“Oh, brother!” by Elena Alexander

BOMB 35 Spring 1991
035 Spring 1991

There I am, we are. Your cheek, your cold, cold cheek, the cheek of you to go and do such a thing. (You’re sitting there, legs straight in front of you, warm inside the blue snowsuit, white-blond curls tucked inside the hat, the earflaps pulled down, the strap under your soft chin, mittens covering your fingers, while I did all the work, dragging the sled into the flying, windy snow, stinging us both like arrows, like needles, but there we are, squinting into the camera, except that only I am squinting into it; you were looking up at me, loving me. What nerve, what proprietary gall, what instinct and possession, but I don’t think it bothered me.) I’m smiling.

 

Something I learned from you: if not the desperation of sentimental nostalgia, then, the determined sensing of the rhythm, the waltz with time, the dipping, swaying arch and requisite footwork necessary to keep touching those we’ve known, and whom we need to keep close to us, to continue loving.

 

It’s difficult to find a beginning when you’re talking about an end, hard to know whether to talk about you, about me, or us.

It’s the 15th of November, 1989, and I’m on a train from Dijon to Paris, on my way back to Amsterdam, then on to Los Angeles to watch you die. I’ve been Europe less than a week this time because, you were supposed to get better for a little while, but the tumor moved into your frontal lobe, and I’m trying to rush back while you still might know me. Outside the French bullet train the trees are in mist, then we go into a tunnel and when we come out the other side, we’re in bright sunshine, beautiful countryside with green hills interrupted by patches of brown, the hillsides studded with cows, sheep, horses, the commonly miraculous, and a clear, blue sky. I have only cigarettes for comfort, a book, and my pen and paper, but these last two don’t make me comfortable.

At the Gare du Nord there’s a woman dressed almost entirely in black, black belted coat, black hair, heavy black liner around her eyes. She’s singing her heart out, chanteuselike/heavy vibrato/Piaf descendant, holding her right hand to her mouth as an imaginary microphone. Black patterned stockings, black shoes, brown shoulder bag, blue lips. No one gives her any money, even though she’s shivering from the cold. All that bohemian, funereal black, and her cold, blue lips. Someone finally drops some change at her feet, and I finish my soup and give her all the rest of my French francs, out of gratitude.

On the way from Paris to Amsterdam a fuzzy, beige furrow runs through the grass covered earth, and the light is beginning to dim. The landscape grows close, intimate, with patches of light-blue sky through grey clouds and, intermittently, small ponds and irrigation systems. Across the aisle sit an Israeli couple, married cousins. That’s what the female of the couple tells the Moroccan man with whom they’re speaking in English. Another, older, Muslim man—judging by the cap he wore—got up and left just after the woman announced their nationality. Maybe it was coincidence, his leaving.

Later, when a man walks through pushing a cart with coffee and sandwiches, I order in French, terrible though my French is because I don’t wish to be spoken to, or brought into any conversation. Any or all of them might speak French, but I keep myself buried in my book, my writing, making it obvious that I don’t want to be part of their discussion, though it’s apparent that the title of my book is in English: Herman Broch’s The Unknown Quantity, I’m wishing I could read German well enough not to need a translation, still not wanting to talk in spite of my urgent search for distractions. Maybe they don’t want to speak to me anyway.

We arrive in Aulnoye, at one of those open-air, uniform, European train platforms, practical, clean places of coming-and-going, my mind spanning the distance between us, between where I sit and you lay. The train squeaks, moves along, and I think I hear the Israeli man say that he’s a painter, that they will be going to Los Angeles, and I wonder if he will end up on the same plane as I, he and his cousin-wife who’s chewing gum, snapping it, cracking it, making bubbles with it, stretching it out of her mouth with her fingers. I recognize the level of my intolerance, knowing it has nothing to do with her.

