Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain is the first of my family to visit after my husband leaves. He drives up from San Diego where he has recently moved to be with his girlfriend. We smoke cigarettes on my porch that faces northwest and overlooks the Hollywood Hills. My husband’s red bike is still affixed to the railing with a U-lock, his clothes in cardboard boxes I packed up and put outside because I know I can say it never rains in Los Angeles if I have to.
Cain says you look better than ever, though makes sure to amend not in a creepy way. I exhale and tell him about the space I feel, tell him that I feel better than ever, which is partly true and partly a lie I don’t realize yet. I tell him about how the world feels like it opened up for me, how I sometimes feel like Maria in The Sound of Music spinning in the Austrian Alps singing the hills are alive. I do sometimes feel the good kind of spinning. I feel spaciousness—that the Griffith Observatory is within reach, that the stars seen from the telescopes at the Griffith Observatory are within reach.
The lie part happens in the early mornings, after I shower and I’m affixed to the side of the bathtub. I sit there feeling every droplet from my wet hair fall onto my shoulders until the small-room kind of spinning has stopped. Cain finds me there one morning. Perhaps I’m there long enough to come looking.
Are you alright?
What if I never love someone the way I loved Dave? It’s the questions I think are too dumb to ask that paralyze me. The questions I know I can ask Cain.
Of course you will, I promise you will. He sits on the edge next to me and puts his arm around my wet shoulder.
In high school Cain and I spend most of our time together driving the 30-minute stretch of Highway 72 between our home in the mountains and our school in the suburbs. I limit the amount of times we listen to a jam band sing about a dead opossum—I was driving down the road one day, someone hit a opossum. He limits my Jesus music. Unlimited is the amount of times we listen to Nelly Furtado’s Whoa, Nelly album.
Though I’m only 14, his friends let me drive home sometimes. I remind him of this, as if to say, your friends are really my friends. He still refuses to teach me how to drive his manual car. He will not break the rules for me, as his friends will not break the rules for their own little sisters. Sometimes it feels like our whole mountain town is full of big brothers and little sisters, and my job as a little sister is to be silent until one of them speaks to me not as a little sister.
When I am old enough, Cain passes me the key after school and asks if I want to drive. I stall out at the stop sign in front of the school. And then again at the next stop sign. And the next. Until I’m stuck at the stoplight in front of the canyon for what feels like hours. Cars speed past and flip the bird. Cain is patient with me, practices the ease that I cannot find with the clutch. When the cars behind us begin to honk I expect him to tell me to get out of the driver’s seat, but instead he opens the sunroof and climbs out until only his legs remain inside. Shut up! He flashes his middle fingers. My sister is learning to drive!
Cain’s sister? There is a young woman at my bedside at 3 AM whispering to me.
Cain’s sister? I do not know her, but I know suddenly that something is being asked of me. She smells like a nightclub, a mix of designer perfume, body heat, and alcohol. When I open my eyes there are two of them.
Cain is in the bathtub, you might want to check on him. I nod and fall back to sleep. I’m tired. I do not want anything asked of me.
I sleep on the second floor of a garage that has been converted to a studio apartment. For a few months now Cain has been sleeping downstairs on an Ikea bed under the staircase. I can afford the Los Angeles apartment because of my divorce settlement. Cain cannot afford to pay rent because of his debt to his ex-girlfriend. We both end up in Southern California in our mid-twenties, broken hearted from our first loves with not even a door between us. Out of guilt, I wake again unsure how much time has passed.
Are you okay? I ask while standing in the bathroom doorway. I keep the lights off, I don’t know how much of him will be exposed. He is lying on his side naked, his freckled back turned towards me.
Yeah, don’t worry. He doesn’t move. I know I should help him up, wrap him in a towel, and bring him downstairs, but I’m tired of his heartbreak and the way it eclipses mine.
Soon I wake to his body moving around my room, walking and pausing. Walking and pausing.
Are you sure you’re okay?
I’m fine. He walks past my bed and pauses at the top of the staircase. His naked silhouette wobbles like a top losing it centrifugal force. He descends his first step before I can ask again.
