“Guilt” was read as part of Miss Spoken’s March 2017 show. The theme was Sibling Rivalry, and you can listen to the live show here. This story appears at 51:23.
Jordan was born the year I first kissed a girl. (I was six and my first love told me kissing was just for boy-girl couples, after I’d planted my lips firmly on hers – my first vivid lesson in consent.) Jordan’s mother was not my mother and his father, gone before the birth, was not my father. We became siblings in a way common to my family: through abandonment.
Growing up, I shared a small house in South Florida with my grandmother; my mother showed up for irregular month long stays, my father stationed in Bosnia. My aunt, Jordan’s mother, had not yet felt the maternal pull, and eventually he joined us and we were left together, children loved but unwanted. He was the first person to ever belong to me.
I was eight and he was two when both of our mothers returned. I curled my body around him as his mother threatened mine with a kitchen knife. Our grandmother brought an end to the argument without even raising her voice. She pulled us from our favorite hiding spot behind the couch and pushed each of us into our own maternal embraces. For the next four years, the five of us lived in that cramped house until the very walls begged for silence.
He was six, quiet and gentle, when his mother moved him into her boyfriend’s house and my father returned. It seemed life could not change in anything but drastic bursts. I went from daily pillow forts to spending only the summers in Jordan’s bunk bed. That first time as a visitor our relationship began to chafe, and we both cried ourselves to sleep.
When my mother lost her sight to her addiction, we were living alone with each other in a small trailer Jordan had never visited. My father was in the Middle East, and I had to get a job to meet the ends not met by government aid. On breaks I’d call my brother, ask him about school, about friends, about his loving parents. The month I was denied a five cent raise, Jordan was gifted a child’s motorcycle.
I was 15 and Jordan not yet 10 when I traded blowjobs for drum lessons, desperate to have something of my own. I hadn’t seen my brother in over a year, but I called dutifully each week. He learned to garden with his mom and his stepfather taught him to weld in patient lessons. I was back at our grandmother’s; my mother lost to a daze of Oxycontin, my father remarried with new children.
With each of my manic decisions I tried to protect him–from myself more than anyone else. I talked to him openly about my feelings for other girls; I gave him space to tell me his own secrets. He’d mimic the way I moved my hands as I spoke, save jokes from his friends to make me laugh, and seemed to never be sad. I waited to feel like a complete being, the way he seemed so whole and alive.
The year my mother overdosed I finally began to crack. I had bought the cheapest car I could find, a small obvious symbol of freedom–the potential to leave my unhappiness. I drove to visit Jordan on the weekends after my work shifts. I drove to see my mother at her halfway house after school. For the two weeks my mother spent in a coma, Jordan was my constant companion. No 10-year-old has ever been so quiet, so comforting.
I was 16 and Jordan was still so young when I had my first mental breakdown. I wept through classes, at work, late into sleepless nights. I took medical leave from my job, from school, from my life. My grandmother, burdened as she was with care for my mother, sent me to Jordan’s. In the warmth of their home, in the constant attention of my brother, my mind began to repair itself. We spent each day after school playing video games, taking walks, training his dogs, just being near each other. His love was a gentle net I pulled around myself to catch all the falling pieces.
Now, writing these words, I taste sharp bitterness: the pith of a lemon, a Florida winter, the ill fit of forgotten love.
He was in middle school when I left for college in Chicago. Florida was a death sentence, my mother’s problems surely just waiting to become my own. I promised to be a better sister to him. To call, to visit, to remember. But time has a way of slipping when you’re finally free. Soon I was 21, and he was on his first flight to come visit me.
On the Red Line headed north, he told me he was beginning to understand how different our lives had been. How closely our narratives could have played out, but that he’d gotten lucky and I’d had to break free. In return, I told him to read more and make new friends and to stop cursing so much. The nerve connecting us, suddenly exposed, was too fresh to touch.
Maybe that was the moment I failed him, or allowed him to eventually fail me.
I was working 70 hours a week when he came to stay with me in his summer between high school and college. We talked about sex; I told him about my abortion and encouraged him to be proactive. We talked about crushed dreams, even though his were still so possible. On the swings outside of my apartment he called himself a feminist and suddenly I was so full, so finally whole.
When I was diagnosed with a serious illness, he wanted to fly to me. We talked about the expense of healthcare, the ignorance and pain of doctors. He became enraged when my medical team had fewer and fewer answers. We took a small vacation together, a road trip to see the Florida he loved and I had never noticed. I edited his school papers and gave him relationship advice. We chased the mundane, the small moments, and held them close between us.
My sleepless nights now are spent wondering why that wasn’t enough. Why anything and everything about me and our love wasn’t enough.
In October of last year, he and his serious girlfriend came to visit me. She was everything I didn’t want for him. She told me that feminism was for ugly women, but he reassured me that he hadn’t changed. She told me that people were poor because they wanted to be, but he said he knew that wasn’t true. She told me in so many ways that she was dangerous, but he said he wanted to marry her.
In November of last year, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. My partner and I wept in bed, knowing our relationship would be under attack, knowing my health would again become a pre-existing condition, knowing we couldn’t trust so many people around us with our safety. In the terrible hours afterward, I learned that Jordan had voted for him.
There is nothing left to say because nothing destroyed can be fully recovered. Time ticks by in days spent waiting for him to call and explain himself, spent waiting to forgive him. I am still waiting to feel whole.
Al Rosenberg is a writer and Professional Jew. She also likes to think of herself as a professional sick person and lesbian, but she doesn’t actually get paid for that. She spends what little free time she can wring from her day reading, gaming, and being a mediocre cat mom. You can find her super sad essays and mostly sassy game reviews on WomenWriteAboutComics.com.
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