I should have been born the same month as Denny, almost the same day even. But I arrived two months early at the end of June under circumstances I’ve never been told because mom always changed the subject as soon as it came up. Just another one of those unanswered questions that hung in the air like smoke after a fire, but I can pretty much guess why I was born early. The family dynamics were set in cement by the time I was born, and my arrival did little to change them.
I spent the first month of my life in the NICU at the hospital. Denny said I looked like a piece of chicken wearing a blue knitted cap. My first baby picture shows Denny standing next to the isolette, his hands pushed through its sides into sterile ghost-like gloves. He’s got one hand on my tennis ball-sized head, and I’ve got my tiny hand wrapped around his index finger, gripping it like it’s the only thing keeping me from disappearing.
When I was allowed to go home, Denny insisted I sleep in his room even though I woke him up every couple of hours for the first month. Though mom was usually the one to get me, sometimes Denny would take care of me so mom could sleep. Why a seven-year old would be taking care of a newborn is another one of those questions that hangs in the air, another one of those, “Do you really have to ask?” moments that make up so much of my life it’s a wonder I have any memories at all. But I never had to ask anyone why Denny wanted me in his room.
The first fight I remember was when I was three. I know it wasn’t their first fight because I already knew, as soon as I heard dad’s voice rising in the living room, to climb into Denny’s bed. I don’t remember being scared. I just remember the warmth of Denny's chest against my back and the whisper of his voice in my ear. It was almost enough to drown out my father’s anger. My brother's arms around my chest could almost make me believe I was safe.
Our father’s voice was like the zoo lions at feeding time, impatient and frustrated, coming through the wall too indistinct to make out words, a snarl slashing at the air in our room. Not that words mattered. Our father’s anger was often indistinct, a blunt instrument battering against our ears. We felt it most ominously in its cessation, like the passing of an earthquake. At least I did. My father, if he caught me when he was in one of his rages, would turn to me with his arm raised, ready to strike. I would see his arm hold there, in the air, quivering like a tree about to fall in a storm, and then he’d snarl, his arm grabbing whatever was handy and smashing it to the floor. If anyone else was nearby, he’d grab them instead. It was usually Denny. So many times I watched my brother get slammed against a wall, my dad’s fist crushing into his chest, and me, standing there silent, my dad screaming at me how I better not be crying because my piece of shit brother wasn’t worth the effort. Sometimes he dared mom to make him stop, taunting her, asking her why she didn’t. When Denny got bigger, almost as big as dad by his twelfth birthday, Denny talked back to him, kept his attention from turning to mom, let dad spend that fury on his body. That's when dad started staying out, drinking at a bar, coming home after we'd gone to bed, going after mom only when he was sure Denny would stay with me, protect me, chose me over mom because that's what mom wanted, too. I've never asked why I was the least expendable, why my body was spared. And no one's ever asked what I remember because they know too well how much I remember.
Over the years, Denny and I got used to the crashes and the yelling, but the one thing we could never get used to was mom crying. We both wanted to go to her. To make him stop. We knew we couldn’t. We knew she wouldn't want us to. So Denny would wrap his arms around me, and we’d huddle beneath his blankets, and Denny would tell me stories about the stars. My favorite was about Pegasus, the winged horse that could fly to Mount Olympus.
Pegasus was the child of Poseidon, the sea god, and Medusa, who had live snakes growing on her head instead of hair. When Perseus cut off her head, Pegasus was born from the drops of blood.
“So something wonderful can come from something horrible,” Denny said, and I didn’t need him to fill in the blank spaces as our dad slammed the front door so hard, the entire house shook. And then the silence. And in the silence, the sound of mom sweeping the floor, the pure mechanical sound of it almost scarier than our father's violence because, by the time we woke up the next morning, everything would look perfect again, as if nothing had happened the night before. All history of the event had been erased. The only way we knew what had broken was by figuring out was missing. We never talked about the things that were no longer there, and none of us ever forgot and asked, “Whatever happened to…?” Not even about my father after he left for good.