Name: Grace Alvino
Year: Class of 2016
Hometown: Mullica Hill, New Jersey
Intended Program of Study: Writing Seminars
My Brother, the Stranger
My brother thinks I am thoroughly incapable of surviving in the real world. I know this because he tells me all the time.
“You’re going to have to know how to open a container in college,” he says, shooting me a dirty look as he pops the lid off of a particularly stubborn piece of Tupperware. “No one’s gonna be there to do it for you.”
“I know how to open a container,” I say, scowling. “I just don’t know how to open this container.”
He frowns. “Right.”
My brother is also able to remember every time I’ve asked him to fetch me a drink, ever. Not in the past six months, or the last few years-I’m talking ever, as in the entire fifteen years we’ve lived together. This is a particularly notable skill, since he can never remember his lacrosse equipment before he leaves for a tournament-“Mom, we’re coming back for my stick! I forgot it!”-but somehow has an endless catalogue of my drink requests inside his head. “I’m not getting you a Snapple,” he tells me, despite the fact that he is idling right next to the box full of delicious diet peach iced tea. “You think anyone in college is going to get you a Snapple?”
“No,” I say, reluctantly getting up. Well, maybe someone will. I’ve been thinking about inserting a Snapple IV into my veins; that would certainly solve the problem.
The strange thing about my relationship with my brother is that despite our constant back-and-forth over who has to do what, I really don’t know him. It’s not like we’re far apart in age, or that we don’t live together, or that there’s even any hostility between us. We’re just really…different. He sees me as excessively boisterous, loud, overflowing with ideas and thoughts I just have to blurt out, great in the liberal arts but utterly hopeless in anything practical; I failed miserably at helping him with his geometry homework, not that he really needed aid anyway. I envision him as the sports hero, a gifted lacrosse goalie who excels on the field and in the classroom, but never brags, never raises his voice, never shares or shows emotion. I love sharing. Sharing is my favorite. “Tell me about your day, Ernie!” I’ll exclaim as I’m driving him home from late practice. “How was school? Did your teachers do anything interesting? Say anything funny? Did you make any new friends? How do you think you played today at practice?”
“It was fine,” he’ll say, barely looking up from his phone. “And practice? I played alright, I guess.”
Sometimes I’ll persist in my battle for conversation. Usually I just turn the music up.
I was accepted Early Decision to Johns Hopkins, my dream school, a verdict my family toasted with champagne (er…sparkling cider?), but the bubbly wasn’t what left me light-headed come morning. I woke up with an odd realization on the forefront of my mind: my college search was over. I’d slaved over homework, stressed over tests, dragged myself out of bed for college visit after college visit even though I knew in my heart where I belonged, crossed my fingers and toes and anything else I could twist as I awaited that fateful Congratulations from Johns Hopkins! e-mail on December 15th, but now it was finished. All of it. Sure, now I had to worry about picking a dorm and finding a roommate and selecting courses, but the waiting-the awful purgatory of wondering what grade, what visit, what college choice would define my future-was over. Finished. Caput. Wave bye-bye to the endless stress, Grace, and hello to the university of your dreams waiting for you on the horizon. Right?
Well, as anyone who knows me will tell you, boredom and I don’t mix very well. I always have to be doing something; I’m an expert multi-tasker, painting my nails and reading two books while simultaneously catching up on the latest episode of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Down time makes me anxious. Luckily for my nerves, my acceptance into Hopkins managed to coincide perfectly with the start of my brother’s college search.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. My brother is a rising sophomore, and that may seem a little early to be looking at colleges. But in the world of sports recruiting, many high school students make verbal commitments their sophomore year, and since my brother is a superb goalie, a Division I sports career may well be on his horizon. While he’s forbidden from communicating with college coaches, my family figured that a little scoping-out of some campuses before offers start to materialize would probably be wise. And, of course, as a war-weathered veteran of the college search process, I was promptly enlisted to help.
At first, it didn’t seem like I’d be much of an asset. “What sort of school are you looking for?” I’d say, thumbing through the guidebooks. “Big? Medium? Small?”
“I’unno,” my brother would reply. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Well, do you want to live in a city? Near a city? Hundreds of miles away from a city?”
“I don’t care.”
