national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Side by Side

Will Anderson  • 
Bard College

Since I can remember, Riley has gone through phases. He loved the Ninja Turtles. Then Star Wars. Then the CIA. Then Larry McMurtry. Each topic seemed more than a phase—they consumed his speech, his actions, and his thought. It was hard to imagine him ever leaving one behind.

His appearance has always been equally fleeting. In middle school (during an obsession with Eminem), Riley bleached his hair with peroxide and wrote rap lyrics all over his walls. In high school, after discovering Bob Dylan, Riley grew his hair out, started smoking Camel filters, and decided to listen to music only on a record player.

He is also unpredictable in other ways. Riley has a temper. When he was young, his mood swings were called tantrums. As he got older, they received new names: his fits, his meltdowns, his rage.

For the most part, I experienced this temper a few steps removed. When my parents sensed something building, the protocol was to send my brother Noah and me to their bedroom or a bathroom or our own room—anywhere that had a door and a lock. Once we were out of sight, my parents tried to work with Riley, talk to him, calm him down. But this always took long stretches of time and created plenty to hear.

It was safer for us to stay out of it. In some ways, though, relocation made these moments worse. Fighting gets distorted through walls; it becomes more frightening. Guesswork replaces understanding. You can still hear movement—the distraught sound of feet that aren’t sure where to step next or the back and forth thuds of limbs trying to get out of the way. You can hear pitched pleas and baritone sincerity. You can always hear screaming. But everything else is hidden. Each noise is just out of reach, without beginning or end. In the silence of our rooms, we’d listen to the notes of pain in the other room, always hoping it would come to an end.

It was rare for Riley to turn on Noah or me. Still, he made me feel afraid: I was afraid of the way he made my mother’s voice shake. I was afraid of the way he made my father quiet.

One morning I went outside and saw the contents of his bedroom draped across our backyard. He must have thrown everything from his second-floor window. It all lay scattered, ruined, dampened by sprinklers. More than anything else, I wanted to pick everything up before my parents saw.

When Riley did turn on my brother and me, it was in less violent, more calculative ways.

The night of our eighth birthday, for example: We were celebrating at home, eating dinner around the dining room table. Noah and I must have just blown out our candles because my mother had left the room to grab plates. And then something set Riley off. Maybe he had been upset all night. I was never sure about these things. He turned towards Noah, who, at that very moment, was smiling. Riley pushed Noah’s face down into the birthday cake, candles and all. My parents yelled; Riley shouted back. The candles had melted and the cake was littered across the table. Noah sat silently—blushing, half-sick, heart sunken—looking away at something else. He had frosting on his eyelashes, and sugar on his cheeks.

Or, the night I woke up, sensing someone standing over me. As I lifted my head, I could feel something strange: a sticky spread that kept moving over my skin. I opened my eyes and saw Riley, outlined in the darkness, pouring a bottle of maple syrup over me. Next, he started cracking eggs. I coughed and spat and hoped for my mother to walk in.

Our family revolved around Riley, chronically carried by his ups and downs. Bad days for him were bad days for us. But, maybe more importantly, good days for Riley were good days for us. When he calmed down and his anger resolved, I didn’t hate him for what had happened. I liked him for stopping. He became himself—funny and loud and sarcastic. I’d want to sit in his room and watch him play computer games. I’d want to hang out upstairs with him and his friends. I’d want to be around my brother.

 

I recently came across my mother’s dissertation, which focuses on my twin brother and me. It’s about a hundred or so pages that follows us from infancy to toddlerhood—a detailed account of the beginning of my life. But this account lacks in some respects. Namely, few make it onto the pages besides Noah and me. The occasional character hovers near the perimeter—babysitters, neighbors, and grandparents, for example, are all occasionally mentioned, but almost always in passing. Even my father remains on the outskirts. As with any piece of writing, some elements are included in the narrative, and some things are left out.

But there was a third child. In every scene, every anecdote, every memory, he was there, somewhere off in the margins: Riley, the eldest. He was five when my brother and I were born. But within the dissertation’s hundred or so pages, he mostly goes unmentioned. There are only a handful of instances when he makes it onto the page:

Riley wants me to write about him. Enough of this preoccupation with Willie and Noah. “I could tell you about my day but you might not care,” he says. I think I know why some women have baby after baby; babies are easy. They may wake you up at night or imprison you on a rainy day but they do not force you to look at yourself, revealed. I get so angry with Riley.

There’s only one moment in the dissertation when Riley becomes the subject. My mother writes about picking him up from school. He must have been six years old.

“Does my teacher have my phone number?” Riley asks. “If she needs to reach you,” I say, “she can.” Riley persists, “Can she? Can she really?” I am missing something. As I pull into the driveway, Riley says, “I was in time-out for half the morning.”

