One afternoon, Kevin and I were sitting in Dad’s kitchen. My aunts had tag-teamed Dad to overcome his travel inertia, and, grumbling, he was back in Virginia visiting his family, so it was just the two of us. Kev was off that day and I was unemployed, so I had a lot of time on my hands.
Things hadn’t been going well for me. Though last year’s recession was officially over, the economic body blow delivered to my company had been severe; one day, there was a mass layoff, and I was having a hard time finding a new gig. While a number of my coworkers landed jobs with our main competitor, I failed to secure a position and this compounded my insecurities. I looked for work, but I didn’t seem to have the right qualifications. Foolishly, I thought I’d try my hand at Internet gambling to generate funds. I logged in, confident in my abilities, but, in hindsight, my decision was idiotic as I lost $1600 of my valuable severance package in 30 minutes. I don’t know, I thought maybe I’d been swindled by fraudulent programming. I decided to restrict myself to real casinos from there on out. But either way, that put the brakes on my gambling for a while as I went into austerity mode.
Kevin, on the other hand, was making positive strides. He had decided to take a break from drinking for an unspecified time to get himself sorted out and was about two weeks into it. In a chipper mood, he seemed filled with restless energy. We’d just finished our daily ritual of viewing the Jerry Springer freak show and were drinking blueberry smoothies Kevin had made when he suddenly said:
“Hey, let’s go up to the Outback when it opens. I’ll buy you dinner; my treat.”
I eyed him suspiciously as it was unusual for him to want to hang out with me, especially since he was offering to pay, though he had been in a friendlier, upbeat mood all day. Don’t get me wrong, my brother could be very generous, but for some reason, my Spidey Sense was tingling. As if detecting my reservations, he said he was not going to drink. What the hell, it was less than a mile up the road, and I was hungry, so we headed over a little after four o’clock. My friends and I had been going to this Outback for years and hung out with some of the servers and bartenders. It had just opened for the day and was kind of dead, so there were plenty of open tables when we walked in.
“Just two?” asked the hostess. I wavered a split second. Normally, I automatically headed for the bar, but my brain warned me not to imperil my brother’s new-found self-control in front of all that booze.
“Don’t your friends bartend here? Let’s sit at the bar,” Kevin said, forging ahead.
With reservations, I followed him, and we grabbed a couple of barstools at the far end of the large u-shaped bar, the only customers sitting at it.
“You sure you want to sit here?” I asked.
“I’m a drug addict, not an alcoholic,” he responded dryly.
I muttered that was open for debate.
“Listen Fatty, you’re at Level 3,” he advised me, referring to the Annoyance Rating System he’d concocted to warn me how close he was to giving me a thumping. Level 5 triggered immediate retribution. “Don’t make me embarrass you in front of your friends.”
“How’d I get to Level 3? I didn’t do anything, yet!”
“Because you are fucking annoying and make me want to punch you.”
With a friendly greeting, the bartender, Deb, opened a Steinlager and set it in front of me. That was the problem with being a regular — instant service and anticipation of your every need; but right then, my every need didn’t include a beer. But it was already sitting there on the bartop, water beading invitingly on the curve of the green bottle. So much for setting a good example. My brother’s predatory gaze fell on my Steinie, a straggling antelope separated from the herd.
Deb misread the look of hesitation on my face.
“Oh, did you want something else instead? I’m sorry, I should have asked.”
I assured her it was fine, and then I introduced Kevin, and after some banter with him, she asked him what he’d like.
His eyes lingered on my beer, and I could sense his internal rationalization process in action, the gears whirring madly. I willed him to order a Diet Coke, but he asked for a low carb Michelob Ultra and watched in anticipation as Deb poured him a 22-ounce Big Bloke.
“Goddamnit, I thought you weren’t going to drink,” I said to him sotto voce, annoyed.
“I’ll just have one or two,” he whispered back.
