From the second floor living room window, Main Street looked cold and moody. And the longer that I stood there, staring as the emptiness slowly swallowing up the street below, the harder it became for me to breathe. It felt like someone had crawled into my chest and stuffed handfuls of fuzzy white cotton balls into my lungs until they poured out and filled the empty spaces between my ribs on both sides. I closed my eyes and pictured myself marching back into the kitchen, grabbing my suitcase and leaving without saying a word but I knew that wouldn’t fly. So instead I settled on the plan of sneaking out quietly first thing the next morning, before anyone else in that barren hellhole of a crack house got up. I glanced at my watch as I turned from the window and willed myself back into the kitchen. I had only been at my older brother’s apartment for three hours but it felt more like I’d been trapped for three years. It’s 9pm and I will be out of here in less than 10 hours, I thought. Less than 10 hours.
If I had known that my brother was living in a crack house when he invited me to visit for the weekend, I would have declined the invitation. But I hadn’t heard from him in close to a decade and I was anxious to see him again. Oftentimes the only way to find him over long stretches of silence was to call the local courthouse in my suburban hometown and flat out ask if he was in jail. I barely had to mutter the first syllable of our last name before whoever answered the phone would cut me off and casually say, “Oh yeah, he’s here,” as if my brother had just walked in the door with coffee and a box of 24 glazed and pink-frosted donuts. I would feel a brief sense of relief knowing that at least he was alive with a roof over his head but that comforting feeling would quickly dissipate as soon as the dark reality of his destructive lifestyle crept back in.
Over months of surprisingly consistent phone calls that had started when he called me out of the blue on my birthday one year, my brother convinced me that he was finally on the right side of life: he said he was sober and had both an apartment and a job in construction. And so I eagerly agreed to come from New York to Philadelphia to visit him. I should have listened to my gut though as I boarded the train. I’d been down this road so many times with him before and knew better than to let my fantasies of a beautiful reunion take over but I ignored the warning and moved forward with the plan, hoping that this time would really be different.
Back in the crack house kitchen, my brother bounced around the room like one of those rubber balls that you buy outside of grocery stores for 50 cents. I had no idea what his drug of choice was that day but whatever it was made him barely recognizable. When I got a closer look at him, I could see his cheekbones bulging out from underneath his eyes. His hair was greasy and knotted way past his shoulder blades, which were jutting out from underneath his wife-beater tank top. From the neck down his body looked tired, as if every muscle and the skin wrapped around them just gave up and was hanging on out of pure obligation. He was wasting away right before my eyes.
The house that my brother was living in smelled stale and rotten, like an abandoned truck stop bathroom. Most of the ceiling tiles had crashed onto the floor, leaving all sorts of raw wires dangling from above, like strands of wayward Christmas lights that weren’t put away properly the year before. Patches of oozing brown stains had pooled in the dips scattered around the floor and when I took a closer look I could see little piles of mouse droppings tucked underneath the squares of rotting vinyl tile that had peeled up around the edges. I had no idea that my brother lived liked this and it made me angry.
“How long have you been living like this?” I asked.
“I don’t know…for a while.” He was still zipping around the kitchen at hyper speed, doing all sorts of random things that amounted to nothing.
I felt hot tears starting to boil on my lower eyelids and I forced them back behind my eyes. “Aren’t you tired of this yet?”
“Tired of what? What are you trying to say?” His words turned razor-sharp as he puffed his chest out and swung both of his arms up overhead in a “bring in on” kind of gesture. “My place ain’t good enough for you?” When he opened his mouth, I could see that most of his teeth were either black or had fallen out completely.
Feeling enraged, I articulated each word slowly. “What I’m trying to say is this: what the hell are you doing with your life?”
Luckily, our exchange was interrupted by a clumsy knock at the front door. As my brother scuffed his way across the kitchen to answer it, I looked down at my watch; it was only 10:15 pm. I heard some faint giggling when he came back into the room and as I turned around, I saw a skeleton of a girl standing next to him wearing a stained, short sleeve, blue half top and a strip of black spandex around her hips that barely cleared the bottom of her underwear. “Hi, I’m Stephanie,” she chirped and put out her hand.
“Hi,” I responded sharply, returning the gesture. Her hand was so limp that I thought if I squeezed it too hard, her fingers would have melted between mine like jello. I looked down at my watch and noticed that it was just 10:45pm, Jesus Christ, I thought. Can this night go any slower? The only way I knew how to speed things us was to sleep. So I told my brother that I was exhausted and heading for bed. The two of them quickly disappeared into the attic space above the kitchen.
Instead of sleeping that night, I sat cross-legged and stiff on the floor by the light of my cell phone, impatiently waiting for 6am to arrive. When it was finally time to go, I clutched my suitcase in both hands and slipped out quietly without even thinking about brushing my teeth. I second-guessed my decision to leave without saying anything to my brother the entire two-hour trip back to New York but I didn’t know of any other way to handle the situation. I just did what I thought was best. We spoke a few times after that weekend passed but neither one of us ever addressed what happened. Eventually his phone was disconnected, I stopped hearing from him and he disappeared once again. That was nine years ago.
At times I’ve become overwhelmed with guilt when I think back to that weekend; if I let myself dance with those feelings for too long, they morph into a full-blown depression. It’s when I find myself lost in these dark places that I lean on some simple advice a therapist once gave me during a particularly intense session. While handing me a square box of soft, white tissues, she told me that I was not responsible for my brother’s destructive choices, that it was okay for me to be happy and that I should always have hope that one day, he could still turn his life around.
This post and the photo originally appeared on After Party Chat