Three states breathe between us so my sister and I are only witness to our brother’s doings on family vacations, like this past summer, at the beach house in Wrightsville, North Carolina. The large, two-storied clapboard home has been in his wife’s family for years and for the past decade it has weathered our family gatherings. Here, North and South meet. The gravitational forces that pull us together are almost visible.
We surge into the house and, for one week, our familial bodies—six big ones and five of lesser mass—orbit each other. The paths we take, while far from worn, are familiar. We rise and fight and laugh and drink. We build sandcastles and then we knock them down. We toss wet swimsuits on the line strung along the back porch. On the front porch we rock in chairs and watch the comings and goings of the world. We read books, flip through magazines and nap. Most of all, because we are in the vicinity of my brother’s cooking, we hum around with the same fine food in our bellies.
For much of our time together, my brother pens himself up in the kitchen where he is like a bull on steroids. He stampedes about, yanking down spices, opening and shutting the oven door, rushing out the back door to step out onto the porch to check on the grill. Right now, he is calm. His hands gently pat a dry rub over a tender filet of beef. Then, without warning, his nostrils flare, he charges over to the refrigerator and yanks out a freezer bag filled with chunks of freshly frozen pineapple.
He blends relentlessly. The cacophony of frozen fruit and coconut milk is deafening. Currents of loose conversations are churned up in his doing.
My brother hands out frosty glasses. I am not a coconut fan but, because John made it, I accept his offering. The Pina Coladas are delicious.
I was watching the Food Network and this chef—I forget her name now—had her face mere inches from the tripe dish she was preparing. She could have reached out and licked it with her tongue if she wanted to. My brother and sister are intimate like that when it comes to food.
I catch my brother inspecting the chicken, aromatic spices pinched between fingers. He draws his hand back, high above his head, then hurls it down, lashing the meat with fresh rosemary. I keep my distance.
At the beach house, we eat and drink like kings.
Blackened Salmon. Habanera Margaritas.
John measures out guava nectar and pours it into the blender. My sister Holly slices a lime and tells him how she to adores guava nectar.
On the surface, my brother and sister appear much alike. They both care for people through food. There is no cup big enough to contain their generosity. As he adds a dash more of guava nectar it occurs to me that I am more measured in the way I love.
Shrimp Scampi. Chilled Asparagus. Tomato Bisque Soup.
I remember, my mother hadn’t been feeling well and I had taken over some homemade pea soup.
Pea soup, she sighs, is my favorite.
I know, mother. You’ve told me a hundred times.
She plows on, as if I haven’t spoken. Yet, because your father thinks he’s allergic to peas, I haven’t been able to serve it for over forty years. Over soup she says, of my three children, you are the hardest to know. I often wonder what you’re thinking.
I think, but do not say, To know someone, pay attention to what they do.
I wash dishes and wonder if this comparison holds true for all people, that we cook like we love? I want to love better. The blender whirs, catching these thready thoughts and turning them ragged. I seize the neck of a carafe—slick with vinaigrette tears—and thrust it below the sudsy water. A hollow sob slips from its oily body.
Bodies, browned by the sun, fill the front porch. We rock in weathered white chairs; their tall backs draped in beach towels snap at the humid air. Two of us dangle our legs from the porch swing. Some of us stand. One of us eases into the hammock. Blackberry Smoothies twirl on our tongues.
The ocean waves ceaselessly. From a rusted ceiling hook, a plastic plant sways in the salty air. Muddy leaves flutter against a blue, unflappable sky.
My brother is deep like the ocean. On the surface, waves of funniness knock you down. If you aren’t careful, you can get caught in the seaward pull of his humor, which, from years of practice, streams long and shiny out towards the horizon.
When John isn’t cooking, he practices medicine. Reach his side and you may find that still, quiet place, in which a boy decides to become a doctor. Which kind of doctor do you think helps most? he will ask.
Or, depending on the day, flounder into the deep doubt of infectious disease. Here, in these infested waters, people are drowning everywhere. Even when someone can be saved, there is not always land in sight, on which they can safely be laid down. How much help am I really, he will ask, when my patient is forced to choose between dying or having an infected body part removed because he can’t afford the necessary medication?
My brother carries the lost and wounded with him.
Face glossed in sweat, he stands before the grill, gently prodding stuffed zucchinis with silver tongs.
Somewhere, an artist who sculpts with his hands for a living chooses to have a finger cut off.
A mounting tidal wave of pots and pans threatens to envelop the kitchen.
My brother grows weary. I worry he will be dragged down by the weight of it all.
I find that the more helpful I try to be, the more I get in the way. Sometimes, swimming away is the best option.
Cooking shall save him, I think, just as a wave of calaphian magnitude crashes to the floor. Holly rushes to help.
My sister is a food emergency responder. The Queen of Substitutions, Holly is better than any cookbook, or on-line culinary reference out there. She’d saved countless dishes for me. When I call to inquire if I can substitute something for something else—say milk for heavy whipping cream—I have to put up with admonishments like, What the hell are you thinking? or Do you really want to kill your family? But it’s worth it as she always comes through for me. Ultimately, she’ll ask a series of rapid-fire questions and then pronounce what I should do. I pretty much follow her advice.
