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Not Just Brothers, but Friends--at Last

September 27, 1993|JOHN M. GLIONNA

Sometimes, on these sweltering San Fernando Valley nights, as we sit in the back yard of our rented Sherman Oaks home, clinking a toast with our favorite amber beer in tall glasses, I wonder, "Who is this man sitting across from me in the darkness?"

The curve of his mouth, the directness in his eyes, the prominent nose--they're all characteristics I share. He's a mirror to my past, I decide. Me with a twist of lemon.

He's my younger brother, Frank.

These days, Frank and I are conducting a family experiment of sorts. He, fresh back from two years traveling abroad, and I, living alone while my wife studies in Mexico, decided to move in together to see the summer through.

It's the season my brother became my friend.

Mind you, it's been no easy feat. Because brothers are not necessarily friendship material. Stamped from the same mold, plagued or enriched by the same upbringing, they sometimes grow up to be strangers, breaking free of the family ties that bind.

Or, in our case, they are maddeningly alike, compared at family gatherings. Close, but in the kind of way where they can say as adults "I love you," but not necessarily "I know you."

It had been 15 years since Frank and I lived under the same roof as youths back in Upstate New York. He is five years my junior; we shared a room in a house with five wily sisters, providing us with a circle-the-wagons camaraderie.

But we had our differences, even then. Frank was the quiet one with an easy smile. I preferred to hog the spotlight. In a house with seven siblings, somebody had to do it.

All those years ago, Frank was already a Lakers fan. He loved everything to do with Los Angeles. Jerry West was like his god.

I preferred the New York Knicks. At night in bed, I used to read aloud to him from Knick forward Dave DeBusschere's "The Open Man." Every time I got to a section about Jerry West, I would ad-lib the wildest stories, naughty made-up tales about his Jerry.

How Frank would laugh. For us, it was a joke that never got old. When the Knicks and Lakers played for two successive NBA titles in the early 1970s, Frank would weep crocodile tears whenever his Lakers lost. I would tease and gloat when my side won. And go to bed at halftime when they fell behind.

Later, in high school, Frank broke out socially and established a vast network of friends who knew him as a cut-up kind of guy, a comedian, a character. By then, I was off to college, still harboring images of my brother as that shy little boy who laughed at all my jokes.

Those old misconceptions came to a boil a few years ago after we both landed in Southern California--he in L.A., I in San Diego. A tension seemed to develop whenever we got together, especially around family.

Once, in front of my parents and my wife, we tore each other's shirts in a senseless argument over a game of Scrabble. Later, in a hotel room in southern Italy, we wrestled angrily like two miscreants from a Mark Twain novel--huffing and puffing, harboring a look of pure hatred in our eyes.

See, Frank had a problem with his older brother, and I with him. As an adult, he had developed a sense of himself as an outgoing guy who naturally found the spotlight among friends.

Except, that is, when I was around.

Then, suddenly, it was me telling the jokes, me getting the laughs. When I wasn't there, he became me--the comedian onstage. He resented swallowing himself, taking a back seat for my sake, just because that was the way it had always been.

I hadn't changed much over the years. I was still the same hard-headed, strong-willed joker. His challenges angered me. Was it my fault my little brother was suffering emotional growing pains?

Fast forward to last April. Frank had just returned from Italy and I was glad to see him. When we moved into the Sherman Oaks house, it was two brothers--I, 36; he, 31--both silently feeling each other out as adults, scarred by our recent past, wary of the future.

Slowly, over the days and weeks and months, something happened between us. We spent almost every evening together--developing an easy routine of workouts at the gym, home to cook dinner and experiment with new pasta recipes. Later, over beers, we talked about ourselves.

We confided things on those nights sitting in the dark, the living room ceiling fan blowing the sauna-like Valley air from overhead. And I learned something: I liked my brother. I didn't have to, but I did. And he liked me.

I liked the way he reminded me of our father, the way we both got such a kick out of rubbing the furry belly of my eldest cat, Mr. Garbage--the way Dad used to bedevil our old dog, Sam.

Over the summer, we threw parties and tried out new bars. Mostly, though, we liked renting movies and just staying home. We were like a married couple in that way. Why go out wandering the singles bar scene when I could be home with Frank?

And we had something else in common: We were both waiting to be joined by the women in our lives--he by the girlfriend he had met in Italy; I by my wife.

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