I ask my brother if he remembers the pigeons. When we lived in New York City, a family of pigeons started inhabiting our terrace, which was lined with fake grass and only big enough for a mini grill that we never used. The birds built a nest underneath the grill. The mother laid eggs, and both the mother and father left white splotches of shit all over the terrace like abstract art. After a few weeks Mom insisted that Dad get rid of the pigeons. This happened when I was six or seven, a year or two before we moved to Florida, where our parents still live.

Almost twenty-five years later, when I ask my brother about the pigeons, I feel something like dread. He recalls how Dad swept the nest, eggs and all, right off our tenth-floor terrace, and how Mom insisted on disinfecting the whole area before we could set foot out there again. We laugh at the memory of Dad wearing a snorkeling mask and swinging two yardsticks taped together to fend off the birds, but it scared me as a kid. A lot of memories that were programmed in fear get traded for comedy.

We lived in a building called the Whitehall in the Bronx, in an area called Spuyten Duyvil, right on the edge of the Hudson River. Apartment 10E. I was always jealous because the E seemed to stand for my brother’s first name; I wanted it to be a B for mine. When I think about that beautiful apartment for too long, my heart hurts. I wish I’d been older when we lived there so I could have enjoyed it more: its white-brick exterior and its doorman and its basement laundry room with the bouncy carts I could fit inside. Our parents had twin white Cadillacs in the underground garage, and I could see the snowy street from my window in the winter. I long for my pink bedroom and my brother’s blue one, and the way we kept each other company. It was the only place we ever lived where we weren’t aware of each other’s afflictions.

When we left for Florida in 1998, my mom’s mom had just passed away, and she wanted to be closer to her older sister in Boca Raton. My brother was never quite the same afterward; he felt unfairly uprooted. As I climb into my thirties, I wonder if the move burned a hole in me as well.


I wake up on a Saturday morning and see that my brother called around 5 AM. I’m in Los Angeles, and he’s three hours ahead in Florida. He doesn’t answer when I call him back, so I check my texts and see a message: Three words. Our secret code. The code my brother and I use if one of us is suicidal. We came up with it during my last serious bout of depression. He told me to text it to him, no matter the time of day, and he’d call.

As I sit in the kitchen, staring at my phone, everything I’ve learned in therapy leaves my head. There is no self-care, no What can I do for myself in this moment? There is only the urgent need to know if my brother is OK and, if not, to figure out how I will rescue him. I text Mom to ask if she’s spoken to my brother. She writes that he’s at his fiancée’s apartment in Miami this weekend; they’re supposed to have Rosh Hashanah dinner with her family tomorrow. I think of where he might be: up on the roof, hiding in a stairwell, in the middle of the ocean, sitting on their balcony smoking cigarette after cigarette.

A few minutes later he calls and says he had a fight with his fiancée. I want to ask if the fight led to his wanting to end his life, but I let him talk as I pace in my kitchen. My husband is still asleep, so I whisper when I ask why he used the code.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I’m sorry,” my brother says, like a long-distance lover who is canceling his plans to fly in for the weekend.

Relieved, I talk to him about the fight. I advise him to focus on caring for himself, giving himself space. He says he’ll be driving to our parents’ place in Delray for a few days to do just that. He needs to be alone, he says. After I get off the phone, I go back to bed and find my husband awake, the light of his phone illuminating his face. “Everything OK?” he asks.

“It might have been the most normal conversation I’ve ever had with my brother,” I tell him.


My brother flipped his car on his way to school one morning.

My brother was beaten up and robbed behind a CVS.

My brother was suspended for talking back to his world-history teacher.

My brother was suspended again for parking his silver BMW in the staff lot next to the dean’s personal space.

My brother was kicked out of his halfway house.

My brother once asked if I wanted ecstasy. I was a sophomore in high school.

My brother asked me not to tell our parents about the pills he hid in his childhood LEGO set. He showed them to me: inside a tiny treasure chest that clicked shut and rested on the sand of a LEGO island, a pirate in a rowboat rowing to shore. Or away from it—I couldn’t tell.


There are around 4 million pigeons in New York City—roughly one for every two people. They arrived in America in the 1600s from Europe and later made their way into cities, finding residence in the crevices of buildings, making nests high in skyscrapers, which mimic the seaside cliffs they once called home. Pigeons can survive solely on discarded human food: rice, bagels, even doughnuts.

Anytime we saw a pigeon in New York, Mom would scream, “God damn it! Filthy bastards!”


