To me, my brother was his letters home. Even now, his lucid, correct handwriting remains more vivid in my mind than any picture.
I have saved most of Michael’s letters in an untidy, little-sisterly fashion: in cardboard boxes under my bed and in a wicker hamper at my parents’ house. My parents, I think, never felt Michael’s absence the way I did. He lived with them for almost fifteen years; I am sure they got to know him. Michael was born in London, and they dragged him to Australia, New York, and finally Florida before he left home. My father wasn’t a soldier or a diplomat, just a British doctor afflicted with wanderlust.
My mother speaks, in a motherly way, of Michael’s liking for licorice, of his once running into a glass door, of his playing with the dials on the stove and ruining a Christmas turkey. Whenever a very blond, blue-eyed baby is born, she says that Michael’s hair was even fairer.
She has also told me a story — one my father would dismiss or deny — of Michael’s being made to run behind the car on a family outing, as punishment for being naughty. “The poor little thing,” she said, as if she hadn’t been there, as if she couldn’t have intervened.
Michael was enough of a presence in my parents’ lives that they still call one of their empty bedrooms “Michael’s room.” But to me he was a memory, a portrait, a visitor. From the time I was three, he was away in boarding school in England. The letters that came to our house in Orlando were written on stationery sternly engraved, DOVER COLLEGE, DOVER, ENGLAND. I have his first letter in my box. It told how most of the students at Dover came from Japan and Taiwan. “Small and earnest,” he said of them, but, because they failed to speak English intelligibly, “useless as friends.” He stood taller than any of them by at least a foot.
My parents soon knew they had erred. Dover College was not what they’d intended. They’d wanted a castle, albeit one with adequate heat; they’d wanted rows of short-haired boys in blue jackets bending over their Latin prep; they’d wanted the sort of school my father had gone to.
Another time, Michael wrote of washing his black wool sweater with shampoo, and not thinking to rinse it. When he was made, for exercise, to go running through the freezing rain, the sweater sudsed and frothed all down his front. I pictured him, his long legs pumping over mushy hills, the gray sky and gray rain, his face cold and his mouth set, the sweater dripping white with soap.
When my brother was home, I courted him with questions, riddles, and dolls to fix. I remember the sound of his piano playing — classical music; I don’t know the piece — coming from the den, where light and heat blazed through the French doors all day and at night frogs and slugs from the river climbed up the outside of the glass. The strong, heavy notes formed complex patterns while the metronome ticked along. Jealous of his skill and hoping for attention, I’d bang on the bass keys and hum another tune in his ear. I’d crawl under the bench and press the pedals with my hands. Not once did Michael tell me to stop. He sat up straight, looking directly at his music until, with a controlled, furious sigh, he pushed the bench back and walked away, leaving me to diddle around, bored, picking out stupid, three-note songs with one hand — sorry he’d gone.
Driven by childish desperation, I would often catch hold of Michael’s ankle and lock my fingers around it, my body stretched out on the floor behind him. Sometimes, to my delight, he would silently drag me, my stomach burning against the rug or scudding over the cool linoleum floor, my whole weight hauled by his giant foot. It hurt, but I held on. Other times, he simply shook his foot loose from my hold — showing me how easily he could get away, how inconsequential was my claim on him.
When Michael was away at school, my mother and I sent him food. He didn’t like English scones, so we made him American treats: fudge, banana bread, brownies. Our kitchen was as clean and efficient as a laboratory. My mother taught me to read the recipe — twice — and then assemble every tool and bowl I’d need. I helped her set the oven, lining up the black arrow at 350 degrees, but after that I was not to touch the oven door or the controls. We melted butter slowly in a little pan, the long, pale stick shrinking down into a warm golden pool. Then we stirred in sugar and chocolate, the smell rising up as the gold and dark brown swirled together and the sugar dissolved. If my father came in, he would complain that Michael didn’t need sweets sent to him, that there was work to be done in the garden.
We wrapped the perfect, final product in wax paper, nestled it in wadded-up comics pages, and sent it in shoe boxes to England.
During one of Michael’s visits home from college, my parents went out for the evening, leaving him to “baby-sit.” The minute they were gone, I went to find him.
His room was on the ground floor, two flights down from mine. I leaned in the open doorway. Though it was seven in the evening, he was asleep, lying on his back on the double bed. “They’re gone,” I announced.
He woke up gasping, as if terrified by some nightmare. When he saw me, he looked embarrassed. “What do you want?” he said, his voice flat and dull.
“You’re supposed to take care of me.”
