Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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“YOU EVER WORRY about your brother?” Brenna asks.
“No,” I say.
“Most sisters worry about brothers who go to war.”
We are sitting in my car in a McDonald’s parking lot at midnight. Cardboard cup holders and napkins litter the asphalt. We scarf down french fries, the ketchup packets bleeding onto our fingers.
“My brother and I aren’t close,” I tell her. “I hardly remember what he looks like.”
“Still,” she says, “don’t you love him?”
I ask her to define love.
Brenna stirs her milkshake with her straw and takes a sip. We are both twenty. We have been friends since high school and still spend summer nights together the way we did when we were sixteen: late-night food runs in downtown Bangor, Maine, the stoplights blinking red in the dark.
“Would you put him before yourself?”
“Would you invite him to your wedding?”
“Would you cry if he died?”
I suck the salt from my fingertips and turn the key in the ignition. “No.”
MY BROTHER TAUGHT me how to ride a bike; he built me a treehouse; we spent snow days sledding in our backyard and summer days hunting for frogs in the creek. He had an army knife he could use to pick any lock. Late at night I’d hear the ping that signaled the release of the latch on my bedroom door, and he would enter and sit at the foot of my bed and tell me stories about ghosts and madmen. He built me the most elaborate fish tanks I have ever seen, filled with yellow tangs, clown fish, and dottybacks. I’d run my fingers along the hoods of the filters, where the salt had crystallized, and watch angelfish dart behind the rocks. Gobies sought refuge in the anemones. Blennies dug gravel tunnels, bouncing along the tank floor like seals. My brother built worlds for me that were deep and endless and blue.
We lived in a household that was lacking in parental care. Our mother worked the night shift as a hospital nurse and slept during the day. The only time I saw her was in the early evening, when she’d wake up, don a peach bathrobe, stand by the kitchen sink, and make herself a cup of coffee. She usually fixed us dinner before she left, but when she was too busy, it was my brother who put on a pot of macaroni and cheese and listened to me babble about my day. Our father had a temper that led to screaming and hitting. When he lifted his hand to strike me, my brother was always there, pulling me out of the way. He took care of me.
But sometimes at night, when I wandered to the kitchen for a glass of water, my brother tugged me by the hand into the dark hallway. He pushed me to the carpeted floor, shimmied down my jeans, and told me it was a game.
MY FIRST BOYFRIEND asks how far I’ve gone with a boy.
I weigh my answer.
“Far,” I say.
MY BROTHER ENLISTS in the Army when I am twelve. Life without him is hard. There is no one to act as a barrier between my father and myself. I spend much of my time sitting quietly in my bedroom with the door locked. Three years later my brother comes home for the first time on leave. At fifteen I know the word molestation, but it is something done to you by strangers, not brothers who build you forts and make homemade peanut-butter cups. He arrives in uniform, and I feel shy and don’t know what to say. I expect him to tell me stories. I expect my brother to build me a whole world filled with stopovers in Germany and herds of camels in the Middle Eastern sunshine.
“It was nothing,” he says. “War is nothing.”
My brother is hardened and tan. His speech is brisk and concise. He sleeps during the day with a butcher knife under his pillow and stays awake all night. I lock my bedroom door. I leave the light on and listen to the sounds of my brother pacing the kitchen. I drift off, then rip myself from sleep, thinking I hear the click of the army knife in the lock, the turning of the knob.
I AM EIGHTEEN and a student at a university. Brenna and I walk by the student union, where the Women’s Center is putting on its annual “Take Back the Night” event. The participants march with garishly colored signs and chant, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, violence against girls has got to go!”
There is a part of me that cannot take this seriously. They cannot possibly believe that there is a rapist on campus who will suddenly reconsider his actions due to a group of angry girls with battery-operated candles. I smirk.
“Do you think rape is funny?” one girl asks, and I laugh.
I AM SEVEN, eight, nine, ten, eleven. It goes on for years.
It is a November day. I am behind my father’s shed, in the woods that run alongside Route 9. I worry about ticks. The sky is shimmering gray, and the trees form a skeletal canopy, cracking and swaying in the wind. My fingers are cold, but my body is warm. There is the firmness of him pressed against my back, the sticky feel and smell of cum. And then it’s over. I feel nothing.
ONE DAY, during his first visit home from the military, my brother pulls onto Main Street and plows into a truck, completely demolishing the front of his Jeep. It looks like a paper fan, all folded up. My brother panics and smashes his arm through the closed driver’s-side window, because he has watched a fellow soldier burn to death while trapped inside an armored vehicle. The soldier’s truck hit a roadside bomb, and a spark ignited the gasoline. They tried to free him but couldn’t. The soldier screamed until he died.
