Escape Key

By Tania James

All throughout childhood, my older brother refused to jump from the high dive, a phobia for which I gave him constant hell.  “Amit is a chickenshit!” I’d yell, while leaping flamboyantly off the board.  At twenty-nine, he dove off the roof of his buddy’s three-story condo.  Later, he couldn’t recall his reasons or the fifth of whiskey in his system or the ER, where he lay with his neck locked in a collar, while my dad called to give me the news: He can’t move his legs. With my dad talking into one ear, I looked around my room.  All my belongings were stuffed in a few distended boxes, words like FRAGILE and THIS SIDE UP scrawled on the sides.

I rushed to the airport, feeling oddly calm even as I shuffled from ticket desk to ticket desk, even as I sat elbow to elbow at the gate, inhaling the intimate odor of my neighbor’s egg roll but lacking the will to rise and lose my seat.  I opened my laptop and typed an email to Katie, my roommate, asking her to post my boxes home.  I wrote: My brother had an accident.  He’s in the hospital.

I hit send just as I realized that I’d sent the email to the wrong Katie.  I’d emailed Katie the bartender from Fiddlesticks, whom I’d gone out with a lifetime ago and never called back.  I spent a few minutes trying in vain to un-send my email.  I held down the escape key, but it jammed, and in trying to jimmy it loose, I plucked it out.  It lay like a tooth in my palm.  That was when I closed my fist and lost it.  A sudden silence piled up around me. I heard a little girl ask her mommy if I was crying.  After a few moments of this, the egg roll guy gave me two of his napkins, and I blew my nose into his grease.

*   *   *

I’d spent the past nine months as a writer-in-residence at a private boarding school outside of Boston, where I taught a creative writing class and occasionally messed around with Caryn, the English teacher.  Teaching hadn’t come easily to me.  For one thing, I hated most of my students, chief among them Judy Grubich, who called Mark Twain a douche for his scathing takedown of The Leatherstocking Tales.  She couldn’t let a day go by without cussing out an author I loved.  I thought I’d be molding young minds, but by the end of the semester, all I had molded was one very prickly critic who would be gunning for my first book, should it ever be published.

Caryn told me not to feel bad.  She said that she’d studied with some brilliant writers who were terrible teachers.  “How do you know I’m not terrible at both?” I asked.  She’d never read my novel, though she had casually offered to, more than once.

“Not possible,” Caryn said.  “You won that Prague thing.”

The Prague Thing: my first taste of recognition.  I had submitted the opening chapters of my novel to a contest in which the winner would be flown to Prague for a two-week master class, followed by a six-month stint at an artist’s colony.  I didn’t tell my brother or my dad about the prize.  I knew what they’d say — “Did you get any money?” — leaving me annoyed and a little embarrassed.

For the time being, I was content to imagine myself in Prague, typing by pallid moonlight, stone bridges and spires out my window.  I’d always lived in relatively small, static towns.  Prague seemed just the place to bridge the person I was with the writer I wanted to be: traveled, ambitious, alone.

*   *   *

A few days after the surgery, Dr. Tehrani showed us a series of X-rays.  The rods that had been planted in Amit’s back looked like railroad tracks, blazing white against the ghostly outlines of his bones.  “It’s too early to know what functions you’ll regain,” Dr. Tehrani said.  “We’ll have to keep up with the physical therapy, take it one day at a time.”  In the silence after his statement, I remembered how I knew Dr. Tehrani, from my parents’ dinner parties, his pouchy eyes perpetually apologetic, even when asking me, a little boy, where he should discard his paper plate.

I half-expected my dad to argue with him, as if the fact that they were both doctors could lead them to bargain down the verdict.  But no one spoke.  Dr. Tehrani left.  My brother, my dad, and I stayed very still.

“Neel, hand me my phone,” Amit said.  Before long, he was deep into a game of poker.  My dad stared at the blank TV screen.  We were lacking the kind of direction my mother would have provided if she were alive.  She would have been sobbing or interrogating a nurse or tugging me by the sleeve to the hospital chapel.  My mother had been the only religious one in the family.  She died when I was ten, and I was pretty sure that no one had been praying for us since.

