No one who lived here talked about the bridge. I didn’t know about all the suicides until my twenties, told by a woman I met at a café who’d come to town to study abroad. In her French accent, with her long brown hair moving about her easy gait like liquid, she approached my small red table by the window and asked if I could please tell her how to get to the suicide bridge. Which bridge? I asked. She pursed her red lips. Is it not the one where all the people jump? The Aurora Bridge? she replied. I looked at her quizzically. She stared quizzically back.
No one said anything about the suicides when my brother came home several years after college only to pack up his room and move from our comfortable, spacious Greenwood house to a brand new townhouse squished into the south end of a congested street lined with ridiculously steep cobbled driveways and ancient trees whose strong, unhurried roots forced slow cracks into the tar and cement. The slim three stories, each one a differently colored design of engineered wood, almost reached high enough in the overcast sky to see the bridge, but not quite. In the decade before my brother moved in, over 50 people had jumped from the bridge. In the two that followed, despite the installation of eight-foot fences and emergency phones, that number more than doubled.
In the 24 years he’d lived there, my brother had never said anything about the suicides, either. But, then again, we hadn’t seen each other in almost 20 years, and we hadn’t spoken in more than 10. Not since our dad died and my brother took everything.
It never surprised me, his wanting to live there. For years, we’d traded suggestions of sad, dark films, and when he came back to Seattle and bought his own place, we’d even sometimes watched them together. We shared an affinity for sadness—not the easy kind that would make you weep or leave your throat feeling just a bit thick, but the kind that would rip your heart out and leave you desolate, sobbing, almost unable to recover. It’s like a drug, that level of emotional intensity, and living by the bridge kept his supply continuous, as if he lived inside his own sad film that would never end.
As I drove south on 99 with the bridge looming just ahead, I imagined the people jumping, one by one, as if waiting in line for an amusement park ride. Step right up! Must be this old to jump. Not for the strong of heart. I watched these fictional people—a woman, mid-50s, eyes bloodshot from crying over her son’s death in a war (any war—pick one); a man, early 40s, distraught after losing all of his money (and, subsequently, his wife) in the 2008 stock market crash; a young lesbian girl, 14, unable to bear the crushing depression of a lonely, closeted existence—and wondered how it felt when they hit the ground. We’d all seen it in movies, but how many times had anyone seen it in real life? It wasn’t replicable quite like a car crash. One more time, Susan, and this time try to hit the ground with the left side of your face.
I pulled into my brother’s neighborhood and cursed myself. Granted, I don’t know who doesn’t curse themselves when trying to park on the congested streets of these old Seattle neighborhoods, lanes barely wide enough for two cars without people parked on both sides. (And yet, they always were.) I drove around the blocks—left, left, right, left, right, eventually back to where I started—for exactly 17 minutes—I couldn’t help but watch the clock, more agitated with each minute that passed—before almost getting forced back across the bridge and onto 99 (which would mean another 15 minutes by the time I could turn around) because I’d turned a corner onto a one-way street headed straight for the bridge. But a quick illegal U-turn that made decidedly loud use of two opposing cobbled driveways put me back down the wrong way of that short block, safely resituated in the mess of cars—well, safe enough. And no one saw. That must be what so famously drew the jumpers to this side of the bridge: not much car or foot traffic. A blind drive. No one to see; no one to stop them. It worked to my benefit today, putting me back in front of my brother’s house just in time to snag a spot barely big enough for my little old car.
I put the car in neutral before I pulled the parking brake and turned it off. I hated my car, with its scratch-colored paint job and barely functioning locks. But when your marriage falls apart and your finances follow soon after, you have to make (more) sacrifices. After selling my new-ish car to pay off some debt, I bought this shitty manual, black 2002 Volkswagen Jetta for a flat two grand. It’s ugly, and it’s old, but it runs, and it’s mine.
I walked toward my brother’s townhouse with its overgrown, gated courtyard and that slim, modern profile of an end unit in a long line of identical sandwiched houses. I had to grip the top of the six-foot cedar-wood gate with one hand while I kicked the bottom of the next panel over and pulled with all my strength (which wasn’t much). It took a few tries. I had to push just as hard to close it behind me, and the rough planks left deep purple marks. This gate had been bad when he’d moved in, and it hadn’t gotten any better. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t fix it or, even better, move. It’s not like he couldn’t afford such things, and it shouldn’t be painful to get into your own house. My prematurely arthritic fingers throbbed as I crossed the courtyard and ascended the two short steps to his door. I pressed hard on the doorbell and held it for several seconds, then stood with my hands in my pockets. I glanced at my watch. 3:16 pm—only a little bit late. I hoped it hadn’t angered him, the way it used to.
