People at work asked how I felt when I found out, and I didn’t know what to tell them because of the ideas they already had about how I reacted. I know how they already saw me in their mind’s eye, a collection of home videos starring yours truly: a soldier’s wife staring out the window waiting for her husband to return from the war, or the tottering child in a domestic drama naively wondering what’s happened to his alcoholic mother. Most of all, they expected me to have cried, tears like diamonds running down my cheeks and settling on my Cupid’s bow, intermingling with rivulets of snot. This is how the arts ruin us. They set unfair expectations for how we’re supposed to behave. That’s why I don’t watch movies.In reality, I didn’t cry. Neither did Karen. She called me, and I excused myself from the meeting and stepped outside. I knew it was important because it was Karen calling.
“Hi. Um. I don’t know how to tell you this, but Adrian’s in the hospital.”
Isn’t that funny, how people say that? You told me just fine, I wanted to say. But then of course she’d be on me for being so literal all the time, and I’d ask her to just speak plainly, and she’d say she can’t adjust every aspect of herself for my comprehension, and I’d say that I only asked her to adjust one thing, not everything, and then the whole argument would collapse into a recursion of itself and it would end how it always ends: with a pointed huff from Karen and then silence for however much time she determines is appropriate.
“Is he . . . okay?”
“No,” she said, firmly and plaintively.
I kicked a stray penny with the toe of my boot.
“I think you should come home,” Karen said.
“I am home.”
“You know what I mean.” Karen sighed, but it wasn’t one of her usual ones, intentional and overblown. This one was weary, a soft gust of pain.
I didn’t go back into the office. I walked and kept walking until I reached the square with all the people. I stood there, rooted to the ground, and watched my warped reflection in that big silver bean as tourists flowed in and out of the square. At some point, the sun went down. In the distance, my office building looked like a shiny paper cutout, reflecting the polluted night sky.
I booked a flight.
One thing that people are right about is the sense of time, or lack of it. My whole perception of time has changed. And it’s not like time moves more slowly or speeds up or anything like that. It’s more like time is a train moving on a circular track, going round and round, and I’m standing right outside of it. The man sitting next to me on the plane complained about the delay between bites of his Reuben—we were landing an hour late. I didn’t have any thoughts about this at all. My mind was totally empty. I could have stayed like this, belted into the polyester seat, forever.
I took a cab to the hospital. We had green lights the whole way over. The driver called me a lucky charm. Once I got inside, I walked up to the information desk and asked the disaffected teenage volunteer where your room was.
“Are you family?”
She cleared her throat when I didn’t respond, and I agreed with her. She slapped a blank name tag on the desk and pointed to the elevator.
Karen was waiting for me in the hall and I carefully molded my features into an expression of pleasant neutrality. I knew she would be looking for something in my face, but for some reason it’s always the wrong thing she finds, or nothing at all, which bothers her, too. Once we were inside, I dropped my duffel bag next to the bed.
People ask me about this a lot, too. They want to know what it feels like to see someone on the brink between life and death. But I can’t tell them what it feels like because I don’t know. My insides were a block of ice and had been since Karen called me.
You were so small. That is what I noticed. You are a head taller than me. But lying in that bed, you looked like such a child.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“He’s getting dinner.”
“I don’t understand. It’s the middle of the night. That’s going to mess with his circadian rhythms.”
Karen sighed. “He hasn’t eaten for hours.”
Karen pinched the bridge of her nose and scrunched her eyes shut.
“He found him, Taylor.”
“I don’t understand,” I repeated. Something in Karen’s eyes changed. She stepped forward and touched my arm, whip-quick, a touch so rare it almost stung.
What do a person’s facial expressions mean? I remember going over my flashcards with you, years ago. If they’re smiling and their eyes are crinkled up at the corners, then they’re happy. If their mouth is open, then they’re shocked. If their face is red and they’re baring their teeth, then it’s time to get the hell out of there. Hey, people aren’t that different from dogs, you said. No, dogs are better than people, I replied. You laughed, then. I thought you were laughing at me.
So I didn’t know what Karen’s face said, but it was a bad kind of unfamiliar. While she went to get Dad, I walked over to the corner of the room where someone had dumped all of your things: your wallet, your big ring of keys. I picked up the wallet and fished through the Polaroids stuffed into one pocket. There was one of us at Karen and Dad’s wedding, and another one of your girlfriend. I thought it might be prudent to call her, but I didn’t remember her name. It is so like you to keep pictures like these, even when we have smartphones that would store all of this for you. You had always said you were an “analog guy.” I remember telling you that this just meant you were afraid of innovation. “Maybe I am,” you had said, and then you laughed. When I am reminded of you now, in my mind I always see you laughing. Big belly laugh. Mouth wide. Mask of composure ripped from your face.
