Bobbi woke with a start with him kneeling by the bed, his face inches from hers.
“The toaster isn’t working,” he said. “I can’t make toast.”
It wasn’t Derrick, her husband, but Aaron, Derrick’s older brother. Bobbi was relieved because if it’d been Derrick, well, what on earth would he have been doing kneeling beside her? She wasn’t surprised, though, to find Aaron there or anywhere else around the house—as long as he was in the house. Aaron rarely went outside.
Because Aaron hadn’t moved but still knelt there beside the bed, Bobbi slid out on Derrick’s side, pulled down the white T-shirt that, along with panties, was all she wore to bed in the summer, and crossed over to the vanity to get her robe. She didn’t have to look at him to know that Aaron was watching her. He always watched her.
“Aaron’s in love with you. He’s in lo-o-o-ove!” Derrick would tease, and she’d laugh and say, “Of course he’s in love with me. He has impeccable taste in women, just like his brother.”
Aaron didn’t look at her with lust, though, at least she didn’t think so. It was more like a baby looked at his mother. What was the word for that?
She put on the faux-silk robe with the Japanese print that Derrick had given her last Mother’s Day. He’d never given her a Mother’s Day present until they’d definitively decided not to have children. “Definitively” was Derrick’s term: “So, we’ve definitively decided we’re not going to have kids?”
It was an important decision, and Bobbi tried to consider it rationally. She had to admit their life was pretty good the way it was. Both had jobs they liked, and between them they made decent money, enough for the mortgage payment on the two-story house and the occasional luxury. And they could go out at night on the spur of the moment without worrying about a babysitter, could take a couple of days off to go camping or whatever. They had friends with children, and they were always tired and cranky and worried. Was that any way to live? So Bobbi answered yes, “definitively,” and Derrick got a vasectomy, and a year later his older brother moved in with them. But not into the upstairs bedroom that they’d called “the nursery” when they first moved into the house and still were considering having a kid. “The symbolism would be too much,” Derrick said, and Bobbi agreed, although she wasn’t sure what exactly it would symbolize. So Aaron slept in the bedroom across the hall from the one on the second floor they now used for a storeroom and were careful to call “the attic” as if to slip and call it the nursery would bring down a curse on them.
Bobbi, in the master bedroom on the first floor directly beneath the attic, tied her robe and went out to the kitchen, Aaron following her. She went straight to the toaster.
“Ah,” she said, holding up the end of the toaster cord. “Derrick unplugged it to plug in the coffee maker.”
Aaron slapped his forehead. “Of course. He does that every morning. I know that. What’s wrong with me? Bobbi, I’m sorry. Go back to bed. Or”—he ran over to the counter and took out two slices of bread and held them up—“I could make you some toast!”
“Thanks, Aaron, but I think I’ll go take a shower.”
“Okay doke,” he said brightly.
Just the other day, a co-worker had spoken to Bobbi sympathetically about Derrick’s “retarded” brother, but that was nonsense. Aaron was quite bright, had two years of college, in fact. Others who were around him a bit more knew that he was intelligent enough but assumed that he was autistic. Asperger’s Syndrome was the popular theory. But Bobbi and Derrick didn’t buy that, either. In fact, Aaron had readily agreed to see a specialist—“Sure, if it’ll make you happy,” he said—who concluded that Aaron wasn’t “on the autism spectrum.”
There was obviously something not quite right about him, though. Although his grades were fine, he dropped out of college the end of his sophomore year and took a series of low-paying jobs that didn’t require much of him—flipping burgers at a Wendy’s, then changing oil and washing cars at a Jiffy Lube, and then cleaning offices for a cleaning service, until finally he took a job making telephone solicitations, which allowed him to close his apartment door on the world and live as a virtual hermit. That lasted over a year until one day he slit both wrists in a bathtub full of hot water and would have bled to death if the super hadn’t chosen that moment to let himself into the apartment to change the furnace filter.
“We have to bring him here to live with us,” Derrick had said. “We have to. He’s my brother.”
“Of course,” Bobbi agreed, shaken, because Derrick was trembling uncontrollably, in tears. She’d never seen him cry before, not even when his father died back when they were dating. He was her rock, her pillar. She knew, though, that rocks could shatter. She tried to be strong for Derrick but worried that that wasn’t enough—she wasn’t enough. She suspected that Derrick needed his brother, too, and maybe as much as Aaron needed him.
Derrick said you didn’t need a degree in clinical psychology to explain Aaron: he was “fragile.” He wasn’t tough enough for the world. He never had been, but that didn’t become clear to Derrick until their mother died when Aaron was eight and Derrick six. Their father did his best, but he was fragile in his own way and, broken by grief, hadn’t been capable of much. It was the little brother who looked out for his older brother, although, really, what could a child do? Everything was a struggle for Aaron, but at least he did struggle, he tried, and for a good long while he was able to present himself to the world as a normal young man if a little shy, always ready to back off rather than assert himself.
