And then there’s my brother. Sometimes siblings who experience a chaotic childhood bond closely, and sometimes they become adversaries, competing for parental attention and resources. I would say my brother and I did both. There were times when we were emotionally inseparable, such as the occasion when he borrowed our father’s Chrysler Newport, back when cars were big and dark with push buttons on the dash and soft cloth seats embossed with a fleur de lis pattern, like wallpaper. He was planning to drive some of his friends to Pittsburgh, where they would catch a Greyhound to California as summer runaways. Before leaving, Christophe appeared at the window of my elementary school to say goodbye. He wore his usual army jacket, flared jeans, and a beat-up pair of russet-colored Frye boots with squared off toes. Beneath his jacket, his t-shirt read, “Eat a Peach.” His hair was wavy and hung to his shoulders. He was beautiful in the way of teenage boys: lean and lush-skinned, with big lips and a slim column of neck. I was scared to learn he was leaving, but to this day, it’s one of my favorite moments of our childhood; the one in which we were most close and in league. We talked through the open window while my scary blonde teacher, Ms. Eastbrook, was out of the room. I swore not to tell our father of his plans.
Naturally, things went awry. The group of them spent the night somewhere in the vicinity of the city, playing the radio and smoking various substances, running down the car battery and ultimately stranding themselves. When our father realized my brother had disappeared, he was enraged. The police were called; the kids were found; and my brother was taken into custody for the night.
Of course I was privy to all the ranting. I was in my usual spot in the backseat (this time in his girlfriend’s car), hearing it all. Not once was I asked for information, and I kept my promise, remaining silent. I missed him, but I also felt a measure of glee: good for him for getting away. Would my turn ever come? Would Christophe let me know where he was so I could join him? I’d have left in a heartbeat, bringing with me our shared copy of The Little Prince and some clean underpants. I was also trying to conjure a plan to bring along Lady, the old Dalmation who belonged to the woman with whom our father left us while he traveled for business. This woman was named Violette, and though he dated other women, he also consorted with her. She was in love with him. Her frustration at his perfidy was taken out mainly on me, and I passionately despised her for it.
The first time she’d struck me Christophe had told our father, who warned her never to do it again, but the second time it happened, when Christophe again reported her, nothing had happened. He’d done his best to cheer me afterwards, bringing me along to a party with his friends, convincing my favorite of the boys to give me a piggyback ride (after which I decided we’d get married). In the meantime, my resentment festered, leading to my first full-scale case of loathing. I hated her little gold earring tree, her padded brassieres carefully laid out on a drying rack in the basement, and the dark cherrywood living room table, where plates of liver or terrible fish drowned in sauce were served. I hated her needlepoint pillows and the art deco furniture in the room which I shared with Christophe. I hated her Bel Air cigarettes, and her perpetual black coffee-scented breath which wafted into my face during her relentless scoldings. I hated her hairspray, I hated her navy shoes, and I hated her car.
In the end, I was sent away to my self-absorbed grandparents in Florida, with whom I was not a favorite. A few days later, my brother (who was) arrived to face my grandmother’s wrath. Again, I sat by silently, neither defending nor chiming in. Mostly I spent my time at the pool, learning to dive: first forwards, then backwards, then swanning from the roughened high board. My red hair began to turn yellow from the chlorine and sunshine, and my shoulders toasted as I sat out the mandatory breaks, watching and listening to the older girls as they sunbathed in bikinis, gossiped, and delighted in “My Love is Alive” playing on their transistor radios. Everyone but me smelled of coconut oil.
Finally my brother appeared. I was in the water as usual, swimming through bands of sunshine as it sliced through the waves. He knelt by the side, so that it was his face, so similar to my own, that I saw when I surfaced.
“This sucks,” he said. He was angry. My grandmother had been dragging him around the local museums for days.
“I never told,” I said. A hank of wet hair stuck to my forehead.
“Dad let Gayle bitch me out the whole way home from Pittsburgh.” Gayle was our father’s girlfriend, soon to become our second stepmother. She was tiny and stylish and lent me clothes and raved about my long hair, declaiming that “A woman’s hair is her shining glory.”
“I think Dad’s kind of an asshole,” I said. Christophe remained silent. Neither one of us had ever criticized our father — flighty, bi-polar, emotionally demanding, stylish, and oddly gregarious— so harshly. Christophe stood up, his knees grooved from the cement.
“You can’t say that,” he said. “You shouldn’t say that.” He paused, then added, “Violette’s not that bad, either.”
I stared at him. Up until that moment, I’d known he hated her too. What had changed? Why were we now on opposing sides? When my eyes began to tear, I held my nose, deliberately sinking downward, away from him and the girls who were looking his way, away from the strong sunlight, away from my cares. I wished there were dolphins or seals with which I could play, joining their world for a minute, or an hour, or forever.