After my brother Max’s funeral, everyone was invited to the Wolinski’s backyard for a barbeque. I stood next to the margarita pitchers and watched ice cubes melt away in the summer sun. I felt a hand on my shoulder every few minutes. I mastered my routine. I turned, delivered my best grimaced smile and hugged family, friends, and the occasional stranger, face pressed against their dress or button-up shirt, damp from the August heat.
“I’m so sorry Kaiya,” they said. “You were such a great sister,” or better yet, “Be strong.”
I cocked my head to one side, left a lingering hand on their back, and forced one last smile. Fuck Max, I thought.
Max’s friends crowded around a chain-linked fence on the far side of the yard under the shadow of a large maple. Max’s best friend chased another friend in circles around a lawn chair, wiffle-ball bat in hand, slapping at the man’s calves.
I reached into my purse for a pack of Parliaments and walked past the shrubs to the front of the house. Chris, Max’s high-school friend, stood alone on the sidewalk. He lived in Denver and was back home for the funeral. A murder of crows gathered in the road, pecking at a furry carcass. I lit my cigarette and squinted at the animal.
“I think it’s a fox,” Chris said. “I’ve never seen one around here.”
His hand quivered as he raised a fresh cigarette to his lips. A quartz bracelet hung around his pale, thin wrist and his gelled-down hair looked like it wanted to explode in the humid air. He patted his frayed pockets for a lighter. I reached into my purse for mine, took a step closer, and held the flame up for him.
We smoked until he broke the silence. “Remember the time—”
“Don’t,” I said. “No more stories.”
Chris nodded and pulled on his cigarette. A minivan whizzed by, and the crows dispersed into the air and roosted on the telephone wire, cawing in chaos.
“It came as a surprise to me—the phone call,” he said. He scratched the back of his head. “You know—when I found out.” He dropped his cigarette butt on the ground and rubbed it into the concrete with the heel of his shoe.
“Really?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Chris said. He pulled his white cuff over his bracelet. “I guess it could have been any one of us. Could have been me.”
I thought of Max detoxing on my parents’ couch the first time he got sober. Sweating and crying and vomiting into a pink basin. In high school, he came home from a blackout when my boyfriend Johnny and I were on the couch, watching Real World vs. Road Rules Challenge on MTV. Max stood over us with distant, vacant eyes. He threw a swift punch that broke Johnny’s nose. I screamed as Johnny shielded his face and blood spilled onto our blanket. Dad rushed downstairs and threw Max into a wall.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he yelled.
The next day we piled into the Toyota Camry and drove Max to the Falmouth Rehabilitation Center in Cape Cod. Mom pleaded with Johnny’s parents not to press charges. “Our son is very sick,” she told them. Johnny eventually stopped returning my texts.
I turned to the crows, pulled on my cigarette, and took a deep breath.
“I’ve been waiting for that call since I was twelve years old.”
Chris reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen and a crumpled receipt. He pressed the paper against his knee, scribbled a number, and slipped it into my hand.
“Come visit me if things don’t seem worth it,” he said.
Two weeks passed in my parents’ house. I dropped my summer courses and told the restaurant I couldn’t work until further notice. The periodic visits from neighbors and friends dwindled to none. Upstairs, Max’s room was preserved like a museum. Bed unmade the way he left it when Dad tried to shake him awake that morning. Laptop open on the floor—probably an episode of The Sopranos. A poster of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski engaged in a flamboyant high five during a Super Bowl parade. I stood at the doorway and looked in. I lifted a single foot into the air, but I couldn’t enter.
Downstairs, a basin of water and bamboo strips lay on the coffee table, with small beads of liquid collecting on the table’s polyurethane finish. Mom had taken up basket-weaving. She also thought it was the perfect time to get a puppy. Maxine. I refused to walk her.
Dad looked fat. He came home from work, drank two beers and read the sports section of the Boston Globe on his Kindle. Over a tin-foiled dinner from our neighbors, he asked Mom what kind of baskets she was making. Then he asked me if I planned to return to school in the fall. I did not. He grunted, washed the dishes, took Maxine out, and then drank exactly four Budweisers during the Red Sox game. He slept each night in the armchair, until I heard Mom creep down the stairs around three or four and beg him to come to bed. His stomach hung over his belt line, and his eyes looked tired and gray.
I booked my flight to Denver that night on my laptop, while smoking a joint through the bedroom fan in my window, the heavy cloud pouring out of my mouth, vanishing into the suction of the blades. I hoped my Airbnb was close to Chris.
I turned my phone off airplane mode—a habit I learned to do after my afternoon yoga class in an effort get everyone to fuck off. I texted Chris.
“Definitely not worth it here. I’ll see you in a few days.”
