I get the call at seven pm, driving home from work. I pick it up on speaker, watching the gas stations clip by as the sun slowly sinks towards the top of the trees.
“There’s a new girl at your brother’s apartment. Or at least, what used to be his apartment. We haven’t seen him since the weed incident last October.” The voice is detached. Liza was always very factual, very precise. I grip the steering wheel. “Come home, Maeve. Pull him out of his shell. And find out about this new girlfriend.”
I really don't want to go. There are about a million things I would do before visiting my halfway nonexistent brother in my shadowy old relic of a hometown, but Liza’s the type of person who doesn't gossip. She wouldn’t have called me unless she really thought something was off. And since our parents conveniently both died in a car crash three years ago, it really is up to me to sort out all the weird shit he gets up to.
Monday I call in sick to work, pack a duffel bag, and get on a southbound train. I wasn’t about to drive my perfectly good car all the way down to Kentucky; all drives longer than an hour spook me. Even my daily half hour commute causes undue concentration. As the states blur by, I try calling my brother, again and again. He doesn't pick up, but then, I never really expected him to. He hasn’t picked up in a decade. It didn’t matter that he always has the newest phones and computers; he never bothered actually using them.
By Tuesday morning, my clothes are wrinkled and smell like recycled air, and my sleep deprivation and gnawing concern make me look homeless, but I am finally in Cerritulus, Kentucky. A tiny, insignificant town, the type you’d see in horror movies. Big wooden houses, empty, echoing with failed promises. Flags supporting baseball teams no one has ever heard of. High schoolers kissing each other behind pickup trucks, hitting each other behind closed doors.
I’ve booked a room at the only motel in town, the Red Lotus. Naturally, as gossip is the currency of any decent small town, everyone knows I’m back the instant I step foot on the train platform. Liza arrives to meet me at the station. She pulls me in for a hug, wordlessly. The crow’s feet around her eyes have gotten deeper. There are grey streaks in her hair where there used to be purple. But at her core, she’s still the same Liza. We walk silently beside each other on the gravel path, each of us dragging a bag.
“How’s Denny?” I ask, mostly to make conversation, because I already know the answer. Her spine stiffens, only ever so slightly, and I know instantly that I’m right.
“Still sick,” she says, and then her eyes flick up to mine. We both know what sick is code for. “He’s trying to make an appointment at a doctor by the end of the month.” In other words, he hasn’t found a rehab facility that took welfare.
When we reach the Red Lotus, Max welcomes us with a too-wide smile and stains on his t-shirt. “Sorry, my cousin’s back in town, and I’ve been fixing his car,” he says, yanking our bags up the stairs - no elevator. Another lie, I think to myself. We all know Max - he was in the year below me in school, and despite being a bright kid, his lack of motivation led him straight to behind the reception desk at a shitty motel. Typical story. We also know that the handsome Hispanic man with the muscly arms and shiny car isn’t his cousin, but the whole Pride thing hasn’t quite reached Cerritulus, Kentucky yet.
As I unpack, Liza fills in the bare details she knows about my brother and his apartment. “Nancy told me she keeps seeing the same woman in the windows. Of course no one goes near there, and it’s always dark anyway, but she says there’s something… off about her. And your brother refuses to come outside, he gets all his food and packages delivered straight to the apartment. You know how he is.” When I’m finished shoving all my sweatpants into the dusty old drawers, we sit side-by-side on the bed as I call my brother. Of course, he doesn’t pick up. Instead, I text him. He responds within five seconds.
A few hours later, I’m sitting in the old diner, chewing on a ham and egg sandwich that’s somehow watery and crumbly at the same time. He comes barrelling in, dumps four sugars into the cold black coffee I ordered for him (it’s always been the same, ever since he was a child) and throws himself into the padded, creaky seat across from me.
“What’s up?” Polite as ever, of course.
“I heard you have a new girlfriend,” I say. There’s no point in small talk; he won’t indulge me anyway. I don’t know how he makes money, and even though he’s explained it half a dozen times, I doubt I’ll ever make sense of it.
“Her name is Aiko,” he says, his mouth full of fries.
“That’s not the sort of name you typically encounter in Kentucky.”
“She’s not from here,” he says. “She’s Japanese.”
“Tell me about her,” I say, trying to be encouraging, but I’m truly at a loss for words. My brother’s never had a girlfriend, as far as I can tell.