Dad came in then with Karen. I stuffed the wallet into my coat pocket. Dad barreled toward me and wrapped me in a bear hug. “Dad, I told you I don’t like that,” I said as he squeezed the skin off my bones, but he didn’t move away until Karen stepped forward and gently held his elbow.
“If there was any time to hug my kid, I would think now would be it,” he said, looking at you.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Are you blind, Taylor? He’s in a coma.”
“Can he hear me?”
Dad laughed. “I don’t know, why don’t you ask him?”
I moved to the plastic chair by your bed, ignoring Dad’s protests (exasperated—“I was joking”). I touched your face. Your cheek was cool and pallid. “Adrian,” I said. A tube led from your arm to a bag of saline. A silver hoop hung limply from your ear; I didn’t know when you’d gotten that. I then remembered that I hadn’t spoken to you in exactly ninety-one days. This thought electrified me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The medicine cabinet.”
I’ve never even seen you drink. “He doesn’t even drink,” I said.
Dad pinched the bridge of his nose.
“He did it on purpose,” Karen sighed.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
I hate hospitals. Everything smells like formaldehyde and sugar-free lollipops, which is to say that everything smells like death. I made a beeline down the hallway into the public restroom and shut myself into the stall furthest from the entrance. The familiar prickling, pointy sensation flowered all over my body. I stripped off my coat, shirt, stepped out of my shoes, peeled off my jeans. I slid down against the stall door and crawled over to the corner by the toilet, desperate to feel the cool tile against my skin. I rocked myself back and forth over the tiles until my breathing slowed.
When I was done, I put myself together again and went outside and quietly scrubbed my hands in mountains of gooey pink soap. I took refuge in the minute sounds of the bathroom: the discreet crinkling of a toilet seat cover, the dull hum of the air conditioner. I looked at myself in the mirror. You’re disgusting, I thought calmly.
Yeah, I get that voice in my head sometimes. The voice that tells me that I’m not worth anything. That I’m better off not being here. If I had known you had it, too—if you had just told me . . .
Anyway. So, at that point, I turned the corner and walked straight into Meredith. I lied, sorry, I do remember Meredith. I’d just prefer not to because of what happened at Thanksgiving.
Meredith had come in with you, and you were acting very polite with everyone, like you were a guest, too. Meredith was very loud. And she hugged me. And she touched the mac and cheese first—so, how could I possibly eat it after her? She didn’t understand that there are rules in life, there have to be rules to keep everything from going overboard. So, I tried to explain my rules to her. And then you stood up and your face got very red and your teeth were showing but you were not smiling. And you said, Taylor, do you have to be such a fucking weirdo all the time?
She was here now, round face shiny and pink, and wet eyes asking some unanswerable question of me.
“Hi, Meredith, how are you,” I recited.
She pushed past me to your door and swung it open, crossing over and flinging her torso over yours like that fresco of the Virgin Mary that we saw at the Art Institute one time. What followed was a simply virtuosic performance of grief: she cried, her reedy body wracked with sobs, and invoked some celestial being, and Dad and Karen lingered over her, both of them unable to say or do much apart from patting her shoulder lightly until her tears finally bubbled off into silence. I watched all of this and then I went down to the first floor for some coffee.
I’m not emotionless. Everyone thinks I am because I don’t show the whole story of my life on my face. Neither did you, but no one ever said anything about that because, well, you know why. People said I was stoic but congratulated you on your sunny disposition. And yet we are similar in that way; some sort of veil constantly hides our ability to convey what we really think. Yours was intentional, though. I’ll never understand that about you. If I could draw someone into my mind and show them how it works and why I’m like this, I’d die happy right after.
All this to say that I never wanted you to apologize to me for what you said at Thanksgiving, because that day, watching your eyes water with rage and your face heat up with embarrassment, I think that was maybe the only time you had ever been truly honest with me. Honest in a full-body way, with cues I couldn’t miss. That’s really why I ignored your calls afterwards. Not because I was angry with you, but because I thought I was doing you a kind of service, absolving you from the artifice of apology. In some ways, I felt like I had been waiting my whole life for you to make that kind of statement. Everyone always does. There’s always some line I cross that’s invisible only to me that triggers the hairs on people’s backs to stand on end and their minds to go into some kind of fugue state, during which they curse me out and wish me unborn. Then the rage cools, leaving a chill in its place. And I’m left alone again. Your calls stopped coming after a while, and I assumed this to be the natural course of events. It was just unfortunate that this time it happened to be you.
