Kuya

Kuya Edwin and I used to tear shit apart. We did it all the time because he’s my Kuya; my bigger, broad-shouldered, older brother who showed me how to survive while being brown in New Jersey. Edwin taught little me how to use my mind to bring things up in the air like he could. He’d let objects float, break them piece by piece, and put them back together like a puzzle, all with the flick of his wrist. We started with Hot Wheels. We disassembled a dozen toy cars into a hundred different pieces into the air and then reassembled them in seconds like brand new. We were damn good.

Edwin sometimes made a point to break them down to reveal that they were plastic. Fake. Disposable.

“Look how fragile it is Leon,” Edwin said. “Just one thing on the inside breaks, and the entire thing–” he snapped his fingers, and the pieces fell on our apartment’s whiskey stained Berber carpet–“falls apart.”

When I was eight, I could do this myself. I started with Pop’s old trinkets from Manila before moving onto bigger objects like abandoned office furniture and dead computers. The day my brother managed to levitate the duvet from our shared queen bed, we hightailed it towards Atlantic City while our parents were working their second jobs at night. We meandered around the boardwalk until we found a Porsche and brought it to the beach when no one was looking. We dissembled and reassembled the car as a team until we got bored and chucked it into the ocean.

Afterwards, Edwin and I laid on the sand; we stared at the water until the sun came up.

“You control your life Leon,” Edwin said, “No matter what mama yells at you about or others say. It doesn’t matter if the other kids at school look at you funny cause of your Asian eyes or that our parent’s English is terrible. You’re an American. You make your own life in this country.”

He tapped my arm.

“Got it?” He said.

“Got it,” I said.

The next day, a guy on the news said his Porsche washed up miles away from his home and ended up in Seaside Heights. We kept that our secret.

#

Edwin taught me strength, but mama showed me how to be afraid. She began her days preaching to us and ended them by being angry at a world she couldn’t control.

“Today’s your tenth birthday Leon,” she said to me during breakfast. “When your Kuya was ten, he was on the honor roll. Now he’s in high school with excellent marks. But you? Why don’t you work as hard as him?”

I stared into my bowl of SHOPSMART brand frosted flakes. The sugar dissolved as soon as it touched milk, leaving a spongy grain texture behind.

“I’m trying mama,” I said.

She took down my last report card from the refrigerator, a thin blue sheet with classes I took in one column and letters of D and F written in red on the other. Red circles highlighted the grades around them, in case failure wasn’t recognizable.

“Americans only care about your worth,” she scolded, “and right now, you’re worthless.”

I cried as she continued her tirade about my shortfalls, comparing me to my Kuya Edwin at every turn. He sat on my right, slurping up his bowl of SHOPSMART brand chocolate flakes for the leftover milk. Once he put his bowl back on the table, mama slapped the base of my forehead. I stopped crying, and she lifted up my chin until I was eye level with her.

“My sisters would’ve killed to be like you.” She said, breathing down the rage from her own life. “And what do you do? You waste your opportunity like these white kids, gallivanting around while they get good grades and you can’t even compete.”

As I apologized, she snatched my bowl and dumped the contents into the trash. The liquid dripped down the side of the container. Traces of mushy flakes drooped off the garbage bag, sliding like slugs.

“You have to be smarter than all of them Leon,” she said as she started to wash bowls and dishes in the sink. “Be like your Kuya Edwin or get out of my house-”

But as she finished scrubbing my bowl, the drying rack full of dishes and cups next to her sprang from the counter to the floor. White ceramic broke apart at her feet, and she shrieked. I immediately turned to Edwin. He giggled and waved his fingers in the air like a conductor. The kitchen cabinets opened one after the other as dishes and silverware flew out and danced around her or fell to the floor. Each shatter made her jump while I stifled laughter, fearing what she’d do to me afterward. After a minute of this, mama slumped onto her knees and grasped a red rosary from her pocket; she gripped a bead between her fingers and recited a Hail Mary in a soft murmur. Edwin stopped, and everything dropped to the countertops or the floor.

