One of my first words was my brother’s name Josh. Well, it was not “Josh” but it was a vague approximation: Doot. And to hear my mom tell it, I would explode in a fusillade of ecstatic noise when he entered the room: Doot, doot, doot, doot, like a tiny machine gun of chub firing into the sky. I still call him that, sometimes: Doot, like the beginning of a song you are singing without musical accompaniment, the syncopated rhythm of a good feeling. Doot-de-doot-de-doot, fingers snapping, head bopping in time.
Josh was four and half years old when I was born. He was a rambunctious, curious little kid with all-American good looks, who showed an early affinity for math, JRR Tolkien, “Star Wars,” and taking things apart. One of my favorite pictures of him around that age shows him sliding into the grass outside our apartment complex on a chilly fall day, face braced for impact, dark blond hair blown back with the breeze, heel skidding across the grass. He is doing it with confidence, with purpose, as though he were sliding into home plate as the crowd in the stands erupted. But there is no baseball game, there is no crowd. There is only my brother, and this spot which obviously required sliding, and my mother, looking on.
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be wherever my brother was. I did not pester; we played by his rules. Dungeons and Dragons. Cowboys and Indians. Magic tricks. The extent to which my brother’s passions overlapped with mine are sort of indistinguishable from this distance — did I really like the Sugar Hill Gang, or was it just my desire to sit with him for hours, listening to the little 45-inch until dust gummed up the record needle and we knew every raunchy, hilarious rhyme? Did I like “The Hobbit” and Dr. Demento and Japanese robot shows, or had I merely learned the early, painless trick of sublimating my own interests for his?
In middle school, my brother took a deep dive into Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, album covers where wicked cartoon skeletons wield a scythe. My albums featured soft boys with pretty lips wearing eyeliner, but I supplemented that with Van Halen, Motley Crue, Metallica. I trained myself to love those blistering guitar solos and the thundering drums like adults learn to appreciate Scotch, the way at first you want to spit it out and then you start to crave the sucker punch, the boom of sound that makes everything else seem drab in comparison.
How flattering and irritating it must have been for my brother to be shadowed like a celebrity, to be forced to share your things, not to mention your parents. But I never meant to be anything but a part of the grand adventure, which he seemed to invent so effortlessly as he went along. I was a shy kid, a worrier, but he was free from all that. Here, let’s put on a play. Here, let’s explore this back yard. Here, let me stuff you in this basket. Just play along, it’ll be fun, I promise.
I don’t know when my brother and I stopped being friends, exactly. But by the time he was in high school, and I was in middle school, we were playing the roles of squabbling siblings. Long car trips and family dinners sometimes ended in tears (mine) and slammed doors (also me). No one could unhinge me like my brother.
I fought with my mother back then, but Josh seemed to have a skeleton key to her better mood. I hated how he could breeze in and change the temperature in the room, just by being himself. He was charismatic and supremely silly while I was self-conscious and resentful, a brooder. It seemed to me that everyone liked Josh better — including, frankly, me.
In pictures from my brother’s freshman year of college, his floppy dark blond hair has been shaved to a geometric plane. In this picture, he wears form-fitting naval whites. He is 15 pounds lighter than when he left for school, all the football bloat of Taco Bell burned off by months of drills and training. He stands with his legs shoulder-width apart, arms clasped behind his back, and stares straight ahead.
My brother joined the military in the years before 9/11. A National Merit Scholar, he studied electrical engineering at Rice University in Houston, but it was the Naval ROTC that defined his experience there. It is a sign of how safe we felt in America then, how self-centered I was at 13, that I only saw his military involvement for the way it affected me, as a sign of the deepening philosophical divide between us.
At the time, I had high hopes to become one of those artsy bohemian rebels who marched against wars and ran around barefoot with a daisy in her flowing blonde hair. (This future self can be understood as equal parts Oliver Stone movies and “Wonder Years,” with a heavy dose of Natalie Merchant.) But looking back, I see I was lockstep with my bleeding-heart liberal parents, and it was my brother who was rebelling. Against his dyed-in-the-wool Democrat father. Against his peacenik, talk-about-your-feelings therapist mother. Once, when I asked my brother why he joined the military, he began his explanation: “Do you remember how mom wouldn’t let me play with toy guns?”
Then again, he was also carrying on a tradition from which our family had, if only temporarily, lost touch. My crinkly-eyed, smiling Irish grandfather served in WWII and worked as a firefighter. My Uncle Tom, a professor of English now, served in the military in the 60s, and we have a picture of him in the same stance as my brother, arms behind his back, eyes locked in front of him. It looks so much like Josh that it’s chilling, like a generational ghost in the machine.
As my brother’s time in the military dragged on, he became more solemn and less goofy. He didn’t laugh as much; he spoke in a lingo I didn’t understand. After he graduated Rice, he spent five years on nuclear submarines, where he would literally disappear for months at a time, and he would come back up to the surface like Rip Van Winkle, having missed entire chunks of pop culture. Why did everyone like “Pulp Fiction” so much, he wondered? It was foul-mouthed, empty nonsense. I worked at an alt-weekly in Austin then, and I would try to explain — it’s a cinematic pastiche, see, it’s, umm, ironic — but we just wound up staring at each other across the dinner table, annoyed. And for years, when he came home for a day or two at Christmas and we had nothing to say to each other, it was hard for me not to blame the military for taking my brother away.
