The most embarrassing thing I ever did was the speech I gave at my little brother’s bar mitzvah. I don’t think he remembers it. His friends kept waving him back into the game room. My grandmothers didn’t hear it because they’re both too vain to wear their hearing aids. My dad was off dealing with some situation, which is what he always does, and my mother was entertaining people from her office.
I wish she’d been listening, though.
My sister is the only one who really remembers, and she brings it up when she’s feeling bad about herself and wants to make me feel bad too.
All of us kids had been drinking the half-full champagne glasses the adults put down, but I was drinking more than anyone because my physics test come back with a D on Friday, and the day before, my boyfriend sent me a text message to say he couldn’t come to the bar mitzvah. I was sure this was the beginning of him breaking up with me, and I was right. So I was in a mood of devastation, and of course no one in my family noticed.
I was sucking up whatever was in the glasses in the hors d’oeuvres room and then I started going from table to table in the main room when people got up to dance. Technically I don’t suppose most of those glasses were abandoned, but there was more where that came from.
Between the meal and dessert, the deejay made my brother and his friends come out for the Electric Slide and the Macarena. Then he started the Big Production, the relatives with toasts and the seven minute power point presentation of my brother’s life from his first toddler steps (I got all misty eyed he was so cute in his footie pj.s) to his tae kwan do trophy and his soccer team. There was our family skiing and me about a foot and a half taller than my brother or my sister either, even though she’s the oldest, and I hate those pictures where I look like some kind of great blue heron with bad posture.
When the power point was over, my sister made the deejay put the spotlight on just the three of us siblings, and she made her mature college student speech, and then she hugged him against her side like an apprentice grandmother. And then she handed me the microphone.
I was pretty much wasted by this time, and the spotlight was blinding me. I whispered into the microphone, “Hi,” and everyone in the room clapped. That made me feel a little better, especially since I couldn’t see them.
So I started the speech. I didn’t have anything planned, it just came out. I said how kind my little brother had always been, and it’s very unusual for a child to be so kind. Even though I could hear people laughing and talking all the way in the back, I pretended everyone was listening, especially my mother.
“He and I have always been together,” I said. “I know I look a lot bigger, but I’m only a year and a half older and I honestly can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around.” I don’t recall all my words, but I know I felt like that dark room wanted to hear me, and I started talking about things he and I did, just the two of us. Even when she was in elementary school, my sister had a lot of meetings and dance classes. I said, “We used to do tricks on the babysitters. It was my fault, he was really too kind to do the things we did.” I told about the time we convinced the sitter from the Philippines that there had been a nuclear explosion in Manila. “She cried,” I told them, and then, tears popped into my eyes too, stinging like champagne bubbles. “We were just little kids,” I said, “but we shouldn’t have been so mean. I mean, I shouldn’t have been so mean. I never deserved such a good brother.”
He was trying to get back to his friends, and my sister grabbed at the mike, but I pulled it close to my chest. I told how we used to watch horror movies, and one night we got into the liquor cabinet.
My sister hissed, “Shut up you’re drunk!”
“I drank Tia Maria,” I said, “and I got totally sick.” I felt like it was important to tell them, especially my mother, how my brother patted my head while I threw up. How that was one of the nicest moments of my life, the ceiling circling and my brother patting my head. But before I could explain why this was a good memory, the deejay cut off the power.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Let’s have a round of applause for the sisters!”
“I’m not finished,” I said, but this time the whisper stayed near my mouth. My brother ran off to be with his friends. My sister turned her back on me for the rest of the party.
Once I was out of the spotlight, I could see that my dad wasn’t in the room at all, and my mother wasn’t listening, and my grandmothers were toddling off to the powder room. It was like I was invisible. I could walk around the room and take drinks off trays and pour wine out of bottles and no one even noticed.
If I got sick this time, I was going to be on my own.
Meredith Sue Willis’s books include novels for adults and children and books about writing. Her settings range from Appalachia to urban neighborhoods in the Northeast. The New York Times Book Review called her first collection of stories “a[n]…important lesson on the nature and function of literature itself.”