Michael

by Danny Zawacki

Michael was born in June 1984. He was the first born. Lizzi followed twenty-three months later in 1986. More than three and a half years after Michael, I was born.

In the three and a half years before I was born I’m told Michael was treated as a prince. There are shoe boxes full of photos to confirm this. Photo albums and boxes are stuffed with Michael’s chubby, smiling face sitting above Mickey Mouse shirts and his bare chest. One photo in particular comes to mind with Michael in a blue and gray sweater and jeans. His hair looks as if it was buzzed and then let grow for a month or two. In the dark background sits the same Christmas tree we have had for years with a pile of presents beneath. Front and center stands Michael with his arms up, fists curled to show off his muscles. His eyes smile and his mouth sparkles.

Our sister Lizzi often appears beside Michael in the photos. She always seems to be staring off in the wrong direction or smiling after the photo was taken. Being as young as she was, I doubt she knew what was happening at the time and why she needed to pose for the photograph in the first place.

On the rare occasion that I appeared in a photo I was held or propped up and rarely smiling.

And then one day, about the time that I was two, the photos stopped recording our lives regularly. This was about the time that my dad changed jobs and brought the family across state lines. I’ve never asked either of my parents why the photos stopped, but I assume it was because of the move, the new job and the new place. It was a lot of work for my parents. Forgetting the photos was easier than remembering to take them.

About the time of the move Michael disappeared. Not physically, but from my memory. From my recollection he was gone ten to fifteen years, all the while living with me. This makes me question when I actually remember Michael. Do I actually remember the Christmas that he wore a blue and grey sweater or do I just remember the photograph? I remember the photograph.

I have friends who claim that their brother was and still is one of their best friends. I see it and I believe it. I can make no claim like this; it’d be a lie to even suggest that I ever thought this. I had my own close friends, why would I want one that I lived with?

As I said, Michael almost completely disappeared from my life. I have tried to think of the countless memories that I should have of him, but I can’t. Before we moved, Michael and I shared the back porch of the house as our bedroom. There was little space for more than our bunk beds. None of my memories from this time involved Michael. Once we moved, the two of us still shared a room; one that was much larger than our porch. I only have two memories of Michael in this room. The first was lying awake at night, Michael on the top bunk and me lying right beneath him on the bottom. We would stay awake after being put to bed and have contests to see who could hold their breaths longer. Our times were far from accurate and never were they honest. I don’t know for certain but I believe that Michael, like me, cheated by holding air in his cheeks and breathed through his nose. Neither of us could see the other’s face, so anything was fair game.

The other memory I have of Michael in that room was him asking my parents to leave. He was in middle school and he must have just become a teenager and I wasn’t even ten. He wanted out, his own room. He didn’t think it would be cool to live in the same room as someone as little as me. At the time I made no objections because my parents told him that if he wanted his own room, he could have the guest room. The guest room was hardly bigger than the porch we used to share. He took it without any protest. It was then my interactions with Michael came to a standstill and it wouldn’t be for a few years before I remembered him. I have, however, been told about the things that happened to him in the meantime.

I can think of only one instance where I wanted to do something because Michael did it. Second graders were old enough to play soccer on one of the city teams. Michael played and almost instantly I remember wanting to play too, but I had to wait until I was old enough. When the first season was over for Michael, his red #2 jersey fell into my hands. I have worn it often. I still have it.

While it might have been something that I had in common with Michael, I think that soccer was one of the things that kept us apart. Michael was always an aggressive player. I’m not suggesting that it’s any sort of flaw for a soccer player; I believe the opposite. However, his aggression on the field always seemed to land him trouble with the referees. I, on the other hand, was a much more timid player. I heard my parents’ groans when Michael would receive a yellow or a red card because of the talk that would follow a card among the parents on the sideline. This scared me from also being aggressive. Michael and I were different sides of the same coin in soccer.

My father coached Michael’s team for eight years. My mother coached my team. Since all of the games were played on Saturday mornings, and my dad was with Michael while my mother was with me, neither of us was forced to watch the other.

The next time I remember seeing Michael, as I slowly got older, didn’t come until he was sixteen. When he showed up again, he entered with all the explosiveness and welcome of a land mine. He entered my life quite abruptly; my father, Lizzi and I were watching television one evening when we heard a loud noise. Michael had been out with my mother to practice driving. Upon returning he backed the van in front of the garage and placed the vehicle in park so someone could get out and open the sliding carriage house door. But the van wasn’t in park, it was in reverse and after removing his foot from the brake, the van jumped into gear and through the door.

The way Michael drove through that door was precisely how he came back into my sights; full of costly destruction.

