From age seven until seventeen, I was responsible for my brother Ryland and his friend Rico. Being three years older seemed plenty at the time: girls are more mature than boys.
Our mother traveled in sales. Dad came and went—mostly went until he was totally gone.
If people asked about Rico’s family, he said, “Nada.” Not that he knew Spanish. His real name was Richard. “Call me that and I’ll bust your lip.” He was five.
Rico wasn’t always around; it just felt like it. He probably spent holidays away. But I remember taking care of him if he had a fever. He slept in Ryland’s bunk-bed. If the fever continued, we took a bus to the doctor. I suppose my mother paid the bills. Never a problem buying food or medicine.
The older we grew, the more the boys made me laugh. Salt in the sugar bowl. A radio station called because they had picked my name for a contest. And if I answered three (trick) questions in three minutes, I won a bicycle.
Being an expert at Rico’s trick questions, I won hundreds of bicycles. When they didn’t materialize, Rico said, “Those bums,” and offered me a consolation kiss. He was ten.
When he was twelve, I caught him staring at my chest. “Love that green sweater on you, Casey. It matches your eyes.”
“Don’t try that line on a real girl, Rico. She’ll laugh in your face.”
Ryland swiped at him. “Stop sucking up to the babysitter.”
“No babies here, Ry. Unless it’s you. Casey likes me flirting with her.”
“Whatever, man. See you at the beach.”
Another year passed and they went to the beach to get high. “Wanna come, Casey? You like weed.”
Approximately then, my brother wanted to ditch Rico. Thought he’d outgrown him. “Don’t talk to me if you’re gonna drag her around,” he said.
No matter—I didn’t want people seeing me hanging out with them anyway.
Ryland and Rico were old enough to take care of themselves.
Eventually, I got a scholarship to Indiana and never looked back. I teach high-school biology in Bloomington. Five full years in June, so I’ve even got tenure.
Ryland moved to Colorado and worked at a resort long enough to become a skiing instructor. Off season, he’s a river rafting guide. Rico, too, I thought.
But last night Rico phoned from Illinois. He’s tried for years to find me but Ryland would steer him wrong. This time he conducted his own search.
He does construction work, every kind and everywhere. “So, Casey, can I see you? I’ll stay at a motel till we’re adjusted. You know, I’ve always loved you. Even as kids, it wasn’t like kids’ love. For me, it was always real.”
What do you say to that? Like I had a choice.