It surprised me, seeing his name at the top of my inbox after so many years of mutual silence, though our family always had been one to correspond more than anything else; we emailed, sometimes we even sent cards. Rarely did we call each other. He had asked me to come, to finally talk. He’d said we had some things to figure out, and maybe it was that he felt alone or felt remorse, or maybe it was the unavoidable reality of 50 on the horizon that had worn him down. But he was right, and I hoped he would make everything right.
“Heeey, sis! Come in, come in.” He smiled his same annoyingly goofy smile with his half-shut eyes and did his same annoyingly goofy half-wave, a greeting he had adopted in his early twenties that he’d apparently never lost. He tried to act normal and casual, but I could see it falter around the edges. (Although he never really was any good at being normal and casual in the first place. Our mom had always said she thought he was on the spectrum somewhere—Asperger’s, perhaps—but she never did anything to help him. “Don’t you ever tell him I said that.” Our family motto.)
My brother had always called me “sis,” and it had always seemed strange to me. I never called him “bro”; we were never chummy like that. The closest we’d ever gotten, he was about to leave for college and we’d stayed up late one string of unusually hot summer nights in a row in our dirty, dark-blue basement, bitching about our awful parents and our shitty childhood. We bonded over a misery that became his identity: he gravitated toward it with his proclivities and his community and his “recreational activities.” I tried everything I could to cure myself of this insidious sickness that grew like black mold beneath my skin. Over the years, we saw each other less and less, and our relationship maintained itself through online chat and the occasional text. Until those stopped—well, until I stopped.
He closed the door behind me, and I stood awkwardly in his dank entryway that shared connected space with the kitchen, the living room, and some dark, always-unused corner of space that had seemed rather cluttered 20 years ago and still looked rather cluttered now.
“Come in, come in,” he said again. He motioned me toward the barstools behind the kitchen island with that same stilted bent-arm wave. “I was thinking about making tea.”
I walked silently toward the kitchen and pulled out a barstool to make room behind the island, and a cat hissed before it sprang quickly past my stomach and shot up the stairs and out of sight. I yelped. He chuckled.
“Ah, I didn’t know Kaiju was still down here,” he said. “I’m surprised he hadn’t gone upstairs already. He doesn’t like visitors.” He sounded almost formal or, perhaps, uncomfortable speaking, but, then again, he’d always seemed that way, to some extent.
“Still? Didn’t he get over that a long time ago?” I asked.
“More like ‘again,’ but, yeah. He was okay for a while, but he’s really old now, and Virgil died, and then when Alex left…well, I don’t have people over much.”
“Oh.” I hung my purse on the back of a chair and draped my blue trench coat over the top. I leaned my elbows on the counter and rested my face on my hands to watch him make the tea. He turned away to grab two teacups from the cupboard next to the stove and then turned to me with the empty cups in his hands. His hair had thinned a lot, but not quite down to any bald spots, though I remembered him worrying about going bald as young as 18. It seemed that his worries were unfounded. Even in the dim light, I could see how much it had grayed. We were growing old.
“Don’t you want to sit down?” he asked.
“I’ve been sitting for, like, three hours,” I said.
“Oh, that’s right.” He turned back and set the cups on the counter. He took the steaming hotpot off of its silver base and poured the water into an ancient-looking clay teapot that matched the handle-less cups he’d selected from his cupboard. His counter backsplash was almost entirely covered by an array of loose-leaf tea boxes and reusable mesh sachets, and I was sure I’d seen at least one other teapot in that same cupboard. It impressed me, this dedication. I, too, loved tea, but I’d never had the patience for this.
He poured the water into the pot in careful motions, rotating in a slow, circular pattern over the dark tea leaves. I imagined them blooming open and starting to grow, as if in slow motion, invigorated into life one final time beneath this hot, unrelenting stream. He poured until the water rose about an inch above the leaves and set the hotpot back on its base, then put the little clay lid on top of the small round opening. He picked it up immediately and then, carefully and gracefully, poured two perfect cups of tea without wasting a drop. He handed me my cup.