Now, with a start, I get it—he hands me this information, the piece that solves the puzzle that I did not know I was putting together. My heart sinking, Riley has my full attention. Then he, without smiling, only reporting, says, “I answered every time she called any kid’s name. It was just a little thing.” He waits for my reaction, but then quickly adds, “I ate my whole snack.”

I underline the last sentence: a six-year-old’s hope that he wasn’t as bad as he felt. It makes my stomach turn.

 

In the fall of my freshman year of college, Riley and I had dinner together. I was probably drunk by the time we sat down to eat. We talked through pleasantries. The restaurant was loud enough to make the breaks in our conversation not matter as much. I asked about his job, and he asked me about college. He told me why he hated his boss. I told him about reading Book 6 of The Aeneid. It was a conversation about nothing, but it still felt good. We were out of our house, away from where we grew up, in a strange city surrounded by strange people, and our conversation, for the first time in years, felt beautifully casual. I picked at my food and felt a sense of comfort.

There were more of these meetings over the years: I met Cleo, his girlfriend; I met his friends; we talked a bit more. We were never comfortable around each other, but we were far from hostile, either. We both seemed to be trying our best.

When I found out I had to spend a summer in New York, I asked to sleep on his couch until I could find an apartment. Maybe a week. Two at the most. Riley and Cleo had recently moved to Queens. They had adopted a cat. Every morning, they took the 7-train to work. They seemed happy, and a week seemed manageable. It seemed as if it could work. It might even make things better.

They said I could stay.

 

There is one fight I remember. It happened when Riley was in eighth grade, and it was with my father. They were arguing about school supplies.

I was watching a movie in the back of the house with the door closed and lights off. As with those that had come before, I heard the argument beyond a wall: I’d pause the VCR when I heard screaming build, or just felt too worried to concentrate on the movie in front of me. This became a routine: pause the movie, listen to the other room, press play once I felt less worried. I did it over and over, always hoping for some indication that Riley had calmed down, or the fight had ended.

Eventually my mother came in and said I had to go to bed. As I walked upstairs, the house seemed empty.

The next morning, I found my mother sitting alone with the cordless phone on her lap. When she saw me, she began to explain why the house was so quiet. The fight had ended when Riley pulled out a knife from his pocket. My father collapsed. Dad was in the hospital. Riley was in custody.

My father came home first. He seemed fine, only thinner. Riley had missed any vital organs. The main difference in my father was that he hung one of Riley’s necklaces on his car’s dashboard. He told me it was to show he supported his son.

Eventually, Riley came back too. On the night he returned, we ate shrimp on the patio. We celebrated.

I didn’t tell any of my friends what had happened. I didn’t talk about it with my parents. Noah and I never mentioned it. Everything returned to normal. Like every fight before this one, Riley was himself afterwards. If anything, he was better. He probably didn’t know how to talk about what had happened either. So each of us pretended it hadn’t.

After this fight, I couldn’t figure out how to look at him. Or maybe I just didn’t know what to say. Every time I tried, my face felt strange—my expression felt too forced, or too angry, or too distorted. There wasn’t a greeting or phrase or conversation subject I could offer to reset our equilibrium. So instead, I said nothing. We looked down when we passed each other in the halls. We didn’t acknowledge one another at the dinner table. My brother began to only exist only in peripheral glances.

This went on for months. Maybe it felt temporary. But then years. He graduated from high school, and I was too uncomfortable to talk to him at his graduation. He moved two states over for college, and I couldn’t figure out how to say good-bye. I’d see him on Christmas and Thanksgiving, where we forced ourselves to exchange limp, awkward hugs.

For a long time, I couldn’t understand why my parents loved him, seemed to love him more, even. I wanted my father to talk to me in the way he talked to Riley—with a sense of reverence. I wanted them to hate him, also.

The only problem with my anger is that it goes away. It sometimes became hard to remember why I was angry in the first place. As we both grew up and apart, my resentment began to feel less admirable, and more meaningless. After all, he seemed different: at college, he made friends, more than he’d ever really had. He learned Greek. He got a girlfriend. He read and wrote. He seemed cheerful, even happy. Maybe it was a phase. Maybe it would last.

By the time he was in college, there was still a gap between us, but it existed in an empty and civil sort of way. We gave each other the same courtesy you’d give a stranger on the street: perfectly kind, and entirely separate.

 

For the past few years, I have learned about Riley’s life through my mother. She told me when Riley moved to Bronxville for graduate school. She told me when Riley stopped writing. She told me when he moved back to New York.

But that April, it was my father who told me about Cleo. He told me through a text message—three lines, twelve words, ending in “big bummer.” The night before, Riley had arrived home and found Cleo packing. She left him, and he fell apart.

I’d learn the rest later. After she had gone, he did a couple of things. He began destroying his apartment. He tore up the couch. He ripped up his books and every page of writing he had ever written. He tore down artwork, and he flipped chairs. He drank.

