Thursday, March 24, 2005

Squint Your Eyes

Yesterday was my brother's birthday. He's 36, which is quite a bit older than me, I'll have you know. Yes, we do have the same parents. Mom calls me her "bonus baby." I guess I was a bit of a surprise. Despite the large difference in age, I usually feel like the older sibling.

Actually, he's a typical older brother in the I'll-kick-your-ass-if-you-touch-my-baby-sister kind of way. He was the popular, athletic one, and I was the bookish, anti-social one. He's still partying like it's 1999. In fact, it's hard to imagine my brother without a Miller Lite in his hand. He was a professional bartender, despite a marriage, a mortgage, and two kids, until last year. Ever the "cool guy", my brother sounds like Pauly Shore when he talks: "Whaaaas uuuup buuuddy!" Seriously. He calls me racetrack. I don't know why. He's actually developing a receding hairline because he never removes his baseball cap. And I swear to god his eyes used to be blue, but I couldn't tell you for sure because I haven't seen him without sunglasses in over a decade. He was the oh-so-cool jock who never would've talked to me in high school but would've rolled my yard with toilet paper. Luckily, I was in the first grade when he graduated, so it's not like we had to endure adolescence together.

Growing up, I think I went to every single one of his ball games. Actually, I think I was born during half-time at a pee-wee football game. As an infant I gave everyone else's little sister something to do on the sidelines besides shake a pom-pon. I think the first sounds I remember are shoes squeaking against glossy wood floors, a rubber ball smacking frantically across a court, and the hoarse yells of sweaty, jumping fans. I learned to tie my white Nikes with the blue swoosh sitting on the hard, wooden bleachers at the top of my brother's high school gymnasium. To this day, the smell of popcorn reminds me of a basketball game, not the movies. And the taste of Gatorade always carries a patina of wet mud and torn grass on a soccer pitch.

My first crush was a soccer player on my brother's team. I was three and he was fourteen. Toby had that kind of golden hair that, when wet from sweat, becomes a dark, translucent red. His eyes were a large, round blue, and he had those blonde eyelashes that are almost transparent. He smelled like sweaty socks and freshly mown grass. And, he would always give me a ride on his shoulders, whenever I asked. Mom likes to tease me about him now, though I barely remember him. She says he was very sweet, but not so bright.

It seems I've always had a penchant for older men. The summer I was five, I went to this summer camp my preschool offered. It was actually a small, private school, so there were kids as old as sixteen there. Case was one of the older boys, about thirteen, and I was attached to his hind leg. I always remember him looking like Corey Haim in that movie about the nerdy kid, Lucas. He had that messy, brown hair and those cute dorky glasses. Plus, he always had sickly brown bruises on his arms and legs, not so much from playing outside, as from his two older brothers beating the crap out of him. I think his dad was in the military because he always wore pea-green undershirts with his hand-me-down jeans and grubby white sneakers. I don't really remember his face, but I thought he was so damn cool because he played baseball in this vacant lot a block down from the school. I always wanted to play with the big boys too. That sounded so wrong, but you know what I mean. I was a tomboy. My brother used to tease me about Case because I talked about him so much.

One day, I followed him to the grassy lot because I wanted to play ball too. All the other guys groaned and said I was too little. The counselor who chaperoned the group excursion let me swing the bat a couple of times, but mostly I just watched, sitting cross-legged on the spiky, bleached grass. I cheered for Case like I cheered for my brother, clapping and yelling his name when he batted well enough to run for a base.

"Why do you have to follow him around like a little puppy dog?" some kid asked me, voice rankled with scorn. Recall the fact that I am five years old and therefore think puppies are neat-o. This comment confused me. However, I was old enough to recognize the disgust in his voice. Case's cheeks burned scarlet, but not from his recent exertion on the ball field.
"Shut up!" he told the other boy. I looked away, lagged behind as we walked back to school.

The next day, Case and his brothers got into a knock-down, drag-out fight at school. Afterward, he sat on a bench in the hallway outside the kitchen. From the cafeteria, I peeked over the bottom half of the dutch door to watch. I heard the incoherent murmurs of adult voices, and I could see Case. The left side of his face was darkly bruised, and blood dried to his nose and upper lip. His pea-green shirt was torn, and he gripped his knees with both hands. He glanced toward the kitchen, saw my eyes over the top of the door and looked away. I never saw him again and I never let any other boy know I liked him again.

I didn't understand then, but I've always been attracted to anger. I've always been a miss fix-it. Give me your trouble-makers, your tortured artists, and your depressives yearning for therapy, or at least someone to listen. I guess I see something familiar in them. I've always felt an affinity with anyone who feels pain. Maybe that's a human thing, not just a me thing. At least, I'd like to think it is. I see someone in trouble, I want to help. I don't know if my parents taught me that, or if it's some innate urge of my own.

I'm a problem-solver, at least for the people who want their problems solved. My brother has a lot of problems. He's a functional wreck, though. He gets up and goes to work everyday and does his job well. He's honestly a great dad, which has always mystified me. When it comes to him, I want to fix his relationship with our father, though now it seems hopeless. I also want to make sure he doesn't kill himself in a car accident after he's been out drinking all night. But how do you care for someone who, for all intents and purposes, is an adult already? Maybe he has enough people to worry about him, but that's what I think about on his 36th birthday. Despite all that, I love him like I couldn't love anyone else on this planet. There's something about being raised by the same parents, even if their parenting style changed over the years. I understand his actions implicitly. When he does something stupid, I know why because I would do that same stupid thing for the same reasons. A sibling is a skewed mirror of yourself, a foil, a complement. My brother is the answer to the ultimate "what if" in my life.

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