*   *   *

Every day for three weeks, a baby-faced doctor came into Amit’s hospital room and tested his limbs with an instrument that appeared to be half of a long Q-tip.  The doctor had Amit close his eyes.  “Hard or soft?” the doctor would say, after pressing the cottony end of the Q-tip into Amit’s thigh.  With every press, Amit shook his head and muttered, “I don’t know.  Nothing.”  When it was over, he’d stare at his thigh, as if willing it to tell him something.

While Amit spent those weeks in the rehab center, my dad and I prepared the house for his return.  My dad shuffled his patients around and sought coverage from colleagues so he could take the next month off from work.  He and I carried the living room couch to the basement and set up a twin bed in its place.  He hired Diego, a long-time patient, to install grab bars in the bathroom down the hall.  Beyond the price of materials and a midday beer, Diego shook his head at payment.

Once Amit came home, my dad hardly left his side.  He assisted Amit in shifting between the bed and the wheelchair, using a board that Amit could scoot himself across, setting aside each loose limb as he went.  He also helped Amit get situated in the bathroom.  I wasn’t sure what went on in there exactly, but I had an idea from the accessories along the sink: a box of latex gloves, a dented tube of lubricant.  I tried not to think about it.

I’d read somewhere that pets lower blood pressure, so I went to my brother’s apartment and brought back the ten-gallon tank he’d had for years, filled with fake ferns and a presiding toad named Moses.  I installed the tank along one wall of the living room.  Twice a week, I dangled a doomed earthworm in front of Moses’ mouth, sometimes tapping his lips as if knocking at a door, before he awoke and clamped down on the head with a savagery that made me jump back.

For the most part, Amit lay in bed or sat in his rocking recliner, as motionless as Moses.  He kept the TV on, the shades drawn, suffusing the room in dim blue.  Sometimes his leg bounced in place, like it had a mind of its own.  On his second day, a back spasm slammed him hard enough to topple his rocker; he went so stiff with pain it hurt him to weep, even to breathe.  My dad increased his Baclofen dosage, and we replaced the rocker with a heavy leather armchair.

Once, while I was trying to feed Moses, I dropped the worm on his head.  It lay there like a coiled little turban, just above Moses’s catatonic gaze.  I looked at Amit, who had cracked a smile, the first I’d seen on his face in a long time, and for a moment, my heart rose and I forgot all about Moses.  “Well?” Amit said.  “Go in and get it, dumbass.”

“Moses is the dumbass.”  I lowered my hand into the tank.  “Who even has a tank anymore?”

“Do it, Moses.  Eat his whole hand off.”

While my brother heckled, I airlifted the worm and swung it into Moses’ mouth.  The ordeal was disgusting and entirely worth it, just to be ourselves again, for a little while.

*   *   *

There was one night when Amit fell asleep earlier than usual, at 9:00, and I went upstairs, determined to work.  Or check my e-mail.  Nothing special, aside from a number of lefty groups urging me to sign their petitions.  I spent five minutes studying the plight of honeybees.  I spent another five minutes perfecting a message to Stefan Baziak, the director of the Prague program, saying I would have to put my confirmation on hold due to family emergency.

I scrolled through my novel and weeded out a few errant semicolons.  I stuffed plugs in my ears and listened to the magnified rush of my own breathing.  I fell asleep on my arm, woke up at 11:11.  I made a useless wish.  I went to bed.

Part Two

In those days, Amit had one standing order: if anyone was to call or visit, he was napping.  His friends took the hint and stayed away.  His co-workers at Blue Grass Realty sent a potted bamboo, the stalks deformed into the shape of a heart.  Only Ivy, his girlfriend, continued to call.  I’d almost forgotten the stuffed-up sound of her voice, the nasal quality that made a stuttering idiot out of me.  “Seems like his narcolepsy kicks in every time I call,” she said.

I laughed a little too loudly.  I told her he’d call her back.

“I can’t believe you’re still doing that,” Amit said, after I hung up.  “Christ.”

“Doing what?”

“Your voice, when you know it’s her.  Your James Earl Jones impression.”  He lodged a cheese puff, like a tumor, in his cheek.  “You sound like a serial killer.”

Amit and Ivy had been dating since high school.  At first, my dad didn’t approve because her parents were Chinese, and he’d long held the notion that all Chinese people were calculating and aggressive, as evidenced by some decades-old invasion of India that continued to work him up.  As the years went by and Ivy stuck around, she and my dad moved toward a cool détente, though it still pained him to report when an Indian person we knew had married outside the tribe, in a tone like that of a newscaster reporting casualties — another woman lost, another man down.

