October 08, 2009

Final Boss

He was sitting on the futon couch, recluse, unmoving. With thick eyebrows and a jutting, angular chin, he was my male counterpart. Born to the same mother and father—except two years, ten months, and fifteen days after me—his tall, lanky body, with arms and legs like a grasshopper, was of the same genes, but completely different. Nature had stretched the miracle of gene distribution too far. When the sperm had lost its tail and fertilized the egg, it was carrying a math textbook and English dictionary, with an atom-sized puzzle book in case the trip from vaginal opening to mid-fallopian tube exhausted its reading material. Somehow, it transferred similar physical DNA, enough for people to know we were related. Nonetheless, the abstract behavioral genes got switched around somewhere, and eighteen years later, I was standing over him, plucked eyebrows and round face, trying to bridge our two worlds.

“So, how are your classes?” I said, watching him absorbed in TV with a Nintendo 64 controller in his hands.

It took a few seconds for him to respond, but at last he murmured, “Okay.”

Then he returned to his video game. I sighed inwardly and looked back where my mom once had been, through the open door and into the kitchen. The rosemary-chicken smell saturated the air, promising her eventual return. Spend time with your brother, she had said, glancing at me once before returning to chopping vegetables. Stop talking on the phone with Austin and bond with Jared. You haven't seen him in a year.

Easier said than done.

Taking another look at my brother, and receiving no further aid, I decided to sit down beside him and wait it out.

Mario is flying now. A little red overall plumber wearing a ridiculous raccoon hat and soaring over the two-dimensional landscape of walking mushrooms, vicious flowers, and enlarged pipes that lead to wonderful fantasy worlds with some evil afoot—but a clear way to defeat it and return safely—money floating in the sky, and ninety-nine lives.

If only life could be so easy.

“Mom said you were taking two English classes. And both of them are AP. How are you doing in those?”

Mario is swimming, having found a pipe that leads underwater. His plump belly protrudes out as his little arms flap to propel himself forward. Oh no, a Cheep-Cheep! The bulbous red fish, with lips like Nikki Cox after her lip infusion, swam straight for its prey. Without hesitation, Mario swims up to the top of the coral-framed screen and through another pipe in the ceiling.

My brother responded,

“Okay. It's not that hard. It just takes a lot of time.”

Wow, twelve words. I was impressed, and felt encouraged to continue.

“How about your other classes? Are you taking a math class?”

“Of course.” Now he looked at me, his spectacles square and black, “I always take math. I'm in Advanced Calculus now. But I'm planning on testing out of it, or skip Calculus Two and take college courses.”

He was a Sophomore in high school at the time.

Mario descends through the pipe and returns to the underwater world.


“Oh my Goooood!”

My words disintegrated into one, long wail. Da, da. Drip. The rainy Hawaiian night was thunder in my ears, and I cradled my forehead in agony, tears mixing with dirt and blood before staining the concrete driveway. Jared clutched a two-by-four in his small, seven-year-old hands, a pudgier, darker version of his older self. He stared at me in horror. Clap, clap, clap. Shick! My mom rushed to the rescue.

“What the hell is going on here?”

It was the first time I remember hearing Mom swear. At least to us. She took the plank away from Jared, my hands away from my face, and inspected me with her sharp green eyes. To the bathroom, she said, and I stumbled inside, still holding my forehead in my hands and wincing as I felt a bulge develop under my fingertips. I washed off my face in the small bathroom we owned. I could hear her shouting at Jared, telling him to go to the room and not come out. He passed me on his way to the room. He had to. All we had in our side of the duplex was a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen-dining room-living room, and a small laundry room. The bedroom was across from the bathroom. I glared at him, staring at him through the mirror with one hand cupped over my left eye, like the vicious pirate Captain Morgan, and demanding an apology with my other eye. But he didn't say anything, he just opened the door slowly, resigned to his fate.
When Mom came in, it became a little cramped, but we kept the door open so she wouldn't squash me.

