Tag: little brother

Queen of the Edgelords

Aliens take off from a field circumscribed within cool blue mountains. Adam Adams and Jeremy Renner watch their departure, and their detached expressions, coupled with the vision of daybreak flooding the grass, results in a scene equal parts intimate and cinematic. In the background, the soundtrack’s violins churn expertly, and their sound is pure, precise, crystalline, but also, somehow, impossibly soft, like icicles that fracture the air before exploding into cascades of velvet on impact.

It’s a final scene that marries absolute visual and acoustic splendor with the inescapable, inscrutable sensation of grief. It reminds me of the multitudes of a word like “haunting,” which can suggest not just plain “scary,” but “unforgettable,” too. I should be enamored, and the biggest part of me wants to be; this scene, and Arrival itself, hit all the right notes. A larger-than-life epic with themes that traverse space-time, but that also acknowledge and defend the microcosms entombed in human plight, and human passion. (Interstellar, a film that I found grander in some ways, still failed in this essential regard.) And yet, though I can recognize that the scene performs exactly as intended, and pulls at the heartstrings with pinpoint accuracy, I can’t help but roll my eyes.

When Renner turns to Adams and tells her that extraterrestrials surprised him less than meeting her, I laugh unkindly at that predictable payload of emotion (“You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”) I imagine the screenwriter, the director, and the actor, pouring their energy into the line, and I respect the effort; but for me, a woman of evergreen jadedness, it somehow doesn’t land. I’m perversely proud of it; I regard my cynicism not as armor, but as the spear that shatters the emotional fraudulence of the world.

I look at my seventeen-year-old brother, Alex, expecting him be laughing too at the goofy expediency of it all–elegantly coiffed, impeccably dressed Hollywood artists confessing their love via perfectly delivered lines, all in a time of space aliens. But his eyes are glued to the screen. He is transfixed.

I watch him for a few moments, surprised both at his response to the scene and his apparent obliviousness to everything outside it. He is at an age known for various, occasionally contradictory traits: what I and others might summarize as “edginess.” Alex is reserved, but not uncommunicative; aloof, but not apathetic. At times, he can be dogmatic. His personality is known for periods of impenetrable silence, but also periods of blinding discursive passion. It is not always easy for him to apologize. His commitment to personal truth brushes shoulders occasionally with arrogance. He does not divulge his thoughts easily. He does not cede ground. He wields sarcasm expertly. He is at the center of a lush, private world.

I was recently seventeen, and I’ve known my brother his entire life. We are similar in that eerie, arcane way that siblings sometimes are. I presumed that these facts suggested at an inherited ability to intuit Alex’s inner nature. But today I finally understand that it was vanity on my part to believe that I understand Alex. I can’t predict his behavior, I can’t read his thoughts. My supposed intuition is just a shadow that cannot probe mystery, only project expectation. This myth–that an older sibling has a direct line into the heart of a younger sibling–has trailed me since childhood. We’re not four and eleven anymore. We’re no longer elementary school students sleepily watching the landscape from the bus together. In a flash, the veil is parted to reveal colossal castle in the sand. Now all that is left is to allow the warm, finely milled sand to fall through my slowly parting fingers.

Alex doesn’t find it cloyingly absurd that Arrival ends with an expression of love. Adolescence hasn’t embittered him. He doesn’t conceal his feelings with hard-edged cynicism. His heart does not require armor. He is capable of recognizing and honoring the vulnerable earnestness of human emotion without falling prey to the instinct to wound it. If there are any edgelords here, he isn’t one of them.

Que Todo Lo Invade

We have spent fourteen days in the new apartment.