After going to the movies by myself, I met Chris on my second day in Denver. Mom and Dad thought that I was staying in my friend Lissie’s sorority house at the University of New Hampshire. I waited on a blanket by the pond and watched a gosling attack a family of ducklings.
Chris looked strange without his stained suit and uncomfortably parted hair. He wore a hooded drug rug with Rastafarian colors. He brought a small guitar and a duffel bag, with a large gold bowl and a small brown mallet. He stood next to me and chimed the side of the bowl, then circled the mallet around the rim, reverberating a harmonized sound. This was the same Chris who was kicked off the high school lacrosse team for testing positive for steroids.
He sat down next to me, gestured towards my brown-bagged bottle of red, and took a prolonged chug, his stubbled Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with each swallow. His eyes lit up after the swig, and he produced a guitar pick from his pocket and began strumming a single chord over the hum of the bowl.
“It’s about aligning your chakras,” he explained. “We have these tiny energy centers in our body.” He leaned over and tapped my sternum with his guitar pick.
It sounded like he was reading from a pamphlet. “I thought you played lacrosse?” I asked.
He smiled again and played an awkward riff.
Four geese floated towards the middle of the pond, retrieved the hostile gosling, and glided past the line of ducklings.
He glanced out at them. “It helps me,” he said. “If Max found something like this, maybe he’d be here.”
I took a long swig from the wine and lay back on the blanket, resting my head on Chris’s thigh. His leg felt familiar and warm. He played a clumsy rhythm, pausing and restarting from time to time. The wisps of white clouds moved fast in the blue, summer sky.
Chris told me he and his girlfriend lived two blocks away on tenth and Colfax. It was a gray, stucco ranch, and they lived in the unit on the right, marked by a Bob Marley flag hanging in the living room window. Inside, I met his girlfriend Maria who sat on a torn couch and took an enormous hit from an oversized bong. She gripped the shaft of the glass piece and delicately blew a cloud of smoke towards the stained popcorn ceiling.
“Maria, meet Kaiya. Max’s kid sister.”
Maria nodded and handed the bong to a sleeping, shaggy-haired man on her left. He woke up with a jerk, scanned the room, hopped to his feet like he was going to run, then sat back on the couch and took a rip.
The four of us played Mario Kart, cross-legged on the rug. I screamed when Maria blasted me with a red shell. She crossed the finish line first, and Chris yelled, threw his controller onto the couch and doubled over with his hand on my knee. He smelled sweet and clean. I scanned the room for Maria’s eyes, but her head was down as she rifled through the contents of her purse.
“Close your eyes and open your hands,” Maria instructed. I held them out, the left stacked over the right, like I was receiving communion. I felt a tiny candy fall into my palm, and I rolled it between my thumb and forefinger.
“Now open and rejoice!” exclaimed Maria. She took a hit from the bong but failed to clear the chamber, coughing smoke into the living room air.
I stared at the white chalky pill soaking up sweat from my palms.
“Percocet,” said the shaggy-haired man. His eyes were nearly squinted shut. “If you need any more for your stay…” he reached into his pocket and pulled up the corner of a Ziploc bag.
I looked back at the pill. I imagined Max staring down at the same image. I needed access to him, so for a moment, I pretended my hands were his. I inhaled and threw the pill into my mouth, grinding it with my molars and swishing it around to pick up the taste. It was bitter. I thought of Max again. All the bitterness he must have tasted. Then, the withdrawal, when we would stay awake until dawn, watching The Sopranos—matching each mobster’s personality to an aunt or uncle. I reached for Chris’s beer and washed it down.
I lay in the guest bed in a reverie between sleep and wakefulness. My skin itched in a pleasant way.
“You’ll learn to love the itch,” I remember Max telling Chris over the phone as Max paced around his bedroom, cigarette hanging from his mouth.
My mind drifted towards my first Halloween trick-or-treating without Mom and Dad. Max and Chris took me on their neighborhood route with a carton of eggs for any houses that kept their lights off and doors locked. I squealed with delight as the eggshells cracked against the glass windows, yellow yolk oozing down, until the lights flicked on and yelling ensued. My first throw landed in a bush, but my second toss yellowed the windshield of a Cadillac. Max hollered in hushed delight. I could not run fast enough so Chris, dressed like Neo from the Matrix, bent down, and I leapt onto his back gripping the leather collar of his jacket. The cool October air blew through the princess tiara tangled in my hair. Chris was large for the sixth grade and carried my ten-year-old body with ease, locking his arms under my legs and shifting me further up his back as he ran. Max dressed up as a Smurf and jogged in front. He looked back over his shoulder at the two of us, with his blue face, and opened his mouth to speak.
