Tuesday, August 21, 2012
From the Archive: Big Brother
(While I'm on vacation, I've picked one of my favorite entries to re-visit with you guys. My memories of this guy are especially sweet—I wish I knew what happened to him.)
“My little brother,” the guy named Tom used to call out as he dragged me across the closed-off street in front of the Hibbs Building, my neck snared in his rigid embrace. He didn’t know any of the students lounging beneath the trees or sitting on the concrete benches waiting for their next classes to start, or who’d bought sandwiches from the cafeteria on the building’s second floor and were trying to relax in the still-warm afternoon heat. “This is my little brother, everybody. Look!”
He just yelled out for the silly joy of it, hauling me around in the meaty crook of his arm, making me trip and stumble to keep up. We didn’t look like brothers at all. I was lean and narrow and fair, and he was dark-haired, short and brawny, a jock in his prime, one hundred percent pure Italian. He didn’t care how different we looked. Occasionally he’d ruffle my hair with his knuckles, or stop to plant an exaggerated smack of a kiss on my forehead—exactly the sort of thing a playful older brother might have done to embarrass his shy younger sibling. I think he did it for the pleasure of seeing me blush. I never failed him.
Whenever I think of Tom, I picture him wearing one of his red shirts. Primary red—not one of the lesser, adulterated shades. He wore a red polo shirt the day I met him, one of the thirty students sitting somewhere in the middle and back of one of my father’s seminars.
When I was fifteen and starting the tenth grade, my parents sat down to look at the high school’s graduation requirements and reasoned out that the only thing keeping me from skipping the eleventh grade and graduating in three years would be a single credit each in English and social studies. The former I could take care of in summer school; the latter I made up by auditing one of my dad’s introductory seminars in American History for a semester. I was miserable my first day in that class—obviously younger and more out of place than the other students, and worried about having to participate at their level.
Then Tom, who was sitting next to me, turned during the break, leaned his arms on the scratched wooden surface of my classroom desk, and spoke before I could sneak out and hide somewhere. “What’s your deal?” he wanted to know. “You a kid genius or something? Graduating college at thirteen?”
I flushed furiously and said no, I was taking the class for high school credit, and that I was older than thirteen. “Cool,” he said, nodding. Tom was a junior at the time, I found out later; he was already twenty-two. It was tough for me to look at him, he was so attractive and masculine. His eyes were dark and his hair was shaggy and long like mine, but hours playing sports and lifting weights had turned him into one of those athletes whose attentions I’d avoided at school, for fear of taunting and maybe even possible beatings. He bulged in every place imaginable, where I was stick-thin. I thought that if I said too much, I'd betray exactly what I was. Having him so close made me unable to meet his gaze, like a dog wary of a possibly hostile presence suddenly invading its space. “So why this class?”
I blushed even more and admitted that the professor was my father, expecting the conversation to end with a flash of scorn and brief enough small talk for him to make a getaway. “Okay,” he finally said. Then, unexpectedly, he laid one hand on the back of my chair and the other on the front of the writing desk, and pulled it a couple of inches closer. “You can be my little brother this semester. I’ll look out for you. All right? How's that sound? Cool?”
“All right,” I replied automatically, out of politeness and a lack of anything contradictory to say. I already had one brother, much older than Tom, whom I'd come to depend upon. I wasn't seeing much of Mikey that year. I liked being protected, and it felt good that Tom being so friendly.
“All right,” he repeated. “Let’s go get a Coke, then.”
Being Tom’s little brother apparently consisted of twice weekly accompanying him to the classroom building snack bar during the two-hour class’s ten-minute break. He’d buy a cellophane-wrapped packet of Lance crackers there, or a Slim Jim, or a orange drink in an ice-filled Styrofoam cup, half of which he’d usually share with me, though I’d protest I had my own pocket money for snacks. Then he’d suggest we get some fresh air. Out in the quadrangle in front of the building, he’d act as if he’d been released from some sort of cage. His massive chest would expand as he took a breath of deep air, and then he’d become silly. “C’mere, kid!” he’d bellow, and then I’d find all hundred pounds of myself snatched up and bench-pressed over his head, as easily as if I were a rag doll. Or he’d sling me over his shoulders and jog around, laughing, like some kind of frat prank. His easy physicality always came as a shock. There would be long moments between finding myself lifted up and spun around and the laughter that eventually came . . . but it always did come, in the end.
