A tale of brotherly love, antipathy, and reconciliation in stereo.
My brother was already out of the plane and eating a bagel when I walked into the terminal at the airport in Hamilton, Ontario. He let me wander toward the counter before calling out my name. When I turned to look, I saw a face I had already passed over, but it was him, my younger brother. He still had the soul patch beneath his lip, the outrageously high hair and the CD case with the word Putinewritten on the spine in White-Out for no apparent reason. He still had a loping walk and big trousers made of a fabric I had never seen before and a tendency to pepper his conversation with plenty of “dudes” and “sweets.” This combination of words ran rampant in his group of friends. One of his buddies—and they were always buddies—had woken up one morning on the couch at a friend’s house. He opened his eyes, saw there were no clouds in the sky and uttered the single magic word: “Sweet.”
On the hour-long drive into Toronto, my brother and I engaged in our usual game of commandeering the CD player and playing as many new songs as possible to demonstrate how advanced our tastes in music had become. I hated his Incubus CD—the overproduced guitars and melodramatic vocals. He hated everything I put in, especially the whiny indie rock. So the power shifted back and forth, song to song, with neither of us ever tapping a foot or complimenting the other’s choice.
Back in the city we sat in a bar called The Rex and drank pints of beer. I kept putting my arm around him. He kept saying, “It’s good to see you, bro.”
“Yeah, it’s sweet,” I replied.
It was a high-density trip—I was only in Canada for a few days and he was in Toronto for two nights. There was a lot of ground to cover, so we went through the necessary topics one by one, the important and unimportant handled with the same familial back story.
“You drink fast these days,” I told him.
The February air in Toronto wasn’t as mean-spirited as I remembered, so we carried on down Queen Street, turning right onto Spadina after the hot dog vendors. Mountains of cabbages and bok choi and cardboard boxes covered the sidewalks in front of the Chinese restaurants. Our friend Kim was playing drums with her band at Rancho Relaxo, the club that looked like a stucco basement, so we stopped there to watch her fantastic cymbal work. I hadn’t seen pitchers of beer in almost a year—they’re conspicuously absent in London—but my brother kept appearing at the table with his hands full and a grin on his face.
The night went on. It’s not evident to visitors, but Toronto is a city where evenings often slide quickly and without warning into absurdity. After midnight a cellphone rang. It was a friend calling to say that somehow she had wound up in a stretch limousine surrounded by strangers, including two women who were possibly call girls. She was on the way over to pick us up. By this point, the jet lag and beer were beginning to wear on my brother.
“Are you into it?” I asked him.
He looked at me for a second, then shrugged.
Brothers have a unique utensil for frustration, like a special fork that they use to grind deep into a sibling’s insides. He knows me as no one else does, and he has certain peculiarities, details and gestures that I’ve been accustomed to all my conscious life. They bristle against me in a way that nothing else can. At the end of the improbable limousine ride, when we arrived at an after-hours country bar, it was his look. I may be the only one who can truly discern this particular look. He stood there near the cloakroom with heavy lids and a firm disinterest across his face. Whenever I see it, the look catches on me. It’s my brother’s facial equivalent of Incubus.
“I’m tired,” he said. “Tell me the address of the place where we’re staying.” The band onstage at the club was twisting endlessly through a version of some early Neil Young song that bore only a faint resemblance to the original.
“Just come on,” I told him. “Don’t ruin the evening.”
He had reason to be tired, having been up most of the night before at his restaurant job, having flown across the country only to be given booze and to be expected to stay up until 4:00 a.m. Eastern. But at that moment, I took my brother’s “I’m tired” as a kind of personal affront, a throwback to the times when he would command me not to enter his room. I had to stay on the red carpet in the hallway and not set foot on his own pinkish rug.
“Just give me the address,” he said with the same look, same tone, same unspoken order to stop being bossy, stop trying to be Dad.
“I can’t just give you the address,” I told him.
“You can’t just go. You don’t know where you are.”
“Where are you? Do you know what street you’re on?”
It was at about this moment that I hit him in the face, which is something I’ve never done before. I don’t know what perfect form the punch took in my mind, but by the time the impulse had pushed its way through me, my hand had bent inward like an old person’s claw, or a doll’s hand—curved around but without a bottle to clutch.
The moment went elastic and soundless. He was shocked. I was shocked that I was now a person who smacked his brother, the guy I loved most in the world. He had flown across the country, stayed up all night, put up with my university friends, taken a limo ride with people none of us knew, and now he was staring at me with a new, wider look on his face. The music flooded back in, the moment snapped into place, and he was out of the club, out the door, into a cold city he didn’t know. I was left standing with a bottle-curved hand.
Eventually I got him on his phone.
“Where are you?” I said in a voice louder than it should have been.
“I’m going to the hospital.”
“The hostel,” he said. “I’m getting a room.”
“You’re not getting a room.”
“I’m getting a room.”
“Don’t get a room.”
There was a pause. I could hear his footsteps over the phone, crunching obstinately down some Toronto sidewalk.
“Come on,” I said, and the line went dead.
He was standing by the front door of the club a few minutes later, with his bottom lip pushed tight against his top, his soul patch poking out accusingly.
The cab ride home was silent, as was the next morning. Sometimes reconciliation can only come with a good bass line. Somewhere out in the musical landscape there was a middle ground that reminded us why we were brothers, and there were even a few CDs that could be allowed to play for more than a single song. That afternoon we were driving toward downtown in resolute silence when the stereo gave way to the Beastie Boys’ “Funky Boss.” It wasn’t planned, but slowly our heads began to dip in unison—a loosening of the tension. We called out the same lines we had done every time before. I didn’t feel better, but I felt all right.