My half-brother David, who is aware and supportive of my writng life in general but has requested I use a pseudonym when discussing him, was raised by our father, Henry. He is living in San Francisco when the Germany bee lands in my bonnet. David’s an artist, a technology designer, a musician, and apparently a chick magnet.
The last time I see my father at his apartment in the Horizon Towers in Fort Lee, New Jersey, it is 1975, I am not quite 8 years old, and Henry’s second wife Daphne (not her real name) is pregnant with David.
On that day, I call my mother and tell her to come get me. This is something I have wanted to do before, but I have been scared. I am scared of the things my father says and does when I visit him. I am scared to betray my father. I am scared my mother won’t help me.
I can remember when the cops arrive at the door.
Months go by, and there is no word from him. I am worried, relieved, disappointed, and confused.
One day, my mother sits down with me.
She has heard from Henry. Henry’s son David has been born. Henry and his family are moving away very soon. Henry wants to know if my mother will make an arrangement for me to meet my half-brother before they go. He thinks it will be good for me and for David.
I tell her to tell him no. No. No. NO.
(No is a word I find very easy to say. I really like ‘no’, ‘no fucking way,’ and especially ‘never.’ Which is strange, because in truth my two favorite words are ‘yes’ and ‘free.’)
But I can remember this particular no, it’s a muscle-memory no. I have outrage, 8-year old outrage, at being asked to do anything for my father or for this baby who is my brother but not really. I feel used and betrayed. Nobody is doing enough for me, I know this. Or the things that are being done aren’t the right things.
Flash-forward, won’t you? To 1993.
I am living in New York City, passionately immersed in the poetry scene that flows out of the Nuyorican Poets Café, while writing for a soap opera by day.
I am profiled for an MTV-produced documentary called ‘The Seven Deadly Sins.’ The project pairs celebrities with random 20-somethings to dramatize pride, covetousness, lust, and the other engines of western civilization. A poem I perform about my mother’s abusive second husband in my earnest, hip-hoppity white-girl style is at the center of my segment on the sin of anger. I am paired with the rapper Ice-T, not that I meet the man, we are united in an editing suite. (Years later I write a couple of episodes of the TV series Law&Order: SVU, on which he co-stars, and I still don’t meet the man.)
Meanwhile, my brother David, now 18 or so and living in Connecticut, is watching MTV, and he sees this film, and my segment. The art director has included a photo of me that my father took many years ago. And my first name is chyron-ed on screen. My father had a copy of this photo in his study. My brother can remember, long ago, before my father explained to him that he had a sister, asking about the girl in the photo. “That’s a friend of mine who I’m not friends with anymore,” my father had explained.
I come home late from a poetry reading. The light’s blinking on my answering machine. “Hey, um…Kathy?” The voice is deep but wobbly. “This is, um…David. David Ebel. I…I think I’m your brother. I mean, I’m pretty sure I am, I mean…” They had a Brooklyn phone book back then, and I was in it.
I call my sister, Greta (at her request, I am using a pseudonym). She’s also around 18. She is my mother’s younger child from her second marriage. We are half sisters, but other than the fact that having two different fathers makes all the difference in the world, I don’t think of her has my “half.”
(All this divorce and remarriage and random childbearing gets very confusing. You will not be quizzed.)
At that time, I have never asked my sister for anything before. “Look,” I tell Greta. “I have never asked you for anything before. But I need you to do me a favor.” I explain to her that I’ve made contact with the half-brother I’ve never met, my father’s other kid, and that he is coming to the city to meet me, and I need her to come with me to meet him because I am so fucking nervous.
She says yes.
It’s a grey, wintery afternoon in lower Manhattan. The air feels hospitable enough but a bracing cold seeps up from the sidewalk. Powdery snow floats around at eye-level, and Greta and I shiver under the arch in Washington Square Park. Will I know my brother when I see him? And then what? My heart is pounding. A hunched, loping figure approaches – it’s him. Hoodie pulled low, dark hair hanging in greasy hunks, sweatpants and ripped-to-shit sneakers, no coat or gloves, the expression heartbroken and closed.
What is my half-brother who was raised in suburban Connecticut doing looking like a crack-head?
I have a poetry reading for a Canadian Broadcasting Corp radio program scheduled, and I drag Greta and David to the studio in the Empire State Building. They sit on the floor in the hallway, awkwardly facing each other, while I duck into the studio to record the show. You realize, don’t you, that my half-sister and my half-brother are in no way related to one another. I am connected to my sister because we share the same mother, and are raised more or less in the same house (although she is still in elementary school when I leave for good). I am connected to my brother because we have the same father, who at that point I haven’t seen in 19 years. So my sister and my brother could technically, legally fall in love and procreate. Just saying is all.
But my brother will probably need to shower first.
After the poetry reading, I bring David home with me to the true bohemian splendor of my giant Park Slope apartment. I force him to take a shower. I force him to order food from the New Purity Diner menu, not just drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. You could smoke cigarettes in diners back then. David eats a burger and pancakes. He is hungry.
David stays with me for a few weeks. He wants to relocate to New York City. I tell him I will help him, but he can’t live with me. I make phone-calls. We visit a social-worker supervised apartment in the East Village for teen boys at risk. The tenants are ghetto-chic gay Latino boys who give my brother a sympathetic and appraising once-over.
David moves back to Connecticut to live with Henry.
A shitload of time passes.
David finishes high school and goes to college in the Pacific Northwest. He graduates and is going to be a rock-star, then shifts gears to become a prolific technology designer. We are only sort-of in touch. Whenever we try to talk about Henry, I tell myself it’s so irritating, but I’m actually losing my mind. When David refers to Henry as “my Dad,” I want to reach through the phone and strangle him. Why doesn’t he have the decency to say “our father” or “Henry,” to either deftly include me or create a diplomatic neutrality on which we can both safely teeter? The combination of the possessive pronoun “my” and the diminutive “Dad” makes me want to open a can of Ice-T on his ass. I want to be left out permanently, I kicked myself out, no, I was pushed, okay fine, I have a father but I most certainly do not have a “Dad,” I want in, no I don’t, you can have him, I’m here despite him, because of him, we all have the same coloring, it’s too late, no it’s not.
Just a few days ago, I call my father’s widow, Nancy (not her real name).
Nancy is not David’s mother. She is our father’s third wife. You will not be quizzed.
I want to know if Nancy can answer any of the questions I need to answer for the Federal Republic of Germany naturalization paperwork I’m in the process of tackling. Nancy and I have not spoken since I told her I wasn’t going to be attending my father’s funeral, a year prior.
“Oh my,” she says. “Oh, Kathy. My goodness. You are not going to believe who is here, all the way from San Francisco, and for just one night. What absolutely incredible timing this is.”
It is my brother, David.
“Do you want me to put him on the phone?” Linda asks.
“Yes,” I say.