I’d been sweet on Ivy since the day she asked Amit to senior prom; that she’d done the asking suggested an alluring form of Chinese aggression.  She even picked him up in her dirty white Saab, wearing a pink satin soufflé that made no secret of her cleavage.  “I got it at a thrift store,” she said to me, doing a twirl.  “Isn’t it hideous?”  Before I could answer, Amit thundered down the stairs in his tux, and her face tilted up, filling with light.

I watched them speed off, thinking, Him?  Really? I attributed her mistake to the fact that she was a transplant from San Francisco and didn’t know any better.  Here was a girl who could surf as well as her brothers, who sang at the talent show a sultry cover of “Oh! Darling,” while strumming her own acoustic guitar.  Not that I deserved her either.  Ivy seemed on another plane of special altogether, destined for a life of big cities and backstage passes.  Amit, I assumed, was a youthful detour.

*   *   *

A week passed, and things began to improve after I ordered a copy of Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a movie that Amit and I had watched so many times as kids that we knew whole scenes by heart.  I usually played Steve Martin, the hapless traveler forced to cross the country with John Candy, a boisterous shower ring salesman.  Watching it again, so many years later, brought a strange sense of relief.  Most of the time, I was laughing because Amit was laughing.

After the first screening was over, I wheeled Amit to the bathroom and left him in there.  He only visited the bathroom two or three times a day, usually for an hour each time.  It took that long for his bladder and bowels to function.  I kept his bathroom stocked with issues of Rolling Stone and Time, books of crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

He’d been in the bathroom for ten minutes when I glimpsed Ivy’s Saab crawling up our driveway.

“Amit?” I said through the door.  “Ivy’s here.”

Silence.

“Amit, you okay?”

“I’m not here, got it?  Tell her I’m not here.”

“Where do you plan on going?”

“Don’t tell her I’m in the bathroom, Neel.  Tell her I’m asleep.”

“That’s what I always tell her.  She’ll know I’m lying—”

“Okay then, why don’t you tell her I just stuffed a fucking suppository up my ass and I can’t come out or else I might shit all over myself, huh?  How’s that?”

The doorbell chimed.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said.

I opened the front door to find Ivy standing with her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.  Her hair was shorter, fringe over her eyes, which were lined and tired.  “Oh, hey, Neel.”

“Hey, you!” I said, regrettably.

We hugged, then stood there, nodding at nothing.  She looked down at the ramp of wooden planks beneath her feet, which Diego had hammered together.  “Been a while,” I said.

“Yeah.  Hey, how’s your writing?”

“Okay, I guess.”  I leaned against the doorframe, attempting a pose as casual as hers.  “I finished a draft of my novel.”

“Really?  What’s it about?”

“Brothers,” I said.  “Basically.”

“Uh oh.”  A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.  “A tell-all, huh?”

“Not exactly.”  I felt a childish desire to impress her.  “Actually it won an award.  I’m supposed to go to Prague for this artist’s colony…”

“Wait, you’re leaving?”  Her smile disappeared.  “When?  For how long?”

“In a couple months.”  I scratched at a peeling patch of paint on the doorframe.  I still hadn’t discussed my plans with Amit, and here I was, unloading on Ivy.  “I haven’t decided.  We’ll see.”

“Wow,” Ivy said, but not in the tone I’d hoped for.  “Good for you.”

She peeked over my shoulder at the tank.  Moses was on his relaxation rock, his back to both of us.

Ivy said, “Still sleeping, huh.”

I shrugged, smiled weakly.

“All right, I’ll go.”  Ivy lowered her voice.  “But tell him he can’t sleep forever.”

She left me with a package for Amit — some Paydays, a DVD of Sense & Sensibility, and oddly, a box of Darjeeling teas.

I removed the DVD.  “You can probably have this one back.”

“Oh no, that’s his,” she said.  “Yeah, he loves Sense & Sensibility. You didn’t know that?”

*   *   *

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, my dad helped Amit into the wheelchair, and rattled him down the ramp toward the car that would take them to physical therapy.  I spent those three hours in my bedroom, trying to write.  Once, I used my brother’s computer and stumbled across a small, multicultural library of porn.  I spent some time in the Asian division.

