Did you know that “gossip” comes from the Old English “godsibb?”
My brother, Alan, once became obsessed with gossip, pushing his name around the school hallways until others began carrying it, too. “I’m intending for my reputation to live longer than my body,” he told me one night after dinner. I was balancing chemical equations but thinking, mostly, about the taste of other people’s tongues. Was it the tongue you tasted, or the stuff that had been near the tongue?
Alan plucked the pen from my hand and put it behind his ear. “What have you heard about me?” he asked. “At school, that is.”
Alan was not normally home after dinner. Last year, we attributed his absence to cross country, believing that he was always running, that his was an addiction that could not be sated. When it came out that he hadn’t been to the trail since eighth grade, he had laughed in our faces. “I’m almost offended,” he said. “None of you ever asked to come to a meet.” Later that night, he emerged from the bathroom in a towel, holding the pear-like swell of his stomach. “What runner would have this?” he howled. “Or how about these?” He dropped the towel and bent over his naked frame, pinching his calves and thighs. “This is the opposite of muscle.”
No one said anything. I watched Alan ride the silence, impressed, I imagine, by the magnitude of his own confidence. When my father eventually spoke his name, it was sloped like a question. I tried to keep my eyes away from his penis, but the rest of his body—the sharp hips, the thin sketch of bellybutton hair—kept bringing me there.
“You are idiots,” he said before finally leaving the room. My mother stood and folded the abandoned towel. “You shouldn’t have to do that,” my father said, but it was already done.
Alan would not be home, now, if my parents hadn’t taken the keys to the Ford Explorer and hidden them somewhere halfway decent. This practice began with the towel and hadn’t changed in the months since—the duration of Alan’s punishment only lasting as long as it took him to find the keys again. Usually, this was less than a day; sometimes, less than an hour. The real thing that could not be sated, we’d learned, was Alan’s desire to be somewhere else.
Before he stole the pen, I’d managed to write N2 + H2 → NH. Unbalanced, the equation trembled. “Can I have that back?” I asked.
Alan frowned. “I want to talk to my big sister.”
In his mouth, “big sister” sounded like a joke. Alan may have been a year and a half younger than me, but since starting high school, he seemed so old. Sometimes, I resuscitated the image of his penis just to remind myself that a part of him was still undeveloped, even at 16.
“I haven’t heard much,” I said, resting my chin in the cup of my palm.
Alan squinted at me; his pupils dilated enough to eclipse the iris. “If you’re trying to seem aloof,” he said, “it’s not a good look on you.”
My eyelids twitched. “People were talking about the razorblade this afternoon.”
He leaned forward. “And?”
“They thought it was gross.”
Alan blew on his hands as if to warm them. Somewhere on his left calf, a girl’s name was halfway carved—the reason for today’s suspension. I hadn’t seen it yet, but kept glancing at his jeans during dinner to see if he might bleed through the bandage. NATA, it apparently said, meaning “born” in Italian or “cream” in Spanish. Alan did not know this, though, and Alan did not care to know. Alan only cared to be known.
“Godsibb,” by the way, is an abbreviation for “god sibling.”
My family does not believe in any god, but we do believe in other unlikely circumstances, like instant karma and celebrities dying in groups of three. When my father yells at my mother and then has heartburn, she’ll whisper “Instant karma” to anyone who will listen. If he hears her, he’ll throw a shoe across the room. And whenever a famous person dies, he likes to chant “Who is next?” over and over. “My money,” he sometimes adds, “is on Clint Eastwood.”
My parents only use the word “sibling” if they want me to do something they don’t want to do. “Can you talk to Alan? He’s your sibling,” they said when he was first suspended for smoking weed out of a dented can when we thought he was running. I’d tried, planning my words before knocking, but what do you say to someone who you’ve just seen naked?
A week after the NATA incident, I agreed to take him to his school-mandated therapy session not because he was my sibling, but because the office was on the north side of Quail Lake, where I’d just recently kissed our neighbor, Willie. His was the tongue I’d tasted, the velvety organ I’d tried to wrangle with my own. It was my first kiss, and I was surprised to have my practiced purse split so simply by Willie’s tongue. The immediate abandonment of process—like pulling the skin from a snake that’s only just begun to shed—was awful and exhilarating.
In the car now, I asked Alan whether he loved Natalie Merchant. Three weeks earlier, she had gotten drunk at a party, swerved off a county road, and died. It wasn’t the accident though, or the drinking; she’d had a brain aneurysm sometime in the minutes after putting the car in park.