When the last of the dishes fell, I stood up from the table while Edwin worked on putting it all back together. He winced, taking longer than usual. Plates or dishes were easier than cars, but seeing her cry must’ve gotten to him.

“Mama?” I said as I approached her.

She looked up after she finished her second prayer, her eyes wet, and teeth yellow. Behind her, cabinets opened and closed as kitchenware went back to their prospective drawers.

“You’ll grow up like Americans,” she sneered, “and never do anything right.”

#

I was never like my brother, not like mama wanted me too. By the time I learned sex ed in class, he had stopped caring about me anyway. It wasn’t a terrible thing. He stopped talking to me altogether his junior year of high school because mama drove into a speeding Class Nine transport truck on Route One and was crushed on impact.

Besides our blood, mama’s cremation, and our ability to move objects, there wasn’t much that we had in common. It was easier when we were kids, but now Edwin didn’t want to be seen with me. He looked at me like I was a stain. The summer after his junior year, he called me out in front of his friends when I called him Kuya.

“We’re Americans Leon. Get that shit out of your tongue.”

His friends looked at me and snickered.

Although he treated me this way, I wanted to do what mama said, be like him or nothing. My abilities developed, and by seventh grade, I could convert our duvet into a surfboard. I’d fly to Atlantic City or Trenton by myself. I’d go anywhere I could be alone and practice my talents because no one seemed to notice or care about some quiet brown kid lifting benches off the ground. I didn’t find anyone who could do what we did, and I was careful enough not to do it in front of anyone. Once I was confident enough with my powers, I got really ballsy and flew to Asbury Park where I’d strip apart yachts in the middle of the night. I wanted to see what my life could’ve been like if I was born lucky. I broke the boats down, piece by piece of luxury and privilege. Sometimes I’d catch a family album, everyone well-off and smiling in golf visors and polo shirts, lounging by the ocean. Occasionally, I’d find a family that looked just like mine, but in brighter clothes from mall brand names. Not the knockoffs I wore to school.

I tried to show Edwin my new tricks, but he was never around. He was always out. He lost a lot of weight, gained muscle, and hung out with shady looking people who smelled awful. He’d come home late and wouldn’t speak to me. Sometimes he’d bring a girl over while Pops was at work. They’d pinch my cheeks and say how cute I was, but Edwin would take one look at me and close the door with the twirl of his finger.

#

I knew something was wrong with Edwin but what could I do? I was about to finish middle school while Edwin was wallowing around. He no longer cared that I could juggle cars in the air or fly all the way to Orlando from Jersey on a makeshift car-window surfboard. I didn’t tell him because he stopped using his powers altogether. He never said why but he didn’t need to. Edwin wanted to support himself without using his abilities as a crutch; it’s what mama would’ve wanted. Although we were talented, we were born here, and we had to earn our living on their rules; with our hands and our blood.

When President Bush approved a surge of troops to Iraq, my brother landed an Army ROTC scholarship at Penn State. The recruiter promised him a full ride to college, and as a family, we were proud. Edwin did it. I hadn’t seen Kuya that excited about something since we tore up the Porsche. It looked like I had him again: the big brother who earned his way and made our name proud. Pops celebrated with us by pouring out our first beers of San Miguel. Edwin demanded Budweiser instead, so Pops went out and got it just for him. We drank as a family until Pops passed out on the carpet and it was just us, so we drank more beer and flew to Atlantic City on a comforter. We flew bottles into a brick wall so that we could see how many we could destroy and put back together. I threw up, and he laughed at me, then he threw up, and I made sure he wasn’t going to die.

When I woke up early to say goodbye the next morning, he was gone.

