People think I have an older brother.
Maybe, they are picking up on my tomboyishness, an unexpected fluidity. The way that, during elementary school recess, I played football with the boys instead of dress-up with the girls. The way that I wore oversized, masculine clothes that looked pre-worn by someone larger. A new friend said she could picture him—tall, fluffy brown hair, a little lanky. “He definitely majors in something like film or media at Brown or somewhere.”
My cool-but-approachable, Tarantino-loving older brother. When he comes home to North Carolina from college for winter break, his tufts of hair tickle my cheek as we hug. We open Christmas presents with our parents and our dog, Oreo, around the Hanukkah bush, inside jokes abounding. We take long walks on the Eno River trail, pine trees and monkey grass lining the paths. Set a backyard fire, eat gooey marshmallows and semi-burnt Eggo waffles that have been sitting in the freezer for a little too long. He is my family, but also a friend. We shoot each other conspiratorial looks when our parents say something embarrassing in front of the neighbors. He plays soccer, like me, and we sneak into our old elementary school playground to take some warm-up shots on the miniature goals. He always teases me about girl problems when we first reunite but offers gentle advice as we warm back up to one another. We are thick as thieves.
I am an only child, but I like the idea of a sibling, of being part of a family sub-unit. One of two. A part, a piece, of the bigger family puzzle.
My dad has a brother who lives in Southern California, where they grew up. As the younger brother, my dad was a nuisance. He would fart into the bathroom while my uncle was peeing and then pull the door shut so that the smell got caught inside. One time, he short-sheeted my uncle’s bed—folded up the top sheet so that my uncle wouldn’t be able to stretch his legs out beyond the middle—and replaced the legs with pencils, which collapsed as soon as he tried to get in bed. The best story of all is when my dad dared my uncle to eat a live sand crab off the beach. He actually did it. He shoved the writhing mass of crab into his mouth, at which point my dad immediately clamped my uncle’s jaw shut to keep him from backing out of the bet. I imagine a sandy esophagus and potential organ damage, but mostly it just sounds gross. All I know is that my uncle’s payback was just as devilish. Easily affected by motion sickness, my dad had to get on one of those hellish theme park rides that strings you up like a Vitruvian Man and spins you upside down. Four times. My uncle then forced him to drive home while answering math questions. Needless to say, my dad threw up. Multiple times.
My mom does not have a brother. She is an only child like me. She did have a poodle that she cleverly named Poochie. She painted Poochie’s nails bright colors and attached clip-on earrings to her ears, redubbing her Princess Poocheskela. I think of her chosen stoop siblings in Park Slope; the adopted family of kids on the block who she gathered with late into her high school years, smoking, drinking, getting up to all of the typical things high schoolers do.
In my mind, my brother and I go to the Eno trail and cloister ourselves in a thicket of trees off the main path. I’m nervous about stepping in poison ivy, but he doesn’t really care how I feel, excited by the knowledge that he has and I do not. I’m tripping over my shoes, trying to keep up with his long strides. We settle into the forest as the sunlight fades and the air cools. He passes me a handmade joint with a crooked smile. I choke nervously on the smoke and am not really sure if I’m high or not. But I am so glad to be there with him, eating animal crackers and Gushers in the middle of the woods, that for once, I don’t mind the ambivalence.
I lived in New York this summer. My grandparents and I got dinner one night in Harlem. Somehow, the topic of family genealogy came up and we got to talking about my grandfather’s mother, Janet, and his older sister. I didn’t know my grandpa had a sister. My grandma weighed in on their tense relationship: “He was always the favorite. As soon as you came along, your parents forgot about her,” she said quietly. “I don’t think she ever stopped resenting you for that.” He smashed his face between his palms, stuck in a past he’d like to forget. I was struck by how deeply ingrained this resentment is, between my grandfather and his sister, his sister and his mother, his mother and his sister and him. A complex spider web of bitter threads, spun with love and hate. I asked my grandpa how long it has been since he talked to his sister, whose name I still don’t know. Nearly 20 years, he told me. When Janet died, he reached out to his sister about the funeral arrangements, but she had no interest in mourning their mother.
I’ve always thought my imaginary brother would be the favorite because he would have had an extra few years to make a good impression on my parents. “Not fair, but that’s my lot,” I’d think.
But now, suddenly, I think about how I’d feel once he left for college years before I graduated high school. I am alone. I have become Oreo’s favorite sibling. We don’t eat at the dining room table anymore, because there’s enough room for our small huddle of four—three humans and one dog—at the island in the kitchen. My brother doesn’t check in much, perhaps because he is busy learning guitar to try out for an indie band in college that is inspired by the Velvet Underground and has a spunky one-word name. Secretly, he is afraid of being forgotten. I don’t check in because I am “busy with school,” and similarly afraid that he has forgotten me.
Over the past few years, I have gone out with two people with older brothers. One’s brother was infamously kicked out of summer camp for breaking into the girls’ cabin and stealing all their underwear. The other’s used to fling ping pong balls at her in the basement of their house for fun. Another time he made her eat flour, which made her choke so badly that he had to pull the wet clump out of her throat with his hand.
What would it be like to talk to my older brother on the phone? Everyone I know seems to talk to their older brothers on the phone. By now, he would have graduated college and moved to Brooklyn to make a documentary film about the dangers of gentrification in urban areas, or something else socially impactful. His hair would still be floppy, but he would probably cover it with one of those hipster snapbacks that all the people in Brooklyn wear now. He would go to the neighborhood pickup soccer games and have advice on the local food scene. We would call to talk about the pitfalls of online dating and that thing mom said yesterday on the group FaceTime and I would ask about his job at the new studio. In a few months, we would both be home for summer vacation. It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other, we’d agree.
On a roadtrip to Lake Lure in North Carolina one summer, my family decided to take a pontoon boat out onto the water. In the boat was my mom, my dad, Oreo, and me. Oreo is scared of moving vehicles, but she was trying her best to be brave and my mom was cooing at her in that special, indecipherable way that dog owners do. A sudden thought hit me.
There are only four of us, and someday, I will be the last one left.
This is my family unit. I am one of four, but I am also one of one. An only child, and eventually, the only one left.
It is strange to feel the loss of something before it has gone away. It is more strange to me than feeling the presence of a brother who does not exist.
I see the details on his face so clearly. The dimples that curve on the sides of his mouth are just like mine. The dimple on the right side is always just a bit deeper than the left. I see the patch on his eyebrow that matches my own, the place where we both rub too hard when deep in thought. The toenail that mom always tells us to stop picking is finally growing back.
He’s right next to me. Back for the summer.
He dips his toes into the muddy lake water off the side of the boat and tells me if it’s warm enough to wade in. He smiles at me as my mom mutters softly in Oreo’s furry ears, flicking some water at my dad to distract him from his seasickness. I feel his rough palm before it lands on my skin.
He taps my arm lightly to say, “Hey, let’s jump together.”