Yachting in Brooklyn
When my brother stepped out of the Air
Canada gate it was the first time I’d seen him
in about three years. Paul had this way of
doing things that left him off on his own for long periods of time, and as someone who didn’t do things I wasn’t there with him. When I say “doing things,” I mean things like skydiving, hiking the length of New Zealand, taking long yacht trips between England and the Canary Islands. If he’d been a billionaire with a fetish for tights he might have been Batman. Mostly he just left me alone, except for short, poetic postcards from the four corners of the globe.
I didn’t recognize him at first because as children we looked alike: skinny, pale, dark-haired. Over the course of his trips his skin had bronzed to the tone of dark honey, his hair sun-bleached to light brown. He saw me at once and grinned and bounded over, rucksack heavy on his shoulder.
“Karin,” he said, pulling me to my feet. “Big sis. How’s it going? It’s been so long!”
“It sure has,” I said. He hugged me and I just let my forearms rest limp around his waist. He was still thin. At least that hadn’t changed. I pulled away and he looked me over, his expression frozen. “So, uh,” I said, just to break the ice, “how’ve you been?”
“Good!” He clapped me on the shoulder. “I was in the middle of a fishing trip in British Columbia when Dad called. It’s a great time of year for it – sunlight for almost eighteen hours a day, cool and dry. Only problem is the bugs.” He held out his forearm, which looked like mosquitos had used him as a wedding buffet.
“The life of a professional adventurer,” I said, turning away from the gates. Paul followed and kept talking, stopping only once in a while to take a sip from a large aluminum water bottle. He told me about this crew he’d met off the coast of Perth who’d introduced him to some boating technique or another, and a religious ceremony he’d seen in Peru involving burning piles of hay.
By the time we’d reached my car he’d almost gotten bored, having finished a story about fishing within sight of grizzly bears in British Columbia. “What’ve you been up to, then?” Paul asked, slinging his rucksack into the trunk. “Tell me the amazing New York adventures of Karin McAllister.”
Amazing adventures – right. “Well, you know,” I said, fumbling the car keys at the door, “I keep busy, work at the bookstore and all that.”
“Huh,” Paul said. I pulled the car out of the parking spot.
“I went to Coney Island last weekend,” I said, drumming my thumb on the steering wheel.
“That’s good,” Paul said. “I’ve never been there before. How was it?”
Mostly it was loud and a little smelly, the whole population of Brooklyn crowded around me while I sat in a gray cotton beach dress with Mystic River open in my lap. “Alright,” I said. “Quiet. I just went on my own, kind of as a treat to me. It was a nice day. Wasn’t too hot yet.”
When Paul smiled at me I knew it was genuine, could feel his unrelenting enthusiasm directed at me for once. I wondered sometimes how he could summon that energy, how things could still seem to be good. We drove along the Belt Parkway and as we went I could still feel his warmth, knew that for the first time in three years I was on my brother’s mind.
~ ~ ~
Once Paul got settled in my apartment – he just threw his rucksack onto my couch and then disappeared into the bathroom to take a pee – we took a subway and a bus over to our parents’ place in Queens. This was not the apartment we’d grown up in. My parents had paid men to pack their things into a moving van and then left the small, Lower-East-Side neighborhood they’d lived in since the early Seventies and moved to a house in Howard Beach. Paul had never seen it before, had been riding across Mongolia on mule-back while I watched my parents dismantle my childhood.
“Man,” Paul said, sinking into a pressed plastic seat next to me on the bus, “I did not miss public transportation.” He looked around, rubbed his chin. He hadn’t shaved yet.
“It’s a thing,” I said, meeting eyes with my ghost in the bus window. As the bus pulled away I could see flashes of other people’s ghosts, the Korean family across the aisle, the young black man falling asleep in front of us. Then I saw Paul’s reflection, frowning, perplexed, and I said, “I don’t drive unless I have to. You can almost forget that New Yorkers are assholes if you don’t drive.”
He grinned. He liked that, I guess. New Yorkers are assholes, I thought, turning and smiling back, and if I’d had a choice I would have left like he did, found a yacht or a plane or a friendly pickup truck and gone away forever.
When we arrived our father threw his arms around Paul like he hadn’t seen him in three years. I stood near the door, hands folded in front of me. “Sorry we dragged you away from the wilds,” my father said, stepping back.
“Nah,” Paul said, waving him away. “It’s alright. Best to be with family, right?”