“She likes lavender. Her favorite color is blue. Her father used to hit her.”
“I sort of meant, I don’t know, what does she do? How old is she?”
“She’s 30. Her birthday is March 17th. She doesn’t have a job right now, but it’s okay because I make enough to support both of us. She collects weird socks, and she likes watching movies, and she reads gossip magazines even though I think they’re trashy.” I don’t really know what to do with this information, but it’s weird to hear him talk so much. He barely ever talks, especially after our parents died.
“Cool. So. She doesn’t have a problem with not meeting all your friends? Or your family? Or ever leaving the house?”
He looks at me accusingly. “Who told you she doesn’t leave the house?”
“No one, but no one’s mentioned actually seeing her either. Just her silhouette in your windowsill.”
“Well maybe, tell your friends to stop being so creepy. No, she doesn’t mind not really leaving the house. She’s an introvert, like me. And we don’t really need anyone else, we have each other.”
“Can I meet her?” I twist the napkin around my finger.
“Sure.” He is utterly nonchalant, and this is my first sign that I should be worried. My brother is not the type of person who is nonchalant, about anything.
After I finish choking down my sandpaper sandwich, we walk over to his apartment. I can feel my joints stiffen as I climb the stairs, familiar and worn beneath my feet. He knocks on the door before letting me in. A blast of chilly air hits me as I step through the doorway. It’s exactly how I remember it - a high tech bastion of gaming culture. Green lights, big computer screens, keyboards scattered around the room, empty chip bags and pizza boxes piling up on his sofa.
“Babe? I’m home,” he calls, and I note how vulnerable his voice sounds. There’s no response. I walk through the house, trepidation increasing. Then I hear a clatter behind me, and I whirl around, ready to meet this mystery woman.
Except. She’s not a woman. Or well, she is, but only sort of. She’s a big plastic blow up doll, with massive purple eyes and disproportionate tits and the kind of devilish smirk anime artists are so good at.
“This is Aiko,” my brother announces proudly, propping the doll up from behind. I stare in disbelief.
“Your girlfriend is… a six foot barbie?”
“No.” His voice hardens suddenly. “This is Aiko. She’s my girlfriend, and she’s the love of my life, and you’re being incredibly rude to her.”
I am genuinely at a loss for words. What am I supposed to do, shake the doll’s hand? Awkwardly, I reach out and grasp her hand. I shake it, feeling like I’m shaking a pool floaty or a balloon for a child’s birthday party. When I release it, it bounces back into place beside her body.
“So… she likes lavender?” I ask, watching with a weird sort of morbid curiosity as he perches her onto the edge of the sofa and drapes a blanket over her. He looks up at me, and his eyes are aflame.
“I know it’s not conventional. I know it’s not what you expected. But Maeve, I promise you I’ve never been happier. Aiko makes me so happy, and we really do have a great time together. It might not be what you’re used to, but I love her. I- Well, there’s no better way to say it, I guess. I love her. That’s it.”
“Do you… talk to her? Does she talk back?”
“This isn’t a medical thing, and you can’t medicate me into forgetting about her. I’m not stupid, Maeve, and I’m not crazy. I know, it’s not exactly like, well like everyone else, but can’t you see? I’m never going to be happy applying everyone else’s rules to myself. This makes me happy. What’s so hard to understand about that?”
“What’s so hard to understand?? Do you realize you just told me that you’re dating a piece of plastic? How do you have sex with her, you have to be careful not to let the air out, otherwise you’re sexing a flat tire-”
“Maeve.” His voice is oddly commanding, and for a split second I see the older brother that’s been missing for so long. “I love her. She loves me. It’s not complicated. If you can’t accept that, you can leave. I never asked you to come anyway.”
There’s a lump in my throat as I apologize to Aiko for my rude words, and another lump when he makes us tea, three cups, one in front of each of us. He sips her tea too, bitter and lukewarm, and speaks to her as if she was a part of the conversation. She doesn’t answer, of course, but he seems to hear her words in his head.
An hour goes by and I learn about Aiko’s childhood, how her father was abusive, how she has two older brothers, how she’s allergic to chili flakes and her favorite food is eggs and she loves arranging flowers, and the whole time I”m just thinking - my brother invented this whole extravagant personality for a piece of plastic.
