Openings (First Words)
(Transcript from the podcast The Second Page, episode 01)
My brother’s first word was “Buhbuh.” As the child of an Appalachian woman, I was no stranger to names like Dwayne, Janell, Althea, Janetta, Jeanie, Edna Mae, and the like, but Buhbuh was low-brow even for us. Yet, while he was still in the womb, I faced difficult decisions in the war against Mama and Dada. I had to strike first, with as few consonants as possible.
“Brudah” not only sounded too much like slang in a crime show, but had that “r” sound that kindergartners still struggle against. “Budah” was too much like butter for my comfort, and required differentiating between “buh” and “duh.” Too much work, in a world where “Dada” was one tongue-flip away. I swallowed my seven-year-old pride. Buhbuh it is.
And Buhbuh it was. Everyday. In the car for hours, repeated over and over, only by me. I played with his toys beside him (Buhbuh), followed him everywhere (Buhbuh, Buhbuh), laid on the floor beside him, carried him, burped him (Buhbuh), all repeating the same idiotic nickname I hoped would never escape our our home. Months later, after several obnoxiously long car trips, he spoke my new name. And we immediately worked on getting him to learn Theán and forget the rest as soon as possible.
Beyond the few years that followed, that was more than I ever really spoke to my brother. We were never Jacob and Esau, but his tiny child fists bludgeoned me more than any school bully, and as an angsty teenager trying to figure out his own identity, grappling with being gay in a conservative hometown, nothing was more obnoxious than this child that had imprinted himself on me and chosen me as his hero. Don’t be like me. You heard dad talk about wanting grandchildren. That is your job now. All I wanted was to smoke a cigarette and drum my hands against the side of Drew’s rusted-out car after school, listening to ska, talking about his girlfriend’s talents, wishing I had been so lucky to have my parents walk in on me. No, go practice piano. Really.
I was my brother’s demanding, overprotective parent. My father had already been that to me; it was a coup when I managed to convince him to let me see Titanic at the age of ten, though he never knew that I hid my eyes when Kate Winslet’s breasts appeared on screen, ashamed as a male to be witnessing the female form (but not glancing away from DiCaprio). Beyond The Matrix (and the warnings about the effects of violence bestowed upon me), R-rated movies waited until college. Curfew was set, and arriving home at 10pm found me grounded for a month straight, handwriting out world civilization essays because I could easily be using library computers to talk to bad influence friends. Church, and more church, even without parents present. Thinking only about the body of a ballet dancer at the local conservatory, and not at why a college-aged man would show disinterest in a high school sophomore that found him on Myspace, I sat alone through an Ash Wednesday sermon about hiding our true sins and our true self. I was there to light the Acolyte candles. This was my penance as eldest child.
My brother’s penance came directly from me, but was considerably lighter. I gradually let him win less and less at Mario Kart. I pinned him down in wrestling bouts set to the Tarzan soundtrack, to remind him that I was oldest and could tear him apart at any moment (until he would jump on me and shatter my pride, then shove the couch cushions onto the floor and sail away on his polyester raft, victory bittersweet with the knowledge the next time he would be less lucky). I forced him to play games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana rather than Madden 64 in order to get him to regularly read and come up with his own stories…but wouldn’t help him when things got difficult.
My own failures though, at age fourteen, were passed to him as well. Knowing I very well should have been playing Bach by puberty, I drilled my brother for not practicing enough Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star nor knowing the difference between triplets and dotted rhythms. He was expected to maintain the same grades as me, but while juggling sports practices that had been decided “too detrimental a risk” by my own parents seven years earlier.
All the while, we barely talked as he aged. Worse, I continued to cast an increasingly long, expensive shadow on his accomplishments. I went to Interlochen, then to Oberlin, on partial scholarships but draining up the money set aside for both of us, financed by yard sales of depression glass, furniture, and knick-knacks that filled the dozens of boxes I moved in and out twice a year with my father. I came out, paradoxically putting more pressure on my brother to avoid questioning his sexuality that he might not disappoint the family’s hopes for a grandchild, the family whose initial disapproval founded itself in a sense of comfort only the youngest child could provide. By revealing my secrets to him, he ceased to bring his to me as we used to, when we would teach each other Mario tips and tricks found only from summers spent outside until dusk, inside playing Nintendo until dawn.
I moved out of state, knowing that my brother would now be expected to remain in-state. Family members did not leave Kentucky for work or school often, and were generally expected to return. When my parents divorced, mother moving away to New Zealand, father riddled with introverted doubts, I knew that living four hours away put my brother in the position of becoming the oldest child. Spending time with my boyfriends was hidden from not only my parents per their request (open wounds from the separation was the first rationale given), but by necessity, from him.
I moved to New York, knowing that my brother would now be the one to care for my family members. Once I spent my first night on the floor of my Brooklyn apartment, seeing the lights of the police cars refracted onto my ceiling, I knew I would not be leaving. There is a freedom in being whole now. I love the family I know, but still search for them as they no doubt search for me. I fly back each year, more than once if there are emergencies, or I am able to afford it, and still spend time with my ailing grandparents who miraculously remember me, how my curly hair reminded them of my grandmother’s brother Raymond, but not what day it is or how many grandchildren they have.
My sibling and I speak more than ever, happily, yet they are still scant moments given the time I spend at work, the time he spends in his fraternity (fratres- from latin, brothers). Drunk texts by both parties have offered more truths than face-to-face discussions may ever spawn, causing us both to run to our friends with news about how cool our sibling is, if only he spoke more. My brother is an adult now, thanks to me, to my family, to himself, but right now he still feels the immortality that college’s first years bring, the same immortality that blurs the rapid passage of time between phone calls, Thanksgivings, children, generations. Soon he will unlearn, but never forget, that age, and at that moment I will be listening for when he wishes to speak first words, no matter how old we both might be.