When I dream of my brother, I still see him at thirteen, running away from me in a game of tag, his long ropey legs making wide half-circles, his feet barely touching the ground. I feel the tightness of my own limitations in my lungs, and I wake with his sweat on my skin, his adrenaline in my blood.
The last time I saw him, he was twenty-eight and he was bordering on a deep sickness. I went to live with him for a summer in Brooklyn, where he had a small apartment with a Murphy bed that he let me use. On some days, he would walk through the crowded streets angry. He would bark at children if they bumped into his leg, and he would glare at old men on park benches. He was still beautiful, with the eyes of a movie star and round features that made him look younger. But his voice took on the rough qualities of our father’s military cadence.
Other days, he was our mother, religiously penitent about anything he had ever done or that occurred in his presence. On these days, you could not drop a napkin and pick it up from the floor without him apologizing again and again.
What he never was, as far as I could tell, was the shy, fiercely intelligent boy who goes skipping down asphalt in my dreams.
The summer I lived with him I was on break from college in a small upstate town where you could walk from one end of town to the other naked in the middle of the night. I had accepted my brother’s invitation because New York seemed like a place where people courted something greater than themselves, and I hoped that something great would stick to me. My major was undeclared. I took classes in everything from biochemistry to Shakespeare, and I passed them with apathetic ease. I could be anything, I thought, while knowing that anything was exactly what I did not want to be.
During the day, my brother worked at a small Russian bakery where he kneaded and pulled loaves of bread while I set up interviews with creative-minded businessmen who wore stiff denim jeans. Most rejected me kindly. And those who offered me internships I later turned down because they looked at me in ways I did not like. One man, an editor at a style magazine, offered me a position and he seemed honest and kind, but while I shook his hand, I was already saying in my head that I couldn’t do it.
I made excuses to myself, that it would be a shame to live in the city for only three months and not see any of it. But the truth was that offices made me claustrophobic, and I liked the sensation of perilous floating, of the rebellious nothingness that had a hold on my life. I took to walking up and down Manhattan in the early mornings, after my brother woke and slammed the door.
In the public library I met a boy named Mordecai with whom I thought I might fall in love. He said he was an artist, but he didn’t make any art. “We live in a world of metaphors,” he once told me with serious eyes when we were drunk and sitting on the rocks in Central Park, “Physical things in art have no meaning anymore, because everyone just looks at them as symbols. So I give people what they want: the symbolic meaning without the symbol itself. I cut out the middleman and let them see how hollow their experience has become.” He was planning an exhibition in which there were no paintings, only the artist’s statements, and we talked over these in our idle walks. A dash of blue symbolizes water, symbolizes birth. Red is fire and death and love. A triangle is power and heaven and violence, its points sharp: a bridge and a sword.
I think now that really he just couldn’t paint. But did that make him wrong? I don’t know.
In the evenings I ate with my brother, because the bread he brought home from the bakery was fresh and pungent and still so warm that its inside stuck to the tips of my fingers and the roof of my mouth. I would store up my hunger throughout the day and expend it all on a half-loaf of cinnamon raisin or honey-wheat. I liked sweet things. I would gulp down handfuls of knotted Challah and give myself hiccups that kept me awake.
He asked me simple questions and didn’t listen to the answers. He asked how I liked New York, if I was glad I was there for the summer. He said things like, “hot one, eh?” and other phrases that I never heard from an honest tongue.
I felt a sense of betrayal at his adulthood, the way he had fit into those polite routines. And when occasionally he would talk in ways that reached into his thoughts, his memories, he would begin and then stop short, reaching for a word that he couldn’t or wouldn’t say. He looked in these times like a roulette player with bets on too many squares, biting his lip and hoping that some of his chips will return. For the first weeks I was there, I hoped to rekindle that lost something that siblings have. But as the end of my first month rolled around, I gave up hope and asked him questions in kind. Canned laughter on an old television show.
It is not fair to say that I was beautiful then. But that summer I felt the lightness of my body, how it would carry me from Washington Square to Central Park, its legs only tiring when I got lost among the winding paths. I received offers from men. I considered the ersatz supermodels walking the streets of Soho and thought that, with a deeper wallet and a touch of style, I could become one of them, and I could walk all day with my heels raised far from the concrete.
And though I didn’t fall in love with him, Mordecai fell madly in love with me. He asked once if he could paint my picture, and when I told him he didn’t paint, he said, “I know, but I would make an exception.”
“What would I symbolize?”
“Beauty, Youth, Spring,” he said.
“Well then write those words,” I told him. “It’ll be easier anyway.”
I was often cruel then, without meaning to be.
