A Birthday Story For My Brother Joel

by Mara

Preamble: Last year, I posted a birthday story for my brother Jon. He was happy to read it, though I felt a little guilty because I have three other siblings. It’s true that some of them enjoy being written about more than others, but as long as I have their permission — and funny stories about them, which I do — I’d like to honor them. This is one of my favorite stories about my brother Joel, whose birthday is this week. To those who speak the Queen’s English, I will ask you to keep in mind that “pants” means “trousers” here in the States. If my brother had a distaste for underpants, I would not want to know about it and would definitely not write about it.

One evening, when I was thirteen and my brother Joel was eighteen, our father kicked us out of the house. He had noticed that I spent most of my free time on the internet and that Joel spent most of his time playing guitar in his room. While he had tried to hint, on multiple occasions, that we should get some fresh air, this time it wasn’t a suggestion. We were to go out and go for a walk around the neighborhood, and not to come back for at least an hour.

Joel and I left the house and walked a few blocks in silence. I peered up at him and felt a little shy. It wasn’t because he was tall — although, at nearly six feet, he is the tallest member of our diminutive family — or because he was intimidating. Quite the opposite: Joel had always been friendly and gentle. He had a way with animals and children from a young age, and they loved him, too. Not many ten-year-old boys would have played with their baby sisters, but Joel had not only put on a puppet show for Anna, he also came up with additional personalities and let Anna “meet the stars backstage.” Our father once told me, “When I think of Joel, I think of those pictures of Saint Francis: surrounded by children and animals that all adore him.” When I told Joel, he laughed and said, a bit sheepish, “He’s actually not the first person to tell me that.”

No, I was intimidated because Joel was a legend. All of my older brothers were. In the early nineties, my brother Danny had been John Burroughs High School’s answer to Ferris Bueller. Jon had followed, and while he served less time in detention, the Wilson boys earned a reputation for being very smart smart-asses. But by the time I was a rising freshman, most of Danny’s pranks and Jon’s Odyssey of the Mind skits had been forgotten. Joel, though, was in his last year at Burroughs, and his presence was still felt. Everyone knew who he was, and everyone liked him. Everyone thought — knew — he was cool.

Joel was, like all cool teens, in a band. Actually, he was in several: there were The China Dolls, a standard but surprisingly good alternative rock band, the Drunken Frat Boys, who performed songs en español for extra credit in Spanish class, 1 and Argle Bargle and His Magical Ride, a super-group where everyone dressed up and switched instruments after every song. These are just the bands I can remember; I’m sure there were more. Joel was a hot commodity because, unlike most teens in bands, he was actually talented. He had taken guitar lessons at one point but had picked up several other instruments on his own, and would rather nonchalantly record solo concept albums in his bedroom. My favorite was Monkeys In Space: wild guitar work overlaid with a sample of a chimpanzee yelling he’d gotten by putting a tape recorder up against the television while watching Conquest of The Planet of the Apes. When I listened to the track, I pointed out that he must have taped too long, because he had also accidentally included a line about artificial insemination. He shrugged and said, “That just adds to it.”

Joel’s wit was his own. He once walked into a room and said to me, “If Benjamin Franklin were alive today… he’d be really old,” then left. People would always ask if he was stoned, but he wasn’t: it was just his own dreamy, non-sequitur sense of humor. Strong opinions on bizarre and seemingly arbitrary things seems to be a Wilson trait, and Joel took to sharing his eloquently in the school newspaper. The people had a right to know that Planet of the Apes was better than Star Wars, that we should let the apes take over if it ever did come down to apes versus humans, and that pants were inherently oppressive. Joel hated — and still hates — long pants. We lived in California, so it was possibly to wear shorts three hundred and fifty days a year, and Joel would. That Halloween, he had actually gone to school dressed as “The Man With No Pants”: he wore a button-down shirt, a sport coat, and no pants. Any other seventeen-year-old wearing boxers to school probably would have been sent home, but Joel was beloved by staff and students alike. In fact, when I stopped by the high school for show choir auditions, one of the upperclassmen nudged another and said, “Oh my god, it’s — it’s — it’s Joel Wilson’s sister!” I was “famous,” but Joel was famous.

Sibling rivalry is often rooted in envy, not just of parents’ attention, but of all the older siblings get to see and do first. 2 I didn’t feel a rivalry with Joel, but I was certainly envious. Joel lived in his own world, and I wanted to be part of it. Sometimes I would nervously knock on his bedroom door, just to see if he would let me in. When he did, I would sit at his feet and we would talk for hours about music and history and primates and life and relationships and friendship and everything he knew more of than I did. Sometimes I felt like I was interviewing him, getting his perspective on life. But every time, I would leave his room feeling smarter, and feeling special.

