My brother’s Senior year, he went to school with a black eye on picture day. I did too. I remember most of that September morning quite well, and I can definitively tell you, we were not concerned with our upcoming pictures. At this point in our lives, Sam was 17, standing about six feet, two inches, weighing a solid one-eighty or one ninety pounds. As a freshman, I was 15 and would have claimed to be six feet tall and heavier than I was. Being generous, I probably tipped the scale at one sixty-five and was no taller than five-eleven. My brother was an athletic guy, swimming and playing soccer year-round (competitive on the state level for both), so he was well-muscled and fast. Honestly, so was I, thanks to my following him into the weight room every morning, as well as the natural gift of (physical) maturity life bestows upon a freshman boy. The point is, I attribute a large portion of the severity of that morning to my new, and his well developed, physical “abilities.” The reason behind the complete extent of the chaos I cannot label positively. Maybe it was that we hadn’t fought in a while, maybe it was a result of some testosterone-fueled rage. Whatever the case, our actions of that day were… thorough.
The morning started out regularly, with a good deal of banter about being late streaming from Sam’s room into mine. Normally the time would have concerned me, however, it was Tuesday, the only day of our week where we didn’t have to be at school at 8, so we had ample time to get there. For this reason, his urgency annoyed me greatly. My annoyance magnified as we turned right off our road instead of left, taking a detour that he had not mentioned all morning. Sam matter-of-factly told me he was going to Stirlings, a local coffee shop, and needed to drop me off early after he picked up one of his friends. “Are you kidding me… this is why you rushed me all morning?” I asked loudly as we drove along the slowly curving road to his friend’s house. I knew he had kept this quiet to avoid any objection by my mom, and I was pissed he hadn’t let me know. Naturally, I gave him a ton of shit about it the entire car ride over. I like to think my delivery of insults were exceptional that morning, but maybe it was just that the month of our physical ‘ceasefire’ had compounded his emotions towards me. Regardless, as we slowed to a stop in front of the friend’s house, out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn sharply. Then there was a flicker of darkness in my left eye. Suddenly my head whipped back and my vision went static. It felt like a really dense baseball had gotten launched into my left cheekbone, right under the eye. Now, I was no stranger to getting hit, as we had regularly traded blows, but this one really rocked me. I was so stunned I didn’t even hit him back, instead, I grabbed that weird safety handle above the window and tried to figure out where I was. The daze wore off quickly though, and once the unknowing friend stepped into the car, we began the drive to school. In the silence of the ride, I stared out the window, plotting my revenge.
As soon as I stepped out of the car in the gym parking lot, I turned around and was able to land two respectable jabs, but he had been waiting and was ready. Grabbing my shoulder he pummelled me twice around the kidney area, ripping my favorite shirt off my back in the process. Shirtless in the school parking lot, cradling my side, I realized I had to reevaluate my situation. Quickly, I jumped back into the car. We took off, Sam’s confused friend in tow, proceeding to the coffee shop, trading an assortment of punches at the various stop signs and parking lots we passed through. Thankfully, we not only dropped the now frightened friend off, but also postponed our fighting during the actual driving, as neither of us wanted to die.
Within twenty minutes of the escalation, we ended up back home. It was here that I chose to make my last stand. Inside, Sam charged up the stairs. In anticipation, I grabbed both the railing and wall, bracing for impact in a last-ditch act of self-preservation. To both our surprise, at the last moment, I jumped, and karate kicked him square in the face. I swear to god it might have been the most well-executed and coordinated act of precision of my young life. My brother’s face changed quickly from hate-filled to confused as my kick sent him flying down the stairs, slamming into a pot containing my mother’s favorite plant as he fell. Too late I realized what I’d done. Having one-upped his first punch, leaving him with a worse eye than mine, and my mother’s broken pot, I figured that if he didn’t kill me, my mom would. Unfortunately, it seemed like I wasn’t going to have to worry about my mom. He got up quickly, chasing me as I turned to flee into my room.
Ultimately, we were both tired out from our sustained bouts. Me shirtless, us both exhausted, we looked a lot like two boxers entering the tenth round: leaning on each other, simultaneously using one another for support, while trying our best to knock each other out. That’s really just about how our battle ended, with our mother coming through the door, separating us after some effort. The conflict ran its course in about thirty minutes. The end result of it all lasted far longer: boot camp style grounding, no social privileges, the works.
It may sound funny, and a mere few weeks later it was; however, we were not play fighting, and this was not something that was unique to our relationship. Not for the first time, we were truly trying to hurt each other. Yes, that sounds unhealthy, but today, neither of us really thinks about our fleeting childhood in that way.
Following that picture day, I continued to follow my brother into the gym for the coming months, and for the first time, we trained together and played on the same sports teams at SAS. One of my English teachers once said there is something beautiful about harmonizing with a sibling. Thankfully, my brother and I never tried singing together, but for the last year of our lives in the same house, we woke up to the stomach-churning smell of the gym together, we played on the same soccer team and raced on the same relay team. We fought against each other, and we fought for each other. For my brother and I, that was about as good as it could get.
When Sam left for college I gave him a fist bump before he drove away, as hugging wasn’t part of our deal either. We texted on and off over the course of his freshman year, about little stuff: practice sets, race times, match scores, even just updates on our dogs. He ended up only coming home for three weeks before Sophomore year. I know we fought about something during that time, but I don’t remember what. I do remember the last day, and the only day, the two of us were alone before he left. We planned on fly fishing for trout in a river down the mountain. Waking up at 5:30 in the morning, we left the house in the heavy silence of the summer morning, only to find the river swollen and rushing from the heavy rain of that night. Our best attempts to catch fish failed, despite our best efforts. We retreating soaking wet to a small Mexican place in the nearest town. Following two huge plates of food, we drove back up the mountain to a lake, determined to catch fish. Here, to our dismay, a storm forced us into a grassy ditch, wide-eyed and swearing profusely, as lighting rocked the field around us. Ultimately, we ended the day fishless and tired, with Sam packing his bags to leave. Again, as he left the house for his second year away, we concluded our time together with a fist bump.
Sometime later my mom told me, “You know Sam told me that fishing trip was the best day of his summer.”
“Of course it was, I was there.”
I would never tell Sam that that was also the best day of my summer. Just like I would never tell him that, although my mom paid the photographer to edit out our black eyes, the only school pictures I have ever kept were the ones they sent us to proof, two pictures of smiling brothers, each proudly wearing a puffy black eye.