Since the death of my brother I have had difficult dreams.
We went home for the holiday, and my mother made a cake for him; the chocolate peanut butter cake she’d made for him on his last birthday.
On that birthday, James has been uncharacteristically excited about the cake- isn’t it strange, what takes on significance when someone has passed?-when someone has been ‘gathered in,’ as my friend Sandy calls it-
James and my mom had gone together to get all the ingredients. He’d helped with every step of making it. The cake itself, its sweet filling, the decadently thick ganache with its muddy black gleam. Then they ate the cake with relish, that day late in July of last year. His last year. My brother, my parents, and the siblings that still live in Kansas, putting aside a large piece to take to our grandparents afterwards.
Now my mother will make the cake to remember him by. Once on his birthday, she says, and again for us all on Christmas.
At home over the holiday, we stand and eat the slices quietly in the kitchen, thinking of him.
Now his cake is in my dreams.
I saw it a few nights ago, inset vertically into a wall; I stood beside it and saw that it was filled with blood, and then I wept, my throat twisting tighter and tighter, as if it were a dry vine. It was a long time before I broke free, finally opened my eyes. A long time before I turned to see Andrew lying beside me, watching me quietly. He held me. There isn’t anything you can say, of course. And worse still no way to understand it, to make sense of it.
For a while I tried to. I tried to think of him at rest, of his being inside of everything. The wet grass on short lawns, the robins that he loved. I tried to think, ‘Now he knows everything’; ‘Now he is at peace.’ A sunlit absence.
But something in me has turned.
On Friday Christopher came over, wearing a light, silky white sweater with soft grey stripes. His favorite leather walking shoes with the elegant stitching along their seams; the tremendous care Christopher uses in choosing everything, then in living it through. We haven’t seen each other in weeks- he’s been working out of town for weeks at a stretch, so that he has plenty of padding when he opens his office later this year.
“And also,” he says, “because I’d like to travel first. And when I travel, I go for a long time.” We hug each other hard, and then we walk out. We will talk all night.
There’s a cool, heavy fog resting over everything, blurring the street lamps and gas lamps into pools of soft, hanging light that is strung in front of the quiet houses. My city sleeps.
We can feel the fog between our fingers. The chill against our necks is delicious. We stand on the porch debating where to go.
“I want wine,” I say; “there’s this place on King I was reading about, Bin 152; wine and cheese…”
“Did we talk about that?” he says, “I’ve been wanting to go there, too!” We decide to wander down along the Battery, exploring the fog, while slowly, deliciously making our way up towards the wine bar, which of course will be open until 2 am, so we have plenty of time.
But quickly, first, there’s a little tiny place he wants to stop in on. It’s tucked away in one of the tiny jewel box neighborhoods of downtown Charleston.
“I walked by it once,” he says. “I remember there were velvet curtains, it looked very decadent, and mysterious, like some place Anais Nin and Henry Miller would have gone.”
“Ah, we’ll go there!”
Driving, the headlights of other cars flare out from nothing and then are absorbed again, as if into a deep, ashy sea.
“I like this,” he says.
The bar is called Elliotborough Mini-Bar. It is tiny; barely larger than our kitchen, with a wood panelling on the walls, floor and ceiling that makes us feel as if we are inside a tiny ship; especially with the cold outside, fogging the glass. There’s a man with a guitar in the corner. The playlist: Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash.
We sit at the bar and each drink a glass of wine slowly, talking, oh, about everything. Love and hopes, art. People fan in and out, wearing long, elegant light winter coats; glazed looks of contentment. The beautiful fog.
Suddenly the bar closes, its eleven at night. We’re shooed out onto the brick sidewalks, our ears ringing with new silence, and the air has emptied over the city. Everything has a washed clarity, as if a hand had carefully tightened up the pencil lines. We park on the Battery and look out at the ocean where the fog still rolls in the distance over the Atlantic, blurring the seam between above and below, and we go wandering sneakily between all the grand old mansions which have stood there for centuries- slipping down narrow, cobbled alleys lit only from the moon, their walls spongy with moss and fern. There’s a strange sense of ownership that comes with walking at night. The way lions and jaguars must feel, as if they own everything that they see. We pass old gardens, flickering lights, and everywhere there is a rich, metallic silence thick in the air.
We speak in whispers.
“This alley,” Christopher says, “think who must have walked here, in the 1600s. These doors- we have doors like this in Peru; mahogany grows there. Feel it, isn’t it beautiful?” He touches the massive door respectfully and then stands back, looking up at the old iron hinges that extend along as far as our arms.