I also got to thinking about Caryn a lot, her bright, elfin eyes peering at me over a crappy hand of cards.  She looked like a student herself, in jumpers and wool tights that rasped when she walked.  Things had ended breezily between Caryn and me.  She had gone home to Newton before I had a chance to tell her about my brother, and now I couldn’t find the words.  So instead, in a late night moment of beery loneliness, I emailed her my novel.

She sent a brief and instant reply: !!!

I figured that Caryn would make a better reader than Amit.  He had always viewed my writing with a combination of bewilderment and dismissal, as if I were trying on a panama hat and had yet to look in a mirror and see how ridiculous I looked.  My dad told anyone who asked that I was a teacher.

Two weeks into my time at home, I called Caryn.  Our conversation lurched from one piece of nonsense to the next—her new coffee press; what constitutes the ideal mug—and as the minutes gathered, my stomach began to jostle with dread.

“Well, I read it,” she said, finally.

“Yeah?”

“And I jotted down some notes.”

I found a pen, a notepad.  “Okay.  Ready.”

“So the first few chapters are great.”  She paused.  “But around page fifty or so, the story starts to sag.”

I wrote: page 50 à sag.

“Partly because you spend all this time on describing every little thing,” she continued.  “And, I dunno, I’m not one for fussy prose, it’s just not my thing.  Like here, with the playground scene on page sixty-three: while the four hobbyhorses, nostrils aflare and frozen, glared down on us in what seemed an apocalyptic moment. I marked a lot of places like that, where it feels like you’re trying too hard.”

“Okay.”

She recommended cutting a number of scenes.  “The swimming pool thing, for example?  Where the one brother doesn’t make it up the high dive ladder?”  I heard her flipping pages.  “I didn’t see the point.  Other than the fact that the younger brother is kind of a prick.”

“I dunno, it sort of seemed to paint a picture of the relationship right away, their relationship.”

“Yeah, but, it’s…”  She paused, searching for the perfect word.  “Boring.  Also, how come they never talk about the mom?”

“I don’t know.  They just don’t.”

This went on for half an hour.  I drew a turd with a big bow on top.  I drew many things of that nature.

In the last five minutes, Caryn seesawed her comments in the positive direction, trying to boost me with vague praise for my thorough characterization, my attention to setting, her voice full of pity and pep.  By this point, I was laying on the couch.

As the conversation wound down, Caryn reassured me that the future was still bright.  “It’s awesome that you’ll be around all those writers in Prague.  Maybe one of them can give you advice.”

“Yeah, maybe.”  I promised to write her from Prague.  I could tell that she didn’t believe me.

“Good bye,” I said.

“Good luck!” she said, and hung up, leaving me to ponder her word choice.

Part Three

Early in the evening, Dr. Pillai stopped by with his wife.  Dr. Pillai was an old friend of my dad’s, a nice enough guy with a tussock of hair growing out of each ear, which Ruby Auntie seemed somehow to ignore.  She thrust three plastic yogurt containers of Indian food into my arms, though we’d all but stopped eating Indian food after my mom died.  I pushed the brothy containers deep into the fridge.

We gathered around Amit like careful pilgrims, even though he was in no mood for visitors.  He’d just come home from therapy, which always wrung the life out of him.  He lay on the bed, propped upon pillows, staring at the muted television, where a weatherwoman gestured to a series of pulsing suns.

“The PT,” my dad said, “she is tough.”

“That’s good!” said Ruby Auntie.

“Yeah, great,” Amit said.  He gazed at the weatherwoman with detached interest.

“So Neel,” Dr. Pillai said, “what are you writing these days?”

“A novel,” I said, nodding.  Dr. Pillai blinked at me expectantly.  “About brothers.”

“So a biography then?” Ruby Auntie asked.

“Autobiography,” Dr. Pillai corrected.

“No, not exactly—”

“You should tell him some stories,” Ruby Auntie said to my dad, who said, “Oh yeah, definitely,” as if he’d been thinking the same thing for years.  “Growing up in India, things like that,” Ruby Auntie suggested.  “How many stories can a twenty-four year old have?”

“He’s twenty-seven and his brother’s a cripple,” Amit said.  “Isn’t that enough?”

“I don’t like that word,” my dad said.

“Too bad.”

My dad smiled apologetically in Dr. Pillai’s direction.  “He’s just tired.  He hasn’t been sleeping well.”