“This tea doesn’t take any time to steep,” he said. “Actually, if you let the leaves stay in for almost any time at all, it gets bitter. Do you still take sugar in your tea? I might have some somewhere.”
I told him it was fine. He turned back to the teapot and took off the lid, removed the leaf-filled mesh, set it on a small caddy next to the pot, and put the lid back on. He grabbed his cup and turned back to face me, resting against the speckled countertop behind him. If only he took this much care with the rest of his life, or even the rest of his house: layers of dust and flecks of old food caked the counters, and dirty dishes sat in piles in the sink. Old mail collected in one corner—or more like half—of the counter, and cans of cat food cluttered the other side. The faint smell of mildew lingered in the air; he needed a dehumidifier. His face looked gaunt.
“Good tea,” I said. “Oolong?”
“Yep. It’s one of my favorites,” he said. “It’s from this shop in Post Alley—down Pine and up that little side street with—”
“The one with all the flags that hang across the alley just before the door?”
“Yep. That’s the one. Alex showed it to me.” I looked down at my tea and blew on it a bit. The steam swirled and rose away from the dark liquid, evaporating into the dim light. A heaviness hung in the room between us, and I wanted to leave it there. But then I wouldn’t have come if I had really decided on that, would I?
“Have you heard from her lately?” I looked up, but he looked away, I think at nothing in particular.
“Not really. Not since she moved back to China. Melody used to send me updates sometimes, but it was mostly just pictures of Sunshine. There’s nothing to send now.”
We sipped our tea in silence, not avoiding each other’s eyes, but not looking directly at each other. I knew he felt the heaviness, too. I dreaded this—the awkward strain of two estranged yet connected people. I didn’t like forced connection. I hadn’t missed him.
He put down his teacup and seemed to steel himself, crossing his arms across his stomach to hold each elbow in the opposite hand. I wasn’t ready.
“Look, sis, I—”
“Before you dive in, I could really…use a few,” I said, hand at my stomach. “You know, driving for so long.”
“Oh, sure. Yeah, of course,” he said. “I got the guest bathroom all ready for you. Take your time.”
I unearthed my purse from beneath my coat and slung it over my shoulder as I walked to the bathroom. The carpet seemed dingy, even crumbling in some places. Piles of papers, old mail, and other junk, a few stacks of books, some forgotten cat toys collected dust and tumbleweeds of fur next to his over-stuffed bookcase. It seemed filthy, even for him. He’d never been that clean, but I’d hoped he’d grow out of it and eventually disgust himself or at least find a partner who would push him in a good direction. I guess neither of us had been that lucky.
I stepped into the bleak guest bathroom, closed the door, and hung my purse on the doorknob. He had cleaned it, to his credit, but I don’t think he really knew how to clean well, and I couldn’t fully fault him for that. No one had ever taught him. I pulled my phone out of my purse and unlocked the screen, but then I had nothing left to scroll anymore—no Facebook, no missed texts or voicemails, no photos from friends, no lover to miss. It had all dwindled into nothing over the years as the only two friends I did have had built families, and I hadn’t. Not that I’d wanted to. Like I always said, I hated people. Hated kids. But I didn’t want to have nothing, either. Or no one. Life does that sometimes: you decide you want something, so it gives you too much, over-saturating you, making you question the desire in the first place. But I’d learned to unlearn enthusiasm. I learned to be neutral. My (ex) husband taught me that.
I slipped my phone back into the zippered front pocket of my purse. I leaned forward, heels raised, eyes closed, knees pressed into my abdomen, and couldn’t help but clench pretty much everything. Amid my (hopefully) silent whimpering, I had the sudden and unbearable urge to remove almost all of my clothes: first my shirt, then my pants, my thong, my socks. I piled them onto the floor and wrapped my arms around me, rocking gently back and forth on the balls of my feet. I always got so hot when I had to go like this—when my intestines cramped and my twisted ovaries throbbed from the pressure and the strain. The pain caused me anxiety, and even the gentle touch of clothing against my skin made me feel restricted and unable to concentrate. I don’t know if other people have to concentrate while they shit, but I do. Otherwise, I might strain too much and burst a cyst or pull an adhesion. Or I might not be able to relax enough to get everything out, causing a buildup of pressure that, in turn, would cause sharp, searing pain of its own. Since a young age—once I learned that this wasn’t normal—I’d often wondered what it must be like to be able to piss or shit without pain. What a lovely thought.
