“So where are we going to eat?” I asked as I brought my bags into the kitchen. “I saw that we have the really tough choice between Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, and Country Kitchen, whatever the hell that is.”
“Country Kitchen is actually pretty good,” he said. “I used to work there.”
“Of course you did.”
“But we’re actually eating here tonight. I’m making dinner for you – and before you ask, it isn’t Pizza Hut pizza.”
I snapped my fingers and hung my head. “Aw, shucks!”
“It’ll be ready in a few minutes,” he laughed. “Go sit down on the living room and meet the kids, I’ll bring it out to you in a second.”
I sat down in the living room and looked around. There was a flat screen television, a PlayStation 3, and more DVDs than a Redbox. I nodded, then noticed there was a very small girl next to me on the couch.
“Hi,” I said cheerily.
She looked at me for a long second before busting into tears. I panicked, reaching out to her to try and calm her down, but she escaped by grasp and ran away screaming. I stood up, but I was stopped by another child, this time a boy. Kenny.
“She does that with everyone,” he said. He looked to be about eight or nine. He adjusted his glasses and sat down on the couch next to me. “Do you like video games?”
“I guess so,” I said, although it was a lie. I never really cared for them like James did. When he was staying in and beating video games, Connor and I were riding our bikes around the city or writing songs about girls we liked. Any time I tried to play games, it was against people who had played them way more than I did, and I would lose handily as a result. I’m a firm believer in not doing things I’m bad at.
You know, except going to college without any idea of what to do with my life. I had no problem doing that.
“Want to watch me play?” Kenny asked. I nodded. He was much more social than Anna. I wondered if Kenny and my brother got along. I wondered if he was a good stepdad. I wondered if the kids would miss him while he was in Omaha with me.
After a few minutes, James came in with a plate. It smelled delicious, which shouldn’t have surprised me but did. It was a black bean dish that didn’t have any meat, but it smelled so good I didn’t even make fun of him for being a vegetarian. “Thanks,” I muttered before digging in greedily.
“It’s a new recipe I tweaked,” he said with a smile. “Found it online, replaced it with a few things I had lying around. Cheap too.”
It was amazing. The spices gave it a Cuban flavor that really stuck around after every bite. I found myself more and more impressed with him with every bite.
“I have to tell you, this is fantastic. I expected…”
“Pizza?” he said with a smile.
He laughed. “I actually cook. I never did back home, but I also never really had a reason. But here…well, I’ve got a girl and a few kids to depend on me, so I had to start making real food. When I can afford it, anyway.”
Something about his answer impressed and bothered me. It was great how he was caring for his new family, but it shattered my previous world view. Here I was, the self-assured successful member of the family, with a Master’s degree in my suitcase and little else to my name. And my brother, the one I could always count on to feel superior to, was succeeding in ways I couldn’t even imagine. He was showing me weakness and I didn’t even feel like I could make fun of him about it. I was finally the little brother, and I didn’t like the way it made me feel.
I looked from my brother to the empty plate. “I’ve been a dick, James.”
“I haven’t even told you why yet.”
He laughed. “You don’t have to tell me. You were trying to convince me to come with you to Omaha. And you were going to be authoritative and rude until you got what you wanted. I lived with you for twenty years. I know everything about you.”
I nodded, then sighed. “Yeah. But now I see that you can’t really go. You’ve got a lot going on here. I don’t have anything going on at home. That’s why it was so easy to leave. But I don’t really see how you can leave all this.” I was serious. It was odd seeing my brother have it all figured out.
He went in the other room to get more food for his kids, and I kept staring at the empty plate. There were a few scraps left, and against my better judgment I scraped the plate clean. It was crazy that a plate of Cuban beans and rice could change how I felt about anything, but I was ashamed of my self-absorbed quest to get my brother to come with me. And I realized that it was never about having his company, or catching up with him. It was about having him around to remind me that my life wasn’t that bad. That at least I wasn’t a line cook at Pizza Hut. But at that moment I realized how wrong I was.
When my brother came back in the room, I handed him the plate and smiled. “Thanks for having me, brother. It was good to see you. I’ll let Connor know you say hi.”
He smiled back. “I prefer to tell him myself.”
“Yeah. I can get away from these guys for a few days. And something tells me you need the company.”
“Great, we’ll leave in the morning.” I didn’t like feeling like a charity case, but I was happy he was coming with me. I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to make it up to him for being so bad to him over the years.
“Awesome.” He looked around the room. “So what do you want to do until then?”
I looked around too, then settled on the kid, who had not heard any of our conversation because he was staring at the TV. “Let’s play some video games.”