I Am the Ghost Here

Photo by Bob Price via Pexels

It is not until my older brother is thirty-three that I learn he’s controlled by a puppeteer. The truth comes out during a family emergency, when Jeff is unable to summon the puppeteer on short notice and must appear as himself for the first time. I don’t immediately recognize my brother as he hurries through the automatic doors of the hospital. He’s usually an alpha male, a founder who takes big strides and has a deep, booming voice, but this man is impatient, whiny, nervous, twitchy, weird. Normally my brother greets me with a compliment about my appearance. “Looking good, SunnyD,” he’d say. “Really fit. You’ve made some gains?” He’d nick-named me after the drink I chugged after judo practice as a kid. I am no longer a jock, but the nickname stuck. This man doesn’t use my nickname. He doesn’t greet me at all. He slinks up to me with his head down, like I am unfamiliar, except he is the one who is unfamiliar.

“Is Dad okay?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I’m waiting for an update. Mom’s in the back with him. We should know something in a few hours. Are you okay?”

“Fine, fine,” he says brusquely.

I ask my brother what is going on, why he is so unfriendly. He says that now is not the best time to get into it, that we should focus on my father’s surgery and forget about how weird he is acting. He slumps over in his seat as we wait for news. The hospital is noisy with other emergencies. I hear what sounds like a seizure. I hear the aftermath of surgery, screaming that sounds naked in its timbre. I thought a hospital would have better walls. I hope my father will not be screaming like that when he wakes up from his surgery.

“Remember when Dad accidentally ate one of your magic mushrooms and thought he went to Jupiter?” I ask Jeff, conjuring a happier memory. My mother had found these mushrooms in Jeff’s backpack and put them into a salad.

“The only time I saw Dad relaxed,” Jeff says, nodding. “Maybe he should have tried a few more shrooms…Maybe he wouldn’t have had a heart attack.”

A few hours later, the doctor emerges. My father has survived the operation and is expected to make a full recovery.

* * *

A few weeks later, my mother holds a family dinner to celebrate my father’s health. She cooks stir-fried rice noodles, papaya salad, chicken wings, and sticky rice. My brother decides this is the moment to introduce us to his puppeteer. He arrives as the brother we are familiar with, but after a few minutes of chitchat, a petite, red-headed woman pops out from inside of him and stands by his side. Her name is Michelle, she is Canadian, she is thirty-six, and she has over fifteen years of puppeteering experience. She says she has been scripting Jeff’s dialogue since he was in college. I didn’t become close to my brother until after he left for Stanford. In the summer breaks, when he returned home, he seemed happier, interested in connection. I assumed he had simply grown up, that the time away from home had been good for him.

I can tell my parents are uneasy with Michelle. They’ve heard rumors of celebrities hiring puppeteers, but no one we know in Seattle has mentioned using one. Using a puppeteer is not the kind of thing a well-adjusted person should do. My parents don’t have to speak to make their opinions clear. As they take turns making faces at Michelle, I ask her polite questions, like how she ended up in puppeteering. She tells us that she is an empath and being other people comes naturally to her. She says that she always wanted to work in the arts, that puppeteering uses her writing and acting skills. She even tells us a long, boring story about her high school theater days. We nod along.

As Michelle talks, it becomes clear that the intro was her idea, not Jeff’s. She is tired of doing her work anonymously. Unfortunately, no one is interested in offering the praise she so desperately seeks; we are preoccupied noticing how my brother is diminished without her; he isn’t gregarious, his arms are crossed, and his lips are arranged in the same permanent frown that he wore through high school, back when he would take his dinner to his room and eat alone while blasting Jane’s Addiction.

I try to imagine the kind of relationship I would have with this unmanned brother who quietly broods over his noodles. This guy doesn’t seem capable of organizing pickleball games. Instead of accompanying him to concerts, I would see him only at holidays. I refill Jeff’s whiskey glass, but the alcohol does nothing to lubricate him. As he sits hunched over in his chair, I hold out hope that the brother I love is somewhere in there. My mother is wearing a sweater that features a panda bear made of Swarovski crystals. Michelle leans over to inspect her face in the crystals, as Jeff would. She pretends to pick food out of her teeth.

“Where do you get a sweater like that, anyway?” she asks. “Do you have to insure it?”

My mother only glares.

I know what Michelle is doing. She is showing off her ability to embody Jeff. She doesn’t see that we are upset. I tell her to read the room, but she won’t shut up. My mother has held in her feelings as long as she can, and now she erupts. She is a small woman, just four-foot-ten, but the anger makes her tall. My father leans back as she leaps out of her chair.

“This is sick,” she shouts at Jeff. “This woman is a stranger! You let a stranger control you?”

“Let’s give her a chance,” I say. “He’s done well with Michelle. Look at what he’s accomplished!”

