Winning Text: Creative Nonfiction (2010): First Prize
My Best Friend by Gina Leola Woolsey
He's nine, I'm seven. We're in the schoolyard. He's riding his bike around me in circles. I still can't ride my two-wheel bike. I'm afraid of falling, of getting hurt.
It's time to go home. "Please come with me. The street lights are on. C'mon," I plead. I really want to go, but he won't come. We live just two blocks away.
"You go. I'm not ready," he says after I wait and stare at him while he pops wheelies.
"We'll get in trouble. C'mon."
"Mom'll be mad," I call to his back while he pedals away.
"I don't care," he yells back at me, his voice receding. There is a knot in my throat.
I go home alone and Mom demands an answer for his absence.
"His bike has a flat tire and he has to carry it home. He's coming. I promise."
She doesn't believe me.
"Please don't be mad," I beg.
It doesn't matter; he will break all her rules and she will punish him. I go to my room to hide.
"You are just like your father," she hisses at him when he comes home half an hour later. I hear the violence in her voice through my closed bedroom door.
I tell my dad about the fights while we're on summer vacation, so my brother and I move to Dad's little prairie town. I wear hand-me-downs and shoes with holes. My brother learns to fix cars and swear.
The single-wide trailer is too small, so Dad builds an addition of two bedrooms with a hall between for my brother and me. We don't have doors on our rooms, and the floors are bare plywood.
My brother can't stay awake at school, and he doesn't like math or English. His hair is too long. He hangs out with the only other bad boy around. They play cop show, two-wheeled daredevil or famous rock star. I don't know any of these games. The bad-boy friend tries to enlist me as the hooker in a game of cop show, but my brother says no, tells me to get lost. I go play alone in the strip of trees between our trailer and a field of rye.
* * *
I'm 11, he's 13.
I clean my room and go to bed without being asked. He plays his borrowed bass guitar to the same song over and over and keeps me awake at night. No matter how low he turns the volume, I can hear the tin sound of melody and the gentle bang of his thumb on the strings.
Rrrroxanne, you don't have to wear that dress tonight...
"Turn it off," I whine.
"Jeezus! I'm barely fucking breathing over here!"
...walk the streets for money, you don't care if it's wrong or if it's right...
"I can still hear it and you're not supposed to play it after bedtime."
Dad calls down the hall, "What are you two bellyaching about now?"
...put on the red light... then silence from his room across the hall.
"Nothing," I call back to Dad.
A few minutes later, I hear it again, too muffled to make out the words. He's wearing cheap headphones and drumming along with his fingers on something hard. I bury my head under the pillow and try to dream him away.
* * *
I'm 15, he's 17. Our bodies are big, adult-size, though we are childlike inside. We're in the city, back with Mom because Dad was always broke, always broken, and his small town couldn't contain our desires. We spilled over the edges, into the farmer's fields, and flattened the tall crops with our big-city ideas. We couldn't find Jesus in our hearts or prairie grain in our blood, so we came back to the rocky coast.
Back by the whispering sea, my brother and I bury the past deep in our bodies. My black box of memories forms a barricade in my intestines, gives me a stomach ache. His takes up the love space in his heart.
There is a buzz around my brother at our new high school. He is tall, broad shouldered, still the same alien-blue eyes. He's a musician. I admire him. He's always had better fashion sense than me, better taste in music than me, better jokes than me.
No one talks to me much at the new school until the girls find out that he is my brother. I make friends through association.
He has the same girlfriend for three years, but he is not faithful to her. Their relationship is full of fights and pretend breakups. She's caught him in so many lies and his defence is always anger. I think they must have great make-up sex. She is sweet and beautiful. I can't understand why she puts up with him.
The three of us are in a car.
He's raising his voice: "It's lies. You're always accusing me of something."
She turns to me; her face is red. She's wearing a faded jean jacket, an asymmetrical ginger bob. Freckles.
"He's lying," I say because it's the truth. "He was with someone else."
She is top-notch sister-in-law material and I'm making sure she knows by putting her in the sibling circle of truth. She's only there for a second, but it's long enough for her to leave.
* * *
He's 27. We've grown up and apart. He goes overseas with his new fiancée and they break up in Japan. I give birth while he's away, building my world while his crumbles.
He moves to L.A. and tries to do something, to be something. He finds heroin and the escape route for which he's been searching. When I go to see him, he tells me that the high is bliss, but he doesn't offer me any.
