My big sister Tatyana turns 39 today. I know what you’re thinking: “that’s wicked old!” And you’re right. She’s pretty ancient and feeble. Please– do not let her forget that.
In my mind, it’s hard to imagine her being nearly 40. I think part of that has to do with the fact that she and I have been alienated from each other for most of our lives. I don’t know when the divide between us sprung up, but I know it was very early, probably before I was ten, and I know that I was the one who wrote her off. Why? I can’t recall, but I know I was the one to alienate her and not the other way around. We were already strangers when I left home at fifteen. We went years without speaking to each other. When I was 27, she threw me out of her house. Yeah, sure she’d had a baby the day before but I was really hungover! Shortly thereafter, she and her family moved to Okinawa and I didn’t see any of them for nearly six years.
So it was pretty weird to realize this year that I had a new best friend– a wife, a mother of four, a woman I’d known my entire life, my big sister Tatyana. I’ve moved all over the country, looking for my home, and I realized this year that the only time I really feel like I’m where I belong is when I’m out running with my sister.
In honor of her birthday, here is a truly dark and horrible piece about her and I. Happy Birthday, T. I love you to death and I will always be grateful that, no matter how old I get, you will always be older than me.
Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen To You
My sister Tatyana had her first child in 2002 when I was 25. He was born on February 23rd, six days after my birthday and four days into my year of self-imposed sobriety (I had lost three entire days celebrating my birthday).
When she told me over the phone that she was having a boy, I jumped and threw a fist in the air, denting the low tin ceiling in our kitchen in Brooklyn. Tatyana is two years older than me and when we she was three, she used to lug her fireplug of a baby brother around, calling me “my Mika,” unable to pronounce the unwieldy clot of three consonants in my name. When she later decided to name her child “Mika,” after me, I was uncomfortably touched by her gesture. I would now have the child I had wondered about, the child I had yearned for and feared, the child I had taken grim, desperate measures not to have. Later, I wondered cynically if she intended him as a do-over for the first Mika who she had been unable to retain control over, a kid who had only fulfilled his potential for boundless disappointment.
The first time I held Mika, my miracle son, my ghost made flesh, I was high on cough syrup and Adderall and had been up for more than forty hours. I was running a club in Brooklyn and had made no travel plans for the winter holidays. Christmas had been irredeemably ruined for me by that rotten 24 hours of the shooting and the divorce and I intended to spend it alone, as I had many before. But, under increasing pressure from my family, I bought a last-second ticket to California, departing on Christmas Day.
My friend Ethan invited me over for Christmas Eve dinner with his family and I forced myself to be gracious and accept, leery as I was of holidays, strangers, grownups and socializing without alcohol. Dinner was fine, good even—Ethan and his family were welcoming, friendly and intelligent and the food was delicious. Dessert was a thick sugary trifle, and I felt a tiny squirm of pleasure in the back of my head. I didn’t notice what I was enjoying so much until my second piece. The layers of cake were soaked in brandy. Carefully not thinking, I ate a third piece.
While driving my roommate’s truck home, I could almost hear the buzzing at the base of my skull, something alive in there, alive and hungry.
It had been a mistake to eat the trifle. It had been a mistake to accept the invitation to dinner. It had been a mistake to even leave the house this time of year. My phone rang: my connection. I picked up. Whoops.
“Yo, Merry Christmas, man.”
“Watup, son, Happy Hanukah and all that jizz. What you doing?”
“Just ate food with E and rolling home.”
“I got some yayo in.”
“Dude, it’s Christmas Eve.”
I had money.
“Ahmn. Fuck, I’ll be over in a minute.”
Back at my Bushwick apartment, I cut up line after line and snorted them off a CD case while pacing around my apartment, then brutally chafing my cock to hardcore porn. Not great, I knew, but at least I wasn’t drinking.
Tremors of pleasure ran through my body like a woman was lightly raking her nails over my skin. More exciting, though, was the feeling of pleasure to come. An amazing experience was about to take place. It got closer and closer and closer… until finally the feeling began to dwindle without The Amazing Thing ever happening.
