I’ve never been satisfied with my place in life.
In the wild, a natural hierarchy reigns: the weaker, the smaller submit to the big and strong. Alpha gorilla stands to beat his chest, and all the king’s men zip their lips. Only equals tear each other to pieces. It’s a practical system, keeps bloodshed to a minimum and frees more time for crazy animal sex.
Gorilla sex is no conciliation to a ten-year-old, so when my big brothers would beat their chests, there was a forty-nine percent chance that I’d shit a peanut and flick it in their faces. For two seconds, I’d be king of the hill. Then natural law, known also as knuckles, asserted itself against my stomach.
When animals are almost equal, a token show of physicality serves as a warning to challengers, an opportunity to retreat for those who’ve forgotten that planets submit to the gravity of stars and moons turn at the pleasure of planets. Wolves nip each other, lions flurry with claws. With my brothers, a punch, a bear hug, a turn-me-upside-down-by-my-ankles: these were my tokens, my last chance to walk away.
I was three when I’d walked away from my mother, ran to the kitchen as my father beat her into the living room carpet. The fear from that day ballooned in me when my big brothers asserted their dominance. I couldn’t retreat: I might’ve run to the kitchen and never made it back.
I’ll end up tripping through life getting my ass kicked instead of walking away.
Stage one: one of my brothers would posture, and I’d flick my peanut. Stage two: they’d offer the token, and I’d say, “Fuck you.” Stage three: the fight. Stage four: I’d get off the floor and grab a bat, an iron, or a vacuum cleaner attachment. Final stage: rematch. My brothers could’ve grabbed a bat, but my armed outbursts became a family convention my brothers afforded to me alone. It was how they loved me.
The fraternal tradition began in a hotel during a trip to Disney World. I don’t remember exactly what my brother Eddie did to me, but it was the kind of thing he did to make me acknowledge the natural order. He’d do it with the knowledge that as our father’s firstborn, he could do no wrong. I’d endure it with the knowledge that I was 90 pounds and nothing.
When I reconstruct the memory, we stand before a marble sink in a bathroom. I brush my teeth, but Eddie slaps my wrist again so that the toothbrush pops out of my mouth.
“Stop!” I shout loud enough for our dad outside the bathroom to hear it.
“Stop me,” Eddie says. He smiles at me in the mirror.
I switch the toothbrush to my other hand, out of Eddie’s reach. He shuffles to my left, making Michael Jordan sounds through puckered lips, and slaps my wrist.
“You better leave me alone.”
“You were hitting me,” I say, half-pleading. I shove at him, but I prove no match against his hip. My older brother Timi brushes his teeth beside us, silent. He’ll be no help. The last time we tried to gang up on Eddie, I lost my nerve and abandoned Timi to a pummeling.
My face burns. I hate this family. I scream, grab my dad’s deodorant because it’s the hardest thing in reach.
Eddie runs. I throw it at his head as he dives over the bed. The deodorant shatters against a sliding glass door. I couldn’t even break glass.
“What the devil’s going on?” My dad rounds the corner wearing a button-up shirt and underwear. He stops knotting his tie to take in the scene. Eddie peeks over the bed at us, giggling. I’m in the bathroom, tears overflowing. My dad makes a joke about Eddie riling a tiger. Pride colors my father’s light brown skin when he smiles for me.
I chase Timi out of our bedroom brandishing the gallon jug I kept for pennies. He careens through the hallway, pausing to fend me off with a kick. I cradle my piggy bank, pinball off a wall, and hit the carpet.
“I’m sick of this!” Timi shouts, running across the second floor landing headed for our father’s bedroom.
My voice cracks around an oath to kill him. I lurch to my feet, pennies scraping around inside the glass.
Timi didn’t stop to close our dad’s door, so I bull into the china shop, jug raised overhead. My arms falter.
“Now what!?” Timi prowls from our father’s closet with a bullwhip. Our dad brought it back as a souvenir from a trip to Texas. It’s an eight-foot leather braid thicker than my ten-year-old wrist. Bulls don’t roam Oakland, so my dad took to whipping us with it.
I hurl the piggy bank and run. I round the landing and rumble down the stairs, tiny hand sliding along the balustrade so I don’t fall. Leather whips across my shoulder, checking my flight and smacking my stomach. Timi has restored the natural order. Unforgivable.
We spill onto the first floor. I rush to the kitchen and drag open the silverware drawer. Timi doesn’t see the butter knife in my fist when he stalks into the kitchen. My grip is tight enough to stop the world’s turning.
“I can pick up a weapon too,” he’s saying. “How’s it feel?”
I stab him.
He doubles over and drops inhumanely quick. His cry gurgles, as if he’s vomiting his scream. Rage prickles and pops beneath my skin, but air grows cold in my lungs when he remains fetal. He just screams. His face is stretched plastic.
I am fear.
I roll him over. No blood. Both of us register the fact, and Timi pulls up his shirt. A welt swells above his navel.
“You tried to kill me!” He leaps up, bolts out the kitchen, and out the front door. Our father works outside with our uncles, facing the house with bricks. I come outside when my dad tears the sky open with my name. He punches me in my chest, catches me before I fall, and beats me with his hand. I yell like he’s killing me.
Later, he’ll laugh because “Emile don’t take no stuff.” When my brothers and I enter Oakland’s wilds, I’ll be known as the dangerous one. Later, I’ll escalate.