Saved by the bell - Liza calls me, asks if I can watch her kids for a little bit while her husband sees the doctor. I take leave from my brother and his lifesize Barbie. As I step out the door, he comes behind me and pulls the closed, presumably so the doll can’t hear us. It feels like I’ve fallen into an episode of the Twilight Zone.
“I know you don’t understand, but Maeve, you don’t need to. You just need to…” he trails off. Then, with renewed strength, he says, “Maeve, if you love me, you will see that I love her, and you will be okay with it.”
I nod, because I’m truly incapable of doing anything else. A four year degree in English and I can’t utter a single sentence that makes sense. He nods again, gives me a curt hug, and marches back inside, slamming the door so hard it rings in my ears.
After I recount the whole ordeal to Liza, she makes margaritas from the two dollar tequila she has in her kitchen. We spend hours on google that night, sifting through web pages full of people seemingly devoted to plastic figurines, characterized by a brief stint in a show in another country. I note a few of my brother’s posts, openly public, announcing his love for Aiko, who apparently is a character from an ill-fated two season Japanese anime.
“I seriously want to call an ambulance,” I say, sipping my third margarita.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Liza is thoughtful as she diapers her youngest. “He’s finally happy. You remember how awful and depressed he was after… you know.”
“So what? It’s an artificial happiness,” I say, tracing the rim of the glass with my fingertips.
“What makes it artificial? It’s the same chemicals in his brain, the same pathways firing, isn’t it? So what if this makes him happy. I do a good load of laundry and the endorphins that I used to get from sex go off. It’s not really artificial, is it, unless he’s injecting it,” and suddenly I remember about her husband.
That night, I board the late train back to Jersey. I settle into the big compartment and watch Liza, arm outstretched, the only person on the platform not coming or going. As the train pulls out of the station, I lean back and start to think about her words.
Sure, his hormones and chemicals might be real, but how could his love for this plastic… thing… be real? How can he love a doll that responds however he imagines her to? Then Liza pops into my head again, and I think about how she loves her husband. Denny’s been into heroin since high school and I doubt he even knows which school his kids go to, but clearly Liza sees something in him, loves something in him, or she would’ve left him.
My mother loved my father enough to get in a car with him twice a day even though she knew he was a reckless driver, and impatient. My father loved my mother enough to drop her off at work and pick her up even though he knew about the time she got drunk at a Christmas party and French kissed her boss. They loved each other enough to trust that they’d be fine at the end of the day, and that’s how I lost my parents on the same day. Liza loves Denny enough to wipe away his sweat and vomit after every bender, and Denny loves Liza enough to force himself into rehab every few months even though we all know he’s never going to shake the drugs anyway. Max loves his hot Hispanic “cousin” enough to work a dead-end job that he’s far too smart for, even though he knows there’s a million other copies of him in other small towns, working dead-end jobs, that this same guy is visiting. And I guess, this guy loves Max enough to see him for two weeks every two months, to flash his greasy new car, to hug him from behind and make him feel safe for the short time they’re together.
Maybe everyone doesn’t get an epic love story. Maybe everyone doesn’t get kissing in the rain and dates on Ferris wheels and beautiful wedding days. Maybe, for the most of us, there’s no big romance waiting, there’s just a guy who forgets that deodorant was invented for a reason, or a woman who has three kids from three different fathers, or a person who can’t do taxes because they’ve been on the run for so long. Maybe there are no signs, and no soulmates, and the universe doesn’t have any plans for any of us after all.
In this sense, maybe my brother’s right. Sure, Aiko can’t actually speak, or think, or eat, and I’m still not sure how they’re having sex, but at least in his head, he has a sizzling, perfect romance. In his head, he has his epic romance. It sure sounds better than what I have going for me, a too-big apartment filled with candles I’ll never burn. A forty two year old woman watching dating shows until one in the morning, unmarried, childless, rudderless, slowly swiping through tinder in a semi-futile attempt at finding the love of her life through filtered pictures and cheery yellow emojis. Maybe he’s right. Maybe even if you aren’t owed an epic romance, it’s better to self-stimulate those stupid chemicals.
I open my phone as my train pulls into my station, hours of sleepless turmoil later. There’s a single message from my brother. I love her.
I collect my things, step off the train, and then sit down on the duffel bag, right there on the platform, to write an answer. Next weekend, come visit me, and bring her too. I’m sure she’d like to see the city.