A Little Water

Design by Jack Reed

Ben went to Australia two years ago. I haven’t asked him why—if the opportunity to go somewhere warm and maskless was the sole allure of leaving our family, or if it was something else. The eight years between us makes it hard to communicate these sorts of things. We don’t talk much about his hopes for the future or if we will live next door to each other when I grow up, the way my barely-older sister and I do. Ben and I chat infrequently, our last texts being obligatory “Happy birthday”s. My sister is always sending me pictures of her outfits and crushes and house plants. Ben lives across the ocean. She lives across the TD courtyard.

For a while now, I’ve felt as though I know so little about him, and this has frustrated me. He has a girlfriend I’ve never met and two dogs I’ve never held; friends whose names I don’t know and a job that I can’t remember; probably a new favorite food, a new favorite show, and a new favorite bar to drink at with those undisclosed friends after that unspecified job. His life is shrouded by distance, so I was excited to see it up close during spring break. 

My sister and I flew for over twenty hours to cross the sea. Walking out of the Sydney airport, we were greeted by palm trees, humidity and an Uber that drove on the left side of the road. He dropped us off two apartment buildings too early, so our suitcases rattled on the sidewalk as we approached our brother’s home. Ben didn’t hear. He sat on the second floor deck in a black cotton t-shirt and black Nike shorts, picking at his nails. It was nice to see that his style hadn’t changed. 

The rest of his appearance had. His hair was longer, curling between the border of trendy and unruly. And Ben was so tan, brown skin contrasting bright white teeth that flashed on display. He’d started to smile more: around the dogs, around his girlfriend, maybe around our arrival. On the first day of our trip, he had to finish work, so my sister and I sat on the apartment’s sole couch and read. There was no air conditioning, and the faint scent of dog urine tainted the air. Ben didn’t seem to notice, or if he had, didn’t care. Not enough to stop smiling, anyway.

The next day, Ben took off work. We donned our Birkenstocks and hopped on the bus, riding for twenty minutes to a beach. I forget its name, but it looked just like Bondi which looked just like Manly which looked just like every other beach. We walked for two hours along the coast, crossing more beaches with more names that were equally forgettable, until Ben was satisfied, and we put down a towel and sunbathed. Later, I went in the water with him and watched as he dived under crashing waves and made small talk with the lanky 15 year-olds visiting from Sweden. They asked him where he was from, and he told them: “Here.” 

Ben took the next week off work. We visited national parks and, of course, more beaches. We saw some botanical gardens and art museums. I marveled at the ferns, marveled at the sculptures, marveled at his new life that he had built. 

And yet I didn’t really know anything about this new life. He works forty hours a week. When I was there, he barely hit two. He made an offhand comment that he often cooks dinner. When he’s lazy, he eats cereal. During our visit, we ate at a restaurant for almost every meal. As my sister and I read, he noted that he hasn’t read a book since high school. I doubt he normally spends his time, then, at the New South Wales Art Museum. During the ten days I was there, I wasn’t convinced that I saw any of his new life. How can I be part of something I’ve never encountered?

But was I in his old one either? I couldn’t tell you much more about what he had done in New York, after he left home in New Jersey and before he emigrated from the US. I can’t name the neighborhood he was in, and I’m not even certain of the borough. Ben was living in the same time zone as me, just twelve miles away. We were separated by water, sure, but it was the Hudson, not the Pacific. And yet I can’t name a single love interest he’s had, or a friend he’s made. I’m unsure he could name any of mine.

Our lives are entirely separate. They always have been. Eight years have made us nearly inconsequential to each other. When you’re 18, going off to college, what can you possibly bond over with a 10-year-old? When you’re 27, and a 19-year-old comes to visit you in Australia, what can you possibly show him besides beaches? 

And so we send each other “happy birthday”s. We remember when we played Fifa, and the tantrums that were thrown alongside controllers. We stare at old photos. We share a mom and dad, but no secrets. We’re brothers, but I’m not sure we’re friends.

I love Ben deeply. But I have to stop thinking that brotherhood means anything more than blood. Thinking of family as an inherently higher sort of relationship is harmful. It creates an expectation of intimacy that leaves me unfulfilled when we, forever at completely different stages of life, fail to meet it. Relinquishing that conception of family allows me to appreciate Ben and our relationship for what it is. Even if Ben moved to New Haven, I don’t think we would be close—and we shouldn’t need to be. We will always live detached lives. Time separates us more than a little water.

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