He’s standing there, clad in red cotton armor. His face is clouded by shadows, barely illuminated by the lit cigarette balanced between his lips. He takes a long drag, breathing in the darkness before releasing it, its crude color contrasting with the dawning sunset. Off-set yellow light streams from the window behind him, crawling on his back and the flat stones below him. Inside the window I can see furrowed brows, shaking hands, and hushed whispers. The last piece of sun disappears, draping a blue curtain over the land. He blinks, staring out at the picture before him. I stand there and I look up at him. I watch him in awe, longing, admiration. Horror. Pain. Disgust. There he stands, this beautifully awful man dressed in a red jumpsuit, smoking a cigarette on my back porch, avoiding the worried tones of our family, staring out into the world as if it doesn’t exist. There I stand, looking up at my brother, not knowing who he is.
I was four. I had no inkling of what this moment entailed, how this singular memory would provide the building blocks for understanding my brother. His condition. “What’s bipolar?” I ask. “It’s kind of like being really sad for one day and then really happy the next, but over and over again,” says mom. “It’s like having no control over your emotions,” says dad. “It’s shit,” says my sister. “Does that make sense?” I nod politely and quickly leave. I don’t ask my brother what bipolar is.
I was six. I didn’t have a full understanding of bipolar. I didn’t know why it changed my brother, just that it did. But I had a theory. I imagined that being bipolar was like living with a miniature devil and angel on your shoulders, constantly having to listen to them fight throughout the day. I imagined them yelling and screaming at my brother, the angel protecting, the devil manipulating. My brother’s tell-tale sign that the devil was winning was whenever he wore red. When I was younger, there were only two colors I hated: pink, and red.
He’s standing behind a wooden podium, hunched over, his hands gripping the sides. On the podium are wrinkled papers littered with words. He is draped in a blue gown, wearing a matching cap with a golden tassel. His skin looks shiny and yellowish under the harsh stadium lights, which oddly make his large teeth look even whiter. He is grinning from ear to ear, smiling with utmost sincerity. He looks out into the thousands of people before him, all wearing the same clothes, and speaks. Long, incomprehensible words flow out of his mouth. He is talking about something I don’t care to understand. The crowd cheers and claps. He speaks for a while, and I color in a program. My mom makes me listen as he ends his speech. “Thank you so much for these experiences, these memories, and I look forward to making new ones. Congratulations to the graduating class of 2008!”
I was eight. I didn’t see my brother much. He was out of college, living an independent life, and I was a prepubescent child dragging up the rear of our family. With my sister now gone to college, I was really alone. I missed my siblings. When I did see my brother it was during the summer. He wore a lot of colors. He wore blue and pink and green and purple, but I loved seeing him in yellow. Yellow made his skin glow a radioactive wave of content and happiness. He smelled like yellow too; like daisies and sunflowers and honey and squash. He stopped smelling like black, burnt tobacco. I stopped seeing red.
My brother opens the door. He is wearing a yellow sweater, which is a bit too fitted to his body. His hand is hidden behind a small woman. She is smiling. I don’t like her smile. “Nancy, Dad, Sarah, this is Anya,” my brother says. “Hello! It’s nice to meet you!” Anya says over-enthusiastically. Dad shakes her hand. He takes to her immediately. Mom shakes her hand. She is a bit more hesitant. I shake her hand. I guess she’s pretty enough. We greet, eat, and then they leave. A month later, my brother comes in the door. “Nancy, Dad, Sarah, this is Nina,” he says. “Hi there! It’s a pleasure to meet you!” Nina says joyfully. Dad shakes her hand. He takes to her immediately. Mom shakes her hand. She is a bit more hesitant. I shake her hand. I guess she’s pretty enough. We greet, eat, and then they leave. Another month later. “Nancy, Dad, Sarah, this is Greta.” Greet, eat, and then they leave. “Nancy, Dad, Sarah, this is Maria.” “This is Iris.” “Catherine.” “Penelope.” “Julia.” My brother comes in the door. His arm is wrapped around the shoulders of a tiny woman. Her arms are crossed and she is curled in on herself. An unexpected grin fills her face. It seems genuine. “Nancy, Dad, Sarah, I’d like you to meet Grace,” “Hi, I’ve heard so much about you all,” Grace says, extending her hand. Dad shakes her hand. He takes to her immediately. Mom shakes her hand. She is a bit hesitant. I shake her hand. I notice she has a lazy eye. We greet, eat, and then they leave.
I was nine. My brother spent a lot of time looking for someone to love, probably because my sister was already engaged. I thought my brother didn’t want to get left behind or run out of time. Now I wonder if he was searching for someone to fill the hole in his heart left by his mother’s death. Most girls didn’t work out. Grace did. Grace was perfect. She was quiet and shy and bossy, which balanced his bounding and gullible personality. Grace was nice. She babysat me. I liked Grace a lot, even her odd lazy eye. I think Grace was colorblind.
