“Siblings are as close as hands and feet.” Vietnamese Proverb
I think because I am the youngest child I was always most aware. I was to my brother, sister, father, and mother an unwanted confidante, soaking up the idiosyncratic irks they held against one another and others, attempting to empathize with most of their reasoning, like the proverbial overused sponge. When Chantele, four years my senior, was reading at the age of six, I, too, was eager to read, and I practically begged my mother to spend her afternoons quizzing me with flashcards of vocabulary well beyond my years. By seven I wrote stories with paragraphs. When Chantele, in the third grade, learned how to write in cursive, I, politely, asked her to teach me the art one Sunday evening.
My sister and brother suffered from severe colds, and for five winters straight, Chantele caught laryngitis. One summer, Chris burnt his eyes from spending the day at the beach with a college girlfriend, and was subjected to a dark room with bandages covering his pupils for twelve days. Chris, nine years older, was in college during most of my formidable years. After I received a bone-marrow transplant, when he’d come home to visit, his patience with his baby sister did not dramatically improve because she was in a wheelchair. If I complained, he complained back to me about my complaining. If I wanted iced tea or potato chips, he insisted I learn to fetch items myself. During that time Chantele, satisfying the roles of best friend and sister, spun me around and around and around until I was nauseated, or locked me in a bedroom with my hands tied together while she hung out with friends, but she took the time out to shave my leg once a week, so, she’d tease, at least I had something going for me.
It can’t be true that the youngest child is the most catered to, though a 2009 report from CBS by David Lehman insists last-borns are “spoiled babies to the point of helplessness.” If you ask me, the last kid holds the fate of the family on her shoulders. Expectations have risen, older children have succeeded; the youngest must, too. I suppose this stress is similar to that which my brother subconsciously feels as the last man in the family, the only son, thus the only Jetté left to carry on our father’s beautiful, rhythmic last name.
One fascinating thing about siblings is that we do not miraculously change the way we feel about one another as our feelings might in regards to lovers or friends. I suppose it may be true that I am the only person whose temperaments change, well, so temperamentally, but surely anyone who believes her emotions are stable is a mendacious fool. Throughout my life, my brother and sister would mock my acne as they placed a warm washcloth dampened with Alcohlado on my forehead, the only remedy for the migraine rendering me catatonic on the couch. Pimple-faced and semi-limp ridden as I was, Chantele still milked the middle-child stereotype of neglect and misunderstanding; in youngest/observant fashion I’d sugar her with the fact that the cream was the best part of the Oreo. She found the idiom unoriginal, plus as a family, we much preferred chocolate chip.
Part of what I am trying to talk about is how siblings grow up in the same home, with the same parents, and manage to become vastly different people. Not only that, they also develop inherently different perceptions of their family. My father passed away when I was seventeen. His name was Dolor, and he was an alcoholic. Alcoholism, for me, wasn’t an issue until I was older, in Junior High. Then his alcoholism became my life. I spent week-nights scrubbing scabs of bloodied urine from the tiles so my mother wouldn’t have to see it when she woke up, so I wouldn’t have to see it when I woke up. My brother does not recall my father having a drinking problem.
Chris doesn’t know, though, that our father often kept a fifth of vodka in the inside chest pocket of his brown leather jacket, and a gallon of Georgii underneath the driver’s seat in his truck. Late one afternoon, at a holiday-themed store in the Poconos, I stood next to nutcrackers and silver strung trees, and watched, from the oversized window, my father chug the small plastic bottle, pacing around our 1992 blue Dodge Caravan, alone in the parking lot. Later on that night, he drove our car off the mountainside. A tree trunk saved our lives. He claimed he slipped on ice, but I know this is a lie. Chris and Chantele were allowed to stay in New York that weekend, no doubt having some joint party -- pretending to be busy with school or work. When we finally returned home from the Poconos, Mom told the story to Chantele and Chris: the icy roads, the stroke of luck.
The Japanese have two words for truth: honne and tatemae. Tatemae refers to the words we speak, the verbal articulation of our internal feelings, more commonly known as our facade or mask. To describe the truth the soul speaks one must use the word honne. Honne reflects the conflicts and intrigue hiding in our unconscious, whatever truth may be at the roots of our fears, hopes, or dreams, perhaps unacknowledged or unexpressed, yet ever-present.
When I ask my brother if he remembers that time he visited me in London, and we saw an older man, two sheets to the wind, start a fight with the bartender who refused to refill his pint, Chris mostly recounts the broken stool flung over the bar, missing everything it was intended to knock down, while I remember the tension, a hopelessness surround the man so thick you could smell it; the way his eyes wrinkled and his shoulders sunk as he was ushered out of the bar.
The funny thing about siblings is that even though we live, for the most part, together, we have entirely different lives. Often, as is the case with my siblings and our father, memories do not match. Secrets, too, form; unnoticed habits displayed right before blinded, blood-related eyes. Chantele, who is self-conscious about her weight, recently confessed she used to hide Twinkies in her room to eat alone, in private, hours before early morning when the rest of the house slept. Even though I crept into her room during the middle of the night once a week to sleep in the crevice of comfort an older sister offers, I never realized she did this. In other words, she hid those Twinkies pretty damn good.
All of this stems from the fact that recently, a poem of mine centered on my brother’s divorce was published. As I read it in print for the first time, it seemed to me a grave intrusion of privacy. These might not be his feelings. I claimed his plot, but I did not know his truth. This was Chris’s story; I had stolen it, molded it, and made it mine. Perhaps I believed I shared his pain, but I didn’t, and I couldn’t.
The heart of the matter is we spend more time with our siblings than we do with our parents, lovers, or friends; and some may say we argue with them more than with these other relations, too. In many ways, their influence is ineluctable. My sister fastidiously organizes her home down to the junk drawer in her kitchen; while I am mostly aloof and erratic, my closet must be color-coordinated. It is true I am an alcoholic’s daughter, and with such territory comes a heavy past, but in some light, this is not my only childhood. In this way, my siblings stories become my stories; we are to each the shadow of the other’s truth. They are intertwined in everything I write; their experiences, two thirds of my I.
Abriana Jetté's work has appeared in the Iron Horse Literary Review, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Moth and many other places. She teaches various English-related courses for St. John's University, and the City University of New York.