Then came what Derrick called “the catastrophe.” In his second year of college Aaron met a girl—“my Maddie,” he called her. They dated for maybe a month, and then she broke it off. Derrick didn’t know what went wrong. Young people date, and then they stop dating. Big deal. But that was it for Aaron. He’d given it all he had, which wasn’t much, and he had nothing left, not for college or work, not even for living. So Bobbi and Derrick took him in. And in fact he seemed quite content to live with them, almost happy.
Then the Fraziers moved in next door.
The Fraziers, husband, wife, and little baby, seemed like a nice family, which was a relief because their house was rental property, and with renters you never knew what you’d get. Truthfully, except for introductions by the curb when the Fraziers were moving in and the occasional “hi” hollered across front lawns, the two families had little to do with each other. Aaron had missed out on the introductions, and Bobbi and Derrick weren’t even sure the Fraziers knew there was another man living with them.
Apparently, though, Aaron was aware of the Fraziers. Something was up with him, at least, because almost as soon as they moved in, his personality began to change.
“What’s up with you, Bro’?” Derrick asked him finally; but Aaron, a little defensively, Bobbi thought, only said, “Nothing. What are you talking about?”
You’d never in any circumstances call Aaron a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but unless there was pressure on him to go out into the world—to the doctor or dentist, for instance, or once a year to a restaurant for his birthday, which Derrick insisted on—he was cheerful enough in the house. He’d even crack a joke occasionally, often at his own expense, and would laugh delightedly at old sitcoms like Married with Children. He did his bit, too, around the house, the laundry and all the cleaning and much of the cooking.
After the Fraziers moved in, though, he began to change. At first it was subtle, a sort of distraction or preoccupation. He’d burn the rice, under- or over-cook the pasta, and once, after folding the laundry, he put Bobbi’s panties into Derrick’s sock drawer, and all three had to go in search of the socks. Aaron finally came up with them and when Derrick kidded him barked, “What do you expect? I’m the crazy brother, remember?”
That was the only time he outright snapped at either of them, but he did become increasingly sullen and strangely anxious.
Then Derrick thought he’d figured it out.
“I saw him at the window watching Carrie Frazier—you know, the woman next door. She was walking her baby in a stroller back and forth on the sidewalk, probably trying to get the kid to go to sleep, I don’t know. But the way Aaron was watching her, oh yeah, that was love.”
He laughed when he said it but then put his face in his hands and sat on the edge of the bed rocking back and forth, moaning, “Oh, the poor guy, the poor guy, goddamnit, my poor sweet brother.”
Bobbi sat beside him and took him in her arms. “Sh, sh, sh,” she murmured.
“I knew it from the day Mama died, I knew it. He was done, it was over for him, he’d never make it, the poor sweet guy. I knew it,” he moaned, now rapping his temples with his fists as he rocked.
Bobbi pulled his hands down from his face, held him tight, rocked with him.
They kept an eye on Aaron although to what purpose wasn’t clear to Bobbi. It wasn’t like he was a danger to the woman or anyone else. And what could they say to him? Stop looking out the window? Don’t develop crushes on married women?
Bobbi kept vigil on Derrick, too. He hurt because his brother hurt, hurt worse, maybe, because of his helplessness. But how could she help either of them?
She saw more of Aaron than of her husband. Derrick was a fireman and Bobbi a med-tech at the university hospital. Both worked shifts that changed every three months, and except for those rare occasions when the stars lined up just right, one would be sleeping while the other was at work, and vice versa. “Ships that pass in the night,” they’d say, and, “We’re going to have to start wearing name tags.”
That made the little time they had together even more special, though—or so they claimed, and generally it was true although lately it seemed that when they were together they talked more about Aaron than each other. They were like detectives making reports on the results of their surveillance. “He stood at the kitchen window when she was out in the back yard with her kid. I swear he watched her an hour straight.” “He was pacing around like a caged animal. Must not have seen his lady love at all today.”
This went on for a few weeks, and then Aaron seemed to settle down, or at least settle into some kind of pattern that he could live with. He still looked for Carrie out of the front and kitchen windows but didn’t seem as upset if he didn’t see her; and if he weren’t the cheerful guy he’d been pre-Fraziers, at least he wasn’t sullen and argumentative, and they had no complaints about his cooking or housekeeping. Still, something was going on, and Derrick and Bobbi continued to keep an eye on him.
