My Brother Eats Carrots. I Get Hit with Sticks.
My latest essay about...something?...siblings?...sure, why not.
My brother Kevin had a baby, a beautiful little girl who cries, stress vomits, and has too much gas. I never thought I’d have so much in common with a baby. My brother was prepared for her arrival. He’d been prepared years in advance: wife, house, car, job, money, pets, crib. The last time my girlfriend’s period was late, my life flashed before my eyes like a freight train barreling down on a toothpick castle.
I am a stick person. Kevin is a carrot person. He sees a reward, prepares, does the work, gets it. I see a temptation, run at it, and get hit with a stick. We turned 30 like dominoes: him, then me. He has a house, a nice job, and a wife. I have a grab bag of scars and poorly healed bones, undiagnosed digestive issues, and a bank account that communicates in aggressive alerts.
Now, when I look in the mirror, with my diet of smoke and whatever fruit happens to be on sale, my ribs look like they might be about to hop off my body one by one to roam the neighborhood begging for scraps. There are scars: one from a window, a fight, a rudely awakened dog. There are layers of tattoos, mostly matching ones, planned in a day, with friends and girlfriends; then there is the smallest one and, by far, the most well thought out. It is a match with my brother’s only tattoo.
We discussed the tattoo on and off for several years. Having nothing in common, we eventually landed on the word “brother” in Arabic, as our family is Lebanese. He checked, and triple-checked, and sextuple-checked the translation, picked 10 fonts, narrowed them down to three, two, then one. And on the day, as we sat across from one another, I thought, “How did I grow up in the same house as this carrot person?” This man, who brushes his teeth twice a day, who has never clicked the “buy now” button on Amazon, and who, through some force of will beyond my grasp, means “just one more” when he says, “Just one more.”
I remember the exact moment when I realized how different Kevin and I were. I was in second grade; he was in fourth. He was bawling his eyes out at the kitchen table over a pile of opened books as our mom sat beside him, running her fingers through his hair and saying, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” He was upset because his teacher had assigned him too much homework, and he had to do it. It was taking him hours, and it wasn’t finished.
“Why?” he moaned.
My mother, a notorious stick person, told him, “You know, you could skip it just this once.”
“No!” he wailed. “No! I have to!” And then he took up his pencil with his snot-covered hand — between heaving, hiccupy gasps of air—and went back to work.
My mother sighed and stood up. She looked over at me and said, “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said from the floor beside the sleeping dog, wondering what would happen if I poked his penis.
We grew, and so did our differences. He had National Honors Society; I had detention. He ran track; I smoked dope. He did his homework; I played video games. He saved up for a computer; I gave it virtual STDs from watching porn. He got a car; I crashed it.
The teachers at school were as confused as I was that my brother and I were cut from the same cloth. It was as though they’d received a bushel of bananas, ate one, and found it golden ripe. Thinking the rest in the bunch must be the same, they peeled another and found that beneath the tight flesh of the peel hid a raging barn fire.
He graduated high school with honors. I was kicked out. Adults told us we’d grow up, we’d both change, we’d become friends. It may have been this notion that inspired him to invite me to visit him in Germany after he finished his study abroad program. It didn’t take long for our old ways to reemerge. He was still just as much carrot as I was stick.
We nearly missed our flight out of Germany because I hadn’t woken up early enough. In Rome, he wanted to go on a bus tour. (Carrot people take bus tours.) After the first stop, I got off, told him to fuck himself, and vanished into the city. I bought a bottle of wine and stumbled around for hours — this was before cellphones, before Find My Jackass Brother apps. I later learned that Kevin had called our mother from a pay phone and told her what happened. She told him, “It’s who he is. He’ll be fine. He’s always fine. Try things his way, maybe?”
After that, when we went to Greece, my brother tried to empathize. Before taking a ferry to the islands, he said, “Okay, let’s try things your way.” So, with nothing but a string-tied backpack each, we got on a ferry. Four days later, we stood in line at a popsicle van in Santorini, sunburned and caked in our own filth. My shoulder ached. We’d been kicked out of a hotel, chased by wild dogs, lost our towels and half our clothes, fallen asleep drunk on the Black Sand Beach, and fried every inch of our bodies, including the insides of our mouths. We’d been scammed out of money and had our feet sliced, stubbed, and busted open after stray dogs ran away with our flip-flops in the night.