“Now, this will hurt.” she said.

“What will—ah!”

She dabbed some hydrogen peroxide on it. It hurt. A lot. Taking the rag away, I saw a deformed me with a lopsided face. One brow was larger than the other. One eyebrow was cut in half by a jagged wound that cut into my upper eyelid.

“Wash your face again.” She sighed with the aches of a single mom, “Then you can watch TV, if you want.”

I rushed over to the TV, but instead of watching TV I hooked up the Nintendo 64 and played the next level of Mischief Makers. Marina, a robotic maid trying to save her master from his evil twin brother, jumped up and bobbed in the wind with the force of her jet pack. She was the kick-ass alien savior, traversing awesome worlds and reaching the final boss—a giant blob-king of the Empire. The levels and gems were very Mario-like, but she was female, and without an annoying brother following her around everywhere.

Mario is climbing clouds. Vines magically suspend themselves, supporting crawling Bob-oms and Mario's fat beer gut. The black, turtle creatures that explode on contact climb up and down on the vines, sometimes switching direction abruptly. Mario jumps to another vine, stuck between two Bob-oms on either side. The Bob-omb on his vine turns about face and climbs swiftly down towards him.


We sat at one end of a long, rectangular table, leaving over half of the seats empty. Other children were on either side of us and across from us, offspring of parents also getting divorces that day. The room was large, stuffy, and brown—a conferencing room made out of thick, dark wood and leather chairs. I don't remember much, since I was only nine then, but there were no more than ten and no less than four people in the room. Guiding the discussion was a woman, I assume a child psychologist, who's appointed duty was to comfort all of us soon-to-be-torn children. To my knowledge, my brother and I were the only siblings there.

The woman handed out sandwiches to everyone, cut diagonally into triangles. The choices were peanut butter and jelly, tuna, ham, or turkey. You could have white or wheat bread. I remember biting into a delicious Wonder Bread tuna sandwich. Jared chose peanut butter and jelly. The lady explained divorce, saying the reason Mom and Dad were getting separated was because they didn't like each other anymore. It didn't mean we wouldn't be able to see Mom or Dad again, they just wouldn't be living together. She answered all our questions afterwards. They were childish questions, and me and my brother never asked anything. A lot of the other kids were confused and scared like me.

“Why would Daddy leave?”

“Why can't they just get along?”

How could my whole life be turned upside-down in the three hours it took to present the case and sign the divorce papers? What will happen now? Why did God let this happen?

The lady tried to answer, but how can you explain adult logic to a nine-year-old child and her six-year-old brother? We knew only happiness in Mom's lullabies and assurance in Dad's helping hand. The woman who ran out of the shower naked to put out the pizza box Jared had set on fire when he was three. The man who brought back thick, giant cardboard rolls from his construction job for us to play in, rolling around the backyard and getting dizzy until we felt sick. Sitting down at Christmas and smelling rosemary-chicken while Dad kindled a flame in our fireplace with sheets of newspaper. Of course, Jared was too young for some of these memories, but I hadn't forgotten. I knew Mom and Dad. Not just Mom...not just Dad.

After the one-time counseling session, Mom was there. Everyone was not right, not themselves. Worn out and tired, I noted, for the first time, the washed out blond color of Mom's hair. The gray hairs. They cut into her face and stole her smile from us. Her voice was breathy, upended by an undercurrent of sighs. My brother wasn't speaking, and he wouldn't for a long time, except to yell and scream before throwing things and hitting me in the head with a plank. His words, though not many, had been frozen. What we could have been, with love and understanding, was now impossible to achieve. In the three hours we had been chomping down on sandwiches and talking, we had lost the future we could have had.

My stomach growled. The sandwiches had been small and unsatisfying.

“Get in the car.” Sigh.

I didn't want to say anything. I didn't know what to say. So I got into the passenger seat of Mom's old Firebird, my brother crawling up behind me. We buckled our seatbelts in unison and Mom slammed her door shut, igniting the engine and interrupting the silence with Vrooom, Vrooooom! The declaration of a monster before it devoured our lives.

