Now, your sister is a brat. This is a word that you heard, not from your own mommy, but from the mouth of one of the mothers at school. The kid was Jamie, a boy you don’t particularly like, because during free time he always takes what everyone else has. He doesn’t bother you, reading by yourself in a corner, probably because he’s a little wary of books. But you’ve seen what he does to the other kids, and the word “brat,” given that it was applied to Jamie, and given the way it shot like phlegm from his mother’s lips, needs no explanation. When you use it, your own mother gives the word power by getting really upset.
You’re not really jealous of Emmy. You’re not jealous of her clothes, or the attention that she gets, or the way the cameras come out every time she smiles. As the shoebox full of pictures will attest, you got that attention once, too.
What you do envy, just a little, is the way that Emmy relishes the attention. The way she hams for the camera, even when there’s not one there. She gets all the attention because she wants all the attention; she can handle all the attention with a grace that you’ve never had. If she were the one at soccer, she’d be the kid dashing fearlessly over to the ball. You’d rather be that kid, but time and again you find yourself on the sideline, clinging to the safety of a hand or knee.
You feel this irony without fully understanding it. As her older brother, she strives to be like you. She repeats the funny words that you bring home from school. She’ll sit next to you in front of the TV, checking to make sure she’s imitated your posture exactly. All this is cute, and you know that you love her for it. It’s also annoying, though, and you hate her too. That’s what makes her such a brat. The unique blend of qualities you admire, behaviors you can’t stand, and actions you can’t help but love.
Today it’s summer. No school and the grandmothers are gone, so the best behaviors have been put away. This freedom is something you understand, certainly, but you also feel it in the renewed silence of the house, the lack of grandmotherly fragrances, the space in the playroom that is once again yours to make a mess of. You’ve been awake for an hour, at least, playing with your blocks.
Emmy comes down the stairs, freshly pottied and extremely proud of herself. She starts taking blocks from your pile. “My bok.” You take it as a sign of your own maturity that you let her have it. Let her have all of them, in fact. Moo brought presents. Dresses for Emmy (no surprise there) and for you, the new Mighty Ranger, Skydevil Skeet. He has movable hands and legs. But he comes equipped with his own hang glider, which he uses to perform amazing and heroic stunts. You’ve wanted him ever since he first appeared on the TV show, and you’re still infatuated with his newness. You live through him as he performs flips and barrel rolls and loop-de-loops. As he flies, guided by your hand, you can almost feel yourself flying.
Mommy calls from the balcony that she’ll be down in a minute. She goes back toward the bathroom, adjusting her sweats.
It’s hard to say whether the idea occurred to you before you saw her up there, or whether her position up there inspired you. Ideas are tricky that way.
In his first solo flights, Skeet has performed admirably, sailing a foot or two before gravity overtook the lift of the plastic hang glider. But he still can’t make it to save the people in the burning house by the fireplace. Perhaps, you think, if he had a start from higher up…
Such is the way of a good idea. It overtakes the inventor, invites him to forget the ambient world for an inner world full of possibility. Thus possessed by an idea, it is possible to be happy in the most bleak, desperate or dangerous situations. As Skydevil Skeet climbs higher into the heavens, his is the only world you inhabit. He approaches the cliff, and from his perch he can see all the happy citizens of the valley.
But what is this? A young couple in need of help? Just beyond the couch they cry out, and Skydevil Skeet hears her prayer. Away!
Skeet doesn’t make the couch. He clears the entryway from the foyer into the living room, but hits the coffee table with a crack that nearly shatters his rig. He dusts himself off, tireless and determined. The people cry again, and this time he knows he can make it. He climbs higher, much higher, hangs from a thick cloud as he readies for flight.
Emily lives in a world of needs. At her age, she is still barely aware of the division between “self” and “not self.” She’s unaware of this thing called personality, which delineates everything. Therefore, the way she defines herself, when she is not otherwise occupied, is by needing. I need juice, she says, I need milk. Need go potty. Need strawberrcookies. In the absence of immediate gratification, in the time in which those needs go unfulfilled, she has opportunity to cry; and the crying gives focus and purpose to her being. This is the way little kids work. You are generally sensitive to her needs, because you too know what it is when the needs are overwhelming, and the mommy who can fill them is so far away. Often, you’re almost moved to wail with her at a world that leaves so much hunger.
Other times, you can sympathize with Mommy, who seems not to need at all. Emily needs everything. And half of the stuff that she says she needs, she just wants. She’ll ask for juice not thirty seconds after draining the milk from her sippy cup. She’ll ask for a toy or appliance that anyone else (even Daddy) is using. Her hunger is something that both binds and separates the two of you.
Stepping from the plastic yellow chair onto the black iron railing, you don’t feel all that vulnerable. You are five, and tall enough to reach all the way up to touch the rafter with your dizzy hand. You’re Skydevil Skeet, and you’re never afraid of heights.
There is a moment, though, when your world of imagination is cleft by the hatchet of reality. This happens with the convergence of several discoveries. One is that Oilwell Ollie, another of your Mighty Rangers, is so small, lying face down on the floor, that he’s barely visible. You are high and vulnerable and filled with more than a little vertigo.
The second thing that the ambient world has thrust upon you is your sister, somehow standing next to you on the railing. She shouldn’t be up here.
“Mine,” she calls, reaching for the toy that you hold in your far hand. “I need it.”
No, Emmy!” you say, in a voice that you intend to sound a lot like your father’s. “Get down.”
“I neeeeeeeeed!” She sounds like a hawk startling its prey. She lunges for Skeet, and by instinct you pull it farther away. Her weight falls onto you. You realize, in this second between breaths, how stupid your sister really is. She’s pinching you, when she doesn’t even have the sense to balance herself.
Skydevil Skeet makes a slow arc down to the couch. The floating, leftward slice of his flight is beautiful.
Emmy follows him. With the splintery rafter against your palm, you make a dangerous, loving grab for the back of her jumper, because you know that she lacks Skeet’s super strength and his daredevil glider. But as your mother comes out of the bathroom, all she sees is your hand on her back, as her body spills like a stack of blocks. She bounces an inch, then comes to rest on the flagstone floor. It’s the bounce that surprises you most; more than the way that her head settles at a jarring and unnatural angle, more than the widening streak of red along her forehead. You almost dive after her, but stop yourself against the rafter in time to understand that you can’t swoop down and save her.
Mommy rushes wordlessly down the stairs. You feel a little slighted that she’s gone to Emmy first, without even looking at you. You’re fine. You don’t understand what just happened or why. The order of events itself is already a jumble in your mind.
You’re not even sure, in retrospect, whether you were trying to prevent your sister’s death, or whether you were contributing to it. In subsequent interrogations, you’ll be honest in answering “I don’t know” to this and other questions, and the image of your sister bouncing against the slate and the dark blood filling the seams between floor stones will fill your mouth with a sharp alkaline taste.
You are five years old. Standing on that precipice, with Mommy’s attention fixed upon this twisted thing that is and is not your sister, you don’t understand, but somehow feel, that the blame for this event is yours, and it’s a possession that will alter the course of the rest of your life.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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