The sunshine is always stronger in my brother’s room. His bedroom faces the East, mine the West. During the early hours of the day, it seeps through the gauzy brown curtains and reaches even the most reluctant of corners in his room. By the time the sun ambles its way to my side of the house, it’s almost as if it were too exhausted, too weary to extend its warmth to my frigid bedroom.
On days when I am home from college, sometimes I will lie belly-up on the carpet in his room, appreciate the warmth, and survey the changes that have been made since I was last home. The wallpaper no longer bears Winnie the Pooh’s smiling face and instead patterns the walls with modest shades of beige. The bed is no longer littered with stuffed animals and is lined with sand-colored sheets that match both his walls and his curtains. My brother is a creature of habit, much like I am, and he has settled within the arms of his bedroom walls more and more with each passing day. He drinks Chinese green tea by the pint, frequently emerging from his room after long stretches simply to refill his mug, and he pockets granola bars after dinner most nights as if anticipating hunger. Our mom tells him to eat more, makes frequent references to a history of “growing boy” pleas, but he shakes his head and retreats all the same. The first time I occupied the empty space on his floor for no apparent reason, he was half-watching How I Met Your Mother, half-waiting expectantly for me to say something to prove my purpose for being in his room. Now, he just lets me lie there.
“This might be weird—”
I don’t know when he got so sardonic but part of me knows how. I told him I was probably to blame once and he just shrugged.
“This might be weird,” I repeat, frowning a little, “But I want to apologize.”
“For what?” He sounds as bewildered as he looks.
“When we were younger, I used to cheat whenever we played games.”
“Games,” I elaborate, shaking my hands in the air emphatically. “When we played Sorry™ I used to move four spaces instead of three to land on a more favorable spot. When we played Life™, I used to peek and grab the better Career card. When we played jun qi—a Chinese chess-like strategy-based game—I used to lie about the placement of my pieces.”
“You were only like four or five years old,” I continue, still a little stressed out by my own confession. “It was really easy to dupe you.” Even as I say it, the guilt oozes from my words, my mouth, my tongue.
“So yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry about that.”
“Yeah I had no idea. And it doesn’t really matter.”
My voice feels faint. Distant. “I’m still sorry.”
He returns to his episode of How I Met Your Mother, where Neil Patrick Harris is giving himself a self-five and grinning from ear to ear. I don’t budge from my spot on the floor.
The truth is, I’ve felt the guilt about cheating against my own little brother in all of those games from the first moment I decided to be dishonest about a board game to have the upper hand. Even as I triumphantly beat him at the end of the game, I could feel the guilt chewing at the insides of my cheeks as I hoped silently to myself that he couldn’t detect the glowing redness rising to my face. But he was young, I reasoned at the time, he wouldn’t know. And I was older—it would be embarrassing if I didn’t win. I had five years of experience on him. I couldn’t lose.
I never realized how much I coordinate my decisions based on reputation, on imagery, and—unfortunately—on saving face. Everything I do rests on the backbone of “What will people think?” At school, I frequently fret over how I am being perceived—by my peers, my professors, my friends.
Now, I am no longer ten years old. There are a lot of things I thought I’d have figured out at twice my age at that time, but like any other expectation about The Future, it was sorely skewed. I’ve figured out how to solve integrals, how to cook a decent curry, how to do my own laundry. But I haven’t figured out how to stop making everything about myself.
And even though those board games may have seemed trivial, I was consumed with concerns over how ashamed I’d feel if anyone would be able to go around saying that my five-year-old brother had bested me. In the end, who would have really cared? Perhaps some people might have teased me a little for it, if anything. But it would have disappeared with the setting sun, and no one would have given it a second thought.
This past August, our family went to Jamaica. There was a giant chess set by the beach, and my brother asked me if I wanted to play. I’m awful at chess, but I agreed with a half-smile. We were head-to-head for the most part, and the game lasted about twenty minutes. I looked on during the last few minutes, when he gridlocked my king and left me with nowhere to go.
“Damn,” I grin, shielding my eyes from the sun with the back of my hand as I exchange a look with my brother. “Good game.”