The church looms above us, shadowing us from the sun as we enter its white enclosure. Wooden benches sporting worn bibles cover the main floor, facing the stage as if they’re waiting for the show. My brother is standing in front of the priest in a black suit. He looks down the aisle as Grace appears. She is wearing a long, bleach white dress that glares vividly at me. I think she looks pretty. The priest says a few words to represent their different religions. They exchange rings and kiss. The minister produces a glass wine cup in a white bag. My brother grabs it, puts it on the floor, and stomps it to break the glass. Grace tries to help but doesn’t do much in her narrow heels. “Lehayim, my love,” he says. “Lehayim,” the church recites.
I was ten. My brother and Grace were married. They bought a home. A cat. They were thinking about children. I was going to be an aunt. Things were happy. Then they weren’t.
“God, that bitch,” dad says, his face buried in his hands. He looks up and notices me. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there.” “It’s alright,” I say, grimacing as my maturing voice skips on my vocal chords. I try to ignore it and continue. “What’s wrong?” He looks down at the papers below him and sighs. Deep lines decorate his face as he closes his hollowed eyes. “Divorce is never easy. There are so many different factors that come to play, all of which require a lot of time and money.” I can tell there’s more. I wait. He looks at me. “Grace isn’t making this easy for him. She’s demanding most everything from their marriage, and she’s not willing to budge.” There’s a pause. “Oh,” my voice leaps. “Yeah,” his voice shakes. Dad pauses, as if mulling over something. “How are you feeling with all of this?” I’m taken aback by the question, but I don’t show it. “I’m fine,” I say. For now, I think.
I was eleven. My brother moved back into our house, living in the basement. Grace had won the majority of their household items, and more importantly, almost all of their money. He was broke. Broken. All I could do was watch him and wait for the red. I didn’t have to wait long. Red shirts, pants, shoes, and hats hid his skin. Gold jewelry that he couldn’t afford weighted his wrists and neck. Black smoke haunted him, leaving its rotting stench wherever he went. My home became a battlefield, covered with dirty red clothes and cigarette butts. I learned what fear was in my own home. At night, I couldn’t sleep, even with him two stories below. While he had and would never purposefully hurt someone, I was still afraid. I didn’t trust my brother. No one trusted my brother.
I’m sitting on my couch, curled into a ball. My backpack sits in my lap, its contents jabbing my stomach. I look at the closed door as I hear shouting from downstairs. I hear my parents. I hear him. I turn away and cover my ears, shutting my eyes. I don’t know how much time passes before my mom comes into my room. I quickly compose myself. “Hi,” she says. “Hi,” I say. She sighs. “Your brother’s a bit angry at the moment.” She flinches as a shout breaches the room. “I want you to stay up here. I’m going to call the school and tell them that we’re running late, or that you’re not feeling well. When he calms down, I’ll get you to school, alright?” I nod, removing a book from my backpack. “I promise this won’t happen again.” That’s what she said last time. The time before that. She pauses. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” “It’s okay if you’re not.” “I’m fine, really.” A shout comes from downstairs. The sound of breaking glass echoes throughout the house. My mom leaves, rushing downstairs. I don’t know why I keep lying.
I was twelve. It was around this time that I revised how I interpreted bipolar. As my mind matured, the devil and angel transformed into a pendulum. The average person’s pendulum swings from one end, happiness, to the opposite end, sadness, never staying in one too long, always balancing between the two. My brother’s pendulum moved more extremely, swinging to the highest heights of elatedness before gravity viciously tore it back down to reality and into a dark, horrible depression. More often than not, his pendulum got jammed during that swing and I never knew when he would come back to me or how long he would stay unstuck. My brother eventually moved out. He wasn’t ready, but he was tired of living with his parents. With him left the smog that tainted the air, the red that covered the walls and floors. I didn’t miss him.
It’s morning. The phone rings and mom answers it. I try to listen, but she isn’t talking. She calls out for my dad. They leave the room. I follow them. I find them huddled in the hallway, crying into each others arms. I ask them what’s wrong. They don’t hear me. I ask again, slightly louder. There’s a pause. It’s your brother, they say. He tried to kill himself.
I was thirteen. There was red everywhere. There was no escaping it. It stained his body, his clothes, his sheets. It dripped onto the floor, slowly seeping into the carpet. That’s what I was told, anyway. My parents didn’t let me near his apartment for months after my brother slit his wrist. The night before the phone call, my brother had taken a dangerous amount of prescription drugs and had carved opened his veins. Lying on his bed, he waited for death Death was late; my brother was still alive the next morning when the house cleaners found him. They called the police and then they called my mom. My brother was sent to the hospital, where he stayed in ICU for a few days and then the mental ward for a few weeks. The day my brother tried to kill himself, I got my first period.
