We Will Live Here Forever

By Karen Moulding

My brother is over, as always after his Tuesday night AA. I open my apartment door as soon as he buzzes, turn back to the salmon I'm poaching in a cheap saucepan on the stove. My brother doesn't love salmon. He loves ice cream. We joke about this. “I smell salmon,” he says when he shuffles in the door, blue eyes smiling, backward Whole Foods baseball cap on his head. “Are you practicing your co-dependence on me again?”

“Yes,” I say. “I'm trying to fix you until you're a copy of me! Speaking of me, how does my...?”

“It looks fine,” he says.

“...hair look?” I finish.

“But you're too skinny. I bought us some ice cream.” He pulls the tub out of the Key Food bag, a generic Vanilla Chocolate Chip, which I know he bought us with his food stamps.

“Just try the yogurt lemon sauce,” I say when we are seated on my Ikea sofa, facing my little TV. My brother and I have three TV shows every Tuesday, Law and Order, CSI and Lost, my brother's favorite. After Lost, he has to rush to the subway to make his curfew at the three-quarter house in Flatbush. On Thursdays, we have The Office, and My Name is Earl.

My brother obediently dips his fork into the sauce on his plate, flakes off a sliver of salmon. “Mm!” he says with surprise, and eats, even though I know he is mostly waiting for ice cream.

“Look at these ingredients!” I say, peering at the carton when it's time for dessert. “Guar gum! What's guar gum?”

I feel ashamed when he blushes. “At least it's not vodka,” he points out.

My brother has been in New York for seven years. I sent him a plane ticket when I could no longer understand a word he said, usually sobbing, over the pay phone outside the SRO where he was living then, in the same city as our father. When he wove toward me down the airport corridor from the airplane, led by his distended belly, I knew my brother was a hero. He had boarded the plane. From the airport, almost dead, it was to the hospital for emergency detox for a week, then to the fold-out couch I had waiting in my apartment, two days sober, the bar, three weeks sober, the bar, one month sober, the bar, rehab!, six weeks sober, the bar, another rehab, eight months sober!, the bar, kicked him out of my apartment on advice that letting him stay longer could enable him to drink but stayed his best friend, a half way house, three months sober, relapse and kicked out of half-way house, sleeping under the BQE for weeks, almost dead again, I took the subway to Brooklyn and said to him in a diner “tomorrow is still always a new day,” then nothing for weeks until I got his letter from a longer rehab, and now, here in my apartment, on his twice weekly pass from the three-quarter house in Flatbush, eating salmon on my sofa, just back from his favorite East Village AA.

“This is for you,” my brother had said to me, the week before. And he'd handed me his “two year chip,” for that long sober in AA.

“No,” I had said, dutifully remembering my AlAnon. “You earned it. It's yours, not mine.”

He looked hurt. “I can get another one when I announce it at my other meeting. I want you to have it.”

“Well, okay then,” I said. And my eyes filled as I squeezed the smooth wood disk in my palm.

Tonight I can't stop my rant about guar gum, until finally I Google “guar gum,” to prove how bad it is. It turns out, though, according to numerous websites, that guar gum is a wholesome, non-harmful ingredient.

“See?” is all my brother says. “See? Mm!” He eats another spoonful of ice cream while I blush.

“Dad loves ice cream too,” my brother says. He fingers his mustache, an exact replica of our father’s, and I rotate my ankle in irritation.

“See the new pictures I put up?” I wave my hand at my wall, the photos of me and my brother, as kids, tots, teenagers, some at our mom's in California, some at our dad's in the midwest, some as adults in New York.

“Nice,” my brother says. “I'm a star!”

“Do you ever think about it?” I ask. “How we would visit Dad and take all those pictures of all of them with my little Kodak Instamatic, and then the next visit none of the pictures of you or me would be on their wall, only the ones we took of them without us?”

“Yeah,” my brother says. “I think about it. Just not as much as you do.” He scoops another bite of ice cream. “Dad loves us. It's just that she...”

“I know,” I say. I do. Our dad always cried, tears sliding into his mustache, when we hugged goodbye after our visits, which our mother always insisted be as short as possible.

I used to think the missing pictures meant my brother and I had no place we belonged, no power. It took years to understand that it was the opposite. Our place had been first; it was that that she couldn’t stand.

