I helped my brother pack. My father hunted high and low for a matching set of suitcases as a sort of farewell present for my brother – while many things, my father is not a good communicator of things emotional and this was his way of saying, “Travel well, my son.” I emptied out my brother’s closet, carefully rolling his shirts and pants into neat piles, making sure to leave room for ties, underwear, hats, shoes. His life didn’t fit as neatly as anticipated into two suitcases, but most of it did – we zipped them up and set them upright, marveling that these awkward twins on his bedroom floor could hold so much and still so little. We dragged them out to the car along with a large cardboard box filled with office supplies. I was sure it would be cheaper to buy supplies in China, but my brother insisted he would rather just take them to spare himself the hassle of finding an office supply store in labyrinthine Shanghai. “Good point,” I said. Though really I wondered if any of those items he packed had some sort of sentimental value. Could a stapler, a tape dispenser, a few pens and notepads remind him of home? But perhaps not. For the most part, he wanted to travel light. He left behind quite a few clothes, along with most of his books, golf clubs, and shoes, and I, a closet clotheshorse (no pun intended), admired his relative indifference to leaving these items behind.
“I’ll come back,” he said, “So you better not donate anything.”
I gave him my solemn promise.
And just like that, he was gone.
Shortly thereafter I disappeared to Taiwan for two months, and my parents reverted back to the quiet life they’d lived while we were away at school. In Asia, I visited my brother in Shanghai and realized that while he had barely unpacked, he had, in his heart, settled in just as hardily into our family’s condo just as he had done in Podunk. My uncle bought the condo in Shanghai some ten years ago, predicting he’d need a home base for his frequent visits when business was good. Business turned out to be okay, but the condo was frequently visited by family and friends who stopped by for weekend shopping trips or expos – I had stayed there once in the winter and once in the summer, and found the condo’s location to be its only draw. Located on the twelfth floor of a tall building (which in its heyday was THE address to have on that street), we had a wonderful view of the city and a short walk (by Shanghai standards) to the nearest metro. Behind us, a fancy theater was being built, designed in that new architectural style that likens buildings to eggs and nests. We were on a street nicknamed Bar Street, once rival to Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong – at least in terms of noise –but was now a quieter place for expats and locals to gather. No matter how a man may boast of knowing Shanghai, no one can ever truly grasp its center.
My uncle had furnished the condo cheaply and on the fly, with matching, dark furniture in every room that ate up the sunlight and horribly mismatched drapes and bedspreads, most of which I suspected were gifts from relatives who wanted new drapes and bedspreads in their own homes. The kitchen was sparse, sporting only a few warped pots and pans and a paper cup that held disposable chopsticks. A broken hot water boiler sat collecting dust in one corner and holey, threadbare rags hung from a railing along the wall. There were two bathrooms, but one lacked a shower curtain.
“Yeah, I need to get one,” my brother said. I nodded, examining the dingy pink tiles and the yellow lighting. The fixtures depressed me. The place was cleaned everyday, so cheap is that sort of labor in China, but you can’t wash away bad taste – or age. But my brother, a man of simple tastes, was oblivious to all this.
“I suppose I’ll change it someday,” he said, zero intention behind his words, “but it’s pretty good for now.”
I thought about our home in California, and wondered if my brother still considered it thus. We had hugged and cried at the airport, but it had nothing to do with the actual house he was leaving, just the people inside. But had it been me departing, I would have cried just as heartily for my pink room, my books, my small but adequate closet, my bright, gleaming bathroom. I thought of my brother’s new old living quarters: this is not a home.
