The Boiler

Stacey Kahn

SLIVER

When we are five and eight years old, then six and nine and so on, people ask us if we’re twins. My brother bristles at the suggestion every single year because after all, he’s three years older and the only boy, which means that he enjoys a spotlight that follows him around like a shadow, that keeps him company in a way that I just don’t get. I’m the youngest and one of two girls, but the other girl looks more like our dad’s side of the family—small, with hips that only venture slightly past her waist—while I grow to be an echo of my mom’s side, short, curvy, and contained. The ways in which I don’t look like my sister mimic the ways I’m nothing like my brother, a boy who gets in with the popular crowd and always has friends, a boy who sits down to tests as if he’s writing a good friend a letter: calmly, naturally, knowingly, with grades that reflect his effortless way. I am quiet and dreamy, and nothing I do is effortless; I spend my adolescence pulling oversized shirts over the swell of my hips; I temper uncoolness with bouts of defiance. I seek out other dreamy weirdoes who make their homes on the sidelines, where we admire people like my brother from a comfortable distance because they have a certain grace that eludes us.

When we are fifteen and eighteen years old, the distance grows and my brother goes to college. My sister is in college at this time, too, and I face a particularly difficult year all by myself. My parents are there but I am still a teenager and keep my problems close to me, because my heart speaks a language I’m convinced my parents don’t. Instead, I spend nights in my room letting my sadness spill out until a knock sounds at the door or my name is called from downstairs. That’s when I gather it all back inside of me, quickly, like a person caught with a myriad of items they’ve been trying so hard to hide, and I go about my days a little bit heavier from the words I collect but keep to myself.

College finally reaches me, too, though, and it’s in college when I learn that writing buoys me, that this is how I stop from sinking into sidewalks, that this is where all the words should go. It’s not a perfect method, but it’s the only one I’ve found, and I write to peel the skin off things and bite into them with purpose.

When we are twenty and twenty-three years old, our only uncle dies. I’m not home for the funeral, not home for the unveiling the following year, but this death buries a part of me with it. My mother once called my uncle and me the “loveable black sheep of the family,” but death turns him into a black hole, and now that connection and all the talking I thought I’d do with him after college goes with the rest of the nothingness. I see my father cry for the first time in my life, I see what siblings are supposed to look like, and it has nothing to do with resemblance. I stop writing for a while.

And then when we are twenty-one and twenty-four, twenty-two and twenty-five and so on, I see my brother less and less. There is the exception of family birthdays and yearly holidays, and some times in between, but those barely count and our encounters feel rehearsed. He will start saying we should all hang out more, but his words are just words and their meanings are wrapped presents with nothing inside. In time, when we are whatever age—it doesn’t matter—he moves home to New York and contents himself with a nine-to-five suit job; I quit the three jobs I’m working to act upon a delayed dream of moving to California, then live there with my cousins. My biggest regret from college is that I didn’t go out west earlier; I learn at Thanksgiving that his was not joining a frat.

Writing eventually comes back to me. I write about my parents, my uncle, New York, the boy who broke my heart and who I’m afraid broke it for good. At some point I realize I never write about my brother, at some point I realize I’ve left the sidelines of his playing field and found my own. Because I don’t see him often, I don’t speak of him often either; friends who have known me my whole life have met him if not once, then never. They say to me, I forget you have a brother. Sometimes I forget, too.

                                                                                *

When we are eighteen and twenty-one years old, I follow my brother to college. My first year there is the final year for both of us—the year that he graduates, the year that I find that my identity is not tangled in our genes. But this process is not an easy one for me. My mom and I start speaking often; I never cry, but she senses the emptiness in my voice and asks my brother to fill me back up again. His solution is to fill me with alcohol, to drop it off and then leave. I ask for something girly—watermelon vodka—and share it with people I know are not my friends. These not-friends are like most of the people at the school; boys in dirty sports caps and girls in pristine pearls, both with popped collars and a starchiness that could break them. But no one here allows themselves to break, because cracking is bad form and I am in the worst of form when I finally decide to leave, when I discover that my brother and I have absolutely nothing in common and I go to another school.

But before I put my escape into motion, my brother and I sit across from each other in a dining hall on some indistinguishable night. Clinks and clanks of plates seep into our silence. I notice his freckles, which are just like mine—like whispers, easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention—and push around some mashed potatoes with my fork. Finally he says, “How are you doing?” and I shrug, so he shrugs, too, and then continues eating. After awhile, he checks his watch and says, “Things will get better,” then gets up to put his tray away and leaves. Maybe he didn’t know what to say; maybe he didn’t want to say what he meant; maybe I should have said more. But I would never know because I would never ask, and the words of this conversation, like all the ones that came after, hung loose and incomplete.

