Hearing Big Audio Dynamite or Tori Amos, I’m transported to the passenger seat in my brother Manny’s golden pickup truck when he drove me to Ithaca for a college interview. I was 26. He was 23. On the highway, two state troopers pulled us over alongside a stretch of browning cornfields.
One trooper eyed Manny’s hair, which was pulled back into a low ponytail and banded with a scarf. He asked to see the ashtray. I grew quietly concerned.
Manny asked, “What’s the problem, officer?”
“Just let me see the ashtray, son.”
Manny pulled out the ashtray. It was full of potpourri. The officer poked his finger in it and searched its dried petals and leaves.
The other officer asked, “What is that?”
“Something like pot-pour-ree, I think.”
They smelled it. With thinly disguised smirks, they regarded Manny anew. “Why do you have tinted windows, son?”
“Florida sun,” Manny said.
“You’ve got Pennsylvania plates.”
I explained that our mother and sister lived in Miami and that Manny visited them for long periods.
After the troopers cleared Manny, they let us be and drove off.
Manny turned to me and said, “That was close.”
He patted the marijuana in his pocket, half-winking at me and chuckling, “Pot-pour-ree.”
I shuddered and, after a moment, laughed.
We drove, listening to the big, upbeat sounds of Big Audio Dynamite and the haunting lyricism of Tori Amos, artists I had never heard before. I bought their CDs when I returned home and they became my favorites. I would remember the car ride to Ithaca, Manny in the driver’s seat with his long hair, his marbled scarf, his denim cut-offs, his arm draped across the steering wheel, and the white line of the highway leading us onward and away.
When I was in fifth grade, I entered into a severe depression and attempted suicide several times. I remember little from this time, and I don’t know if there was a particular incident that caused my despair. Perhaps my hopelessness arose from my father’s physical abusiveness, my mother’s emotional frigidity, and the favoritism they showed Manny.
He was the sole male child in a Cuban-American family, and thus received significant cultural privileges via more affection, material possessions, attention, and freedom. Too often, I would stand by the checkout line as Father bought Manny a train, while he wouldn’t buy me the purple-haired troll I wanted. These experiences, however, had nuances too subtle for a child to appreciate. Manny would have been too young to understand my feelings, and I was too young to understand that those ostensible gifts were mainly intended for my father’s enjoyment.
Two years later, I emerged from my depression with a strong will to change—and live. Music played an important role in my early attempts at self-determination. Seeking solace and inspiration, I listened to the Beatles, Olivia Newtown-John, Kiss, The Knack, Fleetwood Mac, and The Cars. I would write in a journal with song quotes peppering the entries. I developed a new identity.
I also began making friends, something which, for once, I had and my younger sibling didn’t. Whenever Manny tried to tag along, I’d rebuff him and glance back in conflicted triumph as he stood on the tree-lined sidewalk staring at me. Once, Mother forced me to take Manny along to a pool with my best friend. At the pool, I ignored him completely. When we returned home, he told my mother who then pressed a lit cigarette into my hand.
Manny could not know how jealous I had been at the attention he received, which, I realized later, was significant only in comparison to the neglect I had experienced. I knew Manny was lonely at school, taunted by pejorative nicknames and bullied. At home, my father was physically and verbally abusive towards his sensitive son. I sympathized with my brother and, sometimes, felt pangs of remorse. But, as an adolescent, I could also easily tamp those pangs. Life owed me, I thought, and Manny was one of the reasons why.
My perspective changed when, late in his high school career, Manny discovered the Scorpions, then the Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, and Morrissey. I’d open my bedroom door and listen to the music emanating from his room below. Once, I was compelled downstairs to listen more closely and found myself sitting on Manny’s bed. We listened to U2’s October. I became an avid fan, of the music and of my brother.
Manny had changed. He grew his hair long, wore hippie-surfer-dude-cool-enough-for-goth styled clothes and developed a tender handsomeness emphasized by his sidelong glances and quiet chuckles. Suddenly, he seemed always ready to flee, so he would. After high school, he would drive away and stay in unknown places for indefinite periods of time.
When Manny graduated from Lower Merion High School, my parents divorced, and my mother and sister moved to Miami. I would visit annually. During one visit, Manny unexpectedly asked me if I wanted to go to a club. I was thrilled by this rare offer. I freshened up in the bathroom quickly and then examined the clothes I’d packed with trepidation. With full appreciation of their inadequacy, I displayed my two best options for the evening: a blouse with white capri jeans or a tie-dye cover-up. Manny shook his head. No way.
Instead, he gave me one of his black t-shirts and his black jeans. I wore them with giddy delight. We drove out in his truck and parked near warehouses by an empty beach. We walked onto the beach, and the ocean breeze pressed the fabric of his black t-shirt and his black jeans against my skin. The air was delicious against my face and neck. Though I had not smoked weed in years, I couldn’t resist when Manny offered me his joint. We alternated tokes as we walked. I imagined I inhaled the moonlight. Being with Manny, I felt new. Remade in his clothes and the salty air. The moon high, its light a shimmering ray on the rippling ocean. We meandered along the water’s edge, listening to the crest and fall of the waves.
When we finished smoking, we walked back up the beach to the Kitchen Sink, a club with glowing cutlery hanging from the black ceiling. Sipping our drinks, we leaned against a high table watching people dance below multicolored spot lights amid the twirling flatware.
Then, Pictures of You by The Cure played.
The steady snare accentuated the twangy bass in a hypnotic rhythm. Manny set down his drink and walked to the dance floor. He headed right to the center. His shoulder-length hair was loose, his Adam’s apple prominent. Manny closed his eyes and tilted his face upward towards the white bulb above. Under the spotlight, space all around him, all else in the shadows, arms limp at his sides, fingers slack, he swayed.
