My Name is Brianna
By: Rae D. Magdon
Dedication/Thanks: A big thank you to Tara, my Mistress, and Lee, my Beta. You rock.
Disclaimer: Mine. Do not steal.
Warning: Lots of angst and some character death. About a MTF transsexual told from the POV of her lesbian sister. Also includes romance between two girls.
Feedback: Send all lavish praise, constructive criticism, and hater flames to
Brianna didn't get a happy ending, but just bear with me for a little while. It's better to remind you about the truth now, at the beginning, instead of keeping it a secret until the last chapter and disappointing you. I still forget the ending of her story sometimes, and when I remember, it breaks my heart.
Looking at her, you never would have thought that she would end up dead at eighteen. None of us saw it coming. Maybe if I hadn't fallen so sightlessly in love with you, maybe if James hadn't let his hatred boil up and swallow him, maybe if Nate Crage hadn't gotten drunk that night… All of those maybes spin together wildly, always there, just under the surface of everything any of us say or do.
I've started collecting pictures of her and putting them up all over my room, just in case I forget what she looked like someday. She reminds me of a fairytale princess, or the heroine of a romance novel, with her round, budding lips and her fire-engine red curls, glossier than mine. The horrible family freckles even looked good on her. She was just that gorgeous.
My favorite picture on the wall is of Bri and her boyfriend, Danny. They're sitting on a picnic blanket under a tree in the park, but it's the middle of winter. Only Brianna would do something completely crazy like going on a winter picnic. They're all bundled up in scarves and mittens and hats, but you can still see Brianna's huge, gorgeous smile. Being so happy, even when everything went wrong, was what made her beautiful.
Looks weren't what Brianna was about, really, even though none of us understood that at first. All Brianna ever wanted was to be Brianna. She had to scrap over little things the rest of us took for granted, like her name, and she dug her nails in and held on until her fingers bled.
In the end, she just gave up and left me alone. Well, not much better than alone. There's my father, who didn't believe she was dead for the longest time, and my mother, who still hasn't made peace with Brianna's memory, and my twin brother, who probably feels the worst, because it was his fault Brianna – our sister – died the way she did.
Then, there's me. The only one that knew her. Really knew her, I mean. I was the one she came to when she cried. I was the one she told her secrets to. I was the one she walked to the bus stop every single day from my first day of kindergarten to eighth grade, when Brianna got a car and started driving us. We used to play monopoly on Saturdays together. I tried to be there for her, but it wasn't enough.
The worst part of death, anyone's death, is the questions you ask yourself afterwards. You can't stop them. They buzz around your ears in a swarm until you want to scream.
Question: Did Brianna win or lose in the end?
I'm still not sure. She died, but she died as Brianna, just like she wanted to. Better than dying as a stranger to herself.
Danny's parents liked Brianna a lot more than ours did. "Mom and Dad love me," she told me once, "but they don't really like me." I asked why, but she just said, "I'm too much trouble to understand."
I was only twelve, and I didn't know what kind of trouble Brianna was talking about. She was fourteen, so much older than I was. Twelve was too young to understand why my parents, who had always considered Brianna their 'golden child', were suddenly strained around her. Maybe they sensed that she was changing in ways they didn't understand, even before she told them her secret. Yeah, twelve was too young to get it, but not too young to watch. I saw it all happen and I'll never forget.
"They don't get James, either. Mom says so all the time," I offered, trying to make Brianna feel better. "I just don'tunderstand you, James," I said, imitating my mother with my arms folded over my chest. "If they don't like you, they probably hate him."
"But Mom and Dad like James," she said, and that was the end of that. I tried to figure out what she meant later, but it was one of those chicken-or-the-egg things. Mom and Dad didn't like Brianna because they couldn't understand her, but they didn't care that they couldn't understand James because they liked him. I still can't puzzle it out.
That's why it was so good that Danny's parents liked Brianna, because you've got to have someone that likes you, or else you start to wonder if maybe there's something wrong with you. But even if Danny's parents hadn't liked her, I think Danny would have been enough. Danny and I were the ones that really got Bri and we both loved her. Back then, I was sure that loving her would save her. I was a fool. Something broke when I found out that love wasn't enough. I think it was my heart.
Picture: Brianna and Danny, holding hands and sitting on the old benches, watching the leaves skip over their heads on puffs of autumn wind. He's about to kiss the pulse beating along the column of her throat and she's giggling. The sky is a calm white-gray, with blotches of color marking each treetop in orange or red or brown. The sunlight is weak, but the fall colors are vibrant against the gray. There are no deep shadows.
They wouldn't let me visit Bri the first night after it happened, because my parents didn't want me to see her 'like that'. I didn't care what she looked like. I just wanted to talk to her, even if she couldn't hear me. But by the next morning, she was gone, and I had lost my chance. I never got to say goodbye. Never got to tell her I loved her. Even if she couldn't hear me, I could have pretended.
Question: If God says you need to forgive, does that mean you have to act like it never happened?
Because there's no way I can pretend it never happened. Maybe someday – not now, but someday – I can forgive my parents for not letting me say goodbye to my only sister. But I'm never going to forget. Whatever they were trying to protect me from, this was worse.
The world slowed down for me after Brianna was gone. I had more time than I wanted to think. To cry. To listen to my heartbeat echoing in the empty space. I stayed in my room the day after it happened, staring at the ceiling and trying to ignore the white noise in my head. I turned up the static when the questions got too loud.
They said that Bri wasn't really gone. They said that she had a soul and that she was in a better place. They said all that, but how could I be sure? She had been so real before, so solid to touch. How could I know that she was still safe and happy if I couldn't feel her next to me? I wished she would come back to me from wherever she was now, just once, so she could tell me that she hadn't disappeared completely.
Question: Is there a place for Bri – for us, you and me – in heaven? If there is a heaven.
When I couldn't hold the questions in anymore, I prayed. I went in to Bri's room and knelt in front of the crucifix Mom had put up on her wall. To remind her, she'd said. Going into her empty room only made the hollow place in my chest where Bri was supposed to be larger. The room felt bare, even though it was filled with furniture and books. The carpet rubbed against my knees, but I prayed anyway. Asking, begging, accusing, until I found myself with my face buried in the rug, hair sticking to my wet skin, asking the same question over and over: "If she's still there, somewhere, do you love her?" Asking God. Asking my mother. I could only think the second part of the question. It was still too frightening to say out loud. If my mother knew about you and me – God already knew – could they still love me? No answers came.
Memories never come in chronological order. One rolls in, then another, which reminds you of another, pounding at you like waves until you can't remember where you started. That's how it is with me when I think about you, Josie.
I can't believe I've known you since kindergarten, even though you went to upscale Cleveland, over an hour away, and I went to Rockbridge, the local public school. We were drawn to each other, maybe because we weren't anything alike. You were loud, outgoing, brave, and beautiful. I was shy, used to being shoved into the background. You changed that. For you, I was always center stage, right in the spotlight.
I can't pick out the first time I met you, but I remember the times I was with you, bright spots of light in a dark, calm tide of early memories. There was the time when you squirted orange juice in my mother's eye, and the time you bloodied Lance Walker's nose because he called me a very grown-up word that we didn't know the meaning of back then.
I love how you always wear sharp, black-rimmed glasses that slide halfway down your nose. How you never let your hair down unless you've just left the shower, and how your mouth and eyes are firm and sincere. I can see every mark on your face inside my eyes, remember every dip in your skin. My hands and lips have memorized them all. I was probably in love with you by the time I was nine, even if I didn't know what the feeling was called.
Sometimes, when we're alone in my room, you'll sit me in front of the antique vanity I salvaged from that garage sale and brush my hair with my old-fashioned round brush. You're so much gentler than I am when I do it for myself. Sometimes, you spend hours brushing my hair and talking to me. Other times, if you're in a mood, you'll press your lips against the curve of my neck and work your way up until you're just under my ear and I plead with you to take me to bed. "Take you to bed or take you on the bed?" you usually tease me, but you always give in.
You say the most beautiful things when we make love. Even though you swear at school in front of your teachers and parents, just to prove you don't care what anyone thinks, inside, you're a poet. When you tell me that my eyes remind you of sweet grass cut in summer and that my lips are like soft flower petals, I feel a fierce red rush in my cheeks. I always blush when you whisper that my skin tastes like cinnamon. I swear, if a guy said that stuff to me, I'd knee him in the crotch. That, or burst out laughing.
Before Bri died, I was the invisible girl. No one bothered to notice me at all, except for you. That's why making love with you is so special to me, Josie. It's soul shattering, bordering on sacred. I'm warm with the knowledge that you're paying attention to me, loving me. I always knew you were the only one. I couldn't bear the thought of anyone else touching me. Still can't.