Our father is a writer who went to the famous writing school in Iowa. We lived together there as a family.  Then he had an affair with the wife of another writer. This wife-swapping was so common, almost mandatory, among the writers, that it was the subject of a well known short story by one of the father-writers of the era, about how the fathers didn't live there anymore. After my mother divorced him, our father married the wife of his writer-friend, and when we visited, we found our father surrounded by a chorus of older children, calling him “Dad,” and two toddler girls. Once in a while a photo of us would pop up on their wall, but it rarely stayed there long, no matter how many pictures of ourselves my brother and I presented.

There was an exception, the high school years when my brother and I had both moved there from our mom's. Then our faces nested cozily in the frames with the others. Until some fight over my brother's college tuition, when I sided with my mother, who, after all, did not live on a trust like our father. It was then that our photos disappeared again, never to return to their walls. It’s not that I want my brother to blame our father, exactly, since our stepmother controlled the home decorating as well as the finances. I just want him to stop idolizing our father quite so much, which I suspect annoys even our father, like a roving spotlight he can’t dodge.

“It's in the past,” my brother says. “We don't live there anymore. We live here now.”

He shuffles to the fridge, pauses at a photo under a magnet on the door, our half-sister’s daughters, two blond nieces, the card without a note she sends every Christmas.  “How is she?” he asks.

“Who knows,” I say. “She never returns my calls. I always think we’re not in her life, then I get the annual card.”

“Now now,” he says. “No need for a thesis.” He opens the freezer. “Ah,” he says. “More guar gum?”

 

“How's Whole Foods?” I ask my brother while we walk toward the subway he needs to catch to make his curfew.

“This one guy is mean to me,” he confesses. “He keeps saying I'm not cleaning enough. And he's not even in Prepared Foods! He's in the Meats Department!”

“Maybe you should mention it to the supervisor?”

“No!” my brother barks. “That would make it worse.”

“Aren't they promoting you anyway?”

“I'm not sure I want that.”

“But...” I force myself to stop talking. This is a conversation for his sponsor, not me. My brother will only feel ashamed if I talk, the big sister with the multiple full-ride-scholarshipped ivy league degrees.

“Sorry!” My brother waves a waft of his cigarette smoke away as we wait for the light. He always tries to walk downwind from me so I don't breathe it. But sometimes the breeze shifts.

I try not to sound rushed when we reach the Delancey station and my brother lingers. "Remember how Dad used to say 'Later' instead of Goodbye?" he asks.

"Don't miss your curfew," I say, then I try not to, but I look away as slight hurt tugs downward on the corners of my brother's eyes. He grins, imitation of our father, lifts his eyebrows, and attempts to meet my darting gaze.

"Later!" I shout at the back of his baseball cap, sinking slowly down the station stairs. Then, though I tell myself I have it all in perspective as sport, I half-run home, to see if my latest spark, this ridiculous Boy, has emailed.

 

I met The Boy in my Twelve Step Group, AlAnon, for people with alcoholics in their lives. When he slunk into our Sunday meeting wearing a hoody over a visor, a feather earring, and more tattoos than clothes, I recognized him from the East Village dance clubs, since I love to dance. He smiled sideways, and after the meeting asked for my number. Despite, or maybe because of, the red flags all over him, I found myself texting him. As is no doubt not surprising from the cagey outfit, there were immediate issues with The Boy. His denying the flirtation when I called him on it, then texting me all night long, in blatant contradiction of his own denial. There was the confession I made to him when we met for coffee (I arrived first and bought my own), that it was hard to let men buy me things, something to do with my father, only slipping family dollars to my brother or me behind my stepmother's back. And how, despite this heartfelt confession, in our meeting the next Sunday, The Boy raised his hand and launched into a recital of seeing a beautiful seventeen year old at a diner, and taking the check for her lentil soup.

“Please,” my funniest friend had said, over our usual coffee in the Ukranian diner after the meeting. “Lentil soup? Big spender! And seventeen? What's he gonna do, take her to the prom?”

The Boy started chatting me up after meetings, mentioned his gig last night at a nearby club. I danced near the stage while The Boy belted out suggestive lyrics I pretended not to hear were off-key, and took off his shirt to reveal a tattoo-covered chest for the crowd. After his set, while I was still dancing to the DJ, The Boy tapped me on the shoulder and invited me home.

