BY JESSIE TU
My brother came to visit on a Saturday night. The weather had been hot all day, lingered around and stayed until late. I’d been living with a man whose time with me would be over within two months. But I didn’t know that then. His apartment was on the ninth floor of an old hotel in the shady part of the city. I didn’t mind it. It was convenient, and a whole suburb away from my ex, so there was no possibility of awkward run-ins. I was grateful for the distance those few miles provided. The man was ten years older. I was fond of him. Yes, I was. But I was also very lonely. Not because I didn’t have close and loving friends and family, but because my needs were excessive. Yes. Nothing was ever good enough. I always wanted more, more, more, more. I thought it would go away someday, this relentless appetite. But no. What never went away was my inability to cease self-judgement. And my brother never failed to impress.
I’d spent the afternoon trying to work on my paper, but the light from the window was distracting, and I ended up going out onto the balcony and clipping my toenails. The pieces fell onto the floor and I swept them up and dumped them over the balcony. I didn’t care that they’d land on the balcony area of the apartment down below. The area was probably full of pieces of human. Dead pieces. I liked to imagine that area filled with parts of us that would be mixed in with parts of strangers we’d never meet.
We walk the streets, my brother and I. It’s cold. ‘Bitter winter,’ I say. He picks dumplings. The dumpling house is a hole in the wall. The tables are on street level. The kitchen is downstairs. The man and I have eaten here a handful of times. We were always given a table outside. Tonight, my brother and I sit inside because it is cold. Also because all the tables outside are occupied. We are seated opposite each other on a tiny table against the wall. People have to squeeze past us in the aisle to get to the cashier to pay.
When we sit, his phone rings. A cousin from Taipei. Our uncle is trying to reach Mother. What possibly for? We ponder aloud. Is he dying? Writing her in his will? No. He has more important people to give away his money to. He has grandchildren now. I did not know this.
We order a plate of greens. Panfried dumplings. Steamed dumplings. My brother calls Mother. Mother says she’s not been sleeping well. Experiencing dizziness. Sore muscles. Dry throat. ‘Jet-lagged?’ my brother offers. ‘Maybe go out for a walk. Get some fresh air.’
The food comes, very late. We eat and talk about euthanasia and cycling and carceral feminism and Jackie Chan. I tell him how funny it is that when you do an internet search of the word ‘euthanasia,’ the pictures that show up are of a hand holding onto another hand. He tells me about his lover and I tell him about mine. We are both with the wrong people. If we’d not been siblings, I’d have wanted to marry him. But I’d be the kind of wife that would withhold sex when I wanted to get something, and only give it to him when I really, truly had to. Otherwise, it would be a completely sexless marriage and he’d have to be okay with that. Because my brother is the most perfect human being who has ever existed. I have no doubt. We are both going to marry the wrong people.
Next to us, a young, white couple have just finished their meals. They are waiting on dessert. The woman is blonde, pretty and round. She is wearing a leather jacket with silver studs and black jeans. She and her boyfriend are sitting side by side. She has one arm clung around his neck. His elbows are propped onto the edge of the long table, fingers weaved together.
She wants love.
He wants space.
While my brother is texting back the cousin, I study the boyfriend’s face. He is very handsome. A young Tom Cruise. He could be on the cover of GQ. He’s also got the deferential gaze of someone who has been used to a life of being wanted. She wants love and he wants space. Every time I look over, the woman has rearranged her arm around his neck — a new contortion of limbs. It looks awkward, contrived. Like they are teenage drama students in a dress rehearsal for a play, faking it real bad. I pity her. Her high-pitched voice and all the effort she is putting in. Their dessert arrives. Mango sago pudding. The man and woman are sweet and polite and thank the Asian busboy (he is not a boy, but a man, roughly my father’s age). He clears their table and places the bowl between them. She gets out her phone and shows her boyfriend something. He gets out his phone. She looks at pictures. ‘Which one is me?’ she asks him sweetly. ‘The sexy one,’ he says, barely smiling. As though a smile costs him something he needs to keep in reserve. Why he is so reluctant? Later, I watch her walk to the cashier and pay for their meal. When she returns, he is looking at his phone. I hate phones. They disconnect us.