“To maintain something like this, here where it is so wet…”
“We had a piano growing up. The tuner came out every so often to check in on it. Maybe there’s a man whose life revolves around checking in on these doors, keeping them right.”
Where are all the people?
We follow the wet road as it curves back down towards the water, and find an ancient old house that is under construction. It looks like a dungeon from the front, like an old stable from the side, with archways and a curious little courtyard. The gate is open.
We slip in as if we are slipping out of time. The mud is churned, wet and soft beneath its thin dark crust, like ganache, like stirred time, and we circle quietly in the small courtyard, looking at the secrets that will be veiled very soon. There’s a port-a-john, too. Not a car goes by.
As we find our way back towards King Street, Christopher asks me about my dreams. We always tell one another our dreams-
In a sudden, desperate rush, I tell him about my nightmare. The blood and the cake.
“What do you think it meant?” he said.
We walked along quietly as I thought. Two men passed us, one of them wearing chef’s pants and a beard, talking about his diversion. Christopher remained intent. He doesn’t even seem to see the other two. They disappeared down the street, their voices with them.
“I think it must have meant that it’s been senseless of me to try to frost the situation, to try to make any sense out of it- his death was a horrific tragedy. And that’s all. He was in terrible pain. And then he died. That’s what happened, that’s all that happened. There’s no sugar-coating it. There’s no sense in it, either.”
“What shape was the cake? Was it a circle?”
“Actually- it wasn’t. Which is relevant because when she makes his cake, it’s always a circle. But in my dream it was a rectangle, like the cakes she made when we were kids.” I looked at him. “Because, you know, there were six of us. She had to make a lot of cake to feed all of us. I guess that must mean it was about my childhood.”
“And was it cut?”
“Undigested,” he said. “Maybe you are still processing things.” He asks me to name the dream- to make it a little less painful, I imagine, and after some reluctance, I do.
Now we had found Bin 152, which was on the low end of King. It was a simple space, quiet, with only two other threads of people in it. Drinking wine quietly, end of a night. We were hungry. We stood at the bar and ordered with the studied focus that comes with a sudden floor-drop in blood sugar.
Taleggio, prosciutto, red wine; I tell Christopher about the orgasmic Epoisses de Bourgogne Abby and I brought from Ted’s Butcher Block to Billy & Tony’s; “I’ll have to bring you some.”
“Yes, we need another wine and cheese night soon.”
We sit by the front window in curve-back chairs, waiting for our cheese board.
“I have these imagistic dreams,” I say, “Whereas yours are journeys.”
He smiles at me fondly, and I ask for his dreams.
He tells me. We sit and discuss, we talk about dreams that sometimes one has to live with for a while, as if they were paintings to be visited again and again, learning a new thing slowly each time.
We talk about love, about those who present unconditional love.
“For people like you and I, it drops them in our estimation, doesn’t it? Because we feel someone should have to be worthy to be loved. And yet, it’s so pure when someone can love that way. It's so beautiful.”
“Yes,” he says.
It’s 1:30, then its 2. Time to go home. Now people are in the streets, there are voices in the distance, turned out from other bars.
We hug goodbye.
“I love you so much,” I say to him; fiercely, strangely.
He laughs. “I love you,” he says.
Inside my Andrew is waiting for me. We sleep late into the morning. I finish making the croissants, and he adores them. I put them by a window to cool, and he keeps sneaking back towards them, sneaking off flaky tails. I give them to him for his breakfasts all week, with a fried egg and cheese inside. With black grapes, and blacker coffee…
We’re making plans for the small supperclub we’re running now in lieu of Boomchow, which he’s had to put to the side for now. (Too busy with his freighting business.) However, the buy-ins for this tiny supperclub (10 people, who all pay in cash, for gourmet meals 3x a week) will cover both our food bills and then some, allowing us to save a little money in joint for a down payment on our someday house. He knows how desperately I want more solitude. I love to see friends a few times every week, and certainly I love our dinner parties- even the occasional wild shit-show- but there’s a social tax that comes with living with others. The constant flow of people in and out of the house; to have to stop what you’re doing all the time, unless you happen to be hiding when they come in...
(It’s expensive to just get along in Charleston, much less to set aside enough for a down payment on one’s own place. We’re paying as much for our little room here as we did for the three bedroom adobe we had back in Tucson, the one with a huge yard and our own pomegranate tree.)
The day escapes. We cook late: six huge chicken pot pies for our subscribers. I alternate putting in the billing and bookkeeping for my dad’s office with chopping & stirring, sliding in pies, trimming, covering and uncovering crusts. They are all of them beauties.
Next day in the early morning I go out with Sandy to Magnolia Cemetery. As is our wont, he shoots pictures while I look at trees, birds, mausoleums.
