I want to tell you about my brother, Carlos. Because he recently gave me permission to reveal a secret that’s just as much his as it is my mom’s. Because I’ve been writing so much about him and who we were and how much we went through together. Because I love him like I’ve never loved anyone in this world. Because I went to see him in the hospital today and have been spending so much time with him over the past few weeks of his hospital stay. Because he’s such a big part of who I am though I confess I had to walk away from him for a while to maintain my own sanity…or maybe it was selfishness, I’m not sure. I will say that watching a person you love dearly spiral into heroin addiction is fucking devastating. And sometimes you have to distance yourself to function. To be the mother you need to be. To be present to yourself and your work. Guilt will accompany that distance. It will dig into you and suck you of life like a fucking leech, except a leech you can remove. Guilt? Yeah, that mothafucka’s hold is forever.
My brother was a mythic figure to me in my childhood. That’s the best way to describe our bond. He was my Superman. I was his shadow, his sidekick. Everything he did, I did. Everywhere he went, I went. He owned that big brother role with such tenderness. Me arropaba when I went to bed. He took me and my sister to school when he was in sixth grade and I was in third. To me, he could do no wrong, and the truth is he never did, not to me…not until heroin.
It was Millie and my brother who taught me how to fight. I was his little sister but he never babied me. If he thought I was being soft, he’d punch me, knowing that would set me off. He’d laugh when I’d come at him, all fists and flaring nostrils. “Yeah, like that,” he’d say, grabbing my hands so I wouldn’t punch him in the face like I was aiming to. “You hit them like that when they fuck with you.” He was referring to the bullies that had targeted me in the third grade, Marlene and her crew.
There were four of them but I remember Marlene the best because she was the leader of the pack and she always had her hair in tight box braids with beads at the ends so they clinked every time she moved. Some days the beads were blue and white, others they were black and white.
We were friends one day, fierce enemies the next. It was a vicious cycle we played over and over, but it was four against one. They ganged up on me and I, being the no nonsense kid that I was, had no problem taking them all on. But sometimes their bullying took on a more sinister twist than even I could handle.
The truth is I was just as much of a bully as they were. I was such a terrified child. I spent so much of my childhood scared. Scared of the boogeyman, of dead people and demons. Of everything. My early obsession with horror films did nothing to help my fear. But I was more scared of my mother than anything and anyone. And I was scared of disappointing Millie and my brother. And I was scared that my sister would never love me. I was scared of being alone and of not being accepted.
I was a terrified child but I was reckless with abandon and I was hungry. Hungry for attention and love and acceptance. And that want overpowered my fear. So when I fought, it was fear and hunger that drove me. Fear that I wouldn’t have any friends. Fear that the other kids would look down on me if I didn’t. Hunger for love.
I was so scared that my only way to cope was to fight. I didn’t care if I was accepted because I was feared, what mattered was that I was accepted. So I fought. I fought a lot. And I was a bully just as much as I was bullied. Yo era peleona. I didn’t let anyone mess with me. And I protected people just as much as I bullied them. And that’s why I became the target of Marlene and her crew.
They’d been teasing Caroline, the girl they called church girl because she never wore pants and was really quiet and gentle and kind. I was an asshole to her too but that didn’t mean I was going to let anyone be mean to her. When I saw Marlene throwing spitballs at her, I jumped to her defense. “Leave her alone!” I yelled and threw a wad of paper at Marlene. She gave me an “Imma make you pay for that” face and turned away. I didn’t have to wait long for her revenge.
I had gone to the bathroom and when I came back, I found my binder in pieces on the floor. I took special care of that binder. It was a Trapper-Keeper, the meshed cloth kind, all blue and pretty and pristine and expensive. Not expensive expensive, but expensive enough that I had to beg mom to get it for me. I stole reinforcements from my sister to make sure the pages stayed in, and I wiped it down every day to keep it shiny and new-looking. I flipped the pages tenderly when I was looking for something and punched holes in my folders to fit them in. I even wrote my name on the cover, first in pencil then I traced it in dark blue marker so it was just right. So when I came back to my desk and found my beloved binder and its contents stomped on and in pieces on the floor, I was horrified. Angry at the audacity. Devastated at the viciousness of the act. I remember screaming loud and pointing at Marlene. I even jumped over the desk to get at her but the teacher caught me mid-leap. This was the year our teacher was replaced like three times. Yes, this was the “smart class” but we were a problem. Loud and raucous, there were at least two fights a week and I was usually involved in at least one. This teacher was the one who yelled with such gusto that her brown face became red like I’d only seen in cartoons. She’d tower over you and yell like you were standing across a canyon when in fact you were just inches from her. I remember her hot breath in my face when she was yelling at me. I’d just stare, an I-wanna-laugh-but-I-won’t curl on my lips, which I know only drove her further up her crazy tree. So, that day when she grabbed me, I have a feeling she took extra pleasure in handling me roughly. She dug her always polished nails into my arm and yanked me just before I could get my hands on Marlene. I was set on slapping that I-got-you smirk off her face, but Ms. Whatever-her-name-was wasn’t letting go. The more I pulled, the deeper she dug her nails in and the harder she pulled me away. I was strong but I wasn’t that strong so I finally gave in and let her drag me out of the class. She pushed me into the counselor’s office and walked off. I’m sure she must have said something to the counselor but I don’t remember what. What I do remember is crying for my brother. I wouldn’t let anyone touch me or console me. I just tucked my head into my knees and cried. Cried so hard my body shook. And I wailed, “Carlos! Get my brother, Carlos. Get Carlos!” I didn’t unclench my body until I felt his arm on my back. I didn’t need to look up to know it was him. I could feel it in the tenderness of his touch. I collapsed into his arms.
I didn’t remember this story until I wrote the first draft of my memoir (it’s amazing what you remember when you sit in memory) and when it came back, it was so vivid, I could feel the hurt of that day like it had just happened. And I could feel the love I had for my brother. I could feel how much I needed him at that moment. And how much I knew that no one could make it better but him.
It’s why his addiction has been so hard on me though I don’t often show it. I hide it behind a mask of being busy and working and mothering and teaching and writing and working out and this and that and so much. But I can’t hide from it when I see him, when I see the years of his addiction etched all over him, in that scar on his hand where he once used to shoot up until it got badly infected, in the way his eyes sink into his face so they look like they’re being sucked into his skull, in the way his hands shake so he always has to be fidgeting with something. But right now I don’t want to remember him this way, living in a residential rehab while he gets the meds he needs for his heart and his addiction. I want to remember the boy who when I was eight and he was just eleven, rocked me until I stopped crying. The one who helped me plan my vengeance. Because I did get them back. All four of them. Marlene and her crew. One by one. I did tell you I was not to be fucked with, right?