We’ve passed a small, white brick farmhouse, smoke floating, disappearing quickly as it rises from the chimney, but as we approach Mous, the houses have changed; they’re narrow, with two stories. The food wagon comes by again; he’s out of coffee, and we’re still four hours from Amsterdam. I order tea and eat my sandwich as something else to do. The light is bowing out more and more, bare branches sweeping the darkening horizon as white markers suddenly appear, rectangular shapes like those dotting a veteran’s cemetery, sentries beside the tracks. The train has become as cold as the Gare du Nord, and I realize I’ve left my gloves there. My hands are growing cold, but they won’t be cold in Los Angeles. Yours will. I can always buy another pair of gloves.

The sky turns woad blue, beneath it the earth becomes dark and I, quiet, quiet and tired, peaceful for the moment, looking, thinking, listening, reading, writing. The traveling’s worn through me, as though I’ve taken a tranquilizing drug, making it all timeless except the change from light to dark. We stop in Brussels for ten minutes. As we leave the station, bars of white fluorescent lights flash by. In three hours we’ll be in Amsterdam. We stop in Brussels Nord, people change trains for Oostende and there’s the moon, fat and low in the sky outside of Antwerp. Soon we’ll be in Roosendaal, Holland, where a Dutch friend was born, then Rotterdam where another currently lives, then the Hague where my favorite museum is, then Amsterdam where I will live for this one night before leaving for Los Angeles to watch you die. We’re approaching the border.

I can’t hurry anything, and I can’t slow it down. As we near Rotterdam, a cloud makes a smudge on the face of the moon; as we curve into Amsterdam an hour later, the train window creates multiple moons, quadruple moons lining up one behind the other, four smiling faces growing increasingly dimmer which, instantly, disappear. The young Moroccan man is long gone, but the Israeli couple ask, “Are we here?” and I say, “Yes.”

 

(This isn’t a photograph, it’s a memory, my memory, which now must work for two. That day I pulled you on the sled, we passed the synagogue on the corner and one of the men, black skullcap, dark circles under the eyes, stepped out like a crow in the snow, asking us to turn on the lights. I always imagined he was thinking, “Cute, those Irish when they’re children; the girl, she looks Italian,” we the assimilationists. I probably didn’t have that thought until years later. At the time, I didn’t understand why a grown man couldn’t turn on his own lights, but I was being polite, so I took your hand and we walked into the darkness together, and now I know that it means it must have been a Saturday, and I like being able to recall a day we spent together that specifically, angel face. We illuminated the entire place with one flick of the wrist, the switch. We did that, you and I. If you had been older, you would have wanted money for doing it, even on the Sabbath. You know you would. White-blond curls tucked inside the hat; squinting up at me. Angel face. Devil eyes.)

 

On the 16th of November, I am on a plane as it flies over the clouds, the clouds moving over the water, casting shadows on the ocean, ocean, air, and clouds interacting, always in the process of becoming one another, and I recall reading that we are made of the same matter as stars, so I’m trying to see everything as blending, melding, because I can’t bear my own thoughts. We’re heading for New York, then I’ll catch a plane to Los Angeles. I’m going to Los Angeles, you’re going to die.

 

One minute you are snorting coke and fucking our cousin, the next minute you are dead. Maybe not the next minute, but eight months can feel like a minute, when it isn’t feeling like forever. We’re all ghosts in the making, I dare anyone to deny it. Every plane, star, car, TV antenna, baseball hat, peal of escalating laughter, possible gamble, sweatshirt, teeshirt, tall, short, fat, thin, big or small breasted woman, photograph, stamp, lamp, drug—generic, specific, over or under the counter—large bed, video camera, molecule of air or water, reminds me of you. Excellent.

Who you were has become more important than what you might have been, or gone on being. “And that’s the way it is,” as our grandmother says, your grandmother, as far as I’m concerned, that negative, hump-backed, damaging woman who clings so fiercely to a life she denies wanting, whom you continued to visit on your trips here, with your perverse, undiscriminating attachment, love and hatred for Family and Friends, and once-upon-a-time strangers. No one stayed a stranger long, did they Jack, not if you didn’t want them to. Excellent.