Wearing his duck boots, and a thick khaki jacket, Sandy tells me stories in his elegant gravelly voice between taking photographs; stories about the French and English Charleston aristocracy; how he and Donna met back in the late 60s. Stories about architecture, about the construction of the mausoleums. Memories of photographs he snapped here decades ago, capturing the statues and wrought iron gates that no longer exist.
We had a lovely time, we always do. But when we said goodbye, he asked me if I was feeling all right. We were sitting in his car in front of my house. There was an open mug of coffee between us in the shape of a camera’s lens cap: a Christmas gift from his daughter.
Stray kittens went skittering back and forth across the road. Startled, I apologized, explaining that I’d slept badly, that I’d been thinking about my brother.
Sandy responded with a story, the way he does.
“One of our friend’s children committed suicide when he was 18. He hung himself. The thing that was perplexing was that he’d had everything. John was the top of his class. He was handsome, he was an excellent sailor. His family, they were all sailors. There was no note.
But the pastor told us this story afterwards- it was at the wake, or maybe it was at the funeral, I can’t remember. John had been in some kind of race. He’d got his sailboat so far ahead of the others that he couldn’t even see any of them. He was winning by such a stretch that it wasn’t a race at all, he was that good. Then for no reason at all, he did a jib twist, or some such thing- which you really don’t want to do, and he capsized his boat. He nearly died right then and there.
Then, not long after, he did the same thing again. It was if he wanted to die, as if he’d already outpaced the others and was just- finished already.” Sandy paused. “Or anyway- wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
Because the really bad twist was- about six months before that, John’s uncle, the man he was closest to in all the world- his uncle shot his brains out in a sailboat.
Then John’s father made him come out with him to clean the boat afterwards. ’m sure John never got over it.” Sandy sighed, looking out the car’s window, thinking of faces I had never seen.
“Well, that's a depressing story,” he said. “I guess I don’t know why I told it to you.”
“It’s all hard sometimes,” I said.
We hugged and kissed cheeks and then I went in. I dissolved into numbers, a computer screen: working standing up beside the big window in our bedroom (so to not be bothered), my laptop propped on top of the dresser… the day and then the week beginning to fold away into work...
My best memory of James is after a wedding. It was late at night; we were running around the outbuildings in the dark. Sam was there, and Haydon, Sean, Andrew. We were yelling and happy, and James and I had been out in the hall earlier, talking about forgiveness, betrayal, our plans for tomorrow, for the next year and the one after that. We were exhilarated, intense; we’d been very close, and then had had a falling out, now we would be close again:
I grabbed him and hugged him- I grabbed the sides of his face and pressed his forehead to mine:
“I love you so much,” I said. “You and me, we aren't like the others, so we have to stick together. I understand you and love you so much. It is going to be ok.”
And we were crying and he said he loved me too, and thank you, yes yes we were the same. We were running again- oh James I wish we were still running and never had to stop- but not long after that he fell down again, and truly I could not understand. It is a disease, they tell you: why could I not understand? God help me, I thought it was weakness. I thought that if he just pulled himself up-
But his demons always ended up pulling him down.
And although James would continue to scrape upwards, and then to fall down again- for many years-
to claw upwards, and then to fall down again: although he would sell his music, although he would win a golf championship, although throughout it all he would stay in school and teach our youngest brother ways of being a man, I stopped knowing how to love him. And James and I were never able to get back there again, to press our foreheads together in that blood-deep, bone-deep understanding.
Deeper even than that, my dear. One black ship knows another, after all.
Yet I stopped knowing how to love you.
Yet you went on loving me, in your gentle, selfless way. Expecting nothing, always ready to forgive, to understand.
The forgiveness, the understanding you needed from me, which I was unable to give. Would that I could give it to you now. I would give anything to give it to you now.
Sail on, my gentle brother. Good ship, gentle night: rest in peace. We are still the same. We always were. I am sorry for letting go of your hand-
You never let go of mine.
Everywhere I look, there are people just trying to get through their day. For some, it is a heroic struggle just to smile. That tall, uncertain boy crossing the room, his familiar shaky smile. When it costs us nothing to be kind, to love without expectation- why is it so hard to remember?
As I write this, my cat lies dreaming of his mother, sucking at the air. And I am suspended between worlds.
Speaking of dreams to be visited again and again, we have one of Sandy's framed photographs over our sofa. Its a close-up of rusty materials; a red metal 'moon' hanging above a torn blue sea. I look at it all the time, and the image brings me more happiness than I can express. You can visit Sandy's website at the link below.-
Cheers, Sandy dear. Thank you for your stories, in person and in the frame.
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
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