I watched my brother move around the house in the comfortable way an actor moves around a set after a few weeks of filming – humans, we learn fast, adapt easily, don’t we? He worked at the dining table, which he converted into his workspace. Using water he bought on a weekly basis from the dingy convenient store downstairs, he poured hot tea in the kitchen always standing in the same spot, slightly to the left of the water boiler, and left his dirty dishes in the sink with the confidence of a man with a maid, who also washed his clothes and hung them up on the balcony to dry so that at night, my brother could bring them in if he felt like it. In the mornings, I wasn’t fully awake, but heard the beats – seamless sounds – of him readying for work, and those same beats in descending order (thump, thump of shoes being cast off, the jingle of keys, the creak of the doorknob) of his homecoming in the evenings. As a guest, I could imagine his life in the apartment without me – those same sounds, only perhaps the sound of my voice replaced by the sound of strange Chinese sitcoms complete with laugh track, or perhaps no voice at all but the sound of his fingers upon computer keys, another late with MS Excel. He slept well, ate well (by his standards, anyway) and while he spent most of his time at the office or at bars with friends, the condo was home in every sense that it could be, to a young man living in Shanghai in 2011.
Two months later I was back in the U.S. with my parents, in my room, throwing myself into working life, creating a routine that involved hot yoga, friends, and family. I had moved the coats to my brother’s closet to let my other clothes breathe a bit and wondered what he would say when he came back and discovered my little transgression.
Very little, it turns out. On Memorial Day weekend my brother materialized at LAX with the express purpose of attending his best friend’s wedding. I picked him up, a huge American smile on my face, not really grasping how much I missed him until he was sitting in the seat beside me. Oh brother, where hath thou been?
“Man I missed it here,” he said. I sped down the 105, the LA skyline whizzing past, knowing that compared to Shanghai’s architectural beasts and beauties, LA seemed like the outline of a village. Soon LA disappeared altogether and we were in the quiet, tree-lined roads of our small town, driving past our middle and high schools like two visitors cruising down the proverbial memory lane.
At home he unpacked while I blathered on about dating, friends, family and hot yoga. A good brother, he nodded and smiled, moving a bit awkwardly around his bed and the lone suitcase, having left its twin in Shanghai, trying to figure out where to put everything. I wondered if he would want me to move my coats for the time being so he could hang his suit up for the wedding. He must have, at some point, noticed my coats in his closet – but he said nothing, nothing at all and instead hung his suit up in the bathroom on the hook behind the door. I found it there the next morning, slightly irritated that he had removed my robe to hang his suit there, then ashamed that this was the only space he could find.
The weekend flew by – the wedding passed, then Memorial Day, then Tuesday, Wednesday and finally, Thursday, the day of his departure. On Tuesday night we had gone out to dinner and he had said, suddenly, “I sort of miss Shanghai.” I realized then where his life was. Or more accurately, I learned how differently we, though siblings with a close emotional core, defined essential terms. He carried home in his heart, his being large enough to grasp it completely while I simply lived at home, it being a space to hold my heart until I moved on into the next. Is this the difference between people who are truly hardy and those who are only reluctantly so? My brother lived happily in Podunk, Pennsylvania and I only half-heartedly in Berkeley, New York, and Taipei. Space was merely space to him, a place a place. He possesses the only center he needs while I search for material, tangible tethers. World traveler, some people call me, but they don’t know the divided nature of my traveling. Abroad, I long to be home; at home, I long to be abroad.
On Thursday morning my brother woke up at six am to hug me goodbye. I was leaving for work, but something about the light, the time, reminded me of the morning he left for Podunk. That summer dawn, he had knocked softly on my door and whispered, “Betty, I’m leaving.” I started crying almost immediately, knowing not how our relationship would change, only that I would miss him terribly.
Now two years later he had left and come back again and again, with each departure feeling more and more final. And he was now leaving again. I hugged him tight, knowing that I would see him at holidays and on my own future visits to Asia, but that by then he would be at the door of or perhaps fully enveloped by his other life, just as my mother and father had been some thirty years ago, when they met and married and left childhood and childhood homes behind. But I do not dread this, this inevitable progression of life – we branch out, move out, move in, move on. My coats would stay in his closet and my brother would stay in Shanghai, for the time being, and then wherever he chooses to settle next. But we, regardless of where we are, remain close. Places, things, tethers – I’m beginning to learn they were always beside the point.
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