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My little brother Joe grew up too fast for his own good. My mom was the first to see what we were in for. Soon after Joe’s birth, when the nurse put him in her arms, the first thing he did, still pink and slimy, was smile the gummy, wry smile of a little old man.
“Joseph, Joe, my baby boy,” said my mother, “we’ll try our best if you will.” She kissed his cheek and handed him back to the nurse, trying to keep herself from falling in love with someone who she realized, at their very first meeting, would only break her heart. The first sign was in that first smile: the old man Joe would soon become, the old man Joe would become too soon.
I was there for the birth, too. The midwife kept looking over her shoulder and saying, “Come look at this, Lewis! It’s incredible!” but I shook my head. While Dad hovered over the bed with a video camera, I backed myself into a corner.
It was an important day, Joe’s birthday. Fifteen years before, while my mother was giving birth to me, there’d been “complications.” The doctor had told her it would be nearly impossible for her to have any more children. At Joe’s birth, though, all that doctor could do was throw his hands in the air and look from nurse to midwife to mother, father, and finally to me. “It’s a miracle!” he said. “It’s a miracle, I’m sure!”
“Do you hear that, Lewis?” said my father. He paused in his recording of the event to look back at me in my corner. “A miracle. Come over and see your little brother.”
For weeks my parents had been drilling me on the importance of being a big brother. I would be one of Joe’s confidantes; I would be one of his guides. But I was frightened at the thought of all that responsibility. So when I saw Joe on his back, being weighed, waving his little limbs like an overturned insect, all my fears evaporated. I was able to smile for the first time in days. Face red and screaming, tiny body dimpled with white splotches, he looked so helpless that I knew right away I’d fill the shoes of a big brother better than anyone. “Joe,” I whispered, stroking the backs of my fingers across his pasty cheek, “I’m your big brother. Lewis. Welcome home.”
“What a lovely sentiment, Lewis,” said my father. “Joe’s very lucky to have you for a brother.” He tousled my hair, hugged me to his shoulder, and lifted the recorder back up to his eye. “Smile,” he said when the nurse gave Joe to my mom, the cord no longer dangling. Mom grinned then–a blinking, reluctant grin, still holding strong to the secret of what she’d seen before the rest of us had had a chance to notice–and held Joe up in the crook of her arms.
That’s when we saw what Mom would tell us she’d already witnessed. Staring into the camera like an attention-starved movie star, Joe pulled back his lips to reveal a single tooth, perfectly white, rising out of the pale pink of his gums, like a tiny tombstone.
The tooth was not the only thing to tip us off about Joe, though. Not even an hour later we were chasing him through the hospital. He weaved through the legs of nurses and orderlies while my dad and I dodged the spinning bodies he left behind him. As he stumped and slapped his way down the hall bare-footed, the baby fat on his legs jiggling, he experimented with a mouthful of new consonants and vowels. An orderly pushed my mom in a wheelchair behind us, but refused to match the pace Joe had set. Mom put her hands over her face and cried to see Joe trying to leave when we already had so little time to get to know him. When we finally did catch him, he had climbed onto a chair and was stretching his arm up to press the down button at a bank of elevators. My father took hold of him then, but Joe only shrieked with laughter before he started to wriggle out of my father’s hands.
“This is all my fault,” my mother said later through the bathroom door of her room as she got dressed to leave the hospital. She knew the risks, the mix-ups in chromosomes courted by men and women of a certain age. But her tests had all come back normal. There’d been others born like Joe in recent years, but the doctor had told my parents not to worry, had said everything was proceeding as normal.
Through the door my dad said, “Honey, it is not your fault,” but my mom only replied by letting out a solitary, mournful moan.
It was the first of January, that day. Joe was a New Year’s baby. Outside, long feathers of snow sifted down from the sky while Mom and I waited with Joe in the lobby for my dad to hail a taxi. Phones rang, and the tiled floor displayed the shoe prints of people who had come and gone all day. When my dad finally stopped a cab, he came back to wheel my mother out and help her into the back seat. And since Joe had already shown his inclination for running away, I decided to take his hand as we left the lobby. As soon as my hand landed on his, though, Joe wrenched away from me. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I’m your big brother,” I explained. “I’m here to protect you.” I was shocked and a little hurt, but despite that I reached for his hand once more.
