My Brother in the Basement
He was dark; I was fair.
He was slender and shy; I was stocky and talkative.
As children our mother dressed us as twins. Matching woolen pea coats and Buster Brown lace-ups, khaki shorts and striped T-shirts, pajamas imprinted with pictures of cowboys and Indians, Davy Crockett coonskin caps. For Easter, matching sailor suits with starched white middy blouses.
Even so, the neighbors often strained to see the resemblance between us. "You're brothers?" they asked. "You're really brothers? Which one of you is older?"
People imagined I was, because I was larger. But in fact he was older, by fifteen months. The bassinet into which I was placed was still warm from his having so recently lain there.
Was it paradise, living like that, with someone made of the same flesh and blood as I? When Davis and I were little, we lay awake at night in our bunk beds, devising a language only the two of us could understand. "Peanut butter" meant "I'm sorry." "Bongo bongo" meant "Go to sleep." "Applesauce" meant "Laugh!"
Sometimes when I crawled into his upper bunk to lie beside him, my shoulder touching his, I believed we were living together in just one body.
Not that we were identical. Not that we were even twins. Abel was a keeper of sheep; Cain, a tiller of soil.
Was that our story, except with the roles reversed? I was younger, like Abel. But I lived. And it wasn't as if I killed my brother, not really, even if it sometimes felt as if I did.
Of course, it could just as well have been I who died, had it not been for what he once referred to—it was an accusation, he was angry—as my "instinct for survival." That was what my mother and I had in common, he said—no ideals or principles; nothing, nothing, except our instincts to survive.
He meant: Why have I come out to our mother while you continue avoiding to do so? Why am I the one who must bear her displeasure? Why have you left me here standing alone?
"It must be great," people used to say to me, "being gay and having a gay brother. You two must feel a special closeness. Like having a twin."
Of course, if the people who said these things were the men Davis and I met the nights we went cruising together in gay bars, they meant something rather different by their words. They meant: Do you guys ever have sex with each other? Have you done it? Would you like to do a three-way?
"No, we don't have sex with each other," I said. "No, we're not looking for a three-way."
I was like that in those days, even in the leather bars Davis liked to frequent. A little prim. A little earnest.
But Davis liked to joke with the men who approached us: "Yeah, sure, why not?" he said. "Maybe if you buy us enough drinks. Maybe if you give us enough money."
"Davis," I whispered when the men weren't looking. "Don't talk that way. They might believe you."
It's 1957, or maybe it's 1958, certainly no later than that, and Davis and I are walking home from Carroll Knolls Elementary—through a small complex of garden apartments, past the First United Methodist Church—discussing what we will do if our parents are ever killed suddenly together in a car crash, or a plane wreck, or a bomb attack, like at Pearl Harbor. We'll build ourselves a cabin in the woods, we decide, where no one will ever find us. We'll light our cabin with candles and support ourselves with newspaper routes—the Montgomery County Sentinel, the Catholic Standard, the Washington Star.
Was that the first time we began dreaming of a house where we would one day live together? I thought I would have him as my family forever, no matter what. Wherever he was, I thought, would be my home.
On Saturday mornings, for instance, when the other boys in our neighborhood were practicing softball, Davis and I were riding our bicycles to new subdivisions, touring the model homes for hours, navigating the narrow trails of plastic runners the real estate agents lay down to protect the new wall-to-wall carpeting, through living rooms and rumpus rooms and dining nooks and master suites with walk-in closets, through split-levels and Cape Cods and two-story colonials and ranch houses with finished basements and picture windows.
We liked houses with laundry chutes and intercom systems and carports.
We like floor plans, which we studied in photo-illustrated magazines we swiped from drugstores—101 Dream Houses, 101 A-Frames, 101 Modular Homes You Can Build on a Budget.
On Sundays, after Mass, we liked to visit the mobile home lots off the more populous highways, the ones strung with out-of-season Christmas lights and bright tricornered flags, where the salesmen were more likely to let us wander unescorted through the latest 10' x 50' models: the Skyline Diamond, with its frost-free jalousie windows; the Saratoga, with its tip-out room and simulated fireplace with artificial logs; the Space Master, with its sky roof and circular kitchen. The Vagabond. The Ventura. The New Moon. The Crestline Viceroy. The Magnolia. The Starflite.
"Look at this; it's so beautiful," I said to Davis as I demonstrated the ease of the Starflite's pocket doors, how they slid effortlessly back and forth on their plastic tracks.
"We'll all live like this one day in the future," he told me.