You became a collector of the highest order, a collector of breathing souls, warm bodies, most but not all of them female, any object that caught your eye, like the ones you found on Home Shopping Network in the middle of the night when you couldn’t sleep, and no time zone was safe enough to call, not even for you, but there were exceptions right there, close to home, weren’t there. I’m sure of it. I know you. Knew you. There was a certain list, and they were women, most of them, a list to call, to call and say “I miss you,” and whoever she was, whichever one she was, would put down the phone, climb in her car, and ring your doorbell. You would turn off the TV, turn on the camera, the video camera, and it would start rolling, and so would the woman—or women—mostly women, but not all, moving, smiling, sucking, posing, moaning, snorting, shooting, smoking, anything to please you. I’m sure of it. I know you, know you still, know you forever. Time hasn’t stopped, it only seems to. Time for deliveries from Home Shopping Network, for example, that probably still goes on, but not the way you did it, not all those packages, parcels, boxes, mounds of them, and you would wonder, “Who wants this shit?” and send everything back, only you couldn’t be bothered, you would have someone else send it back, correcting the impulsive moment, the urge that had come over you as you lay naked in the dark, touching yourself with one hand, spinning the channels like a color wheel with the other, trying to find something to do, to buy, to fill up the hole, the uncontrolled, uncontrollable obsessions, and it was someone to call, wasn’t it, until you could figure out what flesh, what blood, you might consume instead. It provided a breather. What a gift, telephones and remote control. Remote. Control. We could put it on your tombstone. We won’t. There will be no tombstone, just a slab of granite, almost flush with the earth, to mark your eventual dust, your overwhelming, cataclysmic presence, your lust and devotion, the confusing abuse, and fevered abusing of others, the never-do-anything-for-yourself-that-you-can-have-someone-do-for-you credo, your unself-conscious grace and exquisite smile. Granite. They said it wouldn’t take as much care as bronze. You would have chosen bronze. You did, for our father who art wherever it is we go when we die, but I don’t know where that is. Maybe heaven is nothing more than kind thoughts about the dead, then there’s its opposite. That would make purgatory the place where no one thinks of us at all. I know you’d rather be at some extreme, even if it means being in hell, know you still, as long as I’m here, maybe forever, you tell me. Granite. I didn’t do it to be cruel. I needed something grey and cold, not hot and shiny like you. Excellent.

 

(There I am, we are, me being squeezed into the side of your body by your right arm, your chin, by the time we were adults, resting on top of my head, your eyes stoned behind tinted glasses, your other hand in your pocket. What nerve, what proprietary gall, what instinct and possession, but I don’t think it bothered us, not with all that love). We’re both smiling.

 

(There I am, we are, with my arm over yours, and my chin resting on top of your head. We squint into the sun, both of us, and I have my left thumb tucked into the top of your pants. What nerve, what proprietary gall, what instinct and possession, but I don’t think it bothered you, not with all that desire). I’ll never be sure.

Epilogue: As in a prayer. Apologies in advance, just in case I end my life as he ended his. Let me apologize for shitting on the floor, for thinking I had when I hadn’t, for wetting the bed and not knowing I’d done so. Let me apologize for looks that flit across my face, indecipherable to those who thought they knew me. Let me apologize for not remembering that you were here just an hour ago, for not remembering you at all, for having no idea what an hour means. Let me apologize for the color of my skin, this deathly grey/white/yellow/white that creeps up my fingers, apologize for farting at the moment you’re saying something you think is important to say to the dying. Apologies to myself as well for all of the above indignities and a thousand more. When the time comes, if it comes to me as it came to him, and forgiveness is no longer at stake.

Elena Alexander is a writer/director living in New York City.

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Originally published in

BOMB 35, Spring 1991

Featuring interviews with Kathy Bates, Philip Taaffe, Lynne Tillman, Kid Capri, Luisa Valenzuela, Meg Cranston, Melissa Kretschmer & Maya Lin, Zhang Yimou, Keith Reddin, Ira Silverberg & Amy Scholder, Jennie Livingston, and James Wines.

Read the issue
035 Spring 1991