Joe flinched as if I’d tried to hit him. He hid his hands behind his back and said, in a scornful voice, “Don’t you worry about me, Lewis. I can take care of myself.” Then he ran to the taxi, his little jumper already tight on his growing body, and Dad lifted him in.
“Hurry up, Lewis,” my mother called from the back seat. “You’re letting out all of the warm air.”
I climbed in beside her and considered the strip of electrical tape covering a rip in the seat’s vinyl. One end of the tape was detached, curled up in a spiral. I imagined the previous taxi passengers lifting and reapplying it throughout the day. I started to do the same.
“Where to?” asked the driver. Dad gave him our address, then the toll light shifted on like a pinball blinker, and as we pulled into traffic, Joe lifted his head from Mom’s open blouse to let out an enormous belch before falling asleep, out in the world for the first time.
By the time we were halfway home, Joe had woken again and was staring out the cab window at the passing cat’s cradles of iron bridges and the looming façades of old brownstones on our side of town. He pointed up and we followed his chubby finger to see where he was looking: a large bird, a hawk or a falcon, wings spread wide against the sky as it circled the river. “Do you like that?” Mom asked, looking down at Joe again.
“I like the way it spirals,” Joe said. “The way it flies like a leaf on the wind.”
“A poet,” said my father as Mom wiped away a tear.
Dad carried Joe up the steps to our building like a bride over a threshold. Then up we went to the second floor to show Joe the room we’d spent the last nine months preparing for him. Now, though, we felt embarrassed. The room we’d made was for an ordinary newborn. Joe took the stuffed dinosaur from the toy box and looked up at the mobile of stars and moons dangling over his crib. He looked back then, frowning, and said, “Thank you. It’s beautiful.”
We didn’t waste any more time making him comfortable. He was too big for everything, so Dad went out and came back an hour later with a truck full of new furniture. A twin bed, a desk and chair, a baseball glove, a baseball, a notebook in which Joe could write his poetry. After the movers took away all the baby things, Joe sat on his bed and jumped up and down, testing the springs. He took the baseball glove, tossed the ball in the air and caught it, then opened the notebook and wrote a haiku:
A bird on the wind
A ball in my leather glove
All is mystery.
Mom cooked her famous lasagna. Joe devoured it in minutes, then sat in front of the TV and watched a show about criminals being captured by the police. Dad asked Joe if we could do anything for him, and Joe, knees gathered under his chin, arms wrapped around his legs, turned and said, “I don’t know. If there is, you’ll have to tell me. I don’t know what I need.”
So we went to the store and bought clothes to fit him, jeans and sweaters, a winter coat, warm socks and boots to trudge through the snow like a trooper. Then we went to the park and looked at the pond frozen over, the icicles hanging from branches, then onto Fifth Avenue to skate at Rockefeller Center, holiday music blaring, lights blurring as little kids fell over and older siblings righted them. Joe loved the clustered lights, the clustered people. He skated with swift determination, but didn’t fall no matter how wildly he pumped his arms to pick up speed. He made friends with a little girl who, when we left, kissed him on the cheek and waved goodbye from the rink, her green-mittened hand held high over her head.
On the way home, Joe said he was hungry again and my mom said that that didn’t surprise her, he was a growing boy and he was already outgrowing those clothes we’d just bought him. So we stopped at a Japanese place and ordered him fifteen kinds of sushi. When the bill came, Mom’s eyes widened but Dad just shrugged, said it was nothing, really, that exposure to the cuisines of other cultures is an important thing, don’t you think, and Mom could only nod with pursed lips while she raised her hand to order another cup of sake.
At home, Joe went to bed and we stood in the dark, not saying anything, just looking at him. At the frail lashes of his closed eyes and his boy’s face changing minute by minute into the face of a young man. We couldn’t sleep even though Joe was sleeping soundly. We could only stay where he was and watch him growing.
“Will he stop?” I asked after a while.
“No,” said my dad, shaking his head, not looking at me.
“No, honey,” said my mom, shaking her head, looking at me.
I turned back to Joe and stroked my fingers against his cheek like I’d done after he was born that morning. I thought about stop signs, red lights, crossing guards with whistles. Slow down, I thought. Slow down already.
