Holding the Hand that Feeds

Holding the Hand That Feeds: A Personal Essay by Brittany Cole

Sometimes I see boys around campus and at a glance, I believe them to be my brother. After a rubbernecked glimpse of their face, I recognize that they are not my flesh and blood. My brother has a very average appearance. He dresses in the typical Nike footwear and sports the usual cargo shorts that boys his age are wearing, which only exacerbates his serene face and common build. There is nothing noteworthy about the casual way he walks—he is a tall, thin 18-year-old with short, light brown hair and a pink-tinted complexion. He doesn’t wear glasses either, unlike me, or have any tattoos like I do.

“I’m behind you.” I receive this text as I am descending the grandiose staircase at the student center of my university. Well, our university, now.

I whip around even though I am still mid-descent. I have a strange sense of imbalance knowing I am on the cusp of a step, my back facing a series of gradually declining footing—but I dismiss it like swatting at a fly. There are many students trailing me down the stairs, and I sidestep to let them pass. Amidst the bodies climbing down I notice a familiar navy-blue windbreaker with white stripes up the sleeves, and I follow the stripes up to a face so soft and kind and—ah, that is him, at the top of the stairs. He looks at me and gives me a subtle nod and his classic grin, so small a grin that his eyes don’t even change but to shine briefly at me in greeting. My tongue pops out of my mouth as soon as I see his face and I hold up a peace sign. I am always sticking my tongue out at him.

I wait on that step until he reaches me. He doesn’t change his pace, and monotonously greets me, “Hey,” once he is at my side, a whole head taller than me. My brother maintains his cool exterior but I can sense his energy relaxes in my presence. We proceed down the stairs and head to the Hub—the student food court—as we exchange information about our current scenarios: I have a break between my classes; he’s done with classes for the day and works in a couple hours.

“Are you hungry?” I ask, because I am, and because I know that even if he isn’t, he will offer to buy me a meal if I am. He’s a freshman and lives on campus, which means that he has a meal plan that permits him to buy food from the university. It acts as a pre-loaded debit card that’s included in the cost of his tuition, so if he doesn’t spend it all by the end of the year, he loses it. I “help” him spend it by free-loading; he doesn’t mind.

Right now he’s not hungry, but as I suspected, he offers to buy me something to eat. I am shameless when I am with him, so I don’t even pretend to consider his offer. “I’m craving some Fresco right now,” I say, and we join the line of students waiting for Mexican cuisine.

As we wait in line, he tells me a lot. “Yeah, I really like working at Mild Oats. I was kind of nervous I wouldn’t be able to work and do my homework, but it’s been fine so far. I just really need to cut back on hanging out with my friends so much. We keep having movie nights.” He smiles and lets out a hearty exhale that I would almost consider a laugh. As he speaks to me, he doesn’t make eye contact—rather, he looks around the cafeteria, eyes slowly sweeping the bustling food court without really registering what he’s viewing.

“I’m glad I was able to get you a job there.” I work at Mild Oats as well, and a few weeks ago we were desperate for dish washers, so I put in a good word for him. He and I tend to work different shifts because of our class schedules, but the days we have worked together have been good. It is funny to see my brother in our black and white bowling shirt uniforms, but I like sharing the workplace with him. I give him a lot of additional insight to help him do his job better, and the managers are going to start training him to cook soon. “I was a little concerned it’d be too much for you, too, but—at least for me—having a job makes me value my free time more, so that when I actually have time outside of work or class, I usually get down to business and prioritize myself better. That’s all you need to do, is be strategic about your priorities.” I tend to lecture him, but I do so because I enjoy sharing my experiences and because of all people, he is the most willing to listen to what I share. He nods after I say this and tells me I’m right.

Eventually I order my tacos, and I encourage him to get one as well since we waited in line so long. “Even if you’re not hungry now, you could get one and save it for later.” He listens to me and orders a taco himself. He pays, handing the female cashier his student ID.

We wait again, now that we’ve ordered. It’s a different kind of waiting, because it feels more hopeful. The wait is at least half-over. I am so hungry that I am starting to zone out as my brother talks to me. It’s not personal, but it’s the afternoon and all the events from this morning are replaying in my head at the same time I am anticipating all the events and tasks that are to come later today. My stomach yawns. I shift my weight from side to side, popping my hip out in either direction. I crack my neck. My stomach feels like it is pulling diagonally with hunger.