A male couple are seated behind my brother. They too, are sitting side by side, on the same long stool. One of them is Asian, the other, white. The whole time my brother and I are inside the restaurant, the two men do not talk to each other. Both adopt the same pose, elbows propped on the table, gaze centred on their phones. The only time they put it down is when the food comes and they have to eat. They have to eat, because they ordered the food. Later, one of them will have to pay for the food. When my brother says, ‘I’m uncomfortable on this chair,’ I suggest we head out. I pay, because I am closer to the cashier. I wait behind another couple who are ordering and paying for their takeaways. The woman gets out her wallet and passes the Asian busboy a $50 note. Her boyfriend watches her make the exchange. I am paying too. Why are women paying for all the meals tonight? Perhaps only women carry cash, and this is a Cash-Only restaurant. We walk to the other side of Potts Point — past a homeless man seated cross legged by a bus stop, a few metres from the entry to Woolworths. As we enter, he looks up at us and mutters, ‘Spare change?’
We ignore him.
We head to the ice cream aisle and ponder the selection. Strawberry and balsamic vinegar, or white chocolate and sesame? Dairy Company or Messina’s? We settle for a frozen yoghurt and Sara Lee Classic Strawberry. I pay for the strawberry and my brother pays for the yoghurt. As we’re scanning our ice creams at the machines, he notices me using a card to pay for a $6 transaction. When we walk out, he says, ‘Now that everyone’s tapping cards and cash is not being used, how are the homeless being impacted?’ I say, ‘Good question,’ and he says, ‘Maybe they all need a machine, and then we can simply offer a donation and tap.’
We walk past crowds, the Saturday night bunch. My brother says, ‘Someone can just walk up to you and punch you and you’re dead.’ He calls Kings Cross the ‘one punch central of Sydney.’
We come to the apartment I share with the man and he takes a piss in the bathroom. I scoop the ice cream into two glasses. I top up his glass with a spoonful of fresh caramel sauce, a bottle I got in France. We eat in silence.
My brother was never a child. A kid. He, in his room, all those years. I had my brother all to myself. All those years; my brother, inside that small room beside the laundry. That room with blinds that were always drawn, even though it looked out onto the beautiful garden my mother created, because it was near the fence, and that fence was low, and my mother feared Mr Victor next door would peak over and invade my brother’s privacy — or take something from my brother, just by looking inside his room, even though Mr Victor was the nicest man we’d ever known, and who’d lost his wife ten years ago and lived alone and had a nice, clean swimming pool, which would be unused during the week and crowded on the weekends when his four grandchildren came to visit. The sounds of flesh in water always made me jealous. My mother never let us go next door to swim, even though we were school champion swimmers and we’d give Mr Victor our lemons when the lemon tree grew too many lemons that we ran out of things to do to them (lemon isn’t featured much in Taiwanese cooking) and well, my mother was worried. My mother was always worried back then. ‘Draw the blinds,’ she’d say. Like we always had something shameful to hide. Like we always had something to hide. Like, if we were seen, something essential about who we were would be taken away.
My brother’s room was always a mess, but that’s the way I liked it. To me, it felt like the natural way of being. The door, like all our doors, was a basic white door with a flimsy cooper (fake?) door knob that had cheap looking swirls and patterns on it and which locked from the inside when you pushed a small button, and which you could unlock from the outside by simply getting a butter knife and inserting the tip of it into the slot and twisting it to the right. My brother hardly ever kept his door closed. It was always only slightly opened. There was always only one single light bulb turned on. A white light. The harsh type. Warehouse light. As though we needed to see everything in the bedroom. My brother and I have always been close. That statement doesn’t feel entirely true. Neither is it entirely false. Maybe I was only ever clinging to the hope that we’d stay close forever. I never imagined I’d fall in love the way I did. But, I have always loved my brother. Even before I knew what love was. Even before I was born.