I fell asleep at some point, unable to keep my head from nodding, and was woken an hour later by the sounds of shouting and a door slamming. I sat up at the foot of Joe’s bed, where I must have curled up as I drifted off, but Joe wasn’t in the room with me. Neither were my parents. A square of moonlight fell on the floor where I was sitting. I stood up and went out to the living room, where I found my mom on the phone, saying, “Eighteen or nineteen, maybe twenty. But in a while he’ll look older. No, I don’t have a picture.” She paused then, looked up at the ceiling, tears already spilling, and said, “I don’t have any pictures!”
Joe had run off again, given us the slip in the middle of the night, and my dad was out looking for him while my mother babbled uncontrollably to the police, who said they were on it, though they never did have the chance to find him. It was only a half hour later that my dad returned with Joe in tow, my dad’s hand on Joe’s meaty shoulder like a claw to steady him.
Joe weaved as he walked, as if he were still a toddler. He was taller than me now, and muscular. He wore clothes we’d never bought him: knee-ripped jeans, a tight T-shirt, a fake fur coat that hung down to his ankles. His hair was all spiked and he had lipstick lips on his neck and cheeks, where a five o’clock shadow was starting to cover him over. When my mom saw him, she screamed something incomprehensible, then ran over and took him into her arms. She pulled away a moment later, her face scrunched up, and sniffed at him. “Have you been drinking?” she asked, then looked at my father. “Has he been drinking?” she asked again, louder.
Dad had found Joe only two blocks away, at a dive bar, totally hammered. When we sat down in the living room and drank the hot tea Mom had made for us, Joe cried and said, “I just didn’t want to think about it anymore.”
We nodded. We knew. We didn’t want to think about it anymore either.
But it was inevitable that our thoughts circled back to what was happening right in front of us, the way Joe continued to change the rest of the night until the sun rose and he looked ready to pass up Dad in the Department of Greying. And then, by mid-morning, his skin had loosened and now fell down like dress socks, as if he were ready to put on a worn-out suit and go to the park to sit on a bench feeding bread crumbs to pigeons. His days as a barfly were over. Joe, Joseph, their son, my little brother, was getting ready to leave us.
Joe slept on the couch until that afternoon, and we sat around watching his chest rise and fall with his breathing. At first, rhythmically: a steady lifting. Then, later, uneven: stuttering with the rise, stuttering with the fall. We sighed. We shook our heads or looked away. I looked down at my feet, at the rug, until the rasping couldn’t be heard any longer, and then lifted my head when Mom got up to kneel beside Joe’s age-wizened body, to hug him one last time.
His hair was long and white, rolling over his shoulders like an angel’s, his face lined with wrinkles. His body was thin, curled in on itself like a question mark, his fingers long and bony. I tried to think of him as the baby who had got up on two legs the previous morning and run down the hospital hallways, screaming with laughter. But I couldn’t remember him that way as long as I looked at who he was now.
Dad stood, too, bent down to kiss Joe on the forehead. Then he helped Mom to stand and, together, they called the hospital to tell them the time had come.
I didn’t go to the funeral, so I don’t know what the minister said as they all stood around his casket. I don’t know who came to pay respects or who my parents had chosen to act as pallbearers. My dad had asked me, but I’d shaken my head, said I wasn’t going. “But you’re his brother. His big brother, Lewis,” he said. “You have to.”
I didn’t, though. I couldn’t. For twenty-four hours I’d had a brother, I’d watched him grow from child to man to end, to exit. That was enough for me. That was all I could take seeing. I didn’t want to know any more of what came after. I stayed at home and played video games instead, drank too much soda, got a stomach ache, stared out the window of my bedroom at a bird on a wire, snow falling around it, listened to music on my iPod, chatted online with a friend who knew nothing of what had happened to me over vacation. I thought about the school break being over in just another day, suddenly being surrounded by people my own age again. How alien we are, I thought, even me. We had years to go, years to continue growing, to become strangers to each other over and over, until even we couldn’t recognize ourselves any longer.
Maybe Joe was right. All is mystery. And for the rest of my life, or at least for the next twenty-four hours, I wouldn’t be able to stand it, any of it, until I got up to go back to school again two mornings later, where, sitting down at my desk, a friend already leaning over to tell me something that had happened to him over winter vacation, I made myself finally, decisively, peacefully forget.