After a while, the room began to gray and I wondered if something was happening to my vision. I glanced over at my windows, covered with thick black curtains. I stood up from my chair and almost fell over. I had been sitting so long my legs had fallen asleep. I stumbled over to the window in my boxers and pulled a corner of a curtain back: morning. Fuck. I went back to my desk and snorted another line. I’d sleep on the plane.
After I packed, I crept out to the Duane Reade and bought a 4 ounce bottle of generic Maximum Strength cough syrup. I felt good, rebellious, subhuman. I was angry that I’d blown so much money on blow. Everyone was desperate for the shitty drugs that dealers condescended to sell you for too much money if you were lucky enough to have a connection. Nothing like the pushers forcing it on you I’d seen in the movies– you had to scramble, you had to plead, you had to crawl. Fuck them all– the sketchy, thuggy, condescending dealers, the skittish rock kids lecturing me to “be chill,” my idiotic friends who thought coke was cool, my idiotic friends who thought it wasn’t. Fuck them all. I was scoring from the drugstore. I hadn’t done cough syrup in a while but, hey, it was Christmas, this would be my present to myself. I would be down by the time I got to California. Or down-ish. Or I’d just figure it out when I got there.
I pounded the bottle of cough syrup in the back of the car service on the way to JFK, watching clouds cinematically darken the sky. By the time I’d made it through security, I was walking sideways like a crab. I made it to my gate and ducked into a bathroom. The cough syrup was coming on strong but I knew that if I could just make it on to my plane, I would be okay. I shuffled into a stall, locked the door and sat down on the toilet. Could I really be this fucked up?
Between my feet, a huge drillbit at least four inches in diameter chewed its way up through the floor, giving off sparks and tattered wafts of green vapor. That can’t be right, I thought. The bit reversed itself and ground its way back into the floor, leaving no trace. Get on the plane, just get on the plane.
When I emerged from the sanctuary of the bathroom, I had to close one eye in order to read the display over the gate: my flight had been delayed indefinitely. I tried to discreetly look around for a place to sit down but I felt like I was tossing my head wildly back and forth like a drowning horse, my eyes bulging.
There. Seated on a bench ten feet away was Francesca, a bartender from Mars Bar, the open sore of a bar where Zack worked as a barback. Francesca had taken care of my friends and I more than once after a night had devolved into chaos.
“Francesca,” I whispered urgently and fell into the seat next to her.
“Oh my God, Mishka,” she said and hugged me.
“I am so fucking glad to see you. I’ve been up all night and I’m so fucked up.”
“Me too,” she hissed in my ear.
We hugged each other tightly but after the hug, couldn’t bring ourselves to let go, as if the other person were the only thing anchoring us to the earth. We sat there together for a long time.
Hours later, I made it onto my plane, peaking on cough syrup, barely able to parse language or stand upright. I tried to sleep but every time I closed my eyes, my vision exploded into painfully vivid colors. I put my headphones on with no music just so no one would talk to me and I stared at the gray nubbin on the back of the plane seat holding the dinner tray in place. Tatyana was going to freak out if I was this fucked up when we landed.
Jesus, could two children be more different than Tatyana and I? I couldn’t remember us ever having gotten along. I mean, there were a couple of token idyllic memories of climbing over our parents in their bed on Christmas or Easter morning, watching cartoons together on Saturday mornings. And there was that time that Mom had made us costumes out of brown paper grocery bags—a bunny rabbit for Tatyana and a knight with a cardboard sword for me. But those were rapidly eclipsed by uglier memories. Crying because she and her friends were making fun of me or just wouldn’t let me play with them, biting her in a battle over a Smurfs cartoon and losing my TV privileges for a week, screaming at her to suck my cock in some ruthless teenage argument.
I must have been a nightmare for her, the menace yapping at her heels, The Second Who Would Be First, quickly bigger and louder than her. I skipped a grade so she was pushed to do two years in one. Then when she was leaving for college, I stole her thunder by skipping out on two years of high school and leaving for Simon’s Rock at the same time she was leaving for Boulder. Though neither of my parents managed to say anything helpful about the shooting, I’m sure it was discussed with her and around her and she must have felt neglected. But we had already been strangers to each other for years by then. What had happened and when had it happened?