#

I followed my brother’s path. I survived high school and got into Rutgers on my own Army ROTC scholarship, just as my brother was getting kicked out of the Army. The year before, he graduated college and commissioned into the Army, but now he was leaving it. Force shaped, he said in an email. He was disqualified because of ineptitude. He was a failure.

The Army told Pops and me something different. Edwin went absent without leave, AWOL. He ran away like a coward. I wanted to prove the Army wrong, Edwin didn’t scam the Army out of a college scholarship. I called his cell, sent him emails, and I even tried Facebook. I kept trying to reach him until he disconnected his phone and deleted his online accounts. By then, he wasn’t Kuya anymore; he was a deserter.

I thought I was going to try and be like him, but now all I had to do was distance myself from his shadow. I restricted my gifts, reminding myself that using them meant that we were brothers. Our skills were tainted now, useless like mama said we were. Luckily none of my instructors knew about my AWOL brother or what I could do. Like brothers, I was just as good as lying.

#

The only person that brought his memory back to my life was Cadet Joelle Foster. She and I were in the same cohort, and we were paired up for land navigation exercises at Fort Dix. As a team we traversed the New Jersey woods, running to each assigned point with an old compass and a map of Fort Dix from the 90s. Joelle never brought him up until we were almost done, struggling to find the last point. I hobbled quietly, my feet blistered halfway through the course, while she paced with me until we stopped at the bottom of a hill.

“Our brothers were classmates at artillery school,” Joelle said with a bit of southern twang. Originally from Atlanta, her family moved up north to start up one of the first black-owned tech companies in Princeton.

“Is that so?” I said. “Well, I haven’t talked to him, so, yeah.”

She drank from her canteen. “My brother said he was a good guy. Have you heard from him?”

I took out my lensatic compass to orient us. I was struggling with her questions and figuring out how to unscrew myself. We were lost.

“Hey, are we okay?” she said as she took out her own.

“We’re all right.”’

I put the compass against my chest. The magnetic arrow spun in circles; I didn’t know if I was causing it or if her question made me lose my control. I took a deep breath and remembered to control my powers. Don’t be like him.

“Are you sure–”

“Just give me a minute.”

“Stop,” Joelle said. “Let me see the map.”

Apprehensive at first, I caved and pulled it out of my cargo pocket. She said we had been heading in the wrong direction, but we eventually found it about five hundred meters in the other direction.

“Good job lieutenant,” she smirked as she used checkmark clacker on our answer sheet. My head swam with thoughts of Edwin, embarrassing myself as a soldier, and finally the image of my mother, dying on a highway. Branches in the trees started to shake around me until Joelle tapped my arm.

“I’m kidding man,” she said. “Let’s get back.”

On the walk back to the operations center, I moved ahead in an attempt to avoid her. Yet, she persisted.

“Your brother always looked like he had a chip on his shoulder,” she said. “At least that’s what I heard. He failed the course the first time, and they tried to make him retake it, but he-”

I stopped and looked at her. “He’s a deserter.”

“Yeah…look it’s just weird to me. I didn’t know people still do that or if you knew where he was. Is he safe?”

“Why? You gonna snitch on him?”

She pushed me. “Excuse you? I’m not going to snitch on him. It’s just…he’s your brother. Him running away like that isn’t easy for you.”

“Whatever.” I shrugged her off and walked back to base.

After we turned our scorecard in and waited until everyone made it back, I walked up to her as she ate a protein bar away from the other cadets.

“I was out of line Joelle,” I scratched my neck and looked the other way. “I’m sorry.”

She looked up at me. “Sit down, weirdo.”

I did.

“You’re mad. I get it.”

“Do me a favor and don’t bring him up to others.”

She nodded. “By the way, I was joking earlier. You’re not a bad cadet. You’re always on time, and you don’t party like those other fools.” She nudged over to two cadets, one brawny and the other small, wrestling in the dirt while a group of other cadets hollered at them. “You’re decent.”

“Thanks,” I smiled. “You’re okay too.”