One evening, when the sky was heavy and you could feel waves from the ocean ripple in the air, I met a group of Israeli students who were slamming a ball back and forth between paddles in the Village. They were younger than me, and they asked me questions about college, what it was like, what I was doing.
They were horrified when I shrugged my shoulders, so I asked them what they would be doing when they got into a school.
There was a doctor, an engineer, a psychiatrist, a lawyer. They said it with such conviction that I’m sure they are those things now. Or maybe something went wrong, and they are failures like the best of us. The youngest one—she was a beauty, I have to say, with short limbs and dark hair that curled in the most perfect spirals—she said with just as much conviction that she was going to be an artist.
“I don’t know about that other stuff,” I said. “But artist. I could still be an artist. My boyfriend is an artist,” I used both words, boyfriend and artist, as liberally as they have ever been used, but in the space of this conversation I had already accepted the terms that what one wants to be is what one is.
“You need a new boyfriend, then,” one of the older boys, the lawyer, said, and they all laughed and I laughed too.
The lawyer was tall and wiry. And he grew what little facial hair he had until it was long and wiry too. He was trying, with all desperate speed, to become the man he imagined.
“Artists are the best kissers,” I said. “Lips require careful study. No one knows the shape or texture of a lip as well as an artist does.”
“Then what about all the artists with unrequited loves?” piped up one of the other boys, the Engineer, “like Van Gogh?”
I thought about this a moment, then said, “When you’re crazy enough to cut off an ear and send it to someone, it doesn’t matter how well you kiss.”
They offered me wine that tasted like juice but that made my eyes move slowly.
When the sky grew dark we ran up and down alleys, placing lit candles in corners. I don’t know why. But I remember how hard the matches were to light in that air. And I remember making loud bird calls with each lit wick. It must have been a game.
In New York, in the summer, when you are alone, you attach meaning to the smallest gestures. Whenever I needed to buy a soda, for instance, I went to the same deli, even though they charged fifty cents more than the place across the street. I planned large sections of my days around reaching that deli, because the girl behind the counter smiled at me, and I thought if I went back often enough, we might become friends.
Memories of the city are like that for me: a series of unfulfilled expectations. I made plans daily, and I dropped them just as fast. I was going to learn French so that the next summer I could spend alone in a truly foreign city. I was going to write a novel because I had the time. I read the openings of a hundred books, but I never got past the first chapter in any of them.
On the last day I saw my brother, I was hopeful, waiting for something. An invitation back, a hug that didn’t feel forced or awkward or nervous. He had taken the day off work, and I thought, perhaps, that we would spend it in a park and that his flour-tinted skin might see some light for once. But he had cultivated a special mood, a sort of numb indifference that made any words fall flat. I thought it might be a sign to me, that he didn’t want me to go. But when I asked him straight, he answered me without answering. “Of course you have to go,” he said, taking it out of his hands, out of the realm of wants and emotions. We did nothing. We watched television. I packed what little I had into a suitcase. We went to bed.
I don’t remember actually crying that day, but I remember the feeling of it, like sweet bread stuck halfway to my lungs.
In the morning, I caught the Greyhound bus, which I rode for ten hours until I was back in my college town, where the air was lighter and easier on the tongue.
Three months later I got a call from my mother. My brother had disappeared, leaving behind all of his stuff. She flew up to me and we rented a U-Haul that we used to empty his apartment. It took only two hours, and that because we were careful, pouring over every detail to find some indication of where he had gone. There was nothing like that there.
It has been ten years now, and still we don’t know where he’s gone.
But listen. Here is something that will make you laugh.
When I first got back to college, I got call after call from Mordecai. He left me long messages where he stretched out his vowels into strings of exasperation. I thought for a time that if I never answered, he would stop. But instead he began describing paintings to me. A swirl of gun-metal, a tennis-ball yellow sky, nearly human figures with spoon-shaped hands, a tree that sprouts fishes and loaves, flowers with petals made of sunglass lenses and bees made of moldy cream-corn. I began to look forward to his messages and listen to them every night. I saw the images in my head, and they were marvelous and strange.
When my mother and I drove through the city on our way to my brother’s apartment, I saw posters with Mordecai’s name on them. They looked rough, hand-made, but they were everywhere, covering wall after wall.
Sometimes I still get calls from him. I have never picked up, but when I got a new phone number, I sent him a text message to make sure he didn’t stop.
I know it’s not about me anymore, that it’s not about anything like love. But I can’t help myself. Sometimes I sit there, and I imagine the paintings as though they were real, warehouses upon warehouses of them, each waiting under a separate paint-stained sheet, and I walk down the long aisles, tugging and unveiling them one-by-one.