 Although “invited” is too strong a word. The Boy told me he had to drive instruments somewhere, so he'd meet me at his place.  As I walked alone up Clinton toward The Boy’s apartment, came the first snow of winter, the soft white gauze spreading over the concrete, ironically warming the air. I unzipped my long down coat, turned on Third Street and passed my own apartment building, where I knew my brother would be the next night, as always after his Tuesday night AA.

When I arrived at The Boy’s door, after a cursory, “How are you? Take your coat?” The Boy barked a command, “Get in there!” I had to force myself not to laugh. In our flirtations, I had confessed fantasies to The Boy, which apparently he was taking quite literally.

I could hear the strain in The Boy's voice, trying to force his tone low, because he thought I would like it, because, of course, The Boy was not as suave as I had pretended to believe, and as the plethora of tattoos advertised. “Get on the bed!” he yelled. I dived onto the mattress and he clumsily yanked up my skirt and started awkwardly, non-rhythmically, spanking me.

Quickly it became clear that The Boy was afraid to show affection, to incorporate the fantasy into foreplay, letting just the hint of it enter, say by a barely whispered ambiguous command at the right moment. Apparently The Boy was not so gender-non-biased as his androgynous rock-star outfit promised, and he took the fantasy so literally, that he thought I did not, in fact, need normal affection. I tried to hide my lack of arousal. The Boy picked up on this and decided this meant he should whack me harder. “Let’s get rid of this skirt!” he barked, the loud bravado over the hesitation in his voice reminiscent of the visor usually obscuring his face.

And recalling the scene did, bizarrely, arouse me the next day. I knew the Boy was a boy, but I just wanted it, the game, the temporary forgetting. So after leaving my brother at the Delancey station, I raced through the crowd on First Avenue, on my way home to see if the Boy had emailed.

 

“Boys just like the conquest,” my brother says, during one of The Boy's frequent breaks from me. He finishes the last of his ice cream (“mm…”), puts down his spoon, and leans back in my sofa.  My Name is Earl has ended, and we are waiting for The Office to begin. “Then they're over it.  Why don't you play with children your own age? Like my sponsor, for example...” My brother shoots me a sideways look, then sighs when I glance at my cell phone, to see if The Boy has sent a text.

“He isn’t even a real musician,” my brother mumbles, trying to regain my attention while I scan my phone. “Just a poser.” My brother went to music college where he played guitar, real guitar, the notes so soulful people had to look away. He doesn’t have money for a guitar anymore right now. But he hopes to start again, when he can.

“It's like you're in graduate school and The Boy is in nursery school,” says my savviest friend, over after-meeting coffee. “But you know that. Why do you act like you forget? Publish those stories, the ones about your brother, and find an equal.” There is a pause and she looks right at me. “WHY do you forget?” she says again. “Why?”

“What I want to know,” says my funniest friend, clanking her cup down on the saucer. “Is when he is going to buy you some lentil soup.”

 

The snow hides everything, then melts. And my brother is chewing a lot of minty gum. I try not to smell his breath underneath it when he shuffles through my door, try not to remember what he himself told me once, “People relapse months before they relapse.” He starts coming earlier on Tuesdays, saying he would have missed most of his meeting anyway, they made him stay late at Whole Foods.

“And how is Whole Foods?” I finally ask, trying to keep the worry from my voice.

“That big guy always comes into the cooler when I'm in there alone. He says I should clean better, why can't I learn.”

“But he's not your boss!” My brother is five foot four inches. I'm trying not to yell. “Anyway,” I lower my voice. “That will be better when you're promoted. When's that review thing happening?”

“I postponed it again,” he says. “I'm not ready yet. I don't know if I want it, telling other people what to do. People hate people with power.”

“But...”

“Lost is starting,” he says. “And this is a really important episode.” He sits back on my sofa.

 

My brother walks more slowly than usual to the subway that night, pauses outside the convenience store on my corner to light a cigarette, cups his hand around the plastic lighter to block the wind. Click click click until it catches and lights.

He takes a long drag, then strokes his mustache, before he starts slowly shuffling down the sidewalk again.

“Curfew get extended?” I ask, as casually as possible, when we approach the wide intersection at Houston.

