6.05 Night Ache

Brittany Ackerman

My brother wrote a letter to President George H.W. Bush when he was in the second grade. My brother had come up with a plan to end the war.  He wrote to Bush that American soldiers should dress up like the Iraqi army and overtake them, something like that. President Bush responded with a thank you, a signed letter that was framed in our house for as long as I can remember. The letter now sits in a box of things my mom makes us both go through every time I'm home. We always laugh at the ridiculous things from our childhood— the family trees and history papers and report cards. My brother was seven when he wrote the letter. 

He’s 36 now. He lives part-time at home with our parents and part-time with his girlfriend in Miami. There were years when our mother complained of how little she spoke to him, never knew where he was, how he was, if he was using, if he was okay, if he was safe, happy, lonely. And now they fight and make up within 24 hours, they accompany each other to the store.  He comforts her when she’s worried over the state of the world. 

I'm un-learning to manage their feelings, you see. 

I used to go through my mother’s jewelry when she was out. I loved her diamond heart-shaped engagement ring she never wore. Come to think of it, she never wore her wedding ring either. I loved the pins she collected from airlines we flew, pearl necklaces from another time, the Cartier watch that stopped running, gold with a black face and no numbers. I always wondered how she read the time, but now I know it was all about fashion, how things looked and not how they functioned. I loved the children-shaped pins, a boy and girl to represent my brother and I, one with a topaz stone and one garnet. I loved the jewelry whose stories I didn't know; the turquoise earrings, the box chain necklace, the silver keys. 

When I fly home for a visit, I take the redeye from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. My mother picks me up from the airport alone. She brings me a bottle of water and some challah bread. I eat sleepily and watch I-95 bring us home through the window. She carries my luggage and we take the elevator up to the apartment. No one is home, and I sleep in my parent’s bed until around noon. We pick up sandwiches and eat them in foldout chairs on the beach. I always burn the first day, usually my nose and shoulders, but I always return for more the next. There is some big, family dinner planned that I attend, anxious and tired. We arrive at the restaurant and my brother is outside smoking in cargo pants and a tucked in black t-shirt. He wears a denim overshirt even though it’s humid. His forehead sweats and he looks like he’s figuring out equations in his head. I’ve never loved anyone more. I want to run to him and tell him we can escape, but instead I run and hug him, chicken out, tell him hello and ask how are you and he nods and whatever he was trying to figure out is still unresolved. Formulas and questions float above him carried by his own cigarette smoke. 

My brother and I get the same kind of headaches. Our mother is plagued with annual migraines, but we get a different type of headache I’ve never been able to find any information for on the Internet. These ones start in the back and creep up the spine, linger in the shoulders and neck, then plant themselves at the base of the skull. The temples pulse and our bodies crave movement. Lying still feels like a withdrawal. The pain beats like music—songs end and begin again—the pain parallel. 

I'm at the market when my mother tells me about my brother’s latest episode. I'm cradling the phone between my ear and my shoulder, wanting so badly to talk to her, to hear what she has to say, but needing to finish this errand so I can go home and rest. Everything has felt so difficult recently. But she tells me the story of her night and I listen. It’s after midnight when my brother knocks on my mother’s door. They’re careful not to wake my father as my mom puts on her shoes and follows my brother to the elevator. The headache came on during sleep, it woke him up, and now he must walk. The last time I had one of our headaches I was up in Cambria celebrating one year of marriage with my husband. I had smoked marijuana and drunk pinot noir and napped in the car and stretched at Morro Bay, but nothing helped. We ate fried clams and shrimp scampi on the rooftop of our hotel and the headache played dead for a while. But then it returned and I asked my husband if we could get some fresh air on the boardwalk. I collected moonstones in my pockets and was glad to be in love, to be loved by this beautiful man in this dramatic place. The headache lingered until the next day when we drove to see the elephant seals in San Simeon. 

My brother stops every few steps to hold onto the handrails downstairs at the pool. I imagine my mother waiting for him to recover, the way her heart might skip, reminded of the danger he used to be in, the constant brushes with death, how real and close it always was. Then he lifts back up again, ready to walk more.  

My brother points out Betelgeuse, the only red star in the sky. He took an astronomy course once in college, as did I, and loves to talk about the stars, the planets, aliens, spaceships, inter-dimensional travel, and the like. He sits on the balcony and watches the sky at night, my mother has told me before. He’s looking for UFOs. I think she thinks that I think he’s crazy, but I don't.

