When we were kids, my younger brother Greg drove me bonkers. His favorite activity was lying like a corpse on my bed while I screamed, “GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!” until I finally dragged him into the hallway. He also liked hiding, then jumping out and scaring me. He wailed like a cat in an imitation of my singing in the shower. I found out he read my diary. (How? By reading his.)
But we were still fiercely protective of each other, especially as the only Chinese kids in a neighborhood rampant with racism, and as we got older, we became more friends than squabbling siblings, banding together against our nagging parents and their disapproval of our non-traditional pursuits (book writing for me, screenwriting for him). But it was when I was going through the toughest time in my life that Greg became not just my ally but my voice of reason, my Cassandra, the one person I knew who was unafraid to tell me the truth.
For a while, I was the stable one. I was married, worked for a huge New York corporation, and lived in the ‘burbs. Greg was lost in L.A. After a hard breakup, he drifted, working here and there, fiddling with his screenplay. Without prying or browbeating, I tried to let him know I was there for him. I called, I emailed. Over the next year, I was glad to see him get better. He got a regular job, kept writing, and picked up mountain biking. The next time I saw him, he seemed more like his old self.
Then things started to go downhill for me. While I was happily married at first, the pressures of being a non-Korean daughter-in-law in a Korean home, caring for my husband Joe’s ailing mother, never having enough money, and Joe’s temper put a strain on our relationship. I felt us drifting apart, which I’d never admit to my girlfriends. I’m not sure why. Maybe because none had ever admitted their own troubles, or I thought they’d judge me or, worse, judge Joe, because while I was unhappy with him, I still didn’t want anyone else saying bad things about him, even if they were on my side.
It was during a visit with my brother that I voiced my unhappiness for the first time. As Greg told me over a sushi dinner the troubles he had after he and his girlfriend broke up, I was finally able to say for the first time aloud: “Something’s wrong between me and Joe.” I told Greg how things felt off, how Joe seemed even more distant, and how we hadn’t had sex in ages.
Greg nodded without comment. I didn’t need him to tell me everything would be okay, or that Joe was a jerk and I deserved better. I only needed him to listen.
After I got back to New York, he sent me a message: “I dreamed you and Joe broke up. : (”
A few days later, Joe told me he had cheated, and that his mistress, a Japanese woman who once lived next door to his parents, was pregnant.
My brother was one of the few people I told. He didn’t judge me when I accepted Joe’s apology and tried to take him back; he held his tongue when I stayed even after Joe said he wanted to raise his child. But when I decided that having my own baby would make everything better, Greg was the only one who spoke up.
“Don’t do it,” he pleaded. “Wait a year at least.”
He was the only one I told about the pills I took the night Joe’s son was born. I begged Joe to change his mind about being in the child’s life, to at least come home and be with me instead of her that night. He did, but only after I took the pills, and only for a little while.
I told Greg because I knew he’d understand I didn’t want to kill myself – I threw up the pills up right away – but still he said, “I don’t think you should be with someone who makes you want to hurt yourself.” Then, “I know I shouldn’t say this, that it should be your decision, but I think you should leave him.”
It would be another four months before I did.
Greg continued to stand by me through the aftermath of my divorce. When I refused to let our mother chastise me (I wasn’t vigilant enough, she said, I was too trusting), he let her yell at him. When our parents wrote a venomous letter to Joe’s parents, Greg tried talking them out of sending it. (They did anyway.) Then my mother told Greg she thought Joe had been sleeping with his mistress for years, that in fact her other child was his.
Joe was Korean, and his mistress Japanese. “Her other kid is half-white,” I said.
“I know,” Greg said. Then he laughed, and I laughed, and it was like we were kids again, laughing at our nutty mom.
As I started dating again, Greg became my sanity checker. “Should I be worried about this?” I’d ask of a man’s seemingly perplexing behavior. “Or am I crazy?”
“You’re crazy,” Greg had no problem telling me. “Go exercise or something.”
But he also acknowledged when I should be upset. When a guy I was seeing didn’t call me for a week, instead of telling me, “Don’t worry! He’ll call eventually,” or, “Why don’t you call him?” Greg said, “That doesn’t sound so good,” which made me feel better because not only did I feel crummy that the guy hadn’t called, I felt crummy about feeling crummy.
But if ever Alex turns into an a**hole douchebag, I know I can count on Greg to be there for me, not for a cathartic bitchfest or man-bashing session, but for a dose of cold and clear-headed common sense, just as I hope he knows he can always count on me to talk, or not talk. Or to just be.