“The funding got cut and they let in these ex-cons. Some of them use there. One guy, Charlie, deals out the window at night. So no one's really watching my curfew anymore.”

My legs turn to spaghetti strands and my rain boot starts to slide on a patch of slush. My brother catches my arm. “You need to eat more,” he says. “I worry about you, you know.”

 

When my brother doesn't show up for TV that Thursday, and his cell phone goes to voicemail, and the next day Whole Foods says he's not there, he called in sick, the person I call with my hysterics is The Boy. It's not that I don't remember nursery school verses graduate school, not that I don't remember that I've had fifteen years of meetings to The Boy's barely one. But I want to forget about graduate school right now, all those crisp-shirted people who didn't know how to dance casting dirty looks in the library at the slightest giggle or cell phone peep.

“I hope it's okay I'm calling,” I say, overly demure, when The Boy answers.

There's a pause. "Of course," he says. You've talked in the meetings about how it's easier for you to do the Steps than ask for help."

I tell him how it’s always been just my brother and me, and how his skin is so thin I've always been able to see right through it to his trembling heart.

The Boy says some supportive, although not particularly astute things, like, “that's just an illusion, of course he has skin!”

I pretend not to notice. The comfort I feel is not about The Boy's words.

 

That Monday, as I'm coming home from editing work at the library, approaching my corner, my brother's backward baseball hat and mustache zoom into focus, and there he is, reeling. I stop.

“What happened?” I say.

“There's no hope,” he spews. “I hab no place to go!” He catches his balance on the arm of the wooden bench outside the convenience store.

“There are always options.” I force myself to remember the AlAnon advice not to take him in, since that could help him drink. “Your sponsor knows better than me. Here's his number and a quarter. I love you. I have faith.”

I walk quickly away before he can slur out an argument. Back in my apartment alone, I call The Boy. The sound of his bravado fills the empty space.

 

That Sunday, I raise my hand and report on my brother and how terrified I am. Gasps vibrate through the room. Some of them go to both kinds of meetings and know my brother from AA, others know him from seeing us walking around the East Village together while my brother holds his cigarette downwind, and the rest have heard so much about my brother for years, it's as if they know him too. “It's hard for me, but I'm having to use the phone and call people. Especially one person.”

Across the circle from me, The Boy’s tattooed chest inflates.

 

All summer my brother is on the corner almost every time I walk by. He is sitting on the bench outside the convenience store in his backward baseball hat, holding a can in a paper bag. He is reeling near the garbage can. He is curled up on his side, just as he slept as a child, except now he is asleep in the lobby of my block's Citibank ATM.

“How do you still have money to drink?” I ask him.

“Dad wires me. Hesshh only tryin to help.”

I’m about to yell, but I stop. “That counselor from Whole Foods called,” I say. “You can have your job back after treatment if you call soon. Your house called. They’re saving your stuff in the basement in case you come back. Your sponsor called. He’ll go with you to detox, whenever you’re ready.”

His pupils expand like lakes of blue fear at the words, “Whole Foods,” “your house,” “detox.”

“I have faith in you,” I say, convincingly. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” he always says, his voice rising at the end like a warning.

I walk right home and email my father. I know he can’t help sending the money, anymore than my brother can help drinking with it. My brother’s drinking eases my father’s guilt, even as it increases it. Now the spotlight is on what my brother does, not what my father doesn’t. But more guilt from me would only add to the spiral.

"Please Stop Sending My Brother Cash While He’s On The Street!" is all I say, capitalizing each word.

 

It's mid-August, humidity weighing on our heads like a drenched sponge, and my brother is no longer on the corner. I approach and see someone slumped on the bench, but as I near the slump it turns into a teenager in a different kind of hat, not my brother.

A week, then another, passes, and no one hears from my brother or knows where he is.

An AA guy from the neighborhood smiles at me sadly, with a closed mouth, when I pass him on Second Street.

Another week.

Guys glance up at me from their tables, then back down, like they think it's their fault, when I pass the AA coffee hang-out on First and Third.

 

I go to the gym to try to not think. As I leave, light-headed with endorphins, my cell phone vibrates, a new, unrecognized number. I push out of the air conditioning and stop on the sidewalk to answer.