Cain is a fat child with white blonde hair. In little league when it’s his turn to bat, he does a little dance over the plate. He squats much lower than necessary and swings his hips back and forth like a miniature fat Elvis. The mothers on the bleachers love him. This will continue into adulthood. They coo and turn to my mother, he is such a funny kid. He is an excellent catcher but a terrible pitcher. When the star pitcher is sick, my father, the assistant coach, puts Cain in the game. He is so bad that the other team starts to yell names at him. We want a pitcher not a fat catcher. He shuffles his right foot into the gravel of the pitcher’s mound as if trying to stabilize himself, as if trying to crush their insults like a bug that keeps escaping from under his cleats.
I don’t understand why my father doesn’t call my big brother off the mound. I can no longer stand to watch his resilience. I slip my skinny 8-year-old body under the bleachers and run to the side where the mothers wear different colors. My ten fingers cling onto the chain link fence of the other team’s dugout.
Your team sucks and you are all ugly! I yell to the backs of the young boys on the bench. You suck! You suck! You suck! They turn to me, their soft faces look confused. I cannot stop.
Leave my brother alone! I cannot stop. You’re all stupid and ugly! I cannot stop. Learn how to hit a ball! I don’t remember who stopped me. I don’t remember if anyone ever did.
Cain and I sit on the concrete floor of what was once a garage, once my living room, and now his makeshift bedroom, and speculate. We mine our childhood for some psychological relief. Conversations like these with my brother have their own sort of rhythm and logic. We will steadily unravel a thread, do you think mom babied me too much? Is that why my relationships don’t work? until all of a sudden Cain interrupts our flow with Maybe I just need to get laid or Fuck what other people think, you know. Sometimes I patiently ignore the outbursts and try to find the loose end we lost, sometimes I yell at him for being impossible, sometimes I just give up. Today I give up. There is a moment of silence where all of our unanswered questions breathe. He concludes, We should throw a party, a Cinco de Mayo party.
For our family, parties are a solution, a safe zone. Our extended family is large and Polish and fights, a lot. Derogatory names have been called, money has been owed, windows have been bashed in, but at family parties all of this is ignored. At parties our uncles—brothers who throw each other down staircases during fights over the family business—drink and talk over each other without consequence. I have inherited the party-throwing coping mechanism. When my husband moved out, I bought a vintage bingo machine and hosted parties almost every weekend. I purchased prizes at the thrift store during the week and gave everyone a bingo number when they arrived. When the party hit a lull, when noise was needed, I turned on the machine. The plastic balls tumbled loudly inside the mesh chamber. A ball would fight its way into the receiving basket and I’d retrieve it like a gift. B6! B6! Who has B6!
By the time Cain comes home to set up for the party I’m already tipsy from taste testing margaritas. Cain throws a bag of spices and carne asada on the counter and runs into the shower before I can properly scold him for suggesting we throw a party and making me do all the work. I’ve replaced his bed under the staircase with a serving table, and throughout the night I refill bowls of homemade albondigas, carnitas, and Mexican beans and rice. Some of his high school and college friends are there, they play a word association drinking game. I stay near the food and my friends in what someone jokingly calls the adult corner.
When it’s time to break the piñata, Cain ties a green bandana around my eyes and spins me. I swing an exaggerated swing, and miss. I swing again. With each swing I feel exposed, but with my eyes closed I can handle it. Perhaps it’s because there are people watching who have watched me for most of my life, who have watched my marriage fall apart, who have watched close enough to be able to make a joke about the adult corner in which I usually sit. I swing again. I swing again. And again, far exceeding my three designated swings. I’ve learned this exaggerated party trick from my brother, to overdo in order to entertain. Our friends laugh as my brother tries to stop me, says that’s enough, okay sure one more time. I swing again and again until I knock off a point of the star. Our friends cheer. Some candy falls.
In high school Cain is voted class clown and prom king, and when he runs cross-country or snowboards, his long blonde surfer hair flows gracefully beside him. This is a dangerous combination. Even his name, Cain, is said at school with a certain connotation. Cain, said with a somewhat elongated A, means “loveable goofball” and fills the room with positivity.
My sophomore year Cain and I were assigned to write a battle of the sexes feature article for our high school newspaper. I wrote for the newspaper because I wanted to be a writer, Cain for an easy A his senior year. The article was a two-page spread. Left of the centerfold I wrote about the male ego, how much I hated when guys quoted movies out of context on a date (I had been on one date), and how girls were pretty much better at everything, but didn’t get credit for it. To the right Cain wrote a humor piece about how he was suffering as a sensitive male to understand women. After reading it my uncle remarked Cain seems to be having fun and Janelle seems legitimately pissed. It was an accurate review.
