August 09, 2006

My Funny Valentine

Okay, one more regurgitation of old material, and then I promise, I'll write new stuff from now on. This is, (shocking, I know), also from my college writing class. It's a descriptive piece about my brother, Val.


My Funny Valentine

The first thing anyone ever noticed about Mike was his dimples. Deep, identical indentations in his cheeks, they appeared every time he had even a hint of a smile. The dimples, paired with white blond hair and magnetic blue eyes, made my brother the poster child of cherubic cuteness. His smile would melt the coldest heart in seconds.

Of course, he grew up. At 21, he changed his name from Michael to Valentine. He still has the dimples, but his smile seems a bit predatory now. His hair is sometimes bluer, although occasionally greener or pinker, than his eyes and he resembles a fallen angel more than a little cherub. He wears a button on his black leather jacket that proclaims, “I’m the one your mother warned you about.” Nonetheless, women flock to his bad-boy charm like moths to a flame, sometimes with much the same results.

He is aggressive and charming, arrogant and sweet, pragmatic and idealistic, and a myriad of other contradictions, as well. Throughout my life, he has been the one constant and comfort among all life’s changes, no matter how unusual and contentious he might be. My brother, Valentine Michael , has given my life and my perception of the world, a flavorful twist.

My parents divorced when I was four. My brother and I moved to El Paso to live with my dad and his family until I was eight. In every instance I remember, Mike’s presence takes on a shining glow: the hero, the savior, the Big Brother. It probably wasn’t all shining happiness and hero worship. I’m sure we fought. My parents are sure, too. But what I remember most is him standing up for me when the neighborhood bully called me names, picking me up when I fell in the school yard, and tightly holding my hand the first time we ever flew in an airplane.

When I was in the second grade, the teachers showed us a movie about not talking to strangers. The film showed a mysterious dark figure follow an innocent and unknowing little girl home. He then tried to sneak into her house in the dark of the night. The point, I believe, was to teach us to not tell people where we live. The result, however, was 30 little boys and girls returning home in terror of the coming nightfall and forever after locking all windows against the darkness outside. As night settled in, I froze with terror. Staring nervously out all the windows, I jumped at every sound, real and imagined. My dad, always the perceptive one, decided I was getting a cold. He put me to bed early, to my extreme horror. The room I shared with Michael was big, with an enormous ground-floor window spanning the wall. As I tried desperately to sleep, a tree just outside threw gruesome, menacing shadows into the darkness.

Then, as I thought my heart was about to explode with fear, Mike came in the room, putting himself to bed early, too. He stayed up most of the night with me. We sang Disney songs, made up nonsense stories, and he used his flashlight to break up the nighttime shadows. The sound of his voice from across the room soothed me. He recognized my terror and dispelled it with almost no effort at all.

Don’t get me wrong. He isn’t always that sweet. The charm only comes out for his family when it is really needed. I believe his rule is that no one better mess with his family; except, of course, for him. For the most part, he reserves his charm for strangers, and especially for girls. Mike always liked girls. Lucky for him, girls always liked him, too.

As we got older, he realized that an adoring little sister was a nuisance, to say the least. When I was 8, we moved back in with our mother, stepfather, and older brother, John. Mike thought the idea of a brother to play with was fascinating, and I started to make friends of my own. We grew apart, but he was still my hero. Mike was almost six feet tall by the time he was 13, and a very imposing figure he made, too. He discovered his strength, his undeniably intimidating appearance, and his superiority complex all around the same time. The rebel period had begun.

My brother has always had a problem with authority. I learned diplomacy half from trying to get him out of trouble and half as a defense mechanism for when he entangled me in it. He didn’t get along very well with most of his teachers, and often had problems at school, mostly due to lack of interest, I think. He was occasionally suspended for fighting, and his grades were never very good. Following him up through the ranks of education, I became a teacher’s pet because I had classes with all the shell-shocked teachers who had survived him. They would approach me first with tentative wariness, and then with exhausted relief.

Eventually, all Mike’s rebellion and rule-breaking had to come to a point. He didn’t have a happy relationship with the high school administrators and when the time came, they were completely unwilling to cut him any breaks. Messing around with friends one weekend his senior year of high school, Mike had casually tossed the broken BB gun they were playing with into his backpack, where it was promptly forgotten. Later that week, during a break at school, he found it and pulled it from his backpack. This was before the zero-tolerance policies that are now so prominent at most schools. The worst damage he could have done with the broken toy would have been to throw it at someone. Any other student would have gotten the maximum penalty: suspension and a reprimand. My brother was expelled. The whole expulsion trial was a farce, with the administration creating testimony from his teachers. My family tried to fight it, but it didn’t matter. His history of rebellion, his mediocre grades, and his arrogant lack of remorse decided his fate.

What I remember most about that episode in our lives is how furious my family and I were at the school and how he never really showed any anger. Mike always carried his emotions on the inside. I cannot recall a time in all his life when he ever cried, at least not where someone could see him. I know the expulsion was a horrible experience for him, and yet he never showed it.

That period marked a changing point in his life, and lead up to the time when he first left home. Mike finished high school in Wisconsin. He lived with friends of our family for that year. Because he was so far away, we began to lose touch, although I could still call him up and talk for hours about our plans and dreams. After he graduated, he returned to Colorado for a brief and unproductive jaunt into higher education. College did not appeal Mike, and neither did Colorado. He craved cities, excitement, and life beyond the homestead. He ended up in Chicago, where he completed culinary school. He is a wizard in the kitchen, and now works as an executive chef at a swanky uptown restaurant.

Oh, and remember, he changed his name to Valentine. He thought Chef Valentine sounded magnificent. He was right. Mike’s charm, attitude and rebellion have been siphoned into his work, at which he is very successful, quite probably for those very qualities. He comes home most years at Christmastime, loudly protesting with rude comments how much he hates Colorado. And yet he manages, through his acute distaste, to dress up like Elmo, to eerily mimic the Teletubbies, and to make my mother laugh, to the great amusement of all.

My brother has succeeded where so many people told him he would fail. He has fought, struggled and fallen to the ground. In the end, however, he is standing firm exactly where he wants to be, with a job and a lifestyle that he loves. What more inspiration could a sister, or anyone at all, ask for?

My brother Val, as he likes to be called, is a success. From his example, I know that I can succeed against all odds, from finding a job to finding happiness. I am also sure that if life ever gets too hard or too scary, he will be there, just like always, to make me laugh, hold my hand, straighten out my backbone, and push the shadows away.

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