I’d have to press a hand to my mouth to keep from screaming. I’d known everything I wanted in a college pretty much from day one: medium-sized, somewhat urban environment, top-notch writing program, stellar international reputation. How could the Alvino family gene pool have bred me, a type A nut, and Ernie, the “I’unno” kid? “Well, do you at least know what you want to major in?”
This usually warranted an eye roll. “Grace, I’m not even a sophomore yet. How the heck am I supposed to know?”
Right. Of course.
My parents both work full-time, so a typical summer day has only me and Ernie in the house, plus our two hyperactive puppies. “Take him out to eat!” my mom encouraged me at the start of my summer vacation, dark eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Take him to the movies! Take him shopping!”
“You want to go shopping, Ernie?” I asked one day in the middle of a nasty heat wave.
He blinked, startled. “You’re kidding, right?”
Okay, so no shopping. Instead, we just spend our mornings out by the pool, and then gradually segue inside to watch a couple episodes of Game of Thrones. He was reluctant at first-“It sounds stupid”-but gradually our viewings segued from stony silence to a discussion of Lannister politics and the plausibility of the mighty Khal practically dead from some puny shoulder wound. We’ll talk about music sometimes-we both love Nirvana-or we’ll just sit quietly, he playing the guitar and me writing, the TV muted and the dogs asleep. I keep the temperature icy since I can’t stand the heat, and even though it’s summer we huddle up in blankets, and even though I’m always wearing one of my brother’s lax tournament t-shirts he rarely complains about it. One day, he scrolls by me on the Hopkins website, brow furrowed as I sift through pages and pages of course offerings.
“What’re you looking at?” he asks, sitting down next to me.
I sigh. “Just trying to pick my classes, I guess. It’s hard. There’s literally, like, two hundred pages.”
He laughs. “Yeah, but I bet most of them are science stuff, right? Hopkins probably won’t let you get near any of that.”
“Yeah, and they shouldn’t,” I agree, smiling. We sit in silence for a minute, and then he speaks up.
“It’s hard for me, too, you know? The whole college thing.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
“I’unno. There’s a lot of pressure, I guess. I mean, I’m not even a sophomore yet, and already everyone wants me to know what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life. And what if I fall in love with a school and then it ends up I can’t play lacrosse there? Or I get an offer I can’t resist from a school without my major? I just…I don’t know. It sucks, I guess.”
I stare at my brother. He is tall, taller than I am, and usually I think we don’t look alike, but there’s a bit of similarity around the eyes, maybe, if you’re looking for it. He’s cut his hair short recently, and he looks older, far from the chubby-cheeked baby I used to scream at when we were kids. I’ve always envied him for his athletic talent, for his expert wit and his skill at making friends, and for his silence, too, for how he didn’t need to fill up the air with useless words. I always thought he had it easier. But now that he’s spoken, I see that I was wrong. Just because he doesn’t talk about his troubles, just because he doesn’t blurt them out for everyone to hear, doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer. He struggles under the same pressure that I’d felt for the past four years, the oppressive weight of the college search, the need to do better, to improve, to impress everyone and fulfill their expectations, and most of all, to never let anyone down. And I start to think that just because he’s practical and I’m flaky, just because he’s athletic and I’m clumsy, just because I love English and he lives for Biology, doesn’t mean we’re not similar. It doesn’t mean we don’t face the same battles. It just means that the both of us fight hard to keep going.
“You know, Hopkins sounds cool,” my brother says suddenly, snapping me out of my thoughts. “I mean, the lax team rocks, of course, but I don’t know. Their sciences are killer. I’d definitely like to look there, I think.”
I try to fight my smile, but you can’t suppress beaming like that; my efforts fail to make me look anything less than a proud mother hen. “Yeah? Really?”
“Yup,” he says, and I can tell he’s trying hard to sound casual. “Maybe you could show me around sometime? Give me the grand tour when you move in?”
“Sure,” I say, laughing. “I’d love that.”
Recently, I checked the Hopkins Class of 2016 Facebook page and found a post detailing everyone’s plans for the summer. My future classmates are traveling to France and Utah, to Toronto and Germany, to Cape Cod and Tokyo. They’re working at summer camps and doing internships and taking college courses and teaching sailing. They’re spending their breaks in exotic locales and writing novels and playing blues guitar. That’s cool, I guess, but I can’t budget a trip to Europe, and besides, I think my summer plans are much cooler. Hopkins Class of 2016, have fun jetsetting and wakeboarding and skiing. I’ll be busy getting to know my brother.