by Emma June Marcus | Voices | Fall 2018
It made no sense that we had a pool in a place named after the Pacific. In school we were taught that our home was a rainforest, a rain-fed wet dream for evergreens and mud puddles. I was born beneath an overcast sky, I learned to find comfort in grey. Daniel, my big brother by eight years, was born Southern California. He was blonde and twisting out of our parents’ grasps as his limbs burned pink.
Our in-ground pool was a lake by any standard. The perpetual rainclouds bred water-bugs and walls covered in slime. I swam until my lips turned blue. Sometimes he would join me in the cold, mostly he would just watch. I’d pull myself from the foggy water, dripping and skinny. I’d make him laugh with my teeth chattering while he wrapped me in a towel that reached the ground. He could never stay in one place very long, busy like big brothers are, but I knew he wouldn’t leave until I got warm again.
I got so good at holding my breath, I could go to the end and back again without coming up once. When Daniel forgave the freezing water he could go twice as far, though. His lungs are bigger.
My father forbade me from jumping on trampolines throughout my childhood, saying that I would end up paralyzed in a hospital bed. So after school on Thursdays I would bike to the Robertsons’ house. They had a big one in their backyard and no rules. I loved myself floating, my clothes full of air. But I hated hitting the elastic black, it would shock me, twist my ankle and take my strength with it. A chemical imbalance, Mom said Daniel had, some days were very high, some days felt low. The day he locked all of the doors in our house and spoke through the screen door: I am going to do it. I’m going to end it.—that day was close to the bottom, his ankles must have broken, he hit the trampoline so hard.
This isn’t about me.
None of it is, really, is what I’m coming to understand.
This is about what violence follows someone being locked up. This is about isolation. This isn’t about me. This is about mobility, security, locks and traps. I have lied so frequently about my family that the formula of falsity reverberates through my skull and comforts me each time I recite it. I think it might be easier because it once was true, it once settled inside the narrative of myself I was trying to sculpt. It fit perfectly—I have two siblings. My brother lives in Portland, still, he is getting his degree from Portland Community College. He was an alcoholic, but he got sober about five years ago. He totally turned his life around. He works with at-risk youth in a public high school outside of the city. He shows them music, he taught them to garden. My brother and I have the same face. We did a face-swap once and I swear to god nothing changed. We joke about who is the more handsome sibling. We hit each other’s arms and chase each other through my parents’ house. All of that was completely true at one point.
I was twenty and drowning, but this isn’t about me. It was a wet spring, 2017, one of the greyest that Portland has seen in years. The trees held water like mouths full, gulping it down. Deep green leaves shook with droplets and bounced like conversations. The northwest was being pummeled with early March down-pours. I would receive calls from my mother in which I could hear her pacing in front of the living room window, holding herself in a tight hug, rubbing her upper arms nervously. The tapping of raindrops from the front yard would weave itself between her words, I knew the grey was beginning to drive her mad.
Portland is a waterlogged city, its winding streets glisten with miniature streams composed of rain. It wasn’t until I moved to Ohio that I experienced an Autumn I could look upwards during without blinking rapidly, pinprick raindrops tickling my lashes. Oregon is a cloud-swirling rainforest, its days brew and simmer with the shaking of rain.
I don’t let myself picture my brother’s smile.