Picture: Your back, in silhouette. You are wearing your father's jacket, which is too large for you, and looking at your face's reflection in the sliding glass door. Your hair is pulled back in a rough ponytail and the reflection of your face is smiling. I remember that you were watching a rabbit crouched down in the grass outside, its ears pressed back to its neck. It was only a few feet away from the screen door, but I couldn't get it in the picture. The sky is a soft blue.
I was twelve when I first noticed that Brianna was acting differently, just after I had the conversation about James with her. You were the one I went to. You always seemed so much worldlier than I was, especially back then. Even though I was only one month younger than you, your parents let you watch R-rated movies and go places by yourself as long as you called them first.
My mother regulated everything I did and everywhere I went, so I was more than a little naive. I hadn't even had my first kiss yet (it was from you), but you had kissed three boys (and a girl, but I didn't know that), so I felt like your loser best friend back then. I found you completely charming, even at twelve. You seemed so dashing and exciting, especially to someone as boring as I was. I like to think I'm not quite so boring anymore, but you're still dashing.
Do you remember the day I talked to you about Brian? Brian wasn't Brianna to me back then. I hadn't been let in on her secret. "Brian's acting weird," I told you while we were watching TV at your house.
Your eyes were squinched up because you were trying to get a popcorn kernel out from between your teeth. "Wha'?" you said around your finger, turning away from the screen.
"I saw him the other day, and he was, like, hiding in Mom's closet." You took your finger out of your mouth. Scooby Doo's laugh track intruded on our conversation, but we ignored it. I sensed that this was too important to put aside.
"Hiding like he was scared?"
"No. Brian's not scared of anything," I said, trying to defend my brother's honor. In middle school, the only thing you're allowed to be scared of is wearing the wrong clothes. Anything else, we didn't talk about. We all just rolled over and showed our bellies to the pack leaders, hoping to be approved of.
You raised one eyebrow. Did I tell you how much it used to bother me that you could do that and I couldn't? I spent hours practicing in front of the mirror because I thought it looked cool. Everything about you was cool, Josie, and I couldn't seem to copy it. I had a bad case of heroine-worship with more than a dash of puppy love thrown in. But underneath that was a deep, sincere trust and a longing for something I didn't understand.
"He was, you know, startled," I explained, "like I snuck up on him. He had Mom's clothes out on the ground in front of him, the black dress that she only wears on New Years."
"Maybe he's gay," you said. I frowned, disappointed that you hadn't been interested in what I'd found out, but mostly, I was curious.
"What do you mean, gay?"
"You don't know what gay is?" You sounded superior. "You're so sheltered."
"I would know if you to-old me." I tried not to be whiney, because you said that you hated it when I was, but I didn't do a very good job.
"Gay," you explained, pushing your chin forward and looking very pleased with yourself, "is when one boy likes another boy instead of a girl."
I was shocked. I had never been told about what gay was before, and your explanation still wasn't quite registering, so I couldn't help asking a bunch of questions all at once. "Does that mean they're like girls? Do they want to be girls instead of boys? Does Brian want to dress up like Mom because he's gay?"
"No, that's stupid. Gay doesn't always mean you dress up like a girl. Most of them don't, but I saw some gay guys on TV once and they were dressing up like girls, so I guess a few of them do. I think it looks weird."
I tried to think of Brian in a dress. Sadly, I admitted to myself that he would probably look better in one than I would. "So, if Brian wants to dress up like a girl, does that turn him gay?"
"Jesus, Erin, you can't turn someone gay. You just are gay." I chewed on my lip, trying to think of more questions, but you put a stop to them. "If you want to know what's going on with Brian, why don't you ask him instead of coming to me?"
When I was little, about nine, I used to get really bad nightmares. Not the kind most little kids have about green cartoon witches coming to gobble them up. It was because you liked gory horror movies. I never told you, but after we started watching them together, my nightmares were filled with severed heads and steaming intestines.
Luckily, you outgrew your horror movie phase, but the nightmares hung around for about a year afterwards and I only felt safe when Mom or Dad heard my screams and came in to check on me. If one of them stayed with me until I fell asleep, I could usually get through the rest of the night.
That year was one of the most wonderful times of my life, in a backwards sort of way. I was getting attention from my parents. They even talked about sending me to a psychologist once, and I was overjoyed. It reminded me that they cared. Sure, they told me that they loved me, but this was different. They were worried about me. No one ever worried about me. They were used to letting me handle my own problems.
James was the one they worried about. Even at nine, he was already getting into trouble. It seemed like his teachers sent notes home every day and called at least twice a week, but Mom and Dad just kept telling us (but they were really telling themselves) that James was special, and he had some wires crossed wrong in his brain, and he couldn't help the way he acted, really, and it wasn't his fault, not hardly.
My twin was drugged up from the time he was six. Always on different pills that I couldn't even say the names of. There was a straight row of plastic compartments to keep them in, one for each day of the week, and Mom always had to remind James to take them until he hit fourteen and realized that he could sell some of them. He never forgot his pills after that discovery, and my parents just kept talking about how proud they were.
And Brian? Something was off about Brian and it bothered them. They could tell, and that, on top of James' problems at school, completely overshadowed everything I did. Once, I thought about faking the nightmares again, just so that they would come into my room and calm me down, but I couldn't do it. I knew my parents were dealing with a lot of stress, even if they were creating it themselves and nothing was really wrong with James, or Brian for that matter, and I couldn't add to it.
Picture: Brianna, stretched out on her bed, one arm covering her face. The sun cuts through the blinds, striping her body at an angle with bars of light. She's wearing a skirt. Her bare feet are crossed at the ankles. Her stuffed dog, Hershey, is lying on his side next to her hips. One of his eyes is missing. He's wearing a hula skirt that Brianna made for him out of strips of paper and a rubber band. There's a barrette on one of his ears.
It wasn't really scary asking Brian if he was gay or not, because I didn't know what a dangerous question it was back then. So I just blurted it out while he was doing homework in his room. I always pestered Brian when he did his homework because, besides you, he was the coolest person I knew, and I wanted to be just like him.
"Brian, Josie says that you might be gay," I said, trying to balance on one foot while I retied my shoelace. It had come undone while I was jumping on the bed, which I never would have gotten away with if Mom were home. Brian put down the pencil he was chewing on (he was always chewing on something, usually gum) and turned his swivel chair around.
"Why does she think I'm gay?" he asked. Brian knew that 'Josie says' was sometimes just a way for me to ask questions, so he didn't think it was strange that I mentioned you or anything.
"Do you know what gay is?" I asked, hoping that maybe, just maybe, I knew something he didn't for once. And wouldn't he be impressed then?
"Yes, I know what gay is," said Brian. The worry lines on his forehead made me sit down on the bed to finish tying my shoe. They reminded me too much of mother's.
"So, are you gay?"
"No," Brian said carefully. "Why do you think I'm gay?"
"I saw you with Mom's dress." I just caught Brian's wince before he put his face back together. "Josie says gay people sometimes dress up as girls, but not all the time. She says most of them don't."
"Well, I'm not gay."
I started kicking my heels against the side of Brian's bed. "So you don't like boys?"
Brian got really uncomfortable and he picked up his pencil again, gripping it too tight. His face was pale enough to make his freckles stand out, and I could tell that he was upset. I thought I had it all figured out then. Brian was gay, but he just didn't want to tell me for some reason.
"It's okay if you're gay, Brian," I told him. "I think it's cool that you like boys. We can talk about them together." Yeah, right. Lately, boys were all the girls at school thought about. I didn't see what was so interesting about them. I would rather spend my time with you, anyway. Did you ever notice the way I looked at you instead of them? I figured boys were one of those things I would understand later. For now, it was expected, so I joined in when I had to.
Brian sighed and put down the pencil for the third time, just to give his hand something to do, and stood up to push in his chair. He walked over to me and sat down next to me on the bed. "No, Erin. It's not like that. See, I like boys, but I'm not gay, because I'm a girl."
I had no idea what I was supposed to say. My thoughts, which you sometimes said kept going like a runaway freight train on speed, whatever that meant, kind of just screeched to a halt and fell over. I really wasn't thinking anything. My mind was just… empty.
Brian put his hand on my shoulder and started to explain in that smooth voice he had, trying to relax both of us. "Erin, since as long as I can remember, I knew I was more like a girl than a boy. I felt like a girl in here." He patted his chest, right where his heart was, and I started to cry. I couldn't stop, and the tears just kept coming and coming until they fell onto my shirt and then Brian's shirt when he hugged me.
"It's like… it's like waking up in the morning, going to the bathroom, looking in the mirror… and seeing someone you don't know. It hurts and it makes me feel scared. I just want to be comfortable in my body. Your body is one of the most personal things you have, and when it's not right, when it feels like someone else's body instead of yours, it's like you're stranded on the wrong planet."
"Okay," I said, but I didn't feel okay. I wasn't upset with Brian, I was mostly hurt and confused. I felt like he had lied to me. I decided I needed a nap, but I didn't leave until I gave Brian a hug to let him know that I loved him when I saw how sad his face was.
