against the sultry heat
By Aurora Huiza
Julian was a cosmic scapegoat. He was blamed even though he’d done nothing and born wrong for no reason. By the time he was four a therapist watched him put some toy blocks into some holes, asked him a few questions, and came to her strange, cumbersome conclusion. High-functioning autism. There were extensive lists of things he would not do. There were special schools. My mother wept.
He once asked me if we were all going to end like a TV show and see the end credits go by. I told him nobody knows about that. I said it makes people uncomfortable to talk about existence like that. He is more like eleven than sixteen and doesn’t know about the word existence but he can feel it when he sticks his head out the car window or bites into an apple. And it’s all the same to him. Julian thinks about existence the way he thinks about lunch.
I parked my car in the damp, unlit garage at two thirty in the morning and, because I am uncomfortable in dark places, walked with purpose to my front door. The suburban summer night was noiseless and balmy. The streets were bare and black. I had just graduated high school, and spent the following summer waiting around until it was time to move to New York for college. I was bored and angry about being bored. California was always warm, even at night.
I muttered about the landlord’s failure to replace the lightbulb on the garage ceiling. I hated our landlord because he hated my family and talked down to us. He criticized us for “disturbing the peace” with our screaming matches. But then I would sometimes hear two neighbors moaning like porn stars directly above my bedroom. Nobody got mad at them for that. Everybody in that building was always mad at us. I was eighteen and I was mad at them too.
Julian was sitting at the desktop computer on the other side of the living room when I opened the front door.
“Don’t look at me,” he said, anticipating my presence. He raised one fleshy palm up in front of himself, blocking me from his vision. His voice had recently lowered and this new adolescent timbre clashed with his seeming youth. This was most prominent during phone calls.
Thick headphones were placed over his ears and there was a YouTube video on the desktop computer. Julian’s taste in internet content ranged from POV footage of people playing claw machines to crude clips of Family Guy that he would retain and sometimes repeat, unprompted, out loud to himself.
“Don’t use the word ‘pussy.’ You don’t know what that means,” my mom would say. “I’m not going to let you watch Family Guy anymore.”
He didn’t know any better.
Julian had an incredible affinity for seeking out restaurant claw machine games and got good enough to win the prizes inside. In his bedroom, he possessed a shiny miniature toy claw machine which contained small, cylindrical pieces of pink bubblegum.
“I told you I don’t care what you’re watching,” I said, slipping my sneakers off and setting them neatly by the door. They were full of sand, rattling like maracas. I had been at the beach all day and was coming down from a moderate high. My brain was eclipsing, settling into a dull, gloomy throb.
He groaned and smacked one hand over his eyes in dramatic dismay. “Aw, come on. I don’t like it when you look at me.” He tightened his brows.
Julian would stay up until four in the morning watching videos by himself in the living room until he eventually crashed and slept until three in the afternoon. He didn’t like being interrupted during these sacred personal hours. I knew nothing of the true nature of these times. I would hear him stimming and squealing from the other room sometimes. He would flap his arms in a flurry of overstimulation and rock back and forth away from and toward the computer screen.
“I’m not looking at you,” I said.
He was wearing my father’s red long-sleeved shirt. The sleeves were too long but I thought the size suited him and made him look more grown than his cartoon character t-shirts did. It was nice to see him, if only briefly, fill out his fifteen years. He often chose that red shirt and would only ever wear it by himself at night. There was no obvious correlation between the two and he never wore a shirt in the house at any other time, usually preferring to be naked. I’ve asked him why he wears our dad’s clothes at night but he doesn’t want to talk about that. He doesn’t want to talk about most things at the right times and will get irritated if pressed for explanation. He would take the shirt off before going to sleep.
“I’m going to bed in a second,” I said. “Relax.”
I threw my purse down hard on the couch and sat next to it. There was this rage that had developed inside me, undirected and lacking origin. I only knew it was there because it often manifested itself in sudden acts of aggression. Throwing objects around rooms and snapping at family members. A standard high would dumb me down so that I wouldn’t try probing at that mysterious anger, that new and ugly appendage. But it was always there.
The TV was turned to a late night show and I wasn’t interested because I hated late night shows, but the remnants of my high rooted me in the cushion. The moving picture compelled me.
“Get out,” he said, raising his voice.
“Shut up. You’re gonna wake up Mom.”
That summer had been a never-ending fever dream, a psychological fiasco during which all that concerned me was getting more thin and more high. I smoked daily, lived on black coffee, and didn’t eat food before seven p.m. My wrists were thin but nobody ever noticed except maybe sometimes men. I was aware of exactly how pathetic I was, but there was something comfortable about sinking into that mediocrity. It was bland and familiar, and overwhelmingly a comfort, like toast in the morning.
“I SAID I wanna be alone,” he got up from the computer and stormed toward me, trudging across the hard wood. Sometimes he would hit me if he got mad enough. I braced myself for a slap on the arm, fluttering my eyes shut.
He didn’t hit me.