My brother shows me the stitches on his arm from breaking the window. “Touch them,” he says, and I run my fingers up and down the purple gash sewn up in black. His fear is tangible. I imagine the metal warping on the truck, the screaming of the soldier, the heat radiating into the Iraqi air.
I DON’T SLEEP the same after my brother’s visit ends. I wake at all the small creaks and pops of my parents’ house. I hear a truck hit a pothole on Route 9, and I sit up, disoriented, thinking someone’s pounding on my door. I have a recurring nightmare: A silhouetted figure stands over the foot of my bed, legs spread, arms hanging loosely at his sides. His hands are clawed. He is entirely dark except for a toothy white grin.
The nightmare follows me everywhere. At home I dream of him crouched beside me, peering over the lip of the bed. At the university I dream of him climbing the ladder to my loft, claws clicking on each rung.
MY BROTHER DOESN’T come home again. He marries a Mormon girl, and they have a baby. They name her Nevaeh, which I think is a dumb name, although I do not say so. She has her mother’s blond hair and my mother’s blue eyes. My sister-in-law and Nevaeh visit during the holidays while my brother is overseas.
I play dolls with Nevaeh, read books to her, and take her to the park. I carry her on my hip, the same way my brother carried me as a child. My sister-in-law cocks her head to the side. “You remind me of your brother,” she says. “You have the same eyes and the same expressions. You walk like him and you talk like him.” She tightens her coat against the chill and matches her strides with mine. “Being with you is like being with him,” she says.
I REMEMBER IT in specific colors: blues, purples, grays. We are in the cellar. There is the dark-turquoise carpet beneath my back. Dusky light falls through the venetian blinds and across my arms, my thighs. My brother is moaning while I study the gray heater, which sputters softly. It has been a cold winter. My brother’s face is blue and purple in the dim December light. His hair and eyes are jet-black.
On warm April evenings there are the same colors: the gray-blue comforter that covers his double bed, the deep-navy curtains, the mauve of his sweater, the robin’s-egg color of his jeans as he unbuttons them, the purplish circles under his eyes, the blue veins in his cock.
I KNOW WHAT my idealized version of love is: I find someone I can say everything to. Then I say it.
I have never loved anyone.
THE OLDER I GROW, the more I struggle with my history of sexual abuse. It begins to affect me in little ways that at first I don’t even notice: I am afraid to walk to my car by myself in the dark, and I always check the back seat. I get the hypoglycemic shakes because I feel too sick to eat, and I pile on extra layers of clothing because, at five foot ten and 119 pounds, I am always cold. I suffer from panic attacks. A string of therapists ask if I was ever molested, but I always say no. To say, “I was molested,” feels wrong to me.
I am an English major, and because I cannot say, “I was molested,” I try to write it instead, but that doesn’t work. I wonder if I could come to terms with the abuse if I chose to double-major in women’s studies.
I listen to my feminist professors discuss the pain of coverture — an archaic law that allows a married woman to own property only through her husband — and the courts’ refusal to acknowledge marital rape up through the 1990s. They discuss the degradation of taking a man’s name and the inequality caused by childbirth. They discuss how women are valued solely for sex and how a prostitute makes more than a child-care worker. They discuss how the word erotica comes from eros, meaning “mutual love,” but pornography comes from porne, meaning “female slave.” They discuss how if you want to study men, you take history, and if you want to study women, you take yourself elsewhere.
“I fucking love this class,” says the girl to my left. “All you have to do is sound really pissed off, and you get an A.”
I AM AFRAID to imagine my brother dead. I am afraid that if I let myself picture the coffin and the embalmed body, God will strike me down to Caïna. It is the lowest circle of the Inferno, where souls freeze instead of burn, and I will spend eternity there, covered in ice except for my face, where the shame can show.
But, worse, I am afraid that my brother cannot die. I am afraid I will open the coffin, and it will be empty, or I will look down on him, and he will open his eyes wide.
I am afraid that even when he dies, he will never die for me.
I AM A BOY’S GIRL. In college I run around with the same pack of nine boys until I graduate. I stand under stadium lights at football games, warming my hands in their pockets and asking them the score. I watch them play FIFA World Cup on their Xboxes, and I partake in Nerf-gun wars. We visit the gym, and they teach me how to bench-press, refusing to laugh when I cannot push the forty-five-pound bar away from my chest. We play volleyball in the mud and flip-cup in the unfinished basements of lakeside houses.
When my women’s-studies classmates see me in the dining hall surrounded by boys, they stop and joke, “We thought you were a feminist!”
I sit at the table, braiding and unbraiding my long brown hair. “I am,” I say.
MY BROTHER and his first wife divorce. He is engaged again five months later, and the wedding is scheduled for early December. It is now Thanksgiving, and I am searching through my mother’s bureau for a bracelet while she sits and fills out a crossword puzzle in ink.
