1. You were Sexy Sadie. You were the original. You broke all the rules. You laid it down for all to see. Our stepfather had long, blond hair. He slicked it back with a wide-toothed comb so that the lines of his hair were as swift and powerful as the lines of the cars he used to make. His teeth were thin and small. Light seemed to shine through them. That’s what I remember most: hair and teeth and a rage that prowled up and down the stairs and into our rooms whether he was home or not. There was this, too: a deep, sensual tenderness riding on the back of the rage. Which was worse? Rage opened our wounds. Tenderness burned them. I was ten, you were thirteen. Nights, our mother worked. When he was sure I was asleep he called you into his room. “Yes,” you tell me years later. “Yes, I did it. Yes. It felt better than being hit, didn’t it? Didn’t it feel better than both of us being hit? Didn’t it?” Yes. But later, when you locked yourself in the bathroom, and I heard the water run and run and run, I hated you for your sacrifice. In high school I was embarrassed to be your brother. They ridiculed your beads and tie-dyed skirts — the class hippie. At a party one night eight guys from the football team taunted you: “Prove it,” they said. “Prove this love power.” So you took them one by one on a mattress in a back bedroom. The sight of their underwear down around their knees made you want to laugh. If their mothers could only see their babies now, waddling to the bed. They kept their shirts and shoes on. Your naked body frightened them. They came immediately. Still, by the seventh one, you were exhausted. You propped yourself up and took number eight between your lips. Sexy Sadie, what have you done? Sexy Sadie, you made a fool of everyone. Sexy Sadie, you grew up and took LSD on the hottest day of the year and walked into the fountain in front of the Municipal Building in downtown Detroit to end, once and for all, the only war that matters. Your clothes melted away. A crowd gathered. Water poured forth, sparkling, from the mouths of three marble cherubs. You rubbed against them. You moaned. Men in the crowd replied with the cries of cats and dogs in heat. You stared into the sun. You left their chakras choking in the dust. Just a moment more of making love to stone, just a moment more of staring into the sun and you’d have the power to turn to the crowd and flatten them in an instant, flatten them like a bomb — like an atomic bomb of pure sex and pure love. But then the power of the sun went over to the police. They arrived and called to you through bullhorns. How ugly they sounded, like fat, dangerous frogs on the edge of the pool. You turned away. You pressed closer to the marble cherubs. How wet and smooth and hard their bellies were; how safe their little stone penises were, buried deep between their fat, shiny legs. Sexy Sadie, how did you know? How did you know the world was waiting just for you? The city turned the water off. The marble mouths went dry, the drains made a great sucking roar. You shivered in the sudden heat. “It took three cops to drag me out,” you say. “I tried to fuck one of them on the way to the car. I was pathetic, humping his leg like a dog. Pathetic. That’s what I think now but I didn’t think that then. Then it was only me against all of them and all I had was . . .” 2. HENRY FORD HOSPITAL EMERGENCY VEHICLES ONLY After twenty-four hours, they let you go. They barely had room for gunshot victims, let alone white kids on acid. But twenty-four hours was enough. You walked to my car like a zombie. Yes, I had a car then and a job, and a bank account and a fresh haircut and a girlfriend from the suburbs — Melinda was her name. I was thinking about her as I guided you through the parking lot, wondering what I’d say to her if she saw us together. There was a lot I didn’t know then. I didn’t know I was trying to be everything you weren’t. I didn’t know about the fountain or the cops. I didn’t know that two huge orderlies strapped you to a gurney. I didn’t know that the harder you struggled, the tighter the straps became. I didn’t know they shot you full of Thorazine. I didn’t know that Thorazine was like wet cement in your veins. I didn’t know how slow and gray human life could become. Years later you tell me, “I got a preview of hell that night — all nine circles. I saw a woman beating her legs and breasts with the palms of her hands as if she was putting out a fire. ‘Snakes,’ she said, ‘snakes.’ I saw a woman chew her lip until it bled. I saw a woman huddled with her plastic sheet under her bed, laughing and sobbing. I saw another woman, strapped down like me — she was the worst. All night long she raised her hips, moaning and thrashing, copulating with the air.” 3. “Ah, little brother, don’t look so sad and shocked. It’s over. It’s done with. It was a long time ago.” We are chain-smoking in your kitchen. Out the window we watch your daughters play with my daughters. The oldest is eleven, the youngest is six. We’ll have to call them in soon. It’s getting dark. “Is it really over?” I ask. “Is it really done with?” “No,” you say, “I guess we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it if it was.” “It’s just this,” I say, but then I can’t say I’m sorry. I said that already and you said, “Sorry? Sorry doesn’t do a thing. How can you be sorry? You didn’t even know.” This is what I don’t say: I should have known. Brothers survive by not knowing what happens to their sisters. Even as our daughters play in the twilight, brothers are sleeping all over the earth, sleeping the beautiful sleep of boys who are loved by their mothers. We don’t speak for a long time. No one is coming, no one is waiting. We are both divorced. Our daughters’ shouts grow louder. Suddenly, the radio we’ve been ignoring grabs our attention. It’s an old Mamas and Papas song: “Do you, do you, do you, do you, do you wanna dance?” “Hey,” you say, “remember in high school when I taught you how to dance?” “Hmm.” The truth is, I never did learn. “Come on,” you say. “Let’s dance.” I hesitate. In the darkening kitchen, I can barely see your face. We haven’t touched like this in years. But I rise and you glide into my arms. It’s 1966 all over again. Except the last time we danced my head came up to your shoulders. Now it’s the other way around. But still you nudge me through the steps. We dance. I envy you. Isn’t that strange? But I do. I envy your past and future madness. I envy the massive dose you took. I envy your rocket flight into the sun. Sex broke every bone in your face. Sex nearly killed you. But you survived to slow dance your brother around the kitchen floor. Sexy Sadie, I envy the way the music takes you. I envy the way, broken face and all, you rock and sway across the floor.
A version of this poem appeared previously in Kinesis.
“Sexy Sadie” by J. Lennon and P. McCartney.
“Do You Wanna Dance?” by B. Freeman.