“Love her?” Alan drew a line through the window condensation with his finger. “I don’t think so. But it’s hard knowing how you feel about someone who is dead.” He paused, rubbing the line out with a fist. “It’s more like I could have loved her.”
I thought of the half-formed name on his leg, the way that NATA might look as a scab or a scar. The truth is, I wanted Alan to love her, for his third period pain to have meant something more than performance. Instead, it felt like he’d strapped himself to her rising soul so the whole town might see him on the way up.
“Did you ever kiss her?” I asked, the Explorer’s engine heaving through the pedal. We were coming to the southern side of the lake now, the water visible in the gaps between houses.
Alan laughed. “Probably. Maybe. I’ve been to a lot of parties.”
I hummed, absentmindedly pushing a finger, then two, into the front of my mouth. We were lakeside now, and Alan rolled the window down so that the smell—a swirl of sassafras and sulfur—could be let in. This was something our mother did when we were children, and it was one of the few family traditions I’d ever seen Alan uphold.
“I bet the therapist will think you loved her,” I said.
“Therapists are full of shit.” He turned the volume on the radio up, replacing any noise we might make with the halting rhythms of a free jazz station. Only after I parked at the office did he speak. “I think I did kiss her,” he said. “I think I did kiss Natalie.”
I often wondered what part of the chain I was on when rumors arrived at my desk, especially when those rumors involved Alan. More often than not, I caught the stories in their denouement, when the main course had already been digested by others who were now relaying how that initial shock had felt going down.
“Did you hear that Alan hooked up with Jordan Choi last weekend?” a girl asked me once in calculus. We were friends by circumstance, dropped into a class that somehow comprised half of student council and a quarter of youth group.
She didn’t know Alan was my brother, plodding on with a careless ease that I was grateful for. “Yeah, I guess people were really drunk at the twins’ house and started playing spin the bottle. Alan got Jordan and they started making out in the middle of the circle.”
I imagined the two of them kissing then, later, and now, sitting on a bench that faced a calm cove of water. It wasn’t that I wanted to think of my brother with Jordan Choi, but that the image had gotten stuck somewhere in my brain, tires spinning any time I tried my hand at redirection. Several of his stories lodged themselves like this, making it feel, often, as though each thought I had, each association, was somehow his, too.
My fingers made their way back to my mouth. I closed my eyes and let them writhe around, trying to make them feel singular and boneless, an approximation of Willie’s tongue. I hadn’t loved kissing him, but I thought that maybe I could have loved it.
I pulled my fingers away after realizing there was too much Willie to pull off with only my body—the heat of his breath, the clatter of teeth. Before me, Quail Lake rippled with each breeze. I sometimes wondered how many bodies would be found if the lake were drained. More often, I imagined what it would mean to drain a person: how many bodies would be found inside any one of us? And what would they look like lined up to dry?
What can be said of our childhood? That it felt very American, that it involved movie nights and spaghetti Fridays and swimming lessons, that there was a great deal of fighting between our parents—fighting that involved more than words but less than punches—but that the fighting, like the spaghetti and the movies, ended when I became a teenager. Or, rather, the fighting did not end but was somehow contained, emerging infrequently, reaping less damage, and wandering off soon after it began. Now, my mother would not spit on my father or throw his favorite shirts into the yard, but she would still shout and leave for hours at a time. As for my father, the things he threw simply lost direction, hitting the wall or ceiling instead of her head.
After arriving home from the appointment, we found our mother on the kitchen floor, picking up pieces of a broken plate. Our father wasn’t there, but he still hung in the air.
“We leave for one hour,” Alan said, “and the wolves go wild.”
Our mother looked up, blowing a lock of hair from her face. “Oh stop. It was nothing.”
“Doesn’t look like nothing.” Alan put the toe of his shoe on a piece of ceramic and leaned forward until it cracked. “It’s been a while, though. I’m impressed you two made it this long.”
The afternoon sun caught her eyes, making her look momentarily kind and then cruel. How many bodies, I wondered, did she have swimming in her skull? She bent forward, picked up another handful of pasta, and set it in her palm. “You haven’t made it very easy,” she said. “You kids have never made it easy for us.”
I felt Alan’s body flinch and contract beside me. I didn’t know what would happen when all of that energy compressed and then expanded, but I imagined the further breaking of plates, windows, walls. When he did speak, it was a surprise: “We’re kids,” he said, his voice cracking on the first syllable, as though all of that gathered mass had amounted to just that: a child.
“Kids,” he said again, testing the word’s confidence before letting a wad of spit fly from his mouth. It landed on the stretch of tile between them, and we all stared at it for a moment before Alan turned and left out the back door.
