That's My Brother
December 6th, 2020
I was sitting with my soon-to-be-friend Anna in seventh grade. Anxious about the start of a new school year, we were getting to know each other because we were in the same homeroom. Blue cards were rustling into red folders, and students were showing off their latest gel pens and notebooks. Posters of atoms and words like “mitosis” littered the classroom. Anna was talking about Minecraft, and how she built a glass castle on her iPod Touch.
“It was so cool. I spent half of July working on it. But then my little sister, Hannah, dropped my iPod! She’s always so annoying! She’s in fifth grade,” Anna said.
I started fidgeting with the ponytail holder on my wrist. It’s not that I don’t hate the fact that siblings are always brought up in conversation. I shouldn’t hate it; it’s completely normal. But it didn’t feel right to me.
“Yeah, I have an annoying younger brother,” I said. “He’s also in fifth grade.”
“What school does he go to? Hannah goes to P.S. 11,” Anna said, pushing up her tortoiseshell glasses. My face burned red, and I found myself picking up my brand-new mechanical pencil and rapping it against the desk.
“Oh, he goes to private school,” I said.
“Oooh, fancy! Which one?”
“It's a… special school. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
“Oh. Okay. I mean, it’s not terrible having a sister. You always have someone to talk to,” Anna said.
I lined up my notebooks again. Why am I acting so weird? I shouldn’t be, I thought. Anna’s eyebrow lifted as she tried to puzzle out why I’d not been making eye contact. Don’t be weird on your first day of seventh grade.
“What do you think of our homeroom teacher?” I asked.
Anna continued with her assessment of Ms. Rodriguez’s fashion choices, but I was thinking of Anna and her sister. I could imagine them whispering secrets and complaining about their parents on bunk beds with matching comforters while braiding each other’s hair. Talking about books and going shopping together. Older Anna giving advice to Hannah about college and leaving New York. But I wouldn’t do any of those things; Anna’s relationship with her sister was something I could never understand. I couldn’t help but feel resentment towards Anna. I turned away and started doodling in my notebook.
Everyone always said that my brother was special. He developed normally until age three, when he hit a roadblock. He began to act strangely, and couldn’t seem to grasp reading, or math, or even conversations. He would run, kick, scream, and barely talk. “Special” was what his preschool teachers told my parents when they were recommending programs. It was what his education was called. It was what my parents told me he was when he’d pull my hair or break my toys. It was what no one wanted in a kid.
When people found out he was my mother’s son, at best they’d blush. “Oh,” they’d say, covering judgment with false politeness.
But no, having a sibling like Mike is supposed to be an amazing experience, at least according to the articles upon blog posts upon videos I’ve seen. You’re supposed to be enlightened and caring and full of love. While some of this is true, it’s alarmingly incomplete. People package experiences they’ve never had in charming little boxes with a bow on top. Anger, resentment, frustration, or complexity aren’t allowed.
In second grade, I made my first best friend, named Victoria. I’d always go over to her house for playdates, but I was excited for her to come over to my house for the first time. I couldn’t wait to show her my princess bed and my collection of Littlest Pet Shop toys, but I could only have friends over when Mike wasn’t home, a rare occurrence.
When we entered, brought to the building by Victoria’s mother, Mike hadn’t left quite yet. He was burrowed in my room, of all places, and was hiding away from my mother in a corner, while she was trying to coax him out and put on his shoes. Victoria awkwardly waited in the living room.
“Mike, get out of my room!” I yelled. And then I noticed he was holding my rarest Littlest Pet Shop toy, with its head off. “MIKE GET OUT!” But he still sat there, with a smirk of defiance on his face.
My mom, exasperated, pulled him from my room. As he was doing this, he bit my arm.
“I hate you Mike! I hate hate hate you!”
My mom rushed Mike out the front door. “I’m sorry. I hope you had a good day at school. Wash your arm. I’m going to a doctor’s appointment for Mike. I’ll see you in 2 hours. Dad will be here soon. I love you.” The door closed, and I heard a worn-out voice tell Mike she was taking away his toy cars until tomorrow for punishment.
I forced tears back as I turned to Victoria and I asked her what she wanted to play.
Mike would wear down my family as well. When my brother was eight, he started a new habit of running into random buildings and stores and being as destructive as he could, knocking things off the shelves, my frantic mom running after him. She saw the child leash as a last but necessary resort, a sort of control she could put on her exhausting life.
It looked harmless enough. It was a tan backpack with a cute, smiling dog on it, with two straps and a long leash.
I was always really tall, which made my brother look unnaturally short, his shaggy brown hair making him look even more like a puppy. When we’d leave our apartment, the occasional Upper West Side mom would throw a “Control your child!” “You’re a mom, aren’t you? Act like one!” “Learn to teach discipline!” when they’d see the leash. Every time I would shrink away, shift slightly away from my mom, with a bright red face. My mom would sigh. “They just don’t understand.”
There’s a significant difference between “acceptance” and “understanding.” Acceptance is something you put on paper, it’s more abstract. If someone asked any Upper West Side mother, they’d probably say they accepted people with autism, regardless of what they’d do in practice. Few people can really put in the effort to “understand” that Mike was a person. A living, breathing human being with thoughts and feelings.
My brother, pale with dark brown hair and bright green eyes, has hopes and fears and things he loves. In Sunday School, one of our assignments was to draw our dreams for the future. The ambitious young kid I was drew myself as the President bringing on world peace, while also being a pop star and owning an island on the side. My brother drew himself as a soccer player, making the winning goal and earning a gold medal.
I’m horribly unathletic. I knew being an Olympian was never in the cards when I could barely manage to do 16 laps on the Pacer test. My brother? He did 60.
I love playing soccer in the park with Mike, and he’d win every time. We especially loved being a team against our father, who was always happy to play with us.
The sun shone through Riverside Park’s trees onto the sandy clearing where we’d set up to play. The space between the two oak trees on each side was the goal. We’d first engage in a tense battle of keep-up, and then dive into a full game.
“Gang up on Dad!” Mike would scream enthusiastically as we scrambled for the ball. As he got in possession of it, my larger father surrounded him. “I’m open!” I called, as I ran to the other side of the field. He passed, ran, I passed again, and we scored. Both beaming, we high-fived.
“That’s my brother!”
“I’m like Harry Kane!” He yelled back, brushing dust off his Tottenham Hotspur jersey. He had a big smile on his face, and started dancing, drenched in victory.
On Halloween, the old lady who lived in the penthouse gave my brother and me mini Lindt Truffles packages. They were the hits of Halloween and our first stop. I guarded my Lindt chocolate balls with my life, and devised a schedule of eating one each week to make them last as long as I could. So, I was crushed when walking down the street, the precious Lindt bag fell into the storm drain.
My mother, who had been the perpetrator of the terrible crime of fumbling my most valuable conquest of the night, tried to hush my cries. But then I saw a hand outstretching another mini red bag. It was my brother’s, selflessly offering me his truffles. He had a solemn look on his face.
The ten-year-old in me grabbed it, but it was more than just chocolates. I reached out for a hug.