I remember looking at her once while we were waiting for the school bus in New Mexico, her GUESS T-shirt tucked into her jeans that matched her best friend’s jeans perfectly, her Swatch, her hair just so. How old was she then, thirteen? I remember feeling angry for her and angry at her. She was subjecting herself to a code, a code she was better than, a code she shouldn’t be reinforcing but working to destroy. I was angry for her because it was unfair that the pressure to belong, to fit in, to be normal weighed so heavily on her. And I was angry at her because she could do it and I couldn’t.
Staring at the back of the seat in front of me, trapped on my airplane, I could see her without even closing my eyes, frozen in time, maybe five years old, a pretty little girl in the garden in a long dress of white fabric with hibiscus blossoms printed on it, smiling shyly, a real hibiscus flower from my mom’s garden tucked into her hair. Was there already nervousness behind her smile then or have the years just inserted it into my memory?
Tatyana had been able to do something I could not do. She had the ability to behave, to play quietly. Tatyana could be good. That was beyond me. I could not control myself. I wanted to, I would have done anything to be good, but it was impossible. To see her doing it so effortlessly, well, I think that just drove me insane.
It wasn’t effortless for her, that became clear later on. She put herself under incredible pressure to be good, to not disappoint anyone, and because of that she was ready to snap at you for the slightest thing. That summer in the Virgin Islands when I was 20, I remember bitching about her to Mom. What we were fighting about, I can’t even remember.
“Mom, she’s impossible! You know that! Don’t ask me to be a well of patience.”
“Mishka, don’t you understand? That is exactly what I’m asking of you. She’s your sister, for God’s sake.
Well, shit, Mom, don’t you ever get sick of being right all the time?
The divide between Tatyana and I had only deepened over the years. Tatyana got excellent grades and excellent comments, with only one or two teachers suggesting that perhaps she should show more personal agency. I got good grades, too, but increasingly just as a middle finger to my classmates, who seemed to be either thick or spineless, and my teachers: they could give me study hall, detention, inside suspension, outside suspension, say whatever they wanted to about me—“juvenile,” “immature,” “disruptive,” “lacks focus”—but I would force them to give me that “A.”
And now here I was, about to complete a Master’s degree at a fancy-schmancy school, running a rock club in the center of the universe (Williamsburg) and, okay, maybe not necessarily kicking ass but at least trying. And Tatyana was out in California, not working, living on a fucking military base, married (the most horrific and banal fate ever) and popping out kids with a Marine she’d met in a Denny’s. She was a normal. Jesus, Tatyana, the world has more to offer you than the Indigo Girls and you have more to offer it than scrapbooking!
The worst thing was that I knew she was better than me. Whenever we had gone head to head, she won—I finished the test first, but she got every single question right. I got to the bottom of the ski hill first but the instructor complimented her “perfect form” in front of our ski class. Dad wanted us in the sciences and she had become an electrical engineer like him, pulling down a fat salary while I had changed my major to Theatre, then Film then entirely useless Creative Writing and wound up flipping burgers and then answering phones for beer money. And now grubbing in bars, ugh. As much as I condescended to the life she had chosen, once again, Tatyana had won. She had made Mom and Dad proud. She had found a partner and she had had a child and she had found her place while I still had no idea who I was.
Though I had asked my mom to come and pick me up by herself to ensure that there was no big scene at the airport, I was met at the gate by my mother, Tashina, my brother-in-law Bill– a fucking Marine, for God’s sake, the squarest of the square in his ‘high and tight’– and Tatyana, who immediately hugged me and deposited my ten-month-old namesake in my arms.
I had nearly become a father twice, at 18 and at 22. When I was 18, a Simon’s Rocker a couple years older than me who was not my girlfriend told me she was infertile. Then, when she was pregnant, she clarified that she had never actually been diagnosed as infertile by a doctor, she had just never gotten pregnant before. I added a twelve-hour shift at my job at the International House of Pancakes, from five PM Friday night to five AM Saturday morning to pay for her abortion.