Manny and I tried to maintain a relationship in our adulthood, but it never coalesced into steady contact. Even after Manny had settled in Pennsylvania, no matter how many times I would visit him, the interval of time before our next get-together increased. He pursued a career as a sound engineer and met and married his wife; meanwhile, I pursued my academic studies, worked as an administrative assistant, and met and married my husband. We lived an hour’s driving distance from each other, but traffic along the intervening King of Prussia corridor could lengthen the commute significantly. Manny could not endure the gridlock.
Despite my efforts to connect with Manny over the years, I was the one who broke our relationship. At 42, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, and I asked Manny not to tell anyone in the family. I feared their indifference, and I knew Manny would keep that promise.
When I first told him, Manny answered with stunned silence. I held the phone to my ear, staring at the crumbs on my kitchen counter, waiting for him to say something empathetic. He never did. He called me the next day and said, “I talked to this guy at work. He had testicular cancer. He told me it wasn’t too bad. You’ll be alright.”
I understood his words had an aim, except the target wasn’t the deep place I needed. He had meant, I believe, to lessen the scope of suffering, if not mine then his. Doing so may have mitigated his obligations towards me—after all, if cancer was not “too bad,” it did not then warrant any special effort on his part—but it may have relieved him of some anxiety for me. Still, I wanted Manny to visit me. I needed to know he loved me enough to visit me one more time, just in case.
Instead, he would call every week. He began each call with a polite inquiry about my health, but if I told him about my fears or my pain, he said little except, “Stay positive and it’ll be alright.” I learned to withhold the information I wished to share with him. Mostly, Manny would talk about the used cabin cruiser his wife had purchased for him. The boat needed repairs and he related these in detail: techniques, costs, the difficulty finding replacement parts, the complicated business of docking. I tried to imagine the intricate maneuvers of exiting or parking the boat at the dock as he described. But I found it difficult to maintain interest, especially given the daily struggles I was experiencing. With each call, I’d swallow more confusion. I’d remind myself the calls themselves were proof he cared, but how could I continue to interpret the content of these calls as heartfelt concern? I wanted so much more.
About four months into my treatment, I was leaving the cancer center and walking across Washington Square when I listened to a voice message from Manny. Our sister’s husband was having dizzy spells, and the doctors were unable to determine why. Our mother who previously had few kind words for him was flying down to help care for him. Manny was worried, saying he “felt really bad” and calling our brother-in-law “a poor guy.” He thought I needed to know.
I had to sit down on a bench and breathe. All the concern I wanted for myself, Manny had just expressed for our brother-in-law. How much time had they actually spent together?
I couldn’t handle the lack of our interactions anymore. I was overwhelmed enough by cancer. I emailed Manny a request:
“Dear Manny, the things that you’ve said and, even more, the things that you haven’t done have been so incredibly hurtful. I need you to just not contact me for a long while—at least until I’m over what is such a difficult time. How about if I call you when I’m ready? This is not to make you have a guilty conscience. I love you, but let’s face it, if you’re not going to be there for me as family or as a friend when I have something like cancer, what is the point? Take good care and have a good summer.”
Later that afternoon I was at work when Manny left me a message. He yelled, “I have never known anyone—ANYONE—who pushes her family away! Don’t you know family is all you have?” He explained, “You told me not to tell anyone, and my wife doesn’t know, so how could I visit you? I know that you’re sick, but it doesn’t give you any excuse to behave in this way!” After a pause, he yelled, “Fine! Be that way!”
I completed my treatment in the fall, but I did not call him. I was deeply hurt he had not contacted me again. For a few years, I wondered what I could want from a future relationship with Manny, if that was even possible. It was a long time before I could understand that, in order to have a relationship with Manny, I could not expect any satisfying emotional reciprocity. He had become more emotionally removed than I had ever known him to be. I would have to accept what he could give: calls, visits to him, or meeting points.
In recent years, I have tried contacting him to no avail.
For most of my adult life, I was afraid of the suicidal child I had once been. I believed she resided in me, waiting to return, waiting to test my family, longing for their sympathy. I imagined she waited inside me, hoping an illness would solicit their attention and prove that, yes, their love would materialize before I died.
This secret wish threatened my survival.
If Manny were to have proven their love by visiting me or offering tangible concern, perhaps my familial longings would have been assuaged. Instead, he confirmed my family’s truancy. Though his response was egregious to me, it was, if not life-saving, ultimately liberating. Later, I would come to realize I had been suicidal as a child because of my family’s dysfunction and not because of an organic psychological flaw as I had always believed.
I think about the unspoken confusion and discomfort of our last interactions. I think of how much I wanted to feel close to Manny. How much I wanted to lose my perpetual awkwardness with him. How much I hated that nothing, not even cancer, could remedy our disconnection.
Watching Manny dance that night at the Kitchen Sink, I almost laughed. To me, his sway-dance was one arm-movement away from standing. I did not laugh. My admiration for him, maybe even my love for him, held me for another minute. Perhaps I knew even then, I needed to safeguard this image of him.
I joined him on the dance floor, shuffling and bobbing in a subdued manner I hoped would match his style.
I see it clearly now.
Dancing together, brother and sister, knives and forks dangling overhead.
Adriana Lecuona is honored to contribute to Philadelphia Stories. A native Philadelphian, she now lives in Wallingford with her husband and son. Recently she completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She has a previous MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Lecuona’s work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Be Well Philly, Somos En Escrito, and others.