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The Stranger in the Photograph is Me
His shirt is two sizes too large, his head lost in a lumpy beanie. I don’t remember when his tough attitude became less of an attitude and more him; I’m still not sure how much or how little he embodies the harmless gruff teddy bear I like to believe he is.
I’m not smiling. I was bored, irritated with a mother whose inspirations were as fleeting as they were cherished. Noticing her younger daughter messing around with her nephew, the confident, playful swatting at the tall hulking guy hinting dangerously of a growing, independent child; her older daughter, back turned, about to call a friend, the mother not knowledgeable enough concerning the latest boy gossip to chat with anymore. So, she rounded her kids up for a picture, the disposable camera lying conveniently abandoned on the counter, its place of unacknowledged, uninterrupted rest for as long as she could remember. In a desperate attempt to halt time, she didn’t want to capture a moment; she meant to capture life. An eight year old and two teenagers she could usually handle; an empty house she could not.
The hand resting on my shoulder so casually was also the one that had pulled me in its gruff grasp mere seconds ago. I hope that I hadn’t minded the liberty he took with me. Today I’m jealous of that girl; the arm has long stopped reaching.
And so I looked into the camera, impassive, my thoughts interrupted from their natural course, blank. Life is like that most of the time. A complex weaving of moments that seem to not matter, a world vibrant in its shades of grey.
That hulking figure that treated me, the family’s youngest, its treasure, so familiarly, so brotherly, was my cousin. Born of a dad that would leave him for cancer, a mother that would leave him for nothing, Chao was shipped to us, the American family of his aunt. I don’t remember when Chao became part of the family, when he became Chad, or even the day he stopped calling. I just remember when everyone started to really care, months after we last saw him.
The people you love irrevocably and indefinitely, the people you know so well that they become a part of you, you can sum up in one or two images. They occupy a special shade of color in your mind; they own a memory etched into, not brushed onto, your canvas. My cousin will forever be the only one that held me by my arms and swung me in circles. No doubt he was not the only one, nor the first one, that swung me in circles. But that action will always be his. I would frequently demand it of him. Not for the thrill; it wasn’t that exciting, fast, or fun. Not for the burn in my arms from gravity wrenching me away from his firm grip. No. For the exchange of trust, the safety I felt in, oddly enough, midair. Each time he swung me around was a silent promise to never let me down, to never let me fall, to never lose his grip on me and, what I had hoped, the world.
I’m his favorite apparently, the only one he won’t refuse to talk to, the only one he can’t ignore. His attachment to me was a nuisance I took pride in. I was the family's mediator. At age eleven, using the polite formal language years of speaking for my heavily accented parents, my voice untainted by that immigrant texture, had gifted me with, I would call hospitals, employees, roommates, professors, deans, police stations, anywhere, anyone, to find the whereabouts of my ever elusive cousin. In my head it was a game: find him before my mom walked away in frustration, her eyes clouded with mournful, guilty, anxious, angry tears.
I don’t think I’ve changed much from that girl in the picture. I’m still naÃ¯ve. I still believe my cousin has a bright and happy future waiting for him.
I still love him.
However, with or without my consent, life changed on me. My cousin is absent from all the birthdays, holidays, and now, most of my memories. His clear intelligent eyes are now bloodshot from sleepless nights, his smile yellowed by smoke, his arm marred by tattoos, his ear pierced with a cheap, fake diamond. When Chad abandoned us to stumble down his own road, we didn’t alter course, we didn’t stop walking. Our burden just grew heavier with guilt, regret, and pity.
He is my tragedy: the blemish on my desperately normal, happy life, the blemish that I feel pride in because it’s scary, different, fascinating. It’s wrong I know, to use him, to satisfy my urge for uniqueness and complexity. But I do it. I’m even doing it now, hoping this has touched my audience in some way, impressed even. However, if that’s the selfish part of love, of relationships, then I think I’m doing okay. Because in those few, brief hugs I manage steal from him, I don’t care who he chose to be that day, the druggie, the drunk, the dropout, the brother, I just need his familiar arms to surround me, to feel his too large shirt bunch in my grip, to smell the smoke on him, to mold myself to his jutting ribs. In those moments that last me a lifetime, I know I will do almost anything for him. And I trust him to only ask for what I can give.