by Scott Stephens
Seventeen years ago, dinner simmered slowly on the stove as my father added hamburger meat to the spaghetti sauce. The kitchen was thick with steam and smoke as the garlic bread cooked to a crisp in the oven. He ambled around from oven, to stove top, to sink, to salad spinner, back to oven, then over to the fridge, fumbling to get dinner prepared for my mother’s return from what was surely an arduous day at the dental office. I bounced happily in my baby walker next to the kitchen table while my father tossed the steaming spaghetti into the sink. He cursed as the hot water burned his hands. I didn’t seem to mind at the time. My father didn’t take any notice either as he continued to frantically throw dinner together.
From around the corner, my older brother, Matt, crept up to me. I continued to bounce with excitement as my brother pulled out a plastic cup and his shiny red plastic putter. With a devilish grin on his face, Matt placed the cup on my head. I happily obliged, as my sweet brother had brought me a stylish hat. Matt stood confidently beside me, like Babe Ruth stepping up to the plate, eager to cream the next pitch out of the park.
“Stay still, little brother,” he whispered into my ear softly.
As Matt furrowed his brow, he drew the red putter over behind his head in a tremendous backswing. My father turned away from the spaghetti sauce and laid his eyes upon a toddler swinging a red putter at a small red cup atop a baby’s head. With a mighty lunge, he screamed and attempted to seize the club, missing as Matt connected with the cup. It sailed down the hallway. There were no cries of pain, just a bouncing baby Scott, and a relieved, bug-eyed father gasping on the kitchen floor.
I think back to that story often, now that my brother and I are practically grown up. I am now 20, and he is 23. It all seems so long ago. One could say that I grew up in a tough neighborhood as a kid, especially with a big brother like Matt. When we were young, our lives were different. Matt was the king, and I was a peasant. I loathed him, even despised his existence sometimes. I was a toy for him, nothing more. His games were seldom fun for me. His friends were his, and I felt he was embarrassed by me. He liked to think I was annoying, as all little brothers are. But all I hoped for was his approval, wondering if it would ever come.
Eight years ago, I lay on the floor with a bloody nose. Matt had made the varsity wrestling team and was anxious to try out some of his new moves. He was never big, but he was a vicious fighter. Matt was wrestling the 103-pound weight class, but that didn’t stop him from battling like a pissed-off wolverine with a little-man complex. The couches in the living room had been pushed aside, and the coffee table blocked the doorway to the rest of the house. Pillows lay strewn across the room; the wrestling arena was assembled and ready. He was fast and agile on the carpet. Before I knew what was happening, my cheek burned as the carpet rubbed my skin raw. With clenched teeth he held my arms pinned behind me as I slithered like a worm, shifting under his body weight. I struggled to break away. My leg swung left and clipped Matt’s ankle. His heavy elbow fell across my face, as I felt the bridge of my nose pop. The pain was excruciating. I could feel the warm blood pouring from my nostrils like cherry soda from a shaken bottle. Matt stood next me holding my nose.
“It’s okay,” he reassured me as my crimson blood covered his hands and made his fingers sticky, “Try not to bleed on the carpet, if mom finds out she’ll kill me.”
I mumbled and shook my head in agreement as blood gathered at the back of my throat like a salty thick soup suffocating me.
I tried not to cry. I could see how scared he was; I didn’t want to make matters worse. The worry in my brother’s eyes was visible even through my cloudy tears. My nose continued to bleed profusely like a broken faucet. The lights in the family room extremely bright as my head felt lighter and lighter. After the last drops of blood had fallen into the toilet paper in my brother’s arms, I fell asleep. I woke up to my mother fretting over the frightful amounts of toilet paper covered in blood. She asked me what happened. I told her I got a nosebleed. It was the truth, after all.
I can’t remember why I never sought revenge after the wrestling incident. My nose has never been the same, and bleeds randomly when the air gets too dry. But I saw something in Matt’s eyes that kept me from selling him down the river. While my blood poured into the thick, warm, wet wad of toilet paper he held in his hands, his eyes showed legitimate concern. He had hurt me plenty of times before, but usually he ran off to avoid the bite of my mother’s wooden spoon on his ass. For whatever reason, I liked knowing in the back of my head that he didn’t want to hurt me anymore. It was comforting, and for the first time I felt like we were playing for the same team.