Our mother was in the living room, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Her oldest sister had just died, our Aunt Lydia, after a five-year-long illness that no one had expected her to recover from. Lydia had been old and accomplished, had three kids and ten grandkids and had been professor emeritus of history at St. John’s. Aside from the five-year illness, that’s how we all want to die, right? But it was still my mother’s sister and some mourning had to be observed.
Paul sat next to her on the couch and patted her on the shoulder like he’d only just discovered the act of comfort. My mother smiled at him, face watery, and said, “Paul, I’m so glad you could come back, it’s been so long.”
It had been a long time. She’d told me the week before that he hadn’t called or written in a year and a half, since he’d stopped in Dubai on a layover. How this must have felt for them – for their only son to disappear, galavanting across the world, without even telling them he was safe, while they were left with their homebody daughter whose idea of a good time is a dog-eared copy of Dubliners and a baggy knit sweater. I couldn’t decide why he’d chosen to come back now, when there’d been weddings and family reunions and a week they’d spent in a cabin in Montana to lure him back before.
Of course, I couldn’t figure out how he funded these trips to begin with. He didn’t work, aside from the fish he sold after trips or I guess maybe the occasional, hypothetical gig as a gigolo, but he could rent yachts and fly all over the place, go on fishing trips, see the world. How could he do it? How did he pay for it? How did he convince himself it was okay to forget all about us?
Paul hugged our mother and my father looked on, straight-backed and smiling. I huddled in the corner, hands in my pockets, pushed out to sea on a yacht of my own invention.
~ ~ ~
The wake was short and sweet. People cried, held each other. I cried. Lydia had always been sweet to me, taken me to the zoo with my cousins when I was very small, watched me for my parents when they were away or working. She’d held me, once, when I’d woken in the middle of a midnight thunderstorm, lightning casting our shadows on the far wall. Once she’d told me, before I started college, that she had liked books as a teenager, too, and that when she’d become a history major in college it’d been the best excuse to make herself happy she would ever have. I appreciated that, thought of it as I looked at the pictures my cousins had gathered and framed, of Lydia holding them as kids, of her in the valley between mountains of historical narratives. She’d lived a long time and done a lot of good and had been sick for so long, and the sense of relief throbbing in my bones made me ill.
Paul didn’t cry, though he sat in one of the stiff colonial armchairs around the edges of the room, thousand-yard stare fixed on Mongolia, or whatever lay to the east of the funeral parlor. His cheeks were smooth, his hand covering his mouth, blue eyes wide. I sat in the seat next to him, stayed silent for a time, let the steady stream of mourners, of family and former students, flow before us.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, voice slow. “Yeah.” He straightened up, rubbed his nose, looked at me. “How about you?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “It sucks, but, you know, so it goes.” I shrugged, rubbed at the sleeves of my black cardigan. We sat there, the distance between us growing, and I knew he was someplace else, steering a boat, flicking a fishing pole. “Paul,” I said, and it seemed to take forever for the words to reach him, “I’m here for you. If you need me, I mean.”
He looked at me and nodded, smiled, reached out and patted me on the arm. “Thanks, Karin,” he said. And that was that: our moment of bonding, over so quickly. We sat there for most of the rest of the wake, watching people, not wanting to leave for fear of seeming like we didn’t care but unwilling to go to our cousins, hold them, talk to them. I was on his island now. We went to the wake the next day and for a while I felt adrift, and I wondered when I’d come unmoored.
~ ~ ~
Paul stayed in my apartment for a week or so after the funeral. He told me to do what I normally did, forget that he was there – not that what I normally did would have been disturbed by my brother sleeping on the couch. I went to work most days, stocking books and ordering new shipments, talking with customers, leaving it to the night manager around four and coming home, tired, smelling of paper.
Paul was never there when I got back. I suspected he was out, investigating his old haunts in Lower Manhattan. He’d spent long afternoons as a teenager bumming around the city, finding people to bother, reading in parks and following crowds as they flashed like schools of fish from block to block. It’d been years since he’d really been in the city. Even before he’d left on his most recent escapade he’d spent time in college and grad school flying to new places, to Johannesburg and Amsterdam and Macau, that he probably had lost the sense of Manhattan, the griminess, the smooth deco fog that seemed to hang over the island.
When we were children I’d looked after him during the summers when my parents went to work. In the afternoons when the sun stretched buildings and people and the concrete shimmered with the day’s heat, he would lead me by the hand out of the apartment, drag me to the places that had interested him. “Let’s follow them,” he’d say when we hit the pavement, and we would float along behind young women with powderpuff Pomeranians, walk side-by-side with men returning to work from lunch. When our targets left the streets, ducked into cafes or down into the subways, he would find a park or the nearest patchwork street and we would walk, never standing still, never coming to a rest. His small hand filled mine, his black hair shaggy around his ears.
