A sliding door separated our rooms at the house where my brother and I were raised, and when we were small, in the prime exaltation of childhood before we came to know ourselves as ourselves, we left it invariably open. Once we both started school and began having assignments and textbooks to study, though, Dad made desks for us to do our homework on. They comprised a set of drawers and were covered in Formica laminate with a walnut motif. He built the desks into either side of the sliding door, effectively blocking it permanently shut, and that material circumstance seemed to mark the end of the period of fraternal intimacy between my brother and me.
Even with the door closed I easily heard the sounds produced on the other side of it, the burst of commotion and cries whenever Dad entered my brother’s room and whopped him with the wooden paddle he fabricated at about the same time as the desks. He owned a fancy table saw he kept out in the garage, where weekends he worked on various projects. He was a man who looked and planned ahead, who devised and manufactured. People used to say he was good with his hands.
I was unaware of any justification for these drubbings; there appeared to be no genuine reason for them, at least none the boy I was could readily discern. Maybe my father required no rational motive or invented one for the purpose, in his own mind, some rationale that excused his behavior to himself. We’d all be in bed already for the night as he went visiting, and I’d lay motionless attending to the noises issuing from my brother’s room. To my knowledge my mother, who might have felt that to name a thing would be to lend it substance, weight, not once intervened on his behalf.
My brother was barely ten months my senior, and in our early teens the nocturnal beatings ceased. Dad grew to realize the illicit thrill he derived from them one day and panicked, after having raised a particularly brutal galaxy of welts and rainbow bruises on my brother’s ass. He proceeded to throw the paddle into the trash. If only we could do the same with our flaws, our failed natures. I had always been spared the fury of my father’s home-made device. Years later he told me he believed I would “learn my lesson” simply by listening from the adjoining bedroom. I did learn, in fact, a lesson difficult to define, something that turned me into an unwilling witness of life’s events rather than a willing participant in them. My brother’s the one who became the agent of his own desires, a man whose competence draws from a full experience, who risks taking on the world and often wins. He now has many friends, a rich, varied existence.
As for me, I remain attentive to every squeak and stridency. I perceive, note, mentally record. Yet I’m still fearful of what lies beyond the unopened door. I’m still frozen in the dark. And I have never bloomed.