Natty by Bill Tope

Mark is hopelessly drawn to his big brother's girlfriend, and is desperate for her to be happy despite the many obstacles life throws their way; by Bill Tope.

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I knew that we shouldn't touch. Much as I wanted to feel her warm hand in my own, to gently brush my fingers along her lovely cheek, and enfold her tightly in my arms, I knew we shouldn't do it. For there would be no going back to the innocence of before, to nonawareness, to the uncertainty of drawing too near to the woman that I loved above all others.

She was my brother's girlfriend. Her name was Natty, from the Russian Natasha. She began seeing Joey when he was about 17 - he was five years older than me - and Natty was nearly 16. I felt a particular affection for her from the beginning. In truth, she was but another cute, blonde, shapely girl, with which my brother's life was always richly populated. But, from the very first, she looked at me with a mischievous eye, an appraising look, like she thought I was up to something, and she knew what it was. Almost instantly, we formed a rare, special connection.

"Hey, little brother," she'd say, poking me in the chin with her pink-colored nail. I'd dutifully look down and she would shock me by flipping me under my nose. Inevitably, she would giggle with joy. It never got old.

They dated all through their last two years of high school and I saw a lot of Natty. She attended nearly as many family dinners as Joey, and became a part of every holiday. Unlike Joey's other girlfriends, she never dismissed me as an undesirable younger sibling or as an annoying or superfluous fixture on the landscape. I appreciated and respected her for that. Joey seemed to respect her too, but for different reasons, which was unusual for him. He regularly discarded his girls rather carelessly; there always seemed to be another waiting in the wings, eager for a chance with him. Joey's attitude toward me, always impatient and rather intolerant, seemed to mellow under Natty's influence, as well. Natty and I could talk about anything; she even gave me an idea for my 8th-grade science fair project.

"Do it on abortion," she told me.

"Why?" I asked, wrinkling my nose in distaste.

"It's what's happening, Mark." Roe v. Wade was on the docket for the Supreme Court that year, and everyone was all up in arms, one way or another. So, with no better idea on the horizon, I made up my poster boards with uteri, fallopian tubes, and all the rest. Much to my very conservative parents' dismay, I won a first. Natty was a good student, and under her influence, I became a better student too. She showed me the value of learning. She probably also kept Joey from dropping out. Staring at them across the dinner table, I thought, not for the first time, that Joey didn't deserve someone as thoughtful and as sweet as Natty.

We were all from a working-class background. More often than not, we graduated from high school - though not always - but we never progressed further than that. It just wasn't in our DNA. Joey was a whiz at fixing cars, so he spent 12 months after high school at a tech school and periodically added to his bona fides with additional courses, paid for by General Motors. Joey was, by the meager standards of our family, a success story.

After high school, Joey and Natty moved in together in some ghetto-class area deep in the inner city. Natty became pregnant almost immediately. There was much ado over the expectant mother and she became the focus of both her and our immediate families. Everything was done to ensure a safe pregnancy; Natty even stopped smoking and drinking and tinkering with drugs. Nothing was too much for this baby. Joey, however, did not stop using or drinking, which was, in brief, the story of his life.

In her seventh month, Natty miscarried. The tragedy had a terrible impact on everyone. Parents and siblings were of course devastated, and Joey was beside himself with grief. He seemed to blame Natty for the unforeseen event. Her OB-GYN had advised an abortion - legal now - due to some congenital disorder, but she had wanted so much to give birth to Joey's son that she said no to the procedure. Joey, looking to place blame, charged that her occasional use of pot had contributed to the death of the child and punished her for it. One dark morning, when I journeyed to their lamentable apartment, I observed a black and blue mark under her eye. I asked her what had happened.

"I walked into a door," she deadpanned. Her eyes seemed lifeless, as they had ever since the miscarriage.

"Did Joey do this?" I demanded. I had fifteen years of rage coursing through my veins. "That fucker... !"

"Let it go, Mark," she told me, collapsing back onto the sofa, her eyes moist. I lowered myself to the cushions and asked if there was anything that I could do. Fighting with Joey would accomplish nothing, we both knew. He was coping with his grief the only way he knew how - by drinking and getting high and working long hours. And now, by abusing the person who most needed his help.