“I did it,” says my brother, his voice crisp and sober in my ear. “I got out of detox yesterday. I had to sit in the waiting room two days until they had a bed. But I did it and now I’m out! I just have to sleep in the chairs at all-night meetings until I get a spot in a shelter.”

“Wow,” is all I can say. “Wow.”

 

And now my brother is famous not only to me. He sleeps in chairs. He gets himself into a sober shelter in Williamsburg, lost his job at Whole Foods and has no money but volunteers to make coffee for AA. Even in my non-AA meeting people mention him. “If someone can almost die, then get sober and stay sober sleeping in a fuckin’ metal folding chair, then who am I to whine that my Nikes got splashed with rain water?”

Now the leaves are falling, crisp and fun and easily crunched under sandals that make way for boots. My calls and texts to The Boy are joyous. “He was elected Chair of the biggest East Village AA!” I brag. “He just texted me that his old halfway house stole all his stuff...but he didn't drink.”

"Great news!" the Boy texts. "Tell me more when you call tonight."

The Boy goes to a wedding in L.A. He calls me when he lands. He calls me from the reception. He calls me when he gets back to New York.

Then, I’m not sure who starts it, possibly me, because sometimes I can’t think of pretend things to need, and I don’t call for a few days, and The Boy and I are on another break.

 

“Maybe he thinks I'm mad and I should send him an email about it and ask to have a talk,” I say to my brother.

“No!” says my brother. “Believe me. Boys do not ever, I repeat ever, want to have A Talk.”

My brother stands, stretches, slowly walks to my TV, and puts in the DVD he borrowed from his shelter. “These new antidepressants make me tired,” he says. Then he sits back on the sofa. My brother and I don't watch TV twice a week anymore, since he has more meetings now and I don’t want to tempt him away from them, since I'm afraid he’ll relapse again, plus afraid I’ll be the big sister nagging, which certainly won't help him not drink.

But my brother is over tonight, and we still talk all the time.

“You're going to love this movie,” my brother says. “I knew as soon as they showed it, that I had to borrow it for you.”

“Thanks,” I say. “I’m so glad you got a late pass.”

“Yeah,” my brother says. “Me too.”

 

The Boy has another gig, I dance in the crowd pretending not to look, and it all starts up again as before.

 

Winter is thawing and I ask my father if he can please help with my brother’s monthly cell phone bill, twenty five dollars a month, so he can call his sponsor and hunt for a job.

“No,” my father writes back. “Not unless we put it on your credit card. It wouldn’t wash with your stepmother if she sees it.”

This infuriates me. I take the opportunity, my upset feeling and the girlish need it evokes, to call The Boy. "Is it okay to call?" I ask, so demure it annoys even me. I brace myself for a brush off.

"You can always call me," says The Boy. I can almost hear his tatooed chest puff out.

 

The very next week, my father surprises me by buying my brother a guitar. My brother’s music is not “poser” music like The Boy’s. My brother’s music bursts with notes full of near-forgotten scenes so vivid, I can hardly look at him while he sits on my sofa, strumming. I try not to, but I look away. “Isn’t it time for the subway now?” I say, checking my phone for a text from The Boy. My brother puts his hand over the guitar bridge, silencing it. Now I look. Hurt I will see forever flashes in my brother’s eyes.

 

It’s my birthday. I have lunch at our diner with savviest friend and funniest friend and then go home to take a nap, so I'll be fresh for dancing that night. As I lie down, I think about calling my brother. The last time we spoke was a week before, when he canceled an appointment to work on his resume on my laptop. He had sounded anxious. “I’m too anxious,” he had said.

I almost said, “Why?” and “Are you sure you don’t want help today?” But I stopped myself, remembering how bad things got before, how he relapsed even though we were watching TV twice a week, and then how much better he seemed afterward when I didn’t meddle, and, I am ashamed to admit, because I thought maybe The Boy would be calling that night.

“Okay,” is all I said. “Let me know when you want to reschedule. I love you.”

“I love you too,” my brother said, and hung up.

On this day, my birthday, as I lie down, I realize that it’s been a week since my brother phoned and didn’t want to work on his resume. I think about calling him. And then I think no, I’ll do it when I wake up. I put my head on the pillow and the phone rings and it’s a Brooklyn number I don’t recognize. I hesitate, then pick up, and it’s the police.

They tell me my brother is dead.