“No I’m not. I just have to be here in case you do something stupid.” He swung himself off the bed, walked around me, and opened the sliding patio door. I followed him outside, where he took a package of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, withdrew a long white Marlboro, and put it in his mouth. Now I understood what my mother could never explain: why his teeth were losing their perfect whiteness, why he sometimes coughed as he climbed the stairs.
Leaning against the brick patio wall, Michael stared at the willow trees dangling over the river. His jeans hung low on his hips and looked frayed where they got caught under his heels; his ponytail lay across one shoulder, unbrushed and tangled. To my surprise, he smoked with no more effort than breathing.
“Can I have one?” I said, trying to sound casual.
“You wouldn’t like it, and I only have one left. When you’re older, I’ll let you smoke marijuana.”
“You smoke marijuana?”
“Well, you know . . . it’s interesting,” he said, becoming almost animated. “You look at something, and it might change. Like this wall, for instance. You might suddenly notice the lines between the bricks, or the pattern the different colors make.”
I tried to make out a pattern but could see only dry, rust-colored bricks cemented together with gray. My father had made Michael help him build the patio one hot summer; we had barbecues there. Its bricks held no mysteries for me.
Michael ignored my parents’ instructions about TV and bedtime, but he also ignored me for the rest of the evening. His friend Ethan came over, and they took my father’s tools out to the driveway and crawled like crabs underneath Michael’s Chevy. I stood out of sight, watching their long legs sticking out from under the car, their denimed knees pointing up, bare feet planted on the hot gravel as if it didn’t hurt. At one point, Michael said: “I told my sister I smoked dope, and she said, ‘Why?’ ” Ethan laughed a little meanly, and I felt embarrassed but proud.
Michael went to graduate school at MIT, where, I learned from his letters, he lived with three other people in a two-bedroom apartment and drove a taxi between terms. In winter, the snow came up to his knees, and he had to buy boots and real shoes to replace his sandals.
I had never been in an apartment or a taxi, had never seen snow. My life was my Persian cat, being a safety-patrol officer at my new junior high school, and going down to the dock at the end of our land to net minnows. Once, I secretly shaved part of one leg. I thought this was exciting until I learned, by eavesdropping, that my brother was living in sin with a girlfriend. He wore beads and a beard, played chess every day, and claimed to eat insects for breakfast. He could make computers write poems and songs.
While Michael was at MIT, his letters were written on the back of green-and-white computer printouts:
Yesterday my alarm clock woke up my roommate at an inconvenient hour, so he threw it out the window. Fortunately, the window was open.
In those years, he might show up at home any day, at any time, to stay a few hours or a few weeks. At breakfast, my mother would point to an old car outside and say, “Guess who got here at four in the morning.”
Once, he drove down to Florida in a battered black hearse with two friends and all their belongings stuffed in back. The three of them slept in it on the way. He also had a red VW with no floor. I asked him about cars, because he was always willing to talk about them.
“What’s this thing?” I said, standing next to him in front of a Ford truck. The motor was running, and the hood was propped open on an unsteady tower of books, which I was supposed to monitor in case it started to fall.
“That’s the fan belt,” he said. “Don’t touch it. Watch the hood, OK? If it falls on me, I’ll probably die.” My brother’s voice became muffled as he leaned into the engine. His head disappeared, and all I could see was his long, thin back. He made clanking noises with a tool, then heaved one knee up onto the fender. The stack of books shifted, but held. The paperback at the top was covered with oil. I put my hands underneath the hood, just in case. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Trying to check the water pump. I think it’s broken.” He wrestled with a wrench for a minute. “Damn!”
“Why don’t you just give this car away?” I said. “You have another one.”
My brother climbed out of the engine and looked at me. His hair fell across his face, and there was a grease smear on his nose. “You don’t understand,” he said. “Cars are my friends.”
During Michael’s stays, the phone would often ring late at night — a friend of his calling from some distant place, or a friend’s parents, worried; or the police. One morning after a midnight call, my father sat at the table calmly eating his bacon and eggs while my mother stood by wearing a dress and holding her purse. She hustled me through my cereal, but my father said, “No rush. I would like some tea.”
My mother sighed. “Can we please go?” she said. “It’s nearly nine.”
My father folded his napkin deliberately. “The later the better,” he said.
Amazingly, they let me come with them. The jail was a monstrous white building across the street from the courthouse, where the long green lawn was being mowed by a black man who waved at me. Inside, my father had to stand in a line for a long time. Every now and then, a policeman would walk slowly across the waiting area, go through a heavy door, and come back with a young man in street clothes, usually with long hair like Michael’s. Without a word, the released prisoner would join the people waiting for him.