The bedroom door crept open with the glow of the hallway light. Chris slipped into bed next to me and gently placed a finger over my lips. I put it in my mouth, tasting the saltiness of his skin.
He kissed me ferociously, and I reached behind me, struggling to undo my bra. His weight hurt and his knee dug into my thigh, but I could feel my body for the first time in weeks. Tears welled in my eyes, and I wrapped my hands around his back and pulled him into me—kissing his chest, feeling the wisps of hair tickle my face. Like the pill, I needed him to dissolve me—to be engulfed by something other than myself.
He was fast and rough, and I thought of Maria as the metal bed frame danced on the hardwood floor. Maybe she was out from the Percocet or caught in the embrace of her shaggy-haired dealer.
He pushed on my face as he came, and I gasped, yet felt oddly safe, sandwiched between his weight and the softness of the pillow. He ran his hands across my chest and disappeared into the hallway bathroom. I heard faint weeping muffled by the hiss of the shower. Steam billowed out into the hall, barely visible in the light. Then I heard the murmur of Maria’s voice. I reached for my phone and booked a red-eye flight back to Boston.
A lot can change in a few days. I came home on a Sunday. Mom sat with her laptop at the kitchen island, hunched over, eyes squinted, with her face kissing the screen.
“Grief writing,” she said. “Creative nonfiction class.”
I looked up at the bookcase and noticed her basket-weaving supplies tucked away on the top shelf. A half-filled 501C form lay on the oak coffee-table, with a pen and a checkbook in arm’s reach.
“What’s this?” I asked and held it up.
“Dad’s doing it for addicted athletes. Remember that Celtics player from Fall River who overdosed and crashed his car? Well, Dad’s starting a local chapter here.”
“Where is he?”
“Evening walk with Maxine. He’s been doing two miles a day, plus thirty minutes on the treadmill.” She eyed the collection of Budweiser bottles in the recycling bin. The wrinkles on her face tightened, and her eyes looked wet in the light of the laptop. I flicked on a lamp.
“And UNH?” Mom asked, eyebrows raised.
“Too much partying,” I said. I went to the fridge for a glass of wine.
Upstairs I stood in the doorway of Max’s room. My neck was stiff, and I still felt the weight of Chris’s body. I inhaled deeply and walked in. Max’s first article for Spare Change newspaper, a paper written by addicts and homeless people, was framed above his desk.
“Restaurants for Refugees: How Local Businesses are Opening the Doors of Our Community.”
On the desk was a half-finished glass of water. I opened the drawer. A photo of him and his high school girlfriend selling T-shirts at the beach with matching pot-head grins. A pack of Marlboro reds, with only two left. I pulled out the pack and placed it in my purse. The bottom drawer of his dresser was slightly open. Unfolded blue jeans stuffed it to maximum capacity.
I lay on his sheets, still unmade the way he left them, and pressed my face onto his pillow and smelled his musty scent. Stale, but undeniably him. I sobbed into his pillow. It felt wrong at first and I kept it muffled, but then I let it go. Snot, mucus, and tears. My chest jerked, and I rolled over like I was writhing in pain. I heard Mom and Dad’s footsteps stop at the doorway. I looked up at them, their bodies doubled through the distortion of tears.
I laughed at Dad. “You lost like fifteen pounds in a few days.”
He smiled a pained smile.
“Do you want Maxine with you tonight?”
I nodded my head, and the pup braced herself, then awkwardly jumped onto the twin bed with me, curled at my feet on top of the dorky comforter, depicting white constellations in a red sky.
My parents shut off the overhead lights, and left the door open a crack. I turned my phone off airplane mode and got a text from Chris. In the darkened room, the light from the screen hurt my eyes.
“Going to rehab,” he said. “Finally seems worth it.” He added a praying hands emoji.
I thought of my brother crying on our living room couch. I thought of him begging me for money, saying his car was broken down, and he needed gas. I thought of the post-rehab Soprano marathons until dawn, and the gentle kiss on my forehead in the morning, for believing in him. How much I hated it now that I had believed in him. I recalled what he said to Chris on that Halloween night, smiling over his shoulder as we jogged down the street.
“That’s my kid sister,” he said to him. “You hurt her and you’re a dead man.”
I began to text Chris, erased my words, and responded with a heart.
I lit Max’s cigarette and watched the smoke rise and gather around the ceiling, then disappear through the crack in the door. I glanced back at the unplugged fan. The smoke would do as it pleased.
I dropped the ember of the butt into the cup of water and heard it hiss in the dark. I wrapped my arms around myself and imagined they were Max’s, then Chris’s, then Max’s again. Then I pulled the sheets close to my face to smell the memory of my brother.