I know we used to share our dreams, so I'm going to try and write out a dream that I had about a week after the accident. Maybe it will help.
My dream begins in a wide room with a tall, arched ceiling. I am wearing a white dress and a mask that covers my eyes, but I can see through the material. There are other girls with me and we are standing side by side in an endless line. None of us turn our heads left or right.
Someone is walking along the line, stopping at each girl and lifting her mask. The person shakes their head each time, lowering the mask again and moving on. I know it is a woman, but I can't tell who she is or what she looks like.
Finally, she reaches me. My mother lifts my mask. Her face is brightened by a light source that isn't there, but the rest of her melts into the surrounding dark. I smile and open my mouth to tell her that she has found me, but she shakes her head and lowers my mask.
"No!" While the other white girls watch, I clutch at my mother's wrist, trying to pull her to me. "It's me! It's me!" That's all I can think– it's me. It's Erin. Me. Can't you see me?
"You aren't my daughter," she says. "You're flawed and unnatural. My daughter is nothing like you." She pulls her arm away and continues down the line as I fall to my knees and weep.
Picture: My mother, sleeping outside by the pool. She is in the shade for the moment, because a cloud has passed over the sun. The shape of her body is tired. A book is spread out over her face and her towel is thrown carelessly over her legs. It's one of the few times she's relaxed, not dealing with James or Brianna, not volunteering somewhere, not cooking, not cleaning. Not doing something for someone else. Her bathing suit is a modest black one-piece. Everything about my mother is, and has always been, modest.
My parents and I have an empty space between us. When I was younger, I tried to fill it with words. I talked about my day, about how James had poured glue in my hair, about how the lunch ladies never gave me extra dessert, even when I said please, which Brian had told me worked for getting anything.
As I got older, I began to understand that my parents didn't always have time for my problems. James caused enough trouble for three regular kids and Brian got in his own share of scrapes, even though he was the hero of our school, admired by all. With two demanding children, I guess it was easy to let me fall back a little. It wasn't because they loved me less, I think. I just didn't need all the help that James and Brian did.
During the difficult period when Brian became Brianna and shook my twelve-year-old world, I stopped talking to my parents. Stopped talking to them meaningfully, I mean. My problems were bigger than glue in my hair now. James was worse than ever – puberty was cruel to him. He was large all over, stormy and unpredictable. Brian had told me his secret, and I felt like I didn't know my brother… sister… anymore. Worst of all, I was starting to think things about you. Things I was too frightened to talk about with anyone.
Twelve was when I started taking pictures. I was walking past a drug store, thinking about how I didn't want to go home to my parents fighting with James, to Brian, who had lied to me, and even to you, because I knew you would probably come over to find me eventually. Something pulled me inside, an invisible hand guiding me past the chime above the door and up to the counter. Some cheap yellow disposable cameras were sitting on the shelf below the cashier, who was popping her gum and flipping through some celebrity rag.
I watched myself picking up one of the cameras and pushing it towards the bored woman. "I'd like this, please," my lips said without me telling them to. She looked up from her magazine, her red nails glaring bright on top of the white counter. She had five rings on her hands, three on the left and two on the right. They clicked as she picked up the camera and pushed it over the scanner.
"Seven seventy five," she said around her wad of gum. I thanked her, dug some bills out of my jeans, and took my camera outside. I clicked pictures on the way home, finding new ways to see a tree and a dog through the lens. Removing myself from the scene made me view my world differently. Detail flooded from what had looked ordinary before, and I wanted to bring it out for the eye, preserve it.
The camera also made me feel safe. It was so easy to put a lens between myself and the pain in the world. I was separate from it, my own entity. That separation was what I needed to keep going with my life and forgive Brian for lying to me.
Brian's point of view started to make more sense after I bought the camera. It happened in small steps, like when I watched one of the older eighth grade girls walk in the hall with a sway in her hips and thought about Brian, and if he'd walk like that since he said he was a girl. I caught myself looking at the older girls a lot, but I figured it was just the thing with Brian. Thinking about it a little at a time somehow helped it to make sense.
Finally, I told Brian that I understood. If he felt like a girl, I didn't see a problem with it. It was easier after the newness of it died away. And that was when he asked me to start calling him Brianna. He told me that it would be a secret, just between us, only when we were alone, because he wasn't ready to let our parents know that he was a girl yet. That was when my brother Brian became my sister, Brianna.
I guess my acceptance gave Bri some courage, because after our talk, she started dressing up in front of me. I got used to seeing her in dresses that she bought secretly with her allowance, and short skirts that showed off her legs. She didn't wear pants often, but when she did, they were always tight. I guess wearing pants reminded her of being a boy. Her hands were a little large and the shape of her throat wasn't quite right, but overall, Bri made a very convincing girl. She was even prettier than I was.
Like all teenaged girls, it wasn't long before she had snagged herself a boyfriend. Danny. Looking back, walking in on them necking on the couch probably wasn't the best way to find out, but I handled it well. I just said, "oh, caught ya," and ran upstairs, giggling until Brianna chased me down.
It wasn't until later that I realized just how important that moment had been – if I had made the wrong decision, I would have shattered her heart. Instead of screaming, crying, standing there in shock, I did what she'd always secretly wanted me to do. I treated her like a regular big sister.
When Brianna caught me, both of us were panting and laughing like maniacs. It felt great. It was one of the happy times I remember with her. It's one of my memory-photographs of us together. "Who is that?" I gasped out through a Cheshire-cat grin.
"Come downstairs and I'll introduce you. His name's Danny, and the best part is… he knows about me."
I touched at my burning stomach muscles with my fingertips. It was a good sore, from laughing and smiling instead of crying. "He knows about you?" I parroted.
"Yeah. He's bi, and we kind of knew each other. I just felt like I could talk to him, you know, and then we ended up kissing and now…"
"Bri has a boyfri-iend, Bri has a boyfri-iend," I sang, but a shout from downstairs interrupted me.
"Are you two crazies okay up there?"
"Come up here, you big goon, and find out," Bri yelled back. And that got both of us giggling all over again.
Picture: Danny, with Brianna on his lap. They have tubes of face paint out and are painting each other's faces at the same time. Danny's doing a rainbow on Brianna's forehead; she's doing a juicy lip print on his cheek. There is already a heart on Brianna's left cheek, and a lopsided Snoopy on Danny's forehead. Brianna's free hand is in Danny's hair. Her nail polish is bubble gum pink.
While Brianna was busy obsessing over Danny, I spent most of my time thinking about you. Seeing my sister in a steady relationship made me realize how much I wanted a relationship of my own. I saw how affectionate they were with each other. Touching, kissing, laughing, and whispering secrets. My thirteenth birthday came and went, and even though Brianna and I were closer than ever, I still felt alone.
I thought about talking to Brianna, but I figured that she had enough to worry about without adding my problems to the list. We both knew that she needed to confront our parents about everything – the dresses, the relationship with Danny – and I wanted to give her as much time to be happy as I could before that happened. I had a feeling that it wouldn't last long.
My other option was to talk with my father. I almost did it once. He was changing out of his work clothes, undoing the buttons on his collar and hanging his tie back up. I had given it to him on father's day four years ago. Well, technically, Mom's credit card made the purchase, and she helped me pick it out.
I watched him, knowing that I would have to leave before he took his pants off in the next few seconds. It was sort of a nighttime ritual. When dad came home late, I got to come in to our parents' room to say hello until he was ready to take his pants off, and then I went to bed. I used to fill the time with stories about my day, but now, a lot of my day had to be kept a secret.
"Dad?" I asked, swallowing hard, "would I be allowed to have a boyfriend if I wanted one?" I was too scared to even think the word girlfriend, let alone say it out loud in front of my father.
My father looked at me, his shirt half way unbuttoned and still tucked in to his pants. "Aren't you a little young to be worrying about boyfriends?"
"What if Brian had one? A girlfriend, I mean," I corrected, not wanting to give away any of Brianna's secrets before she gave me permission.
"Well, he's almost sixteen," said my father. "That's a little different. Why are you so interested in boyfriends all of a sudden? You don't want one, do you?"
"No," I answered truthfully. My father looked relieved. My heart twisted in my chest. "It's just that lots of my friends have them."
"If you wanted a boyfriend, you'd have to talk to your mother," my father decided, and I knew that the conversation was over. Whenever my father told me to talk to my mother, the answer was as good as a no.
Mentioning my mother brought everything into perspective, and I retreated to my room, determined not to tell my father anything about Brianna and Danny, or about my strange attraction to girls. I knew that every word I said would be passed directly to my mother.
All of a sudden, Bri was seventeen, going in to her senior year and not much had changed. My sister had spent two years going on secret dates with Danny, driving to the next town over so that she could go to a movie in a dress and not be recognized. The only other person that she had come out to besides me and Danny was you, and that wasn't even by choice. You really should call before you drop by my house, Josie-cat. It saves a lot of awkwardness. I suppose you realize that now.