At level two, Mario is placed in a hot, sweltering desert world, the sun scowling, “Thou shalt not pass.” Fireballs are tossed at him periodically. He needs to time his movements just right... A fireball catches him from behind, searing the hairs off his head. In the final seconds of life, his body manages to leap into the air, then fall past the ground and off-screen with a little dismayed 8-bit Nintendo jingle.


“We're going to get married.”

I looked at my brother, he looked at me simultaneously.


“It would be nice if you two would be at the wedding.”

Luckily, she was alone, so Jared didn't have an urge to hit something. If Phil had been there, an argument definitely would ensue, something would get broken, and the neighbors sharing our wall would flip the volume on their TV up a few notches to drown out the noise. I would join in too. This was insane! I thought, hundreds of miles and half an ocean away from Hawaii, plopped down on the outskirts of San Fransisco in our townhouse upgrade of a home.

“You've only been together for a year...” I said, half-whispered.

“Almost two, I'll have you know.”

She was getting mad, her voice curt and biting. In a second she looked away, organized something, and then looked back. Sigh.

“Look. I haven't been with anyone since your dad left.”

Jared was silent. I was silent.

“It's been five years now.” She continued, talking to me more so than Jared. I was fourteen. I was the eldest. Apparently, she thought I would understand better.

I didn't.

My age worked against her. The house we lived in had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and separated kitchen and living room. My room was across from Mom's, and Jared's was down the hall. It was me who heard the adult panting and gasping late in the night, furiously trying to muffle the sounds with two pillows, one for each ear. Banging against my ribcage, my heart would be seething in rage. I gnashed my teeth and glared at the door, as if the wood was transparent and I could see them. Every fiber in my being was shouting, “Bite him! Stab him! Kill him!” As the squeaks of the bed accelerated and the cries became more bold, I heard names. If only I hadn't. There was no doubt now, no denial, no faking it. Not anymore.

“I don't want to.” Jared spoke.

Mom stared at him. I stared at him. He gazed back. Arms crossed, rod-straight. Only in middle school, he was already displaying a fierce stubbornness, uniting us against a common enemy.

When Phil had told him to wash the dishes one time, he had said no. Phil got angry and shouted at him, causing Jared to careen into a tantrum. His fist moved before his brain. I wasn't there, I was in my room, but as I was typing on my computer I heard a high-pitched scream I never want to hear again. My mom made it there before me. Rounding the corner, I heard another scream, choked behind sobs and struggling grunts to get free. I saw Phil clutching Jared around the neck, as if he wanted to choke him. My mom was shouting at them, me, anyone, telling the world to stop and right itself after being screwed up for years. Shocked, helpless, my brain had shut down. Only my eyes worked, burning the scene forever into my memory.

“Now, honey.” She reached a hand out to him, but he stood up.

“No! He can't...”

My brother threw his hands up in plea and then down in aggravation. Tears now filmed his eyes and he turned away, retreating to his room and slamming the door.

Mom was tired again, slumping down in defeat. I wanted to hug her and say I did understand, but on this I had to side with Jared. It was too soon. Phil, a large man with red skin when he got angry, and thick arms and legs, was too different than anything we had known. Bipolar and aloof, he was the last person to add to a trio consisting of a single mom, a violent son, and a depressed daughter. He was still alien, still a cold shadow lurking at the edges of our lives. Mom may have loved him then, but my eyes couldn't see it. I didn't believe it. Howls and thumps in the night couldn't possibly be true love.

Maybe Mom is just imagining things...

Mario completes the level, jumping up five stairs to fling himself at castle's flagpole. After grabbing the flag and sliding down from the pole, he holds the red triangular flag up victoriously. Then he disappears into the castle and little colorful fireworks congratulate him.


“Whose damn dishes are in the sink?”

