The pandemic forces us to wear masks, to hide our God-given mouths and blemishes. And it forces me to text my sister, describing the smell of my mask breath when it smells uniquely horrible:
- Friday 8:33 PM — “Current mask breath: the General Mills corn snack ‘Bugles.’ I haven’t eaten Bugles in years.”
- Tuesday 10:50 AM — “Current mask breath: rotten hay.”
- Saturday 4:21 PM — “Current mask breath: MANURE. I mean it. What the hell?”
Why do I send my sister breath updates? Like soldiers on the battlefield writing poetry for the first time, I do it because I have to. Because in times of great stress, our communication changes. We reach for our roots. We sniff our roots, then we write home.
But communicating with my sister during a pandemic is something she and I have been training for. By this I mean there’s always been a cloud over us. This cloud was full of a god, and this god was my brother.
My brother and I are so close in age we’re like distant twins. In the womb, I felt his lingering presence. This is not my amniotic fluid, said fetal-me. It’s hand-me-down. I want my own. I kicked the womb wall in my rage.
The twin-bond with my brother was like a Chinese finger trap: it’s fun at first, then it stretches thin, and then it suddenly becomes surprisingly terrifying. You’re trapped! You can’t breathe. What do fingers have to do with breathing? Everything! It was the kind of bond that makes young children capable of murder.
Joe was the twin who got out first. I was the twin who was very late. To Joe, I was a casserole too long in the oven, overcooked, but somehow still volcanically raw in the center. I was like him, yes, but not enough. Any bit of me that strayed outside the boundary lines of his shadow, he cut it down, clipped it as if it was a frightening growth on his own body. “Biopsy this, please,” he said, dropping an entire brother at the doctor’s feet.
The lab results?
“We’ve got some good news and some bad news,” says the doctor.
Joe says, “Hit me.”
“The good news is, it’s not cancer.”
“And the bad news?”
“The bad news is, it’s similar to you but also very different. It’s going to have different thoughts and different desires. But don’t forget, it loves you very much — ”
“Fine,” says Joe, sighing sadly, “go ahead and kill it.”
My brother and I would play and battle until I inevitably fell from our cloudy Mount Olympus, cast out. I would crash into the Earth, climb out of my crater, and then say, “You,” to my little sister, “I guess we can play now.”
My sister, Meg, was supposed to be a boy named Peter, so I consented to play with her, and our games were always the ones I chose:
Games of danger, death, and violence.
We played a game called “Baby.” I was the baby. I was sickly and demanding. I would lie beneath a blanket in a corner of her room and scream, “Snacks!” She would fetch me snacks then I would scream, “I’m sick!” and “I will vomit!” I mimed vomiting. She mimed cleaning it up, but she never had to mime enjoying herself. She was playing with her older brother, a rare treat, and though the game of Baby was like an exorcism going badly, she loved it. So did I.
I think I could still play Baby. I could wear the blanket and vomit for my sister and have a wonderful time.
We played cops and robbers using my dad’s pickup truck, a little truck the color of a liquid diet. Officer Meg tried to pull me over and read my rights. I listened long enough to convince her I was listening, then I shot her in the face and burned out of there while she cried. She cried because she wanted to finish reading the rights before she got shot. But I could never wait.
If she refused to die, I threated to end our game. If she threatened to end the game, I would simply say, “Okay,” and drop the gun, step out of the truck, leaving the door open, leaving everything behind as if it meant nothing to me, and she would change her tune. She’d beg me to come back, beg me to shoot her again whenever I wanted, and I would pretend to think about it, then return.
Another game of ours required winter. A winter worthy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this game, I played the part of a wonderful brother. My sister and I were caught in a blizzard on the prairie and trying to make our way back to the homestead. Tragically, our legs were broken. Our legs were always broken. We wept and wailed as we crawled along, crying out to God, and we took turns giving up hope.
“We’ll never make it,” one of us would say, and the other would answer, “Don’t talk like that! We shall see our home again! Ma and Pa and the babies need us.” All their legs were broken too.
“Just leave me here. Go on. But promise me something.”
“Write my story.”
“Enough! You’re not giving up. I won’t let you. You’re gonna write that story yourself!”
My sister and I dragged our broken bodies through the snow, leaving behind us the trails of worms, the trails of mermaids out of water, mermaids with compound fractures.
“We’re gonna die out here!” I wailed.
“Don’t give up, my brother.”
“Sister,” said I, “just kill me.”
“If you die…I die.”
She made a good point. I summoned the strength to go on. And on we went, circling the house, nearing it but never reaching it, thwarted always by that damned blizzard, by our early-onset snow blindness, and by our knowledge that life on the prairie isn’t life on the prairie unless it’s hell on earth.
The games changed as we got older. When I was in high school and Meg was in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, the games were all about talking. While we drove to and from our little Christian school, I would throw scenarios her way and demand responses:
“Would you rather have your intestines shoot out of your butt then suck back in every time you laugh or have a child somewhere in the world die every time you sneeze? Answer and explain.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You don’t want to think?”
“Can we play something else?”
“I don’t want to choose.”
“Well you’re gonna have to. This is what we’re talking about. Now answer: guts out your butt or sneezing for dead kids. Go.”
I love this type of question. I wish so badly it would replace small talk. Pretend I’m in a meeting. We haven’t started yet because we’re waiting on a couple people. Chatter begins. Oh no oh no. They talk about gas prices or curricular theory or fiscal bias incumbents (yes, grownups, I know how you talk) and I sense that my long life will never ever end. If only one of them would say, “Here’s a question: for a million dollars, would you be born fully grown out of a gorilla every morning for the rest of your life?”
If an adult asked me this, I would weep for joy before answering, “Is there a midwife or are we on our own here? And does this make the gorilla my mother, or will I have to fight her every morning?”