He tells our mom how the star is a supergiant, the most massive kind of star in the galaxy. He tells her that it’s dimming, that within the next 100,000 years its core might collapse, implode, and become a supernova. Supernova, sounds like superhero, but its because of its core, its steady increase in temperature, how it’ll happen in less than a second, how the layers will be blown off in the explosion. He tells her that while some call it a dying star, it will be the third brightest object in the sky when it goes supernova; the Sun and full Moon winning with their glow. Nobody knows when it will happen; when, not if.

My brother says the headache has peaked and he should be able to go back to sleep. And then the next day he was fine, my mother says on the phone. 

When I recommitted myself to Judaism, my brother came to the ceremony. It was 8:00AM on the beach with our mother, a Rabbi, and two of my Jewish friends from school. My brother doesn’t believe in God, but he respects that I do. He watched me wade into the water and say the Shema Yisrael while one of my friends recorded it on a camera. I had never attended Hebrew school and had Googled the prayer and wrote it down on index cards to memorize and recite on the day of the ceremony. There was no local mikvah, so the Rabbi said the ocean would work. Any natural body of water would do. After, we all went for breakfast and my brother drove me in his car. It reminded me of being in middle school when he was a senior and drove me to campus every day. I loved the music he played and the smell of his cigarette smoke mixed with the Angel cologne he wore. I loved the way he drove fast, yet controlled, like a stunt car driver. I sometimes pretended we were in a movie, that I was his sidekick and he was a hero.

You are supposed to cover your eyes when you say the Shema, so I closed my eyes and dunked my head under water after each line. I hadn’t noticed there was a rough current that morning, and my friend with the camera screaming at me to open my eyes.

I can agree that “Our God is One,” but I’ve always wondered about the “glorious kingdom.” I can even accept “forever and ever,” but this kingdom — I need to know more. 

A girl in elementary school told me about Hell. In our computer lab, she gave me her headphones and I listened to the sounds of Hell from a website that claimed it had access to such a thing. It sounded like rumbling machinery and scraping metal. I knew it was probably fake, but I pretended to be impressed. We’re all going there, you know, she said, and I asked her, What about Heaven? No such thing, she answered, and took the headphones back from me, unbothered.

I was anxious for a few days before I asked my mom about Heaven and Hell, how it’s determined where one might end up. Jews believe Heaven is here on earth, she told me. We don’t believe in Hell. Years later, a Rabbi would confirm this for me, adding that Hell, too, could be on earth.

When I try to find the website years later, I only find videos trying to debunk the rumor that one could actually hear Hell. Instead, they classify the sound simply as the planet “breathing.”

Any time I spend a night away from my husband, my heart aches. I'm aware enough to know that my codependency has travelled from my mother to my brother to various boyfriends I’ve had to best friends I’ve relied on to Al-anon sponsors and now has ended up in its final place with my husband. I'm 31 and I have just learned the concept of transference in therapy this week. My husband buys me a moonstone necklace on our trip and we take the hotel bikes for a ride to a park where you can walk out onto the rocks and watch the waves crash. We are almost sprayed with seawater and it makes us laugh. 

I am hoping that the kingdom is something like this.  Or, if I am already inside, I hope that my eyes can be opened to it very soon.


I was particularly struck by the fragments in the video that I was responsible for translating. Flowers and skin — both natural and beautiful things, in sequence with the floating Disney towels, reminiscent of how we must be mindful of the mundane. The woman with her hose who washes it all away, and then we pan to the sky for an answer to “What was this all for?” The two birds, one falling after another, deeply resonated with me and inspired me to fictionalize this piece about my brother, the two of us, always watchful, waiting, loving. I really enjoyed the beautiful video and was honored to have it as the foundation for my writing. The act of translation here is itself a divination, a seeking of knowledge of the greater unknown, a supernatural experience.
—Brittany Ackerman


Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She teaches Archetypal Psychology at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, CA. She was the 2017 Nonfiction Award Winner for Red Hen Press, as well as the AWP Intro Journals Project Award Nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, Blood Orange Review, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine is out now with Red Hen Press, and her debut novel The Brittanys will be published with Vintage in 2021.