When I emerged from my finals cave it was already December 20. I'd done no shopping, no cleaning, no nothing; after the two-week haze of paper-writing leavened only with cups of tea and bowls of chili, my tiny apartment was a wreck. The only consolation was that we weren't having Christmas at my apartment. My brother and I would be at Mom's over the holidays, except Christmas Eve at our dad's, of course. I made an attempt to think about what clothes I should bring, but in the end I just wound up putting my laundry bag and a suitcase into the back of the Honda before heading down to Mom's house near Tangletown. If I'd forgotten any crap I really desperately needed, it wasn't like the drive back was ruinously long.
Dan answered when I rang the bell, awkwardly trying to manage the suitcase handle and the laundry bag together. "Hey," he said, when he opened the door. I wrestled my crap inside and dropped it to the hardwood floor, and he hugged me back when I threw my arms around him. We both go to the same university, but the U is so large, and I'd been so busy with my thesis, that we might as well have been in different states.
"You smell," he said when he pulled back, wrinkling his nose, and I rolled my eyes. He smelled like Old Spice bodywash, of course.
"Yeah, I haven't showered." He looked down at my suitcase and then gave me a skeptical look. "I've been busy," I said, defensive.
"Too busy to shower?" he asked, but led the way into the kitchen. "Mom made stew. She's at work, but she says we should start decorating the tree before she gets home."
"You haven't decorated the tree yet?" I asked, and poked my head into the living room. Sure enough, the fake tree my mom had purchased after the divorce--ignoring my kvetching completely--twinkled in the corner placidly, utterly bare of ornaments.
"I thought we'd do it together!" he said. "You always wanted to! And I've been busy too, you know."
I sighed. I'd had a fantasy of coming home to Christmas all unpacked and ready to go for me, no input required. "Well, let me eat something. And put my laundry in."
"Okay," Dan said, sounding sardonic in the same way that every other teenage boy I've known sounded sardonic. My brother's doing much better now, my mom would say; I say, to myself, that now he's almost normal, and before…he wasn't.
I ate some of the beef stew my mom had made and then had a cup of tea. I've been thinking about going vegetarian as a new year's resolution--I'd been reading a lot of posthuman and feminist theorists on animal cruelty and factory farming this semester--but I still had nearly two weeks left. I made a mental note to tell Mom to buy more bacon.
After the tea I threw my laundry into the wash machine in the basement, and then pulled down the trapdoor up to the attic. Carefully, I handed Dan boxes of ornaments, and he took them and set them on the floor just as carefully. When I'd gotten all of them, we took our spoils back to the living room.
The first box Dan opened contained the paper ornaments he'd made in art class in second grade. This was supposed to be a non-denominational activity, so they were stars and snowflakes; I could remember Dan coming home with them. I could tell he was proud of himself, but he'd never been very emotional. When Mom told him how beautiful they were and marched right over and hung them in pride of place on the tree--I could still remember the scent of the pine needles--he'd just smiled. He wasn't smug; he was just…reserved.
My brother is five years younger than I am, and when he started to talk and our parents started to worry about him, I decided that he was a prophet and that I would have to be the one to interpret him to the world. When he started school the psychiatrists told my parents that he needed to be tested to see if he was on the autism spectrum. All the tests said no. I'd known that already.
"You remember these?" he asked, smiling a little, and I nodded.
"You were so adorable when you came home with them," I said, teasing, and he actually blushed. "You were!" I insisted, and he put his nose in the air and went to hang the ornaments on the tree, ignoring me with the noble mien of the long-suffering.
The next box was the set of handblown glass ornaments my dad had bought my mom around the same time, shaped like all kinds of old-fashioned candy. Dan glanced over when I sighed, and he frowned, but didn't say anything. There's nothing like Christmas to bring back the memories of how it used to be. Half the time when we do have the house fully decorated like when we were kids, I turn the corner and all I can see is the image in my mind of our younger selves.
"So how were finals?" I asked as we worked. "Did you get everything finished on time?"
"Yeah," Dan answered. I couldn't be sure from the other side of the tree, but I was willing to bet that he'd shrugged. "The finals were okay, I guess. Do you know when grades are going to be posted?"
"I think the deadline is tomorrow."
I'd resolved not to ask the "and what are you majoring in?" question because it drove me batty when I was in college, first when I didn't have an answer and then when I said "English and women's studies" and people's expressions changed, usually to pity or to an aggrieved desire to criticize either my job prospects or the idea of women's studies, like it was a personal insult. For some people, it is.
"I think I'm going to major in philosophy," Dan said, unprompted, a minute later. He'd taken a break from ornaments to untangle the star garlands, draping them across the sofa when he'd unwound each chain. A few years ago we had the brilliant idea to store them in separate Ziplocks, but they still needed careful attention.
"Philosophy? Really?" I asked.
"Yeah, and maybe a math minor? I don't know, there's some really cool stuff being done with computational metaphysics out at Stanford…"
Computational metaphysics. I'd never heard of it, and I'd known Dan had taken an intro philosophy course on existentialism, but it made total sense the minute he said it.
"How about you? How's grad school?"
"A lot of damn work," I said. "But it's good. My advisor has been after me to think about applying for the rhetoric PhD at Berkeley."
"Berkeley? You think you'll apply?"
"They only take like a teeny portion of their applicants every year," I said. "It's the only rhetoric department in the country. And…I don't know. I don't know if I want to keep doing this any longer than I already am." Part of the reason I'd been so late with finishing my papers is how much time I'd been putting into trying to throw down poetry. I had a notebook full of lyrics crossed out and rewritten a dozen times each.
I don't think I'm writing poetry; I'd done a lot of that in middle school and high school. I'm writing jams, spoken word stuff that needs some music under it. I think I'm writing songs.