"Just hold me, please," she asked, holding out her arms. I folded myself into her embrace and we stayed like that for a long time. I believe that we both shed tears, she for dreams lost, myself for those that could never be. I was, as I had been from the very first, in love with my brother's girlfriend.

Natty had a younger sister, about my age - Suzanne - and Natty and Joey seemed to think it would be cute if Suzanne and I became a couple, a sort of younger version of them. Suze was, like Natty, funny and adorable and pretty, but she wasn't Natty. She always seemed comparatively immature and tiresome; she had an enduring crush on Joey, which everyone found amusing, till they didn't. We went on a few dates but the magic just wasn't there. She thought I was uptight and I concluded that she was annoying, but mostly we were just not our older siblings. We remained on friendly terms, however.

Eventually, despite the loss of their unborn child. Joey and Natty got back on track, fell back in love, or whatever. They had a child, too - Bethany - who became the love of everyone's life. She had Joey's stubbornness, but, fortunately, Natty's looks. Sweetest little niece you could ever hope for. She clutched my pinky with her little fist.

Now, however, there was a new breach in the domestic scene: Natty wanted to go to school, at the junior college. Joey wasn't sure if it was a good idea. "Natty's just acting out," Joey said dismissively of his girlfriend's ambitions. He was working on his car. I balanced Beth on my shoulders, holding her little hands in my own.

"What can it hurt?" I asked, springing immediately to her defense. "It can only help her to get a better job." Beth was set to enroll in preschool now, which freed up a lot of time for her mother. "I mean, you don't want her flipping burgers her whole life, do you?"

Joey shrugged, tightened a wrench around a nut, gave it a swift turn. "Maybe you're right," he agreed grudgingly. "Mom said she'd watch Beth while she's in class. And it is only one class," he added, talking himself into it. "Okay," he said, looking up, "she can go." Beth gurgled and she and I grinned in agreement.

Natty began classes at BCJC and aced the course. The next semester, she took two classes, and did well in both of those. Back in the day, junior college was more than affordable; it was practically free. The next year, she enrolled full-time, took four classes, two of them in her major - psychology - and aced them all again. Joey continued to work on cars.

When Natty graduated, we had a big party, a celebration for the first member of either family to get even an associate's degree. After high school, I worked for a summer, then began classes at the junior college myself. It seemed only natural for Natty to start classes at the university - ISTU - after graduation. and she was soon enrolled in the psych program, where she graduated with honors, only eighteen months later. The party we had this time put the other fete to shame.

One day, Natty approached me as I folded laundry at my parents' house, and asked, "Hey, Mark, does Joey ever talk to you about my going to school?"

I shrugged. "Yeah, sometimes. He talks about how you get good grades and all... why do you ask? Is there a problem?"

She shook her head uncertainly. "We just... never talk anymore," she said, looking troubled.

"What do you mean?"

'It's like we don't have anything to say to one another. He has his work - and he never talks about work. I don't know anything about cars. And I have my studies and Joey doesn't seem in the least interested. I don't know if he resents my classes, if he's proud of me, or indifferent, or what. And he's been on to me lately about having another baby, a little brother for Beth. But that would mean putting off graduate school and getting a job, for another two years."

"I think he's proud of you, Natty. He just... doesn't really understand what it's all about, you know. Have you tried explaining to him what you do, what your goals are, what it means to you? I mean, he can't read your mind, you know?"

Suddenly she smiled up at me. "You're pretty smart for a kid brother," she said, touching me on the chin. Dutifully, I looked down and she flicked me on the nose. Her giggle was joyous.

Meanwhile, acknowledging Natty as my role model, I did very well in school as well, transferring after one semester to the university and graduating in just three years with a B.A. in philosophy. Which Joey and the other members of my family - but for Natty - derided as useless. "What're you gonna do with that, stand on a street corner with a tin cup?" chided Joey playfully. In truth, he was proud that I was able to accomplish what no previous member of our immediate family had ever done.

