Occasions for Sitting in Doorways
by Kate Finlinson
It’s January, and you thought you’d be gone by July.
Your brother won’t leave his bedroom and you’re standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. He lies in bed with his back turned to you. Paper and laundry cover the carpet.
You’re clearly brothers. The arch of your eyebrows, the color of your hair. He’s younger but he looks older. He’s younger and smarter; younger and sadder. You’re shorter, safer, saner— better with money, better with women.
You moved home after graduation, three weeks after your brother’s attempt. When it all happened last spring you were reading textbooks in a library basement with headphones on, trying not to think of Sarah, trying not to ruin your GPA.
When you talked about it later, he said, “I know, it wasn’t very original,” as if you’d criticize his method. Of course, you didn’t. What could you say in such a circumstance?
You’ve already done your best to get him out of bed. You made promises, offered prizes, and mentioned the possibility of playing video games you don’t like. Contra III: Alien Wars, for example. Frame after frame of firebombs on auto scroll.
So you decide to take him to a show. It seems important to go somewhere crowded and loud where neither of you can be alone with your thoughts. He’ll hear some music, and when he does, something will feel normal. Today can be a normal day. No one has to feel anything significant.
“I’ll buy a box of donuts for the drive,” you say. He can’t resist chocolate glaze and sprinkled sugar or a maple bar.
At first he doesn’t respond. He pulls the plaid bedspread over his head. He asks you to go away.
“Come on. Get dressed. We’re going.”
“This is really depressing.”
“That means nothing to me.”
“My brain is constantly secreting cortisol,” he says. “There are problems with my neurotransmitters. My hippocampus is potentially smaller than yours.”
Sure, these elements contribute to everything that has happened to your brother. Chemicals and hormones and also genetics. You know this. Still, you’re not leaving the doorway until you convince him.
“You’ll like this show.”
“I’m never heard of the band.” He’s lying.
“Fine.” This is a small triumph.
You stand in the crowd at your favorite venue— a former speakeasy with low-light chandeliers and watchful portraits of dead men with mustaches. You lean against dark wood and exposed brick. The owners have artfully overlooked traces of the original wallpaper during the renovation. Only a balcony seat could make your view of the band any better.
Your brother smirks at first, but he can’t hold back a satisfied smile.
The band is promoting their new album, but you want to hear all the old stuff— the lyrics you sing alone in the car with the vanilla air-freshener forest affixed to your rearview mirror. You love the accordion, but wish, with the wist of a real fanboy, for the calliope they used for a few songs in the studio. They sing earnestly, like Sarah did a few summers ago around a canyon campfire with her father’s steel string guitar. You find the whole band convincingly heartbroken as they perform their listless odes to lost loves. You put your hands in the pockets of your all-occasion gray zip-up hoodie.
“Are they going to play straight through the new album?” your brother asks. See, he knows the band.
The singer might just be the ultimate girl. She wears a short flowered dress and ankle boots. Her thick blackish braids cover her ears. She smiles guarded smiles, as if she’s not entirely sure she wants this attention. Having a crush on a girl like this always sounds like a good idea. This kind of crush works as a sort of template. The next time you meet a girl with messy braids, you’ll try to buy her a drink.
When your brother finally agreed to get dressed earlier, he chose a pair of black jeans, one of your old t-shirts, and some work boots. Who knows why he has work boots, steel toed and all? He parted his dark hair. Maybe his effortless cool has everything to do with his depression? Maybe no one can tell he’s depressed? A lot of effort goes into effortlessness. He glowers at people as he clutches a long-necked bottle. He folds his arms tightly across his chest.
Many girls here wear scarves. Long cardigans cover their skinny arms and drag past their hips. They cling to guys with glasses and facial hair. They cling to each other.
“You’re the coolest kid here,” you say. When he doesn’t turn or nod his head, you second-guess yourself for calling him a kid.
You can feel the knobs of someone’s knees on the back of your legs. Occasionally a flutter against your neck suggests a girl’s thick eyelashes. It feels important to stand this close to someone, anyone.
The band plays a cover, which you wish they had left to their jam sessions. They slow down the track to a dull, dragging dirge.
“You know, a bunch of bastards just stare at her the whole show,” your brother says. “Every guy here thinks she’s so adorable.” Oh, your band-girl. You like the music. But you are one of the bastards. You finish your bottle of beer.
“I don’t know. She’s not that cute,” you say.
“I wonder if Morgan would appreciate this,” your brother says.
