My brother, who was, for very many years my best friend is now gone. One late January day when everything just got too much, he took a gun and locked himself in the bathroom with a few photographs, and after who knows how long, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, killing himself instantly.. He had with him a picture of our sister and brothers, and one photograph of he and I with our dog, Turkey, when all of us were young. A photo of a time when summer days stretched out before us and the light didn’t fade until almost bedtime, and in those endless summer days, we found happiness. We were young and full of energy and hope and, perhaps because our family situation left much to be desired for reasons too complicated and truthfully, banal and ordinary to list here, we felt that anything was possible. Ironically, since our home life was so unpredictable, so chaotic, we had a certain freedom. As they say, ‘When you’ve got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Richard and I had the sense that anything was possible. When your life is stranger than fiction, the world opens up before you. You become a bounder, I guess. You get used to the unpredictable and learn not to care so much, to just ‘be in the moment’ as they say now. Be ‘mindful’. This was years before yoga was the fashion and being ‘still’ was a way of being, but it came to us naturally. Chaos has a way of imposing a certain order – like a fractal, you draw closer, closer, before realizing that chaos is infinite. Living like this you have a choice: fight it and wind up tired, frustrated, beaten down, or be accepting and learn to adapt. So we were, as I said, bounders. We learned to adapt, and we lived in the moment, surrounded by chaos, we tried to find the calm in the eye of the storm. But what I mean to tell you is that, as disturbing and unnerving as chaos is, the not-knowing, the uncertainty, there is also something freeing about it. You learn to realize that things ‘just happen’, that sometimes there is no good reason, so this frees you of obligation; you can be and do anything, and if the previously thought unbelievable is possible (and if I wrote the book of our lives as we grew up no one would believe the story – stranger than fiction). But the truth is that in this freedom and chaos there is a thrill to be found. Just like spinning round and around on the beach with your arms outstretched like a helicopter, dizzying, the world is on full-tilt and you are disoriented. It was like that.
Every summer we made the six-hour car trip to Ocean City, Maryland with our parents. It was a place where children and adults are divided, even though they arrive together. The adults lounge on the shore, soaking up the sun and steamy, cheap paperbacks, and the children live in the warm water, riding huge swells to the shore, tirelessly. The ocean, the great divider. Parents sometimes lingered on the shoreline, keeping a watch on the younger ones, but the water never lapped more than their ankles. But us, we let the ocean swallow us, drive us, pull us under, and with our rafts and flat surfboards, we learned to make our peace with it. To let it take us; in this way, you could be safe. Fight, and surely you would be one of those unfortunate kids who drowned every year, swiftly taken by the strong rip-tides, the under-toe, or as a friend used to call it, the ‘under-toad’.
Our parents were happy to be free of us, and we of them. So that we surfed the waves on inflatable rafts until we had rashes on our abdomen from the crush of so much sand and water, and the sun-blonded our hair and freckled our faces and reddened our noses. That we were out of sight, I don’t think bothered our parents. Not to say that they didn’t care. They cared in as much as they didn’t want us to get into trouble or be hurt, swallowed up by the ‘under-toad’. But it seems to me that they often wrongly assumed that we were up to something, this was their primary reason for checking on us – and sometimes we were up to something, though not as often as they thought and certainly not with the things they thought.
Our’s were the crimes of youth; reasonably innocent, a few furtive cigarettes here and there, thrilling encounters with members of the opposite sex as we dreamed of summer romance, which really never happened for either of us, at least not there, but it was good to dream and to observe others, the older ones, as they made-out on the beach and put their hands in each other’s jean pockets as they walked the boardwalk. We studied them, with their soft, burnished skin, the girls in silky pink lipsticks; the mystery of sex that we had yet to discover, but we looked and longed and hoped that one day, we would find our own summer romances and they would be as smooth and cinematic as what we saw those nights on the busy boardwalk.
At night, our parents dressed up and would go out for dinner and they were happy to have us not tag along. Who wanted to go to a boring fancy restaurant anyway. They went off in search of ‘surf and turf’ and reasonably good wine, living their own romantic dreams (which later in life would prove disastrous and end in an acrimonious divorce in which we would all be divided.) But this was before then, when they seemed happy with each other anyway, picked on us instead. We were happy to see them go. Their seven o’clock dinner reservation couldn’t come fast enough. “Be good,” we were warned, and our father would hand us a few bucks that we would stretch the weeklong vacation. A crisp twenty for food and whatever. Then we took our own showers and dressed to strut, and Rich and I head out into the balmy, salty night. Walked the cool sand to the lights in the distance. We spent the evenings cruising the long boardwalk, a few bucks in our pocket, the lights of the roller-coaster and ferris wheel glittering in the distance like a kind of heaven that we knew we’d eventually get to. We took our time, we dilly-dallied. The lights of the shops lit up our faces, our skin was tight from the sunburn, and I smelled of Noxzema and Love’s Baby Soft and felt pretty enough, until I saw the older girls with their high-lighted hair and Great Lash mascara and tight jeans. I had to face it, I was a ginger-headed freckled geek in khaki shorts and a baseball shirt, still trying to get comfortable with my new breasts, feeling alternately awkward and proud. And Rich – well, he always looked cool. Even if he was only thirteen, he knew the game far better than I did and as I recall, had already gone to second-base with a girl or two when I was still wondering what people even did at second base. No matter; I felt that his mere presence, his cock-sure confidence, his strut, I was, by association, at least somewhat cool.