As an aside, adults must be weeping for joy every day, because the world is built for them. Someone brings up hot water heaters or municipal regulations or their favorite thing, fiscal bias incumbents, and they’re so excited because they know the answers. They’ve always known.
I dream of turning the tables. I’m leading the meeting. “First order of business, if you had another appendage and it dripped the beverage of your choice, what beverage would you choose, and what part of your body would the appendage hang from?”
The one adult in the room groans inwardly (Oh no oh no) and prays for death.
I love strange questions so much I’ve lost relationships over them. I had a girlfriend once who said I could only ask one of my questions per conversation. But I couldn’t help myself. “If you had a psychic link with a thousand people, and every time you had a wicked thought, they all screamed it and gave you credit, would you hunt them all down and kill them or try to collect them and keep them in an underground bunker, and if you were stranded on an island with a famous author and had to eat them, who would you pick?”
She said, “I think we should break up.”
“You asked two questions.”
“Just answer one of them. We’re not together anymore, so what’s the harm? Which author would you eat?”
On the first date with my wife, I knew she was the one, because the first thing I asked was, “Do you believe in ghosts?” and the love of my life leaned forward and dove right in:
“Yes,” she whispered. “What do you think they want?”
Here is a soul who knows how to talk the talk.
But the talk also got us into our first fight. I kept asking, “What if I was only a head? No body. Would you love me if I was only a head?”
Yes, we actually had a fight about this. The hesitation before her answer drove me insane.
She said, “…I guess so?”
“You guess so?” I cried. “I would love you if you were a head! I would love you if you were less than a head! Just an eye! I’d carry you everywhere! I’d show you the world!”
My wife has compared notes with my sister many times, and they’ve laughed together over the intensity of my interrogations.
Recently, I asked my sister to help me remember the old times and she wrote this:
Sometimes mom would say, “Dan’s going for a drive. You should go too. Might be fun.” We’d be fighting before we left the driveway. A few minutes into the trip, you might ask me to start freestyle rapping with you. I had no desire and no ability to do that. If I said no, I was then asked rapid-fire questions: “Why not? Just do it, no one’s listening. Are you afraid? What are you afraid of? Oh, so you’re not talking now?? This is fun, you think this is fun?”
I did this. I freestyle rapped. And yes, I demanded that my sister rap with me. Or drop a beat. Or discuss which animals were best to be born from, and for how much money. Or I wanted to know, “If you could empty hell of all people by going there yourself, would you?” or “Would you marry a conjoined twin if the half that loved you was the most beautiful man alive?”
My sister would say, “I don’t know,” a slap in the face. Or worse, she would use her greatest weapon against me: silence. She would lean against the car door, as far away from me as possible, and quietly wait for our fun road trip to be over while I pelted her endlessly with questions.
After what Meg wrote, I told her, “You captured me so well. What the hell was wrong with me?”
I know what the hell it was now. What was I doing? I was attacking the sides of Meg that weren’t like me. I wanted to rap. She didn’t. I attacked. I wanted to talk about bizarre and grotesque things forever. She didn’t. I attacked. I was doing the same thing my brother did to me all the time: amputating whatever spoiled the mirror image. Whatever resisted. Whatever walked its own way. This is the same thing parents do when in the process of driving their children mad. What are they up to? I recently answered this age-old question and couldn’t wait to tell someone. So I told my students.
It was an English 101 class. They needed to know this.
“I’ve solved the puzzle!” I shouted. You have to shout everything while teaching in a mask, and you have to endure the smell of the coffee rotting inside you.
“What puzzle?” they asked.
“You know the Nature vs. Nurture thing?”
“I figured it out!”
“What do you mean you figured it out?”
“I figured out why your parents can’t stand you!”
They didn’t seem as excited as I expected. This angered me. I’m a person cursed with reaction expectations. I want cheering, always. I considered denying them my wisdom. Then I felt alone in the universe and told them anyway.
“You know the game Whac-A-Mole in old arcades?”
Some did, some didn’t. I explained. There’s a table with holes all over it. Moles pop up. You have a hammer, and it’s your job to kill the moles when they appear.
Once the students understood, I said, “Now imagine your parents are holding the Whac-A-Mole hammer, and you’re the Whac-A-Mole table. Got it?”
They had it.
“Good. Now, here’s the secret. Every person is made up of two types of moles: nature moles and nurture moles, okay? When a side of your personality pops up, a side that’s a nurture-mole, a side your parents take responsibility for, they leave it alone. They let it live. They love it. But if it’s a nature-mole, something you received by blood or from the beyond, something that’s out of their control, it terrifies and angers them. They try to kill it. With hammers! That’s what your parents hate about you, the good stuff! Blood and magic!”
I expected my students to rise and hurry to the front of the room. They would sit at my feet and say, Who is this man who is clearly more than a man? Teach us how to live.
Instead, they waited for the punchline of my wisdom, not realizing I had already delivered it. I sighed into the mask. This gave me a whiff of my spirit: somehow the smell of compost. I glared at the class, my flock of blind moles. My kingdom for a hammer.
My poor sister.
I see her always playing the games I wanted to play. Always, because she was too young and too lonely to ghost me. And refusing to drop rhythms and rhymes, refusing to use her imagination the way I ordered her to, but always agreeing to risk a journey with me again. To risk giving me another chance.
Maybe she was waiting me out, waiting for me to tire of hammering the world into my own image. Waiting for us to be able to have fun again, to play. This was an act of faith. Maybe an act of memory. She remembered our old fun and believed that somewhere underneath all my mad talk, I was still that guy, the baby and the robber, and better:
The wonderful brother, the one who, even with two broken legs, selected the long way home, just so we could survive together against all odds a little longer.