My first car was a 1983 Toyota Station Wagon. It was turquoise on the outside. And the inside. I took it over from my older brother in an uncontested transfer. The year I got my driver’s license, my brother lived at a therapeutic boarding school, three hundred miles north of our house. He had no place, or reason to drive. I was moderately grateful for the freedom, but deeply resentful of the vehicle that gave it to me.
My brother got his driver’s license the summer before his sophomore year of high school. Six months later, he was tasked with picking me up from middle school, while my mom was in the bay area, visiting her best friend.
Ten minutes after the bell rang, I gave him travel time from his high school parking lot. At the thirty minute mark, I assumed he got caught up talking to his friends. At forty minutes, I wrestled with the idea of disturbing my mom.
An hour and a half after it’s scheduled appearance, the turquoise Cressida rolled into the parking lot.
I was too sad to be angry. I climbed into the back seat behind my brother’s squirrely, teenage passenger. I don’t remember greeting anyone, or that anyone greeted me. My brother took recklessly to the road, and we all traveled home in silence.
That afternoon, my future first car had a particularly pungent odor. The thick, soft upholstery, smelled faintly of Hugo Boss cologne, but powerfully of something else. I was a high school senior, driving my passed-out boyfriend home from a party, before I could identify the smell.
My brother disappeared quickly into his bedroom and my mom returned later that night. I weighed the consequences of full disclosure against my desire to air my afternoon grievances and have my neglected, little sister voice heard.
I wasn’t up to the emotional challenge posed by another, fiery, family fight.
By December of that year, I was a high school freshman. I’d passed my written driver’s permit test, and my brother had been shipped out of state to the first of his many stints in rehab.
He left our house a week before my fifteenth birthday and we never lived together again.
I had my first kiss, went to my first prom, and on my first date, with my first boyfriend, all without my big brother around.
Growing up I pictured us together as teenagers. How I would come home after soccer practice and sit at the end of his bed. He’d struggle through calculus homework and listen to me complain about my friends. He’d have hilarious insight and infinite wisdom. He’d universally evaluate the boys in my life as immature losers who were good for nothing but wasting my time. We’d commiserate over the eccentricity of our parents, and the plague of the performance pressure inflicted by my dad. We’d laugh and bond over an upbringing, and identity, no one could understand but us.
We’d have favorite tv shows and weekend rituals. We’d shamelessly flirt with each other’s friends.
He’d be my classically overprotective older brother and we’d be life-long best friends.
Reality felt like an empty promise. Like high expectations left completely unfulfilled. Like abandonment. And Loneliness. And betrayal.
My brother missed many of my adolescent landmarks, but the heartbreak of missing him felt most powerful in my every day life. During Sunday morning football hype and on warm summer nights. Drinking Hansen’s soda on the trampoline in our backyard. Driving to school in the morning down the route we first commuted together on bikes. I was a Kindergartner and he was in second grade. One afternoon he triumphantly escorted our first pet home from school. A goldfish, named Ed, who died three days after we got him. My brother comforted and encouraged Ed through the bumps and turns of suburban sidewalks and our narrow, tree-lined street.
“Hang in there, Ed” “We’re almost home.”
Some nights I spread my whole body out flat on the floor of his empty bedroom. I let the woven carpet soak up my tears and filled myself with his memory: Christmas morning whispering in anticipation before dawn. Keeping each other entertained during 12 hour drives on family vacations, a decade before DVDs were playing in back seats. His laugh and the way he told jokes. How it felt when stood up for me, and rooted for me, and that with him, I was always safe.
Last Saturday night I was stranded in San Francisco. Poor planning and inattention to logistical details left me without a ride from a BART station in Berkeley, to my car, eight blocks away. The night was creeping past my bedtime and although I’m typically brave and bold in the face of solo-woman night walking, something felt eery and dangerous about the plan to make the trip alone. I spent several minutes agonizing, unable to shake the sensation of risk.
Then, it hit me.
Minutes later my brother is narrating my route to our rendez-vous point. I complete his instructions by climbing the steep concrete staircase out of the 19th street station and I see his hand wave out of the driver’s side window of his big, black sedan.
Right on time.
En route to my car we talk about my dad, and my new job, and the perils of crowded music festivals. He has hilarious insight, and infinite wisdom. He walks me to my car and watches me close the door as I buckle up.
My eyes get glassy and my heart bursts. A flood of old hurt and new gratitude rush through me. Forgiveness, and healing and love and hope.
The feeling that I’m never too old to be rescued by my big brother. And that it’s never too late for us to be who we’ve always been.