It’s possible I’m romanticizing my brother. I’m sure he had his sullen and selfish moments like every other teenager, but to my thirteen-year-old self, he was enchanting. As we walked on that day, I struggled to keep up with his long strides and wondered which one of us would speak first. This wasn’t like our little Socratic sessions in his room: we would have to make small talk. What could I even discuss with him? I was a cynical, awkward, flighty, nervous wreck, while Joel was so laid-back and funny and kind. He was cool, and I was not.

We went past the drugstore and the Taco Bell 3 and the boxy houses. When we came to the first major intersection, Joel crossed, and I crossed with him. He turned at the alley behind the mom-and-pop grocery store, and I followed him. A lone shopping cart with a few boxes and old cans blocked our path, but Joel didn’t push it out of the way. He went over, took out the cans and boxes, then turned to me and spoke for the first time: “Get in.”

I stared at him. Was he serious? I was small for my age, but I hadn’t ridden in a shopping cart in eight years. His expression was neutral; it made perfect sense to him. He had a shopping cart and someone who could fit in one, why wouldn’t I get in?

And so I did. Joel started pushing the cart, taking me down the alley, through the parking lot, and out onto the sidewalk. As soon as we reached pavement I started to laugh, and didn’t stop for the whole ride. He pushed me back past our house, and onto Magnolia Boulevard, the street that connects all of Greater Los Angeles. People watched us, and we watched them, too. Pedestrians stepped aside, then did double takes over their shoulders. A driver at an intersection eyed us, confused, then burst out laughing. If we had been a little older, it might have seemed trite, another set of hipsters trying to assert their individuality by doing something “random” and juvenile. Perhaps it did seem that way, but I didn’t care, and Joel didn’t, either. We were on a joyride! We were a team! We had outsmarted our father! And, for me, there was something more: I had wanted to be let into Joel’s world, and I was. We didn’t need to say anything, we could laugh together.

When the hour was up, Joel pushed me back to the grocery store and helped me out of the cart. We walked home, still laughing, and I immediately found my little sister to tell her what we had done. Our father must have been listening, because at dinner, he said “It sounds like you didn’t get much walking done on that walk.” He was annoyed, but we had won and he knew it.

Joel went off to college that fall, and while he was further away than he ever had been before, we only got closer. When I was fifteen, getting over the stomach flu and my first break-up, I talked to Joel. When I was having panic attacks over my third-year directing project, I called Joel. When I broke up with Exy, 4 I called Joel. Actually, every time I have any kind of major life problem, I have talked to Joel. Each time, he gives me comfort and, even more importantly, gives me perspective. He has taught me the power of being a good listener. And he still has great stories and a great sense of humor. 5 Sometimes I wonder if I come to him with problems more than I should, but when such a sweet, funny, emotionally intelligent person is built into your life, it’s hard not to take advantage.

Last year, I called Joel for one of our regular catch-up sessions. I had just written a post about our brother Jon, and I asked if he would object to being written about.

“Maybe I’ll write about the time we got kicked out of the house,” I said. “Do you remember that?” Usually, when I ask Joel if he remembers doing something, he’ll shrug and say “Sounds like something I would do.” But he immediately started laughing: “Yeah, that was awesome!” It had been one of our last moments together before he went away, and he could still remember it clearly. We laughed together, and then, I moved on to asking about his wedding plans. Joel had just gotten engaged, and he and his now-wife (who he met while working with children) would be getting married that spring. He told me it would be a simple wedding with friends and family, and I asked if he was planning on incorporating any kind of personal touches into the service.

“Well,” he said, “I did ask her if I could maybe not wear pants.”

“What did she say?” I said.

“She said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ She was all for it.”

“Wow,” I said. “You really have found your perfect woman.”

Happy birthday, Joel. I love you. And while it would have been awesome, I’m pretty sure our parents and your in-laws are happy you did decide to wear pants at your wedding.

Notes:

  1. “A, B, C! Fácil como uno, dos, tres! Fácil como gato, perro, peces!”
  2. And, for older siblings, all the things the younger siblings get and get away with.
  3. We used to go there for dinner the nights our father was working late. I once wrote that I wanted two soft tacos in tally marks and Joel came back with eleven.
  4. My college boyfriend.
  5. My current favorite: “We had a squirrel living in our old house — I called it the Jungle House, we had all kinds of animals wandering in and out, sometimes this toad would be in the living room — and I went up to him one time and was like, ‘Hey, you should probably go,’ and he started yelling at me. I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t stop chittering, so finally I was like, ‘OK, man, you know, you’re right, you were here first,’ and I walked away. He won the argument.”