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I could hear every word through the wall. This wasn’t so unusual, not since my brother moved us into the run-down inner city apartment building we called home. It had a grand-total of three and a half rooms and couldn’t have been up to code, because we could hear the escort above us entertaining clients every night, and the young couple beside us screaming at each other until one of them slammed the door hard enough to shake the picture frames on our walls.
This was different, because it was early enough in the evening that the hooker was just making breakfast and our neighbors hadn’t come home yet. I was doing homework in the living room which was actually the dining room and the kitchen. Even though it was November, our heating wasn’t turned on yet, so I had curled myself up so tightly in a blanket that I could barely move the pencil. The lack of the scratching of lead against paper was probably what let me hear.
"I don’t know," he was saying. "I really don’t know. I feel like I don’t have time to think anymore."
Greg always spoke in an affected monotone no matter what the situation was. It was as though nothing could make him angry, or upset. I knew better, because he was my brother, knew when the slightest inflection in his voice meant he might as well have been weeping.
He blames himself for a lot of things, and he doesn’t have much to make it better because he spends his whole life taking care of me and we still don’t have that much. I know I couldn’t have helped the situation; when mom and dad died, I was still little, and I thought it was his fault. As I grew up, he never even attempted to change my mind. He worked three jobs to put me through school and keep a roof over our heads, but I didn’t understand why he would do something like that unless it really was his fault.
I didn’t understand a lot back then. It was like the bible verse that everyone seems to have but no one knows the whole thing. You know, the whole, ‘love is patient, love is kind’ bit. Most people don’t even know about the rest of it.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
I hadn’t put aside anything childish. I was fourteen, ready for high school, still just a little kid. When our parents died, I was only seven. My brother had been eighteen at the time; the most amazing musician that anyone had ever seen. Mom and Dad were on a way to one of his concerts when some drunk barreled through a red light and hit them. Greg waited at the school for over an hour. I waited at home all night.
I waited all week. I threw a fit at the funeral when they tried to bury my parents, screaming about how the couldn’t bury them, how they they said that they would always be there and how they needed to take care of my when Greg went off to college. I was still just a kid, and people seemed to understand that this was what kids did.
Greg wasn’t a kid anymore, though, and he didn’t cry or throw a fit. The first thing he did when our parents died was go to his should-have-been-a-girlfriend and ask her to cut off his ponytail. Everyone loved his hair - thick and black and long, but it was one of those childish things that he had to leave behind.
The next thing he did was get a job.
His almost-sometimes-girlfriend didn’t understand why he didn’t go to college. Even though he was a genius, she was convinced that the foster care system could do a better job of raising me than he could. Jeanne Foster was the diva-oboe player in the band, and for reasons I could never fathom Greg was head over heels for her. “Maybe you could handle a boy,” she would say, “but there’s no way you could raise a girl.”
Greg would pick me up under my armpits and carry me from the couch to the dinning room table, while I was still in the phase where I didn’t listen to a word he said. “Does Raimi really look that much like a girly-girl?”
Jeanne was always around after my parents died, trying to help out as best as she could, except she probably knew less about taking care of kids than I did, being an only child with no cousins, who had never worked a day in her entire life besides at her mom’s beauty salon, and it wasn’t to watch the kids while their parents got haircuts.
She was like Kryptonite to small children. Or we were her Kryptonite, but it wasn’t exactly clear. I continued to dislike her as I grew up, and no matter how much time Greg didn’t spend with her, they called each other every week (like we could afford long distance calls every night).
I could imagine her every reply as Greg spoke. “You need to worry about you, you know,” she was saying. “What happens to Raimi if you work yourself to death?” I guess she had finally, at least outwardly accepted that I was Greg’s responsibility.
“Raimi’s a big girl,” he sighed. “She knows what she has to do, but I won’t be leaving her any time soon.”
Big girl? Even though I knew it was sarcasm on his part, I was incensed. I had been filling out applications for various private, expensive prep schools for half of spring break, and then applying fior scholarships the rest of it. None of my friends would have to do that until they were seniors. And I was definitely more mature than evil Jeanne.
“You know how the song goes,” she was probably saying. She was always talking about vocal music, even though Greg hated it. “The graveyard is full of folks who didn’t have time to die.” Ugh, and it was even country! No, I had been living off of Tenacious D and Bowling For Soup since I discovered the wonders of Internet Cafes and YouTube. Why did anyone put up with her?
“Maybe you should think about going back to college,” she would say next. “You could get a better job with a degree. I know you can do it, Greg. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. If anyone can get back into college, it’s you.” Jeanne was so optimistic, to even more of a fault that quoting songs and being generally insensitive. She had always been handed everything in life, because her parents owned their own business, because they were still alive to take care of her, even though she had graduated business school only to jump straight into the salon industry, using all of her expertiese to pay for the education her parents never wanted for her.
“College costs money.” He sighed, and I could hear the rusty springs of his bed squeel in protest. “Everything costs so much money.”
"Can you afford your insulin?” she would say then. “If you’re having any trouble, you know I can help out."
"It’s fine," he would reply. He’d usually leave it at that, and she would worry over him for a while longer even though she could barely afford to worry over anyone except herself, still attending beauty school. I’d wait for her to say goodbye, and then my brother would be mine again. He was always so busy beating himself up, I never though he would add what it did.
"We’ll manage. I made sure to stockpile some for this month . . . no, it’s Raimi’s school . . . Jeanne, please . . . that’s not . . . ." There was silence for a long time. Then a click. No goodbye.
Through the paper thin walls, I knew all of my brother’s moods. He didn’t cry, or blame anyone but himself for much of anything. But I knew when he was hurt. For whatever reason, his cranky, trashy, almost-girlfriend with her big hair and fake nails could make him hurt enough to act impulsively in the only way he could remember, the only thing that really remained of his childhood.
The Corinthians verse about all that love needed to be revised, I decided. Because maybe love was patience and kind , but it was also mean, and confusing, and it made people do things that were so stupid and illogical and against their natures that somehow managed to make their world worse before it showed them how to make it better.
My brother could speak in the perfect, angelic language of music, but it would have been empty if it wasn’t the ony way he could pour out all the angst that had built up inside of him, the angst that was cause by love. Jeanne was a true believer, but it didn’t mean anything if she didn’t have anything to believe in. I didn’t really have anything besides my brain, and what could I possibly do with just that and no passion for anything?
Whoever the idiot was that wrote Corinthians, he should have added a disclaimer. Sure, Love never fails, but it messes up a lot before it ever reaches it’s goal, which is apparently the epitome of human perfection.
I’m still a kid. What am I suposed to know about love? What am I supposed to do about it? Greg loved me enough to give up all his stupid dreams about stupid concert halls and postpone all his stupid dreams about a life with stupid Jeanne.
I guess I could help him out with that one. I’m fourteen, so it’s not like I could pay the phone bill, but a small job for lunch money might be just enough. If there is one thing that I have learned from my brother, it’s that girlfriends are expensive.