I smoked his cigarette butts. I’d pick up the yellow discarded Newports, pop them in my mouth, and tell him to go on. I would take it all in and pat his back. That’s what brothers did. Pat each other’s backs, a high five for adults. He said he missed me but I know he didn’t mean it. I would say, “Go on, go on,” but it wasn’t enough.
“Remember that one time...” he said quietly.
It was back when I carried his angst and battles on my skin. He’d bully me because I had glasses and darker skin. He hated our father for stealing him. Away from those empty back lots, youths endless nights, his mother, home.
Fuck you, he’d yell at me. You aren’t supposed to say bad words, I’d reply, cowering. Then a quick one-two to the stomach and face, then I would stay silent. Fight him back, Dad would say in between six packs. Fight back and be a man, Mom would yell from her room.
Fuck you, he said that one day and punched me in the gut. Then I slapped him and I cried and cried and cried. I cried that I hated him, that it wasn’t fair that he was bigger. You always pick on me, I screamed. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. You always beat me up just because you’re older. You’re just a stupid bully.
He punched me on my right cheek – fuck you. He punched me on my left cheek – you are the star child. He hit my nose – where are my friends. Then my right eye – I miss my mom. My left eye – I hate you. He elbowed me in the gut – you’re just a little bitch.
“I remember. God, how old were we? 10?” I asked.
He hunched over in the chair.
“You know it’s because I loved you, right?”
I rubbed his back to let him know I understood. He crumbled underneath my touch.
I said, “It’s okay, just talk, I’m listening.”
I punched his shoulder to let him know I was trying.
“Tell me about the war.”
I thought it was the right thing to say.
He lit up a cigarette in response.
We used to joke about how his mom smoked a pack a day. I fucking hate those cancer sticks he told me once when we were friends. We made a pact to never smoke; we both spit in our palms and shook hands – it’s what real men did when they were serious.
However, the first time he came back, we didn’t talk. We smoked. He taught me how. Pop up a Newport from the box, wrap your lips around the fag, hold it there. Using your left hand to cover, light the fag. Your first inhale should be deep, you should feel it swirling in your chest. Let the smoke cleanse your mouth and then exhale from the side. I could barely smoke anymore. It all tasted like cancer. But I smoked for him. I smoked to let him know it was okay. For what, he’d nod. Everything, I puffed. Oh, he flicked and looked away.
“Come on. Let’s just start drinking,” he said.
“You owe it to me. Give me your glass.”
I push the shot across the table slowly so it scratches against the metal grating.
“What are we drinking to?”
“To being men.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Just take the shot. Don’t pussy out on me.”
The tequila was thick and warm. It came down slowly, leaving a bitter film along the inside of my thoughts. I struggled not to wince. It doesn’t mean anything if you wince. I popped another Newport to hide the whimper. I poured another to reaffirm my manhood.
Without question, he shoots it down. Boom. Slam. Down onto the table with the glass.
We began to war it out. A shot for him, a shot for me. It was a conversation about why he left me and what he left me with. One tequila to let him know I missed him. Two tequila to open up the conversation. Three to let him know I haven’t forgiven him. Four to prove that I could. He needed to know that I had grown up without him. I no longer needed him to fight my battles.
“You don’t have to apologize,” I told him.
“You know what.”
“For defending your ass?”
“You’re joking, right?”
We were expected to be home every day by two p.m. back then, giving us barely fifteen minutes to walk the mile from class. My brother and I would race through the desert in under seven, just so we could have time to be teenagers. We’d lounge around the hallways until the last few juicy minutes were up and then sprint home.
He poured me my first shot after Dad slapped me for being ten minutes late, I handed him his first joint when his mom stopped returning his calls. We’ll be roommates when we grow up he would tell me. You promise I’d ask. He’d answer by punching me in the arm. He’d take me to play football when Dad began to throw bottles. We’d wrestle outside when dad just sat in the living room brooding over what bills were left, why the house wasn’t clean, and who left the light on. He taught me how to fight when his mom passed away and we’d spar every night.