Anyway—maybe this art of deception that you’ve perfected is precisely why it came as such a surprise to me. Out of us two, you were never the child who would have done this. I thought about it as I took a sip of the burnt hospital coffee and promptly dumped the rest in the trash. It was 3:35 in the morning and the flat Illinois cold was more of a comfort to me than the soupy heat of the hospital, so I walked outside and continued to ponder, my thoughts crystallizing into sharp, coherent points, as if the blue chill raising goosebumps on my skin was a kind of clarifier. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never really be able to be a person the way everyone else is. I don’t know how. But you were perfect, perfectly normal. Dad’s course correction. Karen’s pride and joy. Even Mom couldn’t say anything bad about you. Always so generous with giving yourself to other people, which neither I nor our parents can do. Never revealing any secret feeling of betrayal by the forces of fate or fortune. I could just tell you were one of those people who doesn’t have an inner monologue. You were fully in the world. You were more alive than anybody I knew.
I took your wallet out of my pocket and went through it again, methodically this time, the way I know how. Every little pocket, every scratched-up gift card, every loose quarter. Something there, wedged in between a crumpled dollar bill and the wedding photo. A scrap of toilet paper, with something scrawled on it in bleeding blue ink. I turned it upside down, my stomach turning with it, hoping and not-hoping for some insight.
Don’t forget to water the plants.
I was expecting a tearful letter of admission, not chores. I wondered if on some other plane of existence you knew that I was laughing, in surprised, stuttered bursts. This is what Karen would call a sick joke. Then I remembered—your plants, your bedroom—and rifled through my coat for my copy of the house keys and hailed a midnight cab.
In the car, some part of my brain finally processed that they had found you at home. You were living at home. Why weren’t you at college? They hadn’t told me yet that you had withdrawn for the year because you were lying in your bed for hours on end instead of attending class. Not eating, either, your athlete’s frame shrinking by the day. They hadn’t recognized you when you returned.
My frozen hands fiddled with the tetchy lock until I was able to crack the door open. I slipped inside and made my way to your bedroom. The dark blue walls were illuminated by the moon’s silver light. You hadn’t redecorated since high school, and your room was in a state of gentle disarray. More pictures, all of them framed and arranged haphazardly on your desk. Random, self-conscious images of an amateur photographer: a bleak urinal, a mangy dog. A self-portrait, which briefly arrested me—your face, a rainbow birthed by the afternoon sun on a windowpane splashed across your cheekbones, your eyes looking steadily into the lens of the Nikon that you had pointed toward yourself. Vibrant and confident, the Adrian I knew.
Then of course there was your football jersey, pinned to the wall. Bad memories. When we were in school, I always wondered if you had some secret embarrassment about me. It can’t have been easy whenever people made the connection, that the varsity quarterback was a blood relation of the small, silent kid sitting alone in the cafeteria with headphones on. The truth is, even though you are two years younger than me, you were like my older brother. I used to drive you to football practice and my bullies would be there, too, and one day you clambered out of the passenger seat and wordlessly knocked two of them, your teammates, to the ground. You stayed friends with them. They never touched me or my things again. You were my protector.
Do you know how humiliating that was for me?
I’m so angry with you about that still, and I can’t even be angry out loud. I’m not allowed. Because you’re the hero for that. I’m angry with you for this, too, for what you did to yourself; and I’m not allowed that, either, because of your pain. Your pain? Was the pressure of adoration really too much for you? Look, I know it seemed like when we were kids everyone only ever talked about me, but didn’t you understand that even though they were always talking about me—my problems, my difficulties, my habits—they were never actually talking about me? And now this—do you know what you’ve done? Did you really think no one would understand? Or when you were calling me, and I wouldn’t pick up—were you calling me about Meredith or were you calling me about that? Could I have done something? Is it my fault? God, Adrian, you make me hate myself even when you’re not here.
There was no answer to any question in your room. No addendum to the fucking note. I fetched a water bottle from the kitchen and sprayed its contents over your tender, fuzzy green plants, arrayed in a selection of pots by the windowsill. Then I climbed into your bed and tucked myself in the sheets and lay very still, wondering if that was the imprint of your body I could feel in the mattress or a figment of my imagination.
Eventually, I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke to the sound of my cellphone trilling insistently, the dawning sun was leaking watery yellow light all over the house. I slid my thumb across the screen and mentally slapped myself as I scrolled down the list of eight missed calls from Karen. I waited for a long second, then accepted her ninth call, bracing myself.
“Taylor? We’ve been looking for you for—Where are you? You know what, I don’t even care. You need to come back.”
“You just—do you really need to ask? You really need to be here, Taylor. Like, now.”
Back to your hospital room. Meredith was sobbing quietly in a corner. Dad and Karen were waiting for me with thin lips and stony faces, and another person was there, a white-haired man with a stethoscope around his neck and dark shadows under his eyes. He looked at me and his eyebrows met each other.
You were already gone, he was saying. You were here, but the you-ness of you had long dissipated into the air. The only thing left was your brainstem. But you just didn’t look gone. You looked like you were sleeping, albeit a deep, torturous, anguished slumber. But your chest was rising and falling. You’d wake up when you were ready.