We took our time on those long, hot summer nights. We breathed in the intoxicating smells of taffy shops, fried dough, and the smell that stays with me most of all, that of the T-shirt shops and iron-on decals. It was in those T-shirt shops that we stood in awe, necks thrown back, looking up at the tall walls, miraculously full of decals. The choices were mind-boggling. You see, we had to consider every decal, because every year we were allowed one T-shirt with an iron-on decal of our choice. This was our gift from our parents and one on which we placed a high premium. So it was, for us, a meaningful purchase, and one that we took with a certain amount of seriousness. Not only did we have to choose the T-shirt (regular or baseball, one color or two, long or short-sleeved, crew neck of v-neck) but also the exact, right, perfect, decal. The decal that defined the summer; that glittered in its plasticy wonderfulness and was symbolic of that particular summer. It had to convey so much, and as a general rule, this is a lot to ask of a decal.
There were dozens of these high-walled shops. We stood, baring our necks in sacrifice, staring at the magnificence of it all. We discussed, debated, agreed, argued. Our necks began to ache. No matter… we went into every shop and I believe the warm, synthetic, chemical smell of the iron-on press and shimmer of the warm decal was a strange comfort to us. It was a smell we would always remember, and when we finally made our choice, we held the shirt close to our nose and breathed in the delicious aroma. We wore our hard-chosen t-shirts a lot. We wore them out of the shop where we bought them; we wore them on the remaining nights when we walked the boardwalk.
But I want to tell you that it was the getting there that mattered most. We took our time. We would choose at the last possible moment, because we wanted to be confident that we had considered all the options. We walked the boardwalk. We bummed cigarettes and drank root beer through crazy straws and we thought we were so cool, which we weren’t, but that’s cool.
On those overcast days when the beach didn’t beckon, we walked the boardwalk in the gray light of day, the soft air and sea-smell all around us. During the day, the fair at the end did not blare the heavy rock and roll that filled the night. The day sounds were different, mellower. The sounds of gulls, pinball machines, crashing waves, and rain as it hit the shingled; tin roofs of the grand hotels and darkened the bleached wood beneath our feet.
Barefoot, the boards smooth from so many feet, proud in our t-shirts, our ginger tan and sunburned noses, we walked for hours and I think we believed this was life and it would never end. The grand hotels had names like Sea Spray and Cove, their shutters sea-foam green, the balconies wire, elegant that echoed eras gone by. They were the salted palaces we never stayed in but wished we could. God, how we longed to. How we envied the children who had parents cooler than ours to stay at such grand places. “Our parents suck,” we agreed. They sucked because they never stayed on the boardwalk and we had to endure the humiliating hell of a ‘family’ motel further down the beach, away from the main action. It was awful, tragic.
But those gray days, aimless, letting the boardwalk take us, not wondering where or why, those were the best days and the ones I remember most. We sat proud, wearing our new t-shirts, letting our feet dangle over the edge of the boards as we stared at the fierce, gray ocean. Old men with metal detectors combed the beach, waving their dishlike apparatus back and forth across the sand. They all wore the same khaki-colored, crushable hat with grosgrain ribbon. The lucky among them found lost treasures, gold watches, a single hoop-earring. Sometimes, one of the giant sand-combs would go by – large yellow tractors with rakes on the front and back, trailing the beach, smoothing out the footprints and picking up the refuse of Coke cans and paper cups. These machines were all hypnotic – the way they moved back and forth, slow-combing motions, the sea churning behind them. They brought us peace. You could smell the rain on wet cement of the streets that led to the beach and french fries cooking in hot oil. I was awkward, fifteen, unsure of myself, my brother twelve or thirteen. I remember a day like the one I describe; Richard looked at my funny, freckled face and said, “You’re lookin’ real pretty, Sa…”
He didn’t belabor the point, and naturally, I was cool and said ‘thanks’ and fumbled with my cigarette, but I was grateful. So grateful for these small, economic words. Pretty. So concise. I held on to them for dear life. I was pretty. I still hold onto those few words he uttered. I think neither of us felt loved, at least, not in any way we could understand, so we loved each other. I didn’t find my little brother annoying like I think I was supposed to, and he didn’t find me hopelessly ‘girlie.’ We were best friends, supporting each other the year long, allies in an American Gothic that takes place in suburbia with every generation, behind the neat doors of colonial houses, the dirty little secrets of seemingly decent homes where people use Crest and the bathroom smells of Clairol’s Herbal Essence (the original kind). Richard and I were confidantes, points of reference, the calm in the storm.
