My brother was born on my third birthday. I celebrated that birthday a day early. In my family photo album, there’s a picture of me blowing out three candles on an imperfect cake my mom baked for me. She’s standing beside me, her giant belly the center of the image, in a tangerine dress that makes her look huge. The next photo in the album is of me holding a little pink smushed thing wrapped up in a white blanket. I’m teary-eyed for some reason. My parents like to say it’s because I was so moved by the introduction of my brother, but I think I was probably just upset about something unrelated.
Like most older siblings, I both hated and loved my brother. He, of course, adored me. I was his sun. He followed me everywhere, imitated everything I did, and wanted nothing more than to be close to me all the time. I hated that, and I punished him for it. But he did make for a good playmate, especially as the only Korean family in a small German town. His shock of black hair in a sea of blonde on the playground marked him as “mine.” He let me dress him up, faithfully puppeteered Ken in whatever desperate romance I’d set him in with Barbie, and served as my mule.
We had a plastic toilet that my parents used to potty train us. It was small and pink with a white seat. When my brother was being potty trained, he’d use it instead of the toilet because the flushing scared him. My mother would empty it out and clean it every time he used it. One morning, when he and I were watching Saturday morning cartoons, I needed to use the bathroom. But this was a time before you could pause the TV. So, I had him bring me his potty. I sat on it and used it so as to not miss a second of my favorite shows. Then, I made him take it to the bathroom to empty it out. He did it all gleefully, grateful to have had the opportunity to do something that would allow him to be close to me and not irritate me.
When my brother started grade school, he began to put on weight. Just a little bit at first. It made him appear soft and made his dimples stand out even more. As much as my brother annoyed me, I always recognized that he was a beautiful child. Sometimes, I’d look at him and think he was so adorable that my heart would ache. My parents gave him a hard time for getting chubby, told him he needed to move around more, but I found him cute no matter his size. When he started second grade, we ended up with the same lunch period. The first day of school, he found me at recess, so delighted to see me – “mine.” I was shocked to see him alongside his peers. He really had put on weight. That night, I told my parents and my brother that at dinner. He immediately burst into tears.
Around the time my brother was eleven and after we’d moved to the States, he started to monitor his food intake. Essentially, he developed an eating disorder. He’d eat tiny amounts and refuse to sit down afterwards for a good hour so as to not let the food “settle in his waist.” He did slim down. Admittedly, he became conventionally beautiful. When he hit puberty, I noticed his shoulders broadening, his jawline sharpening, and his hands growing. And I wasn’t the only one.
A high school senior at our church named Jin also took notice. Jin was the church bad boy and all the girls crushed on him. He was Korean like us but he had a “white” last name because his dad was adopted. Somehow, that made him so much more attractive. He drove a sleek black Mitsubishi Eclipse that he’d drag race at night and took puffs of cigarettes behind the church portables. He let me take a hit once and my eyes watered as I tried not to reveal how much the smoke was burning my throat.
He took an interest in my brother, and my parents encouraged the relationship. They hoped Jin’s masculinity would rub off on my more delicate and sensitive brother. I could tell it made my brother feel good too. Jin would drive him around, show him the computers he was building in his spare time, and invite him into pickup basketball games, though my brother was never very good.
One Sunday, as my family and I were getting ready for church, we couldn’t find my brother. We searched for him everywhere but eventually left without him. Our dad was the church pastor and we couldn’t be late as we each had a critical role to play in the running of Sunday service. When we returned later that afternoon, we found my brother sitting on the front steps. When asked where he had been earlier that morning, he said he just didn’t feel like going to church. My dad slapped him across the face, the one and only time I saw my dad put his hands on him.
Jin continued to spend time with my brother. In fact, the two of them became inseparable. I observed my brother changing. He became irritable and quick to anger. My parents said he was just becoming a teenager. He also became increasingly beautiful and aware of it. The girls at our church began to turn their attention from Jin to my brother, and he surprised me with what seemed like an innate skill for flirting.
My brother began staying out late. Mostly, this annoyed me because when I tried to do so, my parents would give me such a hard time, but they seemed to have no issue with him doing the same. Boys always get everything. He’d often come home after my parents had gone to bed. (Again, that would have never been acceptable with me.) Sometimes he’d come home smelling of cigarettes, of alcohol, of bleach. Often his eyes would be red-rimmed, like he’d recently vomited or gotten high or cried. Almost always, he’d been out with Jin and his friends.
One night, after he came home from an evening out, I heard him getting ready to sneak back out past midnight. I tiptoed after him, grabbing his arm as he reached the front door.
“Where are you going?” I whispered.
“Out. Leave me alone.”
“I want to come with you.”
My brother turned to me and the expression on his face surprised me. Instead of annoyance like I expected, he looked sad and pleading. He didn’t respond but also didn’t shut the door behind him. I followed him out, down the street, and to Jin’s car that was waiting with the engine running but the lights off. My brother got into the passenger seat while I slid into the back.
