My brother asks, “Which one?”
“The one in the backyard with the wiffle bat.”
He doesn’t remember that particular attempt. He says, “We both did a lot of things we regret.”
“Yeah.” But what is regret? The recognition that something could have been different—but wasn’t? How real is that?
Richland, 1986, June roses in the backyard at twilight. My mother kneels beside the rose beds, pruning shears in her gloved hands. My father drags the hose over wet grass and waters pumpkin, squash, corn, tomato—and in one corner of the yard, my brother swings tethered to the blue swing set. He’s three years old. His turn finished, he stayed put. I gave him a warning. He swung higher. No way he was giving up that seat.
And so I took up my weapon—the wiffle bat of red plastic—and executed a child’s conception of justice with the fatal words, the battle-cry of childhood: “It’s my turn!”
The hollow thud of plastic against toddler-bone. His swift scream as I knocked him from the swing set and onto the grass and took my rightful place. The kingdom of childhood is more brutal, more terrible than I care to remember. And at that moment, I felt no remorse. No regret. I took what was mine. My brother had usurped it. I stole it back.
My parents weren’t impressed.
I can’t blame them. I got sent to my room, which was a mild punishment.
“But don’t you hate me for it sometimes?” I ask Allan now. “How mean I was to you back then.”
“It wasn’t like I was completely innocent,” he says.
True. A skilled Machiavelli by age six, he could orchestrate an ambush from the far corner of the living room, not a finger lifted. She did it. But looking back, I feel for that little boy. So fragile, he was simply fighting for survival, trying to assert himself in a household that was dysfunctional at best.
“Sure,” I say. “But still. I was the older one. I should’ve taken care of you.”
“I don’t think we were in a household where that was an option.” And I know what he means. It was every man for himself. And I know the topic is closed for the day.
That night, my six-year-old self climbed up onto my bed and jutted my chin onto the windowsill where I could watch them. Behind me, the bedroom loomed shadowy with its sherbet-green walls, and I noticed how everything went on without me. My brother rose and fell on the swing with a little smile, my mother edged around her rosebushes with pruning shears, my father watered the garden. It was as if I did not exist.
It’s strange–the importance things take on for small children. I watched them from inside an empty house, alone in the bedroom I shared with my brother, and though I’d earned that exile and knew it, I never again looked at the three of them and thought, “This is my family. I belong here.”
My six-year-old heartbreak was perhaps a saving grace. My brother, too, had a similar epiphany when he was very young: This is not my family.
When a family is abusive, it is a defense mechanism to identify as something separate. Apart from one’s abusers. A kind of ice floe set adrift, with all the hope of discovering of other, healthier territories—of literature and other languages, other cultures, other homes, other families.