By Taylor Friedman
They told me my brother has a special brain.
That’s what they used to tell me, time after time.
Special brain? What does that mean? Does it sit upon a red velvet throne? Is his cerebrum made of gold?
How did he get it and I didn’t? Did someone offer him a free, special brain with his $20 purchase?
It didn’t seem fair. If I was the oldest, shouldn’t I be entitled to it first? I thought big brothers get all the new stuff and then hand it down when they’re ready for even newer, better stuff.
I imagined each lobe with diamond encrusting, rotating forty-five degrees in each direction as a lady with perfectly manicured hands “oohed” and “aahed” over it, imploring viewers at home to call now. A limited time offer. Matthew’s special, sterling silver brain. Great for any occasion. Almost sold out.
When I ran my theory past Mom, she paused and mulled it over.
“You’re right. Matthew’s brain is like a diamond. Real diamonds are very beautiful and rare, but they also have defects.”
“Tiny defects. Little structural mistakes that occur when the diamond is forming. You don’t see them in the store-bought diamonds…cubic zirconia. Do you know what that is? Anyway, that doesn’t mean real diamonds are any less beautiful.”
If he had a defected diamond for a brain, I couldn’t even begin to fathom what my unspecial brain must be made of. Probably Play-doh, haphazardly mashed together with cracks where it dried up.
Once I knocked on his head to see if I could hear any clues, any indication of his brain composition. But all I heard was a dull thud. When he wouldn’t stop screaming, Dad came in to see what the problem was. Mom must have been sleeping. Sometimes her pills, meant to make her happy, would knock her out for hours.
When Dad saw that Matthew was the source of the screaming, he instinctively sent me to my room. After I sat alone on the top bunk for a good hour or so, Dad came in to remind me that I must not bother Matthew, because the tiniest thing could upset his “special brain.”
Without being able to see or even detect what his brain was made of, I struggled to understand what “special” really meant. But if my parents and Matthew’s teachers kept saying it was, I guess it had to be. Still, Matthew didn’t act the way I expected someone with a special brain to act. Often he just lay in the corner, curled up in a ball. Everyone let him be, which was odd, because when I once did the same thing, Mom told me to get off the filthy floor and take a bath.
I really became aware of the difference between Matthew and me the year he turned six and I turned eight. One day, toward the end of the school year, we went to Wal-Mart with our parents.
I hated going to Wal-Mart. Probably because it was an extension of home on a grander scale, and the air conditioning could never quite keep out the oppressive Phoenix heat.
I can’t be the only person who thinks one-stop shopping at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, or any other Mart in general, attracts the most miserable looking people from far and wide and lassos them all into one place. People who look as if they sit at home and eat all day, except when they need to go get more food at their Mart of choice.
And there we were, hoping Matthew’s rice milk would be on sale because dairy products made him whiny .
We spotted a real winner of a lady in aisle five. Talk about bum cakes—she had them.
Matthew, devoid of social etiquette, was not one for pleasantries. He strolled right up to the woman, who was dressed to the nines in her “mom jeans” as she perused the Hostess snacks section.
“Whoaaa, you have a big butt!” he shouted gleefully.
The woman wheeled around.
“I’m not kiddin’ lady. That is one big butt!”
The woman’s pink, spotty complexion drained to stark white. Matthew flashed her his biggest, gap-toothed smile and went skipping down the aisle. “Look! Look at the biiiiiigggg butt!”
I couldn’t look up at the woman. No one knew what to say.
“Big butt! Haha!”
The moment stretched on forever.
“Biiiig butt!” He was attracting looks now.
Then, Mom snorted out something between a choke and a laugh. Immediately she stifled her mouth with her hand.
“I’m so sorry. He’s autistic. He doesn’t know any better.”
The lady, who seconds before looked on the verge of saying something, tensed up. Her facial expression drooped as she threw one unappreciative glance at Matthew, pursed her thin lips and stormed past us to the produce section. As she furrowed her brow and pretended to be in the heat of a life-altering decision— iceberg or romaine—I noticed she turned her hips strategically to disguise her less advantageous features. Next she feigned interest in an eggplant, but I saw her steal a furtive glance behind my head, where the Wal-Mart smiley indicated a two-for-one deal on Twinkies. But one last guffaw from Matthew, and she went on her way.
Mom and Dad pushed us along to quickly finish our shopping, and I could only imagine the punishment Matthew would face once we got out of the store. As soon as we loaded our bags into the car and sat down, they broke out laughing. Matthew burst into hysterics, too, although I suspect he was only laughing because they were.
“It’s funny now, but can you imagine when he’s a teenager? People won’t think it’s so cute then,” Dad said.
Still, he continued to laugh.