When Michael returned, he had been drinking for a year and smoking for more. His time was split between goal tending for the high school team, cleaning dishes for a paycheck, and rolling around town on his skateboard. He was a rebel, a hooligan, a thug and an all around nuisance for everyone around. I can’t say for certain what sort of things he did with his friends, but I can tell you what he did to our household.

I remember a silence that pierced throughout the kitchen after Michael slammed the door behind him. Slowly, my mother’s tears replaced the silence. She had lost another fight with Michael.

“I’m going out with the guys.”

“When are you going to be home?”

“Tonight.”

“Your curfew is 10:30.”

“I’ll be back when I want.”

“Michael, your curfew is 10:30. You’ll be back by 10:30 or you won’t be going out for two weeks,” she said raising her voice.”

“This is so ridiculous. Everyone else gets to stay out as late as they want.”

“You’re not everyone else.”

“I’ll be back later.”

“10:30.”

“When I want.”

“10:00.”

“What no! That isn’t fair. I didn’t even do anything. Whatever, I’m leaving.”

“Be back by ten,” my mother called after him.

“I hate you,” he said as he slammed the door.

My sister tried to keep the peace. She would corner Michael and start an argument with him to get him to stop being such a terror to our family. She would leave these arguments in tears, the same way my mother did. She would flee to her room only to slam the door before slumping onto the floor crying.

If there was a single word that could describe my father, that word would be ‘quiet’. He never says much and we joke that it is better that way because otherwise it was a horrible ‘dad joke’. I think when my dad says something it’s because he has something worth saying. Michael didn’t see things this way. My dad would tell Michael how things would be, telling him that the rules were already set and not to be broken. Michael would respond with the inevitable defiance of ‘Why?’ and my father would say, ‘Because I said so.’ My father is a quiet man who demanded authority and Michael didn’t want to hear it. He pushed and tested our father.

Michael’s mood was such a presence that it altered everyone around him. He turned my father from a quiet man into a man to be feared and my mother from a happy woman to a woman with tears streaming down her face. I’ve heard my father’s voice reach levels like never before when trying to get through to Michael. My father would be so loud that you didn’t need to be in the house to hear it clearly. I’ve seen his face turn beet red, my father’s anger focused where we all could see it. And I’ve seen my father drag Michael, kicking and screaming, into his tiny room.

I will not ever claim to be the perfect child who never steps on toes or does anything wrong, but I have learned from watching Michael what to do if I want to be that child. The same way that Michael left our shared room for a smaller room of his own, I left his life style for my own.

It was on my first day of high school, the year after Michael graduated and moved two blocks away into the local college dorms for half a semester, that I started to make it known that I was not him.

I remember waiting to have my picture taken for the yearbook when one of his friends still in high school saw me and said to a friend that I was Mike’s little brother. I heard this and gathered an amount of gusto for my age that still amazes me. I shot back at them, “You must be one of Michael’s little friends. I have a name and it’s Danny.” With that, I walked off before they could respond.

All over school, I was forced to establish myself as ‘Danny’ rather than being ‘Mike’s little brother’. The soccer coach learned it from our different play styles. Teachers learned it because I sat quietly in class and I did my work. And for those who didn’t know my family relations, I introduced myself as ‘Danny’ and thrived.

While I was busy being me, Michael was forgetting his studies in college and dropping out a few weeks before the semester ended. He moved back home and the arguments started again. He went from one job to the next, always leaving or being fired because of an argument with his boss. This was the period when he couldn’t get a job, because no one would give him the references that he needed. He ran out of money and my parents had enough of it. They threw him out of the house. Michael was left to his own devices. He was forced to survive and in doing so, he thrived.

I went off to college after high school. By this time my brother had found a place to live, a steady job to support himself, bought a car to get around, and had a girlfriend who managed to tolerate him like no one else seemed able to do. He had become an adult and with that he gained responsibility which caused him to see more sides of situations like he never had before.

At this point, I hadn’t talked to him with much more than a hello around the holidays. I was fine being me and he seemed fine being himself.

When I turned twenty-one, Michael wanted to take me out and celebrate. Finally we could do something together that he had been doing for years, legally or not. I accepted with the hopes of meeting the man that walked out of my life so many years ago. One night was all it took to make amends for the past twenty years of our lives. Nothing was said about who he used to be because it didn’t matter. We had both privately decide to let the past remain in the past. We talked about the here and the now, what was important.

“You sir, are drunk.”

“I’m not drunk. You’re drunk.”

“Hey, thanks for taking me out tonight.”

“What kind of brother would I be if I didn’t take you out for your twenty-first birthday?”


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