As we wait, my brother continues to tell me the details of his day-to-day activities as though he is writing in a journal. “Yeah, I keep running into this same kid all over campus,” he starts. He begins all topic changes with “yeah.” “We’re not really friends, but I met him once because he lives on my floor, and I keep seeing him all over the place. We have this joke where we’ll be like, ‘What the heck are you doing at this part of campus?’ I don’t know his name, either. Well, he told me once but I didn’t think we’d see each other again so I didn’t bother to try and remember it.” He smiles sheepishly and shrugs.

Finally we are given our tacos, and I lead us to a table on the far side of the food court, where it is a little quieter. I immediately open up my box and begin on my tacos. My brother decides he’ll eat his now as well, but he takes it slower, talking in the meantime. He shares a lot about how he is adjusting to college.

“Yeah, I kind of thought college would be a lot harder than it is. Like, I thought I’d miss our parents and the cats a lot, but I haven’t really thought about them that much.” He gingerly takes a bite.

“Oh my god—this is delicious,” I say. I finish my first taco quickly. “That’s good,” I say, a late comment to his statement. “You seem like you’re doing a lot better than I did when I was a freshman. I, like, didn’t make any friends my first year and I didn’t have a job, either, so you’re already way ahead of where I was at your stage.” I recognize that I am probably eating too fast but I don’t even try to slow down because I am greedy for the flavors, for my hunger to shrink and be replaced with wholeness.

Because my brother has a long torso, he has to bend down a lot closer to the table as he takes a bite of his messy taco, which drips some ground beef grease as he does. He chews and swallows before saying earnestly, “Well, it helps that I have an older sister here. Honestly I probably would have a lot more anxiety if I didn’t have you to help me with everything and tell me what to expect and all that.” He looks at me with his light blue eyes, which look just like mine, but his eyelashes are longer and more elegant.

“Yeah, that would have been super convenient for me, if I had an older sibling here.” I laugh, and I repeat the compliment he gave me over and over in my head so that I won’t forget it. “But I’m glad I can help you out. It helps that you’re just a kid good anyway, Timothy.”

I glance at him long enough to see him swell with warmth, smiling, before I return to my food. I’m the only one who calls him Timothy. All his friends now call him Tim, or T. Cole, or Jim, for some reason. I still call him Timothy. When we were kids, he insisted on being called Timothy, because our dad’s name is Tim, and he wanted to have a separate identity. As we got older, his position on the matter relaxed, and now he is open to any variant of his name or nickname, but I still call him Timothy. Other than our dad, I know no other Timothy’s, which I find fitting; his appearance may be unremarkable, but I have yet to find another presence like his. Timothy is such a gentle soul—naïve, and young, for sure, but he is very careful in everything that he does. You can tell how deliberate he is by his handwriting, the almost-shaky letters giving away that he spends too much time crafting each word.

I use the last of the salsa on a tortilla chip and look at the remaining chips. “Ugh, I could eat tortilla chips until I die,” I say.

“It’s a good thing you ran out of salsa,” he replies. That’s our dad coming out in him.

I laugh, and I tell him he’s funny and that I’m going to tweet about this exchange later. He smiles and shrugs, looking down at the table, and I can tell he’s happy for the compliment in his shy, modest way. When he is pleased, he is helpless in hiding his wide smile.

But he must leave for work now, and he is responsible so he always arrives early for his shifts. I tell him we’re still on for Thursday—I told him I’d take him shopping for clothes—and to be careful on his walk to work. He stands and pushes in his chair, lingering.

“Thanks for the food, by the way,” I say. “I usually eat two meals a day, one of which is always Eggo waffles, so it feels great to be full for a change.” He nods, saying I’m welcome. “Well, see ya later then, kid. Take care.” I stick out my tongue and raise my eyebrows.

He smiles and nods, saying, “Yup. See ya Thursday. Later!” He drops off his garbage at a nearby trash can, and walks off, disappearing into the throng of students that come and go in the Hub, average to the eye, but extraordinary to the heart.

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