Amit narrowed his eyes at my dad, then lavished Dr. Pillai with a warm, toothy grin.  “Yeah, I’m not used to sleeping on my side.  But I have to, or else a fungus’ll start growing on my balls.”

I coughed, snorted orange juice through my nose.

“Fungus on your…?” Dr. Pillai said.

“Balls.”

“Amit,” my dad said.

“What?  It’s true.”

“See that,” Ruby Auntie said, pointing at the television.  “That was from last night’s tornado.  In Mississippi, I think.”

We all fell silent for a moment, watching an old woman pick through the rubble of her home.  Looking lost, she took a seat on the concrete front steps, which was the only part of her house still standing.

Dr. Pillai was the first to speak.  “It does make you think.”

“Of what?” Amit said.

“Whatever you are suffering, someone else is suffering more.”

“I feel better already.”

“That is not what he meant,” my dad said.  “Don’t twist people’s words.”  This was something my mother used to accuse us of, contorting her English words as though they were animal balloons.

“Uncle means that the glass is half full,” Ruby Auntie offered.

“Some glasses are cracked,” Amit said.  “Some glasses are fucked.”

Dr. Pillai scratched his furry ear and smiled desperately at me.  My dad put a hand to the back of Amit’s head, but he flinched away.

*   *   *

I’d only been home a month but I missed the sultry air of a Boston summer, the ceiling fan creaking in its fixture, Caryn’s limbs tangled in mine despite the heat and the threat that the fan could fall at any minute.  At night, she would stand up in bed and reach for the fan’s chain, her torso one moonlit length pulled taut.

But how to reconcile that Caryn with the Caryn who had gored my work the week before?  I didn’t have the energy to sort through her comments, most of which I’d recorded in my series of cryptic sketches.  Whenever I sat down to write, I saw only detours and dead ends.  I went for a jog around the neighborhood to clear my head, but ten minutes in, I popped a cramp and wound up clutching my stomach in a posture of failure made worse when a Lincoln slowed down to make sure I was okay.

The next morning, I was unloading the dishwasher when the director of the Prague program called me.  “Neel, hello, this is Stefan Baziak.”  Mr. Baziak’s voice was scratchy and womanish, eccentric and intimidating.  “I hope this is not a bad time?”

I glanced into the living room.  My dad was helping Amit scoot across the board and into the armchair.  “No, not bad at all.”

“I hate to bother you, but I am calling about the visa and the medical clearance.  Were you able to file?  Are you coming to Praha?”

Praha—the word sent through me a small ripple of delight.  “I’m not sure yet, to be honest.  Things are still sort of hectic here.”

“Yes, yes, I understand.  Of course, we would love for you to come.  We very much enjoyed the first portion of your novel, particularly the braiding of each boy’s point of view…”

As Mr. Baziak continued, my dad returned and opened the fridge.  He removed a small crate of strawberries.  He ran the faucet and rinsed them in the sink, staring at the tube of gushing water with a deadened expression.

“Dad—”  Amit called.

“Yep!”  Snapped awake, my dad shut the faucet and hurried over with the strawberries, dripping water as he went.

“Neel?”  Mr. Baziak paused.  “You’re still there?”

“Yes!  Thank you, thanks.”

“Thank you for what?”

“For everything.  For the opportunity.  Excuse me—”  I faked a cough.  “I should have things sorted out in the next few days or so…”

“Because we need to know fairly soon if we must pull someone from the wait list.  You can always apply again next year.”

“No,” I said quickly.  “I mean, I’m coming.  I’ll look up the visa requirements tonight.”

After hanging up the phone, I found my dad and Amit arguing in the living room.  “Strawberries are good for you,” my dad insisted.  “Since when did you start hating strawberries?”

“Since forever,” Amit snapped.  “Don’t we have any kettle chips?  Jalapeno flavor?”

My dad turned to me.  “Was that Ivy who called?”

“Uh, yeah.  I told her Amit was sleeping.”

“Why?” my dad said.  “Call her back, invite her over!”

“Don’t.”  Amit pointed the remote at the TV, increasing the volume on Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Steven Martin was throwing a fit at the airport parking lot, clutching at the air and cursing hysterically, hurling his suitcase at the ground.  My dad looked sorry for Steve, then waved a hand at the TV and left the room.

