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AS LONG AS WE WERE TOGETHER, NOTHING BAD COULD HAPPEN TO US
Jon saw the stack of articles about the war in Chechnya on my coffee table and looked up at me appraisingly. "You thinking of going back?"
"Oh, I don't know," I said, glancing around my living room, "not really." But my older brother knew me too well to believe that. "I guess so."
As journalists who always seemed to cover dangerous places, Jon and I had both had some close calls over the years, but a high percentage of mine had come during a single three-week period in Chechnya in 1995, and I'd returned from there quite rattled. Now, in February 2000, the Russians and Chechens were at war again, it was at least as vicious as before, and for reasons that weren't clear even to me, I wanted to return.
"You think it's a bad idea?" I asked.
Jon pondered this. "Remember Sarajevo?" He saw the puzzled look on my face. "The land mine?"
I laughed. In the summer of 1996, I'd done an astonishingly stupid thing in Bosnia. The war had ended six months earlier, but there were still mines everywhere, and one day I'd gone hiking in the hills above Sarajevo. Walking down a dirt trail I didn't know, I'd nearly stepped on a partially exposed mine in the path. On trembling legs, I'd spent the next two hours gingerly making my way back up the trail. I'd told Jon about it as a kind of humorous, embarrassing anecdote.
"But that was just idiotic," I said. "I got careless."
"Yeah, but you almost got yourself killed in peacetime. Don't you think that's kind of an omen?"
By the time of that conversation in my living room, Jon and I had spent most of our adult lives writing about the worst people and places in the world. That month, I had recently returned from northern Albania, where I'd reported a story on blood vendettas, while Jon was about to head off for war-ruined Angola. When we got together–which, given our schedules, was only about every six months–we talked of where we had just been, where we were thinking of going next.
What we did not talk about–at least not directly–was how any of this affected us. Instead, we had developed a kind of verbal shorthand with each other, the sharing of anecdotes, like mine about the ill-advised hike in Bosnia, that had no real punch lines: "And then I walked back to the hotel," or, "For a while it looked like they were going to shoot us, but then they waved us on and we drove to the capital." We didn't need punch lines; we'd both had enough of these moments to know what the other had felt.
Yet the sharing of these oblique stories served a purpose. My brother and I had both become increasingly superstitious over the years, convinced that all the narrow escapes in our past made it less likely that we would escape in the future, and we relied on each other to tote up the odds. "Is this bet too risky?" "Do I walk away from this story now?" And the reason we sought this guidance from one another was because, in a peculiar way, our stakes were joined, rooted in a secret fear that had held us all our adult lives: that something would happen to the other when he was off in the world and alone, that one of us would die on the other's watch.
The seed of this, I believe, had been planted twenty-five years earlier, in the first great journey my brother and I shared. Whether coincidence or not, that journey also marked the first time we began to regard each other with anything more than contempt.
Summer afternoons are always brutally hot in Gainesville, Florida, but this one, in the middle of June 1975, had been downright perverse. I'd come home from soccer practice wanting nothing more than to lie in front of the air conditioner, only to find my parents huddled close together at the dining-room table. I was surprised to see my father there—my parents had recently divorced, and he came around less and less often—but then I noticed that they were poring over a postcard.
"It's from your brother," my mother said, handing me the card. "He's had a bad accident."
The photo showed some mangy-looking beach in Honduras. On the back, Jon had crammed about eight hundred tiny words—economical, perhaps, but mostly incomprehensible. Something about building a rock wall, collecting coconuts, meeting a witch doctor. The salient details were in the postscript: "P.S. Writing this from hospital. Accidentally kicked a machete and sliced open right foot. Swollen up to three times normal. Doctors say infected, maybe gangrenous, might have to amputate. Ah well, c'est la vie. Much love, Jon."
"Gee, that's a damned shame," I said, and faked a somber look for several seconds. "Well, gotta go take a shower."
While it was something our parents had refused to acknowledge, Jon and I were not close. If I really tried, I could dimly recall some pleasant moments in our early childhood, but not many. Much stronger was the memory of the day Jon decided to teach me how to catch by heaving a large rock at my head, leaving a jagged scar through my upper lip. I was six then, Jon eight, and it was a harbinger of the violence to come; from then on he beat me up almost daily. By the summer of 1975, though, I'd barely seen Jon for two years and was quite happy to keep it that way—and if he lost a foot, well, it might just even the playing field in our next fistfight.
But I also saw precisely where this little gathering in the dining room was headed, for on the table next to my father was a small pile of papers: plane tickets, a thin vinyl folder of traveler's checks, and, on top, a half sheet of thin paper that I recognized as a telex record. Somebody was being press-ganged into rescuing Jon in Honduras, and from the way my parents stared at me, I had a pretty good idea who.
This might require a bit of explaining about my family. My brother, my three sisters, and I had spent most of our childhoods being bounced from one Third World country to the next, the result of our father being a foreign-aid officer for the American government. That upbringing, combined with our parents' hands-off approach to child rearing, had instilled in most of us a fiercely self-sufficient and adventurous streak. Jon, for example, had hitchhiked across East Africa by himself at thirteen. Our oldest sister, Michelle, had solo-trekked the Kalahari Desert on horseback at seventeen. At fourteen, I had spent two months on my own in Bangkok.
The catch to all this freedom, though, came into play whenever something went awry with one of us kids. Rather than directly involving themselves in the problem, our parents felt far more comfortable casting another of their children into the fray, and it was with Jon that problems most consistently arose. The previous year, he had dropped out of high school and, after announcing that he was off to the Spanish Sahara to join the Polisario guerrillas in their independence war against Morocco, promptly vanished somewhere between England and North Africa. Our parents had dispatched Michelle, then twenty, to search for him, and she'd eventually found him in the Canary Islands, living on the beach as he tried to repair an old boat he was planning to sail to the war zone. She'd hauled him back to the States, but it hadn't been long before Jon had set out once more, this time to Honduras to help build a friend's house on the Caribbean coast. That's where he had been for the past six months, and now he was in trouble again.