She patted my shoulder. “Thanks, pal.” She took off her patrol cap and parted her curly black hair to the side, an earring as dark blue as the ocean hung from her earlobe.

I watched the match as the brawny cadet brought his arm around the small one’s neck, tightening his grip around his opponent’s neck until he turned purple. Others yelled to do the smaller cadet to yield. I stuck my finger out, and the brawny cadet released his grip and stayed on his back. The little one flipped over to his stomach, brought his shoulder down on the other guy’s neck. He tapped out; the crowd cheered.

Joelle looked over at me inquisitively, as I smirked and raised my hands.

“I break stuff up,” I said. “It’s what I do.”

#

Every so often throughout college, Joelle volunteered to help me find Edwin. In between our own busy lives, we’d track down Veteran Affairs hospitals where he’d supposedly been. We called homeless shelters, emergency clinics, and his old classmates. No one knew, and every lead turned us back around.

Years past, and we commissioned as quartermaster officers in the Army. To celebrate, Joelle and I went to Paris where I got down on one knee and put half of my savings account around her ring finger. Crying and giggling, she nodded several times until she jumped into my arms. She was light and warm; her curls smelled of pomegranate and her breath like hope; however, possessing mama’s strength, I could not hold her up for long, and we fell onto the Parisian streets, laughing. People gawked, but it didn’t matter. All the world was simplified, and I had a new family to think of now. Kuya Edwin could’ve gone to hell; I wouldn’t have cared.

#

Edwin called me from a Florida number. Married only a month ago, Joelle picked up my cell at one in the morning from our Fort Leonard Wood apartment. She listened to him, unsure if the voice on the other end was real. She was gentle with him, kinder than I would’ve been. I could hear him slurring his words like he was holding back years of bottled up words. After a minute she started to hand the phone to me but stopped mid-transfer.

“Will you be okay?” Joelle asked.

I kissed her cheek and took the phone. Before she left, she glanced back. “Remember, we have formation in four hours.” I nodded and placed the phone to my ear. I could hear waves of water in the background.

“Little brother,” he slurred. “Can’t believe your number still works! How’s Jersey treating you?”

“I’m in Mississippi. Where are you, Edwin?”

“Were you asleep little brother?”

I sighed, “I was.”

“I’m sorry Leon,” he said. “I’m always screwing up. Glad you kept your old phone number; otherwise, I don’t know.”

“Where are you, Edwin. I’ll come get you.”

“I don’t know about that, little brother. I fucked up little brother. You shouldn’t depend on me.”

“I don’t.”

He dropped the phone and picked it up again, cursing the entire time. “Hey, remember when we were kids, and we used to bend your toy cars out of shape with our talent. I’d show you the inside. They were just dumb little cars. What were they called?”

“Edwin-”

“Hot Wheels! Mama used to hate those things. She hated everything. Hate, hate, hate. What a bitch, am I right? Good thing she’s dead-”

“Goddamnit, Edwin.” Our nightstand lamp tore out of its socket and crashed across the room. Joelle came in, but I asked her to go. She ignored me and sat down beside me.

“But I’m your big brother,” Edwin said. “You listen to me, you hear. Respect for your elders.”

I put the lamp back together, piece by piece. “Joelle and I have work in the morning, Edwin. Tell me what you need. I’ll send it to you-”

“Who’s that? She your girl?”

“My wife.”

“Oh. When was that?”

“A month ago.”

He and I only heard each other’s breaths for a moment. “Congratulations.”

“Edwin, Pops is worried about you. I’m-”

Edwin laughed, a strange guttural laugh like a hyena. “Forget him. I just hope you forgive me, little brother—“

“Forgive you? Edwin, you ran away from the Army. No, fuck it, you ran from us. You didn’t tell Pops. Joelle and I were searching for you all these years. Where have you been? Where were you when I was in college?”

“Leon—“

“You know what, don’t call us until you man up and make something of yourself.”

