Laura’s Brother

By Ryan Ruff Smith

Featured Art: The Blue Passion-flower by Robert John Thornton

Laura’s brother has been crashing on my couch. He’s an addict—a recovering one. The hardest part of recovering is to keep doing it. Laura’s brother recovers for a while, and then he stops recovering, and then he runs out of money and picks it back up again. As of today, he’s been recovering for two months straight, which is a big milestone. Laura’s really proud of him. I’m proud, too, but I’d never say it, because I’m afraid that it would sound condescending and weird. I’m afraid that I would say something like: I’m really proud of you, Jim, and I believe in you, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you kept this up and, one day, maybe you’ll even find your way off my couch.

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of him. Because I know that it’s really hard for him not to slip up. I mean, it’s hard for one. For anyone who is struggling with addiction. Which is what he has. Which is hard.

I get that.

The thing is, there’s this smell. I would never say this to him, but my whole apartment smells a bit funky. Not because he’s an addict—a recovering addict— it’s just a person smell, but since he’s on my couch every night, and most of the day, it accumulates, and it’s not the most pleasant. He bathes and everything, maybe not as often as he could, and usually pretty late in the day, but it’s not like he’s trying to smell. He makes an effort, but I do wonder what kind of soap he uses. Here, I have mixed feelings, because I don’t necessarily want him using my soap—not that I’m stingy, if you come for the weekend, go nuts, use all the soap you want, it’s just that he’s been here for two months—but at the same time, I’m afraid that he’s not using any soap at all, in which case, maybe I’d rather have him use my stuff than have this stench in my apartment all the time.

Not that it’s a big deal.

On the positive side, he’s an amazing musician. He’s in this great band. Or he used to be, anyway. When I first started dating Laura, I was blown away when I found out that he was her brother. I have his first album on my computer, and I listen to it all the time. Actually, I always meant to buy a copy of the CD. Because I just downloaded it off of this website, which probably isn’t the best thing to do, but it is a great way to discover new music, and if I’m really into something, I usually try to buy the actual CD, especially if it’s a local artist, which obviously, he is. I guess I never got around to it.
And, really, at this point, I think I’ve earned it. Like, if you took my rent for two months and divided it by two, that would obviously more than cover it.

Not that I expected him to pay rent. I don’t mean to be petty. He really is a great, talented guy, and I’m happy to do everything I can to get him back on his feet again.
But if he took the water bill, even.

It’s probably fair to ask—and in fact I did ask, once—why Jim is staying on my couch, and not on Laura’s. The thing is, her apartment is smaller, and she’s been really stressed out at work lately. Actually, I’m not sure about the apartment—my living room is bigger, true, but in terms of total square footage it may be a wash—but I’m between jobs right now, and I have a little more downtime to deal with this stuff, and I’m happy to do it.

Laura’s great. We’ve been together almost six months now. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long, but at the same time, I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s so kind, and supportive. Not supportive of me, necessarily, but of the relationship. To be honest, I haven’t been in a serious relationship before, and I don’t always remember to put it first. But Laura’s great at keeping me grounded. For example, I’ve been looking into graduate programs for web design, and in particular this one in San Francisco that’s supposed to be great. But Laura brought me back down to earth on that one. She’s happy with her job here, and there’s Jim to think about. Not that I’m planning to still have him on my couch six months from now—God forbid—but it’s just really important to maintain an environment of stability right now. There’s always next year. I mean, for any relationship to work, you both have to make sacrifices. Laura’s good at reminding me of that. One of the things I love about her is that she’s so perceptive. She has all these great insights about my flaws, and ways that I can work through them.

I’m not really one for locker-room talk, but I will say, in terms of the bedroom: no complaints there. Not that we’ve been able to much lately, with Jim staying on the couch and everything. My apartment has very thin walls. And we can’t go to her place either, because she’s afraid that Jim will hurt himself or start using again if we leave him alone for one night. I wouldn’t be too comfortable leaving him alone here either. Not that I’m super protective of my stuff, but I’ve noticed that when he’s borrowed my books in the past, the spines always get creased, and sometimes there are stains on some of the pages. Which, whatever, books are meant to be read. I’m just saying that I don’t know if I’d want to leave him alone here overnight.