After Cain graduates the article is brought up in my political science class. Another student mentions how he misses Cain and I derisively reply, Cain doesn’t even know you. I don’t say this to be mean or resentful, though I understand how it sounds. I suppose I believe it is my job as a good journalist to state the facts. I also sometimes feel like it’s my job to bust the myth of Cain’s effortless charm. Not so much because I am jealous, though sometimes this is true. But I’ve witnessed his late night panic attacks studying for an AP exam. I recently heard that in college at a party he drunkenly jumped out of the window of a two-story building onto a moving car as a dare. I’ve witnessed the puppetry of his lovability and it becomes more apparent to me that trying to make the wrong person love him could truly be dangerous. I can’t see the boundaries of his charm and it frightens me.
Cain apologizes for sideswiping the fence with my Volkswagen bus as we pull out of the driveway to leave for the night. He admits it’s probably because he is a little stoned, but he will not let me drive when I protest. It’s New Years Eve and I’m supposed to be in Orange County with my friends, but I didn’t want to be pulled out of my end-of-the-year funk just yet. With my friends I have to surrender my heartache to have a good time, to tell it to fuck off at the door. Living with Cain, our heartache is another friend we invite onto the dance floor.
A stray dog darts through traffic on the way to the bar to meet Cain’s friends. It’s obvious it was once a white fluffy thing, but mud and fear have since matted it down. In our neighborhood there are so many stray dogs that you have to concede to saving them all. If I were alone I would’ve probably just said a prayer for the little guy and continued on, but Cain suggests we stop, so I go along.
We turn onto the residential street where we last saw the dog dart up a hill. Cain and I split up without a real plan. I whistle for the dog and run as fast as I can in my patent leather heals, intermittently yelling sweetly, here boy! Soon I no longer hear Cain’s call. We are completely alone, on the same search for a creature we will never find. I head back to the car, hoping the dog is safe and far enough from the busy streets, trusting he’ll be okay alone. Cain is not there yet. He is still searching.
In elementary school my brother has a bully, a bully who is also strangely a friend and teammate. His name is Scott and he has a severe stutter and an absent mother. My mother reminds us that Scott has a hard home life, that it is best not to take what he or other bullies say to heart, that we should even feel sorry for them. Scott fills the bus window with his hot breath and writes, “Cain is fat” in the condensation. I watch Cain notice and ignore it. I’m restless until the window fogs over again.
One afternoon Scott drops a note on my lap on his way to the back of the bus. It reads “Will you go out with me?” I know he is sincere because his brother tells me he has a crush on me. I walk to the back of the bus where he is still standing, looking for a seat, N-N-N-NO! I reply with force. I surprise even myself with my effortless delivery, with the hate so easily found within me. With how much rage I hold for my brother.
I married after my freshman year of college. Despite the fact that Cain and Dave were acquaintances in high school, that Cain stood up in our wedding, I don’t see much of Cain in my four years of marriage. I choose a fast pass to adulthood and Cain stood in a slow-moving line with his friends. There was no perceptible tension between Cain and me during this time, just a genuine and unchecked disinterest in each other’s developing and contrasting lives. I suppose some siblings spend their whole lives' this way, but these four years feel long. In them, he will live in houses I will never visit, I will experience infidelities I will never tell him about, we will, very separately, follow our first loves to Southern California.
I show up to my brother’s house in Boulder wearing a bulletproof vest. He and his college roommates are having a costume party. I had planned to spend the night hanging out in Denver with some of our mutual friends, and they decide it would be funny to surprise Cain by bringing me to the party. I have no costume, but our friend repossesses cars and offers me his black vest as we search through his closet.
We hear Cain laughing as we walk up to the driveway packed with cars. He greets us in perfect college pitch. He is dressed as an Indian. He goes to shake my hand.
“Hey! What’s your name?”
For a moment I consider that the joke of me showing up to this party is actually on me, then I see his earnest and drunk face.
“Cain it’s your sister,” our friend clues him in.
I can tell he is ashamed, but he plays it off, jokingly blames it on the costume. The vest feels large and heavy. Instead of concealing it exposes. I go to get a beer, and a drunk college student tries to start a conversation. The repo man puts his arm around me in protection, to be fair it was dark, he says.
