My brother was the sort of character you could never quite figure out. He could say and do horrible things. He could be malicious and dumb. He was chaotic and unpredictable. He was also wickedly funny, sharp, charming, and sweet. Every morning, he read Le Monde in French and Die Zeit in German. He also spoke Spanish fluently, and a fair amount of Russian and Serbo-Croatian. He preferred, he said, to live among immigrants, because they were quiet, hard-working people who made good food and were friendly to strangers.
My brother was a stranger.
Even now, I have a hard time believing he’s gone, but also that he ever really existed. He was a guy you could be so angry with and also want to be around. Was he a villain or a foil? A clue that life’s story could be both tragic and comic at the same time? A simple cautionary tale? Did we hallucinate him, so that he embodied all of our hopes and fears, with a large dose of absurdity mixed in?
Yes. Probably. All of that.
He had this bike, a Panasonic Villager. It was a strange and exotic thing standing there in our living room, the Villager, somehow both Japanese and European at the same time, a classy, muted blue. A ten speed. The first one I’d seen close up.
It was 1979.
Even then, my brother was not like other kids. I guess, he had ADD. The ’70s didn’t know that, and that probably cost him some understanding that might have been helpful as he careened through a long list of poor choices in his formative years, a cascading mosaic of dominoes toppling and falling in every direction.
To me, then, he was the coolest. Eight years older. He introduced me to KISS and Playboy magazine, and I was always sure that whatever he was doing was better than whatever I could think of to do. I was a run of the mill kid. He was sort of dangerous and defiant and secretive and fascinating.
The Villager embodied and emboldened my brother. He’d ride it to buy weed, to meet girls. It was this fast thing, at least theoretically, but I never saw it move at more than a soft pedal. Its rider wasn’t keen to let you know what he was capable of, the better to tamp down expectation.
Like the bike, he was handsome, successful with women. He managed to make himself exotic by speaking other languages, by surrounding himself with people who were equally secretive, or by being a loner.
When I was nine-years-old, my brother joined the Army and left home, and we never really lived under the same roof again. He left the Villager in the shed, and it sat there for some years before I was anywhere near big enough to ride it. Occasionally I’d pull it out and step through its front triangle and pedal it awkwardly around the driveway, the top tube on my shoulder, just barely reaching the drops to steer it in lurching swings from side-to-side.
Later I too would ride it to girls’ houses when their parents weren’t home, a trick that Panasonic had clearly missed in their marketing. I loved that bike as a surrogate of sorts, I suppose. Even long after he’d abandoned it, I thought of it as his bike, and I liked that I was riding somehow in his path.
Obviously, he and I parted ways at some point. He took the red pill, and I took the blue, although the story is never so simple as that. I made mistakes, but I probably made fewer because I had his example in front of me. In that regard, I owe him a lot, and I told him as much as he lay in a rented hospital bed in his small, dark apartment, waiting for the end.
In those last days, he kept his sense of humor. He craved strange sodas, the most exotic tropical and over the top flavors we could find, and those of us who loved him, even if he’d hurt us, walked him home, a strange villager none of us ever understood but were sorry to see go.