I saw my father twice.
1. In Virginia, just before he closed his apartment door after claiming his wife was at the grocery store, and didn’t allow guests unless she was home.
2. In court, just before the judge ejected my brother and me from the room because we giggled while the bailiff cuffed him.
About the first time.
When my mother drove my brother and me from our South Texas home to visit our birthplace, Alexandria, Virginia. We were five or so, had been gone for two years, and we begged our mother to take us to him. She knew. Somehow she knew. That he lived with a woman who wasn’t the mother of his children. Not us or the two before us. My mother and I stood in the shadows while my brother stepped forward to knock. The door opened, slowly, creaking with apprehension, as if for the past five years our father had been eyeing the peephole, expecting us. His voice quivered as he spoke. As he claimed he couldn’t let anyone in until his wife returned from the grocery store. Then he closed the door.
About the second time.
Eight years later, suited and tied, my father stood a few feet from my mother, facing a judge, weeping, as the bailiff cuffed him. As his sons giggle in the courtroom. Laughter resumed when my mother met us in the hall and compared him to a dog. She’d become a comedian:
“He does. His face all saggy, he look like a damn bulldog.”
With our father’s money, my family laughed all the way to Disney World.
If I tell you I love you like family, don’t assume I know what I’m saying.
1958. Late October. My grandfather placed his newborn daughter in a Halloween basket, sprinkled candy over her, presented her to his children, two boys, two girls, who accepted the candy and rejected the baby, who in a few years would run track, would dance, would collect and sell soda cans. Who would find any way to avoid a crowded three-bedroom bungalow where her siblings spat on her, cussed at her, beat her. They locked her in closets, too, and told her to sleep, hoping for a comatose sister. When their sister grew into a woman and offered her siblings twin nephews, they ignored our names, our identities.
(To them) we were Twin and Twin. Tricks. Reminders of our mother, who as a child had stolen their father’s affection, leaving them little to none. Who, at seventeen, was the first to finish college, then grad school, and then, by twenty-five had retired from the Air Force—after a commanding officer abuse her and she won a settlement.
When my father closed his door, I lost an irretrievable desire to connect with him, but I sometimes wonder how my aunts and uncles would have behaved had he stuck around. If they saw that someone loved my nuclear family, maybe they wouldn’t have mistreated us. Maybe then we wouldn’t have moved across town, where I mimicked their behavior.
2001. Freshman year. The drummer, a preacher’s son, stooped under the weight his studies, a backpack stuffed with books and folders, fat with handouts and homework. A nose wiggle lifted his glasses. A giggle accompanied curse words recited in pop punk lyrics. My brother and I spent our lunch periods with him and the guitarist. Absorbing our classmates’ shadows, we sat on concrete benches, and with pizza-stuffed mouths, masked our discomfort by mocking our classmates. The boy in the electric wheelchair we called Zoom Zoom. The nonverbal kid who sucked soda cans. An overweight black boy, my once-godbrother, who wandered the courtyard alone, and spoke with a strange slur. (As children, my brother and I visited his home, often, and sometimes slept over in his living room—video games, midnight snacks, Saturday morning cartoons—until his father brandished a pistol in his mother’s face and my mother severed our kinship.)
Our twinhood soon attracted others, kids with cars who drove off-campus during lunch to swill liquor in hazy, hotboxed garages, and I could no longer take the drummer seriously: his attempt to rebel against his father by sneaking obscene music. Prior to high school, my brother and I had endured homeschool, three years of watching taped classroom sessions in our living room, or in hotel rooms when we traveled the country with my mother’s business, a small promotional company. Middle-grade years spent bullying my brother, who caught a break when the drummer’s pop punk clashed with my metal, when his bright button-ups clashed with my black band tees. When his dares to snort Pixie Sticks clashed with my containers of crushed Ritalin.
Our lunchtime classmates were never aware of our teasing. We never spoke to them, never went near them. Too timid to reach the proximity we desired, we turned our derision toward the drummer. We mocked his crushes, his music, his glasses, his backpack, his sheltered existence, bound to the church and all its laws by his father’s profession.
2002. Sophomore year. A delivery. Two tall brown boxes, my guitar and my brother’s bass. We packed our instruments into our mother’s trunk and she drove us to the guitarist’s house. In his living room, my brother and I showed the guitarist our tablature, printouts from the Internet, which he rejected citing bar chords as lazy. He wanted power chords, fingers stretched across frets, and anyway, he played guitar. A band needs a drummer, so why don’t you try out the electric drum kit my father bought while I play guitar and your brother plays bass?
Monday, two days after an evening spent watching the guitarist play U2 songs while we sighed and glanced at the TV—two days in which we ignored his phone calls and blocked his instant messages—my brother and I followed our new friends off campus for lunch, passing the guitarist, who sat alone on the bench, picking at his pizza.