Eventually little Paul would tire, rub at his eyes, grin at me and say we should head home. It’d been long enough. There were cartoons to watch. Mom would be home soon. And just like that we would sneak away, follow our jagged path back home, and he would curl up on the couch with his head on a pillow and sleep until dinner.
Normally I would close myself up in my bedroom, blankets pulled over my head and The Lord of the Rings so close to my face that my nose slid across the lines. But once, just once, when he was maybe eleven and I was sixteen, I sank into a stiff vinyl armchair across the room and watched him sleep between pages of my book, felt like maybe, just this once, we shouldn’t be alone.
I came home from work the Friday after the funeral and found him sprawled out on the couch, one foot on my low cherry coffee table and his remote-arm arced over his head, pointed at the TV. “Hey, sis,” he said, without looking at me. “I didn’t think you’d have cable. I gotta say, I have really been missing reality TV. Did you know there was a show about OJ’s lawyer’s family?”
“No,” I said, truthfully. I set my messenger bag down at the foot of the couch and walked into the kitchen, opening the door to the fridge and frowning at the mostly-bare shelves. My options for dinner were cottage cheese, leftover ravioli, and orange juice.
“I mean, seriously, if there’s one thing you don’t get in a camel-herder’s tent in the middle of the Egyptian desert, it’s cable.”
“Do you want to go get dinner?” I asked into the fridge.
Paul stopped, said nothing for a moment. I could almost hear the buzz of his confusion. “What?”
“I don’t have any food,” I said, “unless you like your ravioli dunked with runny cheese.” I closed the fridge and leaned on the doorframe between the living room and kitchen. “Let’s go get something to eat.” He didn’t move, and I said, “Paul, you’ve been here almost a week and this is the first time we’ve spent any time near each other since the funeral. Can we... can we just go do something?”
Paul blinked at me and our blue eyes met and I looked into the only part of him that still resembled the pale, black-haired boy who’d led me across the city.
“Alright,” he said, sitting up and reaching for his shoes. “Yeah, let’s go.” He grinned, swept his golden-brown hair back from his forehead. “There’s this place in SoHo that I’ve been dying to get back to, I had lunch there the other day any--”
“No,” I said. He frowned. “I’ve got somewhere in mind. Just come on.” I scooped my bag back up and turned to the door, not waiting for him, not watching to see if he would take the invitation. After a moment I heard his feet shuffle across the floor and I walked to the elevator, impatient, ready to get out of that apartment and out of Brooklyn and out of myself for a while.
~ ~ ~
We got on a subway and I took him to the Village. I hadn’t been here for years, except to go to tiny, overcrowded bookstores and coffee shops, but I knew where we were going, let myself ebb and flow with the start-stop of the train. We didn’t speak on the train, didn’t want to break that ritual, distract from the backs of our knees and the careful ignorance of the people around us.
When we got off I led him up a few blocks and up to the Telephone Bar, whose front was built of chipped-red English telephone booths. Inside it was just a regular pub. I’d been there once, years and years ago, before I could even drink, and walking in felt like new. Paul bit his lip as we waited for seats. This was a reproduction, a fake, nothing like the real English pubs he’d been to – I saw the complaints coming, felt them shaking in him. But he didn’t say anything, followed me as I headed over to the bar and sat down.
We ordered drinks and while we flipped through the menu I said, “Sorry if this isn’t a street cart in Manila, but it’s the best we’ve got in Manhattan without needing to mortgage a house.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw him smile into his menu. “Seriously, though,” I said, setting the menu down, “I know it’s probably rough having to put up the whole globetrotter thing. Thanks for sticking around for a bit.”
Paul didn’t say anything, trailed his finger down a list of hamburgers. Another thing he couldn’t get anywhere but the States – really good burgers. The bartender set our drinks down and asked for our orders, and in the silence that followed I thought, briefly, of what it must have been like, spending so much time alone in new places, among new cultures, with food you didn’t recognize and beds that sometimes weren’t much more than piles of straw. “Did you see any of your friends while you were here?” I asked as he sipped his Scotch and water.
