Sometime around my fourteenth birthday I became a ghost. I could never pinpoint the exact date it happened, but I remember the first day I really noticed.
It was a sticky Saturday in mid-July. I came home on my bike, tossing the old thing into the overgrown sandbox. My dad, seeing me out of his peripheral, smiled and looked up from his latest driveway-consuming carpentry project. Once he met my eyes, his own widened and an aborted question dripped off his downturned lips. He faltered and rambled off something about dinner, trying to hide how distracted he was by his mistake. He certainly looked like he’d seen a ghost.
That summer I lost my baby fat, gained a few inches, and found a better way to cut my hair. I began seeing myself in pictures I don’t remember taking. It was more of a nuisance than anything else.
But my dad wasn’t the only one who noticed.
On my first day of high school, I caught a calculus teacher staring at me in the parking lot. A curt smile cut into her face once she realized we were strangers after all. She looked away.
During mass, I noticed the priest did a double take when walking past my family’s pew. Embarrassed, he avoided eye contact the rest of the service.
In November, a distant cousin called me the wrong name at an aunt’s wedding reception. Over the loud music, he couldn’t tell that I had lost my Southern drawl years ago. I acted like I hadn’t noticed, and he never mentioned it.
Some nights, when the soft blue glow of the TV flooded our living room, strange shadows morphed my face into something that made my mom jump as I walked into the room. Grief faulted her face, tension slipping around the lips.
Ever since I was little, people have always reminded my parents of their tenacious genes. Eight years ago they stopped out of respect, or grief, or just plain awkwardness. That Christmas break, someone broke the silent agreement and reminded them once again. After her third glass of wine, my grandmother stroked my head with her pruney fingers, and in a breathless sigh said, “Goodness, don’t you look just like him.”
I guess no one had told her not to mention it. The elephant in the room. The impossible twins my parents had unintentionally raised.
The conversation was pretty stunted after that.
On New Year's Eve, I dyed my hair orange. It wasn’t that I necessarily liked orange, but it was just enough of a shock to everyone’s system. It was also the only color on clearance at the beauty supply store. If they wanted this to be a sad story then fine by me, but I wanted no part of it.
My friends make stupid jokes and I let them. I make them too: Drinking bleach when you fail a quiz, or slitting your wrists when you’ve got to go back to Georgia for a wedding, or reaching for the noose when you spill vegetarian chili on your favorite shirt. I know it’s not really all that funny, but I’ve got a good out. When people give me strange looks, I just say that’s how some people cope, but I’m not coping. There’s nothing for me to cope with. After all, it’s been years.
I used to think people were faking it all. Of course, not right after it happened. I knew all the miserable looks, the solemn condolences, the late night weepings weren’t fake those first few months. I could understand them even a year or two after- but eight? That seemed suffocating. When I realized they weren’t faking their pain, I felt bad for not feeling bad. Grief certainly seemed like a weighty thing, but by then I could only imagine its burden.
It’s not because I resent him. My genes? Maybe. He certainly didn’t make my life easier, but it wasn’t his fault, really. He was sick my therapist tells me. I am not sick. I do not tell my therapist that I have never cried over my brother. Instead, I leave and I tell my mom it went well and she smiles.
On my fifteenth birthday, my mom made me a candied clementine cake. When I blew out my candles, I knew she was thinking about how with that one rush of breath I had become the oldest.
I was thinking about how much I love candied clementines.