I could have watched him for hours, my brother. It was after 10am but he was out cold. He had probably been out all night in the city, just as he always did when he came home for the holidays. (Just as I would do when I came home for the holidays. There certainly wasn’t sh*t to do at home.) As much as I enjoyed watching him sleep, I really wanted him to wake up and talk to me in that slightly patronizing, “I do love you so, little brother” way of his. His voice was sexy too, even a thirteen-year old boy could tell that. Ok, so I didn’t want him to wake up solely to talk to me; I wanted to know what cool things he had brought. New sneakers maybe? A sweatshirt from his university? A sweatshirt from an even cooler university, like USC or UCLA? (Note: This was obviously written before I had to share the streets of LA with the entitled alumni of USC.) He had been promising an ‘SC sweatshirt for some time and I knew this time, this trip, it was in his bags. The suspense was killing me. After watching him for a little while and then having breakfast with Mother (“He think I don’t know what time he brought his ass in here. Bet he left my tank on E too.”), I decided to quietly peek around in his stuff.
I tiptoed over to the duffel – Levis, adult sweaters, a magazine, and then a belt buckle clanged on the floor. He shifted; I held my breath. I gave up on the duffel and looked at the suitcase. Forget about it, you could never pull that off.
Allow me to clarify that my brother wasn’t really my brother. He was my uncle, my mother’s brother. My mother had two brothers. But since she died and my father was absent, my maternal grandparents took me in. Of course it should come as no surprise that of the two uncles, I preferred one to the other. So much so that I called one my “brother” and the other my “uncle.” It should also come as no surprise that my “brother” was away at university, was tall and good-looking, and to further my bias toward him, he simply showed more of an interest in my life. My “uncle” was a short, unattractive, recovering alcoholic who lived fifteen minutes away and had a Lady MacBeth-like wife who towered over him. She didn’t help his cause by constantly talking about my deceased mother in front of me and by showing resentment toward my grandparents because they did more for me than her children. I never understood that. Her kids had her, didn’t they? Why did she feel like they were getting the raw end of the deal?
My brother was there for me, even while being at university. Just hearing his voice on the phone had me floating for days. And the college thing? That was more heroic because it was a first for our family. My grandparents and I made an annual road trip in the fall for five consecutive years. The six-hour trip seemed to take days. But we’d get there and he’d hoist me in his arms, or we’d wrestle, or play with his, or some neighbor’s dog. I was afraid of dogs at home. Then the party would start. His friends would arrive, all bearing food and drink. “These are my folks. And this little troll, this is my little brother. Just give him a thump in the head if he gets out of hand.” The room would erupt in laughter. He was so proud of us, of me. (Years later, I was embarrassed when my grandparents visited me at college.) And the activities, there were always activities. The mornings and afternoons, we would go to restaurants and my brother refused to bother with our parents’ food ignorance and he’d order for the table. French onion soup, vegetables with flavor, red meat that was red. Of course, my grandfather would send it back. The evenings were for reserved for cultural activities. My brother was always performing in one thing or another. A lot of the time the performers were in black unitards, but esoteric black power was cool with me. (And still is.) There were more traditional outings too – Shakespeare, football games, jazz concerts. The night brought about more partying, usually returning to his apartment in an enormous off-campus house where guitars were strummed and there were pretty, long-haired girls about the place. (“Oh, your little brother’s so cuuuute. Can I take him home?”) Then we’d do it again the next day. I didn’t want Sunday to come. It was difficult for me not to cry through Sunday morning breakfast knowing we’d soon be on the road.
The last two trips to visit my brother were the most memorable. On one of them, I went alone on a plane. It didn’t matter that the trip was only forty-five minutes; it was my first time on a plane and I got treated like a king. Went to the cockpit, held the wheel, pressed the buttons, and escorted off by my own personal flight attendant into my brother’s waiting arms. (“He wasn’t too much trouble, was he? The little troll.”) I think she would’ve gladly come along with us. With him. The other trip found my brother having moved on from the acoustic guitars and now having parties at the nightclub, where he was the manager. Hanging in the club late night, dancing and drinking Shirley Temples. It would have been totally great had my grandfather not try to hit on everything in the place. Yeah, they were divorced but that motherf*cker just couldn’t act right. He didn’t even drink; he was just a p*ssy hound.