Then I realized why Karen had called me back. They were taking you off life support.
“No,” I said abruptly, interrupting the doctor. My heart was an expanding helium balloon. I thought maybe it would burst out of my chest. I ran outside and slid down against the wall, burying my head between my legs. Everything seemed particularly loud now. I scrunched my eyes shut and put my hands over my ears to distort the noises of the hospital until they all seemed warm and faint and washed away, like ocean sounds. I heard Dad’s voice, irate, coming from somewhere very far away. “Leave me alone,” I said, but I don’t actually know if I ever said it out loud.
Someone settled down next to me. I looked over with one eye and it was Karen. She didn’t touch me. She just sat there, her eyes big and blue and artless, like yours.
“He’s my son,” she said. There were a million things hovering underneath that sentence.
“He called me,” I said. “A lot. I never picked up. I didn’t know.”
“It’s not your fault, Taylor,” she said. “It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just something that happened.”
“I thought this stuff happened to other people. Not him.”
“What makes you think your brother isn’t other people?”
“It should’ve been me,” I said, which is what I had meant to tell her in the first place.
Karen swiveled on her tailbone toward me.
“What?” she said sharply.
“It should’ve been me,” I repeated. Words tumbled out of my mouth and splattered onto the ground like a Jackson Pollock painting. “It should’ve been me.”
“No. No, Taylor,” Karen said. “It shouldn’t have been either of you.”
“But he made you happy. He made everyone happy. It should’ve been me.”
“Do you really think that?”
My vision had collapsed into blurry colors and light. I shoved my head in between my knees and my hands into my hair. The back of my head was pounding, a dull, intense pain.
“No, Taylor,” Karen said. She repeated this like a mantra. She repeated it as I cried without tears, silent sobs punctuated by my shuddering breaths.
I didn’t go to your funeral. Nobody made a fuss. Apparently Meredith gave a eulogy. I stayed home and fell asleep on the toilet. I can’t really sleep properly anymore, which is sort of irritating because I didn’t get much rest anyway when I was working. Yeah, work—I took a break from work—death in the family, and I’m a high earner, so they let it slide. I told them it’d be two weeks and it’s been two months. So, actually, that’s exactly five months to the day since I last heard your voice.
I like the headstone, about as much as someone could like a thing like that, anyway. It’s flat and smooth and a light, light grey that matches the sky in winter. Your name, and then “Cherished Son and Brother.” Nice, right? I don’t know. Your buddies from high school came around the other day. I haven’t forgotten about school and I was kind of expecting them to have already aged into potbellied peaked-in-tenth-grade bitter old men, and was taken aback when two strapping, hale guys leaped out of their Range Rover instead. Unfair. They loped over to your grave and stood there kind of awkwardly, I guess waiting for me to leave or something; but I didn’t, and they eventually dropped a football wrapped in a bow next to the wilting bouquets that Meredith puts out every weekend. And then they grasped my shoulder in the way that guys like them do, and said something or the other about being sorry, either for you or for me, and when I looked at them in the face they seemed desperate to communicate something with their eyes but I have no idea what it was and I didn’t really care and then they left.
Some other things, I don’t know if I told you yet—I’ve moved your plants to the porch so they can eke whatever bit of sun they can get out of the early spring light. The way Dad fawns over those ferns, you would think he’d gained another three children overnight. Speaking of, this weekend Dad and I went to this place that does tattoos and piercings, if you can believe it. It’s the kind of thing he would do with you, like sneaking you a sip of beer or going to a Bears game together. I thought about getting an earring to match yours, but I didn’t. Dad got a tattoo of your name, big and cursive and running down his left bicep.
Karen got depression. There’s nothing in the medicine cabinet now but a bottle of Zoloft.
I wish I was able to spontaneously combust or something, something to show you what is happening to me. I’m not emotionless, I’m not. Actually, sometimes I feel things so deeply and viscerally that it scares me. I think maybe you had this, too, this onslaught of feeling that makes it hard to breathe. It’s difficult to carry everywhere. I wish you could tell me. It doesn’t feel real, it never does, I guess. How can someone be here and then just not be here?
I never got to tell you I love you, Adrian. I never said it to you, not once. And you, you were so free with your words the way you were free with everything, flinging that word out every other sentence, except when it mattered the most. I love you. Okay? You’re my brother. And I love you. And I don’t know what to do. Already I feel like I’m forgetting the precise lines of your face, the exact timbre of your voice. Your laugh. I took your wallet with the picture of us and I don’t go anywhere without it. I think now I understand why you hoarded stuff like that, and the endless collages and frames, why you felt like you had to capture everything. You don’t know when something like that, the essence of it, will be gone, and all you have is an imperfect copy of reality to remember it by. Just another keepsake.