I made my brother’s list. That’s what I was hearing. Billy wrote a list and included me on it—not at the top of the list but near. I smiled. He frowned. He readjusted his position on our mother’s couch, the leather squeaking. “Bobby,” he said, “that’s not a good thing.”
But I loved succeeding in the eyes of others, and Billy understood this: Second Place ribbon in backstroke at Maplebrook Elementary, lead in the high school musical, vice-president of my college fraternity. Billy knew I lined up these facts in my head like a trophy case. We shared a bedroom for 10 years, and he’d stand back as a kid and marvel at my wall of accomplishments. He never could catch me, first because he was four years younger and then because he seemed to “live a bit less.” That’s how he put it. My eyes drifted across our family room as my brother tried to speak.
I looked at Billy. He usually smiled right through you, like a homeless man might smile into the glare of a storefront window. But, here, my brother’s face reflected calmness, presence. His nose hooked to the left. The “Fieseler Schnoz” had always been our defining feature, and, though he’d broken his so many times, we still looked alike. Billy slid his cap backwards, which revealed the golden letters “W.F.”—honoring both Wake Forest University and, as a joke, his initials (William Fieseler). Not your school, I thought. You never went.
I knew from our sister, Annie, that November 2012 marked Billy’s first month of sobriety. We were nearing two months from that milestone. Three months, and he got a pin , maybe. “What I have to do as part of my program,” he began, and I felt trapped on the couch beside him. He talked some more, and my eyes floated to my mother’s Christmas Village by the window. Starting in 2009, when Billy fell apart, my mother would set up a miniature world on the triangle coffee table. Her fantasy became like a three-tiered cake. On the topmost pane of glass were the largest porcelain mansions, which included a Santa’s Workshop. On the second pane, a layer beneath, sat a smaller subdivision of homes and streetlamps. On the final pane, furthest below, dwelt a town ringed by a railroad.
“Part of these steps is I have to make amends,” I heard him say.
My mother took days assembling this village. She’d crack open bottles of white wine, sip and examine and reexamine. Each house lit up from within. When the arrangement pleased her, she’d lie on the couch and watch home remodeling shows and polish the bottle. Simultaneously, she’d project herself into the miniatures. Who knows what she found inside there. Her village was something children would adore, only there were no grandkids. My eyes sank to the lowest layer.
Two trains circled the same track, sometimes bumping each other like butt-sex. We’d be gods, I thought, to those people. Past the Christmas Village was a different universe entirely: our own. A tall bookshelf connected to the mantle where a boxy TV once sat. Beneath it was an air duct that blew heat on your feet straight up from the basement furnace. Billy and I used to fight for that spot. Winters, when we scooted up to the Super Nintendo, the winner got the heat.
We’d duel in a futuristic racing game called F-Zero. The fastest ride was a pink space pod, which sputtered from the gates but accelerated to the highest speed, so long as you drove her perfectly. She was my “pink gorgeous.” With her, I secured the record time on every track, writ with my initials: RWF. Then one day I caught Billy with my gorgeous about to shatter my time on the fastest track, and I kicked him to the window blinds, and she crashed. Instead of crying, he laughed as he pulled himself up, his shoulder bleeding. He laughed because he got me, found the thing that cracked the mask.
“Where the fuck are you, Bobby?” my brother asked.
“Jesus, man, I’m sorry.”
Pulled into Mom and Dad’s driveway and sat there for a second. The engine cut out, and the car settled into the purr of the electric battery. This was a rich man’s vehicle: Dad’s Toyota Hybrid. He’d lent it in June, when I started back at work. That was nice of him. Seven months later, he still hadn’t asked for the keys back.
Grey, cloudy, Sunday. Neighbors’ houses loomed around me, some of them taller than three stories. I pictured the old wives inside with their phones and pictures of pathetic kids: Mrs. A., Mrs. Green. They’d watched me grow up into what? Their sons left Chicago, not me. 27 years old, and here I was still borrowing Dad’s things. I saw the shadow of Bobby waiting in the kitchen, the overhead light catching his head. His shape stretched towards me. 20 minutes ago, he’d sent a text saying, “Getting some food.” The garage stood open. Outside, wind blew cold.
I’d meant to do this sooner. But Bobby said he didn’t want to talk about anything serious. I let six weeks pass, and now I had to pounce before he hit the escape hatch. Tomorrow, he headed back to Columbia University and New York City, where he lived. He’d been out of town for three years, and I hadn’t even paid him a visit.