My mother whispered to me that she wanted to see the cells. She moved to a different seat, and when the door opened again, she peered inside. I tried to look around her, but she held me back. “Oh, no,” she said, sounding upset. “I don’t want you to see that.” I imagined starved, desperate men hanging on to the bars and Michael in handcuffs.
“Did Michael rob someone?” I asked.
My mother stared down at me, horrified. “Of course not.”
“Well, he must have done something.”
“He was in an accident, and he . . . wasn’t feeling very well, so they kept him overnight.”
Sure enough, Michael didn’t look at all well when he emerged. He had no shirt on, and there was a dried, reddish smear across the knee of his jeans. “It’s wine,” he told my mother. “I was holding a bottle of wine, and it broke.”
“Three hundred and fifty dollars bail,” my father said. “You can pay me back with interest.”
Later, Michael showed me the scab where the wine bottle had gashed him. “I think there are glass fragments under the skin,” he said. “It hurts when I move.”
Somehow, I knew exactly how that would feel.
The Christmas I was fifteen, I arranged some time alone with Michael to show off my first boyfriend, Aaron. My brother and I hiked silently through the mud in the nearby park, where a few thousand pines and small oaks formed a suburban wilderness. There, hidden in an unused culvert, was a green safe containing enough narcotics to supply the whole junior high school — which Aaron did. Besides quaaludes and Valium, he specialized in assorted varieties of marijuana, buying them frequently and in small quantities to keep supplies fresh.
That Aaron trusted me enough to let me bring my brother to his “warehouse” was, to my mind, evidence of his esteem for me. He also knew Michael smoked pot and had money, though, so he may have had hopes of making a major sale.
When we arrived, Aaron pulled out half a dozen baggies — “samplers,” he called them — and placed them on a rock for Michael to examine. “This one’s just Texas trash,” he said, scooping up a palmful of grayish, seedy pot. “I use it for a base and mix in some of this Acapulco Gold.” He reached delicately into another sack and withdrew a rich bud, which he shredded and sprinkled into a rolling paper. “These are rice papers. You ever use them, Michael? They don’t tear up your throat as much. I really prefer a pipe, but a guy lost mine during gym.”
Michael inhaled most of several joints with no visible signs of altered consciousness. Aaron and I kept up till we were giggling and singing. Aaron coughed, and I laughed for hours. When Aaron went off to the bushes to piss, I asked Michael what he thought — I meant about the marijuana, the secret cache, my having a boyfriend. He said, “There are two kinds of dope: good dope and bad dope.”
“What about Aaron, though? Don’t you like him?”
“He’s all right, but don’t stay with him.”
A year later, Michael was home again on Christmas Eve when I called to say I’d been arrested. My father refused to come to the phone, so I talked to Michael.
“Armed robbery,” he said. “Wow.”
“I didn’t do it,” I said, for about the thousandth time that day.
I’d been walking to the store that afternoon when Aaron had driven by and offered me a ride. High on Thai stick, he had just held up a drive-through bank. I was sitting in his car — along with the gun, assorted drugs, and the stolen money — when the police stopped us.
Aaron’s parents came to the station, red-eyed and disheveled, called their lawyers, paid his bail, and took him home. Mine didn’t come.
Every other teenage girl in the place had been sent home for Christmas. I was put into a cell with a single bed (bolted to the floor), a barred window overlooking the grounds, and a second window in the door. On tiptoe, I could peer through the outside window and see several acres of lawn, a fence, and, beyond that, a highway. I didn’t know the name of that road or where it went, but I envied the people driving along it, on their way to happy celebrations.
Periodically, I heard a guard come by and look through the window in the door, checking to make sure I hadn’t hanged myself. Without a watch or clock, I guessed that they were checking every two hours. I couldn’t understand how so many hours could pass without daylight coming. I lay on the cot and tried to sleep, but mostly I wondered when I would get out and why my parents hadn’t come to get me. When I cried, I kept my face turned to the wall so that the guards couldn’t see.
The next day, Christmas, Michael came. I was allowed out of my cell to see him. The huge white visiting room was furnished with dozens of plastic chairs, which were stacked on top of each other while a housekeeper mopped the floor. The air smelled like disinfectant. We picked our way across the wet, shiny tile, and I got down two chairs. The TV, which we couldn’t turn off, blared soap operas and holiday commercials.
“How’s the food?” Michael asked.
“All right. I’m the only one here, but they made turkey for lunch.”
“Hmm.” Michael took out his cigarettes.
“I don’t think you can smoke in here,” I said.
“Sure you can,” he said. “If this is anything like a real jail, I’d better give you the rest of the pack.” He held it out to me. “Merry Christmas.”
“I don’t have anyone to trade with.” I had seen that in prison movies.