“That’s the problem because it won’t be just one or two.”
“And that’s why you’re here as my loving big brother to make sure I don’t,” he replied.
Well, that explained the invite. Apparently, I was to be his new drinking babysitter.
With an exasperated sigh, I swallowed my retort, not wanting to risk a blow-up in the Outback.
Deb set Kevin’s large mug of beer in front of him and then left for the kitchen. Kev took a sip and sighed, a contented look on his face. Then he decided to clue me in about his new master plan to get his drug use and drinking under control. Apparently, I was to play an instrumental part in it, which involved me riding herd on his drinking sessions and regulating him. My job was to cut him off before he got hammered. Of course, I felt highly skeptical of his logic and was less than enthused. Plus, I envisioned a lot of gay bars in my future.
“See, I always slip up when I start drinking…”
“Which is why you need to…”
“Shut. Up. I’m not asking for advice — I can stay clean, but once I get drunk, I start craving meth.”
“Well, obviously, you need to stop drinking then!”
“No! I do not obviously need to stop drinking. What I need to do is monitor and control how much I drink and stop before it reaches that point.”
“Well, that’s worked like a fucking charm so far. And actually, if you talk to any expert…”
His steely eyes narrowed.
“Listen, Professor Dickhead. I don’t want to hear about some bullshit research study you’ve heard about. Oh, and I’m just letting you know — you’re now at Level 4.”
With that, we had a momentary detente and were sipping our cold beers, trying not to resume arguing, when I glimpsed the hostess lead a party of four out of sight behind the bar partition: two beautiful young women, one of whom who was stunning, accompanied by two muscular but average-looking dudes who were punching above their weight.
“Look,” my brother said returning to his plan. “I’ve decided I’m training myself. I only get one, maybe two beers — and only if I’m in a controlled environment. That’s where you come in as my loving big brother: I need you to help me make sure I stick to my plan.”
“I’d like to go on record as saying this is a terrible idea,” I groused.
“Sean, I can’t avoid being around alcohol for the rest of my life.”
“Well, not if you’re sitting in a bar! And that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying right now! You shouldn’t put yourself in bad situations — right — now. It hasn’t even been two weeks.”
He gave an exasperated sigh.
“What am I supposed to do, sit in my bedroom while everyone else is out enjoying life? No! I’m not living my life that way! What’s the point?”
In the end, we declared an unspoken truce, and while we looked over our menus, the stunningly beautiful woman materialized next to Kevin. Fetchingly dressed, she was in her mid-twenties, breathtaking, tall and leggy with cheeks sculpted to break hearts and a body that demanded the attention of every straight man on the premises — which was pretty much just me, a waiter, and the dudes she came in with. Kevin, naturally, was oblivious to her, even though she’d picked the only occupied spot along the whole bar to stand next to him. She glanced at us — well, at Kevin — and flicked a strand of brunette hair, trapping it behind her ear, revealing a long, graceful neck and satin-smooth olive skin. She was so far out of my league, I wasn’t even pretending to play the same sport, but as they say, hope springs eternal. My eyes were weak magnets hopelessly trying to attract her gaze, but the polarity was wrong. Unaware of me, she ordered four shots, and when they arrived, she suddenly turned to my brother with a smile as wide as the Amazon and asked him to help her carry her drinks back to her table.
Surprised, Kevin obliged, and I was instantly jealous of the opportunity that was being wasted on him, though he was back quickly.
“Did she tip you at least?”
“Shut up, bunghole, or I’ll tip you off your barstool,” he replied retaking his perch.
After we ordered our food, we were talking when the supermodel reappeared and struck up a conversation with my brother. Her name was Marissa, and as she chatted with Kevin, the signs of attraction were all there: the hair flip, the head tilt, the bright smile, and coquettish laughter. Distressingly, none of it was directed at me.
Seriously, I thought, fuck my life.
