Wednesday, July 22, 2015

oh, brother.

There came a point when Mallory knew she could no longer bear her brother. This realization struck her quite suddenly, rather than dawning on her over time the way these sorts of things usually occur to people. And once she realized it, it was as if a long curtain had been slowly drawn back on a lifetime of evidence that her brother would, one day, alienate everyone around him.

Kit had always been a great purveyor of unsolicited advice. He doled it out indiscriminately, and while he was most often telling his family how to do the things he felt they should be doing, he also gave advice to strangers. Anyone unfortunate enough to be in conversational range while in the company of a child, anyone of retirement age, young pimply clerks in stores, even, on occasion, couples who were arguing in public. He had an uncanny ability to zone in on people who would actually listen. Many looked trapped and uncomfortable, some impatient and annoyed, but only one in ten would cut him off and be done with it.

 The siblings had just come from visiting their father, who was, to use his words 'languishing in a prison for the elderly'. He was bored and angry and pointedly ignored them on their visits unless they brought him the gift of tiny dried sardines from chinatown. These treats created a little aroma cloud of salt and fish, through which he would stare out at them with his clear blue eyes and tell them stories of his life they had never heard before. This act of sharing on his part stirred sensations of tender appreciation and bitterness in Mallory. As children, he had been a non-presence. A shadow in their home. He was quiet and seemed always to wear grey and if he was there or not didn't make much difference but for the sweet tendrils of pipe smoke in the air when he was.

Their mother had died a mere 4 months after a cancer diagnosis which she chose not to treat. "It's all warfare and fighting," she said to them wearily, "and I don't intend to drag this out." And that was all there was to it. Their father was an attentive caregiver, tender and present. This extended to Kit and Mallory, too. Gentle, empty words of comfort and eye contact and actual inquiries about their lives. Kit devoured the attention, only to realize that his father quickly lost interest, and stared through him, lost in thought. Mallory had been angry at him in those months. How dare he take solid form and try to change their entire dynamic. She gave him nothing, preferring to remain the invisible daughter she had always been. She waited for him to disappear again. She hadn't expected dementia, though, which had made him both more present and more elusive than he'd ever been to her.  The great escape, she thought bitterly, Now you see him, now you don't.

Kit and Mallory sat side by side, bumping along through the city. Each deep in thought as they tended to be after a visit. Kit broke the silence, "What she needs is more structure" he said, leaning away from his sister and touching the arm of a young and harried mother who was negotiating with a weeping toddler. Mallory dropped her head and thought 'oh, shut up, Kit, shut up, shut up...' This mantra never worked. The woman turned her large doe eyes to Kit, and he proceeded to engage her in a patient and well practiced diatribe of his theories on child rearing and discipline. Mallory had seen this before, and largely ignored it. In the past she'd shaken her head and sighed indulgently, but it suddenly felt so unkind, intrusive, and obnoxious that it was all she could do not to slap the back of his head to quiet him. The young mother nodded and listened until she had an opportunity to say,  "You must be a wonderful Dad. How many children do you have?"  He smiled gently and replied, "I wouldn't bring a child into this word for love or money. They're all doomed to drought and famine and chaos. It's entirely irresponsible." Cue stunned parent. Cue asshole brother's broadened smile.

It hadn't always been this way. Mallory suspected that due to years of fatherly neglect Kit was simply trying to be seen. Wanting to be relevant and valued.  There had been a time when peace and comradery reigned. They had agreed on most things and felt like a team, a dynamic duo. That all ended when he launched a non stop campaign of telling her what to do. In camaraderie's place sprung howling arguments and occasional violence. "For God's sake Mallory, your teeth will all rot out if you don't brush longer than a minute!" This when they were 9 and Kit had gotten his first cavity filled. "You'd better keep up with your personal hygiene," he whispered gravely, "or dogs may attack you." This when she started her period, which he shouldn't even have been aware of, never mind giving her advice on. "Mallory, if you keep standing that way you'll be a hunchback by the time we're in high school." These small criticisms eventually grew into more constructive advice which Mallory never took. She would indulge him with a "thank you, Kit" or a "go to hell, Kit", and be done with it.

Mallory followed Kit off of the bus, the silent toddler and her now weeping mother behind them. "You're an asshole, you know." Kit turned to her, stunned "Where the hell did that come from, Mal?" "That woman!" Mallory knew she sounded shrill and hated it but couldn't seem to stop. "It's cruel! You lure people into thinking that you're safe and you're kind and you give a shit, and then you cut them down!" He stared at he for a beat before responding with a gruff "Jesus, Mal." Kit turned and started walking, shaking his head, furious at her.  They strode on like speed walkers, waves of anger shimmering between them. Her heart pounded in her chest as she waited. Waited for more, for something. They came to a crosswalk and stopped, two more beating hearts in the throng of midday pedestrian traffic. "People are idiots, Mal." He said levelly, and gestured around them, "They can't think for themselves and they need help. I just help people, okay? That's Not being an asshole. It's being a samaritan for Christs's sake." "Oh my God, Kit." She threw her head back in exasperation and looked up past the buildings at their backdrop of blue sky with high clouds racing past. She took a breathe and continued more gently "You don't have all the answers, okay? You don't know these people, you don't know who they are or what they think and feel. You just meddle! And quite honestly I think that you like making people feel bad. Your brand of advice always comes with the tag line 'you're fucking up'." "Because they Are, Mal!" "How the hell do you know that Kit?" She fired back. "How do you not know it?" he leaned into her face, "You're so self centered, Mal. You don't help anyone but yourself". The light changed and they were horses out of the gate, muttering to themselves as they continued their arguments privately. Mallory's anger suddenly waned and left her suddenly sad and very tired.  She slowed her pace as Kit marched on, disappearing into the sea of people he thought he had a right to advise.

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