But Bri was getting tired of lying to our family, being Brian at school and tiptoeing around everyone. Mom was starting to ask questions about girlfriends, which had Brianna feeling jumpier than a rabbit. And so she decided to break the news.
She knew that James was going to be the biggest problem. James had been a little anti-Brian for as long as we could remember. If Brian liked eggs, James hated them. If Brian wanted to go to a movie, James wanted to stay home. If Brian got an A in English, James got a D. The fact that Brian was really Brianna would only make James hate her more. He would see it as a big competition for our parents' attention.
Question: Do we turn out the way we are because it's fate, or because we make ourselves that way?
I never asked him, but I think that James felt his destiny was chosen for him before he was born. When you have an older sibling that's nearly perfect at everything, where can you go from there? I jokingly called James my evil twin when my parents weren't listening, but really, he was Brianna's.
The anger inside of James went deeper than regular jealousy, but I'm sure that was part of it, too. Bri was a great soccer player, and she studied hard and got all A's. Brian had been good-looking in a slim, boyish way, but Brianna was drop dead gorgeous. James was nothing to write home about. His nose was a little crooked, his hair was too red, his arms were too long, and his shoulders were sloped down.
Since Brianna was the good one, James figured out pretty quick that he had to be the bad one. He started causing trouble, pulling his hair and shouting bad words in the middle of his classes – literally screaming for someone to notice him. Mom and Dad took him to a doctor and that was how the pills started. James was out of school so much that year that he almost had to retake second grade.
At our house, it was always Brian and James, James and Brian. "Oh, Brian was inducted into Honors Society at school today, and James got caught cheating on one of his tests", or "Brian saved three goals at his soccer game, and James' doctor upped his medication", or something else obnoxious. And me? I spent most of my time blending in with the wallpaper.
Brianna got a job at the Dairy Queen in the mall after my fifteenth birthday, but she never seemed to have pocket money any more. Since we sometimes pooled cash for things we wanted, this was a big blow to my income. Now that I had a sister, I had twice as many outfits to wear. The mystery was explained when I came home early from school one day and caught her taking a handful of little white pills in her room. That's another thing I forgot to tell you about.
Bri caught me staring slack-jawed at her from the doorway and I felt the familiar pinpricks in my eyes, the ones that come just before you start crying. I tried to escape to my room, but Bri grabbed my wrist and wouldn't let go.
I couldn't look at her eyes when I said, "Bri, I can't believe you'd…"
"They aren't drugs," Bri interrupted, "they're female hormones. Estrogen and anti-androgens. It's going to make my body look more like a girl's body. It won't change what's between my legs, but it will make the rest of me look like a girl. You need surgery to do the last part."
"Do you want the surgery someday?" I couldn't help asking.
"Yeah, but it's going to cost a lot of money. What I don't use to buy my pills, I'm saving to help pay for it."
"How do you know if you're gay?" I blurted out, completely changing the subject. Brianna didn't mind. She was used to my outbursts. I tended to spit out things that I was thinking about around Bri at random times, maybe because I knew she would listen.
"Where did that come from, honey?" I felt her arm on my shoulder and I gave in and let her hug me against her chest, wondering if maybe it wasn't a little fuller than usual since she was taking the pills now.
"I think I might be, but I don't know," I admitted.
"Josie?" She didn't wait for me to answer. "Jesus Christ," she said, "we're going to break Mom's heart between the two of us, Erin."
"What do you mean?" Suddenly, the tears were bitter, not afraid. "It's not like she pays attention to me in the first place." The only person I wanted to pay attention to me more than my mother was you, lover. You never did seem to notice me the way I wanted you to.
"Only because you're the good one." I closed my eyes and Brianna kissed my forehead, leaving a fresh pink lipgloss print. "You're definitely the least of Mom's worries. James and his stupid friends are always getting high in someone's basement and driving around stoned, and I'm sneaking around with boys wearing dresses."
"When are you going to tell them?" I whispered.
"End of the school year," she said bravely, so I knew she was terrified. "I think they already know something's going on, but they can't quite figure it out. Either they enroll me at Cleveland as Brianna, or I start going to school in skirts, and what would all of their stuck-up friends think then?"
"You're going to bus all the way to private school?"
"They have those cute uniforms." Brianna's beautiful grin caught and I couldn't help grinning back. "You wanna go, too?"
"I heard Mom and Dad talking about it yesterday. They're thinking about enrolling you and James there anyway after that trouble he had with the Principal, but they want to keep me here. I don't see why. They know I hate it at Rockbridge, and I certainly won't lose sleep over the money."
But I wasn't listening. I had zoned out after the first sentence. Me? Go to Cleveland? With you there? The idea of seeing you every day at school made my cheeks hot. Maybe we would even have classes together. Maybe…
"Erin… Erin?" Brianna asked, shaking my shoulder gently. "Hel-lo-o? Someone's off in la-la land."
"I think I'm in love with her, Bri…" I whispered, afraid of the words even as they tripped out. That was the first time I had said it out loud in front of anyone. "But she's my best friend." And a girl. "How do I deal with that?"
"I don't know, but don't tell Mom and Dad yet. They have enough to worry about with me." I didn't bother disagreeing with her. I didn't complain about how it wasn't fair that she and James were taking up Mom and Dad's energy. I didn't question why she could come out to our parents, but I had to wait. I only thought it for a second, and just let it go, like always.
"Anyway, don't worry about this Josie thing. Mom and Dad will be so occupied with their new daughter that they won't even have time to pay attention if you and Josie sneak off," Bri said, trying to sound cheerful. I hoped that she was prepared to handle the first negative attention she'd probably ever get from our parents.
Picture: My father this time, setting up the trampoline in our backyard. Every year, Bri, James, and I pestered him for weeks to get it put up and netted for the summer. He is wearing a Dartmouth T-shirt, and patches of it are stained with sweat. His sneakered feet are almost covered by the high green grass. He is holding a metal pole in his hand, pushing it into place against the trampoline's side.
I have lots of memory-photographs of my father tucked away inside me. There were the times he played with me in the small, backyard wading pool when I was three or four. The time he put a band-aid over a bee sting right in the center of my palm, a hot, searing needle-hole that I thought would never close up. My mother hurt me the most before Bri died, but my father definitely hurt me the most after. It's still fresh. That's why I saved him for last to talk about.
The only thing sadder than losing someone once is losing them again. That's what he made me feel, just because he couldn't accept that Brianna's loss was real. He refused to feel it with us.
My father was sitting at the kitchen counter. I hadn't seen him in three days, not since the accident. I had heard him, though. Heard him crying like his soul was broken. His thin hair was parted straight, neatly combed. There was no stubble along his jaw. "Brian?" he asked. His mug clicked onto the countertop. "Oh, Erin. Do you know where Brian is? Probably at a friend's house." Brian, not Brianna. Brianna was dead, and Brian had never really existed.
My chest bit sharp and burned to breathe. For just a moment, I felt my heart balloon with hope. The accident, the funeral, they had all been a dream. But I knew I wasn't sleeping. Brianna wasn't breathing anymore. My father was crazy.
The thought was written in my mind, spinning wildly, but I couldn't read it. I didn't understand. And then I felt myself free-falling, spiraling, sick with fear. I found myself on the floor, knees smacked on tile. She was dead. My sister was dead. Twice.
"Her name was Brianna. Get her name right at least! Her name was Brianna and she's dead. She's dead and they killed her."
He didn't hear me. Just drank his coffee like his youngest daughter wasn't kneeling in front of him bawling her eyes out.
I remember that your face didn't look believing when I told you, but you loved me, so you decided that I was telling the truth. You were standing in front of the mirror, looking right through yourself and into another world. I wondered what you were really seeing.
"Come to bed, Josie. Don't make me sleep alone."
You sat next to where I was lying down, putting your hand on my naked shoulder. The touch burned. It was the second time I had been to see you since the accident. The first time, I had just cried and cried into your hair for hours. We didn't say anything then. And after, I had just wanted to sleep. Sleep forever. Sleep away the bad.
"Your Dad just doesn't know what to do, Erin," you said. "He lost Brianna and he doesn't know how to deal with it. "
"I was the only one who really knew her, and I'm not going around pretending she isn't dead. It's selfish of him. He's always been selfish."
"He's not trying to be selfish. He has to sort things out, and then he'll be fine."
"Promise?" I asked you, even though you couldn't possibly promise me anything.
"Promise." My sweet Josie-cat. You always know what to say.
But part of me couldn't forgive him. Couldn't forgive him, couldn't forgive Bri. She had left me behind. James was too horrified by what he had done to feel grief yet, and Mom and Dad were hiding behind anger and lies. I was the only one feeling Bri's pain. She had left me to do it. She was being selfish, just like the rest of them. She shouldn't have let them kill her. She should have stayed alive. She should have come out of that dark sleep instead of surrendering to it and just… not being anymore.
