“Are you a masochist?” It’s the first thing Bosco asks me. He’s fourteen years old now, almost my height, 5′ 8″, creamy white skin, and a small, German nose from my stepmother’s side of the family.
He’s wearing pajama bottoms and my father’s green bomber jacket. We’re in a cab returning from the airport. He’s here to stay with me for ten days. And I’m realizing I’ve made a terrible mistake.
“Why would you think that?” I ask. I’m tired myself. I just flew into San Francisco two hours earlier. I haven’t been home in weeks.
“Dad says you’re a masochist. He read it.”
“I’m a fiction writer,” I say. “It’s fiction.”
“Sure it is,” he says.
We go to a party for people from the university. Bosco grabs two beers from the fridge and hands me one. “He’s a little young to be drinking, isn’t he?” Claire asks. Claire’s a poet from Georgia. The house is filled with poets and short story writers. Jackets are piled on the bed in the bedroom and people are laying on them or on the floor telling stories about losing their virginity. Everybody has an MFA so every story has a small inappropriate observation. “He put his hand between my legs at the movie theater. I was wearing my mother’s skirt…” “I was fifteen, she was nineteen. It was the day after my best friend committed suicide.” My brother hangs on the front steps with Kaui’s boyfriend Andy and Andy tells him not to do heroin. “Everything else is okay,” Andy says.
“That guy was cool,” Bosco says.
I don’t know my little brother as well as I should. I left home before I was his age. I ran away just after my mother died and slept on rooftops and hallways for all of eighth grade. I ate from the garbage behind Dominick’s, food thrown away just past due date. The state took custody of me and charged my father with abuse and neglect.
My father and I never really mended our relationship. He remarried, made money, moved to the suburbs, had children. I wrote a book about growing up in group homes and the violence there. My father thinks I have exaggerated my victimhood at his expense. We get along for months at a time and then I’ll get some note explaining how he wasn’t that bad of a father; how he didn’t shave my head, he gave me haircuts; and I’ll remember waking up to my father’s fists and being dragged along the floor into the kitchen. My father likes to joke that he only handcuffed me to a pipe that one time and look how many stories I’ve written about it. He thinks he should have been a worse father because it would have helped my writing. Some times I tell my father it’s best we don’t talk for a while. So I was surprised when he suggested Bosco come out and stay with me. I was more surprised, when, after saying yes, I found out the ticket was for ten days.
What I have to keep telling myself is that Bosco is a kid and being a kid is hard. I’m not jealous that he’s growing up with two parents in a big house in the suburbs. I want to be a good brother but the truth is that I don’t have the skills. I’ve borrowed a sleeping bag for him; my studio is so small. He sleeps on the wooden floor, his feet inches from my head. His feet smell and I’m going to have to tell him about that.
“Stop walking into me,” I say. We’re on 16th Street and Bosco keeps brushing against me and I keep moving further away until I am against the buildings.
“I’m not. You’re walking into me.”
“From now on I’m going to call you Underfoot,” I say. “You see these lines on the sidewalk? Stay on your side of the line.”
“You stay on your side of the line.” The streets are crowded and the fruit vendors are out so it’s hard for either of us to stick to our grids. We pass the Victoria Theater where Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in its final week.
“It’s like my feet are magnets and you have a metal head.”
We try, we try. We watch a basketball game at my friend’s house and I lose fifty dollars. “What were you thinking?” Bosco asks. “Syracuse is sooo much better.”
“You’re fourteen years old. You don’t know anything about college basketball.”
“Neither do you, apparently.”
We head to the Orbit Room where my ex-girlfriend is getting drunk with her friends. I worry that my brother will think I drink too much. Then I worry that maybe I do drink too much.
Theresa is wearing blue jeans and a torn black shirt. It’s always tough to see an ex-girlfriend and realize she’s getting better looking. Theresa has been at the protests all day in Oakland. “They fired rubber bullets at us,” she says proudly. “It was amazing.”
The Orbit room has round cement tables that are four feet high and people sit around them on tall stools. Bosco is off talking to someone. I say to Theresa, “This is awful. It’s like coming face to face with a part of yourself you had no interest in knowing.”