Because you weren’t there when it all happened, you’re not sure how much you can blame Morgan for who your brother became while you were away. A college sophomore, Morgan conducts surveys at a call center to pay rent. She is short, blonde, generic. She wouldn’t like this music, or the venue, or you. If you can’t keep up with your brother’s monologues about Plato up there on Areopagus then neither can she. No way. Did the depression come before or after Morgan? It must have come before? But their breakup happened and then things got really bad. You’ve never even asked him why it ended. How can you determine an exact cause? Blaming Morgan makes your brother sound pathetic.
Maybe he will want to talk about her later.
“I think we should get burritos,” you say. “I’m really hungry.”
The two of you buy identical band t-shirts and vow never to wear them at the same time.
The late-night burrito joint you frequent serves substandard salsa. Cilantro comes in a wilted tangle. The quality of the food doesn’t justify the line.
“Do they have any new vegetarian options?” your brother says. The doctor says he needs more protein. A few weeks ago you bought him a bunch of protein bars on sale. He wouldn’t take them.
“I only eat the honey graham kind,” he said.
You order a burrito with extra cheese, no sour cream. Though wrapped in foil, it spills out rice and jalapenos.
When you sit down he mentions Morgan, even though you’re not ready to let him.
“My therapist agrees that the problem is that I attempted to force my experiences with Morgan into my romantic ideals.”
“But everyone does that.” You both talk with food in your mouths.
“What you’re missing is that because I wanted to force her into the narrow category of these ideals, I could never really know her.”
“Do you think you’re ready to re-enroll this fall?”
“It is only an accident that some relationships succeed and others fail.”
“I need more napkins.” It’s true. You’re a mess.
“Our relationship failed because I didn’t really know its rules. I didn’t fail intentionally. I did it accidentally.”
“This can’t be helping.”
“I actually feel really bad for her. That new guy isn’t nice.”
Distraction usually works. So you drag him to shows and burrito dives. Sometimes to bookstores or movies. You often invite him on long walks through the neighborhood, past the old church with the stained glass roses and the elementary school with the abandoned playground, down the streets on the grid of peeling sycamores.
The music overhead— soft hits from the seventies— annoys you.
While your brother focuses on his hot sauce and black beans, you assess your mental health, looking for unchecked symptoms of anxiety. You feel guilty about lying to your parents and taking advantage of them financially. After all, you could support yourself. Last spring you screwed girls you didn’t care about, just because you could, just because they were pretty. You hate that. You remember saying awful things to long-gone roommates, to Sarah, to your brother—to vulnerable people. More than once you called him a failure. When you think about it, part of you wants to die.
You don’t let yourself think about how Sarah broke up with you last Easter. You don’t let your brother ask about it. When he does, you only answer questions you are prepared to answer.
“You’re being vague,” he says.
“I specialize in being vague.” You get up for those napkins and a refill.
Why tell him you miss her? It will only encourage him. She used to talk a lot. You liked that, because you are a pretty good listener. She talked about her friends and her family and her projects. She reupholstered chairs she found tossed out on the curb and crocheted small animals for her nieces out of colored yarn. You didn’t always understand the point of these projects or their value. While you listened, you rested your head on her stomach or one of her breasts. Do you miss her, or do you really just miss her body? Wow, she really wanted it more than other girls. She threw you down on the bed and exhausted you. But were you really great lovers? Were you really great friends? You can’t figure it out. You could ask your brother for his opinion on girls and sex. But if you do, it will turn into a longer conversation than you have energy for right now. His possible answers are even more convoluted than your own. He’s hyperbolic, but it might just be a character trait. Or a symptom: black and white thinking.
You’re a better lover than your brother, you’re sure of it.
He says everything’s taking too long. You tell him to take his time, forgetting that he’s also taking yours. Then you say things you don’t really believe because they seem like the right things to say.
A wad of greasy napkins rests next to his Styrofoam plate. Depression hasn’t changed his hairstyle, or his shaving habits, or the jaw line so like your own. Only his eyes have changed. They’re more serious, reflecting uncertainty and alarm. Before this point, intensity has always worked for him. But now intensity looks like desperation, and identifying the intensity scares you just a bit, though you don’t want to feel scared.
When you see your brother like this all the time, you almost hate your older sister: she’s married, healthy, employed. She calls your mom every day on the way home from work. The women in your family are normal and the men in your family aren’t being normal this year. Even your father, the light-hearted one, shows signs of unprecedented stress. He buys large tubs of cookie dough and eats spoonfuls of it, even though your mother definitely disapproves, and there’s a cholesterol thing in your family, a diabetes thing, too. You should cut back on soda. You won’t finish the refill.
You’ll give your mother a hug tomorrow morning before she starts doing chores and you leave the house. Maybe when you hug your mother tomorrow, you’ll tell her you’re moving out as soon as your brother gets healthy enough. Maybe she’ll believe you.