I was screaming and crying inside, but nothing came out. I wouldn't let myself break like the rest of them. I didn't need to be fixed. You knew somehow. I belong to you that much, enough so you can feel things with me.
"Bri has lots of people that love her, you know," you said. It was one of the most important things you ever said to me, but I didn't understand it then. My lips shook, then held. My world was collapsing, spinning apart, but you were just sitting there, talking about how Bri had people that loved her.
"'Had', not 'have'. She's dead."
"'Have'," you insisted. "Just because she's not alive anymore doesn't mean she's gone and it doesn't mean the love is gone either. You still love her. That hasn't changed." No, it hadn't changed. Even when Brianna was selfish enough to die and leave me hanging, I still loved her. I couldn't entirely blame her for wanting to die, though.
You reached out to touch me, tracing my lips with your finger. The openness and pain in your eyes hurt me. How could you be feeling this pain, too? I wondered. It was my pain, no one else's. Not my father's, not my mother's, not James', and certainly not yours. It belonged to me. How dare you touch me so sweetly, trying to put together something that could never be fixed? My heart was broken. I was broken. I felt ugly.
"Don't… don't touch me."
I ran from the room. I didn't let myself see the tears I knew were falling down your cheeks. I'm sorry for that day, lover. Really and truly sorry.
When Brianna told our parents, I stayed at your house for a month. I don't know how she broke it to them or what she said, but one day I came home from school and the house was a war zone. They could have put up a barbed wire fence to go with the shouting and crying. They didn't kick her out, though. Bri was their golden child and Dad wouldn't hear of it.
So they tried taking Brianna to a priest, and James had to get in even more trouble than usual to keep up. Drugs, parties, booze, bad grades, and emotional problems couldn't beat wearing a dress in the end. Brianna had won again and there was nothing he could do about it.
Whenever Mom and Brianna started screaming at each other, James would turn his music up really loud and I would just put two pillows over my head and cry until I couldn't hear any of them. You knew what it was like at home (you knew it was bad, even though I wouldn't share all the details), so you invited me over all the time. I practically lived at your house, and to be honest, I think my parents were happy that they didn't have to deal with me.
Of course, spending so much time with you did pose other problems, like sharing a bed. Sleepovers had always been a sweet torture with you, because you didn't believe in wearing pajamas. But for me, you wore underwear. Just underwear. I wore double layers just to make sure that not even an inch of my skin touched yours.
You used it as an opportunity to tease me about being a prude. You weren't shy about your body. I didn't know you were a virgin, too, but I desperately hoped so. Would you have made fun of me if you'd known I was saving my innocence for you, Josie-cat, like you saved yourself for me?
I think it was the walks in the park with Bri and Danny that kept us sane during that terrible time at home. They looked just like all the other couples there, so giddy and happy it was almost awkward. They did other normal-couple things, too. Sneaking out after midnight to park somewhere, going to movies together. But Danny never came to our house when my parents were home. He only met them once, a month after our parents found out about the relationship, the summer before we started at Cleveland. None of us wanted a repeat of that meeting.
It happened while he was kissing Brianna outside the front door at three in the morning. Mom and Dad were sitting in the living room with all the lights on, just like you see parents do on TV, and when Bri tried to sneak inside, they pounced. I was crouched at the top of the stairs, curled up with my arms under my knees, waiting.
I couldn't actually see into the dining room, but I could hear Mom screaming, screaming about how disgusting it was, and how you couldn't even trust your own kids anymore, and god, take off that dress, you look indecent. I didn't hear Dad say anything, but he might have been crying. I'm not sure.
Bri was wearing her green dress that night, the one just a shade darker than her eyes. It was gorgeous. Mom hated that dress. She hated it because it was Brianna's favorite. She couldn't stand Brianna in dresses. After that, Brianna didn't bring Danny inside unless she was sure our parents weren't home.
Picture: The green dress, held up against Brianna's shoulders. It is a green you see in dark moss, but her eyes are closed, so there is only the color of the dress. The skirts are twirled out, one of Bri's feet is placed back in mid-spin. The cuffs of her capris peek out where the dress breaks from the line of her body. Her lips are turned up in a smile. I need these captured moments of Bri smiling. So much.
A week or two after the fight over Danny, I came home and saw a half sheet of paper taped to my parents' bedroom door. I thought it was a note at first, but when I got closer, I realized that it looked more like a poem. I read:
BLESSED IS the man that walketh not in
The counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth
In the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord;
and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the
rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in
his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and
whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
4 The ungodly are not so: but are like the
chaff which the wind driveth away.
5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in
the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation
of the righteous.
6 For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous:
but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
I wanted to tear it down, ball the thin paper in my fist. This was a deliberate attack on my sister. Not a peace offering or even a plea. Shutting my eyes against angry tears, swallowing to loosen the sourness in my mouth, I walked into my room and picked up the copy of the Bible sitting on my bedside table. I flicked through the pages, not bothering with the table of contents, until I got to Psalms and found what I was looking for.
LORD, WHO shall abide in thy tabernacle?
who shall dwell in thy holy hill?
2 He that walketh uprightly, and worketh
righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his
3 He that backbiteth not with his tongue,
nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up
a reproach against his neighbour.
4 In whose eyes a vile person is condemned;
but he honoureth them that fear the Lord. He
that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth
5 He that putteth not out his money to
usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent.
He that doeth these things shall never be
I copied the psalm out on a sheet of notebook paper and taped it on Brianna's door. Her riposte. Brianna was one of the nicest people I knew and I wanted to be just like her. If God wasn't going to let her into heaven, I didn't want to be there. I knew that Brianna hadn't just decided to become a girl to hurt the family, like my mother thought, or to outdo everyone, like James thought. She had just been speaking the truth in her heart.
Picture: Brianna, lying in a bed of red-brown-yellow autumn leaves, leaving them mixed into her fiery curls. The golden crucifix she wore until the day she died is hanging around her pale throat. Her eyes are closed. The picture is focused on her face and neck, where you can see the three carefully blended shades of eyeshadow on each lid.
As much as she enjoyed dressing up, Brianna loved being outside. She used to say to me, "Erin, this is where God is, out here in the trees. Can you hear Him?" I listened and listened, and maybe sometimes I thought I heard something. I heard God through Bri most of all, though. She was my protector, my parent, my comfort, my friend. When I lost Bri, I felt like I was losing God, too.
Every Sunday, my mother made Brianna wear a suit to Mass. She would pull her hair back into a ponytail, take out her earrings, wipe off her makeup, and become a completely different person for a few hours. It did not satisfy my mother completely – I didn't think she would ever be satisfied – but it helped.
I wondered why Brianna never fought over it with her at first, because she usually flat-out refused to wear male clothes when my mother asked her to. Later, after you and I became lovers, I understood. Guilt will make you do just about anything. I guess she thought the least she could do after "ruining" our family was put on a stupid suit once a week for my mother.
Question: Should we even feel guilty? Just for being who we are?
She got really quiet once she was dressed, though. She didn't talk, didn't laugh, and didn't smile. Her mouth would press tight and her eyes would get large, like she was expecting someone to hit her. No one else seemed to notice. The rest of my family just went on as usual, sitting in a pew and pretending that everything was normal. I started to hate church. Not God, but church. It would have been better if I had been able to sit on the other side of the aisle, away from the tension.
Watching Brianna in the suit made me understand something important though. For some reason, the first time I saw Bri dressed up for church, I thought my brother would come back until she changed back into her regular clothes. But the person I saw wasn't Brian, just some scared, thin boy I didn't know in a tuxedo. Brianna had been there all along, ever since I was a kid. The "Brian" I had grown up with had just been Brianna with a different name.
I saw my mother crying the first night we all went to bed knowing Brianna was dead. It was worse than the waiting night, because that hadn't happened to us. It had been so empty, like TV. We were all detached, watching some other family. Tune in next week to see the fate of Brianna Gayle. Weekdays at 7:30 and 10:00.
But the night it had ended – or began, I think, I'm not sure – was when I found her sitting in Bri's room. I touched the handle of the door, creeping in like a shadow. Her eyes burned, they were so alive. Alive and spilling with pain. Not like Brianna, whose eyes would never cry, or sting, or laugh again. They were shut. But our mother's eyes couldn't close like that and so they wept instead.
"She's gone, isn't she?" she asked me.
I knew she wouldn't remember what she said later, because she never called Brianna 'she'. Brian was always he. But I guess fighting wasn't worth it anymore. Later, I knew she would call him Brian again, but for now…
Question: Is this really all you wanted, Bri? Why did you have to die before you could hear it?
The phrase 'bitter irony' has never fitted a situation more perfectly.
I wanted to scream the questions at my mother, but I kept my mouth pressed shut and walked out of the room before they could escape. Bri's death had finally given her the thing she'd wanted most in the world – acceptance from our mother. It was a small, temporary acceptance, and I knew that it wouldn't last more than a few moments, but it was still an acceptance. It was the beginning.