Honestly, it’s been hard.

One thing I will say, though, is that Jim is a really good guy to talk to. I’ve been going through this other thing. It’s really not that big of a deal, but it’s just been confusing. Anyway, the gist of it is, I guess it turns out that my dad is sort of attracted to other men—like pretty much exclusively? Which, I mean, is totally whatever, obviously I don’t have a problem with that sort of thing. I mean, I’ve even wondered about that myself, or anyway I went through an experimental phase, which, obviously it didn’t turn out that I was, but I get it. But it’s still a bit jarring, because I never knew that about him, and well, you know, it’s my dad. He and my mom aren’t sure whether they’re going to get divorced or what, but I guess he has a boyfriend, or anyway, there’s this guy. And my mom’s been really, really sad about it.

Anyway, for whatever reason, I found myself telling Jim about all of that. I was explaining to him how I totally got it, and it wasn’t a big deal, but I just felt bad for my mom, and the whole thing was kind of confusing. And he said, Let me stop you right there. He said, I know what you’re thinking, and I need you to forget it. Your dad’s seed is just as good as anyone else’s.

Which sounds like this totally bizarre stoner thing to say, but for some reason, it made me feel a lot better.

Then he said, What day is today?

I told him it was Sunday.

He said, When’s the last time you went to church?

I told him maybe Christmas.

And he said, You know what we need? We need to be confronted with some mystery.
Which again, seemed a little off, but I didn’t have anything else planned, and he seemed really serious about it, so I started looking up local mass times on my laptop. Laura was out of town with her parents for a cross-country skiing weekend. They didn’t want to take Jim along, because the lodge had an open bar, and that would be too tempting, but they needed someone to look after him, so I hung back.

I asked Jim if he wanted Lutheran, or Episcopalian, or what.

He said, No way, man. Catholic. They don’t fuck around.

I found a church downtown that had a late-afternoon service. The website said the church was this old historic one, and the pictures of the inside looked really cool.

We ate some chips and then I drove us over there.

It turned out to be the perfect time to go, because the sun was coming in through the stained-glass windows in this beautiful way. The place was massive, and we sat near the back. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the mass. The smell of incense reminded me of holidays when I was a kid. And the priest seemed solid. I mean, I didn’t pay attention to everything he was saying, but it seemed like he wasn’t being super in-your-face about it.

After the part where you shake hands with everyone, Jim leaned over and said, You’re going to take Communion, right?

I said I didn’t think I was supposed to.

He said, Trust me.

So when the time came, I followed him up the aisle. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, because I was raised Lutheran, and I think the Catholics are pretty strict about that. But they were totally chill about it. The guy held up the bread and said, Body of Christ, and I sort of nodded and mumbled Amen, because I was pretty sure that’s what you were supposed to say. And then he gave it to me, and I ate it, and you know what? I felt really peaceful.

Then we went back to our seats, and Jim knelt down on the thing and started praying really hard. I knelt down, too, but I couldn’t remember any prayers except for Grace at the dinner table, so I repeated that in my head a few times, and then I just watched Jim praying. He had his eyes closed, and he looked really intense, with his crazy beard, and the evening light shining down on him. Did I mention that he’s also a really big guy? Not fat or anything, but super tall, and just really big.
And it was weird, because he’d been around me all the time—in fact, I couldn’t get away from him—but all of a sudden, for the first time, I felt like I was really in his presence. And it was kind of a beautiful moment.

I wish I remembered that day more often. Because I really do—with all my heart—I really do hope that things work out for him.

Ryan Ruff Smith is a writer of fiction, literary nonfiction, and plays. In addition to New Ohio Review, his work has appeared in journals such as Ploughshares, Subtropics, and Green Mountains Review. He is currently the Tickner Writing Fellow at Gilman School in Baltimore (2019-21).

Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015

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