She’s seen you sitting in the doorway.
Perhaps she never asks you if you’re ok because she’s afraid you’re not. You were her easiest child. You were normal. She knows that when you’re ready, you’ll go out and make plenty of money, enough to live a very comfortable life. But for now you sleep through the morning and the afternoon. You don’t schedule job interviews. You don’t meet new girls. She’s convinced this is temporary. This is all about how you’re taking care of your brother. She had to make changes for him too.
Your mother found him in there. She brought a package up the stairs for him. She opened the door, and when she saw him, she calmly called for an ambulance. The way she tells the story, your brother did not say anything for several hours.
You’re private people.
Your brother turns in his seat to look up at one of the televisions anchored to the wall. One broadcasts news, the other ultimate fighting.
“They don’t want me to watch the news,” he says. Reports of catastrophe. Worldwide crime and suffering. He talks about why he disagrees with this guideline, among other contingencies and recommendations they’ve made.
Your brother might not feel better for a long time. And you’re not one to rush things, especially not recovery. After all, Sarah dumped you almost a year ago. You’re not doing much better than you were around Easter. She took you up the canyon and told you she didn’t want you anymore. You hiked in flip-flops, pebbles underfoot. You didn’t want her to hear your breathing change as the grade shifted steep. She liked the outdoors more than you did, but you liked them for her. She noticed cairns, shortcuts through switchbacks, outdoorsy girl things to notice. You sat on a ledge overlooking the whole valley, the treetops all the way to the shimmering gray lake. You walked back down the trail in silence. After you she picked a guy who could play the guitar pretty well. He had one of those talents, one of those voices.
You moved home six weeks after she dumped you.
“I understand,” you said. And you said the same thing to your brother and to your parents. You understand. You understand everything. You’re so damn understanding.
You’ve forgotten to listen to your brother, who lost you when guilt took over.
“I don’t follow what you’re saying exactly.”
“Well that’s because it is impossible to truly talk about things outside of our consciousness while speaking in consciousness.” Bullshit you’ve come to expect. “And you’re a romantic nihilist anyway,” he says. You probably didn’t miss much.
“You’re wrong. Ready to go?”
“But do you understand nihilism?” He might get pedantic and condescending. You usually fend off these conversations. Or when you’re feeling patient, you ask him to define his terms and let him take off. Not tonight.
“Love is hard, or whatever. Yeah. Of course. Love is hard. That’s what I have to say about it.”
“Love is hard because we often make the same mistakes.”
You’re tired. But you have a long night ahead.
This late at night, you avoid any traffic. Normally you’d play your music loud to keep yourself awake but you half-expect your brother to say something. He sits in silence as you coast and you’ve turned the stereo off.
“Good show,” you say. “They haven’t played out here in forever.”
You drive this road so often that you follow an unconscious choreography of lane changes.
He’s still not saying anything. This happens every day. You can think of something hopeful to say. A compliment. Words of affirmation, the therapist would recommend. A joke? A memory?
“You know, the speech you gave at your high school graduation? Everyone loved it. It was brilliant.” Your brother, the valedictorian, long before this all began, standing at a podium on a stage. “People still talk about that.”
You can’t look over at him for longer than a second. In the darkness your headlights expose small patches of road and the series of irrelevant exits before you as you drive toward home, into the valley from the hills.
“You’re going to get a doctorate. Your grades are good enough. They’ll give you a stipend and you can live on it for a while.” Exploring the faraway future feels promising.
“You’re going to meet the smartest girl. Maybe she’ll be a philosopher too? You can have four-hour conversations about neo-Platonism or whatever. Maybe she’ll be a philosopher and a vegetarian.”
He rests his head against the glove box, his seatbelt pulled forward.
“You’ll write books. And you’ll teach.”
“I don’t care,” he says. He cares. He should look over at you and smile. You would smile back. It would be a successful evening. You could tell your mom he seemed ok. You could build from that smile, from that hopeful conversation about the hopeful hypothetical future. What more could anyone want? You want those things from your brother more than he wants them for himself.
You’re so tired.
You walk inside the house. You check the counter to see if you have mail, even though you never have mail. You brush your teeth, a foam of mint with traces of leftover salsa.
“You’re going to take the enamel right off,” your brother says.
Like every other night, you prop a pillow behind your back. You sit there all night and watch him sleep. To make sure he only sleeps. You’re there when he wakes up.
You’ve been sitting in your brother’s doorway for months. If you felt you could change things, you would feel ok. You think you would feel ok. But nothing is normal. Nothing is ok.
Kate Finlinson holds an MFA from The University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Michener Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, PANK, and other publications. She lives in Southern California.