> Canela, the "you" (at the end) isn't you.
> I was thinking of my brother and more generally a "you", which includes me.
> And you, if you wish, and not you if you don't. And anybody else if they
> want, and no one if they don't.
I know. It's just one of those things that happen with readers (damn
us/them all), when the second-person p.o.v. is employed, see: a sort of
call-and-response kind of deal, writer to reader, reader to writer,
echolalia. I know.
> The actual facts about my actual brother as far as his telling me the truth:
> He's been on heroin four times, for many many years, or I should say off
> four times for a very short time. Looks like death, he starved my stepfather
> in his last year, alzheimered, to burn up his life savings (over a hundred
> thousand). Stole his own son's guitar, when the boy took him in. A musician
> without any money. My brother had raised him to play -- a guitarist himself.
> But nothing of this can he breathe to the world. or allow to enter his guilt
> vicegripped forebrain. What would be too much to hope for is the truth. Not
> for the truth's sake, who cares about that? Or for me. I'm no confessor. For
> him. That's who craves it.
> But I don't think it will happen now. Like that letter he wrote, the fourth
> one that never arrived. Probably he'll die soon. He's two years younger than
> me. It makes no difference to me what he did, I still love him.
> But honesty? I'm afraid that's not something his system can tolerate
> anymore. Nor, as I remember it something he could do for as long as I could
> remember. Secrets from himself, always His name is Jon.
> I have a great interest in people with that name.
> An anorexic lesbian friend, also an addict, named Laurie and I have lunch
> almost every Saturday before I go to work at the hospital. She's been clean
> sixty days. She says we're twins. Nothing to do with any of the above labels
> or their contrapositives. Just, she calls a spade a spade. She calls me
> twin, "Hi Twin!" when she sees me. I go "Hi twin! You know I love you no
> matter what." I tell her that, which is the truth.
I have this thing about truth and family, and another (only slightly
separate) thing about brothers, so I'm gonna respond to this in kind,
then maybe try to get outta this confessional mode, mindful as I am of
all those who have already left the room or are mumbling how about them
Mets. But I've been thinking about some of these things you mention for
quite a while now, and I like what you have to say, so I'll let you in
on what I've come to believe, such as it is.
A liar, my mother always said, is worse than a thief. I don't know
if that's necessarily true: I've been on the receiving end of both, and
it seems to me that a liar always steals a piece of you; a thief always
lies to gain your trust. Either way, they're pretty much the same
character. And I'm not sure if the stories we tell ourselves are much
different than the deceptions we coil out to tangle others.
It gets confused in me, though, and I can't decide whether ridicule
and blame, pride and denial, diplomacy and forgiveness -- even how we
get from crisis to safety and back again -- are all just composite
elements of the arsenal of thieves and the liar's sermon.
For over twenty years now, my mother and I have been battling about
our family's "white-washing": I tell her that I am the keeper of secrets
and lies; I'm the one who knows what's real and true about my maternal
grandfather; about her and the brutal White man she took as her
thirty-five-year common-law "husband"; about the things that happened to
all of us. I know who tossed my baby brother over the balcony, and down
the stairs, splitting the skin of his head open over and over; I know
who pummeled her softening body through the sliding glass door; I know
who put all the shame into me for having a developing girl's body. I
break past the shadows of my grandfather and stepfather, to tell her
every piece that never left me, and all the new ones as they smash into
For the first ten years of this struggle, she'd deflate like a
punctured kick-ball every time we talked, moaning, "Why are you doing
this to me" and "That never happened." I persisted, when I could put
between us two children of my own and a couple of university degrees --
still hitting hard at truths, but more detached. Easing later, as I
started to see the tender roots and brittle veins of her need for
forgiveness. Knowing, finally, that my mother is one of the immobile
who, unlike me, never got away.
Does that excuse it? We are victims of victims, the poet says, while
the "womyn's music" when I first came out was hopeful that "the rock
will wear away." Until my late twenties, I was always swinging between
the bruised loyalty of staying in San Diego just to allow my mother into
my house every time she got beat, and the fractured bitterness of
ignoring her altogether, long-distance. "My life is over," she told me,
when she was thirty, and I was eleven. Yeah, well, maybe, is all I could
think, but that doesn't mean you get to take me with you.
Still, I kept getting phone calls and visits from my mother every
time she got run out of the house, for all the years I stayed in
California, no matter where I lived. My brother would always be with her
-- once standing on my porch in the dark, saying, "I finally got him,
'manita, I finally did it. I threw him down and beat the shit out of
him, and every time I punched his face, I said: remember what you used
to do to me? Remember? Remember? Remember?"
That was more than two decades ago. The last time I saw my brother,
he was standing in the kitchenette of some seriously indistinct motel
room, looking through cupboards, mumbling to himself. Our mother had
just been tossed out of her man's house again, a few days before, and
she'd called me to talk with my brother. I sat listening to his voice
from the living room and, when I realized he was recounting scenes from
our childhood, I moved quietly toward him, studying every word, finally
making sense of it.
