A semi-fictional short story about a suicidal college student coming to terms with his sexuality and the devastating origin of his two first names
MY BROTHER’S NAME would’ve been James. He would’ve eaten his vegetables and gone for a thirty minute run every morning. He would’ve been handsome and started dating his first girlfriend in middle school. He would’ve dated a girl named Veronica and she would’ve been the captain of the cheerleading squad. He would’ve played on the school basketball team, or football, or any team where he could make out with Veronica in between breaks. He would’ve been smart, too. He would’ve gotten accepted to Harvard. He would’ve been perfect. My brother would’ve been everything that I am not.
* * *
I HEARD MY mother chopping away at something in the kitchen. 6:07pm, my phone read. She was starting dinner later than usual. Knowing her, she’d probably fallen asleep after her mid-afternoon Filipino soap operas and had just woken up to the harsh realization that her husband would be home in less than half an hour, and that her title of “Housewife of the Year” would soon dissipate, much like her career.
“Ay nákù, I didn’t know you were home!” There was a loud thud as I entered the kitchen. My mother had dropped a bag of onions when she heard me approaching. Her forehead was covered in sweat and her eyes were an awful shade of red. She was either cracked out on some new drug that only lonely housewives were capable of obtaining, or she was stressed out.
“I’ve been here the entire day, mom. I said hey to you this morning.” I rolled my eyes and let out a heavy sigh. She didn’t notice.
My mother, much like the rest of my family, had a habit of not noticing me. It’s like the time when I ran away from home the night I asked my parents about a scary bedtime story that my sister had told me when I was a little kid.
I snuck out with a backpack full of Honey Nut Cheerios and hid in my sister’s basement for three nights. Each time I heard the phone ring, I ran to the top of the basement’s staircase and listened through the door, left slightly ajar, to see if my parents had contacted my sister. All I heard was, “Bethany, I think he’s cheating on me again,” or, “That fucking bastard made me cook dinner and he’s staying at his brother’s place for the night!” Neither my sister nor my parents realized I’d walked out of my parents’ living room door and into my sister’s cockroach infested basement. When my cereal supply ran out, and my sister stopped ordering in Chinese food, which I stealthily devoured at four in the morning for two consecutive nights, I took a three-hour train ride back home to discover my parents’ undergarments strewn across the floor and the sound of moaning coming from the den.
“Could you spruce up the living room before your father gets home?” my mother yelled as she tore open the bag of onions. She was so deaf that she was practically belting out the words. I guess a few years of ignoring your son’s existence and moaning too loudly can lead to a little bit of hearing loss. I’ll be sure to remember that if I ever adopt my own children.
* * *
WHEN MY FATHER came home, my mother was in the bathroom attempting not to appear as if she’d just been racing to prepare the feast that sat at the center of the dining room table. I felt my anxiety rise when I saw my sister and brother-in-law follow my father through the front door. My sister had her hand on her stomach, her baby bump much larger and rounder since January. My eyes darted back to the dining room table—now littered with massive platters of chicken adobo, sisig, arroz caldo, sinigang, and white rice—and it suddenly hit me that my mother had known that Stacey and Leo would be joining us for dinner.
“Li’l bro! Wassup?” Leo rushed over to me, grabbed my hand, and wrapped his other arm around me. “How’ve you been?” he said as his bear-sized hand violently smacked me on my back in what he believed was a macho manner of greeting one’s brother-in-law. I faked a smile and patted him on the back, less aggressively.
My sister kissed me on both of my cheeks and gave me her purse to put away. I was tempted to rummage through her bag the moment I reached the hallway closet, but knew I’d only find prescription pill bottles and a self-help book about crumbling marriages. I heard the bathroom door open and a loud greeting from my mother. She was always happy to see my sister and Leo—then again, I don’t think my mother knew about Jessica and the summer of 2013.
