Think Aja by Steely Dan. Classic-rock fusion: cultured; rock with harmony; driven yet laid back; half-time percussion with subtle high-hat nuance. Funky guitar; distinctive keyboard and saxophone riffs with intermittent double-time back beats thrown in for good measure. A seamless fusion of rock and jazz; a composition living between genres: old school and new wave.
That’s my brother, Ric.
He’s a layered composition; armored brass on the outside, sensitive, lyrical libretto inside. He’s an interpretive work, an acquired taste; innovative, complicated and conflicted. He’s always been ahead of the curve – always was and forever will be.
That’s both his transgression and reward in life. If you’re hip, you’ll get him. If you’re not, you never will. Don’t bother trying – you’ll just go batshit crazy trying to peel the onion. We can only try to keep up with what he’s brewing.
There’s no disagreement between siblings that Ric’s a momma’s boy. It’s not his doing. Mom naturally turned her attention to him, given that in early childhood, the old man chose to crow more on the exploits of his older son, his namesake. Unfortunately, that would be me.
It’s not that our father favored one child over the other, he simply lived vicariously through the most grown-up accomplishments of his older children.
Not fair, I grant you. But the old man’s attention was compensatory; it served to offset his personal disappointments in life, evident to anyone seeking truth, not excuses or pretext for self-pity. Not pretty, but there it is.
So, being five years older and now a teenager, I increasingly spent most of my time with kids my age and less with little brother. I was as all teenagers are, self-absorbed, oblivious to anything and anyone outside my circle. I regret it to this day.
But that didn’t stop Ric from trying to be part of the group. Sure, age was a barrier. But he found a way to compensate, to gain entry, however temporarily – by being funny. A characteristic later refined into razor-sharp wit and charm, interpreted as charisma by others, the key to accessing doors otherwise locked to him.
I accepted his hanging around until my peers, and I began driving. “Go play with kids your age,” I’d say. But he wasn’t having any of it.He wanted in and made himself a pest. “Look, you can’t go with us, you’re too young.” He’d sulk, look up at me with big sad eyes, drop his head as if in prayer, roll his shoulders forward, and complete the charade by sobbing, ever so softly. It was performance art. He had it down. Worked every time on Mom, but I wasn’t having any of it. I can’t cruise with little brother in tow.
In hindsight, leaving him behind one too many times may be the reason there exists a distance, a chasm between us, to this day.
I try not to over analyze sibling relationships, given their structure has more to do with things outside my control and more on perception than reality. But I’m haunted by a seemingly innocuous event that took place when Ric and I were children.
One morning, we’re playing in the front yard when a carload of my friends drives up. And as is so often the case in this type of situation, they convince me to go with them to a destination I’ve long since forgotten.
I jump in the backseat with my buddies. We’re all jostling one another, and as the car slowly begins to drive away from the house, I’m compelled to look back through the rear window. I see Ric, alone, crying. His hand clasping our front yard chain link fence, the other hand held high, slowly waving goodbye. The image remains embedded in my brain. I’ve long since rationalized that all teenagers, however innocently, are predisposed to acts of omission, but the fact remains, I left him behind.
So, fast forward, and I’m now in the Air Force. I get orders to go overseas. Ric has long since formed a strong sibling bond with younger sister Barbara. They’re two peas in a pod. You could have sworn they shared the same womb. The older siblings have either married or moved away, as has the old man. Fractured family bonds form new alliances, and with them, new realities.
Still feeling guilty about my childhood abandonment of Ric, I leave him my baby: a beautiful, five-speed, British racing green Triumph TR-4 convertible.
Whatever latent resentment he harbored metastasized – and he took it out on that car. I come home a year later, and my baby is rest-ing (mercifully) on blocks. Okay. No need to dive and wallow in a reality not of my making. So, I take my G.I. Bill, enroll back in college and move on.
We reconnect a few years later. He’s still rebellious. We frequent several bars, and as it happens, get into several barroom brawls. One night we’re throwing undercover cops over pool tables at Ted’s College Bar. Next night, Ric is slamming a foosball table and pinning some loudmouth schmuck against the wall at Tiny’s, a dive on the strip we sometimes frequented. It seems I can’t take this kid anywhere.
Short after that we take decidedly different paths. Time and circumstances have changed. He no longer follows but leads. No need for the likes of me. He’s left me behind.
I steer clear. We now live in different states. I sense that’s how he prefers it. It remains the same for decades. No need to re-visit would-have, could-have, should-have-been.
No need to open old wounds, real or imagined.
He has, of course, since flourished, substituting skydiving, rock-climbing and conflict for a business career, computers, music and coaching baseball. He’s still capable of charming children and adults alike and has built a world of his own: family, a profession, and friends wherever he goes.
But he remains an enigma. Externally, a public persona; internally, a puzzle only he knows. Still seeking affirmation, coming to grips with some missing pieces, the childhood bonds he never completely had, with a father and older brother.
A union, his sons, need not ever worry losing with their father.
As for me, I wish I had stopped the car on that fateful day, walked back to the fence, turned his frown to smile and resumed playing with little brother. I would have, could have, and should have done more than nothing.
And that might have made all the difference.