Those days when time seemed never-ending and the boardwalk stretched before us, I thought that, for sure, one day we would find our glittering heaven. We would be free of the problems of our home. We used to talk about it; how we’d buy a house together and live there together. Things would be different then, we said, Things would be great.
But it didn’t work out that way. We grew up, had our hearts wowed and then broken, we never bought a house together because I went off to college and left him – the ultimate betrayal, though I had to go and I knew it. He became a stockbroker and sometimes drove to Boston in his black sports car. He would stay at the loft I lived in and we would talk about the old days, about the boardwalk. We had grown up, split by geography and perhaps fear, and perhaps too, for as much as we loved each other, we reminded each other of the hard times and so sometimes it was easy not to talk for a while. Pretend the past never happened – we were reminders to each other and we both knew it. .
I don’t know exactly what was going on in his head that cold January day. I know he loved a woman who told him she loved him too but who was married to another man. She had wanted to marry Rich, but Rich wouldn’t marry her, maybe out of fear that in doing so he would recreate our parents and the situation he had so longed to be free of. I know she said she loved him but ‘couldn’t be with’ him. That for as much as she did love him, she loved marriage and security more, so she chose it over him.
I know that it was January and cold and there was hard crusted snow on the ground, uneven and dirty sidewalks, slippery with ice. I had walked them that morning on my way to work. It was a gray and cold day on that January 26th, and it was also the birthday of our other brother – fact that Richard, I think, had forgotten and lost in the noise in his head. A week prior, Rich quit his high-paying job at the Twin Towers in New York. I was told, after the fact, of course, that he had told his co-workers and his friends that he would be ‘going away for a while.’ He said his good-byes. He did not telephone me, and I often wonder why, though I think the answer has something to do with my knowledge of him. That I think I would have been able to tell from his tone that something was terribly wrong. That I would have talked him out of the one thing we had solemnly promised each other we would never do. Never, we said, would it be okay for either of us to ‘check out,’ make the ‘final exit.’ Maybe he had forgotten this promise, or maybe he just didn’t care anymore because in a funny way, the only way for him to get better, the only way was Out.
The summer must have seemed so far away, the only smells on that day were of the cold air and of snow and car exhaust. Or maybe he knew summer would come around again but would never be the same. The lesson we learn as we grow up, that we can never go back to what was. That we only have what is now. As children, we had our parents to blame, like most children. As adults, we realize that in the final account, no matter what your childhood circumstance, your life is what you make it; that the buck stops with you and blaming your parents is a cop-out, immature, a way of not taking responsibility. Richard reached the end of his boardwalk and he had found no paradise. Those glittering lights at the end of the boardwalk were only illusion, that it was just another half-assed fair, over-rated, and better in concept than actuality. He felt tricked by life – promises broken hearts that sparked like the wheels of the roller coaster, stalled mid-ride, or flew off the tracks into the dark night, plummeting fast toward the earth, unsafe, out of control. Richard he had other memories; not of the boardwalk, not of summer, but of things that neither of us could explain. We both inhabited a world that made no sense. I choose to remember the good things, and I think he tried too, but the bad won out.
So that day, when I was at work and afterward, went to church to be an acolyte and read the evening vespers, when my mouth formed the words, “Now as we come to the setting of the sun…” from the Book of Anglican Prayer, as I stood on the altar in my black robes, reading to the few who had made it to church that day, my brother put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
I like to think that perhaps in death there is a kind of heaven. That heaven is different for everyone. That for Rich, he is there in Maryland or the equivalent, riding wave after wave to the shore in an endless summer. That he is wrapped protectively in the smells of the boardwalk, with an endless supply of T-shirts and root beer. I can see his freckled, tanned skin, and I tell him, “I hate you for leaving…” But God, I understand, Jesus, I do. But he is free, I hope, and I can see him with his tough-guy gait walking the boardwalk. Now, there is no curfew and an endless supply of dollar bills and ride tickets. That this time, the summer will never end, the sun never set, and that he be in perpetual twilight, the only sounds are the waves crashing the shore and the heavy rock and roll in the distance.