My hang-up had been the “spiritual affliction” thing. A long road to respect the concept, bouncing in and out of centers, learning not so much to stop drinking as to live spiritually—the alcohol a symptom of deeper stuff. It’s a hard realization to grab with both hands: we are not just our own person. Growing up, Christianity was a thing I did on Sundays. To say I never felt the touch of God doesn’t quite capture the sham. I looked for God at my first communion, ate the bread and nothing happened. When I kneeled before that Catholic pervert bishop at confirmation, Grandma cried, and I waited for my imaginary friend. “He’s pretend,” I told Dad when we finally had the fight about Jesus. Now, I studied Chapter 4 in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. Titled “We Agonistics,” it made the argument that only a spiritual life conquers alcoholism. Dogs started barking inside. Two white bichons appeared in the front window. They dove at the glass repeatedly, though never – in their combined years of living – breaking through to freedom.
Bobby prolly guessed I was here. Those fucking animals. My favorite reference manual from last year had been: “Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?” That one did a fuck ton of good. I’d pop yellow Adderalls and tear through the pages. Few studies could explain how A.A. worked, and this book manipulated the fuzziness. It bought me time to drink. That book was my best defense. A.A. boasted more than a million people going to meetings, and I fended it away. Bill W., the former Wall Street trader and founder of A.A., had invented the idea of a “12-step program” based on the 12 Apostles. I knew this. My mind jumped to every 12-step program built on this happenstance: Gambler’s Anonymous (G.A.), Overeaters Anonymous (O.A.), Workaholics Anonymous (W.A), D.A., P.A., M.A., all based on what? Faith? Why not 10 steps or six? But I’d learned to stop calling bullshit.
Step 1 meant admitting I was powerless. Step 4 was my personal and “fearless moral inventory.” I kept my journal in the trunk. Across its pages, I catalogued every busted relationship in my life—past and present. I could recite it by heart. In the subsection marked October 9, 2013, which represented my Sobriety Day, I’d laid out three columns. The first column read “Resentful At” and beneath it “Bobby (Brother).” In the second column, I listed “Causes” of resentment in our relationship: “More successful,” “Judges me,” “Takes vacations,” and “Doesn’t want to talk about my life.” In column three, I tallied where each “Cause” cut into me: “Self-esteem,” “Relationship with others,” and “Relationship with self.” Then, if you flipped the page, you’d see three more columns. Here began my analysis of how I treated him. In the first column, titled “Selfish,” I’d written, “Blamed for starting my drug use,” “Made him buy me booze,” “Constantly drunk dialing,” and “Called him a fag.” These pages were why I was sitting in the driveway—to finish my Step 9, where I attempted to make amends for everything I wrote in Step 4. Hell, I’d made the list and one hell of a promise to my sponsor, and Bobby meant finishing it. Each step worked like an ego trap, grinding your face into the psychic crap of your past.
If I didn’t move ahead, I’d drink again. Progress meant embarrassment.
“No credibility,” I muttered. The time between January, this month, and October wasn’t much. But my sponsor and I decided, after my last slipup, that I needed to try something else. Family dogged me, we agreed, especially the thing with Bobby. My knuckles throbbed. I forgot I did his inventory on my first day back at meetings. Facing Bobby made my Step 9 with Dad and Mom feel easy. I took the keys from the ignition, stashed them in my hoodie. “God?” I asked, having taught myself to pray again and somewhat believing. “Give me help on what to say or how this should go.”
His voice shook me out of the village. “I was in there,” I wanted to tell him, but I wasn’t sure if he’d get the joke. Why drag up old shit? “Mom drinks because you did,” I almost said but stopped myself short. “I’m here to say that I was wrong in my behavior for a long time,” he said, his eyes unblinking. He locked onto me, drilling in sincerely.
I gazed at the Nutcrackers above the mantle and examined the iron tree, the one with the Hallmark ornaments my mother bought in June. On the bay window hovered a life-size sticker of a robin to keep birds from battering into the glass. “It wasn’t ok,” he said. The force of impact on double-paned glass was enough to kill finches from internal injuries. For some reason, the sticker (an image of a flattened bird) served as adequate warning. “I want you to know that I know that the wrong I did to you can never be undone and that I wasn’t a good brother.”
Some creatures ignored the warnings. I noticed how he avoided “sorry,” maybe on the advice of his sponsor. I’d seen him posting and seeking advice on online message boards like SoberRecovery.com. I’d done my research. Social media had sucked the mysteries out of A.A. Maybe all the addicts had held a symposium and agreed that they’d said “sorry” enough to strip the meaning. Maybe I could save that one to sting him, I debated, for saying it or for not saying it. But Billy knew I diagnosed situations to gain advantages. “And want to know how you felt about it,” he said.
And I couldn’t hurt him. This was my chance to tear open his brain and take out the broken pieces. Start with his childhood security blanket, pivot to his night terrors, crescendo with that crack-hole of a woman he met in Rehab Round 2. I could string events into a chain and use it to hang him from the ceiling. And I just couldn’t. I remembered my bedtime prayer as a kid, the one I’d say in front of him. “God bless Mommy and Daddy and me and Lauren and me.” I said me twice. I forced our eyes to meet.
