Billy Joe has always lived in his sister's shadow. Now she's graduating with a law degree
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They drove the three hours to the graduation ceremony with the usual family dynamics. His parents were in the front seat chittering away about their beloved, perfect daughter and her latest accomplishment. She's been the first baseman on her softball team in middle school. He'd gotten kicked off the team for punching the center fielder who tried to catch the ball he'd called when playing left field. She was second chair flute in the high school marching band, only because the band leader's daughter was first chair. He was a bench warmer on the football team she marched for.
He wasn't bad at sports, but had the bad luck of being in high school during a time of exceptional athletes. Four of his teammates managed to get at least partial college scholarships and one even went on to play professional ball, leaving school and his full-ride scholarship before graduating. And don't even get him started on the baseball team during his high school years. His sister's room was always neater. Her clothes were always cleaner. Her grades were always better. He loved his sister, but he also hated her sometimes. She wasn't perfect, but in their family, she didn't have to be. She just had to be better than him and the way she made that appear so effortless was what really grated him.
So, Billy Joe rode in silence, watching the corn fields go by, feeling the pit in his stomach grow a little deeper with each passing mile.
"Billy Joe, make sure you take pictures, too, okay?" His mom was all about pictures for all his sister's events. They had hundreds of pictures of her in the marching band at his ball games. They only have one of the back of his head while he was standing on the sidelines, having just returned from the locker room as half-time was drawing to a close and that's because she happened to be nearby when the picture was taken and his head was lucky enough to be captured.
"Yes, ma'am," he responded to her question.
"Is your phone charged? We can charge it up here if you need to. Is it charged?"
"Yeah, it's charged," he growled.
"What's that, young man?" his father barked.
"Yes, ma'am. My phone is charged."
"You didn't even look," his mother accused.
"I charged it this morning before we left. It's charged."
"Could you please look?"
Billy Joe pulled out his phone, careful not to take in that deep, annoyed breath too loudly, lest his father should hear.
"See? Ninety-four percent."
"Thank you, sweetie."
Billy Joe pocketed his phone and continued watching fields and pastures slip by with each passing mile, dreading the day, but equally wanting to get it over with. He was proud of his sister, but why did she have to be so perfect?
"Your sister is coming up soon. Get your phone out! Why isn't your phone out?"
His mom had a nearly dismayed look on her face. The greatest event in their family's history was about to occur and he didn't have his phone out to capture it. His mother had been filming the entire graduation ceremony, but his father had agreed with him that only one of them needed to do that. He'd then left them to get a better and closer vantage point for optimal photographic opportunities, proud papa, excited to watch his daughter cross the stage.
Billy Joe pulls out his phone as the names roll on.
"Aaron Jackson." Applause.
"Amy Johnson." Applause.
"Billie Jo Johnson." Applause.
And his mom goes wild, shaking her camera as she screams with excitement. No steady-cam feature could overcome her excitement.
Billy Joe took pictures dutifully. But his heart hurt to hear his own name called from the stage and someone else receiving a diploma in his stead. Why did his parents insist on naming them the same thing? His mom had simply told him that they thought it was cute. He disagreed.
Billy Joe saw his sister wave from the stage. She seemed to be waving in the direction of their father. She was the first to ever graduate college in their family--a first gen-er, as her school called people who were the first generation of their family to go to school.
"Look! Your sister, the lawyer!" His mom had tears wetting her cheeks. He didn't bother correcting her that his sister wouldn't actually be a lawyer until she passed her bar exam.
He could have been the first person in his family to ever graduate from college. He's started at the local community college and that certainly takes fewer years to graduate from than law school. But there was a lot of starting and stopping. He was currently in one of the stoppings. He figured he'd graduate one of these days, but he didn't know when. College, even community college, was hard and not the Animal House experience he'd expected it to be. His sister had informed him that those types of parties were at the 4-year schools. He never saw himself at one of those and was sad to realize that at this point in his life, he'd missed the opportunity to be one of the crazy, beloved characters in a frat movie.
"The afterparty," as his parents had called it, was a relatively nice affair. They were accompanied by one of his sister's college friends, SuLing. Her family had flown all the way from China for the event. Billy Joe's family had sprung for a good meal at Outback Steakhouse and no one had complained when he ordered both an appetizer and dessert, though he felt three sets of displeased eyes flit across him at the latter decision. This was a day to celebrate, but they "weren't made of money," as his father had so often reminded him. He'd also ordered two beers during the meal. While he was of age, he knew his father would have words with him about that later. They had alcoholism in their DNA, so it was best to abstain, so his parents always preached.
He didn't know any alcoholic relatives and he felt like he needed the comfort of the liquid gold during that meal as he tried to partially block his twin's going on about the next steps she was taking in her life. Why couldn't she be more like him? Why did she have to be so driven to be first and to succeed at everything she did. She was crushed when she discovered she was only graduating with highest honors, summa cum laude he believes it's called, and wasn't going to be valedictorian. Though she said she was glad she wasn't salutatorian. She said that would have been worse, knowing how close she was, but missing the mark.
Billy Joe didn't understand why second best wasn't better than everything but first. He didn't ask. He just nodded as she went on about how silver medalists in the Olympics had a harder time dealing with the results of the competition than the gold or even bronze medalists because they spend the rest of their life rehashing how they messed up and missed gold. Apparently, bronze medalists tend to just be happy they got any medal at all. That would be him, even if he got silver. He was sure he'd be proud of that. He didn't understand his own sister, his own twin, his other half. He wondered if it bothered her that SuLing was valedictorian.
The person he felt closest to wasn't his twin sister, but his best friend, Cleat Black. They'd met in fifth grade when Billy Joe had been held back "for academics and behavioral problems." He'd been failing most of his classes and getting into a lot of fights. But Cleat had a calming influence on him. While his parents felt that Cleat held Billy Joe back academically, there was no arguing that his behavior straightened up when he met the wiry youth. And in Billy Joe's opinion, Cleat also helped his grades because once he found his best friend, he didn't want to ever be separated from him again. If it meant doing homework from time to time to ensure he got all C's, so be it.
Billy Joe was never an A student, no matter what his parents thought. And he never understood why they thought he "just needed to apply himself." If going from D's and F's to C's didn't show he was applying himself, he didn't know what did. He even once stayed up late while in the community college to do a paper he'd forgotten was due. It turned out to be pointless because he'd gotten a 59 on it. That was a waste of an hour and a half. But still, staying up late to do a paper was college life, even at a community college, and they should respect that. His sister hadn't lived at home since she'd graduated high school, but he felt sure all her moaning about having to pull "all nighters" was mostly just code for attending keg parties.
"Billy Joe," his father called in a knife-like voice that cut off his daydreams. "Your mother asked you a question."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, mom. What'd you say?"
"I asked you why you didn't use the zoom on your phone to get closer pictures of your sister's graduation. I wanted more pictures of her and that giant smile when she was holding her diploma up."
"Sorry, mom. I didn't think about it."
His father broke in sharply, "You never think. Use your head. You're every bit as smart. Why can't you be more like your sister?"
And there it was...again. He was surprised it had taken this long into the day for the brick to be dropped on him again. He also wondered about their dissimilarities. Why couldn't she just be more like him?