by Heather Osterman-Davis | Stuck in the middle, together.


My parents go to Bogotá and come back with an emerald and a child. I already have an older sister and a baby brother. The new child was supposed to be three, but he’s seven like me. My mother tells us that during their first meal he ate a chicken leg, including the bone. They didn’t realize until it was gone.

One night, my parents leave us with a babysitter and a lima bean casserole. I decide we should feed my new brother all of it. He eats bowl after bowl as our babysitter looks on. I wait for her to stop us, but she just laughs.

We move from the Midwest to New York. My body’s too soft to endear or protect me and I talk too much in class. Eventually I make friends until half-jokingly I propose to another girl with a paper ring. Then I’m banished again. My brother’s English is still rough and he ends up in the slow class. He throws rocks at kids’ heads, comes home with papers scratched with red. We forge a fierce bond over our outsider status. We hide in the loft eating forbidden Cheez Doodles, whispering that our parents love our golden siblings more than us.

When we’re teenagers, our parents divorce and our commiseration morphs into cruelty. These things are concurrent but not connected. We know exactly how to hurt each other most.

You’re a fat ugly bitch. No one likes you.

Go back to Colombia where you belong. You were never wanted.

One night, when my mother is at her boyfriend’s, my brother runs out of words. He jumps on me, hands smashing my breasts, forearm across my mouth. I escape, run to my room and slam the door, pressing hard against it. He grabs his Boy Scout knife and stabs at the wood again and again until my heartbeat matches the rhythm.

My brother moves into my father’s house. I don’t visit when he’s there. Once, I accidentally use his toothbrush and gag until I hyperventilate. I finish high school; he goes to a residential program. I go to college; he gets a job cleaning carpets. We write each other letters: I’m sorry. I forgive you. You’re the only one that understood me. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.

His girlfriend gets pregnant and they get married in my mom’s backyard. I make their wedding cake. It’s three tiers, covered in buttercream and pink roses and only slightly lopsided. I don’t eat it because I consider eating a weakness, but I pose for pictures holding it out, my biceps straining under its weight.

When his daughter is four, my stepmother is giving her a bath and finds bruises dotting her spine. An investigation shows they are not my brother’s doing, but his home is deemed unsafe. His daughter moves in with my dad but does not move out. I go to graduate school, where my days are fueled by salads and sugar-free popsicles. I whittle myself away until one day I hear a doctor joke to a nurse, “I gave her a shot in the ass. Trust me, that’s no anorexic.” What’s the point of starving if you’re still here? I start eating again.

My brother gets divorced but gets his ex pregnant again. My parents are angry but unsurprised. I think they constantly replay the day they stood at the orphanage door, a too-old child staring back at them wide-grinned, half-toothless—only this time they shake their heads, murmur, sorry, sorry, before walking away.

I meet “the one” at thirty-five and within six months we’re engaged. I ask my parents if I should invite my brother to the wedding. They say no, it would just be a burden, he’d have to worry about an outfit, a gift. These aren’t reasons but I accept them as such.

We see each other on holidays but seldom in between. He has a third kid with someone new. We become friends on Facebook, message occasionally. I have two kids. My three-year-old son gets very sick and ends up in the hospital. When I’m sure he’ll live I write an emotional status update. My brother messages me within minutes.

Why didn’t anyone tell me?

I barely told anyone.

Everyone else knew?


I’m not really part of this family.

I’m sorry.

I am never included; I just want to be included.

I invite him to my daughter’s first birthday. He comes and brings his youngest daughter. I make a cake in the shape of the hungry caterpillar, segment after segment of half domes connecting to form a body. There’s a buffet, including a pile of fried chicken. My brother helps himself and sits down with the rest of our family. He holds up a drumstick, smiles, then eats silently. When he’s done, a pile of bones lies on his plate, stripped bare of meat and skin.

Heather Osterman-Davis is an unapologetic genre jumper. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, the New York Times, Slate, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Washington Post, among others. You can find her on the site formerly known as Twitter @HeatherOsterman.

This essay originally appeared in Tin House (2017).

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