by Maryann Aita
From Fall 2018
My oldest brother twirls his spaghetti noodles around a fork, the same way our mother wraps her hair around a curling iron. I used to watch these rituals, studying my family as if observing them as the subject of one of my brother’s paintings.
I watched my whole family eat spaghetti this way: using a spoon to support the fork as they twirled noodles like thread on a spindle. Both of my brothers and my parents used this method. My sister may have, although I never saw her eat pasta. I, however, could never justify an extra utensil with my nine-year-old hands and motor skills dragging years behind the rest of my family.
Vick and I were the furthest apart—ten years between us—but the closest at the dinner table. He sat at the foot. I sat on his right. But our interactions were usually limited to my sitting in silent admiration. The tallest member of our family, at 5’ 11”, Vick was an enigma: he could play chess, he could draw and paint anything perfectly, he once punched a hole in the drywall in his bedroom, he could eat spaghetti with a fork and spoon, and he was in college—a place I’d wanted to be since I’d learned what it was two years earlier, in first grade.
While I watched my brother shove meatballs around his plate, my parents kept an eye on my sister Valerie, waiting to bargain with her to finish whatever morsels of tasteless food she had on her plate. Usually, this was my point of fascination: while five of us sat around our kitchen table with spaghetti and meatballs, Valerie had a plain chicken breast and lima beans. But it was Vick’s lack of appetite that evening that caught my attention.
I poured myself some milk and used my combination of scooping and spinning to make a mess of marinara sauce. I stared at the noodles dangling from Vick’s chin and the sauce remnants at the corners of his mouth, transfixed by his spaghetti ballet.
I watched, struggling to avert my gaze from the bandage on his left shoulder.
Vick is known in my family for having a temper. My mom avoided buying games like Jenga because we were afraid to play with him. Our old version of Risk was unplayable because it had been thrown around the room so many times most of the army markers were missing. Still, we kept it in the attic as though it held some historical significance to our family. It was a relic of our legacy as sore losers. And even sorer winners.
One Christmas, my mother bought Vick a Rubik’s Cube. It was a solitary activity and she thought her oldest son, of all of her children, might eventually figure out how to solve it.
After carefully reading the instructions (a habit he and I share) he solved it six times that afternoon. He would twist the block around in his hands with the same repetition of twirling his noodles. His eyes focused on each colored square, turning one side, then another, then another. I watched him solve it again and again, transfixed.
Before he moved out of our house, he kept his Rubik’s Cube on a shelf with his collection of hundreds of figurines. There was a heavy imbalance of unicorns, which were by far the majority party of the community, but there were all kinds of mythical creatures. He held each piece to certain standards, an immigration officer for his bookshelf. I always wanted to buy him one for his birthday, but I never found a pattern to it all.
“Vick had an operation today,” my mother said. I had heard that tone before…
…a year earlier, around the same kitchen table. Valerie…they said. A tone I hadn’t heard before. Anorexia, they said. A word I hadn’t heard before.
“He had some lumps removed.” She said. “Cancer.”
I’d heard that word before.
My brother was 19. I was nine.
He sat quietly, as though he’d been drained of all his anger. I thought he was the bravest person I’d ever seen.
Taking his cue, I finished my dinner in silence, eating my spaghetti in untidy shovelfuls.
Vick has the same birthday at Martin Luther King, Jr., but his middle name, Martin, is unrelated. Martin was the doctor that delivered him. My parents gave us all middle names after someone. Mine is Agnes for my great-grandmother. My sister’s is Elizabeth, my mother’s own middle name before she changed it to her maiden name. My brother Max’s is Montana for the state he was born into first. Vick is the oldest, though, the big brother to all of us. My big big brother. The Trailblazer: the one to solve a Rubik’s Cube, the one to move out first, and the one to get cancer.
His hair began to thin with the chemo. It never grew back entirely. I always thought he had a turtle-shaped head. Now, as he approaches 40, I see it more.
To counteract his thinning hair, he grows beards. I guess he has a little more Irish in him than the rest of us, because his facial hair is bright red. Rust. He moves through phases with his beard designs, shaped with the same artistry of his paintings: Fidel Castro. Amish country. Cast Away. Fu man Chu.
I’ve known my brother all of my life and I have no idea what he sounds like when he sings. Not even “Happy Birthday.” When you have three older siblings, they all sing “Happy Birthday” and they all blend together around the table because all you can focus on is the cake in front of you.
You don’t pay attention because you hear them every day.
You don’t pay attention because their voices are more familiar than your own.
You don’t pay attention because you are only eight and there is cake with your name written across it.
Then one of them gets an eating disorder and you stop having birthday cake.
Then one of them gets cancer and you forget to sing “Happy Birthday”.
As the years drag on and your sister begins to look more like a skeleton and your brother slowly follows suit, you start to pay attention to the color of their thinning hair and the shape of their eyes sunken into their heads and the fact that you aren’t even sure what color their eyes are anymore.
As birthdays pass without song or celebration, you start to pay attention to the pallor that has set in to their skin and the circles under their eyes that are showing up on your mother’s face now too. You start to pay attention to the way that your family eats spaghetti because you want to remember everything about them. Just in case.
Vick is a painter. He has a portrait of me, and one of our brother Max, too, that he painted from moderately unflattering photographs of us. Max and I are in his house now; our faces serve as space fillers on his walls.
His work was in an art show when he graduated college, two years into his remission. My parents and I went to see it. My mother and I sauntered through the rooms of the gallery pretending to give equal attention to each piece, but looking for his work the entire time. We paid close attention to every grey and black sketch, all the paintings of shapes we didn’t understand. We saw paintings of monsters, sketches of empty rooms, things we expected to see Vick’s name next to, but didn’t. None of it held our attention – until we made it to the last room with two vibrant paintings of upside-down bathroom fixtures drenched in color. These were Vick’s paintings, erupting with life and emotion. These paintings hang in my parents’ home now, filling space on their walls.
I find myself as transfixed by his work now as I did almost two decades ago. My brother is an artist, a cancer survivor, a lover of instructions, a husband, and a collector of unicorns. What I didn’t realize then was that my childhood admiration for him was not in his height or highly advanced motor skills. His unicorn-scapes and portraits are sparks reignited in the wake of tragedy. They are traces of magic, the bits of him I know. They are glimmers of voice, even without a song.