It was a morning when Derrick was at work and Bobbi had just gotten to bed following a midnight shift. She’d almost dropped off to sleep but came awake at the sound of footsteps on the stairs that led from the hallway outside their bedroom to the second floor. Aaron, of course. She wouldn’t have taken any notice because after all he went up and down those stairs all the time, except this morning there was something about the sound of his steps—they were too soft, too slow. Stealthy, that was the word that came to her. Just my imagination, she said to herself. But then the footsteps reached the second floor and didn’t turn to the left, into Aaron’s bedroom, but to the right, into the attic directly above her. She hadn’t heard him open the door, but she could swear she heard a faint click, as of the door being closed.
What was Aaron up to?
Bobbi got up and put on her robe. Leaving her flap-flap slippers back by the bed, she walked barefoot down the hall to the stairs. She slowly, quietly climbed the stairs and edged down the hallway to the door of the attic, which, yes, was closed.
She had just wrapped her hand carefully around the knob, preparing to turn it as silently as possible, when she stopped. What was she thinking? Was she going to sneak in on Aaron, “catch him in the act,” whatever it was? No. She wasn’t his jailor. She was either going to turn around and go back to her own bedroom or march right into the attic and say, Oh, I thought I heard somebody up here. Are you looking for something, Aaron? Now that she thought about it, that’s probably exactly what he was doing, just searching for something in one of the many cardboard boxes stacked up around the room.
So Bobbi opened the door and walked into the attic, and Aaron, on the other side of the room at the window with the blind pulled back so that he could look out at something, jumped back, dropped the blind, sat down on the old cedar chest at the base of the window, put his hands between his knees, and hung his head.
“Aaron, what on earth are you doing?” Bobbi asked.
Aaron didn’t answer but pushed his hands further down between his legs.
Bobbi looked at him a moment, but then—she couldn’t help herself—walked over to the window and pulled the blind back enough that she could see around the edge of it.
The Fraziers’ house next door was also two-story, but the street they were on sloped downward so that the window across the way was lower than the attic window, and Bobbi found herself looking down at the Frazier woman sitting in a wooden rocker breast-feeding her baby. It was apparently hot in the bedroom because she had nothing on above the waist, and while the baby nursed at one breast, the other, bulbous, nipple distended, hung free.
“Oh, Aaron,” Bobbi murmured.
She sat down next to him on the cedar chest. It had been her mother’s. She had given it to Bobbi before the wedding—for her trousseau, she said. It had been half-filled with an assortment of things her mother thought she’d need for married life—sheets and pillowcases, a Chenille bedspread, an afghan, hand-embroidered tea-towels, potholders, a pin cushion, two pairs of crocheted baby booties, one pink and one blue (“Just in case, ha ha”). It had been an old-fashioned sort of gesture, and everything remained there in the chest where it had been. They hadn’t even used the sheets.
Bobbi couldn’t have said why she thought of that now as she sat beside her brother-in-law gently stroking his hand, which she couldn’t remember taking, and murmuring, “Oh, Aaron, oh, Aaron.”
He gazed down at her hand stroking his. Then he said, more to himself it seemed than to her, “She wouldn’t let me touch her breasts. That’s all I asked. I’m human. I’m a man. I’d never done that, you see. And I would have been satisfied with that. But she said no.”
Bobbi was astounded. “You asked—?” She was about to say, You asked Carrie Frazier if you could touch her breasts? But then she realized that was silly. No, Aaron was talking about Maddy. His Maddy.
She started to murmur Oh, Aaron again but realized he didn’t need more pity, and thought of saying, Hey, it’s no big deal, Aaron, a woman’s breast, but knew that a rationalization wasn’t what he needed, either. He needed so little. It broke her heart how little he needed.
She patted his hand and laid it gently in his lap, then pulled her robe off her shoulders and let it fall around her. Then she took her T-shirt by the hem and raised it up over her head. She took his left hand in her right and his right in her left and raised them to her breasts.
Aaron started to say something, but she whispered, “Sh,” so he sat there silently on the edge of the bed holding her breasts, squeezing them gently as if they were so very delicate and precious.
“You may suckle them if you want to,” she said.
Aaron leaned down and took her nipples in his lips, first the left and then the right, and Bobbi bent over him as he sucked, rocking him gently in her arms, her eyelids growing heavy in the wan light, the warm air.
She thought she heard someone on the stairs. She sat bolt upright, and for a moment Aaron lost her nipple but then found it again and sucked hungrily, as if he were famished. But then she relaxed and began rocking again, because she wasn’t sure she’d heard anything at all, and even if she had it could only be Derrick home early from work for some reason. If it was Derrick, that was all right, too—even better, in fact. He’d come on up the stairs and ease open the door of the nursery so as not to disturb them. Comforted, he’d stand there, gazing at them adoringly.