Natty and Joey somehow got past their problems, but then we were hit with a new crisis: Natty got sick. Menstrual problems and fevers and bleeding and hospitalizations and reproductive complications, but the upshot of it was that she had to have a hysterectomy. Joey's plans for an expanded family were crushed. Again, you'd have thought that it was a grand scheme, concocted by the mother of his child, to forego additional children. Natty was beside herself with grief and dismay. She felt as though she'd let her family down. To make matters worse, Joey felt the same way. Natty suggested that, once she got into the job market, that they consider adoption. Joey dismissed this out of hand, and refused to even discuss it. A year passed and our graduation date loomed on the horizon, when a new change occurred, which affected everyone once more.

While Natty and I studied for our masters, she in psych and I in philosophy, we combined our meager resources and got a place, a large apartment - old, but clean - off campus, big enough for Joey, Natty, Beth, myself, and Natty's sister Suzanne, who was studying business but majoring in partying. She was a little bit of a loose cannon. She came home one night with some guy with the improbable name of Elrod, plus two bottles of wine and some hits of LSD, which were all the rage on campus at the time. The apartment had four bedrooms, and thus plenty of privacy, so no one could object when Suzanne dragged Elrod to her room and the partying began.

While Natty and I studied, alone in our own rooms, Joey sat in the living room, drinking beer and smoking weed and getting gassed. Maybe Natty was right: he wasn't handling her transition to a wage-earning equal partner that well. He seemed a little lost. Taking a break from the books, I walked out of my room and to the kitchen, where I snagged a bottle of beer. I glanced at Joey, saw him sitting immobile in a recliner, a blue haze of pot smoke hovering over him like a blanket. Suddenly there was this horrendous cry of anguish and terror coming from Suzanne's room. Joey and I sprang into action, ran to her door, pounded upon it, asking what had happened. Natalia emerged from her room at the same time, a textbook cradled in her arms.

"What is it?" she asked fearfully, staring at us in alarm.

Without further ado, Joey shouldered the door open, busting the lock, and there we found Suzanne, on the carpeted floor, under Elrod, who was violently raping her.

"Help!" gasped Suzanne, flailing helplessly and in shock. Joey rushed forward, seized the miscreant Elrod by the hair and dragged him from the room. Elrod punched for all he was worth, but Joey was chemically enhanced and psychologically unbalanced, and beat him within an inch of his life. I had at length to pull Joey from the young man's limp body and hold him back.

"Motherfucker," seethed my brother, still swinging and kicking at the monster.

Natty moved in and took command of the situation, clothed her sister in a robe, and called a rape crisis center to get Suzanne the help she needed. She also phoned up the police and Elrod was immediately taken into custody. The trial, three months later, was daunting, for everyone concerned. Suzanne was pulled in all directions at once and Natty, again, secured help for her sister from domestic violence/rape crisis therapists. Natty knew just what to do and whom to call, for which we were all eternally grateful. Suzanne was family; we all loved her. Thank God Beth had spent the night with her grandparents.

For Suzanne, the party, at least for the time being, was over. She became sedentary, seldom stirring from her room. We tried to engage her, but even Natty's special knowledge seemed to have little effect. Joey was especially protective of Natty's sister, and would spend hours, late at night, talking to her, after everyone else had gone to sleep. He became actively engaged in something apart from work and getting wasted, for the first time in a long while. Natty thought it was having a good impact on both her little sister's and her boyfriend's psychological disposition. At the same time, oddly, Joey seemed to have less and less to say to the other members of his family. He interacted very little with his own daughter - now almost five - and he often spent his nights talking with Suzanne. And it was as if I didn't even exist; it was like high school again. I was persona non grata. I figured we'd all adapt and grow out of our doldrums. What didn't kill you only made you stronger, right?

A couple of months after the trial, we were on winter break at university and with Joey so preoccupied with Suzanne, it fell to Natty and me to manage things: the bills, the shopping, the child care, the apartment. We went one day to the mall, to shop for the Christmas holidays and were gone most of the day. When we finally came home, rampaging through the door, loaded with bundles and boxes and bags, some cleverly wrapped as presents, we were giddy. We hoped for the best for this yuletide, looked at it as a sort of new beginning, for all of us.

