“Watch this,” my wife says as dinner winds up.
Our younger son is repeating “Deh, deh” and making the signs for down and please. His brother, just two years older, steps over, scooches back the high chair, and works at the belt clips. Some fidgeting ensues, to which he comically reassures, “Not yet, just a minute.” Amazingly it works: the little one stills, watching his brother’s progress with a patient, bemused smile. These roles – rehearsed, I presume, over that day’s breakfast and lunch – are played eagerly.
When the belt does fall loose the younger boy tilts, torso careening forward. His arms wrap around his brother’s neck; big brother grabs him tight around the chest. Their faces mash into each other’s shirts, making me wonder how the older boy can see as his spine arches back to drag his brother’s girth from the seat. Eighteen months of boy is a serious load for a three-and-a-half-year-old. Other children lift my younger son, but they’re five, six. Three and a half is still little – little and determined.
* * *
Flash. I am on Isla de Cabras, Puerto Rico. Grass, waves, gangly coconut trees. I’m fifteen. My family comes here occasionally to picnic and snorkel. Nothing’s remarkable about the place except El Cañuelo, an abandoned fortress from colonial times. Sheer stone walls rise twenty feet to a parapet along its square perimeter. Strangely, there’s no entrance – the soldiers must have used a removable ladder. The forbidding walls fascinate my brother and me. Our parents try to distract us, but the fortress is a magnet; on every visit we make determined, and very futile, attempts to scale it. One corner, beneath the single turret, is punctured, jagged, as if someone has tried knocking out handholds with a hammer – but the highest of these still is too low to put us within reach of the top.
In a few weeks the Army will transfer our family to New Jersey.
On this, our final visit, I discover that a few months’ growth have conspired with last-chance determination to grant me a parting gift: fingertips curled around the parapet’s lip. I’m a skinny nerd with just a few square centimeters of grip, but somehow I heave myself up anyway, flipflops slapping at the slick stone beneath me, chest and stomach scraping against the turret window. My ascent is embarrassing, frantic, and utterly sweet.
Carousing along the parapet, arms flapping with abandon, I flaunt my victory at my brother, still on the grass below, eyes squinting into the bright sky to watch. “There’s rusted bars!” I shout down to him. “And crumbled rooms! Whoa, it looks like a prison. I wonder if there are any bones!” With each verbal report I glance back. My parents have rushed over, expressions fixed in disbelief, and my little brother …
I’ve never seen my little brother’s eyes so hungry.
With two years’ less length of arm, he hasn’t got a chance. But his eyes tug out my compassion, so I urge him back to the ragged corner to coach him up. He tries, again and again. It’s not even close. Curiosity claws at me; I tell him I’ll come back, then take a few minutes to explore the innards of the fort. When I return he’s still fastened to the stone, daring himself into a suicidal upward leap.
There’s no use reaching for him. His outstretched hand is really down there, below the level of my feet and under the parapet’s lip. I don’t have any way to anchor myself. Besides, one hundred forty pounds of high school sophomore isn’t enough to haul up one hundred twenty pounds of eighth grader – not at that pitch, not without good footing.
But I reach down anyway, suspending head and chest beneath my waist, one hand grabbing at the turret’s broad opening, knees widened against the stone as I stretch out my fingers, tilt even further, stretch – and reach him.
* * *
Looking back now, our grip should have failed. It was humid; exerting and scared as we were, our palms must have been sweaty. I don’t even know why he trusted me. I wouldn’t have. I remember thinking, even as we attempted the maneuver – my brother’s feet kicking against the stone, pushing out his waist to clear the lip – I remember thinking how insane he was to trust me. Failure was more than sure, and threatened to rip either him or both of us down the twenty-foot jagged corner. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” I kept intoning, in part to spur myself as he fought there, suspended in midair, no longer any possibility of backing down, no way out but up.
It shouldn’t have worked.
And it did.
After years of defeat, dragging myself up into El Cañuelo felt miraculous. But that hardly compared to the pride beaming in our eyes as my brother and I stood, side by side, in our own Spanish fortress. We had conquered it together.
* * *
Kitchen again. The high chair cleared, my older son plants his brother’s feet on the hardwood floor. The maneuver is accomplished. Considering that most physical contact between them results in the younger one crying, it is no small feat.
They extract from one another’s embrace, eyes locked in mutual appreciation. “What do you say?” asks big brother. His counterpart responds, “Theck-o.”
I applaud; my wife does a silly congratulatory dance. Briefly they look to us, taking in our approval, and then return to reappraising each other. They’re discovering a new dynamic between them, an unexpected way to negotiate their coexistence, and possibilities are opening.
Two roles; one victory.