I winced at the sounds emanating from me, but then I knew I was in good company; my brother had the same issues, so there was no shame here (or less shame, I guess). It used to be a daily blight for him, and I wondered if it still was, just as another wave of painful movement spread throughout and out of my body. I rocked myself back and forth with my eyes closed.
I used to call this “traveler’s diarrhea” or say something like “my stomach is just really on the fritz today,” but I’d long since accepted that, no, this was just regular diarrhea. This was my normal day. This was, unfortunately, part of chronic illness, both physical and mental. The smallest spark of anxiety—or food or drink—could (literally) set things in motion. They say these issues come from a traumatic childhood, but I thought it could just be genetics, although maybe they’re the same thing.
I could almost feel the same scene, roles reversed, some 30 years ago in my dad’s house. We were over for the weekend, and my stepmom had just made tea after cleaning up from dinner. I sat on one of the rickety moss-green bar stools at the far side of the outdated ‘80s kitchen, my upper body leaning heavy on the overhang of the off-white tiled counter, my feet pushing hard on what I thought to be a footrest. I stared at my glass and bobbed the teabag up and down, watching the dark cinnamon-orange swirls melt into the hot water. The smell comforted me.
“Ohp—bathroom,” my brother said, hand to stomach, and he set down his tea to rush, straight legged, out of the kitchen, down the hall, and into the tiny bathroom next to the front door, still so obviously uncomfortable in his own skin at 17, though, I suppose, he didn’t ever really become comfortable. I heard him twist the dial for the old-fashioned timer fan all the way to the right, the buzzy motor whirring to life as the clank of the toilet seat hitting the tank echoed throughout the downstairs. That would buy him exactly five minutes of time, and then the illusion of sound cover would cease.
In the buzzing quiet, something changed, and the sudden sound of Terry setting her glass mug on the tiled counter sounded as if she’d slammed it down.
“Don’t lean on the counter like that!” My eyes shot up to her, wide, unnerved by the sudden shift in energy. I sat up. “And don’t put your feet on that! You’ll break it. You can’t just lean on everything.” I sat up straighter, tentative, and crossed my legs underneath me, hoping that wouldn’t offend her, too.
And then it started, the onslaught of sputtering, splattering, messy noise that spilled down the hallway and into the kitchen, and maybe it was because I’d already made her angry by leaning on the counter, or maybe it was because, at dinner, my brother hadn’t liked her potatoes very much, but I could still hear her audible scoff and almost feel the cruel look on her face: pure accusatory disgust, as if my brother were purposely making those sounds just to disquiet her. “My god. He could at least try to hide it or something.” I felt embarrassed for him. My dad said nothing. I excused myself to my room and left my tea, still steaming, sitting on the counter for her to complain about tomorrow.
I reached for toilet paper—two-ply, thick and cushy, unlike the dreaded, scratchy single-ply paper we’d used for so many years. I felt better, but this might only be the first wave, so I sat and waited to expel what my body thought surely must be toxins. I put my shirt back on and pulled my thong up over my knees to rest at my thighs so I didn’t feel quite so awkward, sitting (practically) naked in this bathroom that wasn’t mine.
I could hear him upstairs crooning at Kaiju, coaxing him from wherever he hid. His soft crooning seemed to me to match the rest of his repulsively goofy, awkward mannerisms—the way he artificially scrunched his eyes shut any time he spoke or smiled; the way he always began sentences with a noise that implied he thought you were wrong and an “it’s…tricky” or “that’s…tough”; the way he’d rush through saying something for dramatic effect, especially a joke, and end on a very pronounced, inflected “UM,” as if it were an exclamation point. If I were honest with myself, I would have had to admit that my brother repulsed me as much as he did my stepmom, but at least I wasn’t cruel about it. I didn’t put that on him. I didn’t make it anyone else’s problem.
I’d tried, when we were younger, to understand him, to see the world the way he saw it. I’d tried to be okay with the things he so desperately claimed were normal, with the symbols he’d had an artist burn into his chest and shoulder, the experimentation with less mainstream drugs, like DMT. His involvement with polyamorous girls who were embedded in the kink scene of Seattle, how they’d tie each other up and dig metal hooks into each other’s backs on the weekends, hanging from the ceilings by their skin. The guns he’d kept in an electric guitar case under his bed in one of his earliest apartments—he’d never told me why. The deep hollows he’d gouged into his arms and legs that left thick, purple scars that puckered at the edges.
