“…see some old friends, good for the soul…”
-Bob Seger, “Hollywood Nights”
I ran into an old friend this past week in Orlando. When I say I ran into him, I mean he was waiting for me at the airport. My wife pointed in the direction of a guy I’d never seen before. It turned out I was looking at the wrong guy and didn’t see my brother, Eric, until I damn near bumped into him.
Though we were born to the same parents and lived in the same house for sixteen years, we’ve seen each other only sporadically since. I was off to college and then he was off to college out-of-state, and then I was married and raising kids and then he was married and raising hell and…if you’re my age, you probably know what I’m talking about. Both of us loved theatre arts and our chosen career paths took us in opposite directions. My path was writing for the stage while he was still accepting the audience’s applause as a musical theatre performer. His choice took him around the world and placed him in front of tens of thousands of people. My choice led to the dining room, where I wrote words I hoped an actor would one day speak.
We saw each other when I visited him in Findlay, Ohio once or twice, Cincinnati a couple of times, Key West once. Between jobs he dropped into Michigan to visit our parents and at various times met my wife, my first child, and later my second child. It sounds ludicrous, but somehow, twenty years go by, then twenty-five.
The only visit of any length we had during that period was when the entire family, including my parents and children, cruised on a ship where Eric was the entertainment director. He had found his calling, it seemed. His job was making sure everybody that crossed his path was having a good time. From my personal experience, he was very good at it. If he was going to be at an event on the ship, we made sure to be there. If it was Karaoke, we attended and sang our (off-key) hearts out. If it was doing the Macarena on the back deck, we stumbled through that, too. Eric was always the funniest of us all, the first name you would put on the list of party invitees.
When we stepped on the cruise ship, Eric’s marriage had just ended. He was seeing a lovely young lady named Renee whom we liked instinctively, yet…when a relationship is brand new, and you’re worried that your children might get attached to a person you DON’T REALLY KNOW, you don’t go all in. We hoped for the best, for both of them.
This is how you bump into your brother in an airport and don’t immediately know who he is. I’m not saying that’s right. That’s just how it was.
Life had taken a swerve for Eric and Renee. The cruise ship regimen lasted for a few years, but constantly being on the water, unable to get away from the hard-partying vacationers, the grind ultimately took its toll. After a period of years, the now-married couple settled in Orlando, with Eric finding work as an entertainment director on land, where he got to go home every night. Renee followed her muse and developed a following in dance instruction. While they were driving stakes into the ground in the Sunshine State, my children were growing up and leaving the house. An unexpected burst of creativity lifted me back onto the stage as a writer and a performer. We were certainly aware of what was happening in the other’s life, but had precious little time to appreciate it. There was a period of time where only one of us was on top of the world at any given moment. If something cool was happening for him, I was scrambling for money in Michigan. If I had my picture in the paper in Ann Arbor, he was moving from one rental to another. It was a brutal cycle.
Last week, after we met at the airport, Eric and Renee took us to the land-locked resort where he holds court. The respect and friendship I saw on the faces of the people he works with was palpable. Kath and I cruised through his fiefdom treated, not like the King and Queen perhaps, but certainly a Lord and Lady. For a couple still putting one kid through college, it was a royal reception. We ate dinner at one of the restaurants on the property and on Sunday morning Eric and I made breakfast side-by-side in the suite he put us up in. We had talked late into the night about where we had been and what we had seen. I searched his face for clues of who he had become, wondering if this is the same guy I took baths with more than forty-five years ago. Even the sound of his voice was somewhat strange to me.
Again, I know I sound ridiculous. He’s my brother, of course I know him! Yeah, but not really. I’m not the same person I was five years ago. Even the last year has changed me irrevocably. I am now at a point in my life where I have cohabitated with my wife long than any other person. So, Eric and I patty-caked through the weekend, loath to somehow offend the other, talking about everything and nothing, with the sound and fury of the Florida attractions serving as white noise.
We’ve both slowed down a bit. I’ve passed fifty and Eric stands on the welcome mat. We’ve both had some minor health issues in the last year and we each take a handful of pills in the morning. When we went to the amusement park on Monday, we did not arrive before it opened with a plan to stay until the gates closed. We used sunblock and re-applied throughout the day. We wore hats on our bald heads. We found out which rides each person wanted to experience and when we’d accomplished that, we left, eating a nice dinner outside the park. It was barely sunset when we got back to their place.
We were given a hero’s welcome at the door by Eric and Renee’s three lap dogs. After the loss of Flash this fall (see: http://cuttingadeadmanstoenails.blogspot.com/2016/08/day-one-august-18-2016.html), for Kath and I it was a balm for our souls to have some animals to play with. The pooch that seemed to take to us most was a Chihuahua mix named Phoebe, who was so butch in her manner I took to calling her ‘Bruiser’. Of course, I called her by this macho nickname while cuddling her in my lap.
As I am an anthropomorphist from way back, at some point I began using the dog as my puppet, speaking for her in a menacing Mexican accent, asserting her dominance over the other dogs. Eric responded in kind, pledging mayhem from the other side of the room, both of us using the dogs as surrogates, creating characters and scenarios on the fly. This went on for (maybe) five minutes, but when it was over, the distance between my brother and I was gone, too. It was just like the old days. By Wednesday, I had returned to my former role of instigator-in-chief (also known as senior shit stirrer), goading the others into turning the final presidential debate into a drinking game. Eric gamely joined me and later regretted it…again, just like the old days.
But as I laid in bed on Monday night, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. I thought of the child psychologists that use dolls or puppets to help their young charges express things that are difficult to talk about. In a manner of speaking, a pair of Totos had revealed the men behind the curtain. Neither of us had managed to become the Great and Powerful Oz, but with the amount of smoke and mirrors, we certainly had some folks fooled…and some, for a long time.
By the end of the week, we were talking in concrete terms about when and how we would get together again. We were also wielding the needle in that way siblings have, finding and exploiting weak spots to maximum advantage. I can say shitty things about my brother, but I wouldn’t recommend you trying it.
I just might sic Bruiser on you.