"You're sending Michelle, right?" I asked hopefully, reaching for the telex slip. My parents shook their heads.
My father loved sending telexes. They were charged by the word, with a maximum of ten characters per word, and he could spend hours devising messages that gave him his money's worth. This one was addressed to the main post office in La Ceiba, the town in Honduras where Jon got his mail, and he'd obviously put a lot of effort into it: scottcomes tohonduras tomorrowpm. norepeatno amputation beforethen lovemompop.
This was aggravating. My sophomore year in high school had ended a week earlier, and I had big plans for my summer vacation. It was more than that, though. I had always been the good son, the dutiful one, while Jon had always been the hellion, the one who'd started having run-ins with the law at age eleven. It was he who had introduced me to the fine art of shoplifting at eight, and, as he constantly reminded me, we never would have been caught if I hadn't started stealing expensive cigars to give to our father to assuage my guilt.
"Look," I said to my parents in the dining room, "Jon has been nothing but trouble to you people for years; did you stop to think that losing a foot might be just the thing to straighten him out?"
I think that for the briefest of moments my parents actually considered the idea. Then my father shook his head. "Let's not make a big deal out of this. All you have to do is go down there, get him out of the hospital, and put him on a plane home. You'll be back before you know it."
The Paris bar was one of the only places in La Ceiba with air-conditioning, and it felt pleasingly arctic compared to outside. Jon and I sat at a window table, sipping from beers and staring out at the plaza. I was not in a good mood. An hour earlier, I'd been sitting on the front steps of the tiny airport terminal in La Ceiba, contemplating how to find the hospital, when a small blue pickup truck raced up the driveway and came to a skidding, sideways stop. From out of the passenger seat leapt my brother. He was wearing a straw hat and had a sheathed machete dangling from one hip, and as he nimbly loped up the steps toward me, I couldn't help but notice that he still had both his feet. As it turned out, Jon had sent his fateful postcard nearly a month earlier, and, with the aid of penicillin injections, his foot was now fine.
"So why the hell didn't you call to say you were okay?" I asked.
"Well, I thought about it, but..." Jon shrugged lamely. After about a three-second pose of remorse, he grinned and gave a dismissive little backward flip of his hand-a new gesture. "Ah well," he said, "c'est la vie. Now that you're here, we'll just make the best of it. Come on, let's go into town."
I didn't have a lot of choice in the matter; the plane that had brought me had just taken off for the return to Miami, and there wouldn't be another one for two days. Angrily grabbing my rucksack, I followed Jon down to the pickup and climbed in for the ride to La Ceiba and the Paris bar.
Our conversation so far had been desultory, with lots of long silences and me staring fixedly out the window. Despite my bad mood, I was struck by how much my brother's appearance had changed in the six months since I'd last seen him: He was deeply tanned and muscular beneath his white T-shirt, and his blond hair had turned even blonder in the tropics. With his machete and his battered straw hat tilted to a rakish angle, he seemed like some Hollywood prototype of a jungle explorer. I fell to studying the machete, hanging from his belt to brush the floor.
"So, what's with the knife?" I asked.
He drew the machete, handed it to me by the black plastic handle. "Whacking things. Down here, you've always got to whack something."
It felt good, heavy, in the hand. The blade was nearly three feet long and razor sharp. I tried a couple of short wrist-flick swings in the air before giving it back.
"You know," Jon said, sliding the machete into its sheath, "now that you're here, you should stay awhile. My job just ended, and we can knock around, have some fun."
Beyond the dirty plate-glass window was La Ceiba's main square, a bedraggled little plaza with some rusting statue in the middle. I hadn't seen anything in Honduras so far that resembled fun. "Maybe you've forgotten," I said, "but we don't really like each other."
He seemed surprised by this. "I always thought we got along pretty well. Oh, sure, we had our little spats every once in a while, but all brothers go through that. It's not like I gave you any permanent scars or anything."
I leaned over the table, pointed to the thin scar in my lip where Jon had hit me with the rock ten years before. Throughout growing up, I'd been rather self-conscious about the scar, a self-consciousness Jon had done his best to promote by constantly referring to it as "the harelip." He squinted to see where I was pointing. "Oh, Christ," he said, "are you still on about the harelip? I apologized for that years ago." He sat back in disgust, motioned to the waitress for two more beers. I returned to staring out the window.
"So how are things in Florida?" Jon asked after a while.
A hard question to answer. Our family had disintegrated exactly two years earlier. My father had taken me out of school, and we'd spent a year traveling together across Europe and the Middle East, but then he'd left me in Florida with my mother and taken to the road again. I'd spent the next six months there plotting my escape: hitchhiking to wherever my father might be, heading to the Yukon to pan for gold with a Scottish guy I'd met on a ship crossing the Atlantic. It had only been very recently that I'd tried to adjust and settle into a normal high school existence. At the Paris bar, I told Jon only about that part—about my friends, soccer, girls I was interested in—but I could tell he wasn't buying it.
"It's not going to work, you know. Fitting in, becoming an American—it's not going to work. We started too late to belong anywhere. The only thing we'll ever belong to is this family, each other."
He looked out the window, his eyes darting over the plaza. It was late afternoon, and the streets of La Ceiba were gradually coming back to life, couples strolling through the plaza, lottery-ticket sellers calling for customers in strange, bullfrog voices.
"And we're always going to end up in places like this."