(Started writing a short story about my younger brother and his battle with addiction. This is a story about him, about me, and about our entire family. It is a short story that works to illuminate the beauty that can be found in any situation, and how humor can be a means of coping with life's hardships.)
The cookies made my teeth feel grimy and I wanted to brush them as well as wash my face before leaving for his meeting. The bathroom we share is connected to his bedroom, but has a second door, which leads to the hallway. Since we moved into the house, fourteen years ago, we have been sharing the same bathroom, although we have a four bedroom four bathroom house, with four people in our family. As a teenager, when I protested sharing a bathroom, demanding my own, my mother explained that we would have the pleasure of destroying only one bathroom in HER house. That’s how arguments about the house always went with my mother. It was always her house, not ours. End of story.
The instant I enter our bathroom I notice something different, as our eyes are trained to do when dealing with a familiar space. There is a post-it note pressed to the bathroom mirror, above what I consider to be my side of the counter. Actually, I know for a fact it’s my side; it’s always been my side. Every last piece of bathroom junk I own is on the right hand side of the counter, and he has the left, where he keeps his stuff in the medicine cabinet. This has never changed in all the time we’ve lived here. But there it is, this obnoxious little pasty yellow note, sticking its tongue out at me from the mirror. I snatch it from the glass and it tears in half. I grab both fragments and hold them together, making the note complete, as if they are separate clues from a treasure hunt. Together they read, “STOP leaving your shit all over the bathroom, or I will throw it away for you.” I angrily scan the bathroom, wondering what the hell he is talking about? Ok, so my stuff is on the counter, but that’s because there is nowhere for me to put it. In the corner on the floor are a towel and my bathing suit, but it’s summer and I use it, like, everyday, I justify to myself. This is ridiculous.
Without knocking I burst into his room and attack him with an aggressive voice.
“Dude, what the hell is your problem? If you have an issue then come to me instead of leaving all of these bullshit little notes around the house.” I have finally got his attention, and he is looking at me rather than at his computer.
“It’s really annoying Taylor, and you’re acting more like a passive aggressive roommate than my brother.” I yank his door shut and stomp back down the hall to my bedroom, leaving the bathroom as it is.
* * *
The car ride to the meeting is a silent one, as neither of us wants to talk to the other person. His face is turned away from me as he looks out the passenger’s side window. I know my brother well enough to know the expression he must be wearing. I’m almost positive that he doesn’t want to go to this meeting just as much as I don’t. I’m only home for a few more weeks before I move to Thailand for the year, and this is about the last thing I want to be spending my afternoon doing. Before my mother asked me to go with him I had big plans of lying around, reading a book and possibly working on one of my many unfinished canvases. I had the day to kill before going out all night, so I could sleep in half the day tomorrow. This had not been in the plans.
The tension between us was adding to the unpleasantness of the situation. This tension, it wasn’t natural; it never used to be here. We were best friends. I had spent almost everyday with him in college. We used to adventure together, cook dinner together, and spend long afternoon days at the beach or in his backyard, listening to music and acting weird in the way that you can only around your sibling. But that was over a year ago, and I guess maybe I’m even remembering it differently. Maybe it had really been longer than a year since we had been like that. The last year we were in university together became so jumbled with everything that he was going through, as well as a very rough breakup I went through, that my attention was diverted, and my memory was confused. College had developed into a time of extreme emotional highs and lows, and the trauma of all he had been through, that we had been through together, had ruptured my memory, as trauma often does. The events that had taken place, the many conversations that had been had, and the people who were involved had all bled together in my memory, like the colors on a homemade tie-dye shirt.
It was impossible for me to remember with accuracy, the temporality with which things occurred, and how quickly or slowly they changed. Maybe towards the end I hadn’t actually been seeing him everyday, but more like twice a week? Was that how it was able to get as bad as it did? Maybe I wasn’t as close to him as I had imagined, but rather I chose to ignore the changes in his behavior during the moments when I needed to admit how bad things had gotten. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I admitted how bad things had actually become, then I would need to admit that I was in over my head; that we both were. If I actually admitted how serious it had gotten, then I would have to stop taking my brother’s word for things and would need to turn to my parents. And I didn’t want to. Hadn’t wanted to. He was my best friend. I wanted to believe him so badly. I wanted to handle it because I thought as the closest one to him, I was capable of it.