Cain won’t let me back down—Go talk to him! He is talking about Johnny Knoxville, who is at the same bar we're at on New Year’s Eve. Johnny Knoxville was my celebrity crush in high-school, so much so that for my 16th birthday my friend Sarah made me a t-shirt with a picture of my face and Johnny’s face inside of a red heart and the words “The Knoxvilles” below. I wore it proudly to my sweet 16 at a place called Woody’s Wood Fired Pizza. The hostess was pissed all night because we easily had triple the number of people on our reservation—most of the extras being Cain’s friends. The thing about living in the shadow of Cain is that I rarely felt like I was going unnoticed. His friends took me to lunch everyday, they drove me home when he was sick, they showed up to eat pizza buffet with me on my 16th birthday. There was often no reason to be jealous of the attention and adoration Cain received, as I wasn’t so much living in his shadow as I was benefitting from his light.
I tap on Johnny’s shoulder and ask if I could tell him a story while we are both stuck waiting for our drinks. At first he seems annoyed, but when I finish telling him about my 16th birthday and the t-shirt, he hugs me and says thanks for the cute story and Happy New Year. My high school heart is filled. I go back to the corner of the room and join my brother who is dancing on top of a coffee table. We countdown. We dance and scream the seconds. Five! Four! Three!
At midnight the bar erupts and we hug some strangers who have joined us on the table.
Are you two siblings!? One yells over the music and motions to me and my brother.
Yes! I answer with the enthusiasm of the New Year. Do we look alike?!
Not really, he answers, you have the same dance moves.
I look over at my brother. He is doing the kind of alone dancing that you can do in a dimly lit crowded bar. When you are dancing with no one and everyone at the same time. He’s got good moves. The man’s comment gives me confidence, makes me acutely aware of my influences.
Cain calls while I’m driving a long stretch of Ohio highway while visiting graduate schools. He tells me he cannot watch the dogs anymore because he is going to San Diego to see his ex-girlfriend and maybe now girlfriend again. The same girlfriend who I had just spent the last six months helping him get over.
I can’t deal with this right now. Find a replacement.
I don’t have time.
Find a replacement or you can’t live with me anymore.
Are you serious?
Dead fucking serious.
I don’t remember the scene in which I kicked my brother out of the house for good. Perhaps because there were so many times in which I threatened, so many dress rehearsals, that I cannot distinguish them from the final show. I’m sure I threatened every month when I asked for the $200 of rent he promised to pay, the $200 my terrible landlord charged me to have Cain sleep in my living room. I know I threatened once when we fought and he called me a bitch. And again when he hit a pole with my VW bus and lied about it. All I can remember was that at some point I was back to living alone and he was living in a communal living house. A house I would occasionally visit and inspect for cleanliness and home cooked meals in the refrigerator and other signs of happy cohabitation to make sure he was ok, and to relieve my guilt.
When I ask my brother if there was a time that I let him down, it was this. When I tell my brother it was about boundaries he says What the fuck are boundaries and why do you keep saying that word?
Merry go round, we go, up and around we go…
Cain walks out of the bar on New Year’s Eve singing. His arms are open wide, his voice soaring, his face blushing and smiling as if he plans on living the new year as a musical.
What did you say to me?! A drunken stranger asks from the curb. Perhaps Cain can’t see the stranger’s belligerence through his rose-colored 2012 glasses. He repeats the lyric and gesture.
Merry go round, we go, up and around we go…
The man charges at Cain, throws a swift and sloppy punch at his jaw. Our respective cliques grab the two men, form a circle around them to hold each in restraint. Cain fights back, tries to take a swing at the stranger but misses. I’m happy he defends himself, happy to not have to watch his resilience. A bouncer comes out of the bar. He is seven feet tall and wears oversized overalls with no shirt underneath and has teeth missing from his angry mouth. He runs like a storybook giant after the stranger and huffs, I’ll take care of him, as he passes us. There seems to be a kind of justice to the night. A confusing, palpable justice.
Sometimes when I think about my brother frozen in time, this is what I see. Cain greeting the night with great joy while a fist seems to be defying the laws of nature, the laws of personal boundaries, and heading straight for his face.
Our friend’s car pulls up to the curb. Cain and I sit in the back seat. I rest my spinning head on his shoulder and close my eyes. His friends talk softly—replay the night and bear witness to each other’s personal dramas. My body sways with the stop-and-go late night traffic. I can feel every crack and pit on the Los Angeles freeway. I try to guess where we are by the changing texture of the highway as we clear overpasses. Merry go round, we go, up and around we go… plays in my head like the end credits to the night.