After nearly a quarter-century of knowing a family member, the popular notion would be that the relationship — good, bad, or non-existent — is pretty well set in stone.
That sounds pretty reasonable after all. Just about everything is known: Strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes. It’s all there. Nothing is going to change at this point.
Except sometimes, that’s not actually the case. Sometimes, one night, a couple text messages, a few drinks, and a whole lot of camaraderie can take everything you thought you knew and flip it upside down — or maybe in this special instance right-side up.
My cousin was born 17 and a half months before me. He was two years ahead of me in school and our houses were only separated by 25 minutes of driving. While growing up, we probably saw each other approximately 30 times a year between birthdays, holidays, and get-togethers.
In theory, this would set us up to be decent friends. The problem though is that the similarities listed above were pretty much the only thing we had in common.
As kids, I was into more mainstream sports while my cousin took up karate. He was damn good at it too, eventually getting his black belt, but we never had a catch with a baseball or anything like that.
There were plenty of times where we tried playing video games together. Mario Party was a favorite, but for the most part, I played sports games and him strategy ones like The Legend of Zelda.
“Are there any games you don’t suck at?” were his words after I had zero idea what I was doing in some GameCube thing.
“Uhh…I’m okay at Madden,” I said. The tables were completely turned, and winning 21-0 after the first quarter while sacking the quarterback on every play is about as fun as dying every 30 seconds in some non-sports game.
When we got tired of video games at family gatherings, I would usually be watching the Phillies game with my dad and uncle while he built some killer paper airplane.
I was no slouch academically, always one of the smartest kids in my class in elementary and middle school, but my cousin was a genius. He didn’t flaunt it, but just talking to him as kids and then teenagers, he was so smart that you just couldn’t measure up.
In second grade, I wrote a “book” as part of some gifted program at school. He won some science fair around the same time. In high school, I qualified for states in FBLA. He built a robot. I got a 1950 on my SAT’s. He got close to a 2400. I graduated 35th in my class of 750 seniors. He was the salutatorian at a private school.
If my cousin wanted to, he could have gone to college at age 15 and aced every class. Hell, he probably could have taught the class, and aside from “Wow, our professor looks really young,” the students wouldn’t have thought anything was off.
In the beginning of my junior year of high school, I was having a tough time with a few concepts in honors precalculus and decided to email him for help. He made it seem easy, almost too easy, like it wasn’t even fair.
Just to clarify so the wrong idea isn’t portrayed, it wasn’t like my cousin and I disliked each other. We got along fine and didn’t fight or anything. We just weren’t close. There was nothing bringing us together outside of family stuff. Despite being such a short distance away, we never hung out on our own.
Eventually he did go off to college at Carnegie Mellon. I obviously followed two years later at Penn State. Instead of seeing each other 30 times a year, it was reduced to two or three at most. A few text messages were exchanged on birthdays, but that was about it. Although he does have a blog of his own, my cousin isn’t a big social media guy so keeping up through Facebook wasn’t an option.
A few summers ago I was in Pittsburgh for a Phillies-Pirates game and met up with him for a few minutes. The idea that I traveled six hours to watch baseball was completely foreign to him. Like always, we had different interests and were off pursuing our own things.
Both of us were doing pretty well for ourselves over the next two years. I was covering Penn State football, getting stories linked by ESPN while he was obtaining his Master’s degree in engineering from Carnegie Mellon and beginning work on a Ph.D program.
Then it all came crashing down hard. He dropped out of his Ph.D program in the summer of 2012, depressed and deciding he no longer had a passion for the research he was doing. After living in Pittsburgh off what he had saved from a graduate student stipend for almost a year, he returned home right around the same time as me last August when I left a full time job.
He texted me on my birthday in early October and talked about getting lunch the following week. I said that sounded good, but both of us kinda forgot about it a day later. We conversed on Thanksgiving like usual and saw each other once after that at a family dinner, but there was a six and a half month gap between that October 3rd text message and last Wednesday night.
I was having a rough day and fired something off to him. He responded within a minute saying he was tempted to ask me to meet him for a drink. “It sounds like you could use it.”
Philadelphia suburbs don’t offer the greatest choice of bars though so that became the next hurdle to clear when he asked if I knew of any places.
“There’s a nice sports bar by me that has a good beer menu, but it’s a bit of a hike for you and not exactly your cup of tea,” I answered back.
He said he’d make the drive and we were off. Well, almost. I told my dad where I was going. “You guys have never hung out before. This seems weird to me.”
I assured him those were indeed our plans, and now we were officially off. I got there first and snagged a table. Once he arrived, the next three hours were filled with nonstop conversation. I tried to explain Penn State culture to him the best I could while he reminisced about his time at Carnegie Mellon a bit.
Drinks and chips were ordered. We discussed our families, the flaws we saw in the world, his trip to England last fall and newly discovered interest in philosophy, the ending of my last relationship over a year ago, both leaving positions without anything else immediately lined up, and our desire to fully get back on our feet.
Even while occasionally checking our phones, silence was few and far between. It took two and a half decades, but we finally had something in common that we could relate to.
It may not have been an ideal thing to have, however it was good enough for us. See, we were both a little down, a little confused about life, but far from defeated. Most importantly, we both had ideas, waiting, hoping that the right place was willing to listen and agree with some while challenging others in a respectful way that would make us better. For the time being though, we could bounce thoughts off each other.
I used to think it could be difficult to maintain a prolonged conversation with my cousin. He argued passionately and sometimes refused to acknowledge legitimate counterpoints. The latter wasn’t the case last week.
We tipped our waitress an extra couple of bucks, figuring she deserved it after likely overhearing some odd conversations when walking over to check on us a few times. Around midnight, we walked outside into the cold, dark air.
The temperature had dropped significantly and I shivered a bit as some wind whipped through my quarter zip jacket and khaki shorts. My cousin wore a sport coat, jeans, and glasses. (I don’t have any updated pictures of him so this mediocre description will have to do)
If a random person saw us standing by our cars, they wouldn’t have known we were related. What they also wouldn’t have known though is that for the first time, I felt close with my cousin.
We’re not suddenly going to become best friends who text back and forth 45 times a day, but it’s amazing how one night can alter perspective.
I always thought my cousin had all the answers, I figured by now he would be working for IBM with a six-figure salary, running the hottest Silicon Valley startup while a bunch of eager interns ran around fetching him coffee, or lecturing college students as a professor like he once planned. Similar to me though, he was still trying to find his place in the world after previously believing he had arrived.
As I unlocked the door to my car and scrambled to turn on the heat, I flashed back to the drive there four hours ago. From my house, you make a right out of the neighborhood and go straight for about 15 minutes. The one caveat is that the bar is on your left and the road is a mini-highway, so you need to turn yourself around at a traffic light and backtrack about half a mile.
Overall though, it’s about as basic of a ride as you can get and requires little thinking other than keeping your eyes on the road.
As I sat at a traffic light still five or so minutes away, my mind started to wander. The Phillies game was on the radio, and while I knew the score and inning, I wasn’t really listening.
For the first time ever, I think my cousin needs me, I said to an empty car.
That thought would soon be validated. Well, sort of. Let’s try it again now a little differently.
For the first time ever, my cousin and I need each other.