On a Brother

It’s 1939 and page fifty-nine in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. Josef Kavalier, age 19, has returned to his parents’ flat in Prague three days after they said goodbye to him and put him on a train for a better life in America. He needs to retrieve the suit of a giant from his father’s closet without anyone seeing him and make a second attempt to escape to America without his parents knowing he failed the first time—that their sacrifices have been wasted.

Josef arrives to find his younger brother, Thomas, asleep in the hallway. Josef’s parents have been ordered out of the apartment in the three days he’s been gone, and Thomas wants to spend one more night in the apartment, but he can’t pick the lock to get inside.

Josef wakes him and unlocks the door. This is the last time they’ll ever see each other.

A hand on each of Thomas’s shoulders, Josef steered his brother back to the room they had shared for the last eleven years. With some blankets and a slipless pillow that he found in a trunk, he made up a bed on the floor. Then he dug around in some other crates until he found an old children’s alarm clock, a bear’s face eared with a pair of brass bells, which he would set for five-thirty.

“You have to be back there by six,” he said, “or they’ll miss you.”

Thomas nodded and climbed between the blankets of the makeshift bed. “I wish I could go with you,” he said.

“I know,” Josef said. He brushed the hair from Thomas’s forehead. “So do I. But you’ll be joining me soon enough.”

“Do you promise?”

“I will make sure of it,” Josef said. “I won’t rest until I’m meeting your ship in the harbor of New York City.”

“On that island that they have,” Thomas said, his eyes fluttering, “With the Statue of Liberation.”

“I promise,” Josef said.

“Swear.”

“I swear.”

“Swear by the River Styx.”

“I swear it,” Josef said, “by the River Styx.”

Then he leaned down and, to the surprise of both of them, kissed his brother on the lips. It was the first such kiss between them since the younger had been an infant and the elder a doting boy in knee pants.

“Goodbye, Josef,” said Thomas.

I can’t know if you need the entire context of the first fifty-nine pages, or if you need to have brothers you don’t see more than once a year, to cry when you read this scene, because I’ve read this book four times.

But I think of Billy, my brother, every time I read this scene, and it fills me pain and sorrow and it’s difficult to see through the tears while I’m typing this.

I am not Josef and he’s not Thomas at all, but I left and we don’t talk and I love him and it’s a perpetual regret of mine that things are the way they are—that I may have died for him when I left for North Carolina almost twenty years ago. That I’m dead still.