Sibling Rivalry by Anne Johnson

Living in the shadow of an older brother can seem daunting. Brno teaches the narrator the flip side of sibling rivalry.

Memories like snapshots. I was standing with my brother in his kitchen. This was about a month before I came here to Brno, back when he was just finishing law school. Already lined up with a law firm, already on track to his next success. He grabbed two beers from the fridge, removed the caps in a fluid, elegant motion, held one out to me. Clinked.

“I guess you’ve got it made now,” I said. I hated when he looked straight at my eyes that way, like he was looking through me. Like there wasn’t anything to see. “Mom and Dad are pretty proud.”

“Sure,” he replied agreeably. Satisfied with himself. As usual. As always.

“So but will you visit me there? I mean later, after I get settled?” I hated to want his approval, but I did.

“Sure. Or we could meet up somewhere more interesting. Like Prague.”

Naturally. He couldn’t be impressed that I was going to Europe; had to get in a little dig on the fact that I wasn’t going someplace he considered up to his standards. “Brno might be interesting! You don’t know!” I could hear my voice rising with defensiveness. I didn’t even know where I was going. A Wikipedia entry. I was going for a job, my first real job after university. A friend of mine had hooked me up with an IT company that needed a copywriter. I didn’t know anything. I just knew I had to get away from my brother’s shadow, had to do something to make it finally clear that I was my own person, interesting and successful in my own right.

Still looking at me and through me, he took another swig of beer. “Listen, no need to be so sensitive. Nobody expects you to be successful! So why do you care so much what people think?”

Why did I care what people think? Four months after that conversation I was looking out the window of my new apartment, two small rooms under the roof with windows that slanted towards the October sky. Simple, easy, like life should be. It had rained all night and I had the windows cracked, the smell of petrichor rising from the ground below. It never rained in Arizona like it does here. The colors of the trees turning with the season as I walked through the park delighted and surprised me. Shuffling through piles of fire-colored leaves on the way to catch the tram to work made me nostalgic for a childhood I hadn’t had, as if I’d been a different child, and I felt like this was maybe my chance to be a different kind of adult. An adult who didn’t trail behind a brother they could never live up to.

When Christmas came that year, my first in Europe, my family asked if I would come home but it didn’t feel like there was a home to go to. I remembered back to the first year I started college, so excited to start my studies, be out on my own. I went home for Christmas then and was surprised to find that my room had been made over into a sewing room in my absence. As if I wasn’t worth waiting for. “Did you expect to be treated like the prodigal son, then?” he was ready to tease me. “Did you think they would kill the fatted calf for you if you came home after just a few months away?”

“That’s not what prodigal means,” I said. “Prodigal doesn’t have to do with going away and coming back. It means someone who spends money foolishly is all.”

He paused for a moment. “Well,” he said. “That applies too, doesn’t it? Or are we still pretending like your English lit degree is going to be a big moneymaker?”

“Christ,” I said. “You can be such an asshole.” He laughed and ruffled my hair, hugged me.

My first year in Brno, the office was closed for Christmas and they said I could take two weeks off. A lot of the other expats went to be with their families – to the UK, other parts of Europe, the US. But I thought I might stay, enjoy the solitude without my friends around to tempt me out for a pub quiz, a beer. Maybe write something for myself, a short story or something. I actually liked my job, liked the people and the work, but it didn’t feel like I was becoming the writer I’d imagined myself being. It was dark so early in the winter here, and everything felt so cozy and tranquil. The snow fell in the park and made little piles on the heads of statues. I felt like I was living in a black and white film. I wanted to catch the feeling in words, the beauty around me. I couldn’t imagine going “home” really.

On the last day before the holiday, on her way out the door Jitka turned back to me suddenly. “Have you been to the Christmas market yet? It’s pretty fun. I have to go drop off my laptop at home and then I’m going to meet up with some friends. Do you want to join us there in an hour?” I surprised myself by saying yes. We met by the giant clock in the main square, a phallic monstrosity that would give anybody penis envy. Holding a mug steaming with a drink I couldn’t pronounce, enjoying the process of it warming first my hands and then my stomach. Jitka and her friends were so open and funny, and I realized I’d been spending too much time with foreigners when I should be getting to know locals as well. When it got colder than we could stand, we squeezed around a table in a restaurant, laughing. When Jitka’s friend Jana brushed my snow-dusted hair from my eyes, I stopped breathing for a moment, felt my face turn red. A med student, in town to do her graduate work. Out of my league. As usual a rush of words flew from my mouth, to cover my nerves. “What’s your favorite thing in Brno?” I blurted.

She smiled. “The sculptures.” She leaned closer and whispered, “I’ll show you.” Her warm fingers curled around mine under the table.

When I was 15, I had thought I’d be a poet when I grew up. One day my brother found my poetry notebook. “She’ll kiss me in the rain/and take away the pain” he sing-songed at me, his eyebrows lifted in pity. “Oh, Chris. Chris you’re going to die alone, you know that.”

“Everybody dies alone,” I said, pulling the book away from his long fingers. I bit my tongue, partly so that I wouldn’t speak and partly to distract myself so I wouldn’t cry. I loved poetry, the eloquence. I liked how words were a way for me to enter the world, a world I couldn’t get to with my brother’s natural charm, my parents’ easy social skills. I had friends but it always felt like I was looking at them through a telescope, at some kind of distance. When they started dating, I made gestures at it, a kiss in the back seat of a car, awkward groping, darkness. Nothing came as easily to me as words did: girls liked my words, they even liked my poetry. They wanted me to write about them. Everyone likes to feel seen that way. None of them wanted to hold my hand in public.

