The first part of this fair fable is here. I have to chuckle to myself as I ponder writing the second part. I had a conversation recently with a friend who is thinking about writing a blog and this friend shared with me that they had kept a journal. They felt that journaling offered them a freedom to write all of the things they were thinking and feeling and were wondering if blogging could offer something similar. My blog began, for me, as a journal. I kept a personal journal on LiveJournal for years, but found it difficult to write about science and my career there. So, I became Dr. Isis. Somewhere along the way I became enough of a humorless blowhard that I lost sight of what I had originally intended to do. Archive the personal. Now, we can certainly discuss what it means to do it so very publicly, cultivating the voyeuristic nature of it all, but for now…
My brother finally made the move north to live with me on Tuesday. The process of getting him here has been so very strange. When his father died in April, I asked him to come with me, but he was reluctant to leave California. I didn’t need to be a soothsayer to realize the predicament I was leaving him in. He wasn’t working. His father had no life insurance or assets to leave him and his unemployment benefits ended with his death. My brother’s unemployment benefits and food stamps covered only enough food to get by. The house they were living in was dirty and rundown. The absolute barest of minimums. While I was there, I slept in a reclining chair, covered with a fitted sheet. My brother and stepfather had very little else and there was no money in the budget to maintain even that basic lifestyle. There was not enough for the next month’s rent and they were already a month behind. The barrio uncles all promised to take care of him when I left, but I knew better. Barrio uncles will abandon you as soon as they find someone willing to open their legs or offer them their next fix. And, sure enough…
When my brother lost his place to live, I asked him to come here again. He fed me some hot bullshit about how he had no one left. The mother, father, uncle, and grandparents that he felt raised him were all dead. I was angry. I wanted to shake him and tell him that he still had me. He decided to move to Arizona to live with some relatives he’d only met once before. I wanted to tell him, again, that I knew that this would end poorly. I wanted to tell him that I knew that he wouldn’t be comfortable with people he didn’t know and that I was worried that they might not realize the level of commitment they were making. And, sure enough…
In September things fell apart where he was living. I made arrangements for him to come here and picked him up in Chicago. I arrived at the airport, the temperature below freezing, and found him standing outside in shorts and a t-shirt. A police officer was standing next to him in full winter attire with a concerned look on her face. I made sure the car was warm and promised we’d get him a winter coat. As we put his bags in the car, I asked him whether he’d had dinner and he confessed that he hadn’t slept or eaten in days. Having been hungry like that takes a toll. It makes you afraid to eat for fear that you’ll eat everything and have nothing. It was especially bad in our house where we’d get in trouble if we finished anything. Growing up, we learned to ration the smallest portions of things to make them look untouched. And, it was torture. Just enough food to keep you alive. Just enough food to remind you how hungry you were.
We stopped at Taco Bell on the highway on the way home and he ordered a single taco. I scowled at him and promised that he wouldn’t be hungry as long as he lived in my house. He ordered more. The next days proved a struggle to convince him that it was safe to eat. I’d come home and ask, “Did you eat?”
“Well, not really. I had a granola bar. I was afraid to eat all of your good food.”
The night I picked him up from the airport I could tell that he hadn’t been sober. Within the first 15 miles of our drive, finally with a full stomach, he turned to me and said, “Please don’t let me drink myself to death because I have nothing else.” I stopped and told him that this couldn’t be an option if we were going any farther together. I promised I’d keep him safe, but that I was expecting him to get a job. He couldn’t be drunk in my house because no one is drunk in my house. I pointed to the side of the highway and also promised that if I ever discovered that there were drugs in my house, I’d bring him back to that spot and leave him there. I told him that I was committed to helping him build a life, but that I wouldn’t sacrifice my children for it. More important than anything else, they couldn’t know the type of life we’d known. He’s done well so far. He’s kept busy and sober since he arrived.
I knew that this was a conversation that we would need to have. I knew that I’d need to help him deal with his fear of eating, just as I had dealt with mine. I knew that he’d need winter clothes and help finding work. I knew that we had a lot of hard work ahead of us to get his life on track and I was ready for it.
But, there’d be no point in writing this if there also weren’t things I hadn’t been prepared for.
When we were kids, my two parents, my brothers, my uncle, and I lived in a two bedroom house. My brothers and I shared a bedroom with a single twin bed and we worked out a rotation system. Every night one person got the bed. Another slept on the floor, and the third slept on the living room sofa. Each night we rotated this arrangement so that every third night, I took the living room sofa. Bed, floor, sofa. Bed, floor, sofa.
