By Brittany Ackerman
“Do you remember Star Fox?” My brother asks me one morning after another fitful night of sleep. His jet-black hair needs to be cut, but I think he prefers to look like an anime character fresh out of some epic battle. He’s always been thin, but is recently starting to gain some muscle from working out. His arms swell a bit underneath his Mathnasium work shirt as he reaches for a Redbull in the fridge.
“The game where the little fox is a pilot?” I ask, still in my makeshift bed on the couch.
“Yeah. And there’s Slippy Toad and Peppy Hare.”
“The frog and the rabbit?”
“Yes! Well, I had a dream I was Star Fox last night. I haven’t played that game in years, but it was crazy. It was the very end of the game, when Star Fox battles Andross...”
“The guy who’s just a head?”
“He’s actually a monkey tyrant who took over the Lylat system…”
“It’s their solar system. But anyway, yes, he appears as a floating head with hands.” My brother cracks open the Redbull and takes a sip. He begins to pack his knapsack on the kitchen counter, the same navy blue Jansport he’s had since high school. He crams in a stack of yellow legal pads, a Ziploc filled with ballpoint pens, a fresh pack of cigarettes.
“In the dream,” he continues, “I was on the last level, trying to kill Andross. And it was going fine, like always. Shoot the eyes so he rubs them with his floating hands. Blow off each hand, left then right. But when I was about to blast his eyes, I realized they were my eyes. I was Andross.”
“So you had to kill yourself?”
“I don’t know. I just woke up.”
“Oh. What do you think it means?”
“No fucking clue.”
My brother is five years older than me. He started getting high in college and it became a problem after he graduated, when he was trying to find his way in the world. I went to college in the Midwest, trying to find my own way, when he started getting in trouble. Maybe I'm attempting to make it up to him now, the fact of my being far away when he probably could have used a sister close by.
My therapist says I'm in “a waiting state,” except she uses the French phrase, “état d’attente.” She also says I shouldn’t date, that I should be going to salt therapy and taking long walks on the beach. We meet to talk about my lack of direction, how I’ve been living on my brother’s couch in Delray for the past three months.
Our parents are long gone, the only money they left us sitting in various bonds at the bank. I hadn’t realized bonds were just pieces of paper until my brother showed me the folder where he kept all our documents. I stupidly thought they might actually be stacks of green hundreds bundled up in twine or fancy ribbon.
“Even if I was evil,” my brother says now, moving toward the door and slipping on his sneakers, a pair of blue Nikes with no laces, “I could never really hurt myself. Or maybe the dream means that I should forgive myself or something.” He looks past me as he says this, his eyes focussed on the ocean outside our window. Sometimes I wonder if he has thoughts like me of wading into the water and never coming back. Would forgiving himself mean leaving forever? Or is he seeing something promising out there, the sun glinting on the water like a sparkle in God’s eye?
I don’t have the nerve to ask about his sobriety, how it’s going and all that. You’re not supposed to ‘check in’ on an addict because then you just make it about yourself. And he never presses me about my troubles, my waywardness.
“You’re either ready to know, or you’re not,” my therapist told me once in session. She doesn't encourage me either way, but she brings it up often enough that I reconsider it each time. The truth is I never ask because I don't want to know.
I like when my therapist gives me assignments, tasks, things to check off of a list. The more time they take to complete, the less I think about my inability to enjoy life.
“I want you to try to smile more,” she tells me. “Even if you don't want to. Just smile. The more you smile, the sooner you will actually become happy. Your body will start to believe it.”
I recall some stupid meme I saw online, how it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile. It reminded me of my favorite sweatshirt from childhood, a black hoodie from The Limited Too with a bright yellow smiley face on the chest. I think about sixth grade when I got braces, how my two front teeth bucked out of my face to the point of bullying, how the orthodontist tightened the wires and how painful it was. I think about the perfect smile of an influencer selling a product online, how I would describe her smile as crisp in my mind, the word sounding exactly as it should.
“I loved the little hoops you had to jump through,” I say to my brother. I have no idea what I'm going to do today, only that I need to get off this couch at some point. I should print off copies of my resume, go to restaurants and sell my skills and experience. I think about carrying them around in the Florida heat and it’s all too much.
“The aerial rings,” he says. “Yeah, those were always fun.”
I want to ask if my brother liked when I would watch him play the game. I want to give him a hug before he leaves, smell the smoke all over him and transfer some of it to my own body. I want to cure him, cure myself, maybe with hours of video games, maybe with some big dialogue about our siblinghood. Maybe he could stay home and we could order takeout, sit on the floor and really hash it out once and for all, get down to the bottom of something and laugh and cry and feel better.
But my brother tells me not to wait up for him, he’s got some private lessons after work and won’t be home until late. When the door closes behind him I stare at the flat screen TV that’s switched off. The black screen looks gray in the light.
I think about all the math problems my brother will solve today, all those numbers, all those times he’ll have to solve for ‘x’.
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. She has led workshops for UCLA’s Extension, The Porch, Catapult, HerStry, Write or Die, and Lighthouse Writers. She currently teaches writing at Vanderbilt University in the English Department. She is a 3x Pushcart Prize Nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Joyland, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.