During the evenings, my mother stands at the kitchen counter and cuts packing tape with safety scissors. She empties boxes and begins cataloging her belongings according to their worth. She re-opens envelopes holding birthday cards, wedding invitations, notes of congratulation and bereavement, handwritten letters. Sometimes she’ll call me over and read select bits of them out loud. That’s from Pamela, you know, from the company. This is from my old psychiatrist. Billy Kelly from Birmingham. Granduncle in the Canary Islands. Look at how this starts: Dear Carmen, your little girl is beautiful… The names and words bring me the nostalgia of familiar dog days, of lawns and tiles, drives and forests behind apartment complexes. Often they come with soft images and smells rather than concrete memory. Tina’s protruding blue eyes, the carpet around a fireplace, quiet. Sometimes, if the memory is a good one, if the sender is a good one, my mother smiles. She will even tip her head back for a moment, eyes closed, losing the sick tension, for once. Then my mother puts both hands on the paper and tears it in halves, and then in fourths. She offers no explanation, tossing the pieces in the trash as she does the empty cardboard boxes and the sweaters shrunk in our new washing machine. It was hard not to flinch, at first, but I have learned.

We have driven to IKEA twice. The first time I was struck not by the amount of stock or customers, but by the number of babies. Infants held against the breast, the back, in arms, sleeping in strollers as a mother and father debated over sofa cushions. They looked up at the paneled, light-filled ceiling with steady and unthinking devotion. Did they mistake it for the backdrop of the hospital where they were born? Did they return to that sudden and pivotal time of blood, humidity and love? Did they start anew?

On the way back, my mother drove fours hours in the dark. Mi cerebro no reconoce el cansancio de mi cuerpo, she said. My brain doesn’t recognize the tiredness of my body. I craned my neck, looking for her expression in the light of passing automobiles, but that curve of cheek and steady hand could belong to anyone. I stared at her as a young child would, searching for a mark to know her by. Where are you, mother?

The second time, my mother tried to make the same return trip on one fill of gas. As the needle dipped close to empty, my mother called to me. Her voice can give the space around me form and structure wherever I am – even when I am curled up in a car, caught between a dying radio, black mountains and the poisonous nighttime. I took off my safety belt, something I once nearly slapped my brother for doing, and wrapped my arms around the seat immediately in front of me, the seat my father once occupied. Should I stop? she asked me. We are close to empty. I knew that if I told her to stop, she would. Instead, against all proper judgement and reason, I said: go. You can make it. 

My brother has cried once. Don’t believe it, I whispered to him. You know the truth. He allowed himself to be held, but only for a few minutes. When he lifted his head he was calm, but not expressionless. In his face, in that small face, I found the still and unassuming bravery I have needed for so long. I have taught my brother the alphabet, the difference between a diphthong and a hiatus, multiplication of fractions. Now, I try to teach him to survive, I try to teach him the truth, only to find that I am the one who still needs teaching.

We fight, my mother and I. At first it was often, but now it is only occasionally. We argue with one another as angrily as ever, but we do it while sitting at the table, drinking breakfast tea, or while washing the dishes. These healthy, domestic scenes give us a sense of order and responsibility. Sometimes we forget we don’t want to hurt each other, and we fall into the old roles. I am the lithe and disdainful villain, and she the towering specter, baring her teeth. But mostly we are good. As simply as children, we have made peace with one another. Even the bad guys have something to protect.

I think of what I want for us often. I picture us taking the subway to the movie theater, the three of us standing in a circle, shoulders touching, packed in close together by the weight and substance of strangers. We buy stale popcorn and orange soft drinks, we rush up stairways, we arrive a little late but nab perfect seats. Quirky, heroic characters, rolling streets where teenagers meet to construct secret bases, soundtrack that lilts and booms at all the right places, killer lines spoken by poor delivery men and gunslingers against bucolic scenery, deaths in the arms of the schoolboy who swears revenge, absolutely no romance – we see the film that my mother will remember as being “beautiful”. We take a taxi cab home, and my mother is talking and smiling, she is laughing at the bits from the movie my brother reenacts. Every once in a while, she turns to look at us in the backseat, and I can see her clearly, even in the dimness. I recognize my mother, my true mother, half a century old, hands touching her knee, her face, smiling and shaking her head: the best of the scores of women she has been before and will be. When I recognize my mother, my lofty skepticism and system of cruelty leave me, if only for a short while. When I recognize my mother, I am reminded of the worth of this day, of all days. No, I do not live for her. But I do live because of her, in more ways than one.

