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big macs & brotherly love

People are always alarmed by my descriptions of Ned. They either think I’m being cruel or that my younger brother’s a blossoming sociopath.

Physically, Ned is cause for alarm. With an unprecedented metabolism, Ned can eat indiscriminately, and has never once broken out of the severely underweight section of the ‘BMI’. Forever stuck with his lot in life of long, gangly arms and legs, he remains five inches taller and 10 pounds lighter than me—like a basketball player if all that was left was bone. He has a long eyebrow that stretches across his face and sometimes, if he’s feeling spiffy, he’ll pluck a few hairs in the middle, so it resembles, if not quite two individual eyebrows, certainly a singular crooked one.

Mentally, Ned is a volatile jumble of short-lived passions. His most recent obsession was the aerobes found in bottles of kombucha, resulting in the conversion of our kitchen into one large cell culture. The year before kombucha, Ned discovered candles, promptly turning our basement into a factory for outputs of “Ned’s Candles” —“a family-owned, organically-grown candle making business,” according to the website. Lemon-scented wax still splatters the walls, even though the business has since gone out of commission, and he now only makes candles “for private clients.” No one knows what that means.

Before candles it was cooking, and before cooking, it was hiking. The list goes on, with each passion bursting from thin air, shooting out into the sky and quickly fizzling out.

This is one side of my brother—the eccentric entrepreneur.

The other side of Ned maintains the same intensity, but instead of manifesting itself in organisms and wax, it comes in the form of strict moral stances.

No hair in the shower. No loud voices after 11. No using any towels on the right side of the bathroom. No touching his laundry.

If Ned were God, these would be his commandments. With the same intensity that caused him to fall in love with the perfectly risen angel food cake or create the ideal microenvironment for yeast, Ned sees these offenses as great moral wrongdoings.

While my parents were careful not to tread on Ned’s finely tuned moral compass, I stampeded all over it. Forgetting to scrub the salmon crust from the pan. Hogging the family computer. Not making enough tea for two people. I was a kid—not terribly self-centered and not an angel. But Ned held everyone in the family to a higher standard. He took note of each affront. Nothing was excused.

For the past ten years, Ned and I have been in a rut. Like spouses that can no longer understand why they’re living under the same roof, we have grown a resentment so thick we’re trapped in it. So constantly ready to attack that neither of us could let our guard down. It was a Cold War between siblings.

Then, last summer, a disarmament began to be brokered.

The negotiation was brought about by a new boyfriend, Sammy. I had officially started dating Sammy earlier in the summer, but had kept him away from my family, not yet sure what the reaction between the two forces would look like. Once I was confident the two entities wouldn’t combust upon exposure, Sammy was ready to meet Ned.

At this point, Sammy had already heard the usual spiel about Ned—stretchy-looking, candle-producing, heart-lacking. Sammy was braced – an irritable perfectionist with a proclivity for failed entrepreneurial exploits awaited.

But that version of Ned never arrived. Instead, he presented as a genius tenth-grader on the verge of a billion-dollar empire.

That summer, viewing Ned through Sammy’s eyes, I pressed the reset button on our relationship. I tried to watch out for his eccentricities, and instead of trampling all over Ned’s 10,000 commandments, I treated them with reverence.

First one week, then two weeks, then three weeks went by under this new regime with no explosive yelling. I was walking on eggshells, but staying afloat.

Our summer went on like this in a precarious détente until one night in late August, when I found myself at home, hungry and alone.

Aggressive rap music from upstairs told me I was wrong. Ned was home and he was raging. Feeling unusually isolated with all my friends having left for college the week before, I asked Ned if he would be interested in pausing the jam session and joining me for dinner. This had never been done in our 16 years of co-existing life.

When Ned said yes, he made history. The prerequisite that he would only go if we went to McDonalds was but a blotch on a picturesque moment.

And so, arms linked, we skipped off into the sunset of the golden arches, ready for our Big Macs and bonded for life.

More or less. The meal was delicious but it was marked by awkwardness, not unlike what I imagine a first date to be like. Were we supposed to pay with separate cards for our $4 sandwiches? How did he know to ask for the special sauce housed underneath the register? Was it common knowledge that McDonalds’ freshest item was the Egg McMuffin because they cracked the egg on site?

These questions went unanswered. He got us a seat, and we ate our Big Macs in a silence peppered with small talk. I learned he would be taking his permit test soon for the second time, and he turned red when I brought up how he failed his last one. I learned he had a new girl in his life—another facially tinging subject. With that, our meal was brought to a prompt end.

Since the summer, Ned and I have exchanged around 30 texts. Topics we have covered include what we were getting my mother for her birthday, if I could please find him and give him the spare key, and will I feed the neighbor’s cats. A few scattered expletives make an appearance.

We are still not close. As it turns out, 15 years of strife is not undone with one McDonalds dinner. Happy meals just aren’t that happy. But I gained momentum that day. While we may only be averaging five texts per month, that’s five more than where we were before. And I don’t want us to be the siblings that grow up and barely know each other. I’ve seen that with my mother and aunt in the sending of the annual Christmas card. The quick peck on the cheek at Christmas. The rushed birthday phone call.

Whether they don’t know each other or don’t like each other, it’s clear they are related in blood only. I don’t want this for myself, and I know this is likely my last chance. Once I graduate college, the chances of Ned and I ever being more than Christmas card acquaintances is slim-to-none. And we’ll never again get to skip into the sunset, arms linked, bonded for life.