“Come, come! Everyone sit!” My father placed his workbag down and sat at the edge of the table, opposite my mother. Leo was about to take the seat next to my sister when she held up her hand. “Babe, let Chris sit there. I want to sit next to my darling little brother!” He shrugged before sitting at the opposite side of the table. I took the seat that my sister theatrically dusted off with the back of her hand.
“So what’s the occasion?” I asked.
“We haven’t seen you since winter break, silly!” My sister squeezed my cheek in an infantilizing manner. “Leo wanted to take us all out to dinner by the bay when you got back last night,” she paused, “but mom decided it would be more festive to have everyone come here for dinner, instead!” That was her way of saying that her husband spent all of his paycheck—and probably hers, as well—on poker and beer.
“That’s fine. You can never go wrong with mom’s food, anyway. How’s everything in Providence?” I asked.
“No, no. We’re not here to talk about our boring lives.” She pinched my cheek again. “We want to hear all about Trinity. How was your semester?”
Thirty seconds into dinner and we were already attempting to pretend like anyone in this family actually cared about my life. A suicide attempt mid-semester sure does bring the family together.
“It was good. Kinda hectic, I guess.” I knew they wanted to hear about my therapy sessions, but I did everything I could to avoid that conversation. The entire first course of our dinner was spent trash talking WASPs and arguing about fraternities, the latter of which my father held a great number of opinions about.
“CJ, you dating anyone yet?” The obligatory brother-in-law, manly-man talk began when Leo grew bored of my reluctant responses. The anxiety that had somewhat diminished during the appetizers returned with its best friend, Sweat. I felt sweat forming underneath my armpits. “Anyone?” He nudged me on the shoulder and gave me his devilish smirk before taking another gulp of his beer can.
I shrugged. “Nah, no one I actually care for at school.”
“Oh, come on, CJ! It’s a huge university. There’s bound to be one person you wanna bang there.”
More like get banged by, I thought. “No, just focusing on my studies and all that shit. You know?” I started scratching at my chest, nervously. These were the two things that I resented the most about Leo: he constantly bugged me about the girls that were in my Facebook pictures and he never ceased to call me CJ. I had half a mind to ask him, “How’s Jessica?” but didn’t. Instead, I sat there, staring at the adobo chicken sitting at the center of the dining room table, frozen at the mention of the two-letter initial.
* * *
“Big sis, tell me a bed time story!”
“Chris, I’m tired and I just got off of work. I’m not in the mood.”
“Tell me or I’m gonna tell mommy and daddy about how you let Leo stay in your room last night!”
Big sis looked at me like a monster.
“Fine, you little prick, I’ll tell you a story. It’s about you, in fact.”
I crawled underneath my blankie, ready for a good story.
“When I was four years old, mommy and daddy were gonna have a little boy. They had his crib picked out, his baby clothes stored away in a tiny closet, and a bunch of toys for him to play with once he was born. They were gonna name him James. But one day, mommy and daddy got into a car accident and poor baby James died in mommy’s tummy.
“They cried, a lot. Daddy said he never wanted to try to have another baby, ever again. But then you came along. You were a mistake,” she chuckled. “You were the mistake from too many drinks during Auntie Emilia’s birthday party. Mommy and daddy didn’t want to have you. In fact, daddy got angry one night because he hated that you were ever in mommy’s tummy. He broke a lot of dishes that night. But they couldn’t get rid of you. Pastor Benjamin said it wasn’t part of ‘God’s will.’ So mommy and daddy fought for a really long time. Daddy almost left because of you.
“When they had you, daddy wanted to name you James, like baby James. But mommy kept saying that you weren’t a replacement. She wanted to name you Christian, like Jesus Christ. You caused more fighting that day. Like, a lot of fighting. Daddy even left that day. And mommy wouldn’t stop crying. When he came back, they finally made up and decided on Christopher-James, like a negotiation so the fighting would stop.”
I kept rubbing my eyes, the pain pouring out of them like the nights when daddy would hit me for playing with big sis’s Barbie dolls.
“I wonder if James would’ve been a little prick like you.”