Mental Health: 31 Birthdays

I’ve had 31 birthdays and have talked to my brother every single one, most notably those that have passed while he lived on the streets, except for my 31st.

It’s interesting, the memories we hold onto after things irrevocably change. My 21st birthday started out wonderfully and ended in a disaster, but at least it was a family affair. Everyone was there, and no one felt angry or excluded. I suppose alcohol consumption is an equal opportunity, something anyone can do.

“No fighting tonight,” my dad commanded my brothers as they stalked out of our parents’ house on the way out. “I mean it. It’s Bailey’s day,” he finished.

“Yeah, yeah,” Alex brushed him off, Duncan traipsing behind him out the door. They both chuckled at the thought, fighting nowhere on their radar while celebrating their little sister’s birthday. So far, the entire day had been tiaras, pink cupcakes, and laughs, but our dad had reason to worry.

His whole life, Alex has been notorious for snapping without consideration to his surroundings, the end-game of his actions, or even the reason for his actions to begin with. Just six months prior to my 21st the three of us had been in a similar situation at Duncan’s birthday outing. At 26 years-old, Duncan’s body was practically geriatric in terms of a fist fight, something that used to be a regular occurrence. His birthday cake that year featured a funny picture of him with a black eye. It was a graduation, of sorts, until it wasn’t.

“Dallas bros” have garnered the moniker “$30K millionaires,” a stereotype signaling unfounded snobbery and living above one’s means. The bar was packed with these types on Duncan’s birthday, and Alex’s antennae began to twitch as soon as he walked in. The Dallas bros looked like frat-daddy clones, while Alex was dressed like Bam Margera. There was instant discord. When a bro five feet away from Alex glanced over and his eyes trailed down to the bottom of Alex’s jeans to his leg, Alex responded by throwing a heavy low-ball glass at his head.

Here we go again.

The high-top table Alex had been sitting at toppled over as he dove toward his innocuous observer and took him down with him. Being discharged from the Army didn’t eradicate Alex’s knowledge of how to seriously maim, or even kill, a person with his hands, and he was looking for a fight. Maybe he fought because he needed to prove to himself, and any onlookers, that he still could without one of his legs.

Six months later, my friends, brothers and I were ending a successfully peaceful night out on my 21st at an oontz oontz club called Vice, a name that should have been our first signpost things would go awry. The entire place was a dark den of slick-haired smooth-talkers, a haven of instigators with no follow through, and the entire scene acted like a match igniting Alex’s insecurity. Duncan and I turned away from the bar to see, between seizure-inducing light strobes, Alex hit the floor in a tangle with a someone.

Damn. We almost made it.

Duncan handed me the five beers he’d just purchased for me and my friends before disappearing into the dark of Alex’s fray. When Duncan’s friend smashed a bottle over someone’s head, the club descended into chaos like an ant hill that’d just been kicked. The fight was like a stop-action film, a second of dark uncertainty followed by a shocking illumination, like a visual metronome. My patent pump had slipped off my foot when I got shoved aside by someone en route to the fight, now especially perilous with glass scattering the floor. When the lights fully came up, the man Duncan had just choked out fell to the sticky, booze-soaked and trash-strewn floor. Bouncers began corralling all of the newly exposed club goers, the magic of body-con dresses and sexy strangers now illuminated in unflattering fluorescence. I found my shoe between the bar and some slack-jawed, drunk onlookers and gingerly retrieved it, careful to let the least amount of my bare foot touch the floor. As I wriggled my toes back into the shoe, I watched the room empty as if there were a fire. The entire club, now as well-lit as an OR table, was evacuating and pouring out the hot cement streets of the Texas September night.

I wonder if Alex felt powerful, shaping the nights of so many strangers, including what was meant to be “my” night. By the time I got to the sidewalk, my loosened birthday tiara was dangling off my head and black mascara tears streamed down my face. It was all very “raining on prom night” and, like most unfortunate things in my life, has become humorous with time.

Now that everyone was out of the club and onto the streets and nothing was a mystery, I spotted Alex’s initial target and recognized him. I knew him. Troy* had become an MMA fighter and was now a swollen, cauliflower-eared version of a boy I’d grown up with. As my recognition solidified I heard him shout to Alex, “You’re only half a man with that fake ass leg, bitch,” referring, of course, to my brother’s prosthetic.

With his mouthed still fixed in the “ch” sound at the end of his sentence, I was already airborne. Duncan thought faster, though, and caught me around the waist mid-air. I heard Alex shouting back, but his words disappeared into the white noise of the night. All four of my limbs flailed toward Troy. My leap toward him was carnal and unconsidered, like much of Alex’s life.

“Yeah, you better keep that bitch in check,” Troy taunted, appraising the situation in front of him as if he were now safe behind a one-sided mirror. Shouting obscenities, Alex walked backwards like one might away from royalty, or a holy shrine. He finally bumped against the cab his girlfriend had desperately been trying to coax him into.

In the postmortem of these two senseless fights, after the tears had dried and apologies had been exchanged, Duncan decided that Alex took fights to the floor because that was where he knew he could maintain the upper hand. I suppose that, because the feeling is so rare, Alex has taken every opportunity to maintain an upper hand, even if at the unreasonable expense of another.

On September 5th, 2019, ten years after my 21st, I waited all day to hear from Alex. I clenched my teeth and chastised myself for falling asleep mid-afternoon in case I missed his call, but when I woke up I was both disappointed and relieved to see my missed calls were from my parents, grandparents, and Bank of America. No sign of Alex, no unknown numbers in my call log. At 4:13pm I pushed myself up into a sitting position on the bed, my body weight shifting and sinking into a new place on the mattress. My shoulders slumped as I looked down at my phone. Time was running out. He still had eight hours, nine hours Texas time, but it wasn’t usual for him to call late on my birthday. No matter how unconventional our relationship, I know my brother, and I knew then he wasn’t going to call. I was right.

Typically, he’d ask the Taco Bell manager or a stranger to use their phone in the late morning or early afternoon, no later than 3, and leave me a voicemail or text message wishing me happy birthday and telling me that, as always, I can’t call or text him back because he was on a borrowed phone. Then, he’d hand the phone back to its owner and hobble back out into the streets, his home.

One time I disobeyed his instructions and texted the number he called me from, not to Alex, but purposefully to the owner of the phone.

Hi, this is the sister of the guy you loaned your phone to today. Thank you for your kindness. Hearing from him means to the world to me.

I didn’t expect to get anything back, and I didn’t.

*Name changed to protect the guilty

Related on Bummed Out Baker:
Mental Health: Mourning the Living
Mental Health: A Birthday Wish
Mental Health: Saying No in the Spirit of Self-Care

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