I don’t understand why my brother has chosen to be controlled, but after he went to college, he was a good older brother, more like a father or uncle at times. I think back to my parents’ explosive fights, when he did his best to reassure me. He said their mutual dysfunction had created two puzzle pieces that could never fit with anyone else.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he told me. “When they say they want a divorce, what they actually mean is that they want to remain fighting with each other forever. If they actually wanted to leave each other, they would have by now.” I would have run away from home if not for his assured tone.

“What if this lady drives you to murder someone?” my mother asks. “Only a weirdo would do this job.”

“You can trust Michelle,” he replies. “I checked her references.”

“Michelle seems like a trustworthy person,” I agree, even though I don’t know anything about her.

My mother is upset I am siding with my brother. She stomps out of the dining room, flinging the chicken bones at Michelle on her way out. My father follows with a look that says See what you’ve done? Michelle picks the bones out of her lap. My brother looks distraught.

“This was a mistake,” he says.

“Give them time,” I reply, even though I know time won’t help.

Michelle doesn’t bother popping back into him now that the evening is ruined. She leads Jeff out with her hand pressed against his back like she is still guiding him, even from outside. A few days later, I text my brother to ask if he wants to play darts. He doesn’t reply. The next weekend, he misses our standing NBA Jam date at the arcade. I eat my mother’s pad woon sen noodles alone in my bedroom. Jeff won’t speak to my parents. As weeks pass, he sees me only sparingly. I ask him about Michelle, but my questions disappoint him. He says I remind him of our parents, that I have absorbed their views. He is mad that I didn’t leave them. I lived at home during college and have only recently moved a few blocks down the road, close enough to make my mother happy, but far enough that I can shut the door on them when needed.

The holidays are particularly difficult without Jeff around. Thanksgiving isn’t the same without my brother’s cheerful stories, his jokes about his bad Tinder dates — though I guess these were Michelle’s jokes. Either way, I miss him. My parents can’t let a holiday pass without making a colorful shitstorm. They cry through Thanksgiving dinner, break dishes on Christmas. There are ghosts of angry relatives floating around us. My mother threatens to rip out her hair and my father stands clothed in a bathtub full of water in an attempt to show us he is drowning. My mother threatens to leave my father and move back to Thailand, though she didn’t like her life in Thailand to begin with. You think I liked squatting to go tinkle? she once asked me. Her alcoholic mother had made her life hell, but still, she always threatens to move back just as soon as the days get too short.

I can’t make it through the holiday without my brother. He could talk my father out of the tub. He could make my mother giggle.

“Can’t you apologize to Jeff?” I beg my father. “Let him know you approve of Michelle?”

“I don’t approve,” my father says, shivering.

“But he came when you were in the hospital,” I say. “He was there for you.”

“All this time, we never knew who he was,” my mother says. “I can’t get past that. And Michelle’s not Thai. What does she know about a Thai person? Has she ever made sticky rice? Does she make bone broth and smash garlic in her fists? No wonder he’s so American. No wonder he stopped speaking Thai.”

“Shouldn’t have sent him away,” my father shouts from the tub. “Go to college, get weird ideas for two-hundred-k.”

“What would it take to restore the trust?” I ask.

My mother gives the question some thought.

“An apology would be a start,” she says finally. “From him,” she adds. “Not Michelle.”

A few days later, I get dinner with my brother. He is his best self, complimenting my new hat. I tell him I melted it myself, out of vinyl records. I hate being caught between my brother and my parents. I shouldn’t be trusted in high-stakes situations, but I do my best to negotiate with Jeff.

“Could you apologize to Mom?” I ask. “It’s not your fault she was rude, but you did mislead her.”

“This sounds like victim-blaming,” he replies. “I haven’t done anything wrong. They’re the ones who should apologize.”

Pressing the issue has upset him. His cheeks are red and his forehead is damp. I quickly reassure him that I am on his side, that I have always been on his side, that I will always be on his side. We switch topics into inconsequential nonsense: the Seahawks’ offensive line; our weekend plans. Then Michelle steps out and lets us know she is double-booked and will need to leave a few minutes early. I breathe a sigh of relief even though this means she will be leaving me with a version of Jeff I barely know. We wait for her to make her way out of earshot before we continue the conversation. She lights up a cigarette as soon as she is outside the double doors, then glances down at her phone. I don’t believe that I will ever like Michelle, even though I love who she is when she is my brother. I want to accept the arrangement, but I am still having trouble processing the fact that the person I rely on is not him.

“I know this is weird,” Jeff says in a low, shaky voice. “Michelle can come off as…”

“Grating?” I suggest. “Attention-seeking?”

He shrugs.

“The thing is, I need her,” he says. “She saved my life.”