“You’ll do fine,” she says.
“No,” I tell her. “I don’t like children. Also, my apartment is too small. And I’ve been sick recently, I have this ringing in my ears.”
“Don’t think about yourself,” Theresa says. “Think about your brother.”
“Why do I have to think about him?” I ask. “He has everything. Can we stay with you?”
“No. I’m getting on with my life.”
It’s almost one in the morning and we’re walking home. “Why’d you break up with her?” Bosco asks. “She’s the whole package.” He sounds like my father. My father always spoke of women as if they were frozen meat.
“Yeah, she’s great,” I say, and I think of how if I hadn’t broken up with her we would be at her place now. Bosco would be in her extra bedroom and I would be on the inside of the spoon.
“You’ll never get a girlfriend like that again.”
A child sleeps on my floor. The morning is full of rain. I watch my hands as I type. I have scars up and down my wrist from all of my suicide attempts.
My father writes to say that my fourteen-year-old cousin went to a concert once and became a doper and now my uncle is going to throw him out. I hate email for this reason. I tell my father that I was doing dope long before my first concert and that maybe my uncle should be a little more thoughtful in assigning blame. My father tells me my uncle has a family to think about. It’s my father’s favorite notion. The situation where the family must abandon one of its own for the good of the whole. That’s why he moved while I was living on the streets at fourteen, he says. Because I was a drug addict and he had to think of the family. Which is why, when the police found me, after a year on the streets, lying in a hallway, shivering and bleeding, and asked where my parents were, I answered that I didn’t know. Honestly, I didn’t. But my family was just two people then, my father and my sister. So I’ve always been skeptical of that argument. I’ve always been skeptical of parents who abandon children for the good of the family.
I introduce Bosco to Amber, a sixteen-year-old girl from the writing program where I volunteer as a tutor. We go to a movie which isn’t very good and then desert at an overpriced coffee shop. “So how long are you here for?” Amber asks Bosco.
“Until next Sunday.”
“Wow. A whole week more.” Amber is young and pretty. She’s an A student, the editor of her school newspaper. She can make Bosco into a better person. Young boys are so easy to manipulate. They only think of one thing. Someday when he’s older Bosco will also think of his place in the world and how people don’t appreciate him enough. He’ll worry about how hard it is to make a living. He’ll feel jealous and angry when he is passed over for a promotion and then self-loathing for his own small-mindedness.
Amber takes Bosco back to her home in the Haight District. I take the opportunity to get some work done, push his things into the back of the studio and do the dishes. When he comes home we both have one of the Smirnoff Ice drinks that I have in my fridge.
“What did you guys talk about?” I ask.
“Yeah. She likes to do mushrooms.”
“Oh. Yeah, mushrooms are good. When I was your age I loved acid.”
“My friend does acid,” he says.
“Acid is bad for you,” I tell him. Though I know I’m too late. I can tell he’s going to become a horrible drug addict and the next time he visits he’ll steal my laptop and sell it for crack.
“She said I was weird.” He’s leaning against the wall, below the lip of the window. I live on a busy street. Dirt from exhaust pipes builds up along the base. My little brother has something more to say. He has that kid smile. He thinks he’s so cool. I raise my eyebrow.
“I shook her hand but she wanted a hug,” he says. “I might have been able to score but I didn’t try.”
My brother and I have a card-playing ancestry. Our grandfather played cards every day of his adult life. He was an absentee father. He worked during the day and played cards at night. My uncle said he nearly gambled away their house. Because I’m the best euchre player at Stanford people are always trying to take me down a peg. I get paired up with my brother.
“That’s a spade,” I say, pointing to the jack of clubs.
“No it isn’t.” He’s on his third beer. He’s sucking them down like water. He’ll be an alcoholic before he turns eighteen. Everybody’s half drunk and they holler at Bosco to bring them drinks. He’s become the beer boy.
“It is a fucking spade.”
“Why are you swearing at your brother?”
“When spades are trump the jack of the same color becomes the second highest trump.”
“You should have told me,” he says. He turns everything back that way.
“I did tell you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Why don’t you just admit you’re wrong,” I say. “Why don’t you take responsibility for your actions?”