Being high made him unfamiliar and strange. Most teenage boys didn’t spend this much time on YouTube. They had friends and girlfriends. I understood this all over again. He was fifteen years old and wore a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack. He was as innocent as a person could be. I would’ve thrown myself down a flight of stairs for him. I loved him violently and hated myself for placing judgment upon him, but sometimes it happened. For a few seconds, I couldn’t look at his face.
“Rory,” he pleaded. “Rory. Go to bed.”
A man was interviewing a blonde actress on the screen, one of the important ones. She was cackling white-toothed crazy-eyed with bulbous red lips and mermaid hair tossed over one shoulder, wearing a ridiculous sequined silver dress that made it difficult for her to cross her legs. She had perched herself precariously on one hip. The interviewer was staring down at her chest. It crossed my mind that I wished I were her but I didn’t know why. She was beautiful in a garish, but undeniable way. I rubbed at my eyes. Julian stomped his foot and covered his face with his hands.
Julian had been my scapegoat, once. We were living in a small, affordable apartment in the sunny San Fernando Valley when he was three years old and I was six. The furniture and the floors were all made of cashew-colored wood, sheathed in white light that shone out of one big picture window through which the tops of sparse green palm trees could be seen swaying. We would sit on the warm floor barefoot with our little legs crossed watching cartoons on Sunday afternoons. Our TV was an outdated model and there was one big crack cutting through the right side of the screen so that some of its bright interior was visible. Beneath the crack, the image played on another layer of surface that made it appear blurry, like watching TV without wearing glasses.
Our mother had told us never to touch the TV, especially not the cracked part because it would crack more and we didn’t have money for a new TV yet. She had left us to watch by ourselves. When I was young, I had a habit of doing exactly what people told me not to do.
Julian blinked at the bright screen. His light brown hair curled in ringlets. My grandmother once said he was going to grow up to be a handsome Italian-looking model. He had eager blue eyes that were round and magnetic, adorned with long brown eyelashes that made strangers in super markets stop with their shopping carts and tell my mother what a pretty little girl she had. I was doomed to envy his soft, supple face. He smiled with only two front teeth, dressed in denim overalls. He clapped his hands, grinning wide, and pointed at the TV.
I watched the massive crack running through the screen like a fault line, the electric blues and bubblegum pinks of the TV episode pulsing, the scenes flickering. I wanted to rip the screen off and unearth the splendor beneath.
I stood up and punched the screen twice. It thumped and caved in upon seismic spasm. The crack grew longer.
“Jelly touched the TV! Jelly touched the TV!” I screamed. I knew that I would get away with it.
Julian blinked a few times, staring at me, still smiling. He had no idea what I was saying. His lips were parted, slack.
“WHAT?” my mom called from the other room.
She stormed in and looked at my brother.
“I told you not to touch the TV,” she said putting her hands on her hips. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
He understood that she was mad at him and began to cry. She picked him up and took him away from the TV and put him in his crib. He screamed and thrashed the whole time, trying to escape. He had no words with which to explain himself.
“No more TV,” my mother said to him. “No more.”
I think I was laughing. I remember when I stopped laughing. His screams became muffled. I realized that I was watching the broken TV alone, that I had ruptured our soft serenity, and that I had done a very terrible thing.
“You always do this. I just want alone time right now,” Julian went on complaining.
“Jelly, fucking stop. I’m not doing this right now. I can do what I want,” I turned the volume up on the TV. “Lemme finish this episode.”
“Can you please call me Julian? It’s not Jelly anymore.” He pouted. “It’s Julian.”
“Fine, I’m sorry. Julian. You don’t own the living room.”
“Can you please get out?” He brought one hand up and directed me toward the hallway like a crossing guard. His hands were pink and rough because in the past few years he had developed an unfortunate obsession with scrubbing. He was paranoid that everything he touched was dirty, and washed his hands constantly, dousing them in frigid water and soft soap, drying them with coarse towels. Nobody could talk him out of it. My mother had tried to put him on medication for OCD, but it had angered him and made him sometimes throw chairs at people. His public teachers once called the police on him and said he was violent. She took him off immediately. He was not inherently violent. Sometimes, he would rub globs of clear hand-salve tenderly over his knuckles to keep from peeling.
I stood up and swung my purse over my shoulder, sighing, “Fine. You’re such a fucking asshole.”
“You’re a fucking asshole,” he retorted. He had learned much of his bad language from me.
I finally said, “Ok. Ok.” I decided to leave the whole thing alone. “Can I just grab some food from the kitchen first? Then I’ll leave and go to bed.”
“NO-ooo,” he said. The last word was a sing-song whiny toddler complaint.
I moved toward the kitchen, thinking of the tortilla chips in the cabinet.
He blocked me and placed his hands on my shoulders, squeezing hard.
“Stop that,” I said.
I slapped his bicep. He gasped. Then he wailed.
“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.” I tried to touch his arm. “Did I hurt you?”
He clutched his arm.