I was there, once, when he did it. I sat, pretending to busy myself at the family computer, while he pulled at the edges of a fresh, circular burn, singed and raw. The surface of the desk was smeared with ash from incense, and empty cans of Surge and bottles of Sprite leaned and piled against each other at the back edge. A thick, black blanket, haphazardly tacked to the wall, covered the window that looked out on the backyard. I watched him in my peripheral vision, tenuous, unsure of what I saw. He barely even winced as he poured lavender nail polish remover into the wound. It bubbled. He noticed me watching, mouth and eyes gaping, I’m sure. What? It’s not like it hurts, he’d said. Don’t tell anyone. He’d put a lock on that door soon after.
That’s how I’d learned to cut, watching him. The difference was that I’d stopped. I’d had therapy, an actual diagnosis. I took medication. He’d refused. Should I have tried harder to convince him?
I pictured Kaiju as a kitten, his black fur soft and downy, his one eye curious but cautious. His other eye—lost before he’d come to the rescue—was sewn shut, and fur had just started to grow on top of the lid. My brother very vocally identified with this little wounded kitten; it really wasn’t a choice for him, he’d said. He’d had to take him.
20 years is a long time to live for a rescue cat with one eye and pressing, stringent anxiety. It’s a long time for anyone to live like that.
I stared at the yellowing tile beneath my feet. Maybe I had been too hard on him. I heard the familiar psh psh psh of a cat call, followed by a soft “heeeyyy, buddy,” as, I could only assume, Kaiju had finally come down the stairs and into the kitchen. I heard the pop-top of a can releasing its sealed pressure and the suction-like noise of the lid being pulled off, followed by a few chirps and, I’m sure, a lot of purring.
3:41 pm—this seemed like an odd time to feed a cat. I reeled from a wave of nausea and decided to stay put a little while longer. And I didn’t want to interrupt mealtime.
My brother had three cats after he got married, though I never met the third. Sunshine had been Alex’s, and Alex and I had a mutual disdain for one another, so we didn’t spend any time together. She wanted so desperately for people to like her—so blatantly, obviously clamoring for approval because she hated herself—and that might have been enough to make me stay away. But it got so much worse.
I could still see her so vividly in my mind, sitting in the living room of my dad’s house in San Diego: her multi-colored anime-print leggings mismatched with her blue-and-red geometric print shirt, the top quarter of her short pink hair gathered into a tiny ponytail, an artificially pensive look on her face as she stared at the same page in her book for over an hour, clearly not reading it. I’d flown from the east coast for the Christmas weekend, and, though my dad had all but explicitly said “don’t bring Alex,” my brother never went anywhere without her, so bring her he did.
Alex was Chinese, either proudly or regretfully so; it was hard to tell. She was also a woman, though unsure of that, too. Every question, every conversation, every thought was couched in the blight forced upon her because of her (fill in the blank). Everything was unfair. Everything was abusive. She took valid issues and made them feel artificial by forcing them into every conversation, appropriate or not. In everything, she was the victim. And my brother had always become who he dated. Under the influence of someone so broken, he seemed to regress, his Victim Card once again reinstated and the world once again unfair.
We debated many things that first night in San Diego, my dad and I against the two of them, though not intentionally. We debated together and in pairs and back together again, crossing and uncrossing across the living room, topics weaving together and pulling apart and fizzling in the face of something more tantalizing.
“Well, we might have to move back to China, that’s how bad it is,” my brother said, though neither of them had ever actually lived in China.
“There’s been…a lot of resistance to us as a mixed-race couple,” Alex said with vigorous head shaking to emphasize the validity of what she was claiming. In Seattle? What year is it?
“It’s…actually dangerous,” my brother said.
“Dangerous?! In Seattle? That doesn’t make sense,” I said. Alex looked physically wounded.
“Oh, it’s bad,” he said. “And the cops have gotten really bad in Seattle. They’re getting way harder on homeless people and especially minorities. I’ve seen some really brutal stuff, and downtown is getting a lot more dangerous.” I may have actually rolled my eyes.
“It’s true. The cops are not on our side. Especially minorities,” Alex said. “I’m afraid to even leave my apartment.”