When Jana reached for my hand under the table three nights before that Christmas, I felt simultaneously thrilled and anguished. The human contact meant so much. The fear that I was about to be someone else’s secret also meant something. But then at the end of the night, just before we all scattered to catch our night buses, she leaned in and kissed me. There was nothing secret about it.

By February it was clear that we were falling in love. It was just so easy to be with her. On winter days we went skating under Brno’s only equestrian statue, a giant horse supposed to represent courage but definitely famous for other reasons, or we cuddled as the snow piled on the windows, and showed each other our favorite movies – her Czech fairy tales, my dystopian nightmares. I read her my poems, her liquid gray eyes focused on my face, studying me. Sitting in pubs with her where famous writers had been, I felt like I could become anybody I wanted. She talked to me about her research, extending the quality of life, describing the future as a utopian certainty she just needed to unlock. She was so smart; I knew she would never stop until she made that future come true.

One day the snow melted, and as we watched the raindrops race down the windowpane I realized I didn’t even care which one won, it was just so nice to be watching with someone. With her. Through the spring, we took weekend trips to the village where she’d grown up, and to Vienna and Prague, but we always came home to Brno.

The June day after Jana graduated, we went up to the castle on the hill, a squat and ugly structure, a fortress. The walkways around it are nice, though, and the trees were all in blossom. About mid-way up is a statue of the head of a poet. It’s made of tubes, and reminded me immediately of those pin art toys you can buy in museum shops, that take the impression of whatever you hold against them.

“Look at it this way!” said Jana. If you stand directly behind his head, you can see through the tubes. “See? That’s what you writers do. They help people see the world through their eyes! We’re literally seeing the world through his eyes!” She hugged me fiercely and focused her liquid eyes on my face. “Chris. I got offered the job in Prague at CAS. I think I’m… I’m going to go.” I felt the air leave my lungs. It was her dream job. I couldn’t compete. I helped Jana pack, took her to the train station, kept the smile on my face. I didn’t want to be a sore loser. She had always said she hated Prague, that Brno was her home now, but of course she was going, of course she wouldn’t pick me. Who would? We’d barely been together for six months. Who wants to play around when you can play to win?

My family used to play Monopoly when I was a kid. I never liked it, and I never won that I can remember. I’d move my thimble around the board, never having enough money to buy more than one property. I liked to imagine having a home, just one. Meanwhile my father and my brother would collect piles of paper money, moving the top hat and the racecar around the board and building hotels. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like losing; I didn’t get the point. But if I said I didn’t want to play they pestered me until I gave in, so I just played and tried to maintain a smile, waiting for it to be over. They don’t even make the thimble anymore, I read somewhere.

So I’d lost something else, someone else. When Jana had been gone for nearly as long as we’d been together, and our contact had dwindled to a periodic friendly text, I put all the little gifts she’d given me in a box and put it at the top of the wardrobe. I’d focused on work for a while, and then eased back into the social life I’d been neglecting while I was in my evanescent love cocoon. I wrote a short story about the statues of Brno that was published on a travel website, and that felt pretty good. Without anybody else’s eyes to measure myself by, I had the time to measure myself. I don’t want to say I had an epiphany and everything was perfect, but I was coming to see that my life was really fine.

Christmas rolled around again, my second Brno Christmas. My parents decided to take a cruise to Hawaii. They invited me along but I could tell none of us was really interested. When Adam said he’d gotten a cheap flight to Prague, I excused myself from meeting up there by claiming work, though I expect we both knew I was lying. I just couldn’t bear the idea of running into Jana, couldn’t bear the idea of not running into her. I felt okay now about her decision and I genuinely wished her well, but I just wasn’t ready and I didn’t like Prague that much in the first place. Saying “no” to something I didn’t want to do felt good.

After three days in Prague, Adam deigned to join me in Brno. I shouldn’t say deigned; he was really nice about it in fact. In the pub near my apartment I taught him how to clink beer the way my Czech friends had taught me, tops and bottoms and table. He filled me in on work, his new girlfriend, the home improvement projects our parents were doing, his recent interest in gardening. I suggested we hit the Christmas market; he said he’d already been to the one in Prague. “No offense, but other than those cinnamon rolls, which are by the way disgusting, what’s there to do?” Surprising both of us, I insisted. On the way there I showed him my favorite graffiti in Brno, a poem that had been stenciled on the side of a trashcan. He asked if I could translate it, and I couldn’t; I just liked that it was there. “You could make money as a translator!” he insisted. But that wasn’t the point, at least not to me.

At the top of the Ferris wheel, my brother started laughing and couldn’t stop. “Prague has everything. Prague has incredible architecture and interesting history and a successful business district. And you chose Brno. And it suits you!”

I started to argue, but I realized he was right, in a way. Brno has interesting architecture and a compelling history and prosperous industry. But Prague is famous and successful; Prague plays to win. Brno plays because it’s fun to play. Brno was teaching me, more than any person ever had, that winning didn’t matter, as long as you were having fun. I finally saw for myself the truth in what my brother had said before: nobody expected me to succeed, so I was free to do what I wanted. And in that moment, I realized that for him, things could never be as irreverent as Brno sculpture, as poetic as Brno graffiti. I was free to be myself in the city that was entirely itself.

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