The next years are such a blur, even he and I can’t remember how it all unfolded. He left the military and got his masters at Columbia, only to leave for London and study acting at a Shakespearean academy. After nearly a decade of highly regimented schedules, surprise: Josh wanted to be an actor. Meanwhile, I left Austin for Ecuador, then followed that up with a road trip around the country. After 27 years of living in Texas, surprise: I could not stop traveling. But our lives were pretty unfamiliar to each other in those years. Recently he admitted that he never knew I’d driven to Alaska. But to be fair, I cannot remember the countries in which he has lived. Italy, yes, but possibly Japan? Or Korea?
After I moved to New York, Josh would come visit, and we would have amazing adventures in the city and talk till dawn. I felt like the old Josh was back, hilarious and argumentative and ridiculous. I never wanted him to go. But then in between visits, we were pretty much lost to each other, old friends getting Facebook status updates delivered by my mother.
I remember calling him one night from my breezy old loft in Brooklyn, three-quarters of the way through a bottle of Malbec, the time of night when I felt most lonely. “We never talk. I wish we would talk.”
“We’re talking right now,” he said, laughing. “What do you want to talk about? Do you want to talk about boys? Do you want to talk about fashion?”
But I didn’t even know what I wanted to talk about. It’s just that sometimes I looked at my girl friends who had sisters, and they seemed so close, so enmeshed in each others’ lives.
“Mom and Dad are good,” Josh told me. “We miss you. The dog misses you.”
The dog, in fact, does not miss me. I am a stranger to him, an interloper who comes twice a year and occasionally shares cheese, but Josh is his sun and his moon. When Josh comes over, the dog is electrified, like it is Thanksgiving and Christmas all at once. Josh runs around with him in the backyard and rolls with him in the dirt and the dog is all dopamine, all ecstatic barking. Once, Josh accidentally called my cell phone while he was taking the dog for a walk, and when I answered, it was just him singing the dog’s name, over and over. I listened for nearly a minute before I finally hung up.
Last summer, Josh and I were on a family trip, and we were getting along great until, well, we weren’t. Some conversational slight had turned me quiet and moody and, a day later, after I’d had enough time to mull on it, spiteful and indignant. On the last day, in the last minutes before I left to go back to New York, we stood there in awkward silence, me wiping away tears, him staring of into the distance, shifting his weight back and forth on his feet.
“I don’t know why you don’t just tell me to shut up instead of getting so upset,” he finally said. “I don’t know why you don’t just tell me I’m an idiot.”
“You’re an idiot,” I said sniffling.
“I know!” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me that yesterday?”
At some point when you start writing about your brother, you realize that it is not the story of one relationship, it is the story of all of them. The charming, smartypants men you are drawn to, whose arrogance thrills and enrages you. The caretaking friends who float you money, let you crash on their couch. How you are always waiting for someone else to lead so that you can follow, how you are always feeling slighted, like you have to shout to be heard. In my early 20s, I realized with no small about of shock that nearly every one of my closest friends was an older sibling.
A few weeks after we returned from the trip, my brother called me. I thought maybe he’d just called to talk — finally, a new phase in our relationship — but 15 minutes into the conversation, his purpose became clear. A few years ago, he had joined the reserves. He’d been called up. In a month, he was going to Iraq.
It was a surprise, and it was not a surprise. Anyone who joins the reserves in the midst of two wars must know they are a hairs’ breadth from deployment, and my brother is no different. The fact that I lived in denial of his reserve status just tells you how foolish we can all be. He had such a normal life. In many ways, he finally had the life he always wanted. A girlfriend. A job he liked. A new house. Acting on occasion. Now he had to put his life on hold for a year — at the age of 40 — to go clean up Iraq?
“The Navy’s been good to me,” he said, simply. “I need to be good to the Navy.”
On the night before he left, I spoke to him on the phone. He’d been in South Carolina training for two weeks, living in a barracks with 20 men. It sounded, frankly, like hell to me, but what I have come to appreciate about my brother is that he’s not a complainer. He is not a wallower, like me, who can take one single heartbreak and wring three years of tears out of it. He just sucks it up, and forges along.
“Are you worried?” I asked.
“No, I’m excited. Because this is something totally new.”
It was another adventure, another new place in the world that my brother would go first and report back.
It is Christmas day as I write this. My parents and I spoke to Josh over videochat in the morning, an awkward, fuzzy conversation full of dropped verbs and staticky, frozen images that was, nonetheless, one of the best parts of the day. Josh had left Christmas presents for us under his stairs in his home, and we unwrapped them in front of a Logitech camera as he took pictures of his own computer screen. My brother is tough, yes, but he is also sweet. And as bored and as homesick as he might be, he isn’t self-pitying or sad. He knows the world is full of adventure, and the arms of a family stretch over great distances. I could still learn a few things from the guy. Because as much as life is about choices, it is also about dealing with the things you don’t get to choose — whether it’s your service in Iraq, or winding up in your own strange family — because sometimes the things you wouldn’t choose turn out to be the ones that are the most profound, so that you look back and can’t imagine your life going any other way. (Or, as they say in songs: Doot-de-doot, doot-de-doot, doot.)