My brother lived in the room at the end of the hallway — directly opposite my parent’s ensuite. If you opened the door inside my mother’s room and looked straight ahead, you would see the door to my brother’s room. Maybe they chose that to be his room for reasons we could only understand later, as adults. Was it to keep an eye out for him? Because he was the only boy? My two sisters and I perhaps weren’t kept on such a tight surveillance. But then again, of course we were. In other, more complicated ways. Ways we did not need to wait for adulthood to understand. We understood precisely. I think it must be a special power we have, as girls. An intuition. I’d always known the private limitations. Something we’d always accepted, because we wanted to be loved. When my mother asked my brother to shut the blinds in his room, my brother said yes, even though he wanted some natural light and a view of the gardenia bushes — he said yes, because my brother wanted to be loved. We were all of this world, bound, burdened and completely foreign and free. Tethered to a love that could at anytime whip us across our chest and leave us suffocating in our own sweat.
When I pull into our driveway, my father is at the gates watering the flowers. I greet him with the windows down. I stop to ask how his dentist appointment went. ‘Just a few fillings,’ he says. The sprinkler version is on. He is wetting the entire plant and their leaves. Then I remember that the sun has well and truly died for the evening. The rays will not scorch them. They will live. ‘Did it hurt?’ I ask. He shakes his head.
I tell him about my day. The cakes I purchased in Strathfield at the Korean bakery. He tells me to take them in to show my mother. When I go inside, I call out to her. There is no response. Her purple indoor slippers are placed neatly at the foot of the staircase. I call out to her again. All the lights in the rooms upstairs are off. She must be out for a walk. Did my father not see her go out?
The blinds in our house were cheap. We knew this because they’d often break and cheap things broke easily. That’s what my parents told us. When our neighbours announced they were divorcing, my mother said, ‘Their love was cheap!’ I wondered what they said about our blinds. Our house. Things were softening and then falling apart. As though they were designed to disintegrate after minor use. The blinds were the most obvious. They were thin and plastic, each panel a beige blue wafer lined up like cards spread out by one palm swipe. When one of them came undone at its head, well. It was the worse, because the sliver clip that the plastic hoops clinched onto would break, and you had no real way of fixing them because the hoops were so tiny — and of such a peculiar shape, that no replacement could be found at the hardware store. This frustrated us all immensely. Especially my father, who held a fundamental belief that anything material could be fixed. Of course, he emphasised ‘material’, each time he told us. My brother and I would use blue tack to glue it back together, though it would quickly come undone again. We didn’t mind the fixing. We could not have strangers peer into our private home.
What was most compelling about the blinds was that it did what you wanted it to do when you pulled on the beaded leavers. I felt so much power, letting light in. Keeping the light from entering our private rooms. The living area. The piano room.
I always go back to my brother’s room. It had a walk-in wardrobe, though, you could only take half a baby step in before you knocked your head on the shelves. It was more like a phone booth, or, at least, it was the size of a phone booth, but it was filed with my brother’s dirty socks and unworn jackets and play things. Boxes of lego. The jackets were left hanging in their hung states, never exposed to the Australian sun, because — well, because they were always too big for my brother. My mother was always buying clothes a few sizes too big for us.
To make us look like underfed orphans, so that people would pity us and therefore, treat us kinder? To save money, so she would not have to fork out precious money for when we grew bigger, taller? Or was it to inspire us to eat more? Especially my brother, who never really ate, rather— picked on food. Grazed, reluctantly. Yes. My brother — my little brother, who was actually three years older than me, but always significantly skinner and shorter than us. My sisters and I, we loved to eat. We were hungry all the time, especially my sister when she got her period. But my brother didn’t get periods. He never liked food. At meal times, he’d sit as his chair (next to my father) hunched, head hanging low over the bowl of rice, and pick at his food: one rice grain at a time. This always made my mother sad. I wonder if it made my brother sad, unable to fill those too-large jackets. He never did fill them.
By the time he lost his virginity and had his heart broken (all within the same year, by the same woman) he was too old for basketball hoodies and rain jackets with Snoopy logos. I guess my mother never anticipated that would happen. A failure of imagination on her part. Who knows where those jackets are now — if they’re warming the body of someone whose body craves its tight, embracing wool.
The wardrobe was to the left, when you walked into his room. The wardrobe door was always opened, and a stack of stuff ( random things) kept it opened, like a towering row of skyscrapers along the foot of the door. I’d like to go into my brother’s room sometimes and pull out his big folder of ‘Quest’, sit cross-legged on a flat surface of carpet ( I’d always have to rearrange a few things first, push away Gundamn figurines and loose socks and underwear) and look through the wonderful pictures — of quasars and stars and galaxies and special high speed trains and close ups of insect faces. ‘Quest’ was a bi-weekly science magazine for kids. My brother had collected a giant bunch.
