Survival

by Joni Abilene

The pressure broke the year before my brother’s freshman year. In eighth grade the boys at school had taken to calling him pussy, gay, faggot—all that insecure language of male youth. He took it out on my sister and I, walking through the house with a hard face and even harder fist. “Get out of my way, bitch,” he’d say, and we’d avoid him the way feral cats avoid each other in a dark alley.

I met his bully once, on the afternoon school bus—a heavy jowled, hateful boy with dirty hair and squinty eyes. I heard him talking about my brother and something in me released, broke. I stood from my seat, skinny freckle-faced me, and told him I’d beat the shit out of him if he ever said things like that about my brother again. When I sat down I could hear whispering behind me, “Aren’t you gonna hit her?” “No,” came a quiet voice that was defeat. A shaking started in my limbs because I couldn’t figure what had gotten into me. But there were whisperings of suicide in the house, and perhaps that fear, that horrible shadow of death, was the reason for my bravery. We rarely have solid physical matter to revolt and lash at when it comes to suicide.

In a surprise move, Mom enrolled him into all-boys Catholic seminary an hour away from the small town we lived in. It meant him being gone all week, and long drives to and from on the weekends. When we dropped him off that fall, and we’d walked through the long arms of the crucifix-shaped building to a small room that was bare linoleum and wood, I found myself unable to accept that my brother, the one who called me bitch, the one who’d told all the neighborhood kids my embarrassing secrets, would no longer be around. Our house became all female during the week, but on the weekend we’d listen to his stories of monks and priests and wild boys who played pranks on each other in the dorms.

He changed. He became an intellectual. His sardonic wit that I loved so much, became elegant and refined. He no longer punched me or called me those derogatory names. He was too busy for that, and I in awe, watched and learned. I felt as if perhaps he had been saved, finally, from the wrath of our father and his belt and the shame he’d laid on us, and mother’s fears and constant picking. My brother became saintly to me. I longed to know where he went and what he did and who he knew. I needed saving, too. But I was stuck in the small town with the bullies and the impending hormones of teenage survival. And it would be years before I found a way to escape.

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