"I'm really proud of Joey," Natty said to me for perhaps the tenth time. "He's really stepped up. I don't know how Suze would have made it, after the assault, without him. He's been her rock."

"You've been there for her too," I reminded her. "You've both been a force... for good." She smiled her thanks.

"I hope so," she said. "I want things to get back - to normal. I know Suze has needed Joey, and I'm glad he was there for her, but I want my husband back. A bed for just one is cold," she said starkly.

I nodded. "We'll see what her therapist says," I said. Suzanne had an appointment with her psychologist later that week.

"I hope I don't sound too selfish," she said a bit guiltily.

"No," I said simply, shaking my head. We had both been speaking loudly.

Suddenly the door to Suzanne's room creaked open and there in the doorway stood Joey, naked as a jaybird. We stared at him, unblinking. He glared at us brazenly. His eyes were red, he looked a little crazed. He was loaded. "How 'bout you keep the fuckin' noise down?" he snarled. Behind him appeared Suzanne, likewise nude, and with a cruel little smile on her lips as she looked defiantly at her older sister. Suzanne's eyes were glassy. Suzanne and I were both 21 years old; Natty was 25 and Joey 26, and at this moment, at those tender ages, everyone's world just blew apart.

It was two days and two nights - always the hardest - later, and Natty and Beth and I had remained in the apartment. Joey and Suzanne had abruptly departed, but not without harsh recriminations being levied by both sides.

"Suze and I are getting the hell out of Dodge," railed Joey crossly, stumbling across the floor.

"What about your daughter?" demanded Natty excitedly.

"How do I know she is mine?" he said savagely. He leveled an accusing finger at us and said he knew that we had been "getting it on." He insisted that we had both "gotten so damn smart" that Natty no longer needs or wants a husband. No one pointed out that Natty and Joey had never, in fact, been married. "Y'alls just laughing at me," snarled the enraged Joey. "Well, you can laugh this off." And he staggered forward and punched me in the face. Shocked at bearing the brunt of his violence for the first time in more than ten years, I jumped to my feet and was about to defend myself, until I saw Natty's anguished eyes and held back. Uttering additional imprecations, Joey hurriedly slapped on some clothes and stalked from the apartment, Suzanne in tow, and disappeared into the gray-hued dusk.

After they'd gone, Natty looked at me with saucer-like eyes and asked, "What was that?"

I thought she'd never looked so vulnerable, and my heart almost broke. I had no answer for her. I only shook my head.

"I knew Joey found Suzanne attractive," she remarked unexpectedly.

"He did?" I asked in surprise.

She nodded. "He was always saying how pretty she was, how he hoped you'd take her for your woman, how he'd like to keep her in the family." I stared at her and she smiled crookedly.

"I guess he's doing that now," she said sadly.

"Natty," I said in as serious a voice as I could muster, "Suzanne may be pretty and young and all, but she'll only ever be a pale image of you." It was from the heart. And she believed me.

"Thank you, Mark."

I nodded at her. Where, I thought, would this nightmare end? Would Suzanne really break up her sister's family? And if so, what could we do about it?

Several days passed, with no word from Joey or Suzanne. They'd apparently contacted no one: parents, friends, work. Joey's boss phoned twice, asking where his head mechanic was and why he hadn't turned up at work. We had no answers; we were worried about what Joey and Suzanne were up to and where it would end.

"Suzanne can be selfish," remarked Natty one night as we sat on the sofa in the living room, trying to relax with some wine. Our days of pot and other drugs were well behind us. "She thinks she's in love with Joey," she went on. I looked up.

"Really?" I asked, surprised. I guess I hadn't given Suze credit for actually having any feelings for anyone other than herself.

"He paid attention to her," she explained. "It was more than just sex." I shook my head uncertainly. "We're embedded in a little niche," she went on. "It's natural for feelings to become more pronounced, outsized, exaggerated. We're a close-knit group. And it's easy to become confused about our feelings. I love you, Mark," she said, which utterly surprised me. I felt suddenly flushed. "But," she added, "I'm in love with your brother, you know what I mean, you understand the difference?" I nodded. I did understand. I was in love with Natty, but I knew that I couldn't tell her that. It would mess everything up, perhaps destroy the delicate fabric of our relationship. Natty nearly had her master's in clinical psychology and felt like she had it all figured out, but she didn't understand my feelings for her. How could she? I didn't understand them myself.