 

Savviest Friend prints the flyer at her work. Photos of my brother and me appear all over the East Village, announcing the memorial.

Funniest Friend comes over and sleeps on my sofa, for three days.

I call The Boy and say, in my shock, something that, nevertheless, is true: “I’m lucky my brother died sober. I’m lucky it was always him and me.”

The Boy says, “Don’t give me that stupid phony gratitude shit,” then hangs up quickly, as if frightened by his own words.

My parents are in New York, my mother from LA, my father from his vacation home in Mexico, then my twin half-sisters and one of the stepsisters, the siblings in the pictures on the wall, all pulling me into restaurants, telling me that my brother would want me to eat. No sign of alcohol, the police had said, maybe his liver and antidepressants. My mother repeats this several times but all I hear is my brother, canceling our date to work on his resume, and my silence back. I follow them reluctantly, squint suspiciously at the strange sisters, dart away down side streets to cry. They hadn’t spoken to my brother in ten years. Our photos weren’t on the family wall. I wonder who they think they remember.

My brother’s sponsor has arranged for the memorial to be in my brother’s favorite East Village meeting room, the one where he was elected Chair. I stand in front of the room, with my brother’s journal in my hand, and AA guys and shelter guys and my meeting friends, and my dancing/writing non-meeting friends, two hundred people, look at me, waiting.

I read my favorite part of my brother’s journal, “Continue to love and respect my sister,” he orders himself. “Having realized she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about a lot of the time.”

Everyone laughs and cheers.

“We’re the ones in the pictures now,” I say to my brother when I’m through. I'm shocked to see one of my half-sisters start crying then.

But nothing matters. The memorial has failed to bring back my brother.

 

I trail behind from restaurant to restaurant where everyone fails to make me eat. My mother cries, then keeps stopping to comfort me, telling me that will be her job now. My father blabbers, tries to say unkind things about my brother, but fails, and cries too.

The half-sister who cried at the memorial keeps repeating something to me, about visiting her and her wife and my nieces in San Francisco. My father leaves when my stepmother calls and insists. My mother leaves a few days later. And everyone is gone.

I pick up my brother’s ashes at the mortuary. I go to his shelter. My brother had earned his way up the shelter sober program to his own closet-sized room, even worked his breakfast shift the day he died, serving eggs and jokes. As I approach his room, big scruffy guys line up along the hall, shuffling feet and looking down. The shelter director hands me my brother's life belongings, a single green trash bag.

 

I find it on the inside cover of my brother's journal. The words, “addiction,” “surrender,” "end this insanity," and “decision,” are in same writing he always had, still talking to me, while I close my eyes and look away.  

I can’t finish a whole banana. Then, even though I know I shouldn’t, I call The Boy.

The Boy’s phone goes to voicemail. I tell him the memorial was wonderful, it’s fine that he missed it, and ask if maybe he could spend the night.

I skip a day, call again. “Can we, um, maybe have a quick cup of tea?” I cringe as I hang up. I'm no longer in control of how demure I sound. The quest for distraction is no longer about entertainment. The Boy doesn’t call back.

 

Everyone stops talking when I walk into the room that Sunday. Meeting starts, and then, in the middle of her share, someone stops, and gestures to me. “This is ridiculous. We are all thinking about her brother. Let's just let her talk.”

I talk. People cry, even some who already cried at the memorial.

Then, after a few others, who all talk about my brother and me, The Boy raises his hand. He’ll say he’s sorry, I think, which will be good for him and for me.

“Hi everyone,” The Boy says when it's his turn. “I have to learn to not be such a doormat.”

Savviest friend is trying hard to catch my eye across the room.

 

After meeting, people line up to hug me. When I finally go outside, The Boy is walking away up the street with a young girl, who wears a sleeveless hoody and visor exactly like The Boy's. I call his name. He stops and turns. “Oh, uh, hi.” He looks to the side of me. His unzipped hoody exposes his stomach and tattooed chest. His cut-offs barely cover his crotch, the empty white pockets ballooning below the frayed edges. 

“Did you get my message?” I say.

The girl hovers behind him. She can’t be older than seventeen.

“Uh, yeah,” he says. “I couldn’t call back.”

My friends behind me whisper a campaign to make me drink a milkshake.