The first time my brother got drunk, I was eight years old. Our family was in Aruba for our annual winter vacation, and at fourteen he was too old to play bingo at the pool or watch the turtle races every afternoon. He’d sneak out at night with the older kids, hang around the hotel bar, smuggle alcohol to the beach, look for trouble. One night the other kids dropped my brother off outside our hotel room in the middle of the night. He was drunk and dressed in different clothes than he’d been wearing at dinner. My parents decided it was best to let him sleep it off, but he proceeded to vomit all over the hotel bed. They stripped the bed and dragged him into the bathroom while I watched, confused and scared. I didn’t know what being drunk was, what alcohol was, what any of it meant. I thought he was going to die.

I remember the fuzzy body of my stuffed sheep, the sharp smell of my dad’s cologne, the moonlight shining through the window, the bathroom door slamming, hiding away my brother while he gurgled and vomited into the hotel toilet.


After our early-morning phone call, my brother becomes unreachable. Later I learn that he stayed in Miami and tried to work things out with his fiancée before driving home to Delray. I’m proud of him for doing what he needed to do. I write him a letter of encouragement and email it to our mom so she can print it out and give it to him. That way he’ll feel no pressure to immediately write back.

My husband and I are carving pumpkins for Halloween when my brother texts. I take my phone to the bedroom and close the door.

He thanks me for the letter and shares a memory of the time we went to an Old West tourist trap in Sedona, Arizona, where we panned for fool’s gold and fought over who got the biggest piece, too young and naive to know the rocks were all worthless. How poetic, he writes. He says he’s been drinking and it makes his thoughts move in strange directions: I had a thought so Powerful it could destroy anything it came into contact with, he texts, including all of humanity, but since my mind had touched it . . . it destroyed my mind . . . and now for the LIFE of me . . . I can’t remember it . . . does that make sense???

My brother hasn’t done drugs in years, as far as I know, but I became aware of his sporadic drinking last January when I was in Florida for an alumnae reading at my graduate school. My family and I went to dinner afterward, to celebrate my book and so everyone could meet my future husband. My brother ordered a few beers, and I had a panic attack in the restaurant bathroom. My mom had to talk me down: “He drinks sometimes,” she said, like it was nothing. So I had to pretend it was.

Yes, I respond to him now. I can relate to that thought and feeling. I’ve had some bad experiences drinking this year and have cut back. It’s definitely become a downer for me. But back to what you were saying—the mind is so powerful. I sometimes feel like I can fathom certain things, like life and death, and then in the blink of an eye it goes away, dissipates. Totally relate. Like I was given a glimpse of something meaningful and big.

He tells me how Mom’s rabbi tried to convince him that life has a purpose, but my brother wasn’t having it. Existence is a tapestry of chaos, he writes, that we impose meaning on to give our lives purpose. When the rabbi suggested that God has a plan for each of us, as if we were tiny cogs in His pocket watch, my brother said maybe the universe is more like a clock without a craftsman, moving without cause or reason.

I don’t know if we’ll ever know either way, I answer. I don’t know how to convince someone else that life has meaning; that, even in our darkest moments, there is a point. I especially don’t know how to convince my brother. He has comforted me many times with his words, and I feel inadequate now. I consider repeating his own motto back to him: “Things could always be worse.”

I once smoked weed laced with angel dust. I fucked my drug dealer and let him live with me for two weeks because he was homeless and addicted to heroin. I’ve saved pills from surgeries and taken them when I wanted to end things. I’ve had so many therapists and psychiatrists, tried so many antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. I’ve chewed ginseng root. I’ve gone to Israel and put messages into the Wailing Wall. I’ve spoken to pastors, priests, rabbis. I’ve prayed, kneeling on the ground, eyes closed, screaming at God.

What I mean to say is, I know how bad it can get.

When my brother stops responding, I text my mom to see if she’s awake. She is, and she tells me not to worry, that I can’t do anything more for my brother than I’ve already done. She says he’s been better since he met with the rabbi. (I haven’t shared our texts with her, only summarized them.) She tells me that when I have children, I’ll learn to truly let go of control. Until then, I might not be able to understand that there comes a point where you have to let someone live their life.

“Do you know if he’s asleep?” I ask, since he’s staying with her.

“I think so,” she says.

I want to ask her to go check and see if he’s in bed, if he’s breathing, but I don’t. Instead I go outside and find my husband lighting the pumpkin. We turn off the porch lights and admire its grin glowing in the dark.