Kevin tried introducing me at one point, but Marissa gave me the perfunctory, plastic smile and cursory greeting reserved for the Wingman that sent me spiraling down in flames, and she returned her full attention back to her real target.
Instead of standing between both of us, she had occupied the space next to Kevin’s outer shoulder forcing him to turn away from me to look at her, effectively isolating him and shutting me out of the conversation. A classic move. So, I pretended to watch the baseball game on TV while I stewed about God’s twisted sense of humor.
As a perpetual third wheel, you’d think I would have been used to it by then, but it still stung. The story of my life since high school. It reminded me of an incident a couple of years before sitting in Casey Moore’s, drinking and bullshitting with my work buddy, Tyler, after my last day of employment at a medical warehouse. He was a handsome bastard, black wavy hair, well-muscled, square-jawed, and to top it off, about to become a firefighter. He was a walking porch light drawing women in like moths.
The first to approach was a middle-aged bank VP who sat down at the bar; she and I occupied the opposite sides of the same corner, so basically, it was like I was sitting between them and she had to talk to him across me. She relentlessly tried to seduce him letting him know her husband was out of town and how badly she wanted him. It was probably one of the most awkward conversations I’ve been a part of — especially since I wasn’t technically a participant. After she left empty-handed, an even more aggressive younger woman, fueled by booze, sat next to Tyler and expertly cut him out of the herd, reducing me to a wallflower. Tyler tried several times to include me, which annoyed her and finally, she asked me rather bluntly why I wasn’t taking the hint and getting lost. Tyler told her to chill out, but fed up with my lot as the Invisible Man and not wanting to screw his game up, I told him it was cool and that I had to leave anyway. I collected the remnants of my ego, wished him luck at the firefighting academy, and took off. Feeling low, I drifted to the nearby casino and, reckless, burned through two hundred dollars in no time flat and then went home even more depressed.
As Marissa waited in vain for my brother to make a move, I continued to eavesdrop on their doomed, one-sided courtship. I glimpsed the tips of her perfectly manicured nails as they settled as lightly as butterflies onto Kevin’s shoulder blade and gently furrowed the fabric of his shirt as she scratched it. My back tingled sympathetically as if he were a voodoo doll and I was the target of those nails. A shiver ran up and down my spine.
Have a drinking problem? Get help today.
Suddenly something caught her eye.
“Um, I’ll be back in just a minute.” She smiled and disappeared.
“Oh my God, she’s all over me,” my brother said, relieved at her departure and inadvertently twisting the knife.
“What do you think I should do?” he asked. “Just blurt out I’m gay?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, trying to mask my annoyance with indifference. The USS Boner had already sunk below the grim waves after hitting the iceberg of reality, so I no longer cared. Bitterly, I wondered if I’d been a womanizing asshole in another life.
A few minutes later, my lovely tormentor returned and moved in so close to my brother they might as well have been a pair of Siamese twins. Her proximity reminded me of a high school classmate in history class who would routinely come over to my desk. She would lean over me to ask questions about our homework so her right boob could do its dirty work, pressing against me, rendering me pliable so I’d surrender answers to the assignment she hadn’t completed. Even though I knew she had a jock boyfriend, naturally, it worked every time. Unfortunately for Marissa, Kevin was impervious to the allure of her shapely breasts.
So, there I sat at the bar, bored and green with envy, my eyes grimly on ESPN, as I upgraded to a Bacardi and Coke with a lime because, fuck it, at that point, I needed a drink more than my brother did. The only time an amazing-looking woman had ever approached me was in a nightclub and it was a case of mistaken identity. And she turned out to be a drug dealer, which really put a damper on things.
Enraptured, Marrissa was lost in Kevin’s blue eyes, laughing because he was being his normal engaging self when drinking. I was getting more annoyed by the minute because he wasn’t that funny. Okay — maybe he was. But I wasn’t in the mood for it.