He said, “This is me acknowledging the wrong that I did.” In his place, I wouldn’t say the same. His goatee looked trimmed. His arms bulged; he’d clearly been lifting for the past few months. Ever the competitor, I stifled my tendency to get jealous when Billy got buff.
“You remember the text?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “That summer.”
“I’m sorry I meant it.”
He’d called me late, when the light at my desk was the only light in the office. The Chicago Brown Line, which curled around my building, sat dark—done with all the commuters. My phone buzzed to life, emitting a glow that scared me because I was alone, and empty offices are creepy. It flashed “Billy” “Billy.” I guessed, by the hour, that he was smashed, and I felt stranded with his dilemmas. I couldn’t be distracted. The London office needed files by start of business, and I needed a job transfer to London. The need to keep working, keep working. I let him go to voicemail, deleted the message without listening and texted: “Billy, I’m really busy right now, and I don’t want to talk about your life with you.”
Why stare in the corner? Could he guess this was hard? I was saying what I was saying, and I’d practiced saying it with my sponsor, in front of the dogs, with my fiancée. Get your words right. Don’t say sorry, say apologize. Don’t make excuses if he throws it back at you.
He sat looking off and not wanting a drink, and I sat wanting a drink like always. Thoughts ran ahead of me. It was work to sit, work to talk. Work to rearrange myself on the couch instead of getting up and walking to Mom’s cabinet with the lock undone.
My voice droned. There went the part about being wrong. He mentioned the text message. Ok, he meant it, enough. I was working my way through the minute to talk and not get up. People worked for it, the ones I knew. Some worked forever and never saw the fruits. Can’t last the minute. That’s the bitch of things, and I’ve never been okay with it for one day in my life.
We went 21 months without speaking, during which he attempted suicide by overdosing on phenobarbital, an anti-seizure medication. I’d pass addicts begging for change on the way to the train and wonder if it was my brother. He changed his cell number, and I didn’t notice until I tried texting him six months later. I avoided mom and dad’s house for three Christmases to escape the situation that made me saddest: that Billy lost at everything, including his addiction. I want to say that I thought he would manipulate me if I tried to help, that he’d try to sink me. But the truth was I purged him easily. I couldn’t be bothered because I was too busy grasping for promotions, which I received. I wanted to tell him that he was always better than me, that, even as a kid, he saw through the playacting we do to manufacture worth. How a human was not singular in this world but the product of a family. And how that was unfair, because we don’t choose our families, but that was the truth of it, and in the truth we all become losers.
It sounded flat. It felt flat. I decided it was flat. Instead I said, “I lost my best friend,” hoping it meant something.
His head jolted back, registering surprise. He took time nodding and then replied, “It’s tough for me to even, kind of, recall what you mean by that. I’ve been so far gone that I can’t remember it, Bobby, and that makes me sad.”
I closed the garage after he ducked past the outside light. The metal door trimmed him away until he vanished. I heard the purr of the battery and the groan of my father’s engine as he sped away. I wasn’t sure where he lived, and I started crying, realizing I should have let him win something. I turned back to the family room and saw the furniture rearrange itself in my brain. I was alone, and I remembered when I used to babysit all of them: Billy, Annie and Lauren, my other sister. The couch sat in front of the bay window back then. My parents kept a stereo in a cabinet opposite the sofa. We’d listen for the sound of the van receding and then blast our ‘90s grunge rock. Billy and I reveled in those songs.
My favorite word as an 11-year-old, and thus my brother’s favorite word, was “rebel.” We planned to tear down society by buying the right CDs. In the fall of 1992, Mom wouldn’t let us buy Nirvana “Nevermind” because she hated the baby’s penis on the album cover. So we settled for the Gin Blossoms’ “New Miserable Experience,” not for the music but because the title summed up everything we believed in. Plus, their lead singer died of an overdose and that seemed to lend the band credibility.
The song “Found Out About You” commenced with airy, strumming guitars. “All last summer, in case you don’t recall…” I grooved beneath the ceiling lights on my parents’ coffee table. “I was yours, and you were mine… ” The girls pounded down the staircase in time to sing, “Forget it all!” I leapt onto the sofa. “The things you said and did to me…” Billy took my place in lights. “The love I thought I’d won, you give for freeeeee…”
He mimed a solo. “Whispers at the bus stop…” We clapped. He kicked and sneered. “Nights out in the school yard…” We clapped together. “I found out about you…” This is reverie. “I found out about you…” I stole his voice. I’m stealing it. He did it with booze, I did it with winning. We didn’t know about siblings competing or anyone losing big, but he was seven years old, and that was the last time I could picture all of us clapping for him.
Robert Fieseler grew up in Chicago and graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia Journalism School. He is the proud older brother of William (Billy) Fieseler, who also appears in this essay. Robert’s journalism has appeared in Narratively and The Big Roundtable; W.W. Norton will be publishing his debut book of nonfiction. Tweet him @wordbobby
Read an interview with Robert here.