Brother Makes Three
One day near the
end of Reagan's first electoral reign I left for Europe with barely
enough money to sustain my whim.
An airplane is the best way out of the metro area because it leaves
you feeling like Phoenix, rising from the ashes of urban blight. As
the 747 lifted me up and out of my own more personal malaise, I contemplated
a smoky haze of an itinerary. A sibling in England needed visiting,
so I hereby designated myself family ambassador. No letters warned my
sister and no phone calls prepared her. I was going to guerrilla my
way into her household. These were the days when I thrived on the pleasant
notion that anybody and everybody had time for me.
The flight was as unexceptional as coasting 40,000 feet over the Atlantic
can ever be. The pilgrim who shared my armrest was well-versed in traveller
etiquette, and the pilot apparently knew his stuff. We landed in the
morning, my flight insurance another bad investment.
London was a diversion but so was my luggage. When you don't make plans
you can never be off schedule, so I immediately called my sister.
Dawn had gotten hitched, to the Air Force and then to a husband. A bystander
by blood, I had my opinions. Great, I had concluded when both unions
had occurred. Now she's serving both her country and her man.
While suffering the whims of telephone relay switches my first mission
materialized: was my sister in bliss? I determined to gauge the level
of same and report back to superiors. I wanted to be able to tell my
parents (who hadn't yet met their son-in-law) yes, she appears to be
happy, so no, don't worry. And of course I wanted to see this for myself.
I have nothing against bliss.
Where there's smoke there's either fire or a brother who likes to cause
surprises. Dawn was immediately suspicious.
After exchanging the oblicatory health and welfare data we discovered
that we were both fine. Still, she didn't know where I was calling from.
"New York?" she guessed, my latest postmark, but one distanced
"Do you have a spare bed?" was my clue. Turns out she did.
She was a married woman without even P.O.S.S.L..Q. status [Person of
the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters - a very 80s expression] because
Scott, the husband in question, was stationed in Germany pending an
officially sanctioned change in venue. They had been stationed apart.
Life is paperwork.
Dawn lived off base, sharing her picturesque cottage with another Airman,
female class. After a bus ride I met sister and housemate in a hamburger
joint, my own favourite venue. Once home and alone we talked.
"How's life?" I asked her, giving her plenty of room to manoeuvre.
Dawn had always needed her space, but had never been given any. A first-born,
she suffered all the restraints that new parents are wont to construct.
The red tape she cut through as a child to cross the street and stay
out past dark had dissolved, by the time I came down the pike, into
an easy permission to not only hike cross town but to just be back before
dawn. She suffered the shock of a tourist inching through customs watching
a diplomat breeze through.
This is of course the typical state of affairs, but Dawn took it hard
and savored her freedom when it came at the end of high school. That
summer she worked in an amusement park and rode the emotional roller
coaster of assuming an independent trajectory from the family orbit.
She also quickly fell in love without a net (and love is the suspension
of gravity, is it not?). Exhilarated by the possibilities, she stormed
into college ready to learn and to do but ran out of money, that great
arbitrator of opportunity. By this time her affair had seriously blossomed,
but it proved to be an annual rather than a perennial and she sloppily
fell apart from this particular Him just as she was disengaging from
her sophomore year.
That maxim about not being able to go home again proved true, again.
Though my parents had outgrown their protectiveness, Dawn had been conditioned
to expect nothing less. The Protestant work ethic is hard currency with
them, and she appeared to be drifting in soft apathy. The climate was
chilly. My father, a former Marine, lobbied for enlistment. Money for
college, he said.
And so here we were, my sister now telling me that life was great, just
great. "I got married so I could be alone."
"Doesn't everybody do that?" I asked without humor. We talked
through the night and she laid bare the facts. Turns out she hated the
Air Force and wasn't so sure about her marriage, either. They hadn't
even shared a household, but already she was getting nervous.
"When we're together on leave he wants me to wait on him like I'm
a servant," she commented, her voice but a single plaint in a chorus
as loud as the world. "When we first met I liked how he made me
feel safe, but not he just makes me feel smothered. Or at least I'm
afraid he will."
My counsel was one of understanding by my experience was far short of
being able to. Sympathy but not empathy. Had she talked with him about
it? I asked. Yes. Apparently his answer was something along the lines
of "Sure, okay. And could you get me another beer?" Within
the framework of his ability to comprehend his own shortcomings, he
acted on them. In other words he stayed the course, like many of us.
Dawn invariably got him the beer.