My fists and my stones broke my brother’s skin. My words hurt him, drew tears.
When I was a child, I behaved as a child, except when I beat my brother and watched blood gush from his eyebrow. Or used hurtful, ill-fitting words like faggot and fatass. Or pushed him down stairs. Or stuck him with thumbtacks. Or aimed a slingshot at him, and left him on the living room floor, immobilized by back pain. Or promised I’d play basketball with him and instead watched TV while he shot hoops alone in the driveway.
Sibling rivalry is acceptable. Sibling abuse is not. Sometimes, when my conscience, burdened by previous transgressions, asks why I treated him so harshly, I run through a number of excuses, two of which place the blame on him.
I blamed my brother for knocking on our father’s door, shattering pretenses of whatever we’d wanted or expected of him. I blamed my brother for my confused identity, for sharing friends, people who regularly, mistakenly, called me by his name. I even blamed my genes, which float in my blood—the blood of my mother and her siblings, who told me to love family but never showed me how.
Sometimes, on those rare occasions I’m honest with myself, I recall the evening he pinned me on our bedroom floor and stuck his tongue in my mouth, and I don’t blame him. I blame myself. For allowing that one moment, a child’s desire to emulate television, to result in years of abuse. I can only guess what my father would have said about this. Remember: I only saw him twice. My mother, for once rational while angry, said: “When y’all was kids? So fucking what? That’s your brother, dammit. That boy ain’t never meant to hurt you.”
It’s true. Though we were very young, still in grade school, my anger began then and festered, and I punished him over a decade, and I continued to punish him after he drove a fist into my eye. I called the police.
2007. My brother and I shared a one-room motel near the Seattle airport with our mother. We’d just moved from South Texas. Fled actually. From the aftermath of our reckless, impulsive tendencies. My mother tossed us in a Florida rehab and spent three weeks planning a new life in Western Washington. She was in San Antonio, closing a sale on her old house, the night I called the police. In my toxic, detoxing state of extended adolescence, I followed him around the motel room, calling him names, until he did what he’d never done before. He punched me. The weight of blame shadowed the weight of his fist: I’d earned that punch. Even so, I used the punch as an excuse to call the police.
Since I was still raging when the cops arrived—pacing the parking lot, I pointed to my eye with one hand, and with the other I pointed to my brother, who stood near the motel room, staring at the ground, apologizing—they hesitated to arrest him. After they cuffed him and walked him to their cruiser, they warned me that if I didn’t calm down, if I didn’t stop yelling and cursing, they’d take me too.
During the awful year my brother and I shared a one-windowed, one-bedroom apartment with three cats and the occasional stray teenager in a complex of meth dealers and crack heads, I admitted to my brother that I once hated him.
2004. Since we were among the first of our graduating class to move into our own place, my brother and I lost our apartment on weekend nights to intoxicated teenagers eager to evade their parents’ homes. Bodies everywhere. Some we knew, some we didn’t. On the futon and the twin recliners that flanked it, and even on the floor and kitchen counters. In our tiny home, where strangers outnumbered friends, we sat and sweated and shout-chattered as they sipped beers and passed blunts and baggies. Straws and razors.
Ninety degrees indoors bred claustrophobia. Claustrophobia bred paranoia. A sign on the wall begged them keep the door closed, to keep the noise, pot, and my cats inside. The more people that showed up, the more I addled my mind with a blend of pills and powder while downing booze. I woke late each weekend afternoon to find cigarette butts floating in my kitchen sink, used condoms on the bathroom floor. These parties lasted as long as we could stand them. After three months or so, we screened calls, drew blinds, dimmed lights, hid in other apartments. One night we left, sober and craving a late-night breakfast. On our mile-walk to IHOP I told him.
“I used to hate you.”
“I really hated you. I wanted you dead.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t anymore.”
“Well, if you don’t anymore then it’s okay.”
But my assaults have never felt okay. Not to me and, I’m sure, not to him. You don’t hate your siblings. You fight them and when you fight you say you hate them, but you don’t mean it. You shouldn’t mean it. Especially when he lives ten minutes down one street plus a couple turns and you haven’t seen him in six months. Especially when your extended family and even your father have rejected you, and your mother worries her kids will die estranged. Especially when you’re twins and, born together, it made perfect sense that you’d die together in a Texas Hill Country storm during a Boy Scouts campout.
Nature raged, flipping tents, so our mother stuffed us in the backseat of her sedan as other boys scrambled for cars. The campfire died. Daddy longlegs of lightening crawled the sky. Glimpses of his wet face reflected my fear. That night, the night I knew I would die with this guy I met before he was born, I told him, for the first and only time, that I loved him. Tearful, clenching my hands, he said he loved me. Then the door swung open, and though it was a struggle, fighting wind, cold rain a pain on my skin, I closed it.