"How does Joey feel about Suzanne?" I asked her.

"I think Joey's confused. I think he's still in love with me, but he feels a little intimidated and alienated by me now, and Suzanne is so vulnerable, since the assault, and he's sort of stepped into the void... "

"Why did Joey accuse us of having an affair?" I asked. That had come completely out of the blue.

"He knows you care for me," said Natty simply. "I mean, your caring, your concern, your love, is all over your face." She smiled. "Little brother," she teased. "Besides, he's just putting our relationship in the context of what he would do in your place."

I understood what she meant. Prior to hooking up with Natty, Joey had always had the morals of an alley cat. "So," I asked. "What happens next?"

"I guess that's up to Joey. He's been drinking a lot, and using again, and I don't know where his head is. Part of it's my fault. I've been so damned entrenched in my studies and in looking for a job after graduation, that I've lost touch with both Joey and my sister. We could use some crisis counseling, but you know how Joey feels about what I want to do for a living."

"He doesn't deserve you, Natty," I said, sounding rather harsh, even to myself.

"But, he's the one I want, Mark," she said. "Life isn't always a straight line. There are curves and... besides, Beth needs her father." These words impacted me. I could only nod. What she said next really startled me: "Suzanne isn't the first time Joey's cheated." I stared at her. "When we were living in the city, he had his little side pieces. I never cheated on him, though," she went on.

"Why not?" I asked.

"I've never used sex as a weapon," she replied. "To do so would be an admission of failure. I've never had a lover besides your brother," she told me.

So much for the age of free love, I thought ruefully. Next, I asked her a question that had always puzzled me. "Natty, how come you and Joey never got married?"

"He never asked me," she said simply. Unspoken was Joey's basic insecurity and lack of faith in everyone, including himself.

I blew out a breath. I hadn't known any of this. Where would this end? What twisty turns would our lives take over the next few months, the next few days? Would we one day look back on all this and laugh? I had my doubts. The only thing I recognized as truth was the love for Natty that was in my heart. And the love that was in Natty's heart, but for another man. I set my wine glass down upon the coffee table with a little click and once again asked her, "Natty, what can I do?"

And once more, she told me, "Hold me... please?" And though I knew we shouldn't, I enveloped her petite form in my arms and crushed her to my chest and held on for all I was worth. I held her as if she were an exquisite jewel - as she was - but knowing that I could never possess her, except as a dear friend. We stayed like that, transfixed, for between fifteen minutes and ten hours, and then I released her. Pulling back, Natty said, with a tender smile, "Thanks, little brother."


  1. “ Where would this end” is a good place for an ending to this! This story is complete as it is! It’s really bejeweled with complexity. So much happens…any ending other than, “Where would this end“ would not feel as complete. It’s a really sad story…but it just feels true more than sad. There is definitely a divide between men and women…educated and blue collar…in the minds of some. Enough of a divide to justify crazy behavior. The truth of all of that stands out. I am better for having read this story. I thank you!

    1. Thanks for “getting it,” June. You always seem to understand what I’m trying to say. You are a very perceptive person. Thanks for the reflective comments.

  2. Bill, you absolutely nailed it with this story. “Life isn’t always a straight line” and this illustrates that so well. The story is so real, it’s as if you lived it. And the ending is simultaneously heart-warming and heartbreaking. Beautifully done.
    — David Henson

    1. Hi David. No, I didn’t live this story, though I’ve known some Marks, some Suzannes, some Joeys and definitely a Natty or two. Most of my stories contains a strong thread of autobiography, but this one was cut out of whole cloth – or was it? Literary license precludes my telling. Ha-ha. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, my brother had some Joey in him. Thanks for writing.

