By Michael Cunningham
Mister Brother is shaving for a date. Mister Brother likes getting ready and he likes having had sex. Everything in between is just business.
“Hey, Twohey,” he says. “Better take it easy on the sheets tonight, Mom’s out of bleach.”
“Twohey (that’s you if you’re ready to wear the skin for a while) says, “Shut up, you moron.”
“Ow,” Mister Brother says, expertly stroking his jaw with Schick steel. Don’t call me a moron, you know how upset it gets me.”
Mister Brother, seventeen years old, looks dressed even when he’s naked. His flesh has a serenely unsurprised quality not common in the male nude since the last of the classical Greek sculptors cut his last torso. Mom and Dad, modest people, terrorized people, are always begging Mister Brother to put something on.
“Shut up,” you tell. Him. “Just shut up.”
You, Twohey, I’m sorry to say, are plump and pink as a birthday cake. You are never naked.
“Twohey, m’dear,” Mister Brother says “haven’t you got any pressing business, ahem, elsewhere?”
You say, “You bet I do.”
And yet you stay where you are, perched on the edge of the bathtub, watching Mister Brother, naked as a gladiator, prepare himself for Saturday night. You can’t seem to imagine being anywhere else.
Mister Brother rinses off, inspects his face for specks of stubble. He selects an after-shave from the lineup. To break the scented silence, you offer a wolf whistle.
“Mister Brother says, “Honestly, if you don’t let up on me, I’m going to start crying. I’m going to just fall apart, and won’t that make you happy?”
Mister Brother is a wicked mimic. When you tease him, he tends to answer in your mother’s voice, but he performs only her hysterical aspect. He omits her undercurrent of bitter, muscular competence.
You laugh. For a moment your mother, not you, is the fool of the house. Mister Brother smiles into the mirror. You watch as he plucks a stray eyebrow hair from the bridge of his nose. Later, as the future starts springing its surprises, and you find yourself acquainted with a drag queen or two, you will note that they do not extend to their toilets quite the level of ecstatic care practiced by Mister Brother before the medicine cabinet mirror.
“Hey honey, come on now; don’t cry. I didn’t mean it,” you say, in an attempt at your father’s stately and mortified manner. Imitation is not, unfortunately, the area in which your main talents lie, and you sound more like Daffy Duck than you do like a rueful middle-aged tax attorney. You try to hold the moment by laughing. You do not mean your laughter to sound high-pitched or whinnying.
Mister Brother plucks another hair, rapt as a neurosurgeon. He says, “Twohey, man.” He says nothing more. You understand. Work on that laugh, okay?
Where are you going?” you ask, hoping to be loved for your selfless interest in the lives of others.
“O-U-T” he says. “Into the night. Don’t wait up.”
“You going out with Sandy?”
“I am, in fact.”
“Sandy’s a skank.”
Mister Brother preens, undeterred. “And, what’ve you got lined up for tonight, buddy?” he says. “A little Bonanza, a little self-abuse?
“Shut up,” you say. He is, as usual, dead right, and you’re starting to panic. How is it possible that the phrase, “lonely, plump and petulant” could apply to you? There is another you, lean and knowing, desired, and he’s right here, under your skin. All you need is a little help getting him out into the world.
“So, Twohey,” Mister Brother says. “How would you feel about shedding your light someplace else for a while? A man needs his privacy, dig?”
“Sayonara,” you say, but you can’t quite make yourself leave the bathroom. Here, right here, in this small chamber of tile and mirror, with three swan decals floating serenely over the bathtub, is all you hope to know about love and ardor, the whole machinery of the future. Everything else is just your house.
“Twohey, brave little chap, I’m serious, capish? Run along, now. On to further adventures.”
You nod, and remain. Mister Brother has created a wad of shifting muscles between his shoulder blades. The ropes of his triceps are big enough to throw shadows onto his skin.
You decide to deliver a line devised some time ago, and held in reserve. You say, “Why do you bother with Sandy? Why don’t you just date yourself? You know you’ll put out, and you can save the price of a movie.”
Mister Brother looks at your reflected face in the mirror. He says, “Out faggot.” Now he is imitating no one but himself.
You would prefer to be unaffected by such a cheap shot. It would help if it wasn’t true. Given that it is true, you would prefer to have something more in the way of a haughty, crushing response. You would prefer not to be standing here, fat in the fluorescent light, with hippopotamus tears suddenly streaming down your face.
