From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Love & Friendship

The Bigger Man

Although I am the younger brother, I have always felt like my brother’s keeper. Even now that Brian is seventeen and I am sixteen, I still watch out for him because, though chronologically I lag behind, my parents have encouraged me to take the nurturing role.

You are probably thinking that my brother is either mentally or physically handicapped—he is neither. I’m not sure if his “nature” was born or created. My mom has treated him like fine china ever since his birth. Maybe it’s because there were problems with his delivery. She often recounts how the umbilical cord became wrapped around poor Brian’s neck, and how he could have strangled on it had the doctor not rescued him with a Caesarean delivery. Although Brian went full-term, his tiny size reflected his future fragility within the family.

After Brian’s birth, my mom grew more religious. She made all sorts of deals with God to watch over her tiny infant in exchange for her spiritual devotion. A year later, I was born. I was the quintessential bouncing baby boy. From the way my mom describes it, I practically walked home from the hospital and was eating solid food by the time I was a month old—probably raw steaks.

My mom saw my larger size and strong constitution as a sign from God that I was to be a kind of guardian angel for my older brother, Brian. It was not at all strange to see me reminding Brian to tie his shoes, or asking the waiter for another glass of water for him. No one ever thought our reverse relationship was odd, since by the age of five I was a head taller than him anyway.

I could never leave the house without my mom telling me to drag Brian along. He was smaller and fit in better, size-wise, among my group of friends. But defending and protecting him became tiresome. And then there were those luscious desserts my mom would bring home to fatten up poor little Brian. I would watch him longingly while he delicately sipped at chocolate milkshakes and critically picked at the strawberry cheesecakes I would have gladly scarfed down if given half the chance. And when my hand, through no power of my own, would drift toward a tempting slice, my mom would reprimand me, saying, “That’s for Brian. You don’t need that.”

And so, though I loved my older brother, I began to resent him as well.

One day our school sponsored a pumpkin-carving contest. First prize was one-hundred dollars, and I knew just how I would spend it. There was a brand-new Sega game— Dungeons and Dragons—that I was dying to own. Realizing that my birthday and Christmas were nowhere in sight, I decided that the first-place stash definitely had to land in my pocket.

I ran out to the market and picked out the nicest pumpkin I could find. Then I set out to draw on the most gruesome face. In my third-grade mind, I had created a Pumpkin Freddy Krueger, of sorts. Now all I had to do was carve the face. That’s when it dawned on me. With my big clumsy mitts I’d surely screw it up. I thought of Brian’s smaller delicate hands and knew he was the man for the job.

I pleaded with Brian to carve the pumpkin, but wise fourth-grade businessman that he was, he asked for a cut.

“How does eighty-twenty grab you, Bri?”

“You mean eighty for you and only twenty for me? Forget it. It’s either fifty-fifty or nothing.”

Quickly doing the math in my head, I figured out that even if I split the first prize fifty-fifty, I’d still have enough cash for the game—and I knew this pumpkin had to win the grand prize. It was just so awesome. So, I gave in to Brian’s demands.

With skillful hands Brian carved the blood-slashed face, and then we sat back to admire our handiwork. Together, we had created the goriest Halloween pumpkin ever, which I was sure nobody could deny.

Then the unexpected happened: We came in second. Unfortunately, second prize was only fifty dollars, and I needed every penny of that to buy the game. The day of the awards ceremony, the principal handed over the money to me because Brian was home sick with some fragile kid’s illness like a cold or something equally pathetic.

God, I thought to myself, if he really wanted to win, he would have been here today. And I need the whole check to pay for the game. I was able to justify stealing the cash from under poor Brian’s runny nose. With hardly a thought, I ran over to my friend Glenn’s house and his mom drove us out to the mall to buy the game. I felt no guilt that night as Glenn and I pounded away on our controllers having the time of our lives.

That night when I got home, I found Brian lying on the couch watching TV.

“Did we win?” he asked.

I tried not to flinch as I stared down at his cheesecake-eating, milkshake-sipping face, and I answered, “No.”

I hid the game over at Glenn’s and never told anyone in my family about it. I thought it was pretty pathetic anyway that Brian never found out. What a dork.

As Brian got older, he began to loosen up a little and Mom did, too. He actually had a growth spurt, and though I’m still a head taller than him, he’s wider from side to side now—guess those milkshakes finally caught up with him.

With Brian’s hearty physique and persistent begging, Mom even gave in to allowing him to attend college away from home. I played my usual role in helping him pack, although I had mixed emotions about seeing him go. I’d miss having the geek around.

As I rifled through one of his desk drawers, a photo of our gruesome pumpkin dropped to the floor. We both laughed as we looked at the ridiculous face we’d thought was so frightening. Then Brian said, “And we actually thought that squash was going to make us rich. We didn’t even win third prize.”

A kind of guilt rose up in my throat, and I felt a confession of sorts was needed.

“Brian, uh . . . hate to admit this, but we kinda did win. In fact, we kinda won second place.”

“Huh? Is that so?” he said scratching his head. Brian rustled through his desk drawer again and pulled out another photo of our pumpkin with a blue satin second-prize ribbon flanked across its bloodstained face.

“I took this the day after the contest, Worm Brains. What did you think, I didn’t know? I was the photographer for the school newsletter, Einstein.”

“What? You actually knew and didn’t say anything? Why?”

Brian looked down at his half-packed suitcase, and then up at me. “Don’t you think I knew how Mom always forced you to watch out for me, and don’t you think it made me feel really small? I’m supposed to be the bigger brother, Numb Nuts.”

Actually, I’d never thought about how Brian might feel; it just always felt like I was the one being put out. Everyone always seemed to care more about Brian. Everyone needed to protect poor, pathetic Brian—I was just the big, dumb bodyguard for hire.

“I wanted, just once, to do the same for you,” Brain said, interrupting my thoughts. “Just once, I wanted to be the bigger man.”

“It always looked to me like it would be way better being smaller,” I confessed. “I wanted to be the one who everyone wanted to take care of.”

“You’re such a jerk,” Brian said, shaking his head. “Do you know how lousy it feels when everyone thinks you’re so lame you can’t even take care of yourself? It sucks!”

We sat silently on Brian’s bed, just staring at one another. As dense as we were, something finally sunk in. How pathetic. We’d each lived our lives secretly wishing to be the other.

“I’m sorry, Bri,” I mumbled.

“For what? About that pumpkin? Forget it.”

And then another uncomfortable silence lay upon us. I wanted to tell Brian how much I loved him and how cool I thought he was. But I felt really dumb saying it out loud. Then Brian kneeled over, scooped up his football and threw it at my head. I lunged for him and pounded him in the gut. This was the way we communicated our understanding.

C. S. Dweck

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