There’s this quiet consideration I used to give to the act of sliding a hand down my brother’s chest. It began during the ice storm. Our parents had gone east and found themselves trapped in a Halifax airport for days. Teddy and I were left to stumble in the dark, eat canned food, and toast bread over an open flame. Most of the neighbors went to shelters or friends with heat, but we stayed behind, not because we refused to abandon ship but because unlike everyone else, we had nowhere to go. We wore thick sweaters, layers of long underwear, and we blunted our hands with woolen mitts so when we passed in the hall we looked like two plump bears lost in the wood.
For the first night we slept apart. On the second night, I complained of the cold and he invited me to sleep in his bed. I slipped in behind him. We had slept like this once before, on a camping trip, but now he was eighteen and I was three years younger and I could sense the strength of his body through layers of flannel. Teddy went to the gym. Yoga, wrestling, the whole thing. Once, for training, his coach had them volunteer to help the city’s garbage crew. The truck didn’t stop and Teddy ran down the street, hurling bags into the back. I thought of this as I lay behind him. I thought of a lot of things, all things, anything. But my body responded on its own. It was the first time I realized that a woman’s body could grow hard and tight. Everything clenched. I tried to move away, but Teddy murmured he was cold and drew me back.
It was here, pressed against him, that I dreamed for the first time of running a hand down the front of his chest. I went so far as to plot the route: the best way, I thought, would be to start at the neck, follow the line of his breastbone, and stop just shy of his waist. He might never have noticed. Teddy’s one of the deepest sleepers I’ve ever known. Later, after the ice storm, I watched him sleep all the time and he never woke once, no matter how close I came. But I didn’t know this then. I was certain a single breath would cause him to stir. And there were so many obstructions to consider: the scarf, the sweater, the perplexing buttons of his pajamas. The horror of rejection, the bitter cold, my own uncertainty and, yes, that queasy moral soup. So many obstructions. All night, I did nothing but suffer.
The following day, the power was restored and sometime after that, Teddy went away and got killed in the war. This could be his eulogy, I suppose, if I ever dared. But when we buried him, all I did was stand up and tell everyone about the time he threw garbage into the back of a truck.
Joel Fishbane’s novel, The Thunder of Giants is now available from St. Martin’s Press. His short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines, most recently New England Review, 87 Bedford, and Shift. For more information, you are welcome to visit www.joelfishbane.net.