“Afraid to leave your apartment? In Seattle? It can’t be that bad. Why would you be that afraid of the police in Seattle?” I’d been asking my brother, the six-foot white male trained in martial arts, more than I’d been asking Alex, but they behaved as one entity regardless.
“Well, when I was a kid, I got super curious once and I called 911 just because, you know, I wanted to see what it did, and they picked up, and I got nervous and didn’t know what to do, so I just hung up without saying anything. They showed up to my house to see if anything was wrong, and my mom totally freaked out. In Northern China, the cops were really bad, and they did bad things, so she freaked out and, being the abusive mom she was, cornered me and scolded me and told me never to do that again and that if I did, the cops would think something bad was happening to me and they’d take me away and I’d never see her again.” She stopped talking and gave me a can-you-even-believe-that look with her huge, puppy-dog-eyed stare, and it was all I could do to keep my jaw off the ground. I didn’t even know where to start. Perhaps with the fact that she didn’t grow up in Northern China; she grew up in a suburb of Seattle, though she always tried to make it sound like she wasn’t from the states. Or maybe with the fact that it’s not inherently abusive just to scold a child.
“…that’s why?” It was all I could say.
“One time, when I was downtown, I saw a police van pull up and they, like, super forcefully grabbed a homeless guy and threw him in the back of van and drove off,” my brother said, eyebrows raised.
“Ok, that doesn’t sound real.”
“Well, they’re getting a lot more militant, especially on 3rd Ave. It’s been getting bad for a while—a lot rougher, and now the cops are cracking down,” he said. Again, I rolled my eyes.
“It’s not that much rougher. And I haven’t seen any of what you’re talking about.”
“How would you know? You’ve been gone for, like, two years.” It wasn’t a statement, but an accusation.
“I have been gone for ten months, and I’ve been back four times for work, sometimes two weeks at a time.”
“Oh. Well, you didn’t even spend any time downtown before that, anyways.”
“…what? I worked downtown. My office is still on 9th and Terry, and I took the bus from White Center to work every day.”
“Where did you walk though? Did you even walk on 3rd?”
“Yes! Every day!” Exasperating.
“No, that doesn’t make sense for where your office was. What exactly was your path? Where did you get off and on the bus?” He was incredulous.
“Are you serious right now!? I got off the bus ON 3rd. I got on the bus ON 3rd. I don’t know why you refuse to believe me,” I said.
“Oh. Huh. Weird.”
Yeah. Weird. Asshole.
His blinking accelerated and he swallowed several times, obviously upset, his perception of inequality exacerbated. My brother never could control his emotions; he would angry-cry at the smallest remark. He’d punched holes in walls and threatened us with broken bottles over larger things. I didn’t know until my mid-twenties that he’d been abused. I hadn’t. I’d been told that, once, a long time ago, he and I had even reenacted it for our dad—the way our mom had hit him. I guess it happened a lot, but I didn’t remember. I only remembered his outbursts, his brutality. But through all of those years, those episodes of violence, I still could see who he was. With Alex, I couldn’t recognize him anymore.
I heard the opening and closing of cabinets, the chk chk of a stack of papers against a table. I pulled my sleeve down to expose my left shoulder and started to squeeze the pores, collections of thick, oily sebum sprouting up in tiny towers. Something to distract me.
I wiped one more time and reached for my pants and my socks. I stood up and looked in the mirror. I leaned in close to examine my complexion, and I started squeezing the orange-peel pores on my nose. I couldn’t stand blackheads. The lighting wasn’t great, but I could make it work. I had to lean a little far to see myself in the mirror, so I climbed up on the counter and crossed my legs in the sink, face all but pressed up against the glass. Now I could see what I was doing. I grabbed a square of toilet paper to wipe away the oil as I extracted it. If my brother opened the door right now, I don’t know what he would think.
He and I didn’t talk much after San Diego. I hadn’t told him why. I should have. A few years later, he’d called me to say they were engaged, and she flashed into my mind: cross-legged on the couch, her identity spread out in markers around her—her clipboard, her workbook, a stuffed animal, some tissues, a water glass, a mug with a straw, essential oils to calm her nerves, a Chinese oil for I’m not sure what, her stack of books that she never once opened but organized so that everyone could read the titles on their spines: Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, something in Chinese, an accounting book, a book on gender dysmorphia, and one of the Russian novels—non-stop picking the scabs from her acne-covered face, examining them, and sprinkling them on the carpet. She did this for hours; I couldn’t help but watch but watching made me queasy. I couldn’t believe she did this in front of people; I couldn’t believe she’d pick so bad that it scabbed and then pick some more. “My skin seems really good today,” she’d said in earnest to my brother at lunch as she dabbed at her oozing sores with a tissue. She touched all the food without washing her hands. My dad threw everything away.