Perhaps, I thought as I returned to my room and climbed under my cat covers, Brianna's death would make things easier for me when I came out to my mother. It would put things in perspective. Having a lesbian daughter – I can say it now, Bri's death has kept me from being afraid of small things like words – isn't the worst thing that can happen to your child. I am alive and healthy. I can laugh and run and sing and take my pictures. I am a good person. Brinana was a good person. Shouldn't a mother be satisfied with that?
Still, I would rather have Bri alive than have an easier time with my mother. I would give almost anything to have her back.
The memories I have of the rest of the summer that Brianna came out are glazed– fighting and tears. I've blocked them out, mostly. All except the ones I've told you about already. Too soon, it was September. Nothing had changed at home. Mom was still upset, Dad was still despondent, and James was still angry. I just tried to ignore them all.
And then the first day of school came, and Brianna, James, and I started at Cleveland. On my very first day, I found out that you, James, Bri and I had Biology together. Brianna hadn't taken it at Rockbridge, since they do their science in a different order, so she was stuck in our class of mostly juniors.
Bio was also where I met Nate Crage. Nate wasn't a quarterback or a basketball star, and he wasn't really good-looking, just average, but his words made him powerful. You told me that they called him Mouth because that's what he used to keep his rung on the social ladder. I knew he was dangerous, but I had no idea how much until the accident.
Since you had warned me ahead of time about him, I made sure to keep my head down, but he singled Bri out on our very first day, remember? You and I were sitting in the front, hoping to avoid the small group of senior boys in the back. A few of them were almost twice my size, but I've always been a little smaller than average. Crage was one of them. He was one of the only other seniors in the class, besides Bri, because he'd flunked the year before.
We scooted our chairs close together and I watched you tug at your uniform skirt. God, you hated that skirt, even though you looked gorgeous in it. Then again, I always thought you looked gorgeous in everything. "Isn't this supposed to be an advanced class?" you complained, chewing on one of your purple nails. I stared, wanting to be that finger. "What's he doing here? Money, I guess, and a father on the school board. That'll get you anything here."
"Don't you have money and a father on the school board, too?" I asked you. You just rolled your eyes, not bothering to answer the question.
Crage was telling a fast, loud story – probably something we didn't want to hear – to one of his buddies, who was listening with his chin on his knuckles and laughing in the right places. James walked in and sat all the way on the other side of the room, next to the window, like I knew he would. James hardly even acknowledged me at home, and there wasn't any reason for him to talk to me at school, either.
You half-flopped on top of me, resting you head against my shoulder, completely distracting me. "Ugh. First day of school always blows." I felt a sweet pain, a beating emptiness deep inside me as our skins touched. You always made me want you so easily, and still do… I didn't say anything, because Brianna was just walking in. It was kind of weird seeing her in the same classroom as me. We'd never been together at Rockbridge, but Cleveland was a much smaller school and transferring had thrown everything off. She gave us a funny look and took a seat near the front.
No, sit with us! I screamed in my head. Not there! But it was too late. I knew that Bri wanted to give us some space since she knew about the horrible crush I had on you, but she'd definitely chosen the wrong seat – right in front of Crage. He kept talking, but his eyes dropped several feet to stare at her legs.
You noticed and pulled your head off of my shoulder. "Think Nate'll get on her? He looks like the wolf right now," you whispered, resting the fingertips you hadn't been chewing against my forearm. Your nail polish was chipped at the edges, leaving behind uneven blocks of color. My skin prickled.
"Brianna can take care of herself."
"He's won't just give up. He always wants what he can't have." That got me thinking about you, and thinking about you hurt, so I almost missed it when Crage finally jumped.
"You're new here, right? I'm Nate."
"Yeah, I'm Brianna," she said. I could see her fidget under his eyes.
"You need someone to show you around? Cleveland's kind of confusing to navigate." A total lie. There were two buildings instead of just one, with a set-stone walkway between them through the grass, but the classrooms were easy to find, since our first building only had English, History, and the library on the first floor, and science and math on the second floor. The other building just had the gym, the auditorium, the swimming pool, and the cafeteria.
I could tell she was considering it. She didn't know about Mouth and she wanted to be polite. "Um, sure. Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks." The teacher came in and started talking to the class, but I tuned his voice out. Instead, I was watching James. He was staring at Brianna, and his eyes made my throat close.
Picture: The front of a school building, brown stone. There are no students. The flagpole is about twenty feet high. There is no wind. The flag hangs limp, dejected. The grass is neat. The sky is streaked with thin clouds. There are wet patches on the cement where rain has been.
The thing that scared me the most back then wasn't my parents, Nate, or even the fact that I was falling in love with you. It was the pills Brianna took. The pills I kept a secret from everyone, even you. I had no idea where she got them, so I did a little research. I remembered her talking about estrogen and anti-androgens, but I didn't know what they were until I looked them up.
I found a side-effect list about as long as War and Peace.
I knew Bri couldn't be seeing a doctor about taking them. She didn't have money to pay, or a car to get her there (my parents weren't buying Bri as many treats now that she had told them about being a girl). The books all said the same thing: self-medication is dangerous. And I was sure that Bri hadn't listened. She wanted to be a girl so badly that she didn't care about the risks.
I had to get her to see a doctor.
We fought it out for two whole weeks and came to a compromise. Bri would stop increasing the number of pills she was taking. If she saw any side effects at all, if she even had a runny nose, she had to go to a doctor. When she turned nineteen in February, she would look up the nearest LGBT clinic in the city and get someone's name. She could save up money from her job in the mall before then to pay for at least a few appointments. I didn't tell her, but I was willing to get a job and help her pay for it, as long as it kept her safe.
Every day, I came home on the bus wondering if Bri had ODed somehow, and was lying dead in her room, waiting for me to find her. I had no idea that my mental pictures of her death were completely off.
Picture: Bri, working at the Dairy Queen in the mall. Glaring white lights are reflected on red tile in bright patches. She has chocolate smeared like warpaint on her nose and cheeks, and a waffle cone sitting on her head like a dunce cap. Her tongue is stained blue from a slushie, looking dark in her red, lipsticked mouth. She looks gorgeous, even in her bright red uniform shirt. It clashes with her hair, but she manages to pull it off. I could never wear anything red and look as good as she did. This picture is important because it's one of the last times I remember Bri being happy. It happened before all of the problems at school, before her life – and mine – fell apart.
Going to Cleveland was different than I expected. I guess I thought that it would be like books or movies, with rich kids spending Daddy's money and backstabbing each other. But it wasn't like that, not all the time, anyway. There were some kids that forced themselves into the rich snob mold, but a lot of them were like me, just regular teenagers that wanted to go to a good school.
I started taking photography classes at Cleveland, an elective that Rockbridge didn't offer. The teacher, Mrs. Allen, said that I had a talent for photographing people in particular. I showed her some of my pictures, the ones that I wasn't afraid of sharing, and she talked with me about their composition and balance and why they were effective.
I saved up my money and bought a camera. Not digital, the old fashioned, real kind with film. I started developing more pictures in the school's dark room. I learned how to manipulate the clarity and color of the pictures I took, too. There's one of my father holding a banana and the entire picture is black and white, except for the yellow peel. (I kept looking at that picture after the accident, when he wouldn't admit that Brianna was gone, because it reminded me of all the life and color that had drained from him).
Bri, Danny, and you (when you were in a good mood) were my favorite models. I liked bringing out what I saw in you with my vision. I started thinking about getting a photography job at a magazine or a newspaper, or doing freelance stuff and selling it. Even though my family was screwed up, life seemed pretty good then. I had a new camera and a lot of dreams. I just wish I'd paid more attention to Bri's problems instead of my own life. Maybe I could have done something to help her.
I remember one time when I was really little, about six. Brianna was nine. I remember, because she'd just had her birthday. Sometimes she was two years older than me, sometimes three. Mom got home from her job fifteen minutes after my bus came and so Bri waited for me at the bus stop.
It was February, and the wind cut tears from my eyes. It was a dry cold, but there was already a carpet of ice over the sidewalk. My boots were rubbery on the bottom, so when the bus stopped at my friend's house, I got out with her and tried to 'skate' home. After a few slippery steps, I tipped and crunched in the snow next to the sidewalk. Ice got caught under my shirt and fell down my pants. I couldn't stop shaking.
The snow and wind were so cold that I just sat there and cried. I swear the tears froze on my cheeks. The next thing I remember is Bri wrapped up in at least three layers, bundling over to me, her legs stiff wooden planks. She half-carried me home. I was burning so hot from the snow that my skin was red and my face was coated with ice and fat teardrops.
When she got me inside, I was all purple and shaking so hard I didn't know where I was standing. She stripped me naked, filled the bathtub with hot water, and put me in. I cried even more then, because the feeling was coming back to my legs and arms, and it burned and prickled so sore that I screamed. When Mom came home five minutes later, she didn't tell her anything except that I was taking a bath.