I was leaping up the first few stairs when Amit paused the movie and called after me.  “Where’re you going?”

I stopped, turned.  “Upstairs.”

“Stay here.”

“Why?”

“I don’t laugh when you’re not here.”  Amit looked at the TV.  A sudden awkwardness sprang up between us.  “Nothing’s funny when you watch alone.  It’s a fact.”  He casually scratched his crotch with the remote.

“That’s nice, Amit.  Get your crotch fungus all over the channel changer.”

“Are you coming down or what?”

I glanced at the clock over the TV.  The ticking sounded loud and strange, almost impatient.  I came down the stairs, and Amit pressed Play.

Part Four

On Sunday afternoon, Amit and I went outside.  His therapist had suggested that he increase his arm and abdominal strength by wheeling himself for a few miles.  I jogged beside him to his chosen destination, the refurbished playground by our old middle school.  The wind churned around us, jostling the swings, the clouds a dingy gray.

Once he caught his breath, Amit removed a blue glass pipe from one pocket and one of Ivy’s Darjeeling tea bags from the other.  He undid the sachet on his knee and pinched apart a fuzzy chunk of weed.

“Clever,” I said.

He paused, as if he were about to say something sarcastic, then changed his mind.  “Yeah, she is.”

“Not to ruin the mood, but I thought you’re trying to build stamina—”

“Neel, can you not, for once?”

Some time later, I was sitting on the grass, my lungs pleasantly seared.  All of a sudden, life seemed manageable again.  I flipped my eyelid inside out, a weird pastime I’d forgotten.  “Sick,” Amit said, so I flipped the other.

He sucked down the last drops of Gatorade I’d brought along and tossed me the empty bottle.  His eyes went soft and tranquil.

“Did you read that Life After SCI pamphlet?” Amit said.  “The hospital gave it to me.”

“No.”

“There was a part called Sex on Wheels.”

A little voice in my head whispered: Sex on wheels! I gnawed on the rim of the bottle.

“And there was a picture of this vibrator…”  Amit sounded half creeped out, half curious.  “A vibrator for dudes.”

We fell into a troubling silence.

Amit leaned his head back, squinted at the clouds.  “Dad wants me to get back with Ivy.”

“You are with Ivy.”

“We broke up a few months ago.”

I tried to focus my gaze on Amit.  “Broke up why?”

“She wants to spend the summer in San Francisco.  Grow out her armpit hair.  Go lesbo for a while.”

“She said that?”

“No.”  He turned the lighter over, studying it.  “Dad thinks if I pass her up, no one else’ll want me.”

I heard the scratch of the flint wheel.  Amit watched the flame until a breeze snuffed it out.

“Seems like Ivy wants something,” I said.  “She calls all the damn time.”

“She just feels sorry for me.  She’d get bored, eventually.”

“How do you know?”

He clasped his hands over his stomach.  “Well for one thing, she’s not a big fan of the rodeo.  Sexually speaking.  And that’s the only ride I got left.”

I stared at the grass until Amit said, “Stop picturing it, perv.”  I laid on my back.  The grass felt weird and tickled my ears.

When I caught sight of a Saab pulling into the parking lot, I thought I was hallucinating.  I heard Amit go, “Shit.”  Magically, Ivy emerged from the car and walked across the grass toward us, her hair pulled back from her eyes, looking exactly how she used to look, and I sat up, a familiar ache in my belly.

I realized it was the first time Ivy had seen Amit in the wheelchair.  She fixed her gaze on his face, as if determined not to look elsewhere.  “So you got my gift,” she said.

“Yeah,” Amit said.  “Thanks.”

“Hey, Ivy.”

“Hi, Neel.”  She barely glanced at me.  “So what’s with you blowing me off all the time, Amit?”  He picked something off the tip of his tongue.  “I mean, shit, I’m not your groupie.”

“You’re not my girlfriend either.”

Ivy pressed her lips together.  She looked like she wanted to punch him.

He gave her a lazy smile.  “Peace pipe?”

I cupped my hand around the bowl while Ivy lit up.  A sense of perfect bliss billowed through me as I stood there, close to her, watching the embers pulse and fade.  Her hair gave off a minty sweetness.  She stepped back and coughed, spat expertly.