“So we were thinking about having it in China, but then Alex was feeling anxious about that, and it started to trigger her gender dysmorphia really bad, and her periods were getting super intense and painful. We talked it through in therapy with Melody for a while and she realized that she has some conflict in her subconscious that’s built up over the years about going back to China, even though she’s visited, and that it’s because of this being such a big thing that it brought all that back up, and she doesn’t really want to address that right now, especially because she would probably have to wear traditional Chinese clothing for women, and that’s pretty upsetting,” he said. “It just would take a lot of self-work and concentration for both of us to work through that in enough depth that it would make a difference for Alex, and that emotional work is just so heavy; we don’t really have time with all the other emotional work we’re trying to do. So we’re just going to do everything in Seattle, and then maybe at some point we’ll head over to China to have something more ceremonial for the two of us…or maybe, you know, immediate family…iiif anyone wanted to come.”
“Interesting…” What else could I say? I’m sorry she has bad cramps? This wasn’t the first time he’d told me about her periods, and I really wished he wouldn’t.
“So we’re thinking late August, somewhere outside, like the Arboretum, maybe,” he said.
“So…would that work for you and Chris?”
And there it was. The question I’d hoped I’d never have to answer. I thought about the first time he’d brought her over, on Thanksgiving, when she’d asked permission to speak each time she wanted to say something (which was often) and, early on, had leaned down to where I’d knelt to pet my cat and asked if she could make an inappropriate joke. “Um, sure,” I’d said. She took a deep breath and, in almost one single long word, said, “I don’t think cats like me very much because they can sense my eating instinct. OH MY GOSH THAT WAS SO INAPPROPRIATE. Ahahahahha.” And then she got up and walked away, and I sat, dumbfounded, on my dining room floor, not sure what had just happened.
I thought about that night in San Diego, when he’d taken cheap shots at my intelligence and my stability. He wasn’t winning the debate, and he had to redeem himself. I wondered how often she did that to him.
I thought about the brief online chats we’d had since then and how every conversation left me fuming or regretting the effort, always chided for my lack of political correctness, for my “micro-aggressions” when I’d say something about men or women, even if benign.
I thought about when she got fired from her job for incompetence, but she immediately played the protected class card, as if they’d fired her because she was Chinese.
“Hmm…I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh? Damn. What about like…early August? Late July?” Fuck, I thought. My heart thumped and the blood rushed and I felt dizzy from a confrontation that had barely even begun.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to come,” I said.
“Oh. Why not? Maybe dad could help you with tickets, and you guys could stay with Chris’s dad or something? Or maybe—”
“No, we’re just not coming.”
“Oh.” I could hear him swallowing, and I could picture his face growing red, like it did, and his eyes tearing up despite his efforts to stop them, so he’d blink and blink and swallow and suck in his cheeks to stop himself from crying, but he’d cry anyways. “Well, why not?”
I remember biting the inside of my cheek and looking out the window. I’d opened it a little, and a fly wanted to get in, but it bounced and bounced and bounced against the outside of the glass, unable to find the small opening, even though it was just to the right. It tried five or six times and gave up, flying off into the distance. I had begun to cry without realizing it.
I hate Alex. I hate who you’ve become with Alex. I hate talking to you. I hate the way that you think. There’s nothing left of you that isn’t her, and I think you’re making such a big mistake. You are not this person. You’ve lost yourself.
“I just can’t. I’m sorry.” I hung up the phone. Would he have listened if I’d told him?
Years later, I had been home less than 24 hours after leaving my dad’s hospital bedside when my brother called. Normally, I wouldn’t have answered his call, but he called the landline, and I’d been running around all morning feeding cats and cleaning and reading the divorce papers my husband’s lawyer dropped off. He was claiming alimony, and I was trying to fight it, but I had such a small window of time to put my arguments together because I’d been in San Diego for so long. I didn’t think twice before picking up.
