Either I am shrinking or the room is growing around me, cavernous and hulking, until I feel like a little black pea, surrounded by long shadows.
Guilt is a defence mechanism for me. My father, whom I love dearly, is a short-tempered man who used the belt on my brother but favoured expletive-laden outbursts and impromptu, midnight, verbal barrages with me. I think the reason I was spared corporal punishment, besides the obvious one that I am a girl and my brother is not, has to do with a skill I learned young and fast, a skill my mother jokingly refers to as “sorry, daddy.”
I “sorry, daddy” my way through life. More often than not my sentences begin with an apology. I experience disproportionate levels of anxiety over small mistakes and if I can sense that someone is even the slightest bit annoyed with me, I cannot rest until I have supplicated, agonized and badgered them into explicitly confirming their forgiveness, at least twice.
My brother never learned the subtle art of “sorry, daddy”. Instead, following some display of insolence, my brother would adopt a sullen, dead-eyed stare, which would serve to whip my father into a kind of rage-nado. Whereas I sought to temper his anger, my brother, with is characteristic self-destructiveness, would poke the bear until he bit.
In hindsight I think the devolving relationship of anger and resentment between my father and my brother was one of the unspoken reasons my mother eventually left my father. Maybe, if we want to get Freudian about it, my parents’ relationship was ruined the day my brother was conceived. My father, only 22, had just finished his undergraduate degree. My parents had been married fewer than 6 months. I do not think my father was ready to share my mother with this bright, wicked, impossibly beautiful boy. And as my brother grew into a wunderkind, athletic, artistic, intelligent, handsome; my father became fatter, sweatier, angrier, his career not having soared as his teenage self, which he still was in many ways, had imagined it would. My father’s resentment only served to kindle my brother’s deep insecurities, rendering him more antagonistic and hostile, this would in turn anger my father more. It was not a happy cycle.
I came into the picture 5 years later. The beloved second child. I was no accident. My brother gleaned this from young and I don’t think he ever has forgiven me for it. From the get go I was the princess, I was chatty where my brother was withdrawn, I was whiny and bratty where he was sullen and seething. I would often call my parents to ask to be picked up early from sleepovers whereas my brother could spend days on end out of the house, coming in only to change his clothes. I dealt with preteen angst with a mix of melodramatic journaling and crying, my brother head-butted a palm tree in our front yard.
I followed my brother around in a kind of amazed haze, in awe of his brashness, his bravado. I would scramble up trees after him, only to be too afraid to climb down, having to be rescued by a grown up. As we got older, I would hear tales of his infamous insubordination at school; riding in late on a skateboard, skipping class to get high on the roof, giving teachers the finger. His legend was only amplified by the fact that he was nothing short of a genius, solving mathematical equations well beyond his age-level, excelling in the arts, the sciences, sports. He learned how to sail. He was a scout and a cadet.
I too did well in school, but I was bookish and precocious. I favoured languages and literature. Whereas my brother was good at everything, I quickly lost interest in things that I could not easily master. I had no patience for failure and would never push myself out of my comfort zone.
Tonight, as I sit sleepless, propped on too many pillows, worrying that the light from this laptop is keeping my boyfriend awake, I try to summon some of my brother’s insolence. Today, at work, after my shift, I spilled a full pint of beer. I’m not sure how it happened, I was not drunk, it was only my second drink. This tiny, non-event was so upsetting to me that I left immediately, hardly able to maintain my composure on the commute home. I got home and climbed straight into bed, unable to stop crying, feeling at once horrible and ridiculous. I cannot explain why this spilled beer set me off. It had been a long and arduous day and I could sense, probably inaccurately, that my coworkers were annoyed with me, probably the worst feeling in the world for a “sorry, daddy” like me.
I dozed for hours, not so much tired as just undesiring to be conscious. And now I cannot sleep. I feel too small to sleep. Instead I think of my brother, five hours ahead in England. I wonder if he too lies awake in the dawn hours, overthinking his relatively privileged upbringing, trying to psychoanalyze away his fears. I think about my dad, wherever in the world he is. In my mind’s eye he is half asleep in a business class cabin somewhere over the Atlantic. He is thinking about my mother, wondering, for the infinite time, how he lost her. He is a better man for it, though he may not be able to admit this to himself. It has been 13 years since they split and he still texts me on their anniversary, still unable to fathom his inability to get her back.
And I think about tomorrow. I will be tired. I will be cranky and will likely snap at people. I will say stupid things and make mistakes and probably spill beer. I hope I am not too hard on myself about it.