When I hung up the phone, Joelle wrapped her arms around my back, pressing her curls against my shoulders and her hands above my heart.

I looked at the lamp, half-repaired on the nightstand. “I’ll fix that in the morning. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay weirdo.” She kissed my back. “So, what are we going to do?”

“What can we do? He’s a grown man, Joelle. He needs to do it on his own.”

“Leon.”

“You know I’m right.”

“You could ask him to come here. Live with us.”

I shook my head. “You two…no…we wouldn’t get along. Besides, he’s a wanted man. They’d arrest him on post if they found him.”

She rubbed my chest. “Leon, you’re being stubborn, he’s your family. He’ll come home eventually, lost people always do. When he does come back, accept him.” She kissed my shoulder. “Do this for me. For us.

#

I didn’t hear from Edwin again for years. I forgot I even had a brother. Time presented itself to us and left as soon as it entered. I was promoted, moved all over America, and then deployed to Iraq followed by Afghanistan. Joelle deployed with me once and was home with our baby son Darius and my retired father while I was on my third tour to Iraq. On deployment, I maintained a position as close to the Forward Operating Base, away from the insurgency and the frontline. Cowardice, maybe, but I knew what my abilities could do, and I didn’t want to use them against people.

I received letters while I was overseas; most of them were from Joelle, friends, and family of friends who’ve seen my military address on Facebook. I also got the occasional USO care package and box of Playboys, which I gave to my soldiers to either keep or throw them in the trash. One letter came through in a dirty white envelope, addressed from a Bob Doe in Orlando. But I remembered my brother’s chicken scratch handwriting since I was in middle school.

 

Leon,

I’m sorry for calling you when you were trying to sleep those years back. All I do is inconvenience people. By the time you receive this letter, I don’t know where I’ll be

I want to tell you a secret about myself. I can’t control what we do, and I think it affects those around me. I cause burden We harm people and destroy things around us. Too much of our gifts can cause stress, cripple others, and change minds. Like when we used to hang out at Asbury and break apart those cars, only to fix them again.

When I was on the field, commanding my peers in battle simulators. I froze. I couldn’t speak, sweat poured down the back of my shoulder, my heart paced uncontollably uncontrollably, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see beyond what was in front of me, and I couldn’t come up with a single decision. The only thing I can move was everything else around me with my mind. I would lift tanks off the ground or uplift trees from their roots. I took radios out of Humvees and threw them out the window. The others never knew it was me–they blamed the ghosts of Benning, the old Soldiers who never made it out of the Army and didn’t want to be there in the first place. But that didn’t matter; I couldn’t do my job. I suck.

We’re serious fuckups. Useless like mama said. I can’t help but think, did I force her to get in the car that morning and drive straight into oncoming traffic? Did I kill her? Make her believe that we were demon babies when all we wanted was a mother? Maybe she’s right. We’re good for nothing bas–

We’re I dissapoint

I’m glad you did it Leon. You won the American Dream. All-American job. Wife. A future. Mama’s proud.

I’m in Orlando now. I stare at the ocean every day–when I wake up and when I go to sleep. People give me sandwiches, sometimes they threaten me and pour beer on my head. Most days no one talks to me.

I want to go into the ocean Leon, I want the pain to end. I want to see the water.

I’m sorry little brother

 

The letter stopped there, the rest of it smudged by dirt and crinkly from water damage. Instead of requesting four-day R&R in Denver, I had it changed to Orlando and pushed the date up to tomorrow.

#

What became of you, Kuya Edwin?

On the plane to Florida, I tried to imagine a world where none of this had happened. What if we were just normal? No dead mama, no yellow brothers, no abilities to lift heavy crap just to put it back down. But I’m not the kind to speculate. This was the world I was born in, and I had to live in. Not for me, but for my family.

