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My Brother, the Superhero

My Brother, the Superhero

Not all superheroes wear capes…some wear Jams.

Not all superheroes wear capes…some wear Jams.

I have an older brother. We’re very different. He’s a molecular biologist at Harvard. I’m, uh, not that. He has an adorable son. I have a dog who I’d rate a solid 6 and a cat with one tooth and a limp. Oh, and growing up, my brother was a superhero, so there’s that too.

I don’t mean superhero in the sweet “my brother is my inspiration” sort of way (sorrrry Seth!). I mean that he was an unremarkable person under one set of circumstances, and a mythical person under a different set.

I’ve written about my high school before—a very stereotypical and New England-y and preppy place that I loved deeply. And of course, I didn’t feel that way because I was so pleased to be getting a solid education (although it made college an absolute BREEZE). I felt that way because I was accepted into the group I wanted to be accepted into. I went to the parties with the terrible vodka and the terrible weed and the terrible frenching and spent hours afterwards at the all-night diner in New Haven that was the epicenter of weekend activity, eating big fat fries and drinking chocolate shakes while planning our next act of teenage idiocy.

The man, the myth, the shorts (!)

The man, the myth, the shorts (!)

Seth didn’t have that experience. According to him he only went to the diner once (I literally should have been paying rent I was there so much). I can’t remember him going to many parties, certainly not the ones I went to. He had a small group of friends who were like him—quiet, bookish, focused on staying under the radar. He was an athlete (an award-winning one, even) but not the kind whose social status was buoyed by his athleticism. His Jeep Wrangler was surrounded in the parking lot by boxy-chic Volvos and vintage BMWs and Land Rovers. It’s all stupid shit, truly, but high school hierarchies in the 90s were built on a towering heap of stupid shit.

But here’s the thing. In the summer, he and I went to camp. It was just a local YMCA-run operation that we had attended every year since we were small, but at camp, Seth was a fucking teenage GOD. As in, the only guy anyone was ever talking about in the changing rooms where we got ready for swim lessons. As in, girls accused me of lying to get attention when I told them we were related. As in, BDE 25 years before it was a thing. It’s hard to pinpoint why this popularity didn’t carry over to high school. I think it has to do with confidence and him not being as comfortable there as he was at camp. Because truly, he didn’t have to do much more than be himself to be adored there. In high school I think we both felt a little unsure of ourselves—we weren’t rich, we didn’t live in one of the “cool” towns, we didn’t have a good house for parties. But I played the game (and by that I mean contorted myself until I fit in) and Seth didn’t. Or honestly, it could just be that the sun was the source of his powers.

We were campers, then counselors-in-training, then I became a junior counselor and he graduated to the ranks of the truly untouchable: he became one of the lifeguards. They strutted across the pool decks, whistles cinched tightly around their necks, they commandeered the springiest diving board to work on their backflips, they never waited in line at the snack bar. I can see him so clearly, tearing through the parking lot in that Jeep which—doors and roof removed, ‘90s hip-hop cranked way up—also became a cooler version of itself in the summer. To be a lifeguard was to be gilded (almost literally—my brother was bronze by August, blonde hair bleached and perfectly tousled thanks to all that chlorine). He was beautiful, with an effortless confidence that comes from knowing you are popular at the time in your life when popularity is your greatest currency.

Of course, a superhero needs a costume. During the school year Seth was all medium wash jeans that our mom bought for him and slightly too long flannels, Reebok Pumps and the wrong kind of backpack because it wasn’t from LL Bean. But summer Seth wore Jams shorts, and only Jams. With their florid designs and baggy fit that encouraged just enough slippage to show a provocative hint of untanned skin at the waist, they were flamboyant and funny and the type of clothing that can only be made cool by the wearer himself. And that was my brother. His go-to pair hit just below the knee and were inexplicably covered in a street map of some unknown Italian city (my guess is Milan?), the buildings rendered in an eye-popping shade of orange.

Before social media came along and encouraged us to document our lives into oblivion, there was a certain amount of reinvention allowed in childhood and adolescence. You could move from one town to another and shed your previous self. You could emerge from baby fat or braces or a bad haircut and rewrite your narrative. You could be a nerd one day and a babe the next just because some other babe decided you were. But Seth wasn’t doing that. He was slipping from one persona into another depending on the season. He was leading a double life: the bleached and chiseled BMOC in statement shorts and the mild-mannered Poindexter in glasses. I texted him about it recently—did he feel that duality at the time, or was I maybe misremembering? “Definitely” came the immediate reply. But he went on to say that he didn’t feel fucked up by it, if anything it showed him that there was—and is—life after high school (thank god). He still has those Jams, and after much pestering agreed to mail them to me so I could get inspired as I wrote this. Despite being deeply worn and faded by all that time in the sun, they are still pretty bonkers. But then again, aren’t most superhero costumes?

Illustration by Marisa Balmori

 

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