“That was really hard. I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
I took his plushy arm in my hand and carefully lifted his shirt sleeve up. There was one sprawling pink hand mark on his soft, pale skin.
He twisted it free. “OW. You hit me.”
I tried to hug him. He wailed again and woke our mother up.
I found myself sitting up in a stranger’s bed, still wearing my sneakers, drinking white wine from a small clear bulb-shaped glass. It was late in that same unending, meandering summer and I was running out of things to do. I started busying myself with sex. It seemed this was when I was at my most useful. This particular stranger had a vague French accent and claimed to be a hat maker.
“That’s very interesting,” I said.
I had rubbed brown eyeshadow over my eyelids that night even though we had met at his Hollywood studio apartment to do one thing and he didn’t care that I was wearing brown eyeshadow. I had spent my time blending it out so that he could crawl on top of me and ruin it. The wine was slowing my heartbeat and his quick European voice was sometimes pretentious.
“I have to keep working hard. Can’t let myself down,” he said, putting two hands behind his head and leaning back into his pillow. “Kim Kardashian wears my hats.”
I sighed. I wasn’t listening and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t. Men often enjoy the invitation to talk so they can get it out of their system. I stayed silent and sipped my wine. He stared at my chest and twitched his fingers, anxious to complete our planned intimacy. He went on about exclusive editions of his embroidered baseball caps. He wouldn’t remember my name which was how I liked it.
“Rory?” Just two hours earlier, Julian had tip-toed down the hall and knocked twice on the door tentatively because he could hear me smothering deep sobs with my pillow. He had whispered, raspy and quick, “Why are you crying?”
I was always thinking of my brother in strange moments. Maybe I thought of him because the stranger had the air conditioning turned up and my arms were cold. Julian was warm-blooded. He refused to wear sweaters and wore shorts year-round. He gave big hot hugs, so big they made me ravenous, made me want to eat him alive so I could keep him with me always. I had never known how to tell him that.
The stranger touched my arm.
“Did somebody hurt you? Don’t worry, I will protect you!” Julian had said, “Remember Rachel?”
He always remembered that, seven years before, my childhood best friend Rachel betrayed me. He had marched up to her at school and scolded her for me in front of her new friends.
Nobody was hurting me that night. The stranger touched my stomach.
“Nothing, Julian,” I had said. I wanted to tell him that California is one big raging hellscape and that I was burning alive. But that would’ve been dramatic and he wouldn’t have quite understood. I should’ve hugged him. “I’m just feeling sad. Please leave me alone.”
The stranger moved his face closer to mine and his nose seemed too big, out of proportion. Our eyes crossed, downcast at each other’s noses. A moment of reckoning. We were too close. I didn’t know him. He had a large nose. He started touching my hand and I knew what that meant. I became uncomfortable. I was merely the hat maker’s whore. That is a lonely thing to be and that is what I had wanted.
“Ok, I’ll leave you alone,” Julian had said. He obeyed my simple request. I could hear Julian’s footsteps. He was going back to the computer to watch videos.
The stranger took my clothes off.
Julian smeared pure cerulean paint across a sheet of white printer paper.
“You’re gonna go to college,” he said.
“Yeah.” The summer was ending. The weather was not getting colder. Julian would always be in California. California would always be California. I was aching to leave but I couldn’t quite imagine what it would be like to leave.
“Do you have to go to college? Do you want to go?”
“Yeah, I do. I’m gonna miss you so much.”
I wrapped my arms around him from behind. He went on painting.
“You have to go to college,” he said definitively. “Rory has to go to college.” He touched my wrist.
Julian barely knew what college was but he knew I would no longer walk into the living room at two in the morning. He was unsure and his voice had no intonation, but he had never learned to be self-conscious and still said things with assurance. It was admirable. Sometimes I find myself absent-mindedly watching strangers chew their food or trip over sidewalk cracks. They look up and make eye contact and we are both embarrassed. That would never happen to Julian.
“You have to go to college,” he said. “I’m gonna miss you… but you’ll come back sometimes.”
Repetition helps him get used to new ideas.
“Can I paint with you?” I asked. I stood behind him absently massaging his shoulders. He had planned the picture, sketched a small rudimentary rectangular train in frail pencil lines, floating in white limbo. He continued drowning it in thick layered slabs of blue paint. He had improved since I’d last watched him draw, and my parents wanted to send him to animation classes.
“Maybe some other time. I’m busy making a train.”
“Drawing is kind of hard,” he said. “Hard to get it right.”
“Yeah, it is. But that looks really good.”
“Is it good?” He turned to look at me.
He was pleased. He hummed, kitten-like, and we were silent for a bit. He wet his brush in a muddy cup of water, cleansing it slowly. He was getting better with his hands and with his words.
“You have to go to college?”
There was a moment of brief, but extreme clarity.
“Take care of yourself, Rory,” he said with wise, wakeful eyes. “Take care of yourself when you’re at college.”
Aurora Huiza / @aurorahuiza (tied for second): Aurora is a sophomore at NYU studying Creative Writing and English. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She is originally from Los Angeles.