I’m a huge believer in second chances. From Mike Tyson to Martha Stewart, everyone is redeemable, worthy of a second act. Unless, of course, you try dating one my sisters. In that case, you’re not even getting a first chance.
I have two younger sisters — Dana, three years younger and Allie, five years younger — and I’ve never much cared for any of the guys they dated. At all.
Not even as an adult. And it’s gotten in the way of rational thinking.
A couple years ago, a friend of mine was helping my youngest sister Allie, who was then just graduating from college, get a job at her company.
My friend, to tease me I guess, tells me that there was this guy at her office who was hitting on my sister when she came in for the interview. He was described as an “office Don Juan”, who’s ten years older than my sister and apparently quite the charmer.
For no other reason than to rile me up, my friend brings this guy to a party, introduces us, and before I know it, in front of an entire room of people, I find myself not so much shaking his hand but seizing it and maneuvering to get his middle three fingers in the meat of my grip so I can just, with one quick motion, I can just, just — WHOOMP — break his hand with a one “heyhowareya” pump.
But instead this besuited, over-accessorized, side-smiling Frenchman, carefully evades my clasp and says “Ah, you are Allie’s brother! So nice to meet you.”
My animosity towards these guys generally had nothing to do with how they treated my sisters. Nor was I doing the bidding of an overprotective father who dispatched me as his henchman while peering out from behind the drapes of an upstairs window.
It wasn’t even about how they made my sisters feel.
It was that, I always wanted a brother and when you don’t have something you start to idealize how amazing that thing would be. And if you didn’t fit this masculine ideal, I would make it known.
For context the 17 year old me from suburban NJ, was what could politely be called “a complete meatstick”. I wrestled, worked out constantly, and loved to speak at length about the actual versus perceived toughness of kids from other towns.
It was this version of myself as a junior in high school, fraught with wildly misdirected teenage aggression and a pack of enabling friends much like me, that began to meet the parade of would-be suitors that lined up to date my sisters.
One of the first contestants was this wheezy kid Alberto who drove a red Trans-Am that made a lot of noise but couldn’t go very fast; it was like perpetually stuck in second gear. When he came to the door for the first time to meet Dana, I greeted him after doing what must have been a thousand hand-clap push ups, shirtless, brandishing a knife in one hand and a glob of deli meat in the other as if this was standard protocol for greeting guests when you have a mezuzah on your door.
Then there was this other garbanzo bean my sister dated. He was some kind of brooding Joe Cool like his 15-year old head was just filled with all of the unsolvable mysteries of the universe until one memorable day, when the cops came to break up a house party he and my sister threw when my parents were out of town. Under casual police questioning — son can we have your name and age please — “I didn’t want to have a keg, [deep swallow] it’s Dana’s house, I shouldn’t even be here.”
I hear about this later and I’m ecstatic. Everything’s fair game now. It’s like someone just took a potshot at a full military vehicle. I strap on my varsity jacket, find Matt after school, throw him up against a locker and lockers are great for this because they make great, dramatic sound and shame him for giving up his own girlfriend at her own party in her own house and not to come back ever again and slamming the locker at each point for emphasis.
These reactions became reflexive after a while and as I got older, especially as the age gap widened with my younger sister and the guys she dated, that shirtless, ape-like bellicosity gave way to something more subtle; call it a benign contempt.
Like with my youngest sister’s boyfriend. Here was a dude who weighed less than she did, came from an elite private school, wore drape-y, knitted sweaters and had a gender-neutral name — Morgan, which I carefully remembered to forget, for two entire years. Hey Allie where’s your friend Megan?
And then I meet Mike.
It was with great, knuckle-cracking relish that I prepared to meet my middle sister’s college boyfriend. Couldn’t wait to hate. What kind of goomba did she find this time?
I meet this guy at dinner and look him up and down, like he’s the latest stranger in my saloon. Here he is dressed in a button-down shirt, sturdy pair of jeans, no visible labels with just a hint of primping.
I go right up to him and he looks me straight in the eye and says: “Hello, nice to meet you.”
He says he’s from Cleveland and that he became the man of the house after his dad suffered a traumatic bike accident.
I was furious, this piece of…I had absolutely nothing on this guy.
In fact I liked him. Immediately. And was overjoyed when they got married after a respectable courtship that lasted for several years.
So now there’s one sister left and Mike with his midwestern nice and unimpeachable integrity just set the bar really high and I’m the self-appointed knight to protect this standard from this despicable Frenchman, the office Cyrano whose hand I just tried to break like lobster.
Using all of cleverness, this older Frenchman starts dating my sister on the sly, who again, is fresh out of a Big Ten school. Within weeks, it gets so much worse. It leaks that my sister found a trace amount of drugs at Paul’s apartment (in mind “JUNKIE”); he was caught praying before he went to bed (“RELIGIOUS FREAK”); and he had attended not one but two graduate programs (“COMMUNIST INTELLECTUAL”). He also had this tremendous capacity to disengage, to sit at a dinner table and ignore everyone, lost in an iPad.
But then years go by and there are only so many times I can try and break this guy’s hand or feign forgetting his name before I go from noble protector of all that’s good to feeling like…a complete jerk who turns family time into some kind of never-ending trial.
And as more relationships go by, the more I appreciate just how hard they can be and that maintaining a relationship with my sister and an antagonistic family over years requires more than fleeting Continental charm.
Right after Paul and my sister get engaged, Paul has a minor surgery on his ear — what I read as aloofness was actually a pre-condition, a kind of partial deafness — and remarkably, within weeks, Paul becomes this new, social animal. It’s around this time that I meet Paul’s family and the tenderness with which Paul treats his father who’s dealing with Alzheimer’s.
It made me realize that my feelings about my sisters boyfriends are the ultimate expression of narcissism. I detest the things in them that, sure, may be crappy, but mostly those are the things that I may not have liked in myself.
And earlier this month, as many of you know I was in a bike accident and needed surgery on my hand. No doubt out of pure selflessness and unaware of the symbolism, Paul, who may not be younger but is a damn good older brother, brought me my favorite meal, from my favorite restaurant as I nursed my hand back to its original kung fu grip.
This story was originally told at The Moth in New York City on October 22, 2014. The Moth is an acclaimed not-for-proft dedicated to promoting the art of storytelling.