Oliver is red as he sprints to the finish line at his cross country meet. I recognize this red. It was what I felt back in fifth grade when I played soccer. One year they took our team picture after a game and my face was as red as our uniform. At home that evening I took out a red magic marker and colored in the faces of the other girls on my team. I would not be the reddest.
Oliver is the reddest and it doesn’t bother him. He looks up at me and I notice once again that it won’t be much longer that he has to tilt his head to meet my eye. “I came in second on the Hill B team.” He is grinning so widely that his third dimple is showing. “I mean, there are only two kids on the B team but second sounds so much better than last.”
He holds my hand as we walk towards the car. He is pleased with his time. He thinks by the end of the season he will be able to shave 19% off of it. “Then I will be slow, but not so so slow.” He tells me, mouth moving as quickly as his feet were minutes before at the finish line. “We had to pass through the creek three times. The first time I went slowly. I was worried there were going to be slippery rocks but instead it was sand. So the other three times I jumped in full force. It was my favorite part of the course.” He finds his poem funny and repeats it as we cross the street to our car.
At home our second (not last, but, you know, actually last) child is planning for his birthday party. He has chosen not to come to the cross country meet to cheer on his brother. I wonder about this. He used to come to all of the games. Even if he was digging worms out of the dirt rather than watching the field he was there. This was the time when it was just the two of them. It is changing. Leo has friends at the house more often than not. Where once he and Oliver sat together in a single chair it is now another 11 year old draped over the wide arm.
Leo’s is a low impact party that doesn’t require much planning. We will be celebrating at Jumpoline or Tramplace or whatever it is called. As a weird anathema who doesn’t like cake we will have rice crispies treats. As excited as he is with the party he is disappointed in his new age. This week he will be eleven. He claims that 11 offers no real milestones. He is already double digits. Twelve allows him shotgun in the car. Eleven is just…11. When I tell him it is the number of players on the football field he looks at me with disdain. It was weak. We both know it.
In between reading Steve and I corny jokes (“I have 21 of these and I am not afraid to use them.” Oliver declares with a mixture of threat and humor) Oliver tells me he will be willing to skip Leo’s party. I wonder about the word willing. It is not the same as a cross country meet. It is a birthday party. I would never have expected this. ‘Is there a reason you don’t want to go?” I ask. “Oh I WANT to go”, he insists,” I just want it to be as fun as possible for Leo, and he might not want me there.” My heart breaks a little. A few minutes later I ask Leo what he thinks of my conversation with Oliver. Listening, his almond eyes widen. “What?” “OF COURSE I want him to come.” It seems impossible that there was any doubt.
Piled in the car on the way to the party the five kids are chattering. They are talking about sports cars. Lamborghini Centenario, Le Farrari le ferrari. They are saying words in other languages I don’t know. They love the cars. From the back a lilting voice pipes in. “I love Suburus.” Says the one girl in the car. “I love her” I say to Steve. The boys say nothing at all. After sports cars they take on soccer. Elite teams, relative skill of players in their class. Oliver is quiet. He doesn’t play soccer. His brother has his back though. “Oliver came in second in his cross country meet.” The lone girl congratulates him. He looks at her. “There are only two kids on the team. So really I came in last.” “But” he repeats the truth he spoke earlier this weekend. “Second sounds better than last.” There is a moment of silence and then all the voices murmur their consent. They don’t agree on cars or relative soccer rankings, but second is a lot better than last.
Arriving at Tramplace Steve and I notice all of the things that are out of order. Some of them relieve us (make your own cotton candy) but some are a bit disappointing. The bumper cars and 3D rides are both “down for maintenance.” I wonder if this is the same euphemism they use for pools when they need to drain floating turds. It doesn’t seem impossible. Where I hear ruckus and see disrepair the kids see only thrills. They are jumping and diving and dodging balls. They are sticking together. Two “big kids” (clearly not 11) begin cheating and dodge ball and swearing at them. The group comes together. Where they might have criticized each other instead they are staunch defenders against a common enemy.
That evening Leo opens his presents. They are more touching and personal than ever before. There are meaningful notes and framed photos and matching soccer jerseys to ones he has complimented in the past. After years of saving every stick, rock and package he has finally gotten to the point where he has something to really treasure. Amongst the gifts there is a card about the number 11. It has facts about what makes the number special. We have a collective eye roll as the card too cites the number of football players on the field. Eleven may not be the very best number. There is one fact that excites my boys though. Eleven, it turns out, is the smallest double digit that is prime. “Nerds unite!” Oliver celebrates. I see Leo thinking. It is pretty cool to be a prime number. This is the fact he will hold close to him in his eleventh year. He is a prime, if not in his prime. He is surrounded by friends and supported by his brother. Just last night they sat together at the computer working on 9th grade math. Oliver was teaching Leo formulas and telling him he could do it. It was a real life example of nerds uniting. If I blurred my eyes I could almost imagine the locks of their hair falling together like when they were little.
Perhaps this is the story of 11. You are a little apart. You are tuned into your friends as much as your family. You stand as someone who is no longer second to your brother. You might not cheer him on but you still defend him, even in front of your friends. You two are not the brothers you once were. You used to spend life with limbs entangled, sharing a blanket, each of you wearing one of a pair of shoes.
It may be different, but different can be better. You are two boys, you are one set of brothers, you are 23 years of life between you. You are ready to be alone and together. First and last and first and second.