by Kirsten Porter
“Is it good to be back?” I ask my brother, trying to break the awkward silence with small talk. He is back in Virginia visiting with his two-year-old daughter Ellie. She has my brother’s face—the pensive eyes and delicate, up-turned nose and small, pouty lips pressed together in distrust.
My brother nods absently. He tells me about the plane ride with Ellie – traveling with a toddler complicates everything. I watch as he navigates the highway in darkness, changing lanes without using his turn signal. We’re traveling on 66 West in the middle of a commute nightmare. The rain falls softly. He clicks the wipers up a notch and squints to see through the thick, gray swirls of falling rain. Then he begins to mumble in the same way he used to talk to himself when he couldn’t figure out how to fix something and stalked off in frustration. The console between us may as well have been Siberia, and I feel the palpable distance and coldness between us, wondering if it is too late to find our way back.
“Are you cold?” It is his question, so quietly asked I almost mistake it for the whirr of the wipers, rhythmically dancing in the darkness. My brother reaches over to turn off the air conditioning and nods pointedly at me. I have unconsciously pulled the sweater in my lap around my shoulders. He has noticed.
“Thanks,” I start. Maybe this is my chance. Ellie is my way to break in. We finally have something we can talk about, something we both love. Maybe now he can find a place for me. It might be a sign—there is sweat above his brow, but he is putting me first. He has turned the air off.
“How do you like being a stay-at-home dad?” I pick the words carefully. I want my brother to know that I admire his decision to quit his job so that he could take care of Ellie. I want to tell him I think raising a child is the hardest, most important job in the world. But I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing and having words fall between us, too. I wait with the hum of the engine and rain-song in my ears.
“I like it a lot. Ellie’s so little right now, you know. So it’s ‘Daddy, what’s that?’ and cutting her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into four triangular pieces and Gymboree class. Sometimes I want some time to myself, but then when she’s not with me I miss her terribly.” There is a softness to his face I have not seen before, a light that touches his eyes each time he talks about Ellie.
“She cracks me up! Those little legs trying to keep up with me. And man is she bossy! ‘Daddy, you get me Cheerios’…she’s even started bossing around the dog. I know I should be more firm with her, but I can’t seem to say no to her when she’s staring up at me with those big eyes, and…I don’t know. No one ever tells you how hard it is. She’s so small, and I’m just thinking on most days, I hope I don’t screw up. It’s not like working at the paper—computer’s down and you got a back-up or your co-worker’s standing around drinking coffee and shooting the bull, and so what if your boss is a jerk…you could always quit. You know, there are days I swear I want to jump out in front of moving traffic if I have to watch Elmo in Grouchland with Ellie one more time. Sometimes I’m just so desperate to have a real conversation with someone who doesn’t ask for milk in a sippy cup, but…I love Ellie. I mean I really love Ellie.”
“I, um, wanted to tell you…when people ask me how you’re doing, I like telling them you’re not working at the paper anymore. I think it’s really great that you left work to raise Ellie full-time. I know it was difficult, but I think you made the right decision.” There, it’s said. I play with the shoulder strap of my seatbelt. I count each of my shallow breaths until his voice sounds over the light rain. He is looking at me now, one hand on the steering wheel.
“I think I did the right thing, too…with Ellie.” My brother stares ahead. “And coming home.” It is easier to breathe now. We pass the accident that had jammed the highway. Slowly the cars begin to move, like a tangled shoe-string finally freed from its knot.
During the last stretch home I think about my niece, how when you’re two-years-old things are simple like sandwich triangles and Sesame Street shows. To Ellie, love just is, unencumbered by the tangles of before and the discomfort of the now. I begin to think that maybe Siberia is just a country, far away. And maybe a brother can drive back home through the rain to find what he had left behind.