By Ben Tanzer
From the essay collection Lost in Space (March 2014, Curbside Splendor Press).
Charlie, the junkie one-time rock star on LOST, is a younger brother. In the beginning he is a serious musician, and a good boy, proper, and studious. But that is before he follows his older druggie brother and charismatic lead singer of their band down the road of groupies, addiction, excess, and rot. This shouldn’t surprise us, however. Younger brothers idolize older ones. Older brothers are both substitute parent and friend. They have the wisdom that comes with having lived longer, and they are happy to impart it, right or wrong, to their most loyal audience. Charlie ultimately cleans up, falls in love, does good, and finds redemption. But he still dies on a God-forsaken island off in some magnetic geographical zone that maps cannot track, much less locate. I am hoping for better with Noah.
There is a homeless woman who works the door at the Jewel in our neighborhood. She sells Street Wise. She’s not pushy or loud, and yet I find her off-putting. It might be the stringy hair or parched skin, but I don’t think it’s her appearance. Well, I hope not. What I believe, is that she oozes desperation in such a passive manner, blending in, but always there, staring, waiting, wanting, that it angers me. The other regulars in the neighborhood are smoother, engaging, making conversation, and asking about the boys, but not her, not ever. She just stands there, and even just writing this reminds me how self-conscious I am about my reaction to her.
Despite this, I do not give her change, though I regularly give change to other homeless people, both men and women, in the neighborhood, and down by my office.
While I always feel bad about this, I feel much worse about it when I am with the boys, and especially when I am with Noah, who doesn’t talk much yet.
I don’t know what goes on inside Noah’s head. He’s not like Myles who is so external, expressing everything, every feeling, thought, and question.
He’s the younger brother, and there isn’t much air space for him. But he’s watching, and he is sponging-up everything around him all the time. He’s just doing it as younger siblings do, silently and stealthily, moving along, watching, and gathering information about whatever he’s trying to make sense of.
One day Noah and I are in Dunkin’ Donuts and the homeless lady is standing there, not talking, just waiting, waiting for something, and in my head, passing judgment on me, my lifestyle, and my unwillingness to share any of that with her.
Noah is intently watching her, and I am watching him, cognizant of his presence, and of wanting to be better than I normally am for reasons both selfless and self-serving.
I ask her if I can buy her a cup of coffee and a donut. She says yes, and Noah doesn’t say a word, instead slowly, and quietly, consuming his Vanilla Long John, small bite by small bite.
Months later as we are walking home from school, we pass the woman on the street in her usual spot by the Jewel, and Noah, who has otherwise been silent, speaks.
“People don’t like to give her money,” he says, at once both matter-of-factly and quizzically.
“You’re right,” I say, “why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know,” he says, “but you bought her a cup of coffee and a donut and that makes you a good person.”
“I hope so,” I say.
Prince Harry is also a younger brother. He is prone to dressing like a Nazi for costume parties and racing Olympic Gold medalist swimmers in the buff. He also looks a lot like his dead mother’s former bodyguard, and very little like his brother or father. He still has to compete with his older brother’s awesomeness, however, and how much Prince William looks, and acts, like their mother, the most beloved woman in the world at the time of her death. That can’t be easy for Harry, and I’m glad Noah doesn’t have to worry about any of that. Debbie has never had a bodyguard.
When Myles was five years old he had a thing for the Disney princesses—the movies, their ice shows, and the ways they might interact with the Power Rangers if just given the chance. He also had a thing for princess figurines, which he liked to place strategically around the house.
When Noah was 17 months old, he followed Myles around, wanting to do the things Myles did, and wanting to like the things Myles liked. Which in those days were those princess figurines. I don’t think Noah cared about their back story, or how they looked on the ice. Myles loved them, and so would he.
At first this was cute. Noah would walk around and gather as many of them as he could, and then as he had seen Myles do he would arrange them in the different locations that he could reach. He would work his way around the house, focused, diligent, and going about his business.
Then something changed.
First, Noah grew upset if he couldn’t pick-up all of the figurines at once. And then he started to get upset if he didn’t have at least one in each hand at all times. He soon had to have some in his crib when he went to bed and he always woke-up scrambling to figure out where they had gone during the night.
An action that had started off as modeling and idealization had morphed into something he needed so he could feel ownership over a world that didn’t always make sense, a world where everyone he knew regularly came and went to school and work.
It’s not like we didn’t know this was coming, we read Peanuts, and when Myles was Noah’s age he latched onto a teddy bear, which though long washed-out and faded, he still calls Rainbow Bear and sleeps with to this day.
What we didn’t know is whether this was a phase that would evolve in a healthy fashion as Noah continued learning how to self-soothe.
Like with Myles and his bear, Noah was still a little ball of clay being shaped all the time, and while I wouldn’t want to know Noah’s future if I could, I also know I wouldn’t have to worry so much if I did.