Three years later, he comes home to get clean and asks to stay with me for a month or two.
He stays for over a year. He doesn't pay rent or buy food and I finally have to blow up, freak out, yell for three days straight to get him to leave.
* * *
He's 32. He shows up at my door, a mess. He edges around me, into my living room. He paces back and forth. Snot runs down his face and his huge eyes are rimmed in red.
"I need to talk to someone."
"What's wrong?" I'm a bit panicked, but this scene is not new.
"I made her break up with me." He is sobbing into his hand. "I watched it happen and I couldn't stop. I wanted to feel bad."
He's been working as a bike courier and he met a cute receptionist with a French accent on one of his drops. Her desk became a regular part of his route. They've been dating for two months now. She is racy and fun.
He flops on the couch, classic hand-covering-face posture, and tells me how he purposely didn't return her messages for days until he knew that she was furious. Then he went to see her, helpless looking and holding flowers. She ranted, accusing him of everything she suspected, while he did nothing, admitted nothing, letting her heartbreak pummel him, until she threw him out.
When he runs out of steam, I offer him leftovers. "Got a joint?" he asks.
We spend a few hours watching TV. He gets fed. He laughs at the cartoons.
I get a glimpse here of something broken. I don't know how to fix it.
He needs too much. He takes too much. He is angry at the world. I distance myself, protect my life from his wrecking ball. I see him less and less. Sometimes, I don't even know where he lives, even though we're in the same city.
He's 40. He's at the door again. It's not good when he shows up; it's never just to say hi, to bring back something he borrowed or to visit, like a normal brother might in my imaginary world.
He's crying and broken. "I don't have anywhere to go. I have no money, nothing. Please." He locks eyes with mine. "Help me. You're my sister."
"You can't come over here like this. It's not fair," I say, groping for a shield. I can see the panic rising in his face.
"Please." He is pleading, not yet angry, so I know he has enough money in his pocket for at least one more time. "I'm not using, I swear." The scabs on his face and the ball cap bill hiding his eyes tell another story.
He's been on my couch before on his way to rehab. That was my condition the first two times; he could live on my couch and eat my food if he was on the wait-list for detox. I thought I was so smart. I patted myself on the back for my fortitude. I felt like a war nurse.
I'm worn out now. He's stuck in his loop and I don't have the strength to keep going around. I try to accept our respective helplessness. I employ Zen models, tell myself it's his path and he must need to know it.
"I can't save you. I have to let you fall," I say.
I don't go on and tell him how hard it is for me to say no, how conflicted and sad I feel. I think he'll use it against himself.
Two of his friends have killed themselves on heroin. He says he'll never do that.
He says he's scared to die.
* * *
He's 44 now. I have this recurring dream about him. I've had some version of it since we were kids. My brother is dying over and over of many different things. He is beaten and diseased and destroyed. Every time, I try to save him, kill myself to save him, barely save him.
I find this letter in an old sketchbook:
Dear God, my creator,
Thank you for my life and for who I am. Thank you for my sister. Thank you for AA and the support I get from Nancy and Dave. Thank you for Turning Point and all I lerned there. Please help me have the courage I need to go back to meetings and just do what I must to get back on my feet. Please keep me humble and help me accept where I am and to not loose sight of where I'm going. Please take away any desire to use drugs. I don't want them anymore. I offer my self to you and to build with me as you. So, please take my will and my life and show me how to live.
I don't know if he means for me to have it, but he probably wrote it four or five years ago. The lined paper was tucked inside the front cover and laid flat with no folds, as if it were a portrait or a piece of art. It's written with a mix of upper and lower case letters. I try to type it case-sensitive, to be true to it, but it looks all wrong. The spelling errors give me a lump in my throat because they make me think of us in school together and how I can't spell either.
My brother has moved to another province and I haven't had his address or phone number since he left two years ago after his third time in rehab.
* * *
I don't know how old we are. This memory is creased and worn from use and time. We live across the bay from the city, in an apartment. There is lawn furniture in the living room and we don't have a TV. My brother and I share a room, our twin beds close together so we can talk each other to sleep. In the morning, I get up before him and go to the kitchen. I quietly move chairs out of the way so we can play when he wakes up.
We make boats out of sleeping bags and push ourselves around on the linoleum while Mom sleeps. We whisper across the slippery squares of pretend water between us, playing quiet pirate games. He is my best friend. I've known him forever.
Click here to read the text as it appears in the April 2011 issue of Air Canada's enRoute Magazine.