I knew even from the young age of five that something was very different with our family. We were unnaturally close to our neighbors across the street. So close, that my dad held hands and kissed the neighbor’s wife on our backyard porch while they were in front of the neighbor himself. Mom was in the kitchen pulling out her signature biscuits to the guest and will eventually kiss everyone on the cheek. She also held hands with the neighbor while the four share bourbon and biscuits over a calm sunny afternoon. I was stuck in the house while my eight-year-old brother Jesse was playing pirates with the neighbors’ three-year-old son Warren.
Curious and alone, I spent most times inconspicuously peeking at the window, stalking their every move.
They exchanged jokes and laughed. They poured each other drinks. Dad even played the harmonica sometimes. There were no hostilities. Mom became handsy and rubbed something underneath the neighbor’s pants. Dad faced the other neighbor and also ran his hands underneath her bodice. There was a long trail of silence and making weird faces. Warren bawled and their handsiness stopped, alerted of the situation. The four of them entered the house one by one to soothe the toddler. My dad, who was especially attentive to him, wrapped him around his bulky arms and carried him while my mother reprimanded Jesse, who apparently left a pile of legos that caused the neighbor’s child to trip and bash his incisors onto our hardwood. She sent him to his room to mull over the matter where he’ll only shrug his shoulders and play Super Mario on Nintendo.
Unlike me, Jesse spent time back and forth the neighbors’ home. Whenever he did something stupid like bully a kid or prank their English teacher in middle school and he got badly scolded by our father, mom would sigh and tell him to go to the neighbor’s house. After that my parents would be the ones arguing each other into exhaustion. This went on for too often that my father, who was brimming with frustration, said that he should have just lived with the neighbors since he always got sent there for refuge anyway. Initially, I thought that he meant it sarcastically, since there is no way that he would actually have contemplated to make his son live there. But Jesse was with the neighbors in their Tahoe cabin all summer.
It was two years later when I accidentally found out about our, I dare say, queer familial situation.
I couldn’t sleep despite the fact that mom and dad rarely argued because Jesse had been gone once again for the summer. It was a really hot night and I kept sweating and coughing profusely. Feeling the dehydration, I longed for a glass of milk and went downstairs. I was about to open the fridge when I saw my mom and dad intertwined in a tight embrace, nattering to each other softly and giggling occasionally. I hid behind the fridge, hearing its ominous hum while their whispering winds were barely audible. I might have been there for quite a time until their voices rose and before I knew it, they were fighting again.
My father wanted the neighbors, especially Warren, to move in with us. Mom freaked out, saying what her parents would think of them when they visited on gatherings. In fact, what would the entire community, whom they have been so friendly with, think of their arrangement? Father argued that it had been extremely difficult for him to live without watching his son grow up. What exactly did he mean? I was on all fours and struggling to hear more. I felt a cough coming up but I tried to hold it in my chest, covering my mouth and sporadically distributing muffled coughs so it wouldn’t catch their attention. I was mistaken to do that as the wind circled in my trachea and transformed into an irrepressible gagging that halted their altercation.
Dad knelt and peeked beside the refrigerator. I coiled up in fear of being berated but he just smiled and carried me like he did with Warren. For some reason I couldn’t remember I burst into tears on his shoulder. He was so warm and comforting, whispering everything’s alright as he pats my back while I mumbled and sobbed endlessly. He found a towel to wipe my snot. Dad wanted to tuck me into bed but mom, who was having coffee back then, insisted that I sit beside them so that she could talk to me. I feared for the worst.
Mom was rarely angry but when she did become angry, I swore I peed on my shorts. I thought that I was going to wet my pajamas that night when dad and I sat across her. Unlike my father, mom is not the type to comfort people. When I tried to hug her, she just remained still and did not reciprocate. Dad told me several times that mom loves me and cares for me, but to me she only came across as a brilliant yet cold adult.
Mom always talked to me as if I were an adult. She simplified the terms but never held any information back so imagine the shock of my life when I heard the truth. During this time, I haven’t even asked her where babies could have come from but she matter-of-factly explained the situation to me. She didn’t reveal the whole story but a few points became clear.
Mom was in love with my dad and the neighbor. Dad was in love with my mom and the neighbor’s wife. This complicated relationship led to having children. Apparently, Jesse and Warren were my half-brothers. Jesse is mom’s offspring with the neighbor, I was her offspring with my dad. Warren was dad’s offspring with the neighbor’s wife.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t cry either. My whole body trembled as everything I’ve observed finally made sense. Why did they get handsy? Why did my father console a wailing Warren? Dad noticed my sudden quietness and told mom to stop. “I will stop for now, but she has to know this…” she told me that none of our grandparents knew as well.
This was the reason why the neighbor knocks on our door whenever his relatives came – to get Jesse. I used to be jealous about that. I thought that I was unwanted by the neighbors. It turned out it was because I was the only legitimate child in this extended family. It took me nearly a month to figure out every implication. These erased a lot of my lingering doubts.
When Jesse came home I immediately asked him whether he was aware of the arrangement or not. He was an asshole to me and often shot me down with insults or annoyance but I clearly remembered him change expression before replying that he did. Of course, mom told him from the moment that he could comprehend that we don’t have the same dads. I asked how he felt about him and proceeded to tell him how I felt. He said “Whatever, Erin. I’m tired and I don’t care.” before slamming the door shut.
I was a kid and didn’t know what it really meant for him. I didn’t know back then that he was as affected and confused as I was. All I knew was that he was a cold-hearted brat just like our mother.
The community gave us a wonderful moving-out party, oblivious of the four’s scandalous liaison. We left our respective houses and settled into a more peaceful community with houses not as close together as our previous setting. We preferred a lot of discretion, I know. I finally met and lived with Harold’s dad and Warren’s mom.
Harold’s father, whom I’ve learnt to call Uncle, is similar to mom – detached, intelligent and aloof, except his work desk was cluttered and he made better jokes. My love for reading and writing stemmed from his vast collection of books, some of which I originally found too hifalutin and wordy to read but with time and assistance managed to dive through. He would play hide and seek with me in his office, which was easy since he had a truckload of stuff crammed into one space and I was small enough for cover. His insightfulness made me run to him for assignments and advice. Most of his advices were hypothetical, so some of them work and some of them do not.
Warren’s mother, Aunt, is rather congenial, romantic, smothering and as good at cooking as dad. Up to this day I still flinch whenever she sneaks kisses and embraces from him. She is a pretty woman. Mom is pretty as well, although she didn’t like dressing-up and dying her hair as much as Aunt did. They share interests in art and poetry.
She bought me all sorts of toys and clothes and would drag me to go anywhere with her. I honestly liked the attention, since she listened to me more and encouraged me to be myself more. In fact, when I had my first crush on a boy in our new school, she was the one I told first. Auntie appreciated this and often confessed to me that she longed to have a girl like me whom she can play with, talk with and dress up like a little princess. A year later, her wish was granted and my competition arrived. Hannah was born.
And no, she’s not my half-sister.