I give my brother the talk

Zen Ren | Essays

Author’s note: This essay mentions a conversation about drugs that occurred before the fentanyl crisis, which when added to other drugs massively increases the risk of overdose. Learn about narcan and fentanyl test strips for the safety of you and your community. 

A talk about happiness

He sneaks into my bedroom but I’m awake, making my face blank. He pinches my cheeks into a smile.

Just smile and you’ll be happy, he insists. If he were an adult I’d punch him but he’s five so he’s telling the truth.

My brain’s stupid sometimes, I mutter.

I have a trick, he promises.

He peels me off sweaty bedsheets and drags me downstairs for Saturday morning Blue’s Clues. Where’s that clue, we sing, eating shrimp chips. The weight of a new morning settles lighter upon my chest.

When he’s older and more formed, I begin to see it in his face, too. I regret giving him the talk. I want to tell him to put his face inside of mine because I’ve already learned what to do, but that’s not a real feeling you can say aloud.


A talk about love

After Mom finds out, she rushes to me, the elder queer, for help. She doesn’t want him to catch AIDS from those apps. I laugh scornfully at this ridiculousness, to calm her.

At McDonald’s, he’s embarrassed about his McDouble (400cal) when I only got a hashbrown (140cal) so I brave a bite of his (30cal) so he doesn’t become like me.

I say his perfect attendance can survive playing hooky for a beachside date. That he should admire himself before expecting someone he admires to soothe that ache. I hesitate before warning about profiles proclaiming no fats, no femmes, no Asians. What if he never encounters this kind of man, and I’ve hurt him for no reason?

He’s more freaked out I said man, not boy. I explain: not a man-man. Two cardinal rules for college as a baby queer: don’t date a 30-year-old, or your roommate.

What if it’s a chill 30-year-old, he says.

Still nasty. What if I asked out a friend of yours?

You’re not chill, though.

My words are always too slow. I can’t become a better person fast enough; he already saw me doing math at McDonald’s. In a few weeks, he’ll admit he’s in love with his roommate.


A talk about failed experiments

I explain every drug to him after my dealer friend fills in the gaps for me beforehand. I say most things are fine but try it with me first, I won’t tell Mom.

He hates his puff from my vape. The Tito’s I gift him fuels his ex’s Friday nights instead. I’m bummed, but relieved he won’t drink himself into academic probation like I did.

I brag to my dealer friend: my mom and I agree he’s the better kid anyway.

Why would your mom say something so hurtful, my friend exclaims.

She’s white, so I forgive the misunderstanding. My brother being the better one is the point of all of this, anyway.


A talk about noodles

He tells me that last week, when his scallion oil burnt, he mixed up what the fire alarm was about and ducked behind the counter as the pan crackled above.

Today at brunch he shows me a photo of noodles cradling a fried egg, pork floss, the scallion oil. My favorites. (When he was five we played a game with food magazines, pointing simultaneously at the tastiest looking dishes on every page. It was sweet how he always copied me. Years later, I realize what he was actually trying to do.)

He promises nothing happened, that he was home cooking when school texted him to shelter in place. But when I went to the same college, our turn with a gunman at least made national news. We crowded the windows gaping at the helicopters and tanks roaring through. I laughed to my mom over the phone that someone uploaded a song on Youtube, UT Shooter Blues, and everyone was debating whether it was distasteful or poignant, but I thought–

It was so easy to only worry about myself.

His excuse: I forgot to text you because I was grading papers.

I’m mad at him for focusing on the wrong things.

I’m mad that he remembered to tell me this because our childhood mall just got shot up. I’m mad he’s taking a master’s extension at school with a turtle pond commemorating its most famous shooting. I’m mad when I asked, where are the exits, he didn’t know even though I lectured him when he was 15, because of that 15-year-old Chinese kid at Parkland, a boy who stayed to help so they buried him like a man. I was moved by his bravery but afraid my brother would be more moved, so I only reminded him to look for exits.

I’m mad I’m so unbearably wrong again. Must I always put on the mask of his first villain? All my warnings that cut him are wounds loosed from a desperate grip that cuts me too. All I can do is show him how to staunch the bleeding, hope he only sees the good parts of me that I salvaged because he was there on Saturday mornings, trying to pinch my face into where he thought it could be.

I crave to be the little sibling, sneaking in, certain about happiness. Someone should’ve given me the talk about giving him the talk. Trying to teach him how to survive teaches neither of us how to survive a life of survival.

I tell him: Next time, please just text me.

Yes, he promises. I just got excited figuring out the noodles. Was that bad? I don’t know if I’m allowed to have a good day.

Of course you are, I insist.

I’ve never given that right to myself. But looking into his face, this kid rushing into the thorns of an adulthood that even I haven’t cleared out yet, the conviction of it hits me at once, pure as lightning.