Are You My Best Friend?
The day my little brother went to prison, I cried an endless stream of tears that ran onto the collar of my shirt, making it look like I had a sweaty neck rather than a sibling who wouldn't follow the rules of society. For weeks I sat in my car longer than necessary and listened to the saddest song by Brandon Flowers (the one about the price you pay for doing something bad) and thought about Christmas, and wondered what they served in prison on holidays. For years after that, I hid my embarrassment and only shared what happened with my true friends, and even then I still held some deep-seated belief that I was personally tainted by his actions, because we're all somewhat guilty by association aren't we? Having been brought up Baptist and knowing how to successfully dodge guilt by repentance, I still spent my days properly mortified by the fact that my own brother pointed an air-soft gun (it may as well have been a real gun) at an actual person, demanding money and robbing a place of business. Three separate times.
During the 1990's, the ultimate Friday night ritual for us kids (kids being me and my brother, who hadn't yet committed a felony that would give several people PTSD) was to stay home and watch the TGI Friday lineup; this was usually accompanied by pizza or carry-out from a local restaurant. We loved these nights because it signified the beginning of freedom, as neither of us were very good at sitting still at a desk. For the next two days we had nothing to do, and that was exhilarating for two kids whose favorite thing to do was just that. Oh sure, we'd find activities to do at our leisure: play with our toys, ride our bikes, spend hours trying to dominate the Super Nintendo (Donkey Kong was our forte), but what we really loved about those days was simply being able to choose what to do with our time that we were given. My brother was four years younger than me, and when something exciting came about in our lives (mainly those glorious two days that inevitably came after Friday) he would squeal unabashedly, "Are you my best friend?!" And I would always answer, "Yes, are you my best friend?" There we were, just two best friends, eating pizza and killing giant bumble bees on the Super Nintendo.
My brother was a talented comedian from the moment he could talk. When the Talk Boy recording device came about, my friends and I would listen to "skits" my brother would perform and record in fast and slow motion for hours. His impressions of people were so spot-on that you could give him any person to imitate and subsequently find yourself in tears from laughing so hard at the ridiculous voices and words coming out of his mouth. When the Hale Bopp orbit was visible for a month in 1995, my brother wrote a song about it. He was 7. In high school, before he dropped out and things went mostly downhill, he wrote a song about our seemingly evil gym coach to the tune of Nada Surf's "Popular" and anyone who's heard it still remembers the lyrics, 20 years later. I like to remember him that way; a kid who wrote songs and drew pictures and wore his underwear on the outside of his pants just to make my mom laugh.
It's spring of 2019 and I'm on my way to visit my little brother at Blackburn Correctional Complex. It's still prison, but it's referred to as a "camp" because the inmates have more freedom (most of them are non-violent offenders, so it's not high security). The shock of it all has worn off by now, and we can interact as if we both haven't been punched in the gut by life choices. My brother steps out in his khaki prison garb, and we hug tentatively. Before he went to prison we hadn't hugged since we were little. Our conversations revolve around movies, politics, a little family (at this point, through death and circumstance, we have very few family members left to speak of). My favorite part of the visit is when he talks about his fellow inmates, in his own animated way: the guy who was a plaintiff on Judge Judy, the ex-wrestler with the high-pitched baby voice, or the female guard with the limp who looks exactly like Kevin Bacon. There has rarely been a moment with my brother where I didn't have tears in my eyes from laughing.
As the years go on, I am able to see some of the positives of what happened: my brother is within a few hours drive, he is off the streets and not ruining his life or other peoples', and he's still the same person who could make me belly laugh all those years ago (with considerably rougher edges). The truth is, I lost my brother long before he was locked up. Life took many turns for us, and sometimes we wandered through dark alleys; I managed to find my way out, and often he got lost. The future can seem bleak and sometimes there's an empty feeling in my chest that I can't seem to fill no matter how hard I try; while he's gone, he's not really gone, and if I had to guess he's probably making someone's drink shoot out of their nose from laughter at this very minute.
I found a lot of things when I lost my brother to prison years ago. Sure, I found that you can love someone and hate them at the same time (that became painfully evident when his mugshot was seemingly everywhere at once on social media and I wanted to launch myself into outer space until it was over). I found that with the emergence of Orange is the New Black, it's become sort of trendy to have a relative in prison. I found that people will change and make mistakes (some with dire consequences) but the past doesn't change. My brother might be a felon, a criminal lost in a dark alley, but there's also a part of him that is still just a silly kid who writes funny songs and imitates people to get a laugh. There might be a small part of him who's still my best friend.