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March 20th, 2014 - Caylin Capra-Thomas

First day of spring in Missoula, 42 degrees. I’m 26, and I live alone in the edge-lands between argument and aria: the doomed couple next door’s sloshed, cacophonous conflicts and student opera singers downstairs belting scales. But my tiny apartment is quiet today. I’m looking out the window past some new life’s astringent greenery towards the still-snowy mountains that hug the town. I’m on the phone. I’m calling a long-term drug and alcohol recovery center in Georgia, where my big brother has been since December. It’s his 34th birthday.


I have always known Curtis was an equinox baby, but I have also always had trouble remembering whether his exact birthdate is the 20th or the 21st. Perhaps this is because the vernal equinox can fall anywhere between March 19th and March 21st, or perhaps it is because I have, as one high school teacher put it, the memory span of a goldfish. Well. Joke’s on you, Mr.—. Would a goldfish remember this?




Curtis also had Mr.—, who told me he remembered my brother best for having ingeniously taped quiz answers to the front of his own teacher’s desk where he couldn’t see them. This was Curt’s reputation—a bright kid who used a lot of his brainpower to circumnavigate the rules. I envied him for this. I feared the very whiff of trouble, no matter its object or their guilt. My stomach churned with dread for movie villains getting their comeuppance. At seven, I followed closely the Tonya Harding trial, hoping against hope they’d let her off, let her skate around again. And when in fourth grade I found pot plants growing in Curtis’s closet, I watered them with ammonia so he wouldn’t be found out.


There was a rumor that Mr.— had dated a former student shortly after she graduated. I don’t know if that’s true, but Curtis was convinced.  One day, Mr.— came into the restaurant where Curt was working after high school and said something snide like, “No college, huh? You still working in the kitchen?”

Curtis shot back, “You still diddlin’ teenage girls?”

I was proud of him for that. My brother, fearless moral defender. My brother, who cared not one lick for what anyone thought.


Of course, he did care what people thought. Some, anyway. His girlfriends, our mom, maybe me. Maybe my dad, although they didn’t talk anymore. Perhaps his dad, too, who I didn’t even know existed until fifth grade when I unearthed Curtis’s baby book and found an unfamiliar name under “father.” We were home alone that afternoon, and I remember him emerging from his dank den, long bleach-dipped hair rumpled from a nap. He was looking through the blinds, always looking through the blinds. On our rural road, we could only see trees and the occasional flock of turkeys. I didn’t understand what he always looking for.

“Curt,” I said, “Did you know that dad’s, like, not your dad?”

He didn’t flinch. He barely blinked.

“Curt,” I said.

His eyes followed something I couldn’t see beyond the glass.

“Let me know if the mail comes,” he said. He hitched up his baggy jeans and shuffled back to his room.




Curtis isn’t allowed a phone at the recovery center. He’s not even allowed to take calls. His only communication with the outside world is through the mail. He fills pages with tiny script on sobriety and gardening and hunting feral hogs and feeling things, really feeling things, all the way down and without relief. How do you people do it? he writes. Feel stuff all the time? 


I pace the shag-carpeted length of my apartment while the phone rings. I consider hanging up—he can’t even take my call—when a man answers. I begin a rambling speech about how I know residents can’t take calls, but that it’s my brother’s birthday, and I want to know if someone could tell him happy birthday for me. The man says sure, and who should he say called?

“His sister,” I say.

“His sister,” he says. “Which sister?”

“He only has one,” I say, and we hang up.


Days later, I’ll remember: we have two stepsisters.


My sense of duty satisfied, I return to my life. I am 26. I am a poet living alone in two cheap rooms with a mountain view. At night, I take bad phone photos of the moon. I don’t have a table, and I eat off a plank laid over two chairs. All my friends are beautiful and brilliant and crack me open with laughter at bars, where well liquor is $3, and it still feels like there are new kinds of nights to be had. 


Still, having thwarted so much of it in youth, trouble isn’t quite done with me. Next year, the $3 scotch will start bringing on migraines. An old love will be found dead of an overdose, and a hoard of blowflies will descend on my tiny palace from a gap between the built-in pantry and the wall. Some trapped rodent’s black-robed soul collectors buzzing and plotting on every summer-bright window. Remember us, they’ll say. Or maybe it’ll be, Remember us? I’m not sure if I will. If I do. I’m so young, so self-absorbed, the world beyond this fishbowl town a muffled rumor. My brother, who used fall asleep sitting sentinel in front of my door while our parents argued, is realms away and unsure of the shape his life will take beyond the chores and other troubled men, beyond the ceaseless feeling and confession of feeling, and all I can do is write poems and pursue calamitous relationships and take grainy photos through dirty windows of the moon. Of the moon.


But trouble, now, is done with Curtis. Soon, he’ll leave Georgia and start over back home. Over the next ten years, he’ll become a master electrician and buy a house and a Dachshund named Squeaks. His son will look exactly like him, eyes aquarium-blue. When he reaches for his father’s hand, my nephew will find it. My brother’s son will know him.




It’s a myth, you know, the thing about the goldfish’s memory. Goldfish can learn different faces, and if you feed them, they’ll take to following you the length of the tank, back and forth watching through the glass, waiting to be fed or recognized. So many who look just want to be seen. Sometimes, the goldfish will even swim up and take it—take it right out of your hand.


Caylin Capra-Thomas's first poetry collection, Iguana Iguana (Deep Vellum) was named a Best New Poetry Book for Adults by the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared widely, but you can find some more of her essays in recent issues of Georgia Review and cream city review. A recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Studios of Key West, she was the 2018-2020 poet-in-residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy and is currently a PhD candidate in English and creative writing at the University of Missouri. 

Folks who feel so inclined could send a donation to Free Verse, a program Caylin helped found in Montana that brings creative writing programming into Montana juvenile detention centers. 


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