Jared and I looked at each other and shrugged in unison. We went back to playing Mario Kart.

“God dammit,” the TV was turned off and we stared up into the red face of our new step-dad, “Listen to me when I am talking to you. Whose bowls are in the sink?”

Jared and I had eaten macaroni and cheese after school, but we had jumped into Mario Kart before we could finish cleaning up. Without answering, we got up and cleaned them. I sighed audibly. We lived in Michigan now, the place Phil had grown up and wanted to live. I was already seventeen and fully able to make my own decisions. I hadn't wanted to move, but declined my grandmother's offer to stay with her in California because my mom and brother would be going. I couldn't just leave them. However, after two grueling years in another school where I was once again the “new kid,” I was getting tired of being yelled at for minor things like dishes and laundry. When I am in college, I thought, my room will be a mess and my laundry will be stinky, and no one will be able to yell at me about it. That thought alone fueled my will to survive.

Once done putting the bowls in the dishwasher, Jared turned the TV back on and we continued playing. My character was Yoshi, a green lizard-looking thing that was Mario's pet, and Jared was Mario. Even though he was younger than me, he always came out as first and I was always second. I never complained or said it was unfair. When I did get first place, it was a pleasant surprise, but my brother would soon continue his winning streak. If we played versus I would win sometimes, but not as much as him. In cooperative play, which was introduce in Mario Kart Double Dash for the Gamecube, he would steer and I would be the ammo. We always won this way.

As we aged more, I went off to college, and Jared bought games from his own pocket, savings from birthdays and Christmases. Our Grandma from California got a Nintendo Wii for us, and my brother coveted it alongside the Nintendo 64, Playstation, Playstation 2, and Gamecube. I never really got to play it that much. I wasn't allowed to take it to college because Mom was certain it would be stolen or damaged. I only got to play it when I came back home during school breaks, sitting down on the fold-out futon couch with my brother beside me. Mario Kart, Mischief Makers, Yoshi's Story, Star Fox, Super Mario 64, Super Smash Bros., Mario Party, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Dance Dance Revolution, Tales of Symphonia, Harvest Moon, Wii: Sports... The list goes on and on, grows, and I became less familiar with the newer games, ones my brother bought after I was got into college. I got rusty, and I won less and less. Soon I never got first place in any game, losing patience sometimes and retreating upstairs to talk on my cell phone.

Most of the time, when I got home late at night, I was exhausted after driving for three hours. Only one light would be on, and I found my brother plopped down on the futon and playing something. I would awkwardly try to make conversation, and he would reply curtly and frankly. Unsatisfied, I would walk up to what was once my old room and deposit my suitcases. The room was not blue anymore. It was purple with white lace and a queen bed much larger than the ratty thing I had slept on. The lamps were intricate and lit to your touch. I would sit on the bed, too soft and fluffy to support my aching back, and look around. Alone. Then I would get enough courage to venture out and try again.

Sitting down beside him, I watched as Mario met Bowser, the final boss. With spikes on his shell and a rocker-red hair style, Bowser was the bully in elementary school who pushed you down and laughed at you while you bled from the knee. Of course Mario would win. He would fly and jump and manipulate his surroundings to pound Bowser into submission and rescue Princess Peach. Until he won, Jared didn't say anything. Eyes glued, fingers tapping, pounding, turning, and shaking.

Eventually, he would remember I was his sister. Eventually, he would remember I was the same person who had sat with him at the table long ago, eating sandwiches and hearing other kids ask why their parents couldn't be together anymore. The person he had hit in the head with a plank, the girl he had stood next to during Mom's boring wedding ceremony in Grandma's backyard, the friend united against Dr. Pain-phil, the relative who had gone off to college and spoke with him through the other end of the phone, asking too many questions to answer, only to return home and ask more. Now, the sister sitting beside him. Not talking, just waiting. Then he would sit back and say,

“Wanna play?”

1 comment:

  1. A memoir of my bro and I, hopefully not cliche and/or boring!