I wasn’t the only one suffering in silence in childhood. Duncan was, too, and like me he also didn’t register that something was actually wrong. Being the classic oldest child, he was impossibly hard on himself and spent the first 19 years of his life swimming against the current, assuming that must be how everyone lives. Being so close in age, he and Alex were best friends and shared a room for several years. When it was time for Duncan to set out on his own, my parents turned the dining room into a bedroom by installing doors on both of its open walls. One set of folding doors opened to the foyer, and the other into the back of the kitchen, far from the other three bedrooms and the rest of his family. Like with their looks, if my brothers had been swapped and Alex had been the one housed in the dining room, he’d still be making vitriolic jokes about it to this day: him being the rejected, neglected child. Mom’s fault. In true Duncan form, though, he now thinks his gastrointestinal maroon was hilarious. We still refer to his room as “steerage,” as if it’d been akin to the lowest fare ticket on the Titanic. Tough luck.
When he was in junior high, though, he hadn’t yet developed the sense of humor that would become so critical to his mental survival. He could hear the distant thud of me bonking my head on my pillow down the hall with my door cracked open as I tried to forget everything. Closer still was the dishwasher swishing just outside his door. Duncan would sneak into the kitchen and sit on the linoleum in the dark, knees to his chest. He’d peer through the 1980s built-in lattice work that separated the kitchen and living room to watch whatever our parents had on TV, likely something Plugged In didn’t approve of. Early on Saturday mornings I’d wander into Duncan’s room and crawl up onto his bed to watch cartoons with him. We all thought Duncan’s early mornings were just a part of him taking himself seriously, but he just wasn’t sleeping. He doesn’t remember a life without insomnia.
Duncan was a dweeb, but he didn’t know he was a dweeb. He was really into Dockers, braided belts that matched his penny loafers, honors classes, and his custom engraved bowling ball. He approached each bumper-free lane with a stoicism and precision typically reserved for people disarming bombs with one second to spare. His temper flared at the first sign of trouble, though, an inner rage that burned so brightly that none of us were ever ready for it. He hated himself for getting a B, and slammed down his remote control over and over if he lost a Nintendo game. Like, flee-the-room-out-of-fear remote-slamming. His childhood frame was feeble, though, and his flying fists were as threatening as wet spaghetti noodles. Holes didn’t begin appearing in the walls of our house until he was in his early 20s.
Alex would’ve called Duncan out on his weird mannerisms and dork tendencies if it weren’t for two things. One, he worshipped Duncan. Two, he really, really worshipped Duncan. When Alex decided in his preteens that he was unable to keep pace with Duncan academically or athletically, his cruelty disguised as humor began to form. When I skipped a grade, he was squashed between two siblings who seemed to effortlessly do what he couldn’t.
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