On the last trip, the disco trip, there was another young lady – one whom I shall never forget. She was beautiful and I instantly loved her. She brought my pubescent hormones to life. The only problem, besides her being an adult? She loved my brother. While he was busy that weekend, she showed us around. She’d hold my hand and kiss me on the cheek. I really thought I had a chance; that her affections would shift to me before the weekend was out. They never did. When she and my brother kissed me goodbye that weekend, I wept more for her.
When I was in high school, I saw my brother less. He had finished his near decade of undergraduate studies and had left the Midwest for the West Coast. Although I was older, I didn’t love him, admire him, any less – it just became acooler kind of love. Until he was on the phone. “When you gonna come home man? What are you gonna send me? Can I come to California?” Him being further away, California no less, elevated him from hero to superhero. One morning, that all changed.
“See this, it’s from your brother out in California,” my grandmother said. She held the letter out to me; I recognized the handwriting. It was 7.30; I was about to go to school. I was fifteen. Funny thing was, I thought a letter had come from him and wondered why she hadn’t said anything. Especially like if there was a little money in it for me.
“He wrote to tell me that he a punk. That’s what he’s doing out there. He’s with a man. Ain’t that something? I thought something was wrong when he didn’t marry that girl. Remember that rich white girl who was so crazy about him?”
I effortlessly gave my grandmother the name of my first love.
“Yeah, why didn’t he marry her? He must have known about hisself then. Tried to say she was a alcoholic, that’s why he ain’t marry her. She gon’ make some beautiful grandkids someday. He shoulda went head on. But naw, he gon’ be with a man instead. Out in San Francisco. That’s the perfect place for him. All them punks out there.”
“Mother, I gotta go. I’ll read it later. I’m gonna be late for class.” I walked out, leaving her standing there in her nightgown, holding on to the emotional release that was yet to come.
The revelation for me, and what a revelation it was, occurred later that morning during English Lit. The magazine. The morning I was snooping around for the USC sweatshirt, I saw a gay nightlife magazine amongst my brother’s things. It had pictures of shirtless guys and listings and such. I glanced at it quickly and put it back in the bag thinking someone must have given it to him at the airport. I didn’t understand anything about being gay then. My friends may have called each other fag and stuff but we were still rolling around in the grass together and not thinking nothing ‘bout it. (Consciously.) We couldn’t comprehend a gay lifestyle. I just knew my brother couldn’t be that, whatever that was. And needless to say, I had forgotten all about the magazine until this very moment. Or, conveniently misplaced it in my memory bank.
Now, two years later, I did understand fag or “punk”, as my grandparents liked to say but I didn’t know anybody who was. Scratch that. There was a guy who sat with us at lunch whose older brother, a senior, was thought to be gay. Please, he was gay. And the crazy thing was, he didn’t give a damn. He paraded around with his pressed hair and frilly shirt open to his navel, looking like Sylvester. I must admit – I was impressed by his bravado. That is, until he asked me to go for a drive. I wanted to tell my lunch mate to tell his brother I wasn’t interested but I thought he might be sensitive about it. Instead of the potential pointers he could have given me, I think he might’ve kicked my ass. He was a wrestler too. You know, those cats, they’re already resentful because they’re usually not so attractive and they’re the forgotten sport of winter/spring. I avoided Sylvester until I think he got the hint.
“So he a punk? I thought something was wrong with that boy. That’s why he out in California. His cousin Junior, the other punk in the family, he out there too,” my grandfather said. Actually, my grandmother didn’t tell my grandfather for a few months. And my brother certainly wasn’t going to tell him. Hence why my brother wrote to us, so we’d have to do it. My grandfather was beside himself. How could a homosexual have come from his whore-mongering loins? After the initial disclosure, we simply didn’t talk about it. We just dealt in our respective ways. My grandfather was furious. My grandmother was sad. And I was? Just a kid who wanted to talk to his big brother.