In a Duel Between Hops and Cactii, Who Wins?

I was a good kid who was, shall we say, mercurial. That is, I had a streak of the devil in me, despite being a pretty sensitive and moral kid. Okay, to be frank, there were a number of years where I was nothing but irresponsible, but we're not going into that now. I took care of my half-brother often growing up. He's eight years younger than me so we weren't quite siblings; we were more like two only children sharing the same parents for a while. Never in the same stage, he was always waving far in the back of my life: he was in kindergarten, I was languishing in middle school. He was in elementary school, I was acting out in high school. By the time I graduated and moved on to Seattle, he was just turning into a junior high school jerk himself.

Since I was so much older than him I often babysat when my father and stepmother were working or going to grad school.

This was not a job I took very seriously.

I loved my brother, but I was completely self-centered. Maybe it was that I was sort of a truncated single child; I was so used to being the only kid in the family that by the time my brother showed up there was no reforming me. I behaved as though he was this big chore, even though he was (and still is) the nicest kid around.

So I guess I was kind of a bitch.

Anyway. One day when I was about 15 or 16 (making him seven or eight) I was taking care of him, and as was my wont, I did only the most rudimentary job. I fed him Kraft macaroni for dinner (a lot of our dinners were orange, I fear), and probably stuck him in front of the television. At the same time, the streak of el Diablo was showing and I hit the hooch because I think I was trying to impress a new friend with my utter disregard for intelligence and/or reason. Truthfully, I don't know why I hit the liquor cabinet when I was babysitting, but I know that I did, and I can only imagine that someone was with me, because why on earth would a 15-year-old geek drink alone? (Don't answer that.)

My brother, who was clearly more responsible than me, took himself to bed.

I got drunk.

Whoever was with me went home.

It was early evening, my charge already asleep, and I was stumbling around like an idiot with nothing to prove but what a jackass I was. Summer was creeping to full flower and the nights were gloriously warm, and I was by myself on my patio talking to the cats, drunk as a lord.

The patio was a special place over my teenage life. Flagstone and mortar, surrounded by plants and cacti, with a cedar fence that opened onto the street, private but not exclusive. The cedar picnic table was the locus of many a milestone: mohawks shaved, cigarettes smoked, boyfriends kissed. And it was here, on this mild summer night, that I was to complete my indoctrination into Yahoo of the Year award.

Because it was here, after the sun had dipped behind the Flatirons, that I tried to fall into the house to go to bed myself, and fell into the four-foot cactus next to the door instead.

In the arid climate of Colorado, we kept enormous cacti for pets.

And when I fell, I sat on the thing. The cactus was fine, but I now had an ass full of pricks. If you know what I mean.

Of course, you can't pluck prickers out of your own hiney, so there was only one thing I could do. I woke up my sweetly dozing brother.

That poor kid. Laying on the sofa in my underwear with my impressionable kid brother plucking spines from my ass with a pair of ancient tweezers that were around when I was eight. If he weren't scarred for life before, now surely was the moment in which all respect and adoration would be burned from his heart forever. And for my part, I would always be eating a little crow, knowing that my kid brother was the only thing that could save me from myself in a drunken haze with a cactus up my butt.

A friend of mine visited that night. I dimly remember having a conversation with someone, my butt in the air and my sleepy brother diligently and kindly removing each spine. If that doesn't equal a fistful of shame, I don't know what does.

My brother still talks to me. What's more, he actually likes me.

And I will always respect him. Not just for being a thoughtful, upstanding and moral man, not just for being kin, but for being diplomatic enough and gentle enough to never rub my face in my utter tomfoolery, though he had plenty of cannon fodder at his disposal.