But I wasn’t laughing. I felt like an outsider; I played no role in their hilarity. I had never seen my parents laugh together that much before, and suddenly I was overcome with jealousy of my younger brother for having that effect on them. And why wasn’t he in trouble for telling the lady she had a huge butt?
What had Mom said? Matthew is artistic? Artistic. So that’s what makes his brain special, I thought. It made sense. Come to think of it, Matthew was very good at music and memorizing things. I remember after we watched Mary Poppins for the first time together, he reenacted the entire choreography to the chimneysweeper song, beat for beat.
Matthew’s being artistic also explained why Dad continued to pay for special teachers for Matthew’s special brain. There were singing lessons, dance lessons, drum lessons…the list went on. I really liked drumming too, and for a while Mom convinced Dad to let Matthew’s teacher instruct me as well. But I couldn’t memorize rhythms the same way Matthew could, and it got too expensive. Everything was too expensive. But exceptions were made for Matthew. Now I knew why. He’s artistic.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to be artistic too. Maybe I wasn’t born that way like Matthew, but who was stopping me from becoming it now?
Being artistic was a rarity, a diamond in the rough. I was only cubic zirconia at this point—much more common. I would have to raise the stakes if I wanted my parents to love me the way they loved him.
Emulating Matthew’s specialness would require diligence. I started to observe him obsessively.
After a month of scientific study, I had compiled the following observations: Matthew got big headaches, at which point anything would set him off. He despised people singing. He refused to eat foods that were blue. He loved Otter Pops, but God forbid it be a blue Otter Pop.
I tried mimicking some of these behaviors in the hopes of being more artistic myself. Like Matthew, I tried refusing to drink my juice box when I saw the straw wrapper was opened beforehand.
“If you’re not going to drink this juice, I’m never buying it again,” Dad said.
“Matthew got a new juice box.”
“That’s because Matthew is different. Drink your juice.”
I tried reiterating what I heard on television, but memorizing things the way he did was impossible.
He sat there for hours, transfixed.
“Hey, Ethan. Guess what?” Matthew’s eyes were still glued to the television. Eye contact wasn’t his forte.
“What, Matthew?” I sighed.
“You’ve never seen Kidz Bop like this! Get ready! It’s the unbelievable Kidz Bop 14, sung for kids by kids. Kidz Bop 14 features special guest Sean Kingston. You can order Kidz Bop 14 and receive two copies for the price of one! To order two copies of Kidz Bop 14 for $18.98 plus $5.95 shipping and handling, you can call the number on your screen or log on to kidzbop.com. Must be 18 or older to order.”
“I’m not done yet!”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Call the number on your screen. 1-800-324-0852. That’s 1-800-324-0852.”
“Are you all done now?” I said.
“Yes,” he said distractedly. He was watching Spongebob run from Sandy on Nickelodeon.
I stared at him, bewildered. I felt like I was missing something.
Our roles at home were even more exaggerated at school. I guess it was because he was artistic and I wasn’t that he made so many friends and I didn’t. Matthew was doted on and adored by everyone, and I faded into oblivion.
I spent most lunches that year sitting in the sandbox, while everyone else on the blacktop played Chinese handball and tetherball. Often I would imagine that if I sat there long enough, a big hole in the playground would suddenly emerge and engulf me. Down I would fall, until I landed right in China. That’s what one kid told me once—you could dig a hole to China. Well, it was too hot outside to dig, so my last hope was for China to just find me, the way Narnia found the Penvensie children and Hogwarts found Harry.
The heat bore down on my back and through my shirt. Carefree giggles and shouts penetrated the dry air, trespassing upon my sandbox sanctuary. It was all rote to me. Matthew, you’re so silly. Matthew, you’re the “funnest” boy ever. They adopted him as their little brother. Fine by me. Take him.
“Matthew! Over here!” kindergarten femme fatale Montana Bayley yelled.
Matthew obliged and ran to her, where she greeted him with a big hug.
“Come and play with me,” she said, yanking on his arm.
“Hey, Matthew!” everyone else called out.
“Hello! Hello!” he replied to no one in particular. “Do you know what the square root of pi is?”
“No, what?” Montana said.
I had had enough. I wiped off my sticky, sweaty hands on my too-small basketball shorts and stalked off the playground, waiting out the rest of lunch in the empty classroom, head down on my desk as I closed my eyes and mentally reviewed the week’s spelling words.
Another 100 percent , and then Matthew and I took the bus home. Mom used to pick us up until she started sleeping through her alarm.
Grabbing a magnet, I placed my test on the fridge and then shut myself up in my room. When I looked a week later for my teacher’s calligraphic writing (“Great job, Ethan!”), it took several seconds of searching before I found it buried underneath Matthew’s newest artistic rendering—a nondescript scribble that he said was his family. How his enormous, special brain didn’t take up the whole picture, I’m not sure.