After classes, in the long minutes in which my dad would fend questions from the students who crowded around the lectern, Tom would take me outside, where he'd sit down with me while I waited. He’d ask me questions about my life. What I studied in school. What subjects I liked best. What TV shows I watched. Or, “So, do you like girls?” He’d crack his knuckles over that one, or watch me slyly while I’d color and fumble for words. “It’s cool,” he’d say, when I’d stammer out something. “You don’t have to answer if you don't want.”
Of course I liked girls, I finally managed to say. “You have a girlfriend then, huh?” he asked. Because I thought I ought, rather than because I wanted to, I made up a romantic interest. Her alleged name was Beth. I’d known her since third grade. We just hadn’t done anything because . . . because she was Catholic. “Oh yeah,” he said, nodding with the wisdom of seven more years. “Those Catholic girls are the worst.” Then my father would come out of the building, blindly peering around to find me in the haze of students. Tom would stand up, puff out his chest and gather his bag of books, and cuff me around the neck. “See you later, little buddy,” he’d call out, before striding off.
Tom wore a red T-shirt the day he asked my dad if it would be okay if I went to the library with him for a couple of hours after class, early in the semester. “He can be like, a real college student. If that’s cool with you,” he told him. My father didn’t mind; he was thrilled that I was socializing with another classmate. So once a week Tom and I would take off to the newly-built library and find a brightly-lit, quiet corner with a table we’d share.
He’d pull out his books and study for a while, pulling faces whenever someone would invade our solitude, or asking me whispered questions about that week’s reading or lecture. Eventually he’d get restless and playful. Sometimes he would tear a sheet of paper from his spiral notebook and fold it into a triangular wedge so that we could flick it back and forth, playing an impromptu game of tabletop football.
Sometimes we’d skip the library altogether. Tom would take me to the student gymnasium, where he’d show me the basketball courts and the locker rooms where I’d avoid looking at the guys in the steamy showers. He showed me how he lifted weights and where he swam laps. Sometimes he’d join in a game of hacky sack outside the gym entrance, dancing and pulling faces as he attempted with the others to keep the little footbag in motion, showing off his moves for his little brother.
One afternoon we were walking to the library together after class he stopped outside the building’s entrance, hands on his hips. I watched him bite his lip for a moment. Then he studied me. “So,” he said. “How about we go to my place?”
“Okay,” I said, automatically, because I’d never disagreed with any of his suggestions.
“Yeah?” he asked, not betraying any emotion. “You wanna?”
I thought about it, this time. “Yeah,” I said. I really wanted to.
The campus didn’t have much in the way of dormitories, then. Tom lived a few blocks away in a townhouse divided up into student rooms. His own little home was in the basement, with only a panel of window at the top admitting light. “So this is it,” he said, throwing down his bag and letting the battered door close. The room was neater than I expected, but that could have been because there was so little in it. Some free weights sat on the floor in the corner. He had a crate full of LPs acting as his night stand, next to a mattress and box springs that sat on the floor. The week’s laundry sat packed into a basket by the door. “I don’t have much in the way of chairs,” he apologized, flopping down on the bed. His legs sprawled off the side. He kicked off his sneakers. I watched them land beneath the window well.
“That’s okay,” I mumbled.
When he patted the mattress, telling me to sit down beside him, I obeyed. My own feet remained firmly on the floor; my elbows rested on my knees while I waited for what I hoped would come next. He sat up, too, so that my back wasn’t to him. “You’re not really into girls, are you?” he asked, his voice husky and soft. His fingertips softly swiped my cheek as he brushed my long hair away from my face.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to tell the truth, nor did I want to lie to him.
Tom absently rubbed his biceps, exposed thanks to the red shirt from which he’d hacked off the sleeves, and nodded. “It’s cool, little brother,” he said, patting my back. After a moment, the pat turned into a rub, long and slow, up and down the outline of my spine.
Then I felt something soft on my neck—his lips, softly planting a kiss there. Then another, just below my ear. Acknowledging what he was doing, I reached out and put my hand on his knee, barely a butterfly’s touch. He rested his own hand atop mine, and after a moment, pulled it up his thigh to the denim covering his crotch. I felt nothing but heat there, heat so intense it felt like I’d raised my palm to an uncovered oven burner.
“It’s cool," he whispered. "Don't worry. It's only if you want to.” I looked at him, square in the eyes, while he brushed away more long, blond straggling hair from mine.
And then slowly, gently, I helped him take off his red shirt.