“What’s this?” Jin asked, eyeing me.
“She caught me leaving, said she’d tell our parents if I didn’t let her come with me,” my brother lied.
“Wow, that’s fucking annoying,” Jin replied, laughing joylessly.
“Fuck off. I was bored.” I responded.
We drove down the main strip towards the beach. Jin parked in the parking lot near a few cars that were familiar to me – other older boys from our church. We got out and my brother instinctively went to the trunk. He pulled out a paper bag. The clinking told me it was likely bottles of liquor.
We walked onto the beach, my feet sinking, the sand feeling uncharacteristically cold on my toes. We approached the group of boys who were sitting in a circle on driftwood benches. I was surprised to see the leader of our praise and worship band sitting with a can in a paper bag in hand.
“What the fuck? You brought another PK?” another boy asked.
PK stands for “pastor’s kid” and describes two kinds of people: one, bad kids, presumably because they want to rebel against their usually strict and conservative parents, and two, good kids, presumably because they want to please their parents and are just naturally annoying. My brother was the first kind of PK and I was too obviously the second.
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” I responded, embarrassingly.
I was mostly ignored for the rest of the night. The conversation surrounded girls they were into, girls they thought were into them, cars, and other random uninteresting things. They drank, but not as recklessly as I thought they would.
Then, I caught it.
Jin, who was sitting next to my brother, who was sitting next to me, slid his left pinky down my brother’s right calf. I could see it from the corner of my eye and immediately felt my brother grow rigid. The hair on my arms stood up and I felt myself pulled back through a tunnel of images. How had I not seen it?
My brother wasn’t gay. Or maybe he was. But either way, whatever was happening between my thirteen-year-old brother and this nineteen-year-old man was wrong. I felt something swell inside me. I wanted to take my brother into my arms, to scream in Jin’s face, to sob.
“I need to go home,” I declared.
The boys looked at me, paused for a moment, and kept talking.
“I need to go home now,” I said.
This time, Jin considered me.
“Ugh, fine. My dad’s gonna be up soon anyway,” he said.
He drove us home. I could feel the blood pumping through my ears, frantic and desperate. I stared at the back of my brother’s head, looked at his ears, his shoulders. I didn’t want to cry. I loved him. I loved him so much. I loved everything about him.
The next day, before my brother could go out for the night, I told my parents. I told them everything I did the night before, everything I saw, everything I thought happened and was happening. My parents listened to me silently.
I don’t know what exactly happened next. I know there was a lot of screaming and crying. Maybe my dad hit my brother again, I’m not sure. The three of them in one room, me outside. When my brother came out, I couldn’t face him. We locked eyes for a second and there it was again, that pleading look, but this time mixed with shame and disgust and pure rage. Things were really bad for a while.
We eventually moved away. There was a big blowup at the church. At first, I was sure it had to do with Jin, but it actually turned out that one of the elders had been siphoning off money and my dad was asked to step down from being head pastor as a result. Our family moved on and we never talked about it again.
When I was in college and Facebook became a thing, Jin popped up as a “recommended friend.” I clicked through his photos – girls, cars, other uninteresting things.
My brother and I remained sort of close, sort of not. Closeness is inevitable when you are immigrant siblings because you experienced a shared transition and forced assimilation that not even your parents can understand. But we didn’t really talk. He had his friends and I had mine and when I moved across the country for college, we didn’t talk at all.
When he was a sophomore in college, I was living in Boston and he decided to visit me for Thanksgiving. He was in school in DC at the time and the dorms were closing and he didn’t want to spend money on a plane ticket all the way home. It was nice to play adults together. We went out to eat, probably the first time ever without our parents, just us two. We immediately felt the possibility of a new budding relationship, the kind people talk about siblings being able to have once they become adults. He told me about his girlfriend, a potential internship in a congresswoman’s office during winter term, and debating whether he wanted to study polisci or philosophy.
I ordered us a bottle of wine, feeling a little bit like a cool older sister for allowing my underage brother to drink. The alcohol warmed his cheeks. He looked so beautiful in the glow of the amber restaurant lights. Our inhibitions loosened. We talked about our shared memories. The delight of hearing these stories from his perspective was almost too much to bear.
“You know,” my brother said, “I’m nineteen now.”
“Yeah, crazy how time flies.”
“I would never… I would never go after a thirteen-year-old,” he said.
My heart sank, my eyes immediately watered.
“I just– I see a thirteen-year-old and I just see a baby, like a straight up child.”
“I know,” I said. I reached my hands out across the table and he took them. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
“I’m sorry I got so mad at you after you told mom and dad,” he said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. I’m sorry it happened to you. I’m so sorry.” My voice came out in a whisper. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in public by crying.
My brother left a few days later. I walked him to the train station and watched him through the train windows as he walked down the aisle and finally settled into a seat. He waved at me and I waved back. As the train pulled away, I looked at his head, his ears, his shoulders. I loved him. I loved everything about him.