Noah outgrew those figurines, but like Myles he became frightened by dogs and the wind, things we have no control over as we try to make our way through the world.
Myles is no longer afraid of dogs. It’s how he is. He decided he was done with that, and that was that. We are still waiting for Noah to get there.
Casey Affleck has benefited from his older brother’s benevolence, see Gone, Baby Gone, and by trying to be nothing like him. He makes small movies. His relationships are private. And he seems to be surrounded by as little drama as possible. Younger brothers have to go their own way even when they are on the same path as their older brothers, but it’s certainly easier to do so, when how to do so is clear and your older brother is there to guide you.
I hope Myles knows this, or if he doesn’t, that he learns it, because Noah will have many challenges, and while he will make many mistakes, I don’t see any reason for both of them to make and repeat the same mistakes again and again.
Some things about Noah that you don’t know:
He likes to stroke Debbie’s hair while watching television or going to sleep, but he will stroke mine or his own as needed.
When he first started speaking he couldn’t say the word “disgusting,” and it always came out “puh-scusting.” He also had a problem pronouncing “hallelujah.”
For a long time, he had only one adult tooth come in, and it was enormous and weird, and awesome to behold when he laughed
By the end of the day, now that he is talking a lot, Noah’s voice grows very raspy, like Brenda Vaccaro’s. It always seemed very cute, but may eventually require surgery.
Noah cries when he cannot make his socks fit, which is often, and one of the many reasons I love the summer. He wears sandals every day.
He calls soccer practice “soccer class,” and like regular class, he talks about Pokemon the whole time he is there with his friend Harper.
When Noah smiles, he sometimes looks like my grandmother, though at other times he looks like my father-in-law. It’s all about how much he scrunches his eyes and opens his mouth.
He doesn’t like jokes about death because he thinks that when people make them around me I will get sad about my father having passed away.
Sometimes younger brothers take care of older ones. Theo Van Gogh apparently did the best he could to ensure that Vincent was stable, productive, and able to sell his work. Vincent’s story didn’t turn out so well, but it seems like it could have been worse, which offers me some solace as the father of two boys.
They say younger siblings grow-up in different families. That they get less attention and fewer photos. That they have to be tougher, and cuter, and that they are endlessly compared to their older siblings, for reasons both good and bad.
They also have the benefit, though, of having parents who have done most everything before, are less stressed about safety and the inclination to hover, and are generally too tired to care about the things that somehow seemed so important the first time around.
And of course you can’t care about everything, because having more children is not just two or three times as much work, it’s something more inexplicable than that. What is quite explicable, however, is that anything remotely resembling downtime has vanished.
They have the same needs, however, the newer ones, but sometimes you are just holding on. You are calmer, yes, but exhausted too, and just want the crying, fighting, moaning, whining, sniffling, complaining, yelling, and general loudness and overwhelming sense of being on, forever on, to just dissipate, if not outright go away for a moment, or more.
Though even a moment is a blessing and happily embraced.
And so there is Noah, the younger one, so yummy from jump that I could just eat him, and I would, all of him, gulping him in massive bites, and not stopping to catch my breath for even a second. He’s like a donut, a grimy, oozy, sticky, crying powdered donut that I just want to touch and smell and curl-up with at every moment possible.
Despite this, do I automatically accept that he must still somehow get less attention than Myles, did, and does, based on the fact that he is the younger one? Yes, probably. There was one, and now there are two, and there is less to give.
Which is a cop-out for sure, but not nothing either.
I am present though aren’t I? I am, and I am engaged, yes? Yes, though am I less engaged than I was with Myles before Noah came, maybe but how should I measure that? I can’t, or won’t, and yet there we are at the kitchen table one day, doing his fractions homework.
Noah is hunkered down, pencil in hand, eyes focused, brow furrowed. His beautiful, buttery skin is so ripe I just want to eat him on the spot.
I try not to stare, but it’s impossible.
“I’m not sure I can do it,” he says suddenly looking-up at me with his endlessly brown eyes. “You can,” I say, “I believe in you.”
“You’ve never said that to me in my entire life,” he says, smiling and getting back to work.
Who knows, maybe I haven’t said that before to him. He is the younger one, and things get overlooked. I will say it from now on though, always, or as long as he lets me anyway.
My mother once told me that your sibling is the friend you will have the longest. I never questioned this, I just didn’t think about it. And yet, here we are, my younger brother Adam and I, forty years on, drinking and running and talking about WTF with Marc Maron, marriage, parenting, and Presidential elections. Adam still asks for my advice on things, which I find amazing and humbling. I take the role of older brother very seriously and I always have. I hope Noah and Myles have that. I also hope I get to see it, because the idea of it sounds wonderful to me.
Ben Tanzer is the author of the books My Father’s House, You Can Make Him Like You, So Different Now, Orphans, and Lost in Space, among others. He also oversees day to day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life, directs Publicity and Content Strategy for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life, the center of his growing lifestyle empire.