“They’ll probably move you to a different cell before they let you go,” Michael said. Then he leaned forward on his plastic chair, blowing smoke. “When you get out, if you want, you can come to California with me.”
If it had taken getting arrested to merit such an invitation from my brother, it had been worth it. To me, California meant a postcard beach without high schools or suburbs, where I could wait tables and spend the rest of my time getting tanned. Holding back my excitement, I said, “OK. When will I get out?”
“Well,” Michael said, “Dad didn’t want to interrupt Christmas. They asked me to handle it. I guess they’re fed up with getting kids out of jail.” Then he asked, “Do you have a lawyer?”
I was sixteen years old. “Get real!”
“I guess I’d better get you one,” he said. He went on about lawyers and bail, but my mind was elsewhere. I was picturing us rolling west on Route 10 in the VW, playing tapes and picking up hitchhikers. Already, I felt free.
While Michael was talking my parents into paying my legal fees, I learned to draw. A social worker of some sort came and gave me an art lesson. I think it was part of some psychological test, but it was excellent instruction, and he left me a book filled with photos to copy. When no one was looking, I drew on the flat window ledge.
I drew faces. At first they were geometric arrangements of features, the kind of doodles I might have done in class, out of boredom. But as my skill increased, I tried drawing the faces of friends, my family, Aaron, and finally myself. The faces filled the window ledge and began spilling over onto the off-white wall. As the days passed, the figures grew larger and more elaborate, and I soon gave up the pretense of stopping work when guards came by to look. They commented on my drawings but didn’t take away my pencils. One of them told me that my parents had gotten a lawyer.
On my fourth and last day, I began a life-sized self-portrait. I started by outlining my profile as I stood against the wall, then stepped back and sketched in where the eyes, cheekbones, and lips would go. I had discovered that I was good at noses, and I was just finishing my nose when they came to get me for my hearing. Though the rest of the features were only barely suggested, the fully shaded nose made the face seem three-dimensional and alive. It seemed to breathe.
Before I left, I hid the pencils under the mattress, along with the package of Marlboros. The next girl in the cell, I thought, would at least have something to do. My last impression, as I turned to leave, was that the figure I’d left on the wall looked like Michael.
The hearing was not like a real trial. The judge, my parents, and a man who was introduced to me as my attorney sat around an oval table in a paneled room. The judge spent several minutes fiddling with the tape recorder. “Testing,’’ he said, then counted to ten. When the tape was running, he recited various statutes and things I didn’t understand into a microphone. I had to speak only twice: to give my name and to plead guilty to a charge of aiding and abetting. I received a year’s suspended sentence, probation, and an avuncular recommendation from the judge that I not let him see me there again.
As I left the juvenile hall with my parents, the misery of the previous four days turned into furious sulking. “Well,” my mother said, her heels clicking on the pavement, “are you all right?”
“No,” I said. I could have yelled, Four days! I could have exaggerated my loneliness to instill guilt. As my father started the car, I could have leaned forward and choked him with my sweater. Instead I refused to speak.
“I don’t know what I’ve done wrong,” my mother said. And I had to admit she hadn’t hurt me; it was my father who had delayed. If not for her and Michael, he probably would have left me there forever.
At home, I found an envelope on my bed. Inside was a note on lined yellow paper.
By the time you read this, I’ll be in California. I was going to take you, but Ethan wants to come. Besides, I don’t think you could leave the state while you’re on probation. Sorry. In the top drawer of my desk, there is some money. Hope it helps.
I went downstairs. Far removed from everyone else’s sleeping quarters, Michael’s bedroom felt abandoned, like a car left by the side of the road. In the drawer, atop a pile of pens and matchbooks, lay five weathered ten-dollar bills.
I would use the fifty to pay back Aaron what I owed him for hash. Along with the money, I would send Aaron a different kind of note, one that did not wish him well. I wrote it sitting at Michael’s desk, on one of his legal pads.
On the same pad, I wrote a letter to my brother:
“Thanks for helping get me out, and also for the money.”
I did not write that I wished he had taken me, that getting out of jail and coming home to find him gone felt as lonely as solitary confinement.
“I hope everything works out in California.”
I envisioned riding with him and Ethan, leaning between the two front seats, asking questions, trying to reach the radio dial. I could see the car covering the miles to the Pacific, smoke wisping out the side windows, one of them napping while the other, dazed and barely awake, held a foot on the gas and steered. It wouldn’t have been so great.
“Maybe I’ll see you there one day.”
As the car jolted over a bump, my chin would bang the seat back, my pack would shift, and anything I valued in it would break. We would not stop to sleep; maybe we would not stop at all.
A different version of this story originally appeared in 13th Moon.