When she told me that the military had to give her and Scott permission
to marry -- just a formality, but one which merely reconfirmed who was
really in control of her life -- I marvelled. Our parents had been replaced
by college which had given way to Uncle Sam. I longed for her to be
Our month together was a rejuvenation of an atrophied bond. We got to
know each-other all over again. When the light fuse went out in mid-October
we failed to replace it and spent nights on either side of a hurricane
lamp, relating of this or that storm in our lives. During the course
of our talks my next mission developed: I decided to visit Scott and
see if he really was the enemy and, more important, if he thought he
Dawn's roommate had a general, all-encompassing comment on the battle
of the sexes: "Women. Are better." She was adamant.
As my stay came to a close, Dawn's chief complaint of life with brother
was that I was forever running out of rations and getting into her groceries.
She'd told me of this early on and, within the framework of my ability
to comprehend my own shortcomings, I'd acted on it. I'd eaten some more.
If approaching Scott didn't prove to be as easy as simply calling him
and arranging a meet, it was only because I didn't want it to be. One
must stay in character.
In a roundabout manner I found my way to Bitburg, an unfamiliar X on
the map until Reagan's public relations disaster. Sitting in yet another
hamburger place -- my true reason for going to Europe seemed to be to
compare the price of Big Macs for later research -- I commenced fact-finding
and learned that the Air Force base was closed to the general public,
which would mean capitulation to the mundane act of notifying Scott
of my arrival. Fortunately another admirer of cholesterol took note
of my English and asked who I was.
"Just your typical ugly American," I answered, and though
he didn't disagree he did prove my ace into the place. An MP, he offered
a smooth ride past his brethren because, as he put it, "You don't
look too dangerous."
There was no time to take offense at this remark because soon enough
I was standing outside Scott's domicile and finding nobody home. A knowledgeable
passer-by said he might be in the bar.
"So you know
my wife," said the man from the east side of Chicago, showing no
emotion but numbness. Could be the drink, I thought, or could be his
personality. Ever charitable, I marked him soused. Listening to somebody
slur his words all night long can be fun, but he wasn't a talkative
drunk. Come the sobriety of morning's light he maintained his brevity
but allowed that it might be interesting having me around. I quite naturally
agreed, so we meshed eccentricities and lived together as man and brother-in-law.
Next came the sizing-up. Turned out his face was a mask that never came
off. He seemed aggrieved, not a happily married man at all. When finally
syllables clumped into words and those into disquieting notions, his
antennae didn't evidence damage. "Something seems wrong,"
he said. "I'm getting this feeling from Dawn."
"What feeling is that?" I asked, unable to keep from playing
marriage counsellor and knowing full well that I was cheating. My quick
decision was that my sister did not need a surrogate and I shouldn't
be one. Whatever emotional battlefields they were destined for, mine
wasn't the role of the artillery man. So it was "Why?" and
"For how long?" and "You don't say?" rather than
"Now listen here," or "Dawn says that..."
The guy wasn't an ogre. My sister's "I do" hadn't been a "How
can I possibly?" He seemed gently confused about it all, prone
to leaving his thoughts unfinished because he didn't know where they
We took to sharing our nights in a clam bar in Trier, a stone's throw
from Luxembourg, where he avoided the clams and I avoided the bar. He'd
tell me about Dawn's latest failure to write and I'd try to weigh in
with the optimism that he had come to expect from me.
Our sessions finally seemed to have an effect. He got mad. At me. But
no volcano of sputtering, he. Increasingly the looks he favoured me
with were those of a wrestler circling his quarry. Unfortunately, this
was to go beyond metaphor.
The first time it happened we were playing poker in his living room
and I was losing. To shore up his mood, I flattered myself. During a
midgame full body stretch he abruptly but calmly began moving furniture
close to the walls. When the floor was clear he swept his hand over
it as if to welcome me into his office and before I could much think
about it he was choking me.
It was supposed to be a grip of camaraderie, a friendly armhold that
had my windpipe kissing the crook of his elbow. "You ever wrestle?"
he almost whispered into my ear.
"I don't think I'm in your class," I gasped, uneasily prying
my neck loose. The same bulk that had once comforted my sister quite
overshadowed her brother.
"Come on," he taunted, bent close to the ground. "It'll
keep you in shape." He was looking at me with his head cocked just
so, and suddenly I could read his mind.
If I walked out of the house there would be no welcome back. The floor
was cold under my back as, soon enough, I lay there pinned. He was smiling.
He didn't help me up.
That night spawned a dozen unofficial matches. He never uttered a mean
word in my presence, but neither did he allow me to bow out of our little
play. Because this was, after all, theater: for a few brief minutes
every other day he had a wife again.
The clams had long ago lost their taste. I announced my departure on
the evening that Scott finally got the letter he had been waiting for.
Inside was a ring.
Press, October 1989