Later, she said James had told her where I was when I didn't get off at our stop. She had come to save me. I only wish I could have saved her…
Telling you that I loved you was surprisingly easy, even with everything else happening at the same time. One morning, I just got up and decided to do it. I painted on two coats of shimmery-pink lip-gloss and added a few quick strokes of blush across my cheekbones. Eyeliner, mascara, and a little eye color finished the job. I figured if I was going to tell you how I felt, I might as well try and make myself look desirable.
Touching up my face made my stomach unknot a little, putting a shield between me and rejection. My logic was the same as any other teenaged girl's – if you get turned down, at least you look damn good (if you can keep from crying or buy waterproof mascara).
When I was ready, I swallowed until my throat wasn't dry anymore and hopped on my bike, even though it was awkward in my short skirt. I just walked in through the front door when I got there, like I always did. I knew you would be in your room waiting for me, like you always were.
You were draped sideways across the comforter, your chin pointing at the ceiling as you hung your head backwards over the edge of the bed. "Hiya, babe," you yawned.
"Hey." I gripped my wrist behind me and pressed it into the small of my back.
Your eyes did a quick up-and-down, but I caught you. I felt myself blush and I remember how your eyes got big behind your glasses as you saw me. And so I just went for it, reaching up to straighten the frames on your ears and pulling my face close so my mouth was a breath away from yours.
And then we kissed and kissed for a thousand years, soft, warm, so, so sweet. My throat burned sharp and cracked as I pulled away, whimpering against your mouth.
"I can't," you pleaded low with quick kisses, your eyes strained, "I can't do this." But you were doing it, and I wasn't going to let you stop.
"Yes, lover, you can." Your mouth blistered mine. I caught a breath and stared at your face. The eyes behind your glasses were blurred, half-lidded. "I love you, Josie-cat," I said. "Please say you love me back."
"I do, I do." Not a marriage vow, but it felt like one to me. "I shouldn't, but I do."
"Stay with me for always?" I asked, a child again, just for a second.
Your lips spread in a smile. "For always."
Picture: You, on your – our – bed. Your eyes are hooded. The sheet spills from a naked hip, revealing most of your white stomach. So much blazing white skin for my eyes to take in. Your chin is resting in your hand, the line of your side stretched out like some Parisian model's. Your breasts are pushed out by the breath you have taken in, the tips hardened, a cream-coffee brown.
It was my idea. My first and only terribly wonderful idea.
You were dead-on about Nate, he definitely wanted what he couldn't have. If Brianna had fawned over him a little more, he might have left her alone, but she wasn't willing to compromise herself. Besides, she had Danny. His pride was at stake now. There was a girl that didn't want him and that was inexcusable.
But I was too distracted with you to notice, really. Maybe if I had paid attention, I could have done something… maybe if I had paid attention, she wouldn't be dead now. The newness of our relationship was a drug that clouded everything else. Brianna's problems with Nate seemed far away. For the first time, I didn't spend every moment of every day worrying about Brianna. I was busy with my own life and us.
There were moments I noticed things were getting worse. When I caught him leaning next to her locker in the hall, his curled-up smile twisting when she came to get her books… When I heard snatches of conversation from her bedroom while she was on her cell phone. "I swear, Danny… I'm thinking of reporting him…" I knew why she didn't. They wouldn't do anything, not to a kid with money.
And all the time, James just watched them. Watched and didn't say a thing. Maybe he was planning it then, what he did.
It happened suddenly. Everybody knew.
It started with pointed looks at Brianna, at me. They were not kind and each one left a seared imprint long after the eyes looked away. Clouds of whispers erupted around us as we passed through the halls. The fragments we caught were enough to make us afraid.
I won't try and make things seem worse than they were. Not all the kids were mean. We don't live in the dark ages anymore, and some of them went out of their way to smile at Brianna or say hello, without directly mentioning anything they had heard about her. But it only takes a few kids out of a large group to make you miserable and afraid. An insult always hurts worse than a compliment helps.
Having Brianna exposed was something I had thought about, had woken in the night shaking over, but had never believed would really happen. In a waking dream, you and I flanked her everywhere, unwilling to let her out of touch. Not for even a moment. Without discussion, one of us asked to leave for the bathroom a few minutes before the end of each class so we could meet her.
The looks and whispers, I thought, were a thousand times more hurtful than a blow. Each was a poisoned arrow in the spirit's flesh, impossible to pull out. They left high, ridged scars over the embedded tips, thickened your skin. Soon, you had a mass of scars to protect you.
But Bri's skin wasn't thick and it couldn't protect her. She was facing down an army, stretched out and naked. She had never been hated before. She had always been admired and well-liked. Even our mother, who was so angry at her and who didn't understand her at all, didn't hate her. But it was easy for them to hate her. They weren't her friends or family. She wasn't ready for it. Not nearly ready.
You and I, all we could do was watch her fall and try to catch her. Her mouth and eyes were stone. Each arrow made them harder. Finally, we were in Biology. Brianna sat between us in the back, taking my usual seat. She needed the protection more than I ever did. Nate looked over his shoulder, standing up. His face curled into something ugly. There was no teacher at the front of the room.
"Fag. I can't believe I was nice to you."
The line of Brianna's shoulders lifted. She didn't stand. "My name is Brianna."
"That isn't your fucking name." And then he was there, both palms planted on Brianna's desk. "Brianna's a girl's name. Come on, what's your real name, fag?"
Nate's hands slammed onto the desk. Sent it flying sideways. "That isn't your fucking name."
You stood up, nails digging into your palms. "Shut up." I reached out a hand to pull you down, but I was frozen.
"Yes, it is," Brianna said quietly, covering your words. "Nate, pick up my desk."
"Don't tell me what the fuck to do!"
"You knocked it over, you pick it up." Her voice was so broken, but she kept speaking.
"Shut up!" Nate croaked, his voice heavy with throat and grit. "Just shut up!" He grabbed Brianna's shoulders, his fingers pressing around her neck, shaking her.
Finally, finally, the door opened before you could pull back your fist. "Mr. Crage, what are you doing? Stop!" But he didn't let go.
There was a small struggle, and Crage was eventually pulled out of the room. After several silent minutes unsupervised, we found out that he had been suspended. It was probably only his father's influence that saved him from being expelled.
I heard a rhyme once.
The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He'll sit in a barn and keep himself warm
and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.
So that's what I did – poor Erin, poor thing – sat in the barn that was my room and put a pillow over my ears. I let all the love I had for Brianna pour out and settle under the covers, soaking in its warmth. It was the closest thing I knew to having my sister back.
There are exactly fifty five sleeping cats on my blue sheets (not including the ones tucked under the mattress). I know because I kept counting them after she died. Counting cats was a lot easier than dealing with the questions.
One cat… two cats… Why does my father pretend Bri's alive?… three cats… Does my mother blame herself like I do for hurting Bri?… four cats… five… It's not just James' fault. It's everyone's fault. Nate's fault. Mom's fault. Dad's fault. The world's fault… fifty five cats.
The questions were the worst part, really. You can't feel too much pain if you just keep yourself from asking them. I guess that's why being dead seems so peaceful. You don't have any questions left to ask.
My biggest question, the one I could never forget no matter how many cats I counted, was… Question: Could I have changed things? Would she be alive if I had paid more attention to her problems? I guess I'll never know.
I couldn't bring her back, but maybe if I just looped the memories over and over in my brain, like a skipping DVD, I wouldn't remember she was gone.
But I didn't have the heart to be like my father. And suddenly, I was afraid of forgetting. If I forgot, the real Brianna would completely disappear. My family didn't know how she really was, and if I didn't keep her in me, she would fade into the big space of nothing that was death. I couldn't let her just go out like a candle. So that was when I decided to remember it all, write it all down so that I couldn't forget.
Just after the problem with Crage, James stopped talking. We didn't notice at first. I guess none of us were near him enough to realize, and he was usually quiet anyway. Back then, when everything in the house screamed Bri and she was alive, no one in my family could handle each other for too long. Except me and Bri. We were just fine together. It was the rest of them that were the problem.
But when three days passed without a word, I wondered.
Breakfast was the only time I saw him. He stared at the grain of the table, spooning cereal into his mouth. Three minutes of empty quiet. Then he left to watch TV in his room. I liked mornings because everyone had a routine. Even James, who was usually getting in to trouble. I guess I should have realized that the quiet wouldn't last. I should have known that it was all James' fault. But I had no idea.
Picture: Brianna, wearing her uniform. She is in the school library, reading a magazine. Her hair is up, and her feet are propped on the desk in front of her. Her face is blocked. It's one of the few pictures that I decided not to show it. It's black and white. Her stylish shoes, pointed at the toe, have a kind of retro-seventies feel. They take up half the picture, since they're close to the lens, right in the foreground. The rest of her is far away.
