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THE VIEW OF MY BROTHER'S PROFILE IN THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR


by

Randee Dawn



Twelve miles to Frederick says the square green sign, growing larger as it gets nearer and then it is gone, behind, forgotten. We are carried along the highway in my brother's recently-purchased used Jaguar, a car so roomy his voice and my uncle's almost echo. I revert to being eight, relegated by status to the back seat, small and quiet. We kids always lived behind the adults, until by sheer accident I stumbled upon Queasiness, which involved being pale and feeling nauseous and got me a ride in the front seat. Coincidentally, that was around the time Dad stopped coming places with us, so there was always some extra space, and Mom gave in, hoping to avoid another incident where I brought up McDonalds in the well of the rear floor space.

 

 

    Whoever called front seat first got it going out; the loser took it coming home. I was older and always remembered to call it at just the right time. I never got sick on the return. Coming home it would be dark, and I would want to sleep stretched long in the back, the soft music of WASH-FM lulling me into dreams, away from the inevitable bristling of my brother and my mother, up front, never silent, never listening. Rides home, he was welcome to the front. Alone in the dark, I wanted to be like the signs that flash by and silently retreat.

 

     No music lulls me now and my cousin sharing the rear space on my left is also silent, so there is nothing much to do but watch the signs pass or study the moon until we arrive at the restaurant. Tired by the silence, I leave off watching the signs and glance out the front windshield. The view of my brother's profile in the rear-view mirror startles me. A blue-black square bisects his face, leaving him half in and out of shadow like a mask, the light and dark sliding across his lips and chin as we round a bend in the road. He and my uncle are speaking, the words crackling between them, one trying to prove something, the other having already proven it.

 

    Recently, my brother said, "Once, Uncle Harold said something so mean about Dad that I grabbed his hand and wrestled him to the ground. You remember that."

 

    I didn't. I don't. Probably neither does Uncle Harold. The only person who remembers that incident is my brother himself, because it is likely an enhancement, or a purely made-up wish. Many things he says are. His friends are so accustomed to his fabrications that they explain them away by insisting that anything my brother tells you has to be divided by two-thirds to ensure accuracy. The Calhoun Constant, they say, professor-like. There is something admirable in being able to live inside your own imaginary world, and I wonder if my brother's memory of events is not really that rose-colored or if he has simply lost awareness of when he is inventing.

 

    Then again, perhaps it did happen. Our family is prone to sudden fits of violence, self-contained, rarely more than a few seconds long. Abruptly rage-ful at some infraction, Mom once slammed my bedroom door open with such force the doorknob punched a hole in the wall, a fist-sized opening which remained until we moved out of the house. I taped a poster over the scar for a while, then removed it, a reminder of the physical manifestation of my mother's fury. When my brother was older, he followed in family tradition and also punched a hole in a wall, but this one came from his fist. After our familial fits of violence recede in the distance, no one speaks of them, or refers to them, or apologizes for them, as if they were merely a shared hallucination, a bump in the otherwise smoothly sarcastic surface of our daily existence. We are not a family that is kind to our homes.

    Outside on the tarmac painted white bullets pass under the wheels of our car, a monotone Morse code, giving no message, yet sending a signal.

 

    The Jaguar is a tank, the sort of vehicle that glides over pavement, the ride so smooth we appear to be flying. There is the sensation that if we were to crash, we would merely float in the arrested vehicle's largess until prised out by firemen, who would be confounded by our lack of injuries. I glance quickly again at the rear-view mirror, checking light and shade. Briefly my brother meets my eyes before glancing back at the road.

 

    He is talking about his friend Tom, known for his feats of athletic prowess. Tom, my brother is saying, once decided to swim across the Chesapeake Bay. "He did it, but when he was done he said it was the hardest thing he ever did. His ankles and wrists swelled up like balloons and he couldn't hardly move for three days." My brother tells this to my uncle with unrestrained pride, taking personal pleasure in recounting the incident. He has always appreciated the extreme: the big, the powerful, the over-the-top are symbols of what is better, stronger and more worth having. It is what my father believed, and my brother is certainly my father's son.

    The car leans gently to the right as we exit the turnpike and ease into Frederick. We are nearly there, just twelve miles from that sign we have all forgotten. My brother drives with one hand on the wheel, the other bent upwards, leaning on his door, blunt fingers gently tickling the leather interior. For all of his capacity for intense anger, my brother also knows great gentleness. We just have to look for it, because he rarely gives it away. Once he told me a friend of mine could be the first woman president of the United States. We still recount that compliment today, over fifteen years later.

 

    I learned that I loved my brother by dreaming of him. Before then, I didn't know what I felt. He was just there, he was just my brother and I had no say in the matter. But while I was still in elementary school, I would on occasion have dreams in which my brother had died, or been lost, or was somehow no longer with us. And unlike any other dream I have had of loss or sadness or death, the absence of my brother has been the only one in which I felt profoundly empty, waking with a need to assure myself he is still part of the universe. After these dreams I sometimes crept into his bedroom just to prove he was breathing. He was the first person to accept my presence in the world as a given - to assume that I belonged simply because I was there when he showed up. I was adopted at three days by a mother who wanted any child and a father who wasn't interested, but when my brother came along nearly three years later I was an immutable fact. He has never questioned my right to our shared last name or a space at the table. I doubt if it has ever occurred to him to question that right. For that reason, despite many indications to the contrary, I know there is a softness, a goodness inside him. 

 

    Recently, my brother and I were speaking about our mother and her brother Harold and how antagonistic they could still be towards one another, despite their advancing years. I never saw the metaphor coming, but suddenly my brother was saying, "I know that you and I aren't as close as some sisters and brothers are...."

 

    At that, my ears closed up momentarily. I had no idea my brother ever thought about the two of us in the abstract. Suddenly, I wondered if he had ever dreamed of me, and if so, was he sad when I was a dead dream? Has he ever needed to assure himself of my presence? I wanted to argue with what he'd just stated as truth, reassure him that we have a normal, healthy sibling relationship. But an argument wouldn't matter. My brother has accepted the absence of whatever it is I have been unable to provide, the same way he accepted my presence twenty-odd years ago. I think of the sign we passed on the way to the restaurant, and the message it imparted escapes me.

 

    My brother's Jaguar pulls into the restaurant parking lot, a schooner gracefully navigating into port. In the instant before he shuts off the car and full shadow covers his face, his eyes cut briefly to me in the mirror, his face expressionless. And I realize that while he is the sort of brother I expect him to be, I have never have been the sort of sister he wishes I was.

 

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Randee Dawn is a 30-something magazine writer based in New York City. Her stories have previously been published in online 'zines Eternity, Shadowkeep, and apocrypha (a magazine she co-edits, so it doesn't really count). She is working on finishing her first novel and finding a way to return to Italy. This story is for Craig: We've grown up since the picture was taken, though not too much. She can be reached at randee@armchairnews.com


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