By: Casey Chiang
I heard him storming up the stairs in a clamor, the shrill clap of the bathroom door thundering through the walls. The sound resonated throughout my body and came to rest in the center of my constricting chest, suddenly heavy with the weight of worry and wariness. The urge to follow him was there, but the trail he left in his wake was charged with rage that threatened to shock any who came near.
But it wasn’t as if I had a choice. Blood tied me to obligations I couldn’t bring myself to abandon.
Anticipation and anxiousness mingled frantically in the pit of my stomach as I ascended the stairs, my steps light and limbs shaking. It must have been another fight with our mom. Probably about an assignment, a test, or something to that extent; it made no difference. Their bouts always ended catastrophically—my brother too ashamed to admit his handicap, my mother unknowing of how to help him, and fury sparking between them.
And me. Always caught in the middle. Pulled into a fight that had nothing and everything to do with me. Always thrown in abruptly without a strategy, or even a side to call my own. Instead I flitted between the two, but my lack of commitment only meant my relevancy remained subjective, and today, in my brother’s eyes, I didn’t know where I stood.
Moments later I found myself staring at a closed door, the frustrated weeps that poured out from the room only slightly muffled by the wooden barrier.
“Leave me alone!” his strangled shout ordered, and I found myself absently surprised that he even knew I was there. But instead of complying I pushed forward, opening the door to reveal his distraught face; his features scrunched up in an ugly scowl and his eyes leaking tears that coaxed my own, though I fought to keep them contained.
His misery seemed so misplaced in that bathroom – a place that to me had always represented bubbles and baths, childhood and glee. At surface level, everything appeared the same. There were the same high ceilings, the same bright lights, the same peeling wallpaper and the same ceramic tub. The large mirrors that lined the walls reflected back the playfulness of the past, but in that moment, the tempestuous aura my brother emitted seemed to draw the walls in closer and bullied innocence into the corner.
I tried to argue my mother’s point in a softer way, recounting loaded words that turned hollow with repetition.
“She’s just worried about you,” I said.
“She’s trying to help, but doesn’t know how,” I said.
“Just tell her if you’re struggling. Don’t hide it.”
Even to my own ears the arguments sounded weak in comparison to his earnest wails that beseeched me to leave him in the comfort of isolation.
But ultimately it made no difference what he wanted. Only that I selfishly needed to stay by his side, fear cementing my feet where they stood. He was hysterical; unstable. I needed to be there. Just in case.
Eventually, the words I was spouting died in my throat, but I didn’t move a muscle. His eyes told me that he knew what I was thinking, and that he resented me for it. The longer I stood there, the hotter his anger became.
Silence is a language rarely mastered, but in that moment, the translation was written all over my face.
“I’m not going to kill myself,” he spat when I failed to speak, his voice congested with disgust and his dark eyes flashing. “Even I’m not that fucked up.”
I flinched. I’d never heard that word pass his lips, and its presence lingered in the air between us. That image I had of him in my head, the one of him as my annoying little brother who liked to pull on my ponytail and had the loudest screeching laugh that I’d ever heard, fractured just a little bit more.
“I know,” I lied, speaking slowly, and when his head bowed down, his messy black bangs falling over his face, a tear escaped the confines of my eye. It traced down my cheek in mock comfort and I wiped it away furiously, swallowing around the swell in my throat before speaking again. “If you just tried taking your medicine, maybe—”
“I don’t want to take the medicine!” he erupted past chapped and trembling lips. His sobs grew hitched as he looked up to lock my gaze with his. I watched as his expression broke and when he spoke again his voice was raw with naked emotion. “It makes me feel tired all the time,” he confessed.
Those words finally cracked my stubborn façade of composure as I allowed the tears to spill, the salty taste of them slipping into the corners of my mouth.
His voice came again. Quieter this time. “I never feel truly awake anymore.”
His admission was my final silencer, my mouth opening and closing helplessly, trying to grasp something, anything, to say. But the words refused to come. With my tongue effectively tied, I clamped my mouth shut and the door soon followed. As soon as the small click that marked my retreat sounded, my brother’s weeps resumed and I joined him on the other side. My legs gave out as I slid down the wall and onto the floor, my face crumbling into my shaking hands.
There was more to do, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it, and I don’t think I ever will. In that moment, all I could do was sit there with my eyes closed and ears open. For however much the sound of his misery grated at my heart and mind, I needed to be there.
Just in case.