It was the last picture I took of her before…
The stars spread chalky light over the gray pavement of the road as Bri and I drove. We had picked up some bread, milk, and batteries because we needed to leave home. That was something I had gotten used to quick. Home changes when you grow up. It's not always somewhere you can stand to be, even when you need it.
I smacked my gum, wondering if it would be too late to call you when I got home. Normal thoughts. But then a pair of headlights flared out of the empty black, two twin knives of bright. Blocks of color flashed behind my eyes.
Bri squinted, filtering the worst of the glare. "God, I can't see," she gritted out, the muscles of her face pulled stiff. The headlights, about to pass us, swerved over into our lane and stopped. Brianna stomped on the brakes and the car scraped and jolted still.
Our headlights outlined the shadowed sketch of another car's body. I reached over to hit the horn on the steering wheel, but Bri's fingers braceleted my wrist. "God, what is this idiot doing?" I said.
"No, wait." There was no anger in the line of her mouth. We knew who it was. She drove around the stopped car, moving in and out of the left lane. Both of us watched in the rear-view as the car made a stumbling U-turn and swerved after us.
Bri floored the gas. The headlights followed, thin white needle-tips fastening on us in the wide dark. The rest happened fast. When I remember, it's like a movie on fast-forward. The car behind us lurched up. Its nose was inches from our bumper. One of us screamed.
I'm not sure how we crashed. Our car jumped. Started, rolled on its side. Its belly faced the road. I turned my neck. The driver's side of the car was crushed like crumpled paper. Bri was crumpled with it.
My sister. The sister I played monopoly with on Saturdays. The sister that held me warm at night. The sister who, so alive, had walked me, then driven me, to school almost every day since Kindergarten. Gone.
Almost nothing is as lonely as an empty kitchen table. We couldn't bear to eat together, not with an open chair. I stood alone, looking into the grained wood, seeking.
Question: What to do when you are empty?
Remember a full, warm room with people to fill you up. For a little while, at least, the nothingness will clear.
Life is changing, people are changing. But an empty kitchen table never changes. Even when it's filled, it will be bare again soon.
I had a dream of you, after the accident, and I memorized it when I woke up so I wouldn't forget. Your face, tipped with silver light reflected by a mirror, was looking for something that had disappeared long ago. I could not reach you. 'Let me in,' the words grew inside my throat, balling up into a tight knot. 'Please, lover, let me in.' They would not come out, but you turned as if you'd heard me, black waves of hair breaking against your white shoulders.
"I want to leave," you told me, "I want to take you away from all this." The knot unraveled from my neck and freed my voice.
"You know you can't."
"Why not?" you were questioning yourself as much as answering me.
Question: Why not?
"There are people here who need us." Like we had needed Brianna. She had already left. I couldn't follow her. You had asked the questions I was thinking, and now that I had answered them, understanding came.
Seeing Nate after the accident was like seeing no one at all. He was hardly a person anymore. His face was white, thin as bone, almost dead-looking. At least, I thought, he regretted.
He had been drunk, we were told after. His father bought him out of jail time, but he had to do community service and restitution. I'm not sure if everyone knew Crage had done it on purpose, or if James and I were the only ones. Now that it was over, the questions didn't matter so much.
I don't think he wanted to kill her. Scare her, hurt her, but not kill her.
Killing changes you, I guess.
"I don't even deserve to say I'm sorry to you," was what he told me. He was crying. Nate Crage was crying, and he didn't care that I saw. Neither of us could say anything else. I reached up, put a hand on his shoulder. Then, I left.
I went home to James. He was just as empty as Nate, I realized, sitting at the empty kitchen table. The blank of his face was familiar now. But he said something I didn't expect. "It should have been me."
And then he couldn't stop saying it. "It should have been me… I wish it had been me… It SHOULD HAVE been ME."
Should have, should have.
That's when I realized who had told Crage about Brianna. I wept then. James and I had never been close, but I couldn't bear to think about how he had betrayed his own sister.
Two, maybe three weeks passed before I went to church. The funeral didn't count. Polished oak sighed under my knees and I tucked down my chin, my eyes lifting, jerked towards the dull shine of a large cross. Its veins of red wanted me to bleed out into them.
Come with me, said a golden voice. I will keep you safe, make you beautiful. Regain your innocence. I wanted to scream. God – all this – made me want to dig open skin with my fingers. I wondered if my soul was too bruised to come back.
My gut sank into nothing, burning itself into inexistence. Needled eyes surged and released. I was crying. I still cry, sometimes. I must be a masochist to keep coming back to this two-edged love.
Question: Why can't I not believe? Why do I need… more?
It should have rained at the funeral. There wasn't one cloud. Only the cold sun, plastered over a clear, empty sky, blank as paper. I thought about that for a long time, about how it should have rained, or how it at least should have been sad, with bare trees and everyone crying. But it was almost spring, and the high leaves had just budded.
I didn't cry. The only one who did was my mother. I thought I was going to at first, thought I should have, since I had just lost my sister, but I saw her lying there in the coffin and couldn't. She was wearing that tuxedo. A tuxedo, of all things. I knew that wasn't my sister. My sister would have been buried in the green dress. Bri was somewhere else, and I couldn't cry for a stranger.
"My baby boy," my mother said as I held her elbow by the side of the grave. "My sweet boy…"
Fact: I know what happens when you run out of questions now. You dig somewhere dark and hide your face in your knees until it goes away. Everything goes away someday. Especially people.
Danny was there, too. He didn't speak to me until after the coffin was closed and we were all walking back to our cars.
I felt suddenly attached to him, and I reached out my hand, putting it on his shoulder before he could open the door to his small Ford and drive away. "Danny… You've been hurting, too, haven't you?" My whole existence since Brianna's death was twisted backwards. I had thought – I had been sure – that no one missed her but me.
There were tear streaks smeared below his eyes. "Yeah, Erin." He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "I was angry at first, because she left me. But… now I'm just sad. Maybe I would have stayed with her forever. Now I'll never know. And that not knowing makes me…" He couldn't finish.
That was the worst part, the Not Knowing. Not knowing all the wonderful things she could have been a part of. Giving up a thousand good days that might have happened all at once. But at least I wasn't the only one missing them. You, Danny, my mother, my father, James. Even Nate. They would all miss them, too. Missing her together would be easier than missing her alone.
Part of me hoped that the Wake would give my father a push back into reality. If he saw Bri laid out, I thought, he would have to accept that his daughter was dead.
It was too quiet. No one drank or talked or laughed. No one told stories. They gathered at our house without being invited – friends, relatives, neighbors. The room was cold, I remember. My mother put rosary beads in Bri's white hand. I wondered how the funeral people had reshaped her crushed chest.
"A handsome boy," my father said, standing beside her body. People came up to him, offering their whispers or tears, but he didn't take them. He still was not accepting that the body in the coffin was his child. He refused to believe and grieve with the rest of us.
"A handsome girl," you said, standing behind us. This was it, I thought. My breath left.
You lifted an imaginary glass. "To Brianna. She looked much better alive in a skirt than dead in a tuxedo." A bitter toast. But then I saw something in my father's eyes clear, and I could have kissed you. I don't know how you knew what to say.
He completely broke down, like he had the night of her death. All of the pain that he had forced back flooded out, and he fell onto the floor, sobbing. My mother knelt beside him, wrapping him in her arms. James watched from a corner. I knew he was thinking about what he had done to our family.
You wrapped your arm around my shoulder, and I didn't reject you. My parents were too lost in themselves and their grief to notice, anyway. And even if they did, you were just my friend as far as anyone knew. I would tell them someday, after we had recaptured a bit of our lost sanity. Maybe it would be easier for them the second time.
And then we went back to the empty space at the kitchen table in our empty house. There were the wrong number of plates more often than not, if whoever was setting forgot for a moment.
But new things started to happen.
Two days later: I saw my mother smile at the picture of Bri on my night table once. She was wearing a dress.
Four days later: James and I ate breakfast together. It lasted fifteen minutes.
Five days later: The four of us went to church.
One week later: James stopped taking some of his pills.
Nine days later: You and I let ourselves make love again.
Ten days later: I didn't have any nightmares.
Twelve days later: My mother and I made dinner together.
Fourteen days later: My father used Brianna's name.
Fifteen days later: I took some new photographs in my back yard of the trees.
Sixteen days later: I gave you this journal, to get everything out.
I know it isn't over yet. It will take years, maybe the rest of my life, to accept Brianna's death. But at least I've started.
So. So my sister is dead. So it was my brother's fault. So my father denied that it happened. So my mother is a broken shell. So how do you deal with that?
You told me once that life can't get too complicated if you just breathe and live it. I'm not sure if that's true, but does anyone else have a better solution? Is there a better solution?
So all I know is that I love Brianna, I love my parents, I love James despite what he did, and I especially love you, and maybe if I keep loving them, everything will turn out all right. Maybe.
And sometimes, if I listen inside the quiet at night, I imagine I can hear God whispering "everything will get better." Talking to me, just like Brianna said. And I believe.