Joelle hired a private investigator while I racked up mileage on my Avis rental, going up and down Orlando. I searched bars, shelters, and other places where he may have gone. I spent a day all over the city until the investigator called told me to go to the Orlando police headquarters.

Uncertain and unaware of what I could expect, I thought of the worst. Maybe Edwin had committed a terrible crime, or he was in the morgue. When I arrived, a thick detective with fat pink cheeks sat me down. He gave me a cup of stale coffee and showed me driver license photos with my brother’s face on them. There were about six of them in states such as Colorado, Mississippi, and Florida, each with a different name.

“We found these yesterday–” the detective with the fat cheeks started “–they were inside a washed up Corolla. Coasties found the thing off the coast of Daytona Beach. It looked like it was pancaked by a car crusher.

He showed me the car photos and, as he said, it was smashed flat like a pancake. When I looked up, he shook his head before I could ask.

“No, there wasn’t a body inside. Just blood and pieces of skin. We had forensics go through it, and your brother was the last person recently to drive it. We’ll keep looking for him, but I wouldn’t rule out his—“

“Death,” I said.

He took a sip and stood up to leave me with the photos, patting me on the shoulder with his meaty palm.

I examined Edwin’s face; his appearances ebbed over the years. He went from buff, to baggy-eyed and scrawny, and finally to enormous and bald. His face moved as an audio graph, inconsistently up and down. I did not cry when I confirmed his identity. I soaked up Orlando sun while I called Joelle and listened to our son cry in the background, leaning against the car rental. But when I reached the hotel, when I sat in my room and stared at the wall, I tore shit up.

I uplifted the cedar wood desk and smashed the flat screen against the wall with a flick of my finger. I ripped the comforter apart, watching the cotton sprinkle form the air and scatter across the carpet. I smashed the bathroom mirror over and over again until the shards tore my flesh. I screamed, I cursed his name, but I never thought of him as Kuya. In the morning I fixed everything as best I could, assembling the pieces together in a grand puzzle resulting in nothing accomplished but wasted time. Missing, dead, I didn’t have the time to know.

Joelle came with our baby for Edwin’s empty funeral, after I was granted additional leave from the battalion commander. Pops didn’t come. Joelle said he didn’t react to the news besides rubbing the spot where his wedding ring used to be. We put a vacant casket on a conveyor belt that led to an oven, a gesture for my brother’s missing corpse that felt hollow but Joelle said was necessary for his soul.

“I forget sometimes that you’re religious,” I said to her.

She gripped my hand as we watched the oven close, dousing the casket in fire.

“What?” I said.

“There’s too much going on in a person’s head, you’re never going to know everything about them.”

I kissed her cheek and told her I loved her as I did that morning, the day before, and will do for the rest of our lives. She slept after putting Darius to bed, and when I knew she was in a deep sleep, I took the extra comforter and flew to the part of Daytona Beach where Edwin’s car washed up. On the way, I stopped at a statue near the Daytona raceway. There was a display of a full-size Hot Wheels Nascar vehicle, working and all; an assortment of lights blazed around it with a cardboard cutout of a superstar driver standing beside it with his thumbs up and a great big smile. I yanked the car from its spot and glided it with me to the shore.

I took off my shoes at the point where sand met pavement and levitated the vehicle towards the edge of the water. Sitting with my ankles pressed against my ass, I dismantled and fixed the car in the air. Aluminum, wiring, batteries, and spark plugs smacked against one another, over, and over again, until I got tired. Then it flopped as one into the water as I screamed into the sand. When the car parts drifted too far apart from one another, I put it back together in minutes. Once fixed, I plopped it back into the ocean. I unfolded the comforter onto the beach. I laid down to rise from the sands and towards the sky where I could rest in the clouds, far from the shore.

 

 


Mark Galarrita is a Filipino American writer and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. His work can be found in Mcsweeneys, Electric Literature, Split Lip, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, and elsewhere. Currently, he is the editor of the Black Warrior Review.

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