But it was there right in front of me. Aside from the stories I heard all year from friends of his and friends of mine, he was the biggest piece of evidence, and it was like a giant red flag being waved in my face. Countless times he showed up at my apartment, his eyes bloodshot and his face exhausted, his eyelids drooping as we spoke. For every excuse he gave me, I made another of my own. It’s allergies. It’s stress of finals. It’s too much caffeine too late in the day and now he can’t sleep at night. His slimming body and hunched frame were because he was exhausted and overworked from school. As students, we all neglected our bodies throughout the school year, and finals and midterms meant minimal sleep, adderall and more coffee than food. I was building a dream around me so that I didn’t have to face the reality of who my little brother had become. We both existed in our little worlds of altered reality. He was my only sibling, the only little brother I would ever have, and I maintained an image of him that he no longer could fit.
The clicking of the blinker as we sat in the turning lane was the only sound between us. It was a long red light. The lane we were in was marked for turning, and I probably didn’t need to have my blinker on, but I resisted turning it off, because in this moment I found the rhythmic steady click of the blinker more soothing than the silence that would fill its place if I pushed it off.
* * *
I sat on the edge of his bed, the sound of my Father’s car becoming more distant as they moved farther away from me. Half the room was empty with the exception of the things he had owned but no longer cared enough to take home with him. Home, that’s where he was headed. After the phone call last night, my Father had decided to drive to Santa Cruz to come get him. He was here before noon arrived. It had all happened so quickly, the events that I had set into motion, that I was having a hard time believing what had just occurred.
* * *
I could still hear my Father’s crying, but this time I had actually seen the look on his face; no telephone line between us. When he arrived he pulled my brother close to him, his arms wrapped around his small frame. It was more than a hug, it was an embrace of genuine love. Where you’ve missed someone, needed someone, have been scared for someone, and finally, you have them in your arms.
I remember my Father emailing me earlier in the year, telling me that a good friend of his had recently lost his adult son. My Father had met his friend through a shared passion for the ocean and sailing, and so they spent the weekends exploring the San Diego coastline, and often taking weekend trips to a near by island. In the email he explained how the son had lost his life to a long battle with Oxycotin, a drug my brother, unknown to my parent’s knowledge, was also using. The point of the email was to tell my brother and I that he loved us and he hoped we were making healthy decisions while living away from home. A line that I will never forget is how he described spreading the son’s ashes over the ocean, and how he held his friend in his arms as he wept for the loss of his only son. I knew that the fear of experiencing what his friend had months before, was pulsing through the blood in my Father’s body, speeding up his heartbeat and creating the type of chaos in your mind that feels so thick it’s impossible to think through.
They stood in Stephanee’s living room, embraced as one, my Father and brother crying, and I suddenly felt like I no longer belonged. Suddenly this wasn’t something that involved me anymore, and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of awkwardness, both physical and emotional. That feeling where you have found yourself in a situation where you realize you don’t really know anyone and everyone else is the best of friends. I had to step outside, to give them some room and get some fresh air. The last thing I heard before closing the front door was my Father telling him, “We love you. Mom and I love you. I am never going to lose you. I’m here to bring you home.”
I sat on her porch steps, slumped over, my head resting on my arms and knees. I starred at the chipped blue paint on the weather worn wood, as my eyes welled with tears. I didn’t want to cry; it was already too much to see it from both of them. Stephanee sat by my side and rubbed my back as I concentrated on my breathing, on calming myself down. I could tell she was shaken, as well, but there was no one to comfort her.
As the muted sounds from inside made their way to where we sat, a relief washed over my body. With each exhale I knew it was over, and everything that I had been holding inside for the year started to drain away. But with the relief came a wave of sadness. A realization of what was to come. It’s hard to describe the sadness I felt for my entire family. The process of helping my brother into sobriety, which I knew was going to be a long journey. The moments of honesty that would cut one another deeper than they had ever expected. The acts my brother would have to confess too, and the realization my parents would have to face. Ahead lay sleepless nights, brutal honesty, and words of disappointment.
I closed my eyes tight and all I saw was the electric white and purple light that’s fills the space behind your lids. I watched the glowing shapes float around the inside world of my head and when I opened my eyes, a tear raced away from me, slipping from my face, where it fell to the wooden board and was absorbed.
* * *
I looked around at the room we had partied in so many times. A group of us had all sat along the edge of his bed, wearing fake mustaches, dressed like sailors, drinking cheap booze from fancy wine glasses, laughing as we shook our faces while a friend behind a camera snapped pictures.
