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  • The Brothers
  • Lysley Tenorio (bio)

My brother went on national TV to prove he was a woman. I don't know which talk show it was, but these words kept flashing at the bottom of the television screen: IS SHE A HE? IS HE A SHE? YOU DECIDE! The show went like this: a guest would come out onstage, and the audience would vote on whether or not she was the real thing.

They came out one at a time, these big-haired and bright-lipped women, most of them taller than most men. They worked the stage like strippers, bumping and grinding to the techno beat of the studio music. The audience rose to its feet, whistling and hooting, cheering them on.

Then came Eric.

My brother was different from the others. He was shorter, the only Filipino among them. He wore a denim skirt and a T-shirt, a pair of Doc Martens. His hair, a few strands streaked blonde, fell to his bony shoulders. He was slow across the stage, wooing the audience with a shy girl's face, flirtatious, sweet. But he wasn't woman enough for them: they booed my brother, gave him the thumbs down. So Eric fought back. He stood at the edge of the stage, pounded his chest like he was challenging them to a talk-show brawl. "Dare me?" he said, and I saw his hands move down to the bottom of his T-shirt. "You dare me?"

They did, and up it went. The audience went wild.

He put his shirt down, lifted his arms in triumph, blew kisses to the audience, and then took a chair with the other guests. He told the audience that his name was Erica.

I glanced at Ma. She looked as if someone had hit her in the face.

Eric had left a message the night before, telling me to watch Channel 4 at 7 P.M. He said it would be important, that Ma should see it, too. When I told Ma, she looked hopeful. "Maybe he's singing," she said. "Playing the piano?" She was thinking of the Eric of long ago, when he took music lessons and sang in the high-school choir.

I reached for the remote, thinking, That bastard set us up. I turned the TV off.

That was the last time I saw him. Now he's lying on a table, a sheet pulled to his shoulders, dead. The coroner doesn't hurry me, but I answer him fast. "Yes," I say. "That's him. My brother."
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Eric's life was no secret, though we often wished it was: we knew about the boyfriends, the makeup and dresses. He told me about his job at HoozHoo, a bar in downtown San Francisco where the waitresses were drag queens or transsexuals. But a year and a half ago, when Eric announced on Thanksgiving night that he was going to proceed with a sex change ("Starting here," he said, patting his chest with his right hand), Ma left the table and told him that he was dead to her.

It's 6:22 P.M. He's been dead for six hours.

"We need to call people," I tell Ma. But she sits there at the kitchen table, still in her waitress uniform, whispering things to herself, rubbing her thumb along the curve of Eric's baby spoon. Next week she turns sixty-one. For the first time, she looks older than she is. "We have to tell people what's happened."

She puts down the spoon, finally looks at me. "What will I say? How can I explain it?"

"Tell them what the coroner told me. That's all." He had an asthma attack, rare and fatal. He was sitting on a bench in Golden Gate Park when his airways swelled so quickly, so completely, that no air could get in or out. When he was a kid, Eric's asthma was a problem; I can still hear the squeal of his panic. Can't breathe, can't breathe, he'd say, and I'd rub his back and chest like I was giving him life...