Daniel and I, we talked the most when we sat side by side, eyes straight ahead. My family loves the Portland Trail Blazers. Daniel would frequently surprise me with nosebleed seats to home games, inexpensive and impulsive. We’d sit at the top of the stadium, rows beneath us like scales. Amidst the screams and rounds of Let’s go defense, my big brother and I would talk about our parents, our changing city, our futures. He was planning on applying to a university somewhere that wasn’t Oregon when his girlfriend got pregnant. He confessed to me that he felt stuck in our waterlogged corner of the country, his sentiment cut short by an interception from the opposing team. Have you ever wondered—Daniel’s body shot out of his seat, electrified by the play below us. He then sat, bouncing his left leg rapidly, not facing me—have you ever wondered how different you’d be if you’d been born before we moved to Portland? My answer, “all the time,” was clouded over by the rush of people exiting during halftime, pushing towards bathrooms and food stands. There is something meditative about watching basketball. The methodical movement of it, the back and forth, the hush of a pass. Daniel and I would swing our heads in unison, clutching each other’s forearms in moments of tension, laughing hysterically when our team withstood persistent pressure. I felt glorious watching the games next to him. Daniel could recite a game of basketball like poetry. He knew each player, their history, their motivations. He could look at a court and decode it, observing the conflicts and flaying their complexities in front of me. Next to Daniel, I too could speak the game into emotional resonance. We could be poets together, and we would leave games in a flushed burst, lost among the crowds of people spreading from the stadium onto the damp Portland streets.
My father describes the day after it happened in silhouettes. The large window at the front of my parents’ house hangs above a small flight of stairs. When visitors come and go, they appear in the window in motion exclusively, a flit of a human approaching their destination. My mother often positions her rocking chair to gaze out, onto the front lawn and the steep hill that is a highly trafficked route to the coffee shop a couple of doors down. My father describes the day after it happened through the frame of the window, while he and my mother were sitting in easy silence, sipping coffee at the dining room table. They will spend hours like that, surrounded by newspapers and coffee losing its steam.
My father loves to read obituaries. He finds it stunning, the details that people choose to include about someone who is now dead. Often, when I’m home, before “good morning,” my father will greet my gruff , overslept presence with an excerpt from a dead person’s life. “Listen to this,” he holds an open palm towards me while his eyes remain fixed on the page, “this woman taught preschool for three decades in California, and would get invited to her past students’ weddings. Isn’t that marvelous?” And through my sleep-fogged eyes I am usually able to make out a headline in bold Catherine Carter, Beloved Teacher, is Dead at 85. We relish in the romance of lives which now contain conclusions.
The day after it happened, my parents watched the lanky outline of my brother’s girlfriend ascend the front steps to their door. She knocked, something she had stopped doing months before, when she and Daniel moved in together. When their son was born. When time felt like it was passing comfortably, gaining momentum and taking moments to breathe in the pleasure. She knocked, and my father glanced over top of his paper, “Molly’s here,” which my mother responded to by setting down her coffee after blowing on it but before tasting it, and opened the front door. My father recounts this next part through the punctuated flow of it. Molly took one step inside the living room, her eyes fixed on the floor, and said, “you might want to sit down for this.” They sat on the couch in front of her and watched her pace, backlit by the window. My father lacks patience when information is withheld from him, especially when it dangles itself in the shape of a carrot, or in the shape of Molly, long brown hair swinging with each sharp turn in my parents’ living room. “Molly, what?” I’m sure he asked, although he leaves details like that out in an effort to emphasize the painful: she said it plainly. Daniel has been arrested. Daniel is in prison. To which my parents could collapse against, my parents whose only son was now behind bars, was now being held in a room alone.
This isn’t about me, and this isn’t about prisons. This is about what happened to a family left behind.
I was many state lines away when it happened, finishing my midterms in the Midwest. I was cooking in co-ops with my friends and getting drunk on Wednesdays and my brother was in a cell, mentally ill and out of control. He had texted me just the day before, “you are the light of my life.” As the timestamp on that message approaches its second birthday, I am left wondering if he knew. If he was sending me a sort of farewell, if the lucid part of his mind was trying to comfort me. The days following his arrest I would hold lie in bed and hold his last voicemail to my ear, shaking as his voice coaxed me into a feverish sleep. I stopped looking in mirrors because all I saw in my eyes were his. Some of the only ways I know how to think about my brother are to imagine him dead. I imagine that I am capable of moving on, of it all getting easier to process.