“Okay. Should I just not call you anymore?” I hear myself say.

“That would be better,” The Boy says. “I’m not your source of support.”

“Okay,” I say. But I have to drink the milkshake. Guar gum and all, that is what my brother would want for me. And for that I need at least a benign ending, so The Boy can linger in my mind like a TV rerun that drowns out everything else. So I offer the fitting cliche. “Thanks for letting me know," I say. "Of course it isn’t me.”

Now I can go with my meeting friends and drink the milkshake like I should.

But The Boy doesn't like this ending. “You know what?” he says. “It is you!" He stabs his finger at the air. "There’s nothing here!” He sweeps his hand across the space between us, empty like the hollow in my gut. The very space that I need to be filled with anything but my brother.

 

“Did you see what he was wearing?” says my savviest friend, when we're seated at the diner. “That should help, right? Just hold onto the image of that outfit. Can you do that for me?”

“Maybe if he comes back to the meeting,” says my funniest friend. “We can pass the hat a second time…for some clothes.”

My milkshake arrives. My friends nod encouragingly while I suck the thick cold cream up the straw. But when the liquid hits my tongue I hear my brother say "mm," about my yoghurt lemon sauce when he sliced into the warm salmon.

I push back my chair.

 

When I get home, the hole in my stomach where the milkshake was supposed to go has hardened into a rock of anger. I write an email to The Boy about how fake he is, and how my brother, now there was someone real, and how dare The Boy ignore not so much me, but the sister of that brother. I rewrite the email so many times, taking things out, then putting them back, that by the time I push “send” I've lost track of what I've said.

 

Summer is about to end, and I call my father. I tell him that I can’t eat in New York, and the doctor suggests I go away.  My mother is in LA, and my half-sister in San Francisco says she wants to see me too.

I tell my father exactly how much I’ll need to get through this time, which I know is too much to hide from my stepmother. I tell him that asking for this is because I love him, and that my brother always insisted he loved us both.

I brace myself for a no.

“No,” my father says. Then he sobs. “Yes.”

 

I go to California. My father texts me daily, sends me the money I need, and, as if going back to redo some of my childhood with me, he is my Facebook friend, as are many of the other divorced father-writers from my childhood. There are Facebook chats about a story I post about my brother, whom the fathers had forgotten, but now suddenly remember, from back when we all lived together in Iowa.

The Boy lies low on Facebook, and though I try to remember not to, I can't stop my imaginings. The Boy looks sad in photos; he must be sorry! The Boy is going to call! This is a long break but we are still in the game! Then one day in March The Boy loads a gigantic photo of himself in his visor and hoody and bare tattooed chest, sticking his tongue into the mouth of a young girl.

I slam down the laptop screen and race to tell my mother.

“Please, honey,” my mother says. “Not that ridiculous Boy again. Not Facebook. Is this what your ivy league degrees are for? You always knew he was a little boy. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh yeah,” I say. I remember.  

And then forget.

 

That weekend, I fly to San Francisco to visit my half-sister. The day after the memorial, this sister had taken me out to breakfast. She looked down and grimaced when the plates of sunny bright eggs landed between us. "My grief isn't so much for him," she explained. "It's for you. You lost your life partner." She pierced a yolk and pushed back her plate. She said she wanted to help me through this time.

So I've flown up from my mother's in LA to visit my half-sister's family in San Francisco every month that winter. I sit next to her in the SUV while she takes her daughters to school and play-dates. The California sun almost eclipses my nostalgia for grey New York snow, the whistle and whine of radiator steam, the metallic scent of trash cans on the sidewalk. And my friends. My sister buys me coffee and sandwiches and fattening muffins while I cry.

On my first visit I gave my sister a copy of the flyer, the photo of my brother and me in East River Park. "I know he'd be so happy I'm here with you," I said. She said she'd put it up. Gratefully, I confided how hard it was when my brother and I used to see no pictures of ourselves on our dad and stepmom's wall. She looked puzzled, as if she didn't remember that we'd lived there, or understand why I should be hurt, or maybe both. But then, a little guiltily, she admitted she might have an old photo of all of us, when my brother and I lived there in high school, and she said she'd put that up too. On her wall, like on our parents’, there were only pictures of the rest of them.