I thought but did not say that this—the spitting—could be added to the list of family traditions that Alan upheld. There were so many things I had thought but not said. There were so many nights just like this, in which Alan was a stitch and I was a seam. He climbed from the river while I lay on the bottom, worn smooth as stone. He walked out the door and I kneeled on the kitchen floor to help our mother clean.
Something I would say about being passive is that it does not make you lifeless. Really, the only thing that makes you lifeless is death. There were times, though, when I conflated the two, worrying about my own presence in the world—its vitality, mostly.
In childhood, I counteracted this by sneaking from the house at night. I’d walk the mile-long stretch of road between our house and the elementary school, pulling a single flower from any garden I saw and leaving the bulb in the center of that house’s yard. On the way to school for the subsequent week, I’d see a dozen examples of my influence, some wilting, some picked up and thrown away, but all still somehow present.
During my early teenage years, when the fighting was finally caught in a smaller jar, my need to prove my presence was lessened, as well. If they fought and I saw myself begin to vanish, I’d return to the living room when everyone was asleep and masturbate on the couch, centering my private pleasure in the exact room that had made me disappear earlier.
To say I understood Alan’s impulses, or at least some of them.
To say I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hear his name said aloud.
And what of this evening, with him and my father gone, and my mother standing from the floor? What happened to me?
It was simple: I pulled on my shoes, and I crossed the street, and I knocked on Willie’s door. “Do you want to kiss?” I asked when he opened the door.
He was in basketball shorts and a band shirt, but that wasn’t the point.
“Hell yes,” he said.
And though the kissing was bad, it was also exciting. We were on his bed, the evening coming easily through the window, and the sunset made a silhouette of my house. I brought his hand into my pants, let his fingers fumble for a while, and then pulled it back out. I let my own hand wander to his shorts, grabbing randomly but making Willie moan, nonetheless. The sound, I thought, was both near and far away from his heart.
“Thanks for having me,” I said before leaving.
“You’re welcome here anytime,” Willie said, his left eye trying and failing to wink. His hair was tousled, his upper lip still gleaming with my saliva. I wanted to ask him what my own tongue tasted like, what my body felt like from the outside. Instead, I made my way back across the street, where my father’s car sat ticking and warm from its long drive.
A “god sibling” is the person you make the godparent of your child. The word evolved first to include neighbors, acquaintances, and friends, but especially those friends that you would invite to your child’s birth. From there, it was used to refer to anyone partaking in familiar or idle talk, and then it became the talk itself. The point being that gossip’s lineage is bound up in intimacy, in one person choosing to say something to another.
The last thing I’ll say about Alan is this: that sometimes he came up in conversation and I rolled my eyes, embarrassed or jealous or angry at some thing he’d done; that usually I chose to believe that his need to be talked about came from a larger need to be held, if even in the mouths of strangers; that he could seem so old and so young, both then and now; that when I thought of draining a person, Alan seemed like one of the very few who would be empty, because of the way he allowed it all to the surface; that some nights he would come to my room and speak for hours and that some months he would hardly speak at all; that he was a stitch and I was a seam, but that we both ran on the same stretch of fabric.
When I stepped onto the lawn that night, I could hear my parents laughing inside. It was a relieving sound cut short by a car horn.
“I thought you left,” I said, arriving at Alan’s car and leaning against the open passenger window. He had parked two houses away.
He shook his head, fingers tapping on the steering wheel. “Nope.”
I pressed my fingers against the side-view mirror, smudging the glass. “Dad’s back.”
He kept his eyes forward and nodded.
“Should we go somewhere?” I asked.
Alan let out a strange breath, and for a moment I thought he might come apart completely, collapsing into a heap of small parts. I opened the door and waited with my hands out, as though I might catch him. After a moment, he said, “I don’t know.”
“Yeah.” He looked at me and shrugged. “I really don’t know.” He wrapped his fingers around the wheel and squeezed until the knuckles went white. “I was just remembering that I did kiss Natalie. Did I already tell you this?”
I started to answer but realized he wasn’t actually asking.
“It wasn’t anything major,” he continued. “Just a little peck after a school play. I didn’t love her, though. That I know for sure.”
I couldn’t tell if he was sad, proud, or indifferent to this. The sky had darkened, the houses around us becoming illuminated one room at a time.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.
Alan inhaled twice before answering, pulling in the night air as if it were trying to escape him. “Thanks but no thanks, sis,” he finally said. “It’s nothing worth talking about.”