When I was seventeen I bought a baseball bat and gave it to my little brother and told him to hit me in the face with it. He was nine-and-three-quarters. He was counting down the days until he was ten; he had a calendar on his desk. He cried because he didn’t want to do it. “I’ll hurt you, Harrison,” he said, “I don’t want to hurt you,” and his face scrunched up and he cringed, like I was going to hit him. I told him if he didn’t do it I’d throw away all of his presents on his birthday. I don’t know why I did things like this to him. He kind of fumbled the delivery of the blow, tried to stop at the last minute, and hit me in the knee. He hit hard. I had to quit the track team. I melted down my orange Nalgene water bottle with a blowtorch, left a milky orange sap on my driveway. Like a Dreamsicle liquefied to hard, unformed plastic. It’s still sort of there on the driveway, even after I tried to scrape it up. The orange remainder stuck for a while, but I’m sure it’s turned black. Tires and dirt and time.
I wouldn’t go to college so my dad made me leave. He stood in the doorway of my room with his left hand on the doorjamb one night in May and told me that I had a week to find a place to go. He was sweating, and I couldn’t tell if it was from anger or from something more profound that my age hid from me. He and I went round and round about a lot of things, we had general misunderstandings, so I wasn’t surprised by the dismissal. I probably would have made me leave—I knew that then, at eighteen. I haven’t been suddenly touched by wisdom. My dad worried, so he said, about my influence on my brother. He worried about my “bad intentions.” My mom spent a lot of her time sitting on our couch reading and drinking bourbon out of a coffee tumbler. Eventually she just drank the bourbon and left her books in a pile by her bedroom door, like a doorstop. I’m in Berkeley right now, off in California, Manifest Destiny, doing some work with acquaintances from high school. We sort of run scams on people, trick them into signing up to support different causes. If you said “Ponzi Scheme” to me I would laugh and ask if you knew what that meant.
It’s hard, I think, to get out of California once you’re in California. My brother sends me emails periodically, once a letter on my twenty-seventh birthday, and I respond when I remember to respond. Last week I wrote him a long email. I had a lot of information stored up in my head, like the fact that I hadn’t apologized in a while for the way I used to treat him, scaring him with my age and experience and disregard for a nine-and-three-quarter-year-old’s feelings. You don’t think of apologizing when you’re seventeen. You don’t think of your disregard as being problematic. You regard everything as either for you or against you, no offense meant.
My brother has visited me only once, about four years ago, when he had just graduated high school. We didn’t really do anything the week he was here. He sat in my apartment with me and we ate pizza and got drunk. We talked about angles and space. We talked about distance and the disappearance of rail travel. He wanted me to come back to Florida. He thought we could live together while he followed sound footsteps to the engineering halls of college. I laughed at him, because how could I go back? I laughed because he couldn’t have known how bad that idea was. He told me California put a bad taste in his mouth, like shellfish, or blood. He told me he was being figurative.
I remember the taste of blood in the back of my mouth from running too hard and too fast in track meets. I don’t miss that. I miss some things, like the skinny pine trees in my old backyard, or the way that the cicadas hummed in the evening like a chorus of soft white noise. I remember the Atlantic in the morning, and teaching my brother how to fish, and the look of dumb, shocked pleasure on his face when the line pulled taut. I’m leaving California, I think to myself daily. Sometimes I say it out loud, slowly, to the mirror, watching the shapes my lips make around each syllable. I think about being seventeen and about being a brother, and how both of those things are hard. I think about long drives at night through California neighborhoods and about how easy it would be to just merge onto the highway and head east, to drive nonstop for days. Sometimes I drive out toward the interstate, but I always find a reason to turn around. Last week it was a storm rolling in, the clouds like gray curtains. Yesterday it was an accident, two semis twisted around each other like unconscious lovers. Tomorrow it will be broken roads, an earthquake. I get a little closer every time.