Dan read all of my poetry until I went to college. We were really close; everyone said so. I went home nearly every other weekend my first semester, until at Thanksgiving Dan told me that I didn't have to, that he'd be all right. That he'd stopped.
"Stopped?" I'd said, staring at him. It felt like the world had dropped out from under me. Of course, our parents had announced that they were getting a divorce two weeks before; that was the other reason it felt like the world had dropped out from under me.
"I've stopped, it's stopped, I don't know," Dan had told me, impatient and--I could see it at the corners of his eyes--a little uncertain, and trying to hide it. "But you don't have to worry about me, Sarah."
"You're my little brother," I'd told him. That was certain, even if how to process what he'd just told me wasn't. For ten years my role had been to explain his--we called them visions, but really they were dreams, some awake, some asleep--his visions and his oddities to the world, especially to our parents. Now our parents were divorcing and Dan's visions were gone. Who was he, without them? Who was I? "Of course I have to worry about you."
It was the next semester that I was diagnosed with depression. One good thing about going to the U is that the student health system doesn't joke around. I learned that again two years ago, when I had to get my two front teeth replaced with a prosthetic after they got knocked out.
But I'm okay, both my teeth and the brain weasels. Between therapy and the meds, I'm actually doing pretty well, most of the time.
"It seems like a lot of work."
"Yeah. It is."
I was about to start on the last box of ornaments when the land phone rang. I glanced at the caller ID before I picked it up; it was Dad.
He'd remarried, and he lived way out in St. Paul now. Mom said he was cheating on her when they divorced. I don't know if that's true, because I never asked, and he never said. "Hi Sarah," he said when I picked up, "it's me.
"Hi, Dad. What's up?"
"I just wanted to make sure that we're all set for Christmas Eve. You and Dan are going to show up around 2?"
"Yeah, assuming the traffic is okay. You know there's construction on 94, and if it snows…"
"It'll be fine." Brash optimism is one of my dad's more notable traits. "Unless your brother has another of his…spells."
"It'll be fine either way," I said, more sharply than was probably wise.
"Okay," Dad said, in that "placate the placater" tone he used to use on me all the time. I really hate that tone.
"You betcha. We'll see you then."
I put the phone back down in its cradle and turned the radio on. The Current was playing The Hold Steady:
The Devil and John Berryman, they took a walk together
And they ended up on Washington talking to the river
"Was that Dad?" Dan asked when I went back into the living room. He was half-buried in the tree doing something with one of the strings of lights. "What did he want?"
There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly
But he didn't, so he died
She said, "You're pretty good with words, but words won't save your life"
And they didn't, so he died
"I don't know, the usual Dad stuff. For us to be perfect and not take up any of his extra time. Double-checking when we're going over there on Christmas Eve."
"Well, it'll be fine as long as we don't get snowed in over there."
"Good point. I'll put a sack of salt in the trunk so we can de-ice ourselves out of their driveway if we have to." It was mostly a joke.
"You know Dad loves us."
"I know he thinks he loves us," I said, picking up an ornament and putting a hook on it. "I'm not sure it's the same thing."
I didn't have to look at his face to catch his disapproval. I read a lot for fun before I started college, mostly sci-fi and fantasy (my parents worried about that, too), and the summer I read the Young Wizards books I decided that my brother was an abdal, like Darryl in A Wizard Alone. I never discovered the Art or found my opportunity to take the Oath, but I still think that was the right diagnosis. Even now, Dan is just…a really nice guy, and weirdly unflappable, especially for a college freshman.
But it's not just niceness; he's also really certain, and ethical; it's not that being around him makes you want to be a better person. It's that being around him makes you think you can. Like Tom talks about virtue, and how it's a form of strength.
"Well, it's not like Mom ever really understood our being weird, either. She's just better at accepting it."
"I guess," I sighed. I love my parents, I do, but it never escaped my notice that my mom and I started to relate much better after I started wearing makeup and wanted pointers on how to choose perfume. She still doesn't really know what to make of me, but I know she loves us. It was also probably time to change the subject. "How many kinds of Christmas cookies should we make? Do you want to go see The Hobbit this weekend?"
"2D? IMAX? HFR 3D?"
"Ugh, 2D. You couldn't pay me to go to the Mall of America this week. The temple of capitalism doesn't need any more acolytes!"
"Not to mention it'll be ridiculously crowded."
We started putting up the garland, Dan carefully starting at the top of the tree and draping the stars and me holding the ends off the floor and feeding him new ones. It was a finicky business, making sure that the loops were relatively even, that the garland caught on the branches, that we weren't using too much or too little.
I asked the question when we were on opposite sides of the tree. "Dan? Do you still…you haven't…"
"Visions? No, five years ago was the last one." Dan sounded serene. He was always serene about the whole thing, and so I was too. It was the adults who couldn't understand us.
"Do you ever miss them?" I asked, and wanted to punch myself when I heard the wistful note in my own voice.
He glanced at me through the tree branches. I knew better than to think he hadn't heard. "No," he said calmly. "Do you?"
Five years ago, before therapy, I'd have answered differently. "No," I said. "Yes. I don't miss the visions themselves. I miss…I miss that it was us against the world. I miss how close we were."
"Still are, you realize."
"It's not the same."
"Sarah," Dan said, and I came around the tree and looked at him. He reached out and hugged me. "I know you know this. That's life. It changes. The epiphenomena, right? But not the causal factors. The important things don't. I'm still me and you're still you, and we always will be."
"I know," I sighed, and hugged him back. My brother the little mystic. It'd been easy to be his handler because he'd been right all the time.
Some things really don't change.