Amit asked her how she’d known we were at the park.  Ivy said that she’d called the house, and our dad had told her.  “He’s been really nice to me,” she said, “which is weird.”  Amit rolled his eyes at me, as if to say, See?

After a while, we went wandering into school through the gym doors, which were unlocked.  The hallways were dim and smelled of kid sweat and crayons.  I stopped by a wall hung with group portraits from each year’s play production.  “Nice,” Amit said, pointing at one of the frames.  That was the year I played the title role in Aladdin, even though I did more yelling than singing. I stood with a huge white turban on my head, arms akimbo, in a credible portrayal of confidence.  It was hard to remember being that compact.  But I did remember the note our director, Miss Mott, had written me: You’re going places, kiddo.

Someone called down the hall, “School’s closed.  How’d you all get in here?”  We mumbled apologies and hurried back the way we came.

As I pushed Amit across the parking lot, Ivy asked me what was going on with the Prague thing.

I looked straight ahead, trying to think of another topic, but my thoughts moved like syrup.  We came to a stop by Ivy’s car.

“What Prague thing?” Amit said.

Ivy looked at him, then me.  “You didn’t tell him?”

“It’s just six months…”

What’s six months?” Amit said.

“This artist’s colony,” I said.  “To hang out in Prague and write.  It’s pretty prestigious.”  Pretty prestigious came out a little slurry.

Amit paused, digesting the news.  “You tell Dad?”

“Not yet.  I will.”

“Colony,” Amit said, as if he’d just learned a strange word.  “I thought those were for nudists.  And lepers.”

“I was gonna tell you—”

“Whatever, hey.  It’s fine.”  Amit shrugged.  “It’s good news.”

Ivy said she had to go.  She paused, then kissed the top of Amit’s head, a gesture that he didn’t seem to enjoy, and waved at me before getting in her car.  On our way home, Amit chose to wheel himself.  He said he wasn’t tired, but toward the end, I could hear him faintly wheezing.

Part Five

During the last week in July, the temperature languished at an unbearable 102 degrees.  The AC was busted, blasting the rooms where no one went, like my dad’s study, and ignoring the living room entirely.  My dad positioned a standing fan at Amit’s feet; it spent the whole day looking him up and down.  Sitting outside the fan’s sweep, I crunched on cups of ice and tried to stay as still as possible.

Since that day in the park, I’d been careful around Amit.  I kept him fed, made sure not to cross in front of the TV.  He only spoke to me when he needed something, and my dad wasn’t around to provide it.  He never said my name.

One evening, my dad came into the living room, holding out his wrist so I could fasten the complicated clasp of his fancy watch.  He was attending a wedding reception, his first time leaving us alone at night.  Before he left, he asked Amit if he needed to peepee.

“Really, Dad?  Peepee?”

“No?”  My dad hovered over him, twisting his watch around his wrist.  He plucked a pillow feather out of Amit’s hair, and for once, Amit didn’t duck away.

At the door, my dad gave me three different numbers to call in case of emergency.  I told him not to worry.

“So, what are you doing tonight?” my dad asked.  “Going to work on your novel?”

“Oh that.  That’s on hold for now.”

My dad nodded.  “It’s good to take a break sometimes.”

“Good for who?”

My dad gave a sheepish smile.  “If you weren’t here, he would eat me alive.”  He looked like a little kid, his eyes beginning to fill.

I thumped him on the back and suggested he get going before he missed cocktail hour.

After my dad left, I brought us each a Guinness from the fridge.  I’d gone shopping earlier in the day and stocked up on Amit’s favorite, along with more pork rinds.  “You don’t have to babysit me,” he said, taking the bottle.

I put my feet on the coffee table.  “I’m fine.  I like—”  I squinted at the screen, sighed inwardly.  “What Not to Wear.”

Amit shuffled through the next five channels, barely pausing long enough for an image to appear.  He settled on a commercial narrated by a talking gecko.

“Why don’t we call Ivy?” I suggested.

“Do you have some kind of memory problem?  I told you, we’re not together.”

“So, what’s the big deal?  She could rent us a movie.”

Amit took a breath and let it out slowly.  “The deal is, she’s gone.”

Apparently, Ivy had flown to San Francisco the day before.  I didn’t ask how he’d known, or what happened, or why.  Maybe she’d been waiting for him to let her off the hook.  Maybe all it took was, You’re not my girlfriend either. On TV, a woman was in a bathtub, drawing a loofah over her moisture-rich leg.  Steam flowered up around her blissed-out smile.  That day in the park seemed painfully far away.