“Christ,” Mister Brother says. “Will you just fucking get out of here? Please?”
You will. In another moment, you will. But, even now, impaled as you are, you can’t quite remove yourself from the presence of your brother’s stern and certain beauty.
What can the world possibly do but ruin him? Mister Brother, at seventeen, can have anything he wants, and sees nothing extraordinary about that fact. So, what can the world do but marry him (to Carla, not Sandy), find him a job, arrange constellations over his head just the way he likes them and then slowly start shutting down the power? It’s one of the oldest stories. There’s the beautiful wife who refuses, obdurately, mysteriously, to be as happy as she’d like to be. There’s the baby, then another, then (oops, hey, she must be putting pinholes in my condoms) a third. There’s the corporate job (money’s no joke anymore, not with three kids at home) where charm counts for less and less and where Ossie Ringwald, who played cornet in the high school band, joins the firm three years after Mister Brother does and takes less than two years to become his boss.
All that is waiting, and you and Mister Brother probably know it, somehow, here on this spring night in Pasadena, where the scents of honeysuckle and chaparral are extinguished by Mister Brother’s Aramis and Right Guard, and where the souped-up cars of Mister Brother’s friends and rivals leave rubber behind on the street. Why else would you love and despise each other so ardently, you who have nothing but blood in common? Looking at that present from this present, it seems possible that you both sense somewhere, beneath the level of language, that some thirty years later he, full of Scotch, pecked bloody from his flock of sorrows, will suffer a spasm of tears and then fall asleep on your sofa with his head on your lap.
That night is now. Here you are, forty-five years old, showing Mister Brother around the new hilltop house you’ve bought. As Mister Brother walks the premises, Scotch in hand, appreciating this detail or that, you feel suddenly embarrassed by the house. It’s too grand. No, it’s grand in the wrong way. It’s cheesy, Gatsbyesque. The sofa is so . . . faggot Baroque. How had you failed to notice? What made you choose white suede? It had seemed like a brave, reckless disregard of the threat of stains. At his moment, though, it seems possible––it does not seem impossible––that men don’t stay around because they can’t imagine sitting with you, night after night, on a sofa like this. Maybe that’s why you’re still alone.
Tonight you sit on the sofa with Mister Brother, who lays his head in your lap. You tell him lots of people go through bad spells in their marriages. You tell him things at work will turn around after the election. Although you still call him by that name, this man is not, strictly speaking, Mister Brother at all. This is a forty-eight-year-old nattily dressed semi-bald guy with a chain around his neck. This is a tax attorney. Here he is and here you are, speaking softly and consolingly as the more powerful constellations begin to show themselves outside your sliding glass doors.
And here you are at fourteen, in this suburban bathroom. You stand another moment with Mister Brother, livid, ashamed, sniveling, and then you finally force yourself to perform the singular act that should, all along, have been so simple. You leave him alone.
“So long, asshole,” you say weepily as you exit. “And, fuck you too.”
If he thought more of you, he’d lash out. He wouldn’t continue plucking his eyebrows in the mirror.
You go and lie on your bed, running your fingers over the stylish houndstooth blanket you insisted on; worried, as always, about the stains it covers. You hear Mister Brother downstairs flirting with Mom, shadowboxing with Dad. You hear his Mustang fire up in the driveway. You lie on your bed in the room that will become a guest room, a junk room, a home office, and then the bedroom of a stranger’s child. You plan to lose weight and get handsome. You plan to earn in the high five figures before you turn forty. You plan to be somebody other people need to know. These plans will largely, astonishingly, come true.
As Mister Brother roars away, radio blasting, you plan a future in which he respects and admires you. You plan to see him humbled, weeping, penitent. You plan to look pityingly down at him from your own pinnacle of strength and love. These plans will not come true. When the time arrives, reparations will be negotiated between a handsome, lonely man and a much older-looking guy in Dockers and a Bill Blass jacket; an exhausted family man who’s had a few too many Scotches. Mister Brother won’t come at all. Mister Brother is too fast. Mister Brother is too cool. Mister Brother is off to further adventures, and in his place he’s sent a husband and father for you to hold as the city sparkles beyond the blue brightness of your pool and cars pass by on the street below, leaving snatches of music behind.
“Copyright@1998 by Michael Cunningham. Originally published in DoubleTake Magazine, Fall 1998. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Brandt and Hochman, Literary Agents, Inc.