My brother opens the door, hesitantly entering the house. I don’t look at him, choosing to stare at the sandwich I’m making. My parents are with him, and as they remove their coats, he comes towards me. “Hey, squirt,” he says. “Hi,” I say. He holds out his hand to shake. I shake it briefly and quickly turn it over. I shove up his sleeve and see — nothing. My brows furrow. “Wrong wrist,” He says quietly, rolling up his right sleeve. The scar is purple, lined with black stitches. It’s swollen and irritated from the silver watch he’s using to cover it. I look up at him. “It will heal.” He gives a faint smile and rolls down his sleeve.
I was still thirteen. For my brother, the year was filled with failing medications, struggles with addictions, and traveling between psychiatrists and mental wards. For me, the year was filled with school, self discovery, and anticipatory bad news. My brother visited every month or so, each trip finding him more timid than the last. I slowly watched as my brother changed from his recurring red figure to another person I hadn’t met at all. He talked slowly and quietly and rarely made eye contact, as if he feared his whispers and glances were spiked whips, hurting those around him. The more my brother visited, the less I wanted to see him.
“We’re serving eight this year, right?” I ask. “Yes, eight,” my mom answers, engrossed with the final touches of her meal. “That includes him.” “Yes.” There’s a pause. I can feel his aura weighted in the air around us, mingling with the smell of sweet potatoes, corn, and bread. “Is he doing better?” I ask, remembering how my brother called me with an incoherent presence a few days prior. I’d lost count of how many times he had asked me how I was doing during the call. “Your father seems to think so.” “What do you think?” Another pause. “He’s not himself.” I already knew that. “I’m allowed to leave the house whenever, right?” I ask, coughing as I think about the black smog that follows him again. “Yes, just let me know.” I begin to think of different ways to escape my home’s entanglement. Volleyball practice, gym, Black Friday, friend’s houses, homework at the library. My brother won’t know; his current mindset is too naive and child-like to think otherwise. I just have to make it through tonight, come up with excuses until he leaves. “Time for dinner!” My mom exclaims, a grin plastered on her face for all our guests. We migrate to the dining room, sitting as our meal is placed before us. A wrinkled yellow tablecloth drapes in front of me, hiding the ages old dining table. My hands embrace those next to me; my mother and father. Their hands link to the person next to them, to the person next to them, and so on until our incomplete table of seven is almost all joined together. I look towards the hole in the chain, the eighth empty chair. My mom glances at my father, nodding her head towards the seat. “I’ll get him,” my father says, creating another hole. We all wait at the table, glancing between one another, our silence soon broken by the blaring of rap music from drugstore earbuds. My brother walks in, nodding his head, blindly staring in front of him, mumbling incoherent words offbeat to his music. My dad follows, taking his seat and joining hands. He motions to my brother, who is still standing. My brother shakes his head, looks around as if he’s seeing us for the first time, then sits. My mother coughs. “Would you mind turning off the music?” She says, smiling politely. My brothers jerks his head towards her and detachedly says, “Yeah, sure, of course.” He removes the earbuds and lowers the volume one loud click at a time until no noise can be heard, pocketing his phone and finally joining with the rest of us. We have a brief moment of silence before my dad begins to say what he’s thankful for. My mom shoots a glare at him. We weren’t supposed to do that this year. We go down in a row, saying our thanks. Most everyone says the same thing- food, shelter, family, friends, etc- with either more or less eloquence than the one before them. Soon it’s my brother’s turn. You don’t have to say anything, I think. “You don’t have to say anything,” my mom says. “I want to,” he says, aimlessly looking forward. His eyes briefly fill with purpose, making eye contact with us all before declaring, “I am thankful for food, family, friends — no — food, women, family, and friends. In that order.” A light chuckle rumbles over the heavy silence. His mouth droops open. He doesn’t get the joke, but laughs along in accordance, looking around with a question on his face. He’s like a toddler; he has no comprehension of what we’re thinking right now. What I’m thinking right now. Just keep smiling, I tell myself. He doesn’t need to know. He’ll never need to know.
I was seventeen. I am seventeen. I won’t always be seventeen. Soon, seventeen will be just another memory, a wisp of slipping youth; seventeen will become paired with thirteen, and eleven, and nine, and eight, and four, and so on and so forth as my memory shrinks and expands all at once. Images will begin to fade and lose saturation, turning reds into grays and dimming the glint of his gold watch, until all I am left with is my brother and me, standing on our back porch, staring out at the colorless sunset, pretending that the world doesn’t exist.
-- Sarah Smith is currently a junior at Manlius Pebble Hill school in Dewitt, New York. In addition to her passion for writing, Sarah is an active participant in theater tech, varsity soccer and volleyball, the visual arts, and aspires for a career in computer science and technology. Sarah hopes to be able to continue and grow her love for writing after high school, as well as expand her piece “I Am” as its story continues.