“Why don’t you admit you’re wrong?”
“Your grandfather would turn over in his grave if he saw you playing cards that way.”
After one more beer apiece, Bosco and I stumble home arm in arm. The restaurants are closed; the world is asleep. “That’s nothing,” Bosco says, peeing on the wall of a live-work loft building. “Me and my friend Jimmy drank a whole bottle of whiskey. I don’t get hung-over.”
“That’s one more thing you can look forward to.”
He’ll be leaving in a few days and we haven’t done anything. We haven’t seen either bridge, Golden Gate Park, the ocean, or the bay. We haven’t been to any museums. We haven’t hiked the Lands End or gone rock climbing. When people ask him what he did in San Francisco, Bosco will say he got drunk. But the thing is, I don’t have a television. I don’t have Playstation. I don’t have Internet. There is absolutely nothing to do in my apartment except read, write and get drunk. There’s a message on the machine from my father. “I just wanted to check in on my boys, make sure you’re having a good time.”
Anyway, there’s only a few days left and I’m counting them off. Walking near Polk street I offer to pay for Bosco to go to bed with a transvestite prostitute.
“Shut up,” he says.
“You won’t notice the difference,” I tell him.
“I’m going to tell everybody you did it anyway, and they’ll believe me because I’m older than you.”
It’s late on Thursday night and there’s been a party at the tutoring center with raffles and piñatas. Friends of mine are drinking at the bar but they won’t let Bosco in. Bosco says I should go without him; he’ll wonder the Mission District. I tell him I don’t think that’s a good idea. We stop to see Theresa at a reading in a used bookstore.
“I’m leaving him with you. I’m going out.”
“Like hell you are.” She’s wearing a charcoal grey skirt. Her legs are tight and tanned, a swimmer’s legs. I slip my foot under her foot, which dangles off the armrest of a comfy chair. She moves it away. There’s a blond boy with her, smiling awkwardly.
“Let’s all go back to your place,” I say. “I’ll buy.”
“You’ll buy what?”
“Anything. I don’t care.”
“No. I’m doing things.”
“What kind of things?”
“This is Sherman.”
Later, at the Pakistani restaurant near Guerrero, we split rice, naan, and an order of chicken tikka masala. “I take back what I said about her,” Bosco says. “She’s not that nice.” He’s on my side.
Bosco wants to go to a concert with Amber and her friends but I say no, not unless I chaperone. Bosco says please so I tell him we’ll have to ask his parents. We call and they say no. He calls my stepmother back and begs her. “Why,” he says. “That’s stupid. But mom. But mom.” He hangs up the phone.
“Did you just hang up on your mother?”
We meet the girls at the station and I find myself wanting to impress them, but I can’t. Young girls talk a lot, act dramatic, dance around, and sing on trains. I feel so old.
The club is near the warehouses and the waterfront. Teenagers are sprawled across the sidewalk. I go inside, sway to the punk music. I want to dance but I don’t want to be the old dancing guy.
The first band poured motor oil on the floor so people can slide while they listen to music. I help the clean up crew mop the mess and Bosco disappears with some of the girls. When he comes back he’s smiling and I think he’s stoned.
“Don’t worry,” Amber says. “We’ll take care of him. You can leave him with us.”
I say no, I’ll stick around. I go to the bar across the street for a drink.
On the way to the train Bosco walks with his new friend Mickey. It makes me happy to see him bonding. These are good kids, except that they are stoners and two years older than him. They are very kind children, environmentalists. They don’t think guns are cool. And that’s what I want for Bosco, to introduce him to kids who don’t think violence is a good thing. Because his uncle has closets full of guns and swastika tattoos and his cousin was given a shotgun for his fourteenth birthday. It’s after midnight now, and parents are calling these children, who are out so late, on their cell phones. The children say they are doing fine.
I think of my own mother who died painfully for five years on the living room couch. She used to pee in a bucket and I would have to walk her pee to the bathroom and flush it in the toilet. “Give me money,” I would tell her. And she would refuse, so I would yell and scream. And then she would give in, because she was too ill and weak to fight. Then my father stopped giving her money. Sometimes I would yell at her and other times I would curl up with her, laying my head on the quilted blanket covering her legs. I remember loving her and hating her. I remember how often she cried. Despite what people might say I don’t think she liked me very much in the end. Children are horrible. Children are monsters.
