Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Better Than Tim

Today, I stopped in the rec-room for a little while between classes and played foosball with a handful of acquaintances. I'd like to think I let them win most of the matches, but really they ran circles around me; I haven't played in about a year now. I've lost whatever it is that makes you win these little tabletop games. Competetive spirit? Skill? Pride? I rely only on habit - it's what keeps me in college, aside from whatever money my parents cough up. For me, something like a game of foosball takes something else - something that doesn't come with me.

My brother, Tim.

When you're a kid, all you have are habits, really. At least that's the way it was for me - I always study, I play only when I'm sure I have my work done for my classes then next day, I keep clean, I sleep early. That's how Tim was, that's how I was, that's how my mother had a good job at Texaco as some sort of executive, and why we lived away from our father, who wouldn't have had the discipline to raise us. According to mom, at least, the women who spent most of his monthly checks on babysitters while she worked overtime.

But Tim and I were close - we were the model children and we were proud of it. We would be the ones the drug awareness videos touted with their rugby shirts all tucked in nicely with a belt around our waist and good haircuts. We'd do our homework together in the furnished attic so we could leave the babysitters downstairs to raid our fridge and call their boyfriends while we finished all our schoolwork, and then built giant train tracks and towers of blocks that stretched clear to the ceiling. And whenever there was anyone else to play with, we'd go together - you would think we were twins.

Then there was our father. I never knew him, he divorced mother while she was pregnant and Tim was three. So naturally, he was only ever interested in Tim when he seldom came to visit for an awkward reunion. I never thought much of him - I don't know if I should have - but when Tim started visiting our dad's house in the summer for days at a time, I didn't know what to think at all.

The first time I barely spent any time with my friends at all, there didn't seem much of a point without Tim. For a week I skulked without much to do, wondering why dad didn't just come here instead since mom was missing all the time anyway. Tim, of course, came back though, but when he did, he didn't wear the nice shirts mom had bought us, he wore jerseys and gym shorts. He talked tougher, used words I hadn't heard before... he didn't want to play with blocks or puzzles. He wanted to play video games. He wanted to play sports. He wanted to ride his new bike.

I was overwhelmed. But naturally, I tried to sink in. We'd study in the furnished attic, then he'd take me out to the empty garage and try to teach me wallball. I thought it might be fun at first, I thought I ran pretty fast in my sneakers, but let's just be plain - I sucked. It was obvious to me, and when it became obvious to him, he wouldn't play it with me, he'd play it with everyone else.

That was just the beginning of course. He learned to ride a bike at six; I couldn't get off training wheels until I was nine. He came back from dad's one year with a Nintendo 64, and when we took turns playing Mario, I died so quickly and he played so well that it was like I was just watching him play to amuse myself. When he was nine, he came back with a soccerball, and I never even got a chance to learn to play because he was inseperable from it for a year. Then it was the skateboard, and I kept falling and scratching myself until my mother told me I wasn't supposed to ride it, only Tim who could hop it into the air and twist like he was being held by invisible hands.

He soon had so many things that he begged mom to make the office into a room so he could have his own room with his own things in it, and soon, when I would go up to the attic to play, he would stay in his room and play on his own. He'd make me come down to it if he wanted to play with me, but it always seemed like he wanted to prove he could beat me. So, as I grew wiser, I thought I'd make him do something more constructive, so I insisted on making him play with Lego bricks again with me, but even then, he'd mistify me building robots and cars with all sorts of contours with the studs pointing in every direction, while I found myself stuck with blocky, soulless towers. I think I heard him say "crap" for the first time when he told me what the things I made looked like.

I thought I'd find a talent of my own that he shared no interest in. I joined band, hoping that soon, I might have a smooth, shiny french horn all to myself in my own room so it wouldn't be just all the old toys. By the time I was in seventh grade, I had earned myself a gold at the dreaded solo and ensemble contest. I thought I was really great - Tim played the drums, but I could play, as my private lesson teacher insisted, a real instrument. I thought one day start a band of my own and be the first rock star who played french horn.

Then I got braces. That ruined it - the french horn was out - I had no embouchure. I was ruined. I had to play percussion if I wanted to stay in band. But by that time I was in High School, and lo and behold, there was Tim, suddenly first chair drummer, and there was me, last. I wouldn't have resented it so much if he hadn't told me, "Wow, you suck!" to my face. I might not have quit band either considering dad's checks paying the private lessons.

But he did say it. One day during his senior year, we were playing foosball on the table our father had bought that had been placed in the attic. By the time he had flawlessly won his second game in a row without me scoring on him once, he told me he was bored of playing if I was just going to play so poorly. He would have got up from the table right then if I hadn't suddenly shouted at him, "Maybe if you didn't practice all fucking summer at our dad's house with all of dad's fucking gifts I'd be able to beat you once or twice."

He turned and told me that it's just because I suck, and I shouldn't throw a hissy-fit at him. I told him that he ought to learn to not be such a conceited bastard. Then I threw the foosball at him. I missed. And he just laughed, and said "Wow, you suck! I mean, shit, you never cease to surprise me with the things you're no damn good at. You can't play drums, you can't play sports, you can't play this game, and you can't hit me with the little foosball from across the table!"

He was putting the foosball back on the table, just a foot away from me. So I hit him. I punched him in the face. I knocked the wind out of his chest. I pushed him to the floor, and kicked him once. Then I pushed the foosball table over, letting the side cave in.

Then I buried myself in my room and started studying for school. I haven't stopped since.

It's been almost two years now since he finished school and left town. I hear he works for dad now. He's probably the best at everything now. I heard mom complain about his speeding tickets over the phone. When I bother to play foosball with people, I, of course, can't help but think about that last time I really spoke to him, or yelled at him. Nor can I forget that I fixed the foosball table and tried so desperately to be better than him so that one day we could have a more civil conversation. I'd give anything to be able to beat him at something. To challenge him to a game. To beat him. To be able to talk civilly. To say I'm sorry and that maybe we'll be able to play together now, even if he'll talk circles around me about everything else.

But what I really want are those summers back. So he could have been with me. So that I could have been there. So that we could be on the same page instead of less like family every day. But that, of course, is neither here nor there.

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