Summer vacation highlights included Mom sleeping in and fretting over health insurance while Dad was shut up doing whatever he usually did to pass the workless hours. Maybe challenging chilibowl1975 to another round of computer Hearts or e-mailing a second cousin about that funny thing Matthew did last week, followed by that other thing Matthew said today.
There was no change in the temperature to indicate that morning had passed and nighttime had arrived. It only went from extremely hot to a little less extremely hot. Whether I woke up at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., it made no difference.
Every day began with a battle for the PlayStation controller. Matthew always had to play first, otherwise he would scream and cry. Fully knowing this, I would sometimes yank the controller out of his little hands, sending him into a fit. Inevitably, one of my parents would begrudgingly come out of hibernation. “Why won’t you just give your little brother the damn controller?” Mom usually asked. “What’s wrong with you, Ethan?” Dad said. Before going back to bed, Mom would hold Matthew and stroke his hair until he calmed down enough to resume playing.
I don’t know why I continued to intentionally incite Matthew’s frustration, except that when my parents addressed me, even angrily, I knew they at least were aware of me.
It really was the hottest summer yet —only adding to my pent-up aggravation as the days dragged on. With August approaching and third grade around the corner, lethargy had reached its peak; I abandoned trying to be artistic and I gave up fighting Matthew for the PlayStation.
With August came monsoon season.
The house was eerily devoid of conversation now, save for Matthew’s intermittent squeals of delight when he advanced to the next level, or bellows of outrage when his character died. I heard sighs and the constant, steady click of the mouse when I passed Dad’s door. I heard the creak of Mom’s bed when she turned over.
One night I sat for hours under my bedroom window, peaking through the shutters as white lightning bolts cracked and splintered the blackening sky.
It wasn’t cold, but a chill snaked its way up my spine me as the storm rattled my window. I felt emboldened. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I was sick of being a ghost. Just once, I’d like to see my parents become cross with Matthew and praise me instead.
“What’s wrong with you, Matthew? Why can’t you be more like your big brother? He never cries or hogs all the games.”
My thoughts picked me up off the floor and carried me into the living room, where Matthew was huddled over a piece of paper. Drawing the next Mona Lisa, no doubt. I could just see him now, pulling back the curtain and revealing his masterpiece to my parent’s beaming faces. Matthew, the Boy Wonder.
“Hi, Ethan,” Matthew said, not looking up.
“What are you doing?”
“Matthew! Focus. What are you doing?”
“I’m drawing a picture.”
He needed a bigger canvas; such talent shouldn’t be contained..
“Matthew, have you ever drawn on a wall before? It’s really fun. Here, let me show you.” I eased the crayon from his hand. He initially protested, and I stopped short, making sure no one would come into the living room to see what the commotion was about. I didn’t want them to come in. Not yet.
“Shhhh. It’s OK, buddy. I’m gonna give it back to you. I just want you to see how fun this is.”
He quieted again and the only sound was the rain coming down hard onto the roof.
I took the red crayon to the wall and sloppily drew a stick figure girl with a flower.
“Look, Matthew. It’s Montana Bayley.”
He giggled. “I want to try!”
I handed him back the crayon and he exuberantly replicated his nonsensical scribbles. A real natural.
Slowly, I edged out of the room, down the hallway and back into my room while he continued his jubilant defacement. I shut the door with my back pressed to the wall and my ears alert. The chills had definitely intensified. All there was to do was wait.
“MATTHEW SHANE BROWN! WHAT ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?”
I braced myself and struggled to hear what was going on. The sudden silence scared me, only broken by Matthew’s heaving sobs.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
“Ethan showed me how to make pictures,” he sputtered.
I was given one more blissful second of silence before my door was opened with such force that I was thrown back.
“Ethan David. Your brother told me what you did.”
I had only heard her use this tone of voice with my dad—it wasn’t her normal, perky, sing-song voice. It was low and foreboding. She had always been tall, but now she towered over me as I cowered in the corner.
She stooped down to my level and I instinctively began to cry before her hand met with the side of my face.
“Don’t you ever do this again.”
She was almost out the door when she turned around.
“Your father won’t be happy about this either when he finds out. We’ll talk about this tomorrow. I have to go calm down your little brother.”
It seemed as if I sat there forever, hugging my knees to my chest in the pitch dark. Occasionally bursts of lightning came through the shutters and illuminated the room before sending it into darkness again. Hours must have passed by the time everything was still. But just when my own calm seemed to rear its head through the clouds, more tears came unannounced. No one came into my room again that night, but I was too scared to sleep.
It must have been early morning when I finally left the room. I heard Matthew’s ragged breathing and stuffy nose coming from the living room. This would all be behind him when he woke up. But not me.
I flicked on the light in the bathroom and peered into the mirror. Streaks of tears visible on my grimy face, and a hand imprint on my cheek.
Meant just for me.