We were lions once, long ago and far away.
That summer the golden-haired boys we were ran along a beach of white sugar tinged with caramel. My Big Brother striding the sand and talking to the girls as if he owned the ocean. My timid self hovered at the edges of the hormone clouds and thought my little island a grand place.
Grand, if it bothered one very little to be alone and feel apart from everyone, all the while wishing that somehow the courage could be found to kick open the candy store door and grab some sweetness.
I was much too polite to make a scene.
Big Bro always found a way to do it. To this day I’m still unsure how, because I never really saw it happen. He just seemed to know people, or know how to start talking to them. On the beach, or at parties he would be chatting people up as if the introductions had been made long before. It was a skill I envied deeply. He made friends; I made time until he could make some friends for me. I resented it, sometimes, but was too grateful for the attention I did receive to bite the hand that fed me.
Can humans do what prophets say?
And if I die before I learn to speak
Can money pay for all the days I lived awake but half asleep?
That summer I was awkward and chubby. Like an overgrown penguin without the cuteness. I tagged along with Big Bro because I wanted to be a part of things, I wanted to have a life, get a girlfriend. I wanted to drink beer in the sun and pretend I was all that. Bag of chips, optional, because I ate too much as it was anyway.
Big Bro let me go with minimal fuss. I thought maybe he was taking pity on me. Behind the mask lay a sensitive kid who felt bad that his little brother was possessed of weapons grade dorkiness. He never said it and I never asked. The truth probably would have shamed me into hiding in my room twice as much as I did. I was living my life half-asleep, soporific under the effects of shyness I had not the courage to overcome.
It was at the beach that really started feeling the effects of oncoming puberty. All those pretty girls, tanned and curvy gulls flocking around my brother and his friends. Problem was, I failed to understand it. To me, it was like a perpetual state of that near-sick, that awful whirling dizziness when you can’t decide if you are going to puke or just need to lie down. I solved the problem by avoiding the groups, hovering on the edges and hoping for a glance or a word. Of course, I rarely did get one. Not surprising when most times it happened I shied like a nervous foal, floundering in the sand and pretending sudden interest in the beach glass and seashells. I usually ended up in the surf, even though the opaque emerald sea always worried me. Sharks and jellyfish were never far from my mind.
A life is time, they teach you growing up
A million years before the fall
In the water I was generally alone and felt little of the social pressure I did on land. I bobbed around, a human shipping container overboard in heavy seas. I never had a boogie board or a jet ski or even a wetsuit. My version of body surfing resembled a semi-svelte log tumbling over in the waves and smacking into the sand. There was no grace.
Eventually, I created my own peculiar ocean sport, which consisted of standing in near chest-deep water and waiting for a wave to break at just the right time. I crouched and pushed off from the bottom to launch myself through the face of the curl. Timed appropriately, I could ride the face a little and then burst out the other side in an cold jade rainbow of spray. For brief seconds I could be weightless and hovering over the water, no awkwardness, just grace. I was blessed with a slice of time free of the bonds of gravity and teenage angst.
My brother, he body surfed like a pro.
You ride the waves and don't ask where they go
That summer I rode the waves as much as I could. Jumping through breakers burned off some nervous energy. Eventually, I could get back to land with enough courage to work my way into some conversations, usually with my brother’s words “this is my little brother…” at which point the older, pretty girls my brother knew would usually would say “Aww…”. From the outside I suppose I looked like a goofy puppy. The chick magnet guys on the make bring to the park to get the attention of the ladies. Of course, I was so desperate and so much of a goober I never saw the leash. All I knew was the pleasure of being scratched under the chin by curves in bikinis smelling of coconuts and beer. In other words, heaven on earth.
You swim like lions through the crest
And bathe yourself in zebra flesh
That summer I had no clue that my Big Brother needed me just as much as I needed him. He needed a shield, a cattle catcher to help ward off collisions between his overloaded mind and the social pressures bearing down on him. He needed that shift in attention sometime, I know, because maintaining the façade of the Cool and Collected is exhausting. Jokes, beer and weird thoughts only get you so far before you have to retreat and let someone else be in the light. He was cool, he was The Shit, but every now and then, he coaxed me onstage so he could take a break from being the construct people expected him to be.
That summer, we swam the crest and the zebra flesh between our teeth was nothing less than life itself, a clandestine gift from one brother to another. I throw back my head to roar, and his voice echoes back to me. He may have been the heart of the pride, now and again, but he wanted me to be a lion, too.
Italicized lyrics are from “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods. My plane took off from Baltimore, but hasn’t landed on Bourbon Street…