Four years ago, I walked across the cracked asphalt of a student parking lot. Looming and ominous, the high school beckoned me to its vast network of cliques, teenage angst, and rebellion, casting a gaping shadow on the early morning. I stopped for a moment, hesitation binding my legs like a boa constrictor. I saw a group of my friends clustered together, heads up, alert, and looking around with huge bug-eyes. We were freshmen at the bottom of the barrel, maggots for upperclassmen to sneer, snarl, and growl at. Anxiety gripped my torso, forcing me to vomit the butterflies in my stomach as I nervously clustered together with the other freshmen.
A sharp beep ripped across the airwaves and the entire quad seemed to move like a herd of mad cattle. The first bell struck and I stood still, trying to wrap my mind around where my next class was. Luckily, I was not alone. Dozens of other lost first year students like myself were looking at their schedules like they were ancient hieroglyphs. A heavy, hearty pat struck me out of my stupor.
“You look a little lost, homie.”
I spun around only to set my eyes upon Matt, a nonchalant grin on his face, sharp morning sunlight glinting off of his sunglasses.
“Don’t you have class?” I asked, glancing around the near empty quad.
“Yea, but my teacher is kinda a pushover, and it’s my senior year. Lemme see your schedule.”
He snatched my schedule from my hands and inspected the small scrap of pink paper.
“Ah, you have Cochran right now. Too bad, he’s a real sonuvabitch. See that big two story building over there?” he pointed, “Cochran is on the second floor.”
“Thanks,” I said quietly.
“No problemo; you gonna join me for lunch today?”
“Sure, but don’t you wanna go with your friends?” I asked.
“I can go to lunch with them the rest of the year. Today is my little brother’s first day of high school,” he replied. “I can’t miss that.”
“Ok!” I blurted excitedly as I turned to bolt off to class.
“Good luck!” he called after me.
One year ago, we sat next to each other on the beach, looking at the swells of the ocean churn the water into a frothy soup. Our surfboards bathed in the foggy sunlight, and the sweet smell of wax drifted in the air to mix with the coastal breeze. Montara State Beach was a beautiful and foreboding place. The waves looked as if they had been cut from glass, but they had the power to push you to the sandy bottom for a lengthy visit with the fish. We gazed into the horizon, watching the crowns of the waves crash down onto the slopes of the swell.
We had been many times before, but every time before we took to the waves, we waited on the beach. In this moment of silence watching the next set, we had a conversation with no words. Without looking at each other, without uttering a whisper, Matt and I communicated. We were content. The waves got bigger now. As they broke, the thunder of water smashing against water rattled our rib cages. The water looked colder as we both stood up and strapped our leashes to our ankles. Still no words were spoken. We strode forward toward the surf in unison. We both knew one thing upon hitting the bone chilling ocean spray. He had my back; I had his.
“Ever wonder how many sharks are swimming below us?” I asked as we bobbed just beyond the crashing of the opal waves, perched on our boards like seagulls resting on the swell.
“I try not to think about it, no thanks to you,” Matt replied. “But they say that the probability of getting attacked by a shark are less than the probability you have of getting struck by lightning.”
“I dunno about that, especially considering that we are dressed up in black wetsuits that make us look like seals.”
“You sound like Ma right now.”
“Would you save me if I got attacked?”
“Nice, I feel safer already,” I chortled sarcastically.
“Heads up, this next one is mine,” Matt warned as a white-capped swell approached. He gave five strong strokes and the wave picked him up as he ripped across the face. I watched him disappear behind the sea foam and waited for my ride to come.
It seems so strange to think back to the beginning of our time spent together, when neither of us understood the other completely. We were at odds with one another; two people stuck in close proximity with no room to breath. We made each other’s skin crawl at times. To this day, he remains the only person to press my buttons enough to warrant a sharp blow to the crotch. I’m the only kid Matt has chased through the house with a nine iron. My parents used to joke that we would be the end of each other, the living Cain and Abel. Our house was a battlefield from the beginning. We laugh at the notion now, knowing that in fact we had grown beyond simple sibling rivalry. We were not born friends, but we were born brothers. And having my brother beside me has given me somebody strong to lean on and a friend to take on life with me.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Scott Stephens grew up breaking rules and pushing boundaries. With an aptitude for mischief and adrenaline, he loves playing water polo for MIT, as well as swimming for the varsity men’s team.
Scott came up with the idea for “No Cain and Abel” from his eventful relationship with his brother, Matt. As the baby of the family, Scott was subject to all the abuses that come along with being a younger sibling, in addition to some of the more creative ones his brother came up with. However, when asked about his experience, Scott comments: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”