“Hey. So, dad died,” he said. It hit me like he’d punched my chest: hearing his voice for the first time in several years, plus what the voice said—and so suddenly. I leaned against the fridge and slid down the front of the doors to a heap on the floor.
“I thought he had more time,” I said.
“Yeah, well, it metastasized and spread to his brain and I guess he had a stroke,” he said.
“Fuck. So…now what?”
“Now nothing. I’ll handle it. You don’t need to come back,” he said, and he hung up the phone. I had no one left to call. I sat there and let the silence wash over me until the sound of the blood in my ears was deafening.
My brother was the estate executor, and, as it turned out, he’d found some way to put the estate in limbo for years on end. I’d tried to fight it, but I failed, and I won’t say it wasn’t about the money, because it was: after he liquidated everything, my dad had millions. Whatever my brother had done—because this had been my brother, not my dad—it was iron-clad. I got nothing. From what I know, he never even sold the house. We never spoke again, and there was no one left to keep us vicariously in touch, no updates to read when a holiday rolled around. It was as if he’d died when my dad died, and it probably felt the same for him. We’d both been alone (or close to it) for so long now, and I felt responsible. But wasn’t there still time?
I heard the high-pitched beep beep of a door sensor, but no sound of a door closing. I climbed off the counter, my knees and ankles cracking, and set my glasses down. I washed my hands and then splashed cold water on my face and patted it dry with the freshly folded hand towel he’d left for me. I put my glasses back on and stared at myself in the mirror. I had done things I’d regretted, and I could see them etched in my skin: the lines around my mouth and on my forehead from endless anxious hours, the cavernous dark circles beneath my eyes. It was inevitable, it seemed. I slung my purse back over my shoulder and turned off the bathroom light as I opened the door back into his living room. The front door sat open, the natural light like a spotlight cutting through the dimly lit interior. The edges of the light wavered a bit with the movement of the door in the slight breeze from outside. I stopped in the middle of the room, half-way back to the kitchen island, confused; I didn’t see my brother anywhere. I turned and saw Kaiju sitting tentatively at the second-floor landing up the stairs, curiosity piqued by the smells from outside, ears up, tail wagging. I wondered if he’d ever been outside. He didn’t seem too keen; my cats would have been long gone by now.
I saw a stack of papers on the island counter with a pink swirled-glass paperweight holding them down in the middle. The spring breeze lifted the corners just a bit, catching the far edge of the light from outside. I hung my purse back on the barstool with the strap resting on top of my coat and took the papers in my hand before lifting the weight. The top sheet was a ripped-out piece of college-ruled notebook paper, yellow against the printed stack beneath it, and I knew my brother’s handwriting before the words had a chance to register. When he was little—maybe four or five—he began to write with his left hand, but his teacher, for reasons I will never understand, forced him to use his right. She’d scolded and punished him for writing with his left, this tiny boy, already so confused by the adults in his life. Weren’t they supposed to care for him? Why was everything he did so wrong? His handwriting suffered, a chicken scratch that never really became legible, always there to remind him that he was a disappointment.
I read the top line of the note—“Hey, sis,”—and quickly flipped through the stack beneath, which looked to be all the documents I’d never seen from our dad’s death: his will, his bank statements, the liquidation papers and account numbers and notes from his companies and lawyers. I set the stack down and put the paperweight back in the middle, holding just the note in my hand. I sat down on the stool that held my coat and stretched the note out in front of me to catch the light. I had to read it twice.
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kept this from you…it’s always been yours. I hope you can forgive me.
I put down the note and wiped my eyes and nose with the backs of my hands. He didn’t have a car, and his wallet and keys were still on the counter where they’d sat when I had arrived. I walked quickly out the front door across the courtyard to the gate, which swung open in the wind, and looked to the left down the long street lined with cars, but not with people. I didn’t see him. I looked to the right, but that blind corner curved toward the bridge and out of sight. Kaiju rubbed against my leg, curious enough about the world outside to finally accept me, but only if I stood there with him.
Adrienne Marie Barrios is a writer and an editor. She writes about mental health and relationships, the interplay between the two and the external world. Her work has been featured in such magazines as X-R-A-Y Lit Mag. She edits award-winning novel manuscripts and short stories. She is currently writing her second novel and is a frequent writer in residence at L’ATELIER Writers. You can find her online at adriennemariebarrios.com.