The moving men and my mother position a bookshelf slightly to the right. Why don’t you put it in the center? I ask, standing in the doorway in my pajamas. I want that space for flowers, she says. I think of the flowers in our old apartment. They died from neglect in no time at all, the wooden flower boxes rotting in the rain. My mother makes a sweeping motion with one hand, gesturing towards the entirety of her home, all the walls and children who have made her their caretaker. I’m going to fill this entire place with flowers.

Where have the people gone? There is one light on the mountain.

I spent yesterday afternoon eating udon in my mother’s office. Afterwards my brother and I lie on the floor, surrounded by mannequins and furniture catalogs. Though my mother works in the design department, she is not involved in design; she does the innovative business shebang. Still, whatever an innovative business room looks like, it can’t be as nice as working under the observation of articulated statues and books in pastel shades and canvases covered in curly lettering.

When my mother finishes, she goes to the window, pulling open the curtain as though ripping open a candy bar. We’d had overcast weather that morning, and so I see it fit to ask “is it raining?” to which my mother answers “more than that, it’s hailing”. Her tone is so high and so sharp she might as well have been swearing. My mother is terrified of storms.

We go down and find the doorman behind the glass door, keeping an eye on the silvery plaza. My mother says she’s never seen a storm this bad, though I can clearly recall us driving through a much worse one not a full year beforehand. She leaves for a moment, and reappears with a white umbrella. She says she’s been lent it, although there is no one left in the building who could have lent her such a thing.

The sidewalk is empty. Once in a while a couple will emerge, wet arms swinging. At one point we see an entire family, dressed in bright soaked shorts and carrying tote bags made of dark straw. The daughter, walking down the asphalt with the air of a martyr, is barefoot.

Everyone seems to have crowded into the phone store across the road. They’re all the English tourists, riding out the rain. It doesn’t take long, and soon enough I have convinced my mother to brave the trip to the metro stop.

“Afraid of a little thunder and lightning?” I say, or something to that effect. “What the heck?”

But as we wade through the dips and tucks in the street I see a girl on a street corner who is clearly terrified of that little thunder, little lightning. She’s of at least partial Oriental descent, though now, in retrospect, I cannot pluck out her features from the muck of memory. All I can remember is her black hair, and her arms, which were wrapped around a boy, who should be more properly termed a young man, though I think of him only as a boy. He had a buzz cut and broad shoulders, and one of his hands was patting her head while the other held firm to the puzzle piece of the small of her back.

We soon leave them be, and as we are making through the narrow streets so isolated one could be the paradise of monsoon and another a stark churning desert, the water slows and the clouds clear, as we are passing paralyzed stray dogs and marble store fronts, I think, in passing, a thought that is perhaps number 450 of the 700 I think per minute, stuck between one triviality and the next: THAT WAS BEAUTIFUL.

(title is never mine, but only Theodore Roethke’s, a line from his “The Storm”)

Happy Birthday, Alex.

One of the greatest things about having a younger brother is his invariable cluelessness to all sorts of academic and everyday matters: “Who’s Hitler?” or “How do you fold a shirt?”

I have the developed the habit of jabbering continually in his presence about some topic or another, and then stopping mid-way to ask “do you know what that is?” His answer is always a “no”, and even if it’s a “yes” I ignore him and explain it anyway.

Alex, The Baby Formerly Known As Alexander, is my best friend FOREVER. Once I swore to myself that I’d never use “forever” in reference to another person, because, jeez, it’s cheesy, and nothing is forever and yadda yadda yadda. But this is my noodle-noggined, lightsaber-wielding, ballroom-dancing, pain-in-the-ass baby brother we’re talking about. And everyone has someone they’re willing to relax the rules a little bit for (but only a little, you hear me, Alex? No playing on my Pokemon Diamond save!)

Today is the last day I’ll ever be exactly double Alex’s age. Tomorrow, April 27th, he is nine, and I lose a chunk of my bossy, know-it-all sister advantage. Some day we’ll reach a point where I’ll ask “do you know what that is?” and he’ll roll his eyes at me in a very LIKE, DUH fashion. Then I’ll just have to squint at him real spinster-like, jab him in the stomach and explain it to him anyway.