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A better picture of Darren and me, taken in April 1975, Sears, Mount Vernon, NY, July 6, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

My older brother Darren turned 50 years old yesterday. The start of my courtship with my wife of more than seventeen years began on this date and day 22 years ago, at her job’s Christmas party in Pittsburgh. The parallels wouldn’t be clear to anyone looking from the outside in on two of the more important relationships of my nearly forty-eight years. But one thing is apparent. The relationship that I’ve always attempted to have with Darren I’ve always had with my wife. One of friendship, sharing, caring, and rooting for each other.

Me and Darren were never that close, even when he taught me how to read, even when I taught him algebra, and even when we both were dodging rocks and bullies at 616. I have the scars to prove it. Three of them, exactly. Earned when I fought Darren over a chocolate Easter bunny on Easter Sunday 1977. Darren clawed my right cheek with his three middle finger on left hand to hold on to the candy, and then proceeded to eat while I was on the floor bleeding and crying.

The time between August ’08 and May ’09 wasn’t much different. My consulting work had dried up after the middle of the summer, as the Great Recession puckered up assholes and opportunities for additional work across the board. I had to dip deeply into my savings to get through, while only then teaching one class a semester at UMUC those two semesters. Darren caught wind of my job troubles through our father. During Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mother’s Day during those months, Darren would ask very loudly, “Did you get a job yet?,” as if I wasn’t working at all. Of course, he was visiting Mom at 616 for free food during my calls to check in with family.

The third time Darren pulled this stunt, it sunk in what he was attempting to do. “Just because I’m not working full-time doesn’t mean I’m not working. I’m still teaching, and I still have some consulting work, which pays $550 per day,” I said. Darren responded, “Oh, oh, okay.” I knew he didn’t get the gig economy or the idea that I could work three days as a consultant and make as much as he would make in a month. Darren’s only goal through those eight months was to embarrass me with Mom and my siblings, to take glee and joy in whatever misery I was experiencing in the feast-and-famine consulting world.

It was all part of a long pattern of Darren wanting everyone in his life to be as miserable as he has been for nearly all of his adult life. I’ve long understand why he wanted all of us to accompany him in his abyss. Fourteen years going to a school for the mentally retarded and aping that behavior in a affluently lily-White context would mess anyone up. Coupling this with our lives, between Mom, our dad, and our idiot ex-stepfather would lead most to either self-loathing or suicide. Darren chose the former. It has meant him not having much of a life for more than three decades, though.

Given how we grew up, it’s amazing that I could form bonds of friendship and relationship at all. The level of distrust, anger, and disappointment was so great at one point that I could’ve lived as a hermit for the past three decades without anyone to notice. I wouldn’t be surprise if a group of my classmates from Mount Vernon High School have the caption, “Least likely to bond with another human EVER!,”around my yearbook picture. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if all of them were laughing while drawing a penis coming from out of my forehead. I did break out, despite them, despite 616, despite Mom, Jimme, Maurice, and Darren.

The five-day saga of homelessness in ’88 was just one of several events in my first two years at Pitt that made me see what I was doing to myself. But it was the most powerful event, in that it made me fully conscious of the fact that I didn’t like myself very much. It made me aware of the fact that I had maybe two people in the whole world at the time whom I called “friend” and meant it. The rest were acquaintances, former classmates, or soapbox types who liked bouncing ideas off me. Five days of staring into the pit of my possible future of misery — while looking at the seven years of grinding poverty and suffering before — fundamentally changes how I saw myself and my need to connect with other people.

By the time I first met Angelia in ’90, I was well past those events, yet it was as if I was experiencing a social life for the first time. In some respects, I actually was. So much so that I almost short-circuited a friendship before it actually began. Even after we began dating at the end of ’95, Angelia would sometimes call me a “tactless wonder.” That was usually in the context of someone getting on my nerves with their willful ignorance or witless prattle (the “getting on my nerves” part happens much more often than I let on) or being in a social setting after days of dissertation writing.

Beyond that, I’ve learned to accept that weird-old me is an okay person, that I won’t always succeed, that I have a love-disdain relationship with humans. Forming and maintaining friendships and my marriage, though, is hard, but not the impossible thing I thought it would be for me to do this time three decades ago. I remain happy about finding Angelia so many years ago. I remain hopeful that Darren may do the same, in this life or the next.