“You should be glad they call you a nerd,” the older one says. The strain of his emotions twists his face all out of shape. “Trust me, you don’t want to be called a dumb-ass like me!” He whirls around and sets his eyes on the road, fighting the swell in his throat.
The younger one is silent for just a second.
“But you’re popular! You’re the most popular kid in the school,” he says. His voice begins to wobble. “I don’t have any friends, you said that yourself. You said I was a loser!”
“You’re not a loser, idiot. I just said that because I’m jealous, don’t you get it? You’re brainy, you’re ahead in everything. The highest maths set, the highest literacy set, the highest spelling set. But what about me? I’m the lowest, nothing but a stupid dumb-ass.“ Two fat tears bolt free and sprint down his cheeks.
Again there is silence. The younger one stares out the window on his side of the road, his face stained red from the tracks of his own tears, minutes earlier.
“You’re not dumb,” he whispers after a minute. The words don’t come easily. He is not used to giving an inch.
But it is a shocking thing, to see his brother in tears. Hasn’t he always been the tough one, the one with the freedom and confidence to go wherever he pleases and do whatever he pleases, never once giving a thought for how he looks or what anyone else might think of him? Doubt is not a word in his vocabulary. He walks through the world as if all life is a play and he wrote the script himself while he, the younger one, spends hours trying to deconstruct the social world so even the most banal of interactions make sense to him.
He remembers that summer when he was 5 and his brother 8. They spent weeks traveling around in their parent’s house bus, making friends in every new camping ground they called in at. It was a seamless process. Pull up, walk over, start playing.
The younger one thought his brother must have known those kids from some other place, met them some other time, the way he just slotted into their games like a missing piece of jigsaw puzzle. But he worked out later that there was a process, a normal pattern of events. First, he remembers thinking, you say hello. And then they might make friends with you.
Yet here he is now, this bullet-proof older brother who faces down school yard taunts with laughter and a flick of his silky fringe, crying because he isn’t immune to doubt, after all.
“You’re not dumb,” the younger one says again. Louder this time.
The older one feels the tension in his shoulders giving way. He sighs and wipes away the tears. It’s not his brother’s fault. He knows it isn’t. It would be easy if there was someone other than himself to blame, but there isn’t. His brain just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. He forgets things like times tables and commas and methods for solving long-division.
But he can recite extended passages of audio books. And exact turns of phrase used in picture books he read when he was three. And what people were wearing the first time he met them. His mother thinks it’s amazing and is always getting him to do recall tricks for fun, but inside he’s raging.
Why couldn’t he have just had a normal brain that remembered the things it was supposed to remember instead of things that have no purpose, no reason to even be noticed, let alone stored up using what limited brain capacity he has in supply?
It’s not like he would have asked to be the brainiest. Just smart enough to avoid the labels. Dyselxic. Dyspraxic. Delayed. Dumb-ass. He acts like he doesn’t care and that it doesn’t hurt, but it does. The labels don’t wash away. They stay embedded in his skin and in his thoughts and come floating back to him every single time someone puts a test paper in front of him.
“Believe me,” he says, kicking the dashboard with his feet. “It’s better to be called a nerd and be brainy than be poplar and dumb,”
The younger one looks across at his brother, his brown eyes hard as steel. It is an unfamiliar sight, to see his emotions so exposed like this. People say they are similar, with their sandy-brown hair and similar heights, they get mistaken for twins all the time. But they are not alike. At least, not in the ways that people see.
When he was born, the older one rushed into the delivery room expecting to find a fully-fledged brother, standing up, ready-to-go. He lifted the blanket of the tiny little package, frantically shouting “Where are the legs of him? Where are the legs of him?!”
Perhaps that was why the younger one learnt to walk at just 9 months. He’s never been one to keep people waiting.
“It’s pop-U-lar,” he says now, doing his best to sound neutral.
“What?” says the older one, frowning.
“You said poplar. Poplar is a type of tree.”
He is a smart-arse, sometimes, the older one thinks, gritting his teeth and trying to ignore the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. But it is no use. Laughter is a slippery thing. If you step anywhere near its edge it will suck your feet right out from under you.
The younger one falls first, a little slip, just a chuckle. The older one follows, shoulders shaking with the weight and energy of it, even as the tears still flow.
Their laughter fills the back of the car, loud and full and ridiculous.
I drive on, mother-me, fly-on-the-wall.
Here’s a video of the same boys on a different car journey, a few years ago. Different range of emotions, but the same closeness. It’s a beautiful thing, albeit noisy (and complicated and affecting and raw and wonderful), having a brother.