Dad drank a six-pack a day. He said that’s what men do. They work their asses off to provide for their family and the least they deserve is a six-pack. We drink because it is rewarding he says. We drink because it is what men do. If your lazy mother would get off her ass and do what a woman should, I wouldn’t have to drink. But I do and that’s that.
”You always had it easy,” my brother spat.
“What’s that for?”
I put out my cigarette.
“You can’t blame me for not staying.”
“Then you can’t blame me for letting you go.”
“It wasn’t easy out there.”
Dad pissed me off that last day. You’ll never amount to anything he screamed. You’ll turn out just like your dumb brother. He’s about to graduate and he’s got what, nothing. He’ll amount to nothing. You don’t know how to work. You don’t know what it means to support a family. You two are just a pair of children trying to be men.
Fucking drunk, I mumbled.
I don’t remember dodging his swing but I remember the swoosh in front of my face. I remember the dropped chairs. I remember panting and refusing to put my hands up. I remember yelling at him to stop. I didn’t mean it.
I don’t remember being slammed into the wall. The plaster and drywall crumbling under the acute force. I don’t remember the swift splatter of fists or the blood escaping from my nose. I don’t remember crying.
I don’t remember my brother side-swiping Dad across the face. Or his scream as my dad slammed his elbow into my brother’s chest. I don’t remember the headlock.
All I can remember is pulling myself out of the wall and seeing my father pinned against the floor. My brother was crying. Don’t ever fucking lay a hand on him he barked, his forearm inching toward Dad’s throat. He pressed his arm harder into Dad’s windpipe and whispered in his ear, I am leaving. He pressed harder and harder.
I remember ramming my brother in the back, hitting him squarely like he taught me to. I remember us tumbling over and refusing to fight. I remember telling him to leave. He did.
“Look at you though, you still have it easy with your nice job and fancy backyard.”
“That’s not fair. You only have one more tour. Then, its over. I’ll help you find a job. You can work for me.”
“I don’t need your pity. I deal with my own shit.”
“You’re still the same bully. You know that? Here I am, going out of my to take you in during your leave. Fucking housing you. Offering you a job. I didn’t make your decisions, you did. Just because you went to war doesn’t make you a man.”
My brother didn’t respond.
He just rubbed his fists together, running his palms slowly over his knuckles. He poured us another of shot of tequila.
He pushed it my way.
I pushed it back.
His jab was fast. It hit me squarely in the jaw.
I tumbled over my chair and slammed my head against the concrete.
“Get the fuck up.”
I pushed myself up. I brought the back of my hand across my mouth to wipe the split lip. I brought my elbows into my sides and my fists up like he taught me to. I swung. Missed. He countered with a right hook knocking me back on my ass.
“Get the fuck up.”
I shifted my stance. Protect your body and face he used to tell me. He stepped in and landed one on my cheek. I countered with two jabs left followed with a cross on the right. He easily sidestepped the attack and punched me on the side of my head.
“Fucking fight me. Is this what you are? Still the crying little bitch?”
I threw all my weight into that punch. I hit him in his right eye. I followed with a quick succession of body shots and jabs. He rushed me. I dropped beneath his chest and brought him down like we practiced. We hit the floor rolling, knocking over the tequila, crushing the Newports, and shattering the glasses.
“This is the brother I fought for? This is the man you’ve become?”
I answered with a punch to his left eye. I managed to get out of his guard and pin his legs down.
“Why didn’t you fight back. That’s what I taught you,” he said.
“You almost killed him. You didn’t teach me to kill. What the fuck was I supposed to do?”
I let him back up.
“Come on. This is over. Let’s just head in. We’ll talk about it in the morning”, I said.
“Fuck that shit. I’m tired of this roundabout way we go about things. Shit’s fucked up and you know it.”
“Nah man. I’m done,” and he walked away.
I lit a cigarette and watched him leave for the last time.