  3. Rozanne CharbonneauOctober 9, 2023 at 7:24 PM

    Reading this story, I became increasingly frustrated with Natty. She just can't take Joey back after he has run off with her sister. There are lines you cannot cross. By leaving her, he also left Beth. For all of her intelligence and education, she is deeply co-dependent with a serial adulterer and drug addict. In my experience, women know from day one when a man carries a torch for them. She never acknowledged Mark's love for her (which is totally normal under the circumstances), then felt compelled to draw a line in the sand at the very end. "I love you, but I am in love with your brother." Unfortunately, she just isn't attracted to this poor man. Asking him to hold her under these circumstances is selfish. It prolongs his agony. "Thanks, little brother," rubs more salt into the wound. I agree with June. A lot of class issues are explored as well. Joey became emasculated by Natty's intellect and education. Suzanne was vulnerable, and could look up to him. Cash was tight, but they should never, never, never have all moved in with each other. Mark needs to move out of that apartment asap. Thank you Bill, for getting me riled up with this very interesting story.

    1. Excellent and thoughtful comment, Rozanne.
      — David Henson

    2. Rozanne you really captured why I felt so hopeless for Natty. Just as you say…her guy has hit her, has left her emotionally, cheated on her…and he never asked her to marry him. Plus the drugs….yet she pines for him. Ahhhh

    3. Yikes, Rozanne! I wasn’t trying to perturb you, but your reaction tells me I succeeded in conveying my story pretty well. All your points are cogent and spot on. Natty is in her own way a little selfish and self-involved. Co-dependence is a good way to put it. Yay! Thanks so much for reading AND writing.

  4. Much of this great story pivoted for me around Natty’s lines to Mark:
    “I love you… …But…I’m in love with your brother…”

    Psychologist Robert Sternberg proposes a triangular theory of love. There are three components:
    (1) Intimacy – the experience of warmth towards another person that arises from feelings of closeness and connectedness. It involves the desire to give and receive emotional support and to share one’s innermost thoughts and experiences.
    (2) Passion – intense romantic feelings and sexual desire for another person.
    (3) Commitment – a willingness to maintain the relationship through thick and thin.

    Then he notes several love “styles” based upon the combinations (1)-(3) above.
    “empty love” – commitment with no intimacy or passion. (couples eating together silently at restaurants, loving each other out of a sense of duty or lack of options.)
    “foolish love” – passion and commitment but with no intimacy. (whirlwind courtships, couples who realize that they have nothing in common except sex.)
    “liking love” – intimacy without passion or commitment (typifies a close friendship.)
    “romantic love” – intimacy and passion but no commitment
    “infatuation love” – passion but no intimacy or commitment
    “companionate love” – intimacy and commitment but no passion. (companionate love is quite typical of long-term unions in which sexual desires can fade with time and familiarity.)
    “consummate love” – intimacy, passion, and commitment. (winning the lottery of love!)

    For Natty, I assume by “in love” with Joey she means “romantic love” or “infatuation love” or “foolish love” and for “love” with Mark she means “liking love” or “companionate love”.
    The ending was terrific - somehow, simultaneously both satisfying and earned, yet painful and raw.
    Great job!

    1. Adam, I don’t know if you recall the MC from my story of earlier in the year titled “Te,” but she said something similar to what Natty told Mark when she remarked, “I love you…but I’m in love with your brother…” She, too differentiated and classified her love according to her own convenience. When I spotted the lengthy comment, I told myself, “that has to be from Adam.” I knew you would write something intelligent and insightful and I wasn’t disappointed. You and Rozanne, in your own ways, took this story seriously and I appreciate your thoughts and your willingness to share them with me and with other readers – both of you. I guess I don’t understand why other people – who take the few minutes required to become readers – don’t go a baby step further and leave a comment. You and Rozanne and David and June comment on practically every story that appears on FOTW and your remarks are always well considered and thoughtful. Readers – particularly the writers amongst them – should realize that most authors, aside from being compelled to write, for various reasons, get the most out of their writing by receiving comments – good or bad, positive or negative, but most importantly, ones that are honest and constructive – from others. How else can we become better at our craft? Anyway, Adam, thanks so much for taking the time and the trouble to say what you did. It means so much!