One day, he convinced my mother to buy him the big, blue folder to put all the issues in. I only ever looked at the pictures. I was never interested in reading. Maybe I didn’t know how to. Or maybe I just wasn’t interested. Sometimes, the issues would come with gifts: a crystal, or a figurine of a bridge in France. My brother would display these trinkets on his desk shelf which took up more than half his room. Well, the desk did. The shelves were above the desk. So, the desk and desk shelf came together. They were stuck. It was white with black edges. The shelves were filled with random things. Plastic toys of soldiers in combat gear, armed men with swords, samurai, plastic models of Jar Jar Binks. Padme play cards. He had a huge crush on Natalie Portman. There were two drawers underneath the desk. I remember opening them and finding loose paper, half-filled math books, compass, protractor, pencils. Randomly shaped rulers. My brother was very good at maths, and went on to study architecture at university. But I always go back to his room. Next to the laundry. Next to the towel closet. The light, white and piercing, coming out from the space and the door, slightly ajar. The wardrobe was another universe. I never saw my mother in his room. It was his private sanctuary.
My brother had a small torch projector that looked like an oversized microphone. It was blue and light, because it was made out of plastic and it was hollow. The torch projector had a slot where you slid in a circle film as thin as paper, this film had about 10-12 coloured pictures, still shots from Disney movies, and when you put it in and pressed the red button on the torch, it would project the image in all its colourful glory onto the wall. My brother would clear a space in his phone booth wardrobe and we’d lean against the wall and listen to the clicks and watch the still images. Being with my brother was magic. The image I loved the most, the only one I remember, is one of Aladdin, just has he entered the cave of gold treasures. It felt like we were in the cave with him.
They took him to see a child psychologist. Or was it a math tutor? My brother’s grade three teacher told my parents their only son had a learning disability. My parents believed the teacher. His name was Mister Shanks and he was nearing retirement. My father came home that day and retreated to his office study. My mother said he did not talk to anyone for a whole week.
My brother — learning disability? In kindergarten, when we were still in Taiwan, my mother would make him kneel in front of the Buddha shrine for an entire hour when he was unable to recite his three times table. Nine years later, my brother won first prize in the state for math.
Last night, I told my brother about the deadening gaze our parents had had on while watching television ads — their eyes like zombies. We parked the car on my street and stayed in our seats staring inside a room through a window high up on the second floor of a residential building directly in front of us. We could see a hint of a shadow of something moving. The top of a man’s head, crazed curls. He moved right then left then right again.
‘Maybe it’s a dog,’ I said.
We watched it closely for a few minutes.
‘We’re just like mom and dad watching tv,’ said my brother.
The man returned from Bolivia and I picked him up from the airport. He told me on the way to his apartment that he no longer wanted to be in a relationship with me, and so I packed my things immediately and caught a taxi to my brother’s place. My brother was working late, and so I had to make awkward conversation with his girlfriend, whom he’d only just started living with, and who didn’t know much English. I asked her whether she knew Bolivia, and she said no.
When he finally got home, I’d fallen asleep. The couch was not very comfortable, but I took sleeping pills and they worked fantastically. I wanted to forget the man, and everything he’d done. He turned out to be someone I easily forgot, after a few days.
My brother took the next day off work to be with me, which I thought was overly generous. I wouldn’t have done that for him. But that was the sort of person he was. Sometimes, it made me embarrassed that I was not embarrassed at all. His love and attention seemed boundless, and I never stopped to count his reserves. He was my Mary, Jesus, Joseph, Christ. The light and air was made up of molecules that served only him and his presence, and the whole world made sense through his speech and his face. I didn’t know, back then, how to process a life that wasn’t made up of him. I didn’t know, because I was young and in love with the man from Bolivia, but my love was measured by a self-loathing I didn’t yet understand. I knew, only years later, the cost of mislabelling the thing called love.
About the author
Jessie Tu is a journalist and writer based between Taipei and Sydney whose recent work examines gender, race and culture across East Asia and Australia. She’s also written poetry and fiction hopes to relocate to NYC in the near future. Website: https://jay2fay.wixsite.com/whileinworld/home