And yet most people my age have them. I do too, in a way. I was a sperm donor for about a year when I was living in my car. I checked the box that said they could look me up when they turn eighteen. Fifteen years from now I expect to meet the genetic experiment I made at $45 a toss.
Bosco says he wants to stay out and I say okay. It’s an impulse decision. I give him forty dollars and tell him to take a cab home. It’s one in the morning. He asked and I said yes. The second he gets off the train I wonder if I would say yes if asked again. The city is a dangerous place.
Back in the apartment I watch the dangerous city from my window. I can see a chocolate factory and the Twin Peaks and the lights of the cars driving up the hills. Bosco calls. He’s having a good time. His friends are having dinner in a twenty-four hour diner. I used to wait tables in a place like that. I know the kind of kids that come in at two in the morning. They have too much freedom. “We’re going to Liz’s place in the West Portal,” Bosco tells me.
“No,” I tell him.
“Use the money I gave you to get in a cab. It’s time to come home.”
On Bosco’s last night we go to Andrew’s to play cards. First we watch Orgazmo at Ben’s house. Then we walk Valencia to Dolores Park and I point across my adopted city to the Oakland Bay Bridge. “You see,” I say. “It’s so much more colorful here than in Chicago.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“There are more parks. Did you know there’s more park per square foot than in any other major city?”
“I’m hungry. When are we going to eat?”
“Did you have fun while you were here?”
“It beats being in school.”
At Andrew’s, there are so many people that we have to split into two games of cards. I tell Bosco I’m going to set a good example for him by not drinking tonight, but I have a few beers anyway. Bosco wants to know if he can drink too and I tell him he can have a beer if more than half the people in attendance say it’s okay. “This is democracy,” I say. He’s too shy to ask.
Bosco partners with Adam and I partner with Geoff. He wins every game and I win every game and in the end it’s Geoff and I against Adam, my brother, and Tom. The score’s nine to six. Geoff and I are in the barn. “Should I call it?” Bosco asks Adam and Adam spreads his large hands and says, “Last time you called that you got euchred.”
“I think we should,” Bosco says. He’s got that look in his eye, the look of a gambler. We’re not playing for money but somewhere inside his head the little synapses are firing. He has a keen understanding of the game for his age, a rational mind, an ability to learn from his mistakes but he does not have the ability to read other people and he doesn’t take instruction well. I slowplay a king of trump and when Geoff takes it with the left bower I lay down the rest of my cards. Game over.
“That’s a great game,” Bosco says on the way home. “I only lost to you tonight.”
“You’ll never beat me in cards,” I tell him. “It’s your burden to bear.”
I wanted to steer my brother in the right direction. Instead we drank and played cards. Sunday morning the streets are still wet.
“Is there anything I can do to convince you to stay?” I ask.
“You’d have to give me more money.”
“You’ve already spent all my money.”
“Oh,” he says. “Thanks.”
When the big red van pulls up we put his bag in the back. I go to hug and he goes to slap hands and we end up in this awkward embrace with our biceps against each other’s necks. “You choked me,” he says climbing into his seat. I point my index finger at him with my thumb up, as if that was some kind of cool sign. The driver gives me a small nod and closes the door. My little brother looks into his lap, fiddling with his CD Walkman. I step back toward the metal grating of my entryway. The driver smiles at me like everything is going to be okay. Like he knows this is my little brother and he understands my concern and will take good care of him and get him to the airport safely and once at the airport the boy will board a plane that will not crash and he will get home fine. And then, Bosco will tell the whole world how cool his big brother is, and his father will leave me messages saying how much better I am at this child-raising thing than he was. And I won’t return his messages because my father and I still have so many unresolved issues, but I’ll know and he’ll know I’m right and I’ve been right all along. I see all of this in the driver’s calming placid eyes. But he doesn’t know anything, he’s just a van driver.
“My Little Brother Ruined My Life” was originally published in Maisonneuve and Best American Non-Required Reading 2005.