“No,” Paul said. He set the drink down and ran his fingers over the dewy glass. “Most of them have moved away from the city, out to LA and Seattle and Minneapolis, of all places.” He grinned, scratched his stubbling chin. “The ones that’re still here all have small kids, so they’re homebodies more than anything.” He shrugged, leaned back on his stool, and looked up at the dark-paneled ceiling of the pub. “It’s alright, though. We’ve all got our own stuff to do. And I had to spend at least some time figuring out whether I’m going to head back to B.C. or if I should look into a new trip.”
“So what are you going to do?”
He paused, looking over at me. “I dunno,” he said finally. “Looked into a flight to Mali, but with the fighting over there the State Department’s stopped most tourist traffic into the country. Maybe I’ll head back to Joburg instead, it’s been probably two years since I was there.” He rapped me on the arm with his knuckles and said, “You should come with, Karin. You’d love it there. Everybody’s so friendly, and you can buy books for dirt cheap, stuff you’ve never read before.”
For a second I thought he was kidding. The bartender came by with our food and Paul started in on his bacon cheeseburger without waiting for an answer. I prodded my shepherd’s pie with my fork, rubbed my thumb against my fingers in a quick, loose circle. “Whaddaya think?” Paul asked through a mouthful of cow and pig. “It’d be great to have a traveling partner, and God knows it’d be good for you to get out and do something.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, glaring at him.
“Well,” Paul said, with the air of someone approaching the crocodile habitat at the zoo, “you’ve never left New York. You’ve always been here, looking after Mom and Dad, and...” I turned to face him and he hurried on, “And all you do is go to work and come home. You don’t have a boyfriend, which is alright, but you stay shut up in your apartment all the time, and-“
“And because I don’t spend all my time flying across the world I’m not doing anything worthwhile?” I asked.
“That’s not what I said.”
“You left us,” I said. Paul blinked and leaned away from me on his stool, hand resting limply on the top bun of his burger. “And, sure, I don’t do anything by your standards, but I’ve got a job, I’ve got an apartment, I go out on weekends and read and watch people, and I go see our parents and my coworkers. You’re the one who left, who hopped on a plane and started taking yachts from country to country because you thought life here wasn’t worth living, who couldn’t even be bothered to call on birthdays or holidays or at all. So don’t give me shit because I’m not Indiana Jones.”
He didn’t look away from me. Maybe he was afraid, like I was a bull who’d gore him if he broke eye contact. To break the tension he lifted his burger, blue eyes still locked on mine, and took a bite, chewing as slowly as he could. A glob of ketchup dribbled out of the backside of the sandwich and onto his knee, and he threw the burger back onto the plate and dabbed furiously at the stained denim.
“Cute,” I said, rolling my eyes, turning to my gin and tonic and taking a long drink.
“I’m sorry, Karin,” Paul said.
“It’s not your fault you were born without tact,” I said, but he shook his head.
“No,” Paul said, “no, I’m sorry that I left.”
Ever since he was little Paul had always said too much. Right then, he would have said more if I’d given him time. Something about how he hadn’t realized he’d hurt me, or how he’d kind of missed us even while he was off having his grand adventures, or about how the sunset in Hawaii isn’t as impressive as everybody makes it out to be. Anything he could have said wouldn’t have mattered.
It had been three years since I’d seen my brother, who I’d spent so much time with growing up, who I’d watched sprout up until I left for college. He would leave again, of course, and nothing I did or said would stop that. Just as he’d changed from a little boy to a man in my first year of college, just as he’d changed from my male doppelganger into this brown-haired, tan-skinned man before me, he would change when he left again. But I didn’t want this to be what he remembered of me, because I had stayed the same.
He opened his mouth to keep going and I shook my head, elbowed him in the shoulder, and said, “Forget it. Let’s eat.”
Paul smiled. We ate in silence. The pub buzzed around us, the lives of the city streaming into and out of focus. I wished Paul wouldn’t leave, that he’d stay here with us for a while longer, but he would wander off, do his own thing, find himself in solitude the same way that I did, except on a boat or a camel or a prop plane rather than in a book. We finished our food and stood, walking out onto the street and standing there in the stale, humid New York air.
We stood together for a moment, maybe an inch apart, and then looked at each other, smiling a little. Without a word we turned to the walk up the street, side-by-side. Paul left the next morning, getting on a plane and flying off to who-knows-where, but after that night, when we walked together through the city, I felt close to him, even when he was thousands of miles away. Once or twice, he called me when he reached a major city, told me what he was up to, the wonderful people he’d met. For that night, though, we wandered around the city, lost together, no worries and no destination in mind.