During a later visit, I asked where the flyer and photo were, careful to sound casual and pretend to examine an organic peanut butter jar as I spoke.

"I just have to rearrange some things," she said.

 Another time I started crying in her SUV, said I couldn’t help wondering if our brother's progression would have been altered if my stepmom (her mom) hadn't forbidden our dad from helping with his college, and if our brother hadn't believed it, that he was worthless.

"But you guys had your mother," she said. "You know it hurts me when you say bad things about my family!"

I missed my brother more than ever then. But he was gone.

And I visited my half-sister again the next month.

On that weekend, I show my sister and her wife the Facebook picture of The Boy Frenching the young girl. “I'm so angry!” I say. “I'm going to write that stupid Boy an email!”

One of the children yells "Mommy!" and she runs upstairs.

My sister-in-law squints at the picture of The Boy. "You've probably heard this before," she says. "But he's a child in a Halloween costume. What about yourself, your dancing, your writing, your advanced degrees?!"

I say good night and take my laptop down to the guest room.

I try to concentrate on what my sister-in-law has said, my dancing, my writing. But when I do that, I flash on the terrified ghost in a disguise that The Boy really is, and then what happens is what is happening now, as I move the mouse away, and accidentally click on your resume, which we never did get to finish. I smell you, the smoke, the gum. I hear your voice, “I worry about you, you know.” Quickly I close your resume.

It's time to write The Boy a letter that will end his childish behavior once and for all! I write and write. I write an email so perfect, that even the stupid Boy will understand. Satisfied at last, I go to my outbox to find The Boy's address and there it is, the email I wrote to The Boy, months ago. And, almost word for word, it is the same angry email I wrote to The Boy tonight. 

I delete it.  And I let myself know.

The Boy can't look at me, because he let his moment pass. He stayed a poser, when it was time to be a star. It is not in the forgetting that we live on.

Ian. Ian Moulding. Ian Stuart Moulding. We are sitting in your room looking at pictures of Dad's. We are walking down the street in LA to take the best shots into the drugstore for reprints. We are going to make them the perfect collage. This time they'll put it up and it will be there when we come. But they don't. And you are weaving your way down the airport corridor to me, to where we live now, where we always have and where I know now, we always will.

I will wake up in the morning and there, on our half-sister's refrigerator, looming into view as I climb the stairs from the basement guest room, is a photo, eight by ten, and I gasp with joy as I approach. But then I'm standing at the refrigerator and what I'm staring at is not the flyer of us, but a recent picture, taken here on the grass in the back yard, of the rest of the siblings, minus me, and minus you, of course, sent to our father and stepmother for their anniversary last week, and signed by them all. I stare and stare, and finally I see it the way it must look to our half-sister, captured here grinning a little too widely at the edge of the frame. If you and I were there, even I alone, how would she and the others fit? She wants me with her some weekends, and wanted me with you, but she does not see me, or you, in this family frame. She doesn't even see us missing. For that, everything she thinks she knows would have to be rearranged.

I turn now and head back down to the guest room, my cell phone, already planning the itinerary in my head. My savviest friend, uncanny as always in her timing, texted me yesterday that even now, months later, they are still putting down daisies, old cassette tapes of music you liked, tattered cards with AA slogans, on the cracked cement of my building stoop, and that someone didn't just tape up the photo of me and you, Ian, heads leaning together, smiling over our foodstamps picnic in East River Park, but wheat-pasted it so it's still stuck there, on the outside wall of the corner deli, by that spot where you sat on the bench in your backwards hat, week after week, waiting for your sister to come home.

Karen Moulding's fiction and poetry have been published in The Capra Review, nerve.com, "Smut 2, a best of Nerve anthology" (Chronicle Books), Piedmont Literary Review, Spectrum, Fawlt Magazine, sliptongue.com, and more. Her novel The Naked Shopper was named first runner-up in the Red Hen Press "Quill Prose Award" in 2019. She has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, a JD from Columbia, and a delightful seven year old daughter named Fin. She's author and updating editor of the nation’s first LGBTQ legal treatise, Sexual Orientation and the Law, published by Thomson Reuters. Karen is currently writing about the woes of solo pandemic parenting and the oft-misunderstood role of “stage mom.” Follow Karen on Instagram @karenmouldingwriter and Facebook www.facebook.com/eastvillage.writingservices.