I sat there on the top bunk, my head gently brushing the apartment ceiling, as I looked down at him on the floor. His brown eyes enlarged as they begged for forgiveness. At four years old, the ladder that led to the top bunk presented too much of a challenge, and so he remained gazing up at me from the carpet. I dangled a gold, plastic ring from my finger: the kind you get from one of those machines at the dentist’s office that you stick a quarter in and turn the knob to get a prize. As I began to count down from ten, his desire for mercy turned into fear of the nonexistent.
From my angle, if I let the ring fall it would land perfectly into the small, purple trash can below, and he knew it. But never once did he remove his ring. Perhaps it was out of sheer devotion or perhaps because even in that moment he somehow knew the value of a seemingly valueless object.
We called them our best buddy rings. Mine had a sun on the top and his: a volcano, but we never truly thought about what these symbols meant. All that they were to us was a physical representation of siblings bounded to love each other unconditionally, but held to a higher standard of chosen friendship. Yet I couldn’t now help but wonder how heat could bring life to a world, yet destroy the very life that it created. There is some maddening beauty in a place of both bliss and anguish, scarred by inherent imperfection and healed by the newfound layers of strength.
I was only two years older than him, but as I moved the ring between my fingertips, I could feel a gripping power that balanced the ring on the edge of time and space. His puffy cheeks began to turn a shade of pink. But he wasn’t embarrassed because he did not do as I asked, nor because he couldn’t climb up the ladder. No, his cheeks darkened because he could not decide whether to surrender or fight, and in this world, a lost soul is a weak one.
While I enjoyed the dominance and authority that come with being the first-born sibling, I still looked forward to the day when we would be equals. He would climb up the ladder and meet me on the top bunk, and we would sit side by side, looking down at the empty carpet where he once resided. Years later, he said that there was something holy about breaking a loaf of bread next to each other at the kitchen table. Our family was not religious, so I never quite understood what he meant by it, but I didn’t have to comprehend to feel the equality among us. He always may have seen me as the same girl who once stood above him, counting backward from ten until she got what she wanted, but ironically I never did.
The ladder and top bunk were mainly just for show or when I needed a pedestal to declare my power. Most nights I would tiptoe down the ladder and curl up into his bed. I used to tell myself that his bed was comfier because not only was it bigger, but I didn’t have to fear falling off in the middle of the night. But in retrospect I think, despite him being younger than me, I sought some form of care and protection that I found in him.
His compassion, however, faded as we grew older, as did his consideration for others. Just like he knew of the ring’s value, I may have sat on the top bunk that day with such condescension because I somehow knew that the only way to preserve the innocence in those doughy eyes that stared into mine, full of passion and kindness, would be for him to perceive me in a form of admiration. But the respect that he gave me as I started to lower the ring further down towards the trash can was temporary, and it didn’t appear again until years later.
The bunk beds took up three-quarters of the room and our toy chests the remainder. But our space, with its thin strip of carpet between the beds and toy chests, was all-consuming. It was never simply a room; one day it was the universe and our beds were the rocket ships, while the next day it was a planet under attack by aliens. And only when we wanted it to be a room would we turn off the lights and fall asleep in night’s silence. It was our choice, and we never disagreed.
He stretched his chubby, little arm up towards me. All I wanted to do was climb back down the ladder and wrap my arms around him. I would slide my ring back on my finger and tell him that we would always be best buddies, no matter what. But something prevented me from doing this. I couldn’t explain it then, but it was neither stubbornness nor pride. Some part of me, at a mere six years old, subconsciously doubted the validity of forever. There seemed to be an instability in the promise of an eternity.
Youth had never been so beautiful. We explored the idea of power, the rich dynamic that defines life, yes, but we did so without the knowledge of its core. Power to us was a means to create: to enhance the foundations of a relationship. We were blind to the world outside of the one that existed between our rings, like baby birds constrained to the world in their nest. But youth fades, and with it does the promises we made as children. Eventually, we had to fly.
I let the ring fall. It danced through the air, a graceful ballet on its descent. I closed my eyes, not yet ready to see the dance end. The clash of the plastic ring with the metal trash can was supposed to make a sound, but I never heard it. I opened my eyes.
He caught my ring.