“What about you?”  Amit took a long swig, winced.  “Bought your ticket yet?”

“I reserved a flight, yeah.”

He studied the Guinness label.  “You should tell Dad.  I don’t give a shit, but he will.”

Amit set the bottle on the floor and lay back against his pillows, closed his eyes.

I finished my beer, and his.  The TV was still on, but mostly I was staring at Moses.  I’d never paid much attention to the poster taped across the back of his tank, an ethereal landscape of gold-lit trees receding into the distance.  Maybe, at one point, he’d leapt into it and had the hope knocked out of him.  Maybe that was why he sat there now, looking the dazed way he did.

Soon, Amit was snoring.  Even in sleep, the little line between his brows remained.  I wondered if it would still be there fifty years from now.  I wondered if the chair cushions beneath me would mold to my shape.  I imagined the two of us watching the same movies over and over, not because they were still funny but because they reminded us of who we used to be.  I’d grow bitter, encumbered by the inventory of all I’d failed to do.  Or worse, I wouldn’t care.

When the show was over, I trudged upstairs.

I thought maybe I’d soak in the bathtub for a while, like the loofah commercial, minus the loofah.  I wanted something cleansing and cool and quiet.  I wanted to come up with a way to tell my dad that I was leaving.

I poked around in the potpourri basket over the toilet and found a bottle of lavender bubble bath solution, probably my mom’s.  Two capfuls turned the tub into a bed of sudsy white.  The room filled with a dense, floral smell, steam mossing over the mirrors.

As the water ran, I remembered the bed we’d shared as boys, how Amit would be snoring while I confessed my attraction to Cleo the Cat from The Catillac Cats.  I remembered riding on a plane to India when I was seven, and how Amit made me sit in the middle seat, next to a guy who kept ordering whiskey sours until he sauced all over me and my in-flight blanket.  I remembered the nightmares after my mom died, how Amit would shake me gently by the shoulder, and sometimes, briefly, leave his hand there.

By the time I turned the faucet off, Amit was calling me, hoarsely.

I ran, almost tripped down the stairs.  The television was off, but I found him staring at the blank, gray screen.

“I wet the bed,” he said.

I stood there, waiting for something to happen.

“I wet the bed, Neel.”  His voice was low and stunned.  “I thought I could hold it.  I fell asleep, but I guess the beer…”  He bent his head to his chest, his face crumpling.  He began to cry without a sound.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Hold on.”

I ran back to the upstairs bathroom and found a beach towel in the closet.  When I returned with the towel, Amit was defeated, yielding.  He let me peel away the blanket, his bathrobe, and his T-shirt, his damp scrubs and boxers.  The smell stung.  His knees were bonier than I remembered, a pale sheen to his calves.  I threw a towel over him.

“Ready?”  I slid my arms under him and gathered him up with a small groan.  His skin was clammy, his legs impossibly heavy.

Pitching forward, I staggered up the stairs.  In the hallway, we passed by Amit’s old room, which gave off the neat, staid air of a museum exhibit.  He swiveled his head around, hungrily absorbing all that he had missed for the past two months.

Finally we reached the bathroom.  Surprisingly, Amit didn’t make fun of the bubble bath.  He only said, “I know that smell.”

Just when my arms seemed on the verge of giving out, I squatted, easing him into the water, towel and all.  He held onto the sides of the tub, and I bunched two hand towels behind him so he wouldn’t slip down.  I caught sight of the surgical scar on his back, raised and pinkish, like a shiny, segmented worm.

“Is it too cold?” I asked, catching my breath.

“No.”  Amit lowered his head and closed his eyes.  “It’s nice.”

He sighed.  As his features loosened, I saw him forgetting his tears, our trek up here.  “Thanks.  You can go.  Go do whatever you were doing.”

I hovered over my brother.  If I couldn’t leave him then, I knew I never would.

I caught sight of my cloudy reflection in the mirror — a shadowy, motionless shape — and something landed heavily within me.  Leaning against the tile, I listened to the gentle slosh of the water.  I closed my eyes, and in an instant, we were at the pool again, Amit standing on the high dive, peering down, stiff with terror.  The moment we locked eyes, his fear became my own.