It was strange how his smell was still lingering, even though he was no longer here. I wondered how long it would take for all evidence of his life here to fade? When would his roommate remove his bed, and where would it go? The shelving where he had kept all of his clothes was empty, and it hit me that he was really gone. Walking downtown this morning felt like an eternity ago. My soul felt it had aged years in what had just been a few hours. I knew I had done the right thing, but there was a feeling of selfishness I couldn’t push aside. In a few months I would graduate and leave this town in search of life after college, which at the moment was hard to imagine existed. I had wanted him to be there for me up until graduation. I wanted his friendship, his companionship and in the end, I wanted the security of knowing my brother was just down the street. That if I was having a hard day, I could go see him and spend time with him. The absence of his possessions reaffirmed that he wasn’t coming back.
There was a gentle knock on the doorframe, the kind that someone gives to ask permission to come into a room that’s already open. His new roommate was standing there, in a blue flannel and cut off shorts, with a cigarette tucked behind his ear. I had never met him before, but I remembered the conversation we had had earlier that day, and how excited my brother was to be living with him.
“Ay Allie, umm eh, are you alright?” He asked with an Australian accent, something you rarely heard in this town.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” A direct lie. I felt like someone had just slapped me across the face and snuck in a quick punch to my stomach, knocking the air out of my lungs while my eyes struggled to focus.
I stood up and took one last glance around the room. Left in his windowsill was a candle with a painting of Jesus on it. Neither one of us are religious, but this was exactly the type of random stuff my brother would collect. I grabbed it and left the room, unsure of where to go next.
* * *
I follow my brother’s directions, which lead us to a parking lot for a building I had seen a million times in my life. One of those buildings that’s built right along side the freeway, and has been here since before I was born. Not old enough for the architecture to be charming, but old enough for it to be tacky, in the way that it resembles a different era, probably the 70s. Of course, my brother, being the disorganized person that he is, does not have the room number for the meeting.
“You know that we’re ten minutes late?” I remind him, although he knows and he could have gone without hearing it, as we walk through the halls of what seems to be a type of community center. There is a strange smell to it and I dislike everything about this place. It is a neglected building, which reminds me of the type of place you would see snotty nosed children with their young single moms, waiting to get their free flu shots. A stale building that could double as a low-income clinic. Or a place for the elderly Vista locals to come and hold council meetings. The original residents of the town, who had lived here before the cloned neighborhoods had invaded. When Vista was all avocado and orange farms, and the new sixteen theater Cineplex was un-built, as well as my high school made for educating 1,500 but currently had a student body of 3,200 and a parking lot full of trailer classrooms.
The air is stuffy, the interior is cheap and I immediately make up my mind that this place is awful and these are going to be the longest two hours of my life. Like the hallways of my old dorms, our footsteps echo with each fast paced step we take, as we walk down the yellow worn floors. A few doors ahead I hear voices and we approach an open door to a room with about twenty people seated in a circle inside. Twenty adults. The full grown kind; the kind with children and wives and husbands and divorces and careers and credit card debit and all that stuff that young adults don’t have yet. And issues with addiction. A room full of heroine addicts.
I peek my head in, half sure if this is the right room. “Hello,” a woman in her mid-sixties greets us with a warm and welcoming voice. “If you’re looking for the depression and bipolar support group, please come in and join us, we just got started a few minutes ago.” Depression and bipolar support group? I look back at my brother, and he nods sheepishly.
We find the last two empty chairs and join the circle, which is large enough that its edges touch the perimeters of the wall. The only way more people would be able to join the group would be if everyone scooted their chairs together, and it was already uncomfortably close. I sit down in the nearest chair to the door and he takes one opposite the room from I. In my anger caused by the notes this morning, it never occurred to me to ask what meeting we were even going to. I assumed it was either an AA meeting or some other type of sobriety group for narcotic abusers. The thought never even crossed my mind that my brother was going through something else.
From my seat I look around the room at the other people here. They don’t look crazy. Well, some of them do, but most of them look normal. The only difference is the age. They are at least all fifteen years older than us. I mean older than him, my brother. I am not part of this group. I do not need to be here. My mother’s words keep echoing in my head, “two hours is too long for him to be gone with the car.”
Great, I think. I am stuck in a room full of Vista nutcases for the next two hours. Around and around the circle we will go, so everyone has a chance to talk about their depressing lives and their neurotic behavior. I glance around the room at the people, wondering just who will reveal themselves to be the craziest, when I notice the man sitting next to me staring at my arm.