Get a grip, I tried telling myself because my negativity was spiraling out of control, but I couldn’t stop it. Sipping my drink, I thought a fraction of an inch here or there can be the difference between being an Adonis or a Quasimodo, and my brother, symmetrically good-looking, was everything that I wasn’t. My looks, I felt, were an afterthought of mismatched parts thrown together from a collection of cheap mannequins. Weak chin; pencil-thin biceps and wrists; pecs an eight-year-old boy would be disappointed with; hair that defied cool styling; bad posture; flared nostrils; an ass you could file a missing person’s report about with the police; alien-looking elbows; and weird, highly-arched feet with narrow insteps that would be awesome if I was a damn prima ballerina. Throw in the chronic scaling from seborrhea in my goatee, and there was nothing symmetrically beautiful going on in this freak show. Depressingly, I had recently found out my ears were lopsided when I discovered my misshapen head had deformed my sunglasses so its arms would no longer sit level when sitting open on a table.
Same genetic donors, wildly divergent outcomes. Russian Roulette, DNA style.
As an insecure shy person, I could only dream of a dating world where hot women threw themselves at me. And what made me gnash my teeth was my brother’s superpower was going to waste — well, at least in the heterosexual world. It was quite maddening. The truly annoying thing was when women assumed, because of his masculine good looks, that between the two of us, I was the gay one. Do you know how fucking demoralizing that is? I thought if I could have somehow combined my slightly above average intellect with his good looks, I would have been unstoppable.
I snapped out of my reverie as one of Marissa’s solidly built Neanderthal companions joined us and informed her curtly they were waiting for her at their table. She told him she’d be back in a minute and resumed talking to Kev. Undeterred, the guy remained on station with a stony stare directed at my brother. Kevin was oblivious, but I’d been in enough bars and had seen enough wildlife documentaries to recognize a rutting male sizing up a competitor. Ironically, the one guy in the bar who didn’t want to bone Marissa was the one guy who was in danger of getting his brains beaten in. I looked around for something to hit big dudes with and furtively slid over the thick, glass Heinz ketchup bottle that was sitting on the bartop. It was pretty heavy; I had no idea how effective it would be in a bar fight, and I didn’t really want to find out; I figured I would maybe get one swing in before I was on the wrong end of an ass beating.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that because Marissa reluctantly left. We had finished our meal and were just talking when she made her next appearance. Apparently, she’d done a few more shots. This time, Kevin managed to mention he was gay, and if anything, she at least pretended to be excited and said she loved having gay men as friends and talked about going shopping together. The last we saw of her was right before we left, and by that time, she was hammered. Kevin returned from the restroom and, immediately after, we saw an unsteady Marissa, head bowed, one hand clamped to her forehead, emerge from the women’s restroom, helped along by her girlfriend.
“Oh my God, I heard something hit the wall hard when I was in the restroom,” my brother said in amazement. “It must have been her.”
It was kind of petty, but I felt a little better at that point.
After Kevin paid our bill, he asked if I wanted to go to another bar and I said no. Surprisingly, he didn’t press the issue. Then he handed me his bank card and asked me to hold it so he wouldn’t be tempted to go out that night. I tucked it away in my wallet, and we went home. All in all, it had been a decent day.
That night I was in a sound sleep when I startled awake, and half sat up because I had dreamt that someone was in my room. But it wasn’t a dream. My door was open and in the light bleeding in from the hallway, I could make out my brother going through my jeans. Alarmed I clicked on the lamp on my nightstand. He had pulled out my wallet and opened it.
“What are you doing?” I blinked like an owl as he retrieved his bankcard and tucked it into his pocket
“Nothing. I’m going out for food. I’ll be right back.”
Blinking, I scrunched my eyes and peered at him.
“I swear. I’ll be back.”
He put my wallet back in the pocket and laid my jeans on the end of my bed and then disappeared.
And, of course, I didn’t see him for two days.
Photo courtesy of Pexels
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