Hey, Hol. I get right to the point as there is no time to waste. My guests are arriving within the hour. “I’m making a Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake and it calls for a ganache on top. I don’t have the exact ingredients and I was wondering if I could substitute—
Ganache, she interrupts.
Ganache. You pronounced it more like ganoshe and it’s ganache.
Well, either way, can I—
Just tell me the ingredients.
I run through the list and she barks out, Don’t do it!
Make the ganache.
You didn’t get the right kind of chocolate for it.
But it looks really pretty on the picture. All shiny.
Does the top of your cake look good? Does it have any cracks?
No, I reply.
No, what? That it doesn’t look good or it doesn’t have cracks?
It doesn’t have any cracks.
Then don’t do it.
You’ll ruin it if you do it. Don’t.
I said I won’t. I can tell from the way she’s holding her breath on the other end of the phone that she doesn’t believe me. But I am telling the truth this time.
I didn’t make the ganache and Holly, as usual, was right in her cooking advice. The dessert, with it’s heavy cream, peanut butter, dense cheese and dark chocolate oozed with richness. An extra layer of chocolate would have made the cheesecake unbearably sweet.
But even the Queen of Substitutions and knower of all culinary questions and pronunciations, accepts the humble role of sous chef around our brother. She, like me, tries not to get in his way. As he swirls around us, she’ll stand at the counter, dicing onions or chopping celery. I’ll hunch over the sink, washing or drying a bowl, attempting to be a well placed, non-descript shell on the shore of this churning, siblionic sea.
She’ll cover a dish in aluminum. I’ll lower my dishtowel. We step aside. We part and let him pass. We bow low, our brother crests between us, reaches for a shelf and pulls down cumin or salt. Swept up in these siblionic movements, there is a reassuring ebb and flow to what we do.
Sibilant is a real word. An adjective, it describes consonants that are pronounced with a hissing sound. Like ‘sister’ or the sound of ‘pleasure.’ Siblionic is a term I made up. It means: a tangle of one.
Ever since we were little, people have had difficulty telling my sister and me apart. Are they twins? strangers would ask, in grocery stores, banks, and parks. And my mother, having been asked this enough came up with a response she was quite pleased with: Why, yes they are. She’d wait for the I-knew-it smile to spread across their face, then would add, Three years apart and watch smugness fade away.
In Wrightsville, it is easy to tell us apart. I am the inept one. It’s not that I can’t hold my own in the kitchen. I’m a decent cook but compared to my siblings my culinary skills and knowledge are negligible.
I’ve been on a dessert kick, having recently made Chocolate Flourless Torte, Mocha Cheesecake, Dark Chocolate and Raspberry Cheesecake and Peanut Butter Mousse. Cheesecake, I’ve decided, suits me perfectly. It can’t be rushed. Even when cheesecake is done, it isn’t really done. It’s important to resist the temptation to pull it out and admire your efforts. Instead, wedge a wooden spoon in the oven door to prop it open for the heat to leak out slowly. Less chance of cracking. Holly told me that.
I prefer to cook alone, uninterrupted whereas my siblings thrive on the energy of others. I admire their ability to create in the midst of chaos. It seems to sharpen their senses, tighten their focus whereas I unravel and lose my way. I am not well adapted to the frenetic pace, but allow myself to be pulled along in this messy current of siblionic love.
Our spouses rarely intrude into these choppy waters. They’ll venture forth only to pull out a child who has drifted too far into the deep.
Once more, dangerously high piles of bowls and utensils have washed up on the countertop. Warily, I extract a zester. Metal teeth laced with lemon, grin up at me. I toss it into the sink, watch its flashy smile disappear.
Beef Fajitas. Crème Brule.
As John charges between the chicken in the kitchen and the grill on the back deck, sleepy limes awaken. They bob along, surfing the laminate lake. Wide mouthed glasses, rimmed with chunky flakes of salt, grumble to be filled.
My brother allows me to prepare the peppers for fajitas, showing me how to slice them just so with his knife (in this order: bottoms and tops cut off then quartered). His knife slips through the skin like butter. I make a note to sharpen my knives, which cut like spoons when I return home.
Later, my brother will swish around the back porch like a flamenco dancer. He’ll celebrate lovely charred skin, snapping tongs in the air like a castanet. He’ll carefully remove the peppers at just the right moment, red and green coats glistening.
I need to perform an intervention. Five times he proclaims this during our dinner preparations. The first or second time, my sister follows him out to the back deck. They return, speaking in excited tones.
Don’t do it, my sister warns.
But I want to help the guy! my brother retorts. Come on! And he heads back outside, my sister follows. I stay behind to keep an eye on the boiling pasta.
The third time he rumbles, I need to perform an intervention—stop me! I leave the pasta draining in the colander to see what all the fuss is about.
My siblings are unabashedly spying on some hapless guy grilling shrimp two porches over, one story down. Deep concern lines their faces.
Such a shame, my sister clucks, craning her neck over the wooden railing.