On the nights that it was my turn to sleep on the sofa, my stepfather would get high and keep me up with him. We’d sit on the sofa and listen to music or watch old movies and talk about the bands he was playing with. I’d do my homework and we’d talk about the books that I was reading. That meant that every third night, I was up all night. But, I also came to value that time because it was peaceful. His addiction hadn’t spiraled completely out of control and those nights were lulls from the anger and violence that would show itself in the daytime. I could convince myself that he hadn’t really meant to be so cruel and that he really did love me. Morning would come and he’d go to sleep and I’d go to school.
After a few years, we moved into a new house. We all had our own bedrooms, but my stepfather kept up the third night rotation. It became sleep, sleep, sofa. Sleep, sleep, sofa. As he began to lose control of his addiction, he’d get high more often and ask for me to stay up with him more frequently. I’d hear him get up and turn the TV on and I knew that he was going to knock on my bedroom door and ask me to come out to the sofa. Soon, it became sofa, sofa, sleep. Sleep, sofa, sofa. He’d start the night by making a pot of coffee and we’d drink coffee with brandy and Baileys all night. Some nights I could refuse and he’d accept my refusal. Most nights he hassled me about drinking with him and I’d go to school staggering. A drunk at 13. I was exhausted.
Then, one night at 2:42 am, when I was 14, he turned to me. He said, “Isis, I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t want us to hurt your mother, but I’ve fallen in love with you.” I’ve replayed that moment over and over in my mind for nearly twenty years with the same unchanging shock and disbelief I felt the night it happened. He slid next to me on the sofa and rested his hand between my legs, over my pajamas. I cried silently while he watched the 1939 version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
For a little while, that’s what we were. I’d get ready for bed and go to my room. I’d hear the TV in the living room turn on and I’d know he’d knock soon and ask me to sit on the couch with him. He’d pour drinks and rest his hand between my legs while he watched a movie. Soon, I ran out of tears and he ran out of interest in simply resting his hand between my legs. Hearing the TV turn on came to mean the possibility of something so much worse.
I’m not a good sleeper and I still wake up at 2am every night to check and see if the TV is on. I get up and walk around the house and make sure that I’m safe. After a few sleepless years of marriage, I finally begged Mr. Isis to move the TV out of our bedroom, although I’ve never told him why I can’t sleep with the TV on.
Turns out, my brother’s sleep schedule is a lot like his father’s and on Thursday night he started getting up at midnight, going to the living room, making coffee, and turning on the TV and I haven’t slept since. Yesterday my family left town to visit my in-laws. Last night when I heard the TV turn on and found myself alone, I curled into the far corner of my bed, smelling coffee and cologne and hearing old movies, and soaked the sheets in a cold sweat while I watched my bedroom door. I spent the morning paralyzed and afraid to leave my room. Afraid to go eat. Afraid to let anyone remember I was there. I’m not in danger. My stepfather is dead and my brother is not a threat to me, but I’m as afraid of the sound of the TV in the middle of the night as I was twenty years ago.
Things with my stepfather soon infiltrated the daytime and he’d come for me even though the sun hadn’t gone down. Never in the same way as at night, but just as insidious. On Friday afternoons he’d send my brothers to their rooms and ask me to iron his shirts for the shows he would play that weekend. He’d set the iron and ironing board up in his bedroom and remind me, “Extra starch on the collar.” Then, he’d go into his bathroom and start the shower. He’d take off his clothes, step into the shower, and watch me iron through the shower glass while he masturbated. I’d iron until he was finished. One of the shirts was black and he’d get angry if he came out of the shower and found it shiny from the iron.
This afternoon, when I could hear that my brother was awake and I had finally gotten over the sound of the TV, I went downstairs to check on him. Sure as shit, as though the universe had made an extra special commitment to fuck with me in one big bolus, my brother was standing in the kitchen in shorts and my stepfather’s black shirt. The shirt was faded and sheer from many years of laundering, but there was no doubt in my mind that this was the shirt that I had spent so many Fridays ironing while my stepfather covered the shower door in semen. My brother must have noted my surprise at seeing him in the shirt, far too large for him and a reminder of what an enormous man my stepfather was, because he said, “Do you remember this shirt? My dad always wore it out to play. He said it made him think of special memories and I wanted to feel closer to him.”
Now, I feel closer to him again too..
(To be continued)