I miss another middle-of-the-night call from my brother. In the morning I call him back from my living room. When he doesn’t pick up, I sit on the couch and wait. To stay calm, I do a grounding exercise in which I name the objects around me: gray couch, television set, bookshelf, coffee table, wedding ring. Then I name the sensations in my body: tightness in my chest, pulse in my ears, hollow feeling in my stomach. Finally he calls.

“Hi,” I say, ready for whatever it is.

“Britt,” he says, and I can tell he’s smiling.

“Are you OK?”

“I’m great!”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on the beach right now. The motherfucking beach. I timed this phone call perfectly. Right now your dear brother is peaking on acid.”

Like that, I’m back in the hotel room: My brother has vomited all over the bed. His eyes are closed as he lies on the floor. I have to use the bathroom, but I don’t want to go while my brother is passed out, so my dad puts on a robe and takes me downstairs to use the bathroom in the lobby. The lobby is quiet, and I want to stay here instead of going back to the room where my brother might be dying, might be dead. No one has explained to me that he was drunk. No one has told me anything. The following afternoon, when I ask my mom if my brother is in trouble, she says, “How he feels today is punishment enough.” My parents don’t take away his Game Boy or forbid him from hanging out with his friends. They don’t ground him—nothing.

All I can say to him now is “Wow. How do you feel?” I want him to tell me not to worry. I want him to tell me I can let go. But I’m not sure even his permission would be enough.

“I feel really good. When you come to Florida next, you have to do acid with me. I have special stuff—really clean, good stuff. I’ll save some for us. You know, since I met with that rabbi, I’ve actually been praying every night. But I haven’t gotten any answers.” He laughs. “So I woke up this morning and decided that sometimes you have to fix yourself.”

I picture my brother on the beach. I wonder if he remembered the building’s keypad code to get out to the sand, or if someone had to let him out. I wonder if he left his shoes by the gate. I wonder if he put his feet in the water and asked God to wash it all away.

I tell him to be careful and that I have to go. I tell him I love him.

I go for a hike and try to convince myself this is a good thing. Maybe LSD is the medicine he needs. I don’t know. When I reach the trail peak, I find a heart-shaped rock and put it in my pocket. I decide to send it to my brother: an omen, an answer to his prayers.

A few hours later he texts. He says he is sitting at the computer, looking at a still image from an anime series and feeling all the hurt and regret and sorrow that inspired that image. If he could produce something that powerful, he believes, then all his hardship would be worth it.

Don’t worry, he texts. I’m still in a good state . . . Really good . . . it’s just so powerful.

I try calling my mom. She texts that she’s proctoring an SAT test for the next few hours. I consider telling her what’s going on, but I can’t.

Later she calls from the car and says that my brother picked her up and is driving her home. The breath leaves my body, and I think this is somehow my fault.


Should I have told my mom about the acid? Or should I continue to keep my brother’s secrets, like I have so many times before? My brother has been texting me more and more, but I’ve kept my distance. My therapist tells me I’m getting nothing out of this relationship, while my brother gets everything he wants. Even though I bristle at the comment, it makes me question what I’ve held on to for so long. What good am I doing by dropping my life to see to my brother’s? What good is it to protect him when he isn’t concerned with protecting me? My therapist is right. I’m the little sister. I should need him more than he should need me. So why do I remain his caretaker? Why must I absorb his pain?


My husband and I spend Halloween in Ventura, California, where we got married over a year ago, and I find more unique rocks on the beach. I continue sending them to my brother. Sometimes I think I can smell the smoke from his Marlboro Reds, or feel the worn cotton of his Eddie Bauer sweatshirt, or taste the red Gatorade he drinks.

I was looking at the rocks again this morning, my brother writes, and it made me think of an old Home Movies episode. Where Brendon’s class is fundraising for the homeless, and he spends all the money he raised on movies and concessions, so when everyone in class is putting bills and change into a bucket, he drops in several rocks. Mr. Lynch catches him and says, “The homeless don’t need rocks. What are they gonna do with extra rocks? Eat them?”

It made me think, we’re the only ones who can appreciate such gifts.


Writing this at my kitchen table, I look out the picture window and see two pigeons fighting over a piece of ribbon on the sidewalk. It’s not even food, but they want it. They peck at each other and flap their wings. Eventually one breaks free, the ribbon shining in its beak.