When I was 22, my ex-girlfriend stopped taking the pill after she moved out and neglected to mention it to me, though we kept sleeping together. She left New York before she started showing and she was five months along before she miscarried. Only then did she tell me. She had intended to have the child, move overseas and never let me know. My children would have been three and seven. Four years apart, just like me and Tashina. Or like me and Chuong.
I held Tatyana’s baby away from me for a minute, just taking him in. He was the size and weight of a thawed turkey, his useless little flippers hanging limply by his sides, staring at me with the same blank wonder with which I stared at him. Then I drew him into me. He pressed his head against my chest and I put my head down next to his face and took a breath, smelling his fine hair, his soft skull, the nascent promise of his new flesh.
I closed my eyes and had a vision of a nursery full of sleeping babies, each more unique and more perfect than the last, the air over them swirling thickly with boundless potential, the infinite possibilities of their lives. A woman walked among the rows of cribs, bending over each infant to caress the fine eddies of silk on their heads, brush their cheeks with her eyelashes and whisper a blessing into their tiny, sleeping ears: nothing bad will ever happen to you.
Nothing bad will ever happen to you: it’s just the most heinous lie, the worst bullshit imaginable. Millions of bad things will happen to you, a thesaurus, a full set of encyclopedias of bad things, a vast, shimmering spectrum of bad things from stubbing your toe to passing a jagged kidney stone to the day you finally die, The Biggest Bad Thing, which, by then, may not seem so awful after all because death, in its completeness, at least ensures that no more bad things will happen to you.
But before you achieve that, man… You will piss your pants and you will shit your pants, as a child and as an adult. And not a little bit where you can almost get away with it, you will shit your pants with such vehemence that you will have to change your socks. In fact, your final act on this earth will probably be to piss and shit your pants at the same time. Death and taxes are not the only inevitables; there will always be feces.
You will fall in love and your lover will cheat on you with your best friend or your worst enemy or both in one action-packed weekend and you will only find out when you wake up with crabs or herpes or Hep C or HIV.
You will get beat up. A lot. You will get beat up by your brother/ sister/ mother/ father/ friends/ lovers/ strangers. You will get raped. You will get raped twice, once by a stranger and once by someone you know, someone you trusted, someone in your fucking family, God damn the world to Hell. Your hamster will die. Your cat will die. Your grandfather will die. Your mother will die. Your child will die in your arms. You will pay for an abortion, you will have an abortion, several abortions, and those dreamed lives, those pre-children will follow you around like starving stray dogs for the rest of your life.
You will get an infection. You will get a host of infections. Horrible, vile-smelling things will come out of your body. You will be abandoned. He will leave you. She will leave you. They will leave you. Everyone you love who doesn’t leave you or turn against you or die will leave you and then turn against you and then die.
Something will happen to you that is so bad that you will not be able to parse it, you will have no language with which to comprehend what has happened to you so you will just carry it around in your abdomen like a dead fetus which will calcify in your gut, a stone baby that grows so large and so heavy that you will lay awake at night and feel it, cold and unyielding inside of you, and understand that you have been transformed into just a vessel to transport this profane weight.
You will do bad things, to people you hate and people you love because you are angry, because you are confused, because you are hurt, because you have become cruel and because you can’t help yourself. You will do truly rotten shit, small, mean-spirited shit, petty shit, shit so base, so abominable it will keep you awake years later, wondering if it could really have been you who had done it at all because it seems so foreign in essence from the polite, responsible, even caring person you understand to be your true self. It will disturb you, it will hurt you, you will bleed, externally and internally, figuratively and literally, it will destroy you, it will murder you, it will kill you to fucking death, over and over, again and again. And you will go on living.
Still, glassy-eyed and sleep-deprived and half-crazed in the San Diego airport, I held my sister’s baby boy to my chest. It’ll be different for you, Mika, my little man. Nothing bad will ever happen to you.