                                                                                *

I should mention again that there is a sister, but she finds her way occasionally into my writing for a reason I can’t explain. She is the oldest, but it never feels that way to me because she’s stormy and her moods are like sandpaper scraping against herself and everyone else. She takes small things to be serious and serious things to be small, and when we’re together, her words flood me like an ocean and I provide “yeses” and “nos” like ornaments, like archipelagos that the ocean just envelops. Often, I feel like the older sister, trying to dispense advice and mitigate crises that are only small annoyances to most people. At some point, I make friends with someone four years older than my sister and find myself confiding my secrets in this new girl, asking for advice, acting the way I think I should with my own family but somehow can’t. One day, over wine, I tell this friend, You’re the big sister I never had, and it’s almost like I’ve made my real sister disappear, and then I disappear for an instance, too. This is when I realize that we siblings have all disappeared from each other, because the three of us have taken our differences and built fences over the years, fences we stand behind and don’t try to look over, don’t try to dismantle.

                                                                                *

When I am twenty years old, I fall in love for the first time, I meet the boy who eventually breaks my heart and makes his way into my writing. His departure marks a pattern I fall into for years, a pattern where I think all men are wrong for me and I keep them at arms length, despite wanting to be touched, despite wanting to fold my fingers into the spaces of a larger hand. For a little while, it’s okay to cling on to friends, to form an alliance with the ones who’ve also been hurt and self-quarantined. But eventually, they all start re-attaching themselves to other people, and it feels like I’m talking to them from across a large, expansive room. This starts to happen at the same time I begin talking more and more with my mother, which reinforces and solidifies me and lessens the sting of being alone. She is my blueprint; short with wavy brown hair, calm but careful. She tells me all the time, God matched them as he made them, and though I don’t believe in god, I believe in what she tells me, and am comforted by that.

When my cousins in California unexpectedly lose their mom, I’m struck by the fact that I’ll lose my own mom some day, too; I’m robbed of the ruse that people you love are immortal, and I start feeling like I’m fifteen years old again, my sister and brother off and away somewhere I can’t see them, myself a young girl wielding a sadness too large for her. What happens when my parents, when half of the people who’ve known me forever, are no longer here? And what if forever never happens with somebody else, someone who’s supposed to put forever in a ring around my finger? Where will my siblings be if forever falls apart, if forever’s just a word that I repel?


If god really matched them as he made them, I wonder if the same is true of siblings, and then I worry that I have no matches at all. Because how can I find anyone else when I can’t even recognize the people who are myself, and myself them? How can we find each other if we are so unable to see one another? I let my siblings stay gone, though, I let the fences remain and watch them stack up because I don’t know how to go about dismantling them, and it’s easier to stay on the side that I built. I’m afraid that I will be the only one left standing there, though, wishing I could see over the fences that I myself erected but never tried to take down.

                                                                                *

When we are twelve and fifteen years old, I catch my brother on a night he’s feeling particularly like a teenager, a night that feels like a gasp or a stretched out sigh you’re caught in the middle of, that goes on until you run out of voice or breath. He sees me dawdling outside his door, pretending I have some business precisely in that spot, and for once, he calls me in instead of ordering me away and tells me to sit down on his bed. He has math books spread out on his comforter, pages beyond my understanding, things that always feel impossible when you haven’t learned them yet. I suddenly don’t know what to say, but it doesn’t matter because he says, “Do you know what this is?” pointing to the CD player behind him, pointing as if it is the music itself. When I say no, he explains how this band, Nirvana, is important, and we listen to the same song twice. I won’t know for years why this band is “important,” but for now, the fact that he says it’s so is enough. By the end of the night we are both repeating the line, Grandma, take me home, Grandma, take me home, and we get lost in the lyrics that for some reason make us laugh. Right now it seems unreasonable that I will ever substitute my siblings for anything else—for writing, for friends—because right now we are laughing at nothing at all, the type of laughing that buoys you and makes you light. Our laughter lifts me up like a balloon so for just a moment I’m above and not behind the fences we’ve only just begun to build around ourselves. If I had stayed there hovering above, if I had stopped laughing and looked down, maybe I would’ve seen the world behind my not-twin’s fence, and maybe it would’ve looked exactly like mine.

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Stacey Kahn is a writer and arts educator currently working at the Brooklyn Museum. She has an MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an EdM from the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She’s the co-host and co-creator of the NYC based reading series Big Words, Etc. and is currently working on a collection of essays about the forgotten borough she grew up in.