We learned about our Other Brother on a summer afternoon.
We learned about our Other Brother on a summer afternoon. My mother was the one who accepted the letter and relayed the key points in a series of group texts to the family. I had recently moved in with my fiancé and was spending those long, bright days taking stock of the neighborhood. When the texts came I was browsing a shelf of ceramics in a shop I had been meaning to get to all week.
You have a brother, the first text from my mother said. An Other Brother, came the second.
That night my fiancé and I went to a soup dumpling restaurant. We tore careful holes into the dumpling’s sides to vent the steam and pondered what this discovery would mean for the family. During dinner my mother sent the first photo of our Other Brother. He looked nothing like us. My brother-brother resembled my mother, slick and neat like a raft of green onions, and I had my father’s features—soft, round face, bright, big, startled eyes. But who was this guy? My long parts were short on him. In the places where my brother-brother was slender, this Other Brother was exceptionally thick. And who could claim those earlobes?
I showed the picture to my fiancé. He made a face and blew at a strand of steam.
Are we sure about this? my brother-brother texted back.
My father chimed in, He has paperwork.
He has paperwork, I told my fiancé. He chewed his dumpling and chased it with a swig of beer.
Great, he said with a smile. When can we meet him?
A few months later, our Other Brother came for a visit and brought the whole family—the wife, to whom he bore a worrying resemblance, and the four children who were scattered in height and evenly spread out age-wise like a set of teeth. We sat around the coffee table barely speaking. Our Other Brother and his wife sat on the sofa with lowered heads, and on either side of them their children huddled close together. The problem, of course, was we couldn’t communicate directly and had to rely on the translator. This worked fine at first, but it’s no way to meet family, even Other Family.
At some point the mother whispered to the littlest son, I never learned any of their names, and the boy manifested a bag from somewhere behind the crowd. He walked up to my mother and handed her a small box, then ran back to his mother. Next one of the daughters pulled out a bigger box and with a lowered head delivered it to my father.
These are gifts, our Other Brother said through the translator. For the children.
It took a moment to clarify that “the children” carried a double meaning. It meant my fiancé and me, but it also meant our children, meaning the children they presumed we would have one day.
They’re for the wedding, our Other Brother explained. He mimed opening a present. Wedding gifts, he said.
The smaller of the two boxes, which we were instructed to open first, contained a single handmade doll lying in a shallow nest of shredded paper. It was a crude and ugly object. Looking it over you could feel the amateur’s slow and doubtful labor, and it made you feel uncertain, like you, too, were a half-formed thing. I assumed he had the little girl make it, but I was wrong.
I made it myself, our Other Brother said, his face beaming.
I recognized at once what I was holding. It was him, our Other Brother, his squat, despairing features shrouded in drab fabric. Of all things, a doll in his likeness to remember him by. From out of the other box, the larger one, I removed an assortment of similar dolls all connected by a strip of fabric sewn into their backs. There was one of each of us. My mother and father, my brother and myself, my husband-to-be, each one as slapdash as the last, as though it were enough to learn to make them, but too much to ask that he master the task.
With the gifts revealed, our Other Brother drew from his coat pocket what at first looked like an ornamental cord, but was in fact only a length of clothesline that he had spray painted and tied off at the ends. He got down on his knees and began working it through some passage hidden in the backs of the dolls, and a faint chemical odor from the paint seeped through the room.
When you feel close, he said through the translator, you pull them close. With a tug, he drew the five dolls together. But when you feel far, you go like this. Now the one doll was off on its own, at the far end of the string. He handed them to me, and I brought them back together. His children quietly cheered, and a flash of pride streaked across his wife’s face.
It was a short visit. They were gone long before the wedding the following spring, and we haven’t heard from them since that one and only meeting.
Isn’t that how it goes? my husband said when I brought up our Other Brother while we were out celebrating our one-year anniversary at an Italian restaurant where we’d become regulars. He paused to pry a few clams from their shells, tasted the brine on his fingers. It was only weeks before the arrival of our first child, a daughter, and I had wondered aloud whether we’d heard the last of our Other Brother.
My husband lifted his napkin from his lap and continued after a sip of wine. There’s the announcement, and the first anxious meeting, but soon life goes back to normal.
And so it has.
Where are those dolls now? I couldn’t say. The day that our Other Brother left, I asked my husband to store them somewhere out of the way and haven’t seen them since. Fortunately, my husband and I are in lockstep on this. Our daughter is only a few months old. The last thing we want is for her to grow up with those things in her way, forever reminding her that on some distant day, an Other Brother or Sister or Mother or Father might make themselves known to her.