A friend found him in the middle of the night. She called my parents, who woke up after the sixth ring. Five states over, my father fumbled to find his keys, walked out to the driveway, got into his car, and began driving. He arrived in New York early that morning, and found Riley curled up and crying, hysterically drunk, in the corner of the kitchen.

My father hadn’t brought a suitcase—there wasn’t time to even plan out how long he’d be staying with him. I imagine he just wanted to be with Riley until he seemed better—until he could leave him alone and not feel pangs of worry. But this took time. Each day, my father extended his trip. He cooked Riley dinner. He bought him whiskey. He drove him into Manhattan in the morning for work. He chatted with him at night. He slept on the sofa and bought some extra clothes from Target. And when I arrived a month later, he was still there.

Almost immediately, I felt bad. Riley sobbed every night; I had never seen him like this. When we were younger, his anger seemed bolstered by some inner-confidence—he’d get angry because he was right, and you were wrong. But now, he seemed uncertain and weak.

But there were parts of him that were now also familiar: the mercurial moods, the flares of aggression, the altered states. I’d come back to the apartment, open the door, and not know what to expect. Sometimes he’d be reading with my father. Other times he’d be hysterical: angry or sad, or both. I never knew what to say to him, so I did what I had done before. I stayed quiet.

It didn’t take long for me to start to hate how my father spoke to him—it was lighthearted, almost congenial, with an underlying tone of fear. He seemed to do anything to make Riley happy. The fact that none of his efforts seemed to work didn’t matter. He only tried harder.

 

One night, my brother and I were supposed to meet one of his friends for dinner. He seemed to be feeling better, so everyone else was, too. We were putting on our shoes when Cleo called. He took the phone into his room while I waited outside. I could hear him screaming and pleading and crying. I offered to pick up food and bring it back. He didn’t hear me, but I went anyway.

By the time I returned, Riley was drunk and miserable. We all sat uncomfortably in the living room, eating our takeout in silence, before he stormed back into his room and slammed the door.

I wouldn’t let my days depend on his moods again. I didn’t want to tiptoe around him. I tried to spend as little time in the apartment as I could. After getting off of work at five, I’d often sit in a coffee shop, to delay my return. Every time I started back, I’d hope he’d be asleep.

One night, I came back a little past midnight. I remember just wanting to go to bed. As I walked through the door, I could see Riley slouched on the small sofa in the living room. He was banging his feet against the floor, manically off-rhythm, as he screamed along to music. My father was reading on the couch, a few feet from him, pretending not to notice. I think I was supposed to do the same.

But I couldn’t. I wanted him to turn off the music or go into his room or just calm down. I didn’t want to let him make me just as miserable as he felt. He kept singing and thumping his feet and wailing; my father kept staring at his book. And it was either his screaming or my father’s silence that made me finally look at Riley. It was probably the first time I had looked at him in days. I asked him to turn off the music. My voice shook.

He squinted and turned towards my father. He started slurring and swearing about both of us: he screamed that we were bothering him and taking up space; he screamed that we should be grateful that he’d let us stay with him; he screamed that he wanted us gone.

My father began to reason with him. But I didn’t want Riley to talk at my father; I wanted him to look at me. So I swore back at him. I got my reaction: he got up and walked towards me, the music still blaring, and asked me to repeat myself. I did. He stared at me for a minute; it was an expression I recognized. But maybe he didn’t know what to say next, because he just walked towards his room, slamming the door behind him.

My father looked at me. I could tell he was angry. He also seemed worried. Before he could say anything, Riley yelled for him from the other room. He slowly got up and met Riley behind the closed door. I listened through the wall: fast talking and elevated tones, just audible enough to tell it was bad.

My father came out and said I should go to bed. He turned off the lights, and I lay down and tried to be still. I kept listening. I could hear my father walk into the kitchen. He was collecting objects, or maybe cleaning something up. Drawers slide open and closed. The clang of metal and aluminum. He was collecting all that was sharp.

Then I heard him go into the hallway closet. He gathered up more things—heavier this time. Tools. Maybe a hammer, a screwdriver, a wrench. He walked towards the bathroom. He searched around for a minute, and then found the crowbar, tucked behind the sink. Large and heavy. He carried it over to everything else. He quietly picked up his car keys and took everything outside.

He came back empty-handed and sat down. I could see his shape outlined in the chair he’d been sitting in before. He wasn’t reading anymore. He was just staring straight ahead. Every so often he would rub his hands or clear his throat: soft sounds that told me he was watching the room, and that it was safe to close my eyes.

I woke up at six. Riley was still in his room. My father was still watching, now just crooked and slouched. In hushed tones, he asked me to get my things. We gathered our bags without saying much else. I followed my father. Door locked, keys under mat, bags in hand, out.

I knew how these situations worked themselves out. There would be no phoned apology, or reconciliation over lunch. Neither Riley nor I would know what to say. We’ve never been able to figure that part out.

I had only lasted a week there. With just a few words, I had ruined it. He ruined it. It was just a little thing.