Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Family Matters

I stood there, in full fighting stance, watching my brother intently. If he took one more step toward me, I’d hit him. After years of martial arts training, I had no intention of letting my 58-year old brother lay one bloody hand on me.

Why don’t they teach you how to handle these situations in high school? They taught you how to make snickerdoodles or how to make a lamp from a log. But there was never a class on how to handle an angry sibling who believed you were an intruder in what he believed was his house now.

Background: I’ve been a part owner of an old house at the Jersey shore since my mother died in ‘96 though I’ve rarely visited since her passing. My brother had been living there for many years and it seemed like his house by default, squatter’s rights kinda thing.

When my mother was alive, it seemed like a family house. Some of my most pleasant and few good familial memories occurred in this old house. And I was happy to return, after such a trying time in New York. It was here I breathed my first sigh of relief in years.

So then why am I ready to dropkick my brother? I had suggested that I might rent out one of the rooms (something he had been doing for years) and use the additional income for some of my needs, now that I lived here too.

This sent him into a fit of rage. This was his house after all. Who the hell do I think I am? He ranted and raged, slamming this and that. I stood there, faintly amused at first. What a big baby.

“It’s not your house. It’s our house. I’m a part owner. So you better just deal with that fact.”

He inched closer to me, fuming and spitting mad. What I did next would be perfect learning for high school. The course? “Outcrazy the Crazy 101.”

The gist of it? At some point, when someone becomes a real threat, you have to act crazier. Now there’s no ironclad rule. There are times – perhaps most – where maintaining your cool is what you need to do.

But I saw my brother’s anger escalating. He was taking more liberties. I dropped back into my fighting stance and told him to back off.

He laughed. “Oh that’s right, you’re a black belt now. Ha.”

I stood there silently and intently. I was no longer amused by his display. If he took one more step toward me, I’d front kick him and send him flying.

Frustrated, he punched the wall, only bloodying his fists.

“Is this what you were you trying to do?” And I planted a roundhouse kick that busted a hole through our sad aging walls. (Later on, I would apologize to the walls. I feel badly for the house sometimes. I know it hurts, like I do. I know it remembers better times.)

“I could knock you out, you know,” he said, taking a definite step back.

“You’d better. Because if you don’t, I’ll kill you,” I hissed.

When I lived with my boyfriend during college, a crazy guy lived in an efficiency below me. He looked like a spare member of ZZ Top - big, gruff and with a long beard with all sorts of shitty debris hiding in it.

He heard voices in his head. Well, specifically mine. He would call me on the phone and tell me how he heard me talking about him again and I’d better stop or he’d send the FBI and the aliens after me (for good measure, I guess. In case the FBI didn’t work).

One day, Crazy Bearded One entered our unlocked apartment and started shouting. Terrified, I grabbed my boyfriend who proceeded to disengage from me and run upstairs to “call the cops,” leaving me alone with him. (Ah, my knight!)

That’s when I remembered Outcrazy the Crazy. I ran right up to the hairy menace and started screeching crazy gibberish that included mentions of Mars, my mother, cake and little teeny razors that cut me from the inside. He stood there, stunned. Finally, he said, “You’re fucking nuts, man.” And walked out.

Outcrazy the Crazy. They do not teach you this shit in high school.

My brother and I never really came to blows that day because I dropped my passive mode and became unpredictable and potentially dangerous. As a woman, I’m trained to deal with others unleashing and me fixing it or picking up the pieces. It felt good to be the menace.

After that day, my brother and I would learn to co-exist. No real love though, that’s for sure. We’re not even “brother and sister” in our minds. He’s more of a biological happenstance, as I am to him (but that doesn’t go over well during introductions).

The house has become less of a political hotspot as he realizes I’m no threat to his existence and I have every right to be here. We try to improve the house together in small ways, though its in state of disrepair. Like its owners, I guess.

And every once in a while, we have our familial moments. I broke my favorite mug a while back. It had big strawberries all over it and made me feel little girl sweet. When your early life lacked in pink things and ponies, those simple things become extra precious, symbolizing all the sweetness you never received.

I cried a little when I broke that mug, throwing it in the trash. The next day, I saw it in the dish rack. My brother had repaired it. For us, that’s about as good as it gets.

When I hear people go on and on about the importance of family, I cringe a little. It sounds so discriminatory. Family matters the most! What does that mean to those who don’t feel like they have a family? Or physically don’t have one? Or their family does more damage than good?

My family situation isn’t that dire. I have a connection with a good amount of family members. But I know what its like to feel like an orphan. I know what its like to have a brother and not feel like I have a brother. 

When my brother and I finished our standoff that day, I sat in the middle of the backyard, trembling and trying to catch my breath. As if by fate, my local friend Ed suddenly appeared.

I’ve known Ed since I was a child. He dated my oldest sister for eons. He’s a good old hippie, still sporting his long hair and Jesus-like looks. Ed fixes things for me that I can’t fix. And he shows me how to understand the weather by looking at the clouds and how to be a better surfer.

As a child, he showed me a meteorite shower which is one of my favorite memories of all time. I thought that the world was wild and bedazzling that night. I still believe in magic because of that night. Looking at Ed, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is what a brother does. Well, doesn’t this feel nice?”

When Ed saw me standing by the clothesline that day, I could barely speak. “Help,” I uttered. “My brother and I just got in a big fight.” He came over, put his arm around my shoulder and walked me to the beach, just as he had when I was a child.

We sat by the shoreline for a while, as I stared off into space, shocked, disillusioned. He showed me how you can tell the wind’s direction by letting a handful of sand slip through your fingers. I tried to do it myself. I noticed my hands shaking. The wind was blowing west.

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