The thing about grieving someone in prison is that the pain heightens with time. Reality stretches on, and instead of healing, all that awaits me in the depths of my subconscious are visions of my brother throwing his head back and laughing at something I said during dinner. I am forgetting what it felt like to talk to him. Our relationship has been stunted and shredded and bloodied. What you need to know is this: my brother’s brain does not regulate its chemicals like most peoples’. He did something violent and regrettable. And his days are forever sculpted by the biggest mistake he has ever made.
There are parts of your life that will not be affected by this, my parents kept telling me, as if the more they said it the truer it might become. My head pounded with their words for months. I walked to work as morning air wove itself between the strands of my throat like liquid. The sun began to rise and the grass became electric green, how fresh, how fantastic. The fourth floor of the Oregon Penitentiary Prison has green walls. Mint green walls and deep green doors and windowless rooms where the “ten most mentally unstable prisoners” are kept, according to a newspaper article I found online. I crossed the street and there was a stocky man with a sledgehammer, the cement spread open like eyelids.
When the day arrived that marked 365 days of my brother’s imprisonment, I was driving north toward Sedona, Arizona. Against the electric blue desert skies, Sedona’s famous red cliff s look like hungry flames. Three friends and I spent a week in and out of breathtaking canyons, and I began to imagine my brother locked in the chambers of my chest. I took him with me everywhere I went, I showed him the beautiful things—the air fluttering in through the car windows as we flew along I-10, the red rock crumbling beneath my feet as I leapt across a creek, my friends’ faces glowing around the gasps of the campfire.
But he added a lot of extra weight. As anyone who has ever gone backpacking knows, every addition to your pack grates on your bones by the end of each day. And a full-grown man? I could barely walk by the time we needed to set up camp at night.
Everywhere I move, I pull him with me and he remains stagnant. He remains in one place longer than anyone I know. I go to class and embrace my friends and scream when I’m scared. On a Tuesday last December, I climbed into a frost-bitten car with three of my friends and drove into Cleveland. We needed to get out of the same tiny town. My best friend stroked my hair as I led my skull rest against the cool glass of the window, watched the world whizz by, my eyes darting across the thin winter light glitter between empty branches. The sun was lowering itself, hissing its last breaths onto Ohio as we sped along. I have the power to escape whenever I want to. I feel the world piling itself on top of me and I run away, I am finding myself in the patterns of my movements. I am left with echoes of my brother, of the man he was. I am left with what I choose to remember.
His being in prison has designated him one pocket of my mind, I trap him between my everyday murmurings and let him rot there. If I open the door to where he lives, the smell is too overwhelming, I can’t see. So he remains there, and I am left in a roomful of people lowering their heads during a classroom discussion about prison. The State profits off of locking up crazy people, I remember saying, my mouth shaping letters that crumbled out of my lips and scattered on the desk in front of me. The professor nodded and gave me a reassuring smile, or so I assume, but I could not see her because of the fog starting from the corners of my eyesight and moving inwards. The classroom was all sheer white clouds but I continued speaking, fueled by people thinking I had no personal stake in the argument—if someone has done something terrible, isn’t it easy to blame a person who can’t defend themselves? And as the room shrivels beneath me, all I can see is my brother speaking to a person who no one else can see.
I put in headphones while I read the paper one morning and I unplug them after a minute and a half, throwing the earbuds across the table and covering my face with my hands. Andrew Bird lyrics chimed through my brain and as the words reverberated down my spine, I am surrounded by what it felt like to watch Daniel walk into a room. With his sweet-slow crooked smile, people hung onto his every word. I throw my headphones across the table and shudder, scribbling in the margins of my notebook that songwriters should stop using prisons as metaphors. “Prison or hell,” he wailed, “prison or hell prison or hell prison or hell”—It isn’t until about a week later that I look up the lyrics to the song. “Those that can’t quite function in society at large / They’re going to wake up on this morning and find that they’re in charge / But those that the world’s set up for, who are doing really quite well / They’re going to wake up in institutions / In prison or in hell / Prison or in hell.”