My Lord! exclaims my brother. Would you look at how he’s overcooked them!
Shhh! I say, worried Shrimp Guy might hear us. But he is oblivious to our presence, completely focused on the tiny bodies of shrimp littering his grill.
Whispering loudly, my sister says, Look at him ruining perfectly good shrimp!
I don’t get it, I say, leaving them peering over the railing. I return to the kitchen, thinking how shrimp is one of those rare breed of words—like sheep and deer—that retains its form, be it singular or plural. Shrimp and sheep dance with deer in my head until my brother waltzes over and taps me on the shoulder.
He should have skewered them instead of turning them over one by one like he is doing, he explains. That’s just ridiculous.
I look down at the colander. Renegade strands of pasta have curled themselves into a golden nugget. I scoop out the slimy clump with my fingers. My sister stares at her phone. My brother, pounding thickness out of a chicken breast, mutters, I don’t know where his head is at.
His head is right here, my sister laughs and thrusts the phone under my brother’s nose and then mine. I squint at a grainy picture. Shrimp Guy and his allegedly ruined shrimp hover over sudsy water. See? she says tapping a disapproving finger at her phone screen. This guy has kept his shrimp on the grill far too long.
I don’t see how you can tell that, I say, squinting harder at little white dashes I assume are the skewerless shrimp.
See how they are curled beyond the horseshoe shape? she says. He should have taken them off the grill when they reached the “u” state. Now they are almost complete o’s. It’s a sin what he’s doing to that shrimp. My sister seems to be speaking a foreign language.
I say, Did you ever think maybe it’s wrong to take pictures of people without their consent?
What that guy is doing to the shrimp is far worse, retorts my sister.
Agreed, says my brother.
All this talk of shrimp and vowels is making my head swirl. How come I never knew about this shrimp and vowels thing? I sympathize with Shrimp Guy. I bet he’s never thought of shrimp in terms of vowels, either.
If pressed, I’d lean more on the side of shrimp being more consonant than vowel-like. A “J” is more fitting of shrimp than a “U” or “O.” Maybe I’m just taking this stance because I’m irked about not being in the know about shrimp and vowels. Am I bitter? These musings are drowned out by my brother’s voice.
Come on! Let’s see if he’s removed the shrimp yet. A furtive glance passes between my siblings and once more, they traipse outside.
I wonder if Shrimp Guy senses a piece of himself missing, that he has become an unknowing victim of my sister’s habit of snapping up the world. Laughter drifts into the kitchen. Feeling like an accomplice in an unnamed crime, I wash a spoon, attempting to rinse Shrimp Guy from my mind.
While we were sleeping, the ocean fashioned a long ledge that stretches along the coastline. A mini cliff of sorts. My brother is already here, has carved out a spot for us, having set up beach chairs in a pleasing u-shaped manner that opens to the sea. Shaded by two umbrellas, the low-slung chairs ripple as one striped vowel.
My brother bakes in the sun. Hunched over a section of the ledge, and with a child’s shovel, he notches out stairs of sand. He removes the soft and sandy crown, exposing a damp mix below. He levels off three tiers, dusting each to perfection. The finish is flawless, as if he had rolled out fondant and draped it artfully over the stairs.
Older beach patrons who find the ocean’s ledge too precarious a drop, frequent his steps. His best customer is a woman who wears a white flowered swim cap. Skin dangles from legs, which poke out like fishing poles beneath her latex-sheathed hull. From her suit and fingers she drips water upon his masterpiece.
She compliments my brother on his great work and he bows deeply, one arm tucked into his belly. The woman smiles, leaving a piping of watery pearls in her wake. My brother drops to one knee and repairs the edge of stairs that have crumbled.
To my son he says, You should bring your grandchild here someday. Show them these steps. He waves an arm magnanimously over his work. You tell them, ‘My Uncle John built these stairs!’
My son eyes his uncle suspiciously then runs over to the tide pool that will soon disappear.
It won’t be long before the tide comes in to claim his work.
Come on! he’s fond of saying. John says this while he bastes a chicken or seasons a steak with one hand, the other arm outstretched, waiting for Holly or me to place the correct utensil, pan or ingredient into his waiting hand.
Come on, kids! he says rounding our children up on the last day of vacation and leading them towards the beach. We need to see the sunrise and take pictures for Nan and Papa Joe.
The children march obediently behind him. This is the best they have behaved all week. He has promised them each a dollar if they sit still for his camera. It is, he will later say, the best investment he has ever made.
Come and get your dolla! he shouts, tossing the “r” and five one dollar bills up into the sky. The children dash towards the flurry of flat inky bellies scuttling through the air. The day erupts with jubilant shouts as the children seize the green bodies, crumpling them in their sandy fists. When they too, scatter, my brother stands alone under the cerulean sky.
John settles down into a beach chair. He wipes the sweat from his brow and begins to read. A few minutes later, he looks up and taps the cover of his book, Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. I need to work on this, he says. His furrowed brow and the intensity in which he turns the pages, keeps me from laughing.
After ten minutes, my brother can hold back no longer. He rises from the chair, remembering he has one more thing to do. The ocean, too, begins to rise.