He tells me that he had a hard time in college. He was crippled with anxiety, overcome with self-hatred after bombing a test. He was used to being the best in his class, but at Stanford, he was surrounded by students who were much smarter than him. He feared going home to my parents, who expected him to graduate at the top of his class. He tried shrooms to ease his depression. A therapist recommended that Jeff hire a puppeteer to guide him. Only the wealthiest kids had access to puppeteers, but Michelle was just starting out and offered to intern for free to get experience. It was only meant to be a short-term solution for his mental health crisis, but once Michelle took over, the arrangement worked so well that he was afraid to end it. With Michelle inside, he quickly transformed himself from depressed burnout to a successful entrepreneur, someone who didn’t hate himself, someone who could pay off his parents’ mortgage, someone his family could be proud of. My mother had told him it was the responsibility of the first-born Asian son to be this person, and now he was. I can see, in retrospect, how much pressure my parents put on him. He was meant to be the star of the family. They didn’t move to America to produce someone like me. I work as a receptionist in a salon for old, rich Asian ladies and have never met a man who was interested in me. My parents say I don’t understand social conventions. Usually when I talk too much, people feel concerned.

Jeff tells me not to blame them for pushing him. He says he is better off now. He enjoys being popular. He enjoys having the confidence to lead a TED Talk, even if Michelle is supplying the confidence.

“But what happens after Michelle leaves?” I ask. “Where do you start and where does she end?”

“There is no Jeff without Michelle,” he says, in a worrying tone.

My question must have offended him because he stops taking my calls. I am forced to carry on an unfathomable life without him, one filled with dinners with my parents, who berate me for never landing a rich man. Seahawks games are boring without Jeff’s amusing commentary. I no longer get invited to parties. I try going to concerts alone, but I feel like an imposter and end up hanging out by myself on the back wall for a few songs before I sneak out.

* * *

A few years later, I see Jeff at the grocery store. My brother is beaming the most a person could beam. He is with someone who I presume is his wife. She is beautiful, even though all of her features are slightly off-center and her legs are the length of her arms. Jeff is in full puppetee mode, that huge grin engineered by Michelle. I wave and call out to him. He rushes away and I realize he is afraid that I will blow his cover. His square wife has no idea that Jeff’s charm isn’t real.

Later, at dinner, my mother complains that I am sad like her mother — she couldn’t have imagined a worse fate than to give birth to the person she was trying to escape. I protest that I’m not an alcoholic. Am I sad? Yes, probably. But Jeff might be the saddest one of all of us. And I realize just then that the reason we dislike the real Jeff is because he is one of us.

* * *

One day, I get a call from Jeff’s wife. She says she found my number in his address book. She tells me Jeff has run off and left her alone with their five-year-old son, Danny. He hadn’t told her where he was going. He left in the middle of the night with only one suitcase. She wants to know if Jeff is seeing someone else. I tell her it’s likely not that and then call Michelle. It isn’t difficult to track her down — she has a robust web presence. She says that she is no longer working with Jeff and has no idea where he is. I look for my brother in our old haunts — music venues like Neumos and the Crocodile — but I can’t find him. The police open a case, but a runaway father is not their priority. They assume he has left of his own volition.

* * *

There is one silver lining. I become a full-time aunt to Jeff’s son, Danny, who looks just like him. Danny is warm, gregarious, and confident. Even at five, he greets me with a compliment.

“My favorite aunt!” he exclaims as I walk up. I am his only aunt.

“My favorite sister!” Jeff used to exclaim when he came home from college.

Danny is eager to hear stories about his father. I tell him the first one that comes to mind.

“One time I caught him swinging a baseball bat at a beehive in my parents’ backyard,” I say. “He was trying to be heroic, but the bees swarmed his head. He was lucky he ended up with only two stings. My mother told him he was nuts, but she was secretly pleased he had managed to whack the beehive into a neighbor’s yard. For the next year, all we heard about was how Jeff outran thousands of bees. ‘Stronger than nature,’ is how she put it.”

When Danny is older, we spend our afternoons listening to Jeff’s records. I take him to see The Sea and Cake. He jerks his shoulder to the music just like his father did. He makes me mixtapes.

When Danny drops out of Stanford to start a virtual reality company, I buy him a congratulatory beer, forgetting he is just eighteen. He is ambitious, like Jeff, but success comes more easily to him. He doesn’t have to work hard to be charismatic. He is lucky not to be the child of immigrants. There is no pressure on him.

Danny is working on a device that allows a person to relive their favorite moments. He says he wants to reunite people with their loved ones, their exes. On my birthday, he gives me a headset.

“I know how much you miss Dad,” he says. “Now you can spend time with him again.”
The machine sends me back to a time when Jeff was home from college for winter break. In retrospect, it was the first time I saw Michelle’s version of him. He somberly sweeps up the broken forks and bent spoons, my parents’ angry shrapnel, and ushers me away from the house. We head to the arcade and he tells me that everything is going to be okay, that I will be off to college soon and won’t have to deal with our parents’ fights. He says that his life is much better now. He has wounds from our childhood, but they are not at the forefront of his mind anymore. We spend the evening at a Murder City Devils show on Capitol Hill. I take off the headset and Danny is smiling back at me with the same reassuring grin. He asks me if I enjoyed the show and squints at me like Jeff did when he grinned. And I realize that Jeff must be inside of Danny, pulling the strings — and that this is why I can’t find him.

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