Shelter from the Storm – Guest author Megan Kruse

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There’s an anecdote that my mother tells, about my grandfather. I
only met him a handful of times, when I was young, when he made the long trip
from Calumet City, Illinois to the backwoods of Washington. I was six or seven;
my brother was maybe four. The anecdote goes like this: “I remember your
grandfather looking at you, Megan, and looking at your brother,” my mother
says, “and he said, ‘She is so mean to him. Just so mean.’”
The anecdote torments me. I imagine my late grandfather’s impression
of me, and the mark of his disapproval burning indelibly into some cosmic ledger
as he weighs my cruel heart. The worst part, though, is that it was true.
To say I was a bully is to undersell my art. I was a connoisseur. I
collected tips and tricks; I planned ahead. I honed and refined my craft. It
would be impossible to relate all of the tribulations I induced upon my brother,
but a highlight reel might include me luring him into an upturned crate and
pushing him out into the frigid February creek, where he quickly sank; the
myriad ways I convinced him to touch the electric fence of a nearby ranch
(“What if you touch it with this blade of grass? What if you stand in this
bucket of water while you touch it?”); and the way I called him “Ribsy” for
years because of a slightly malformed rib—successfully hiding the fact that I
have the same curved rib on my left side.
I spent hours playing a game I invented, “Going to Funland.” I
pretended to be a passing train, bound for a land of countless delights. I described
it to him in florid detail, then pretended to sell him a ticket. Whooping an
imaginary steam whistle, I would run past him, announcing that he had missed
the train. I would sell him another ticket, and the Sisyphusian process would
begin again. Other times, taxed with all of that running, I would wedge him
behind the sofa and leave him there, or blindfold him and make him taste dog
food. I spent a whole summer bribing him with an oversized lollipop, a prize
from a small-town carnival. The lollipop rested perpetually in the freezer, and
when I wanted something, I’d say solemnly, “If you don’t do it, I won’t share
the lollipop.” By the end of the summer, I’d streamlined my approach, so that
when I wanted something from him, all I needed to do was to intone, “Lolly,
Ryan. Lolly.”
When my mother brings the anecdote up, I always say the same thing:
“But we loved each other.” And it’s true. I pushed my brother into the
neighbor’s buffalo pasture and made him run for his life, but I also knew the
particular stump on our property where he went when he was upset. He learned to
play the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” on the saxophone for me,
and Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” on the guitar. He was the first person
I came out to. I was terrible to him, but I also brought him to drink cheap
coffee at midnight when he was a self-proclaimed teenage nihilist, driving him
in my tin can Geo Metro and wearing slippers with fluffy dogs’ heads mounted on
the toes to make him laugh. I lured him back from the crying stump again and
again.
The other part of this story is about fear. It is about the
persistent, aching fear I have that love is not constant, that it can be
revoked at a moment’s notice. That if your personality is complicated, if you are
angry, if you say the wrong thing or don’t do what you are asked, you might be
left alone in your life. People will disappear, leaving you in the void of your
shortcomings.
At the height of my bullying, my parents’ refrain was a low warning: “One
day, he’ll be bigger than you. One day, he’ll reap his revenge.” I have tiptoed through most of my life in fear of
disappointing the people I love, of driving them away, but
for years, I flagrantly
tossed the dice with my brother. I gave him every reason to choose against me,
to decide that I wasn’t worth his love, that I’d gone too far with the electric
fence, or the allowance stealing, or the hours spent barricading him in the
hall closet.  
Two years ago, after a decade of wandering from city to city across
the United States and Europe, I moved back to my home state, where my brother
lives. The move was difficult. But for the first time since I was seventeen,
Ryan and I live near each other.
We talk every day now, and it’s never about the bullying. It’s about
the things we remember, or about our lives now. It happened easily, so I almost
didn’t need to think about it: we were just close again. He is one of the very
first on the list of the people I love, and I understand that his isn’t keeping
a ledger book, or taking stock of how I treated him in our isolated, rural
childhood. I gave him my worst, and now I am giving him my best, and we have
moved forward.
We’re at a point of our lives now when it’s real, when you start to
realize that you’re not going to arrive at your shining future one day, but
that it is happening now. And in spite of the past, he is here. It is the
deepest comfort, to know that he will be here in all the terrifying dark
moments that will make up our lives, all the losses. That he will be there for
the greatest joys. And slowly, I’m beginning to carry that knowledge into the
other parts of my life. It’s something that I should have known, and should
have chosen against exploiting: That love isn’t fragile, but hardy, capable of
weathering conflict and abuses of power. That is endures. It endures even
through the worst things, the hurt and the false steps. Even through the sorrow
of a freezer-burnt lollipop, upturned in the trash at the end of a long,
grueling summer.  

 

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Megan
Kruse’s first novel, “Call Me Home,” is forthcoming from Hawthorne
Press in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. Find her
at megannicolekruse.com

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