Rachel sat at her desk wondering when, exactly, her baby brother became something she didn't understand. Sometimes the disconnect was extraordinary, as if he'd slipped and let some part of that alien human loose in front of her. The result was never good but containing her reaction was imperative. It didn't matter how she couched a response; it was perceived as a personal affront and that's just not his fault. Perception is reality and their realities seemed to be diametrically opposed.
This is a hard pill to swallow. Everybody. Everybody is doing the best they can given their circumstances. From a philosophical perspective it made sense, but the first time you had to confront or consider it within personal context it got a little dicey. Rachel found it easier to forgive the population in general than to cut herself some slack. But isn't that the way? She applies it to her brother from a distance and holds her breath across a massive field of eggshell landmines when they talk. She thinks her eggshell field has no visible horizon and cuts him a little more slack. She hopes he does the same for her, because she cannot.
Once, he told her, he died at eight. Too much, too much, and he locked himself up. I was cold, he said. I was cold and didn't give a shit about anything. She remembers otherwise but doesn't tell him. Past conversations indicate this sort of share never ends well. If he wanted, or had the emotional bandwidth to remember, he would. She tells herself. She wants to tell him she knows perfectly well he was still alive at eleven. Her personal evidence is culled from a single event; a thing she witnessed at the ice rink. She thinks of it as the last of his boyness, the last of the sort of vulnerability that gets tucked out of sight well before the onset of puberty.
He had a birthday party, the kid never had birthday parties, but that year he did. Maybe because he was born at the end of June and it's hard to put a birthday party together once the school year is over. This year they trucked a station wagon full of boys to the local rink and let them loose. That was the year Rachel discovered she'd forgotten how to skate. The ice felt foreign and there were way too many people. She fell on her ass a couple of times, once on her head, and turned in her skates which is how she ended up standing with her mother. Her brother had not forgotten how to skate. They'd been away from the pond for two years. He could still skate but she could not. She watched him on the ice and wondered what door he'd not stepped through yet. She watched him on the ice, pushing and shoving, covering the rink in a fine mist of joy.
He was skating with his best friend and he looked the sort of vulnerable she hadn't seen in years. In retrospect, maybe he was dead and this event was just an anomaly. She hopes not. They're following the wall, uninhibited and animated like a pair of six year olds. As they turn into the final bend she sees they're holding hands and asks her mother why they are holding hands. Her mother said, because they like each other. They're the sort of good friends that might stay that way forever. If they're lucky. But why are they holding hands?
Because they still can.
When they returned to school in September she took one look at his book sack and decided it had to go. It was a pink baby blanket, the sort you expect little kids to carry around until they're five or six. It was a PINK baby blanket in which he'd wrapped his books. He didn't seem to be taking shit for it but that sort of peer permissiveness wasn't going to last. Rachel knows this, her baby brother does not. After school she takes the pink blanket from his bed and buries it in the side of a hill. It's probably still there and probably in pieces. Periodically she thinks about excavating the thing but then they move and that's the end of it. Eventually Rachel finds out the pink blanket belonged to her mother and was appropriated by her brother but she's got no idea when and probably only their mother noticed. She wonders if that one act is what actually buried the boy.
Rachel replays the last conversation. They're terribly afraid of hurting each other and so they do. There's nothing premeditated, she's certain of that, and yet they do. She's had romantic relationships that ended this way, in an emotional explosion that carved scars, sometimes on everybody. But sibling relationships, especially when there are only two, have got to be different. It's an entirely other sort of emotional struggle and there is no out. You can decide to walk away, she thinks, but that doesn't really change anything. You still have that shared history from the early days, before baggage got the better of you. If you are close in the early years, the bond works its way into your shared DNA. No escape.
She remembers the expressively vulnerable boy on the ice and thinks, this is who I will speak to next time. Not like today. She sits quietly at her desk, closes her eyes, and picks up the phone. "Hey, Jacob. I just called to say I love you. I know you know, but I forgot to say it earlier. So I love you, OK? OK." She'd like to say more but nobody likes a two minute voice mail and anything else is up for interpretation. His, not hers. He'll pick it up eventually, let it settle, and call her back.
This is always the diffuser. That's it. Just, I love you. That's the common denominator built into their DNA.
I'm told, at some level, we all share the same DNA. It's a universal truth and the one great hope. We can suffer a thousand little deaths and still come out the other side, but doesn't that business of coming out the other side require a vulnerability on an epic scale? Somewhere, at a molecular level, we all have at least a little, which is really all it takes to reach a hand out, and maybe a little bit more to take the hand.