Mixed Messages

We all grow up some time. We all grow up continually. We grow apart. We grow deeper. I started dating my wife when I was 17. We grew together. Like two disparate trees grafted into each other. There are moments, of course, when we see with startling clarity our different upbringings. And there are moments we act simultaneously, our rote movements identical as a result of accidental practice.

Years ago, we went camping with my father. At the time, my wife and I had been together for about a decade. She spent the entire trip in shock. When my dad built the fire up unnecessarily. When he poked and prodded it for hours. When he decided to add a flat rock to cook potatoes and I gleefully assisted. She just kept staring at me and saying, “this is why you’re like this.” It wasn’t so much his behavior or mine. It was seeing my mannerisms in his movements, the clear roots of my intricacies. She saw the familial parallels in our ADHD. She saw the problem solving in our Bartlett brains. It was no longer a singular bad approach, but a longstanding pattern of behavior. I am a result of his psychosis. I am his anxiety. I am his fascination. But I am also a rebellion against him. It takes him three hours to get ready to go anywhere. On that camping trip, he announced one morning that he was going to ride his bike around the lake. My wife went fishing. I followed her with my book. Two hours later we returned to the camp site and found my father standing with his bike. “Wow, we all got back at the same time,” she said. “He hasn’t left yet,” I said. She didn’t believe me, but he hadn’t. In a pinch, I can leave the house in about fifteen minutes. But, like my father, I am perpetually running late.

My brother is his own strange cocktail of our upbringing. I don’t know his approach to scheduling. I tried (literally just now) to envision him getting ready to leave the house or arriving at a restaurant. I can’t come up with a single cohesive memory. We haven’t shared space long enough in the last fifteen years to create such memories. We haven’t had much of a relationship since I moved out after high school. He was still a kid then. I always expect him to be the fifteen-year-old I left behind, but he isn’t.

I’ve been on a nostalgic kick this summer. I made my wife watch the Charlie’s Angels movies I’d loved as a kid. The first came out a few months after I started high school. My brother had just started sixth grade. I was just out enough, just aware enough of my own queerness to enjoy the first movie as a depiction of my own teenage desire. My brother was equally aware of my queerness then too. We didn’t discuss it, of course. But we both knew we were invested for the same reasons—and it wasn’t the stellar plot. The second film was the summer before my senior year, the summer before he started high school. Each of us had ninth grade kicked off by Drew, Lucy, and Cameron in very little clothing being badasses. Those women can wear whatever the fuck they want and still punch the patriarchy into next Tuesday. And the villains are so easy to call the patriarchy. Entitled white dudes who somehow manage to kiss Drew Barrymore in the middle of trying to kill her. Seriously. In both movies.

But here’s the thing. My brother wouldn’t describe it that way. Somehow we both watched those movies and they supported our worldview, yet we got entirely different messages. My brother suddenly had more Irish pride than he did Irish genetic material. Because he saw white men with power and found it heroic. He saw a bunch of scantily clad women and found them desirable. I saw the women and learned they could be heroic and desirable. That those qualities could coincide. I saw the men and found their selfishness unforgivable despite their potential charm.

How did we grow so differently? We were raised in the same sea of absentminded father and not-so-mindless action flicks. We were raised by feminists. We were educated in a good school system that lacked for nothing except diversity. I have to assume it was the blend of our separate genders and gendered expectations, our similar seeming but wildly different sexualities, our divergent relationships to normativity.

I don’t have an answer. I honestly just miss my brother when I watch movies from childhood. But that boy doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it’s time to pack up the old movies.


  1. Wow. This is really powerful stuff. Honest, legit and genuine, and brilliantly executed. I loved reading it! Thank you for sharing. You’ve given me food for thought on my own childhood and the strange brew it created in me. Love when I meet a kindred. Hi! 😉 Sending love and light…cuz I can. ❤


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