Dad used to complain that my brother, Aaron’s, head is connected to a swivel. No matter how familiar the noise, his brain requires an image to attach to it. He tucks a container of instant coffee into the crook of his arm and watches the cart with the rickety wheel disappear into the home goods department. His fingers curl around a pack of BIC pens before tossing them into my basket. Another quirk Dad can’t stand. He can’t buy anything without inspecting it first.
“You’re going to need them.” In all my life, he’s the only person who recognizes the internal battle of my mind without having to ask. His eyes linger on the bright, colorful stationary, but he doesn’t make a move for it. “What are you doing here?”
“Just picking up a few things for the house.”
Killing time. Dad’s got one month of sobriety under his belt and he no longer dreads the Alcohol Anonymous meetings. He says he doesn’t know if he believes in a Higher Power because God dealt him a shitty hand the last thirty-six years, but he has to try. I needed to fill my prescriptions. He discovered several rolls of film on a cleaning spree. Aaron wrinkles his nose at the blue envelope.
“You wanna have a look at them with me?”
“No, I can’t.” He glances over his shoulder, expecting Dad to materialize at any minute. A woman studies the planners. “Maybe another day. It was good seeing you.”
“I’ll tell him you said hi.”
“That’s OK. You don’t have to.” He turns in time to catch me putting the pens back.
My brain is itching to tell Dad, even though every part of me knows it’s a bad idea. Aaron stopped accepting his calls months ago. He says he’s learning to be OK with the idea that Aaron might never forgive him. That it’s more important to give him the space he needs. I shouldn’t say anything, but the words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself. His jaw ticks angrily and there’s a hint of the person he’s trying not to be. My knuckles white against the steering wheel.
“How was he? Did he look alright?”
“He looked fine.”
“Good.” Dad exhales a long, slow breath. Somebody reminded him that it isn’t fair to ask too many questions if Aaron didn’t want him being a part of his life. It wasn’t fair to use me as the go between. He nods toward the pictures.
“Anything worth keeping?”
“I haven’t looked at them yet.”
“Oh.” There’s nothing else to say. He didn’t want to remember the past while it was happening. Looking without the lens of a good beer isn’t going to change it any.
Just me then. I lift the flap. The first picture is of Dad. He’s a teenager juggling me on his hip. Aaron’s arms cinch his neck. He squints at the camera. He looks happy. Or maybe he just doesn’t look drunk.
Aaron is ten months old and pulling himself onto the sofa. They always said he learned to walk early because he needed new ways to explore. He hated being confined to a playpen, and the exhaustion in their voice is evidence of the fact that he’s always let them down. Mom sinks into the sofa with her face in her hand. She smiles because somebody said to, but her eyes are far away. It’s proof that once she was a part of our family. Hair color is the only thing we have in common. Once, I insisted she never hurt us and Aaron rolled his eyes and retorted only because she never stayed. I haven’t looked at her the same since. I don’t know what to make of his absence. I set the picture aside. There are more faces I don’t recognize. Dad walked out on his own family because he hated how they treated us. That didn’t even earn a snort from Aaron.
We’re four and five years old. Aaron asks too many questions. He tells stories as if he’s playing a game of connect the dots and his arm is around my shoulder. He’s always taken his role of big brother seriously. It’s one of the last things we argued about.
“He needs help.”
“I don’t understand why it has to be you.” He spat.
He didn’t remember the night Dad received the divorce paperwork. We’d been broken up a long time by then, but he drank brandy and tried making sense of the words. He screamed. Each scrape of the chair legs made my heart gallop in my chest. Aaron yelled back. He would always get in trouble to save me, a fact I’ve never forgiven myself for. Maybe I caused this rift between them. Mom married somebody else. Everything stayed the same, but everything changed.
The boy in the picture is wearing rain boots. He insists they’re magic and the one thing we absolutely can’t share. I’ve never known who I am without him. If I hadn’t stayed, he and Dad would still be talking. I’m sure of it. He can’t bear the thought of what happens when he isn’t there. He can’t forgive himself. For as long as either of us remembers, we’re all the other had. Irish twins. Best friends. I should’ve bought the damn pens. I can’t do this. I can’t relive all the pieces of myself I lost without ever noticing.
Dad is drinking again and I know it’s because he hadn’t gotten over Aaron not talking to him. He can’t stand the person he’s turned into, but he can’t outrun them either. Everything is a balancing act. I won’t say anything. Aaron learned at sixteen that alcohol took the edge off his feelings. He always wanted to be a different version of himself. As long as I can remember, everybody insisted he’s too much. He thumbs through the pictures with a half smile.
We’re at his apartment. If his fridge is any indication, he’s living off coffee and RedBull. He still hasn’t found the magic elixir to slow himself down. Dad complains his head on a swivel and Aaron complains he has so much energy he feels like he could step out of his own skin. What would he leave behind? Would there be anything left? The five year old in the pictures built whole worlds for us. “Those boots always made me think of The Wizard of Oz.” He laughs. “It used to be my favorite.”
“I got you something,” he says.
“Thanks.” I don’t need to look to know the bag contains Cristal BICs.
“Thought you might need them.” What he means is, promise me you’ll take care of yourself too.