He was muttering about the thief who stole our mother. That man's
pride in having us watch him dump salt and a raw egg into a glass of
beer, letting the slippery wad push palpably down his throat. About the
"fake deaths" that man created to terrorize my brother: holding his hand
in boiling water for touching something that didn't belong to him;
pressing his head beneath the bathtub water to "teach him who was boss";
adding a display of Moltov cocktails to the living room one night,
threatening to blow us all to tornflesh, bloody fragments.
My brother was saying things, too, about the room with the sports
trophies and military medals, the photographs of the man we hated posed
in leather beside motorcycles in the desert, or wearing a wetsuit on
boats. The speargun on the wall. And the crawlspace at the back of the
closet, filled with boxes of hidden photographs that scared us --
pictures of women spread apart like they were broken; the ones of people
with mounting dogs; the empty faces, like desaparecidos, in the pictures
of the smooth, hairless, pale children, who seemed to fold in on
themselves, even as they were vacantly pushed up and violently filled.
"I remember that," I told him.
He looked at me for just a moment, absolutely clear and connected.
Then his face went very dark. "You can't remember that," he accused me,
"because it never happened. It was just a dream."
He turned away, throwing bowls and utensils out of cupboards and
drawers, and he began a wicked, terrifying cackle. My brother never
recognized me again.
Not long after, when they were tired of being on their own and had
returned to that man's house yet again, my mother called to tell me that
she'd opened the door to find my brother standing with his fist pulled
back, a knife in his hand. "I'm going to kill you, bitch," he warned
her. She ran next door to a neighbor's to call the police. There was a
restraining order already out on my brother, because his violence toward
our mother was escalating. When the squad cars arrived, though, our
mother stood behind the officers on the porch, as my brother welcomed
them in. "There you are, officers," he offered, expansively, "I'm so
glad you've come." I'm told that he made a valiant effort to convince
the police that it was my mother who had thrown salad with bleu cheese
dressing all over the walls; that it was she who had kicked in the
television set and punched out the windows. The officers, both Black,
took my brother out to the patrol car. He went crazy, then, struggling
as they restrained him, shouting that he hated all niggers, and that he
was a nigger, too.
My brother was taken to County Mental Health, where he refused to
speak for two days. On the third day, after repeatedly being asked why
he wanted to hurt his mother, he answered, "She's not my mother; she's
my sister." I hung up the phone, when our mother relayed this to me, and
decided that whatever they'd done to make him shatter into fragments
like that, I was going to piece it all back together, if I could.
It's not that simple. There are no real disclosures, no one-drop
unveilings, in the family I grew up with. The closest I ever got was
when I'd been out of California for several years in graduate school,
and flew to San Diego for a week on a research grant. I rented a cottage
on the boardwalk in Mission Beach, and one night my mother sat with me
there, pouring herself another drink, tugging at balls of lint on the
cheap floral bedspread. I charged her with the responsibility for my
brother. I said I was sick, that it felt like I was dying, and could not
heal without her.
The sack of loose skin around my mother's face became puffier and a
deeper, shameful red, as she drank. "You're not the only one who's
suffered," she answered, scornfully. "My father had incest with me, too,
and my mother said it was my own fault."
She shrugged, gulped from her glass, and lit another cigarette,
though there was still a butt burning in the ashtray. "Anyway," she
decided, "I don't know what you're talking about. That man was nothing
but good to you kids. We fought, but you have to remember that it's not
all his fault. It takes two to tango." She slid her glasses down the
bridge of her nose and brought her cracked knuckles to her eyes,
rubbing. "And, if anything did happen, it was a long time ago. You were
just kids. You can't even remember."
My mother filled her glass again. "Why worry about things that are
done and over?" she frowned. "You can't live in the past."
I suppose that one thing that my mother says, at least, is true: you
can't live in the past. But the past can live in you. I've kept mine, an
aching witness, in different parts of my body, my whole life.
I never had a body of my own, as a child. I felt touch but never
desire, contact but never love. What happens to a body that knows well
only rage and shame? I know the answer to this, now: what gets buried
quickens and rots and, if you're lucky, that half-death feeds you, until
you live again.
The things I bury are what I become, and when I stop to know this, I
can say who I am. For most of my life, I closed my eyes to incest and
brutality; drama and denial; desperation and shame. Still, every path
I've taken cleaves and clashes under my skin. Nothing gets dissolved,
nothing gets wished away.
I suppose you're lucky that you still know how to love, Steve.
Probably very lucky.
Now I'm going to have a drink and a cigarette. Maybe learn to speak
Christ, Senor Young is right: art is so much better than this crap.
Mine, Steve; not yours.
We all need
to get over the bridge.
Tommie tried to get over the bridge by taxi cab.
He pulled out a shiny .38 and beat the fare
all the way to Sing-Sing Penitentiary
for a six-year bit.
J.J. tried to get over the bridge with a bottle of Four Roses
and a handful of seconals.
Word is: he went through the bridge
instead of over it.
Poochie's shootin' cocaine.
He don't even know the bridge is there. ...
Joey worked hard and went to night school to get over the bridge.
put on a new suit
and went diddly-boppin
with a diploma in his pocket
up to the bridge.
When he got to the bridge there was a sign across it that read:
"Let me make one thing perfectly clear:
So Joey went back to the block. ...
we all need
to build our own goddamned bridges.
Peter Spiro, from "We All Need"
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