Kevin wasn’t speaking to me. The towels were my fault — I had left them at the last place we bought questionable shawarma. For the first time in hours, he spoke. “I can’t believe you convinced me to come to these islands with only a backpack,” he said, “and you forgot the damn towels.”
“How was I supposed to know that the ferry ride was going to cost us 10 euro?” I told him. He wouldn’t look at me, but I looked at him: sunburned and stupid.
He rubbed his forehead till dried skin flaked onto his nose. “It’s not about the damn ferry. It’s the ferry, the towels, and losing the jacket you spent all that money on. It’s the walking off and the drinking and wanting to spend all our damn money all the damn time.”
I could have hit him, but he was bigger than me. I settled for a scowl. “Well, you always want to do these stupid tours and spend all our time in front of shit paintings. You can’t let loose for five fucking seconds.”
He sighed as our turn came to order. Through the window was an old Greek man who said something neither of us understood.
“Popsicle,” my brother told him.
The man stepped away and returned with a popsicle. “Four euro,” he said.
“For a damn popsicle?” my brother cried. More dead skin fell into his palm, on his cheeks, and down onto the sandy ground. He turned to me. “Fuck it. You want a fucking popsicle?”
I shrugged, a little scared.
“Two popsicles,” he told the man.
The man vanished again. He returned and laid another popsicle down on the counter. “Eight euro,” he said.
My brother snatched up the popsicles, replacing them with some money, and stormed off to a rocking chair by the sea. I followed and slipped into the one next to him. He tossed a popsicle to me.
“Can you believe this was four euros? For a stick of frozen ice!” He opened his and bit off the end.
I cringed. I could never understand how his teeth handled the cold.
He chewed and swallowed, and then he burst out laughing. “Four fucking euros!” he yelled at the popsicle.
I opened my popsicle and took a lick, soothing my sunburned tongue. As soon as I did, it felt as if the air had filled itself with punchlines. I began laughing.
“And the ferry! Ten euros for what? A two-minute trip to a crap beach.” He rolled over himself in the chair.
I caught my breath and said, “And can you believe the money we’ve wasted on nonsense? So much stupid stuff we’ve lost!”
Kevin looked like his laughter was choking him to death. His face had grown impossibly redder. The dried skin had turned soggy on his forehead as he sweated with laughter. We laughed until the popsicles melted all over our hands, reliving our failures that slowly, in my mind, were being relabeled as “adventures.”
I wanted to laugh forever at my own stupidity and his foolishness at giving me the lead. I wanted to talk through all the absurdity of life, the rottenness of other people, the inadequacies of these stupid bodies we were both trapped in and how they burned so easily and split open like nothing. I wanted to talk about all the sticks we’d been smacked with, never learning our lessons. And the ones we’d dodged just in time, like when Kevin stopped me from following a man who’d offered us cocaine.
I suspected that, in that moment, he felt like I so often had — that no matter how hard and fast the blow from the stick, no matter what consequences we suffered, we had an adventure. We did it and were still standing. Standing and laughing in the face of it. No one had told us how or why or what to do. There was no itinerary, no list, no wagging finger. We did it, and we survived, and now we could eat popsicles forever because we finally understood each other.
Carrot, stick—what did it matter, anyway?
I sat there, pink-skinned, plump with youth, and said, “Let’s just sit and eat fucking popsicles all day!”
He wiped the dead skin and sweat from his face and said, “All right, just one more.”
This essay was originally published in Human Parts as “The Eternal Struggle Between Punishment People and Reward People”.
If you were wondering, yes—this essay is what inspired the title of my newsletter. I wrote it last year but wasn’t 100% happy with it. Then, my brother had a baby and that brought it together in my head. Yes, she is an adorable freaking baby. No, no, not all babies are adorable. Some babies have been hit with every ugly stick on the family tree and we all need to stop giving “aw, cute!” participation trophies to each half-baked snot-potato that pops out.