you said. You were leaving again for Chestnut Street. She is the girl who frames photos of your sisters and your mother. She can group them on your bureau (the one you painted together) and three-two-one, one-two-three, one-three-two their order. She arranged and arranges your life. She can take photographs, fresh from the camera, from the night chemicals, and magnet them to the fridge, pin them to cork, leave them on the dashboard until they curl like canoes. These are the photos that belong. You record all the major holidays of the year. I always thought of her as your weekend. (I believed that I counted in your real life.) This is what I most regret.

I won’t pick up my address book. I never called you back. I’m learning to play my CDs all the way through. It bothered you that I played so many songs on repeat.

For the first ten weeks after you left, I could sense times of day or night when you might also have been thinking of me. I could feel it—I was sure of this once or twice. But I can no longer feel what you are thinking. What might end up on a list you will make.

Whether you ever even told her. What you tell yourself: I have no idea.

Brother #2 says: Of course, he didn’t tell her. Why would he tell her? He doesn’t want to end up alone. Didn’t we teach you anything? Never trust a guy.

But neither of my brothers ever met you, ever saw how you looked at the lake, ever heard how you pronounced Massapoag, how you listened to my stories. Still: you have turned into what we always suspected: a ghost in a string of ghosts. A ghost with mediocre teeth and a good heart. A ghost with a weakness for girls with bright eyes and blurred edges. Predictable: a weakness for weak girls.

Maybe you have no need of a magic camera, of a way to record. How do you order your memory? How do you make your garden grow?

Maybe you think only of the girl on Chestnut Street. When you die, though, I will be a mourner at your wake. I think you would come to my wake also, partake in the cake, the yellow cake separating from frosting, the way I hear skin will pull away from bone. You will fork mouthfuls just to do something. You will look at the blown-up photos, my unusually large teeth. You would look at the row of dolls I made out of clothespins, acorns, and quilt scraps. You would see the family of Indians sitting to the side. You would say you were my friend.

I would nudge the pink into your neck until finally you left for a cigarette and a magazine, a cigarette and a drive, a cigarette and a drink. You would shake my older brothers’ hands. You would stand with my family, looking at my picture, and then this is the picture that would help me go, release me from this spinning. By this time, when I am in the ground, only my molars will last, the metal fillings outlasting all skin; my hair and nails still growing, unable to stop.

This is a story about what will never happen. This is a story about things that never happened. Watch me annihilate you. There was no great fire, no plane crash. There was no wake, no crossing of rivers. We walk toward a mountain. We long for the curve in the road. We look at each other, heads leaning in. You are carrying a staff. The girl’s face is happy. I could never see your face.

 

 

You were a book I misread. Perhaps you were the assailant (tall white male, half day’s growth, abused by your father, anger at the world) but I couldn’t recognize you without the ski mask. I wanted you to be the one watching out for me. I didn’t want to see what all the wise men and wiser women gently warned me about: You were one of many to keep watch for. What is it that the wise ones say: keep walking and you will avoid so much of this, you will find your way. You can walk away. The elders are patient and they smile at me. The old ones raise their hands, a simultaneous greeting and farewell. Yes, I answer them. I will walk in well-lit areas. I will not walk alone.

I am the brave and I am the Indian maiden. I am the only doll I must save in case of fire. I will stop-drop-and-roll. I will join my brothers outside. They will bridge their arms to steady me, they will finally get along. I will not be alone.

Even on the phone with my brothers, I start to hum, then sing. The CD wants to play the song all the way through, but why should any track end? All I have to do is dream and I can’t stop myself from reaching back to press play again: from wanting the song to stay in that moment, that perfect pitch of longing.

Older Brother #2: Would you stop with the crappy music already?

When you are on Chestnut Street, or Avocado, or Citrus—or any of those fucking fruit streets—your eyes will mark the photo of the two of you on Fire Island from last summer or the summer before. Perhaps you will walk over to the bureau and pick up the photo, lightly tap the edges so that the picture is not crooked in the frame, so that it lies flat and it lies straight. You will hold it in your hands and then place it back on the dresser, not exactly over the dust-less spot. I know you well enough to know that while you notice too much, you will not notice that.

This is the picture, which is framed. This is how I must think of you. Photos of us are spooled away, unexposed—I catch sight of them and their weak teeth at the edge of sleep. They smudge the edges of mirrors with their persistence, with their terrible vision of another way, with their unreasonable longing. And what state would that be? It’s a photo overexposed—too much sunlight blinding us. After what is left pushes at us, beginning.

This is not the only story of what happened between us, but it is the only one I will tell.

What is the point of telling you that I still wake up remembering (as though you are here!) your childhood-blue eyes. How you used to look at me. As though you were waiting to hear whatever story might begin. No one saves anyone. As though you wanted to sit on my floor, tipping back bottles, draining bottles, collecting words and looking at me, for a very long time. As though you were more than unreliable teeth and heart. Your eyes, a kind of frame. My hands, enough. As though you had decided to stay.

Even now I hear my older brothers talking. Hasn’t she been listening to us? Move on, Chrissy. Stop perseverating. And I want to tell them, I was listening all the time. I was watching you all the time. What girls are tossing their sheets, dreaming of your backs, thinking you will turn around, that you are not merely gathering your jackets and your wallets, that you are not merely preparing to walk away? You are just boys, walking. You were just a boy, walking. No one saves anyone.

 

Previously published in Denver Quarterly in 2010.


Image Credits: A.