Chris was in the hospital. I wasn’t surprised. My brother does everything in excess: he talks too loudly, eats too much, is too defiant at work. He was born with too many chromosomes. Now, mom said, his heart was too big, swollen and thudding against his ribcage.
I was in bed when mom called. After I hung up, my girlfriend asked: “Are you going to visit?”
Before I shared a room with my girlfriend, I shared a room with Chris, where we were apportioned standard-issue bunk beds, a tower of brotherly accord. I had the top bunk, but other than that, we were evenly matched: matching dressers, matching Ninja Turtles sleeping bags. Our bunk beds even had cupboards with matching contents: two Cabbage Patch Kids, two alarm clocks we couldn’t read, and two banks for coins and allowances. Mom had assigned Chris and me “favorite colors” to prevent any mix-up between our possessions, so my bank—a little metal lockbox with a slot on top and dial on the front—was my predesignated blue, and Chris’s was his red, just like our sheets and our shoes and the jackets hung on pegs labeled “CHRIS” and “MATT” with curly wooden blocks. Two brothers of equal value.
But, while mom carefully matched every quarter in one bank with a quarter in the other, Chris and I inevitably diverged. He was the older brother, but by the time I was six, I’d closed the gap; from then on, I grew while he stayed in place. I learned to count the coins, but Chris just admired their shape and shimmer, and then lost interest in them entirely. I stole from his bank, and he didn’t notice. I went to one school, and Chris went to another; when our teachers told us we were special, they were teaching different lessons.
Later, I got my own room in the remodeled attic. The larger space should have been Chris’s prerogative as the older brother, but by then, mom couldn't deny that I was the older brother.
When my girlfriend asked if I would visit Chris in the hospital, I was again counting and adding, the cost of a day off, the cost of gas. I multiplied that by two: visiting now doubled the cost of a going to a funeral later. If Chris did die—if that too big heart did burst—I could halve my costs by skipping the chance to see him before. I was broke then, or at least felt broke, that naïve poverty of my first apartment in a new city. Every dollar felt sacrosanct. Sometimes, I resented Chris’s life, at home in our old room, without worry.
“No,” I answered. “He’ll be fine.”
And, for now, he is: Chris survived, his heart shrunk by the mask he wears in his sleep, connected by tubes to a tank of oxygen. During the day, he stows it under the same bunk bed he slept in while I counted pennies in the bunk above.
Matthew Bukowski is a writer living in Arlington, VA. He recently received his MFA from American University in Washington, DC. He tweets (badly) from @CheeseBurgowski.