“We’ll only be gone four days,” she says. “You can make up the schoolwork.”
“I really can’t,” I say.
“But this is your brother’s wedding.”
His second wedding, I remind her. I sift through her old rings and pearl necklaces. Her drawers smell like lavender and potpourri. “Time off from school is only merited for a first wedding,” I say, “and I don’t remember going to that one either.”
My mother sets her crossword down. “When did my daughter turn so coldhearted?”
I listen to her descend the stairs and shut the kitchen door. I stand at her bureau and finger the smoothness of a pearl bead in my hand.
“I’m not coldhearted,” I say.
I WOULD LIKE to think love will conquer everything, that I will spend summers with my brother, and he will let me sleep on his couch and wake me up for morning runs; that we will hike in the Colorado mountains; that he will build me a world filled with unexplored terrain, a new adventure every day; that he will once again fill the familial void.
But love does not conquer everything. For class I read the Völsunga Saga, an Icelandic legend about dragon-slaying and blood feuds that rip families apart. The heroine Gudrun, who avenges her brothers’ deaths, says, “The legacy that endures the longest is not love, but undying cruelty.”
I SIT IN the campus police station at one in the morning. It is my final year at the university.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” the officer says. “When did you realize there was something wrong?”
I was asleep, I say, and I heard screaming. I thought it was just a few drunk kids and it would stop. Then I realized it was a girl screaming, and she was scared. I re-create the scene: I stood at my bedroom window and watched while several boys surrounded a girl, one pressing his body close to hers as he backed her into a corner of the courtyard, shouting into her face.
Wrinkles appear on the officer’s brow as he tries to type. “Sorry,” he says with a sheepish smile. “Writing’s never been my strong point. English is my wife’s second language, and she’s always correcting me.”
He prints my statement, and I sign.
What I don’t say is that the girl’s cries must have woken dozens of students in the apartment complex. The next day, when the boy’s arrest is reported in the papers and the article says that he hit her and spit on her, I wonder why I was the only one who thought to call for help.
Later, when I speak to the girl, I tell her it wasn’t her fault, that there was nothing she could have done to deserve it. I tell her this not because it’s what I’m supposed to say, but because it is true.
I wonder, in that moment, why I never thought to say it to myself.
I BABY-SIT for a beautiful baby girl, only thirteen months old. Her eyes are shifting from blue to brown; her hair is golden wisps. Her mother is a music teacher, and the baby presses the piano keys and sings nonsense syllables, imitating the sounds of the instrument. I would like to have a child like her someday.
Her mother waltzes in from the December chill with the groceries and my pay. She asks about my family, and I give the standard response: Mom is working long hours at the hospital; my brother just got remarried and is going on his fifth tour to Iraq.
“God bless your brother,” she says. “He’s so brave, fighting for our country.”
I nod and kiss the baby goodbye, then walk home in the cold air. Christmas lights twinkle in the yards, and I imagine my brother overseas.
He drives a truck across the desert in one of the convoys. He wears tan camouflage, his Ray-Ban sunglasses. Sand billows around the truck, and he runs the windshield wipers, leaning forward to peer through the glass. His world is filled with sun and heat. The vast desert emptiness welcomes him. And then he hits a roadside bomb. His truck flips on its side, and there are screams and flames. Soldiers are running, breaking glass, pulling him from the wreckage. They shake him; they check for a pulse; they wonder if he is dead.
I think he is dead.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
I love The Sun and take it with me to the gym to read while I’m on the stairclimber. The magazine is so engrossing that the time, which otherwise seems endless, whips right by.
I was a magazine editor for twenty-five years before I retired, and, like any longtime editor, I have my share of pet peeves. I can’t count all the uses of over I’ve changed to more than. Since I retired, the Chicago Manual of Style has decided that the two are interchangeable. So I’ve given up on that one, but I still have a huge problem with the use of myself in place of me or I. So imagine my distress when I read the sentence “There is no one to act as a barrier between my father and myself” in “A Boy’s Girl,” by Katherine LaBelle [October 2014]. It should be “my father and me.”
I know it’s a minor point and hardly worth mentioning, but I’m concerned that, if I read more such errors, I might miss a step on the stairclimber and hurt myself.
I admire Katherine LaBelle’s courage in sharing her experience of sexual abuse [“A Boy’s Girl,” October 2014]. I want her to know that her words helped me heal. One part in particular touched my heart. LaBelle describes talking to a woman with an abusive boyfriend: “I tell her it wasn’t her fault, that there was nothing she could have done to deserve it. I tell her this not because it’s what I am supposed to say, but because it is true. I wonder, in that moment, why I never thought to say it to myself.”