“Mama is going to knock the water out of your eyes if she sees this.”
My brother sat, knees to chin, folded into the corner of my walk-in closet. The muscles in his arms struggled against the inexpensive and supple fabric holding the sleeves of my hippie Halloween costume together. His well-built jaw harassed the seamless curves of the garment’s round neckline. There was never enough space for his overtly masculine body between the threads of my fragile wardrobe.
He stood when he knew it was only us. Unruffling himself from the closet floor, he struck his head on the exposed light bulb on the ceiling. Water balloons full of tapioca pudding were bosoms mashed between his solid chest and crushed velvet seams.
“She doesn’t get home until 4:30.”
He began removing the dress too quickly to be careful. I knew Mama was still working. Thought maybe I should tell him so he didn’t rip my costume. Not like I would be getting another one.
“Hey man, be careful with that. Slowly.”
“Help me get it off then.”
The waist was caught at his shoulders. I slipped my fingers between the cloth and his skin, gingerly tugged it over his head, unsure which fragile thing I was protecting. The pudding breasts fell to the floor. They did not break.
Standing there, in the middle of my room, he wore his Hanes and my tights. There are men who would have broken the bodies they had to look like him. I still get angry at such a lean body belonging to such a shiftless man.
I rolled the wrinkle-free fabric into a ball and threw it onto my bed. My brother draped himself alongside my pink and purple comforter, stroked the imitation embroidery with his skyscraping fingers.
This time of day was his time. When the coach wasn’t asking when he was going to try-out, when the teacher wasn’t asking what he was thinking about instead of her lecture, when Mama wasn’t asking why he didn’t have a girlfriend; all A’s; or why he couldn’t be more like me.
“Ashley, doesn’t have to stay after school for no damn tutoring, so why do you?”
“Ashley, could probably hook you up with some of those cute girls she hangs out with. “
“Where the hell is my eyeliner?!”
She found everything that had gone missing in his room and never asked why. The eyeliner, the heels, the silk scarf she wore to church: breadcrumbs my brother left behind. Mama followed, refusing to pick them up along the way.
I watched his brow furrow, his eyes shadow, knowing his time in the day was done. This hour when he got to feel fully-clothed was ending. I wondered if he contemplated staying right there, lifeless, until she saw him. Forcing her to look, to know her humiliation was his livelihood.
I leaned in close, gathered his shoulders in my hands. He was getting closer to broken every day and I was without the tools or maturity to be of any real assistance. Just a sister, a big sister, whatever that implies, with too little understanding and too many pudding stains in her carpet.
“I wish I was as pretty as you. I love you.” I tried to make him hear me, to believe what I said. He reached down and ripped a hole in the tights.