Here is a fact: My brother was arrested three times. Twice for the possession and distribution of controlled substances, including marijuana, amphetamines, psilocybin, and Quaaludes. And once again—the middle arrest, when he was twenty-six—for sodomy, public indecency, and lewd and lascivious acts. Meaning: he was caught in a sudden police roundup in the public toilets of a park where men went at night to have sex.
"Go fuck yourself," he told the cop who put him in handcuffs.
But later, in lock-up, when the desk officer told him it was time for his one phone call, he thought he might just as well kill himself as call our mother. At least that's what he told me later.
(That's what it was like in the old days, in case anyone who has tuned into this late-night broadcast has happened to forget: sudden arrest; your name in the papers the next morning; then, maybe, a quiet suicide. One, two, three, just like a game of hopscotch, except you had to play barefoot, jumping on broken glass.)
As for me: I was 1200 miles away, in graduate school, the time he was arrested for sex. My mother told me about it in a phone call.
"Maybe I shouldn't post his bail this time," she said. "Maybe he keeps getting in trouble because he knows I'll come to his rescue. Maybe I should just let him sit there."
"Mom," I said, "you have to bail him out. Just go and do it. Do it now."
Otherwise, I said nothing further. I stayed as far away as I could. By then, Davis and our mother had begun their endless arguments with each other. Watching them argue was like looking back at a burning house I'd just fled. Even though I was running hard in the opposite direction, I could hear the windows shattering from the heat and the roof beams collapsing onto the walls.
I mean: I was afraid. I hid my life from her. My homo life, that is, which consisted then mostly of daydreams in which men held me close and assured me it was all right if I was afraid.
As to my other life, I didn't mind sharing that: diplomas, fellowships, job offers, vacation plans. "Mom, guess what!" I told her on the phone. "The professors voted me teaching assistant of the year!" Or: "I was in New York City, Mom, and I went to Rockefeller Plaza to watch the ice skaters, just like you did growing up."
That is, I gave her what I had always given her: I was the good son. I was the mirror in which she saw her own life made more meaningful and lustrous.
How does that story go? And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering. But unto Cain he had no respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
I mean: Davis and I each brought forth our offerings.
In our household, our mother was Lord.
Davis and I lived together as adults only once, and only for ten months, not long after we first came out to each other, when we were in our twenties. "I think we have some things to talk about," Davis told me on the phone one afternoon, proposing we meet for lunch at a coffee shop downtown. I had graduated from college the year before; I was preparing to enter a one-year program that would certify me as a teacher. As for Davis: He had dropped in and out of community college at least a few times, and now he was repairing a broken-down U.S. mail truck he'd bought at government auction, outfitting it with an old mattress, a camp stove, and an eight-track stereo he'd gotten cheap from a dealer friend who'd gotten busted. He'd soon be lighting out for San Francisco, he told me, and once he got there, he wouldn't be coming back.
By then, Davis and I hadn't been close in years, at least not since our father's death. That was when I began turning him into the darker brother, I suppose, the one to whom I assigned the feelings I myself was afraid to feel. Sometimes at night when I saw him sitting alone in his room, for instance, pasting old photos of our father into his scrapbook, I judged him as being merely morose and pathetic, as if none of his feelings had anything to do with me. What's the matter with him? I thought. Why can't he act like a normal person? Thank God we're nothing alike. When I saw him at school, sitting alone in the lunchroom, or coming down a corridor toward me, I quickly turned away, hating what I saw as his dazed helplessness and his sodden, stuttering sorrow. Other times, I felt anger and envy toward him, for I feared that his plain grief was more authentic than my own, which expressed itself largely in vague aches and anxious, giddy outbursts. At night, I sat with my mother at the dining room table long after Davis had excused himself, the two of us discussing him as if he were our troubled child. "I'm concerned about his performance in school," I told her. "He isn't applying himself. He doesn't even have friends."
Not that these things weren't true of me, too, of course—though I was hoping that no one would see them. By high school, I had concluded that it was Davis—with his unkempt clothes and thick glasses, his bad grades and stammering awkwardness, which I saw then only as a wearying, stuporous timidity—who was responsible for my having failed to achieve my own popularity, the lost cause I was in those days always advancing. I wanted people to like me. I wanted it so badly, in fact, that it could have been carved right into my tombstone: DO YOU LIKE ME? DO YOU LIKE ME YET? R.I.P.
But something changed between Davis and me the afternoon we met downtown for lunch, sitting in a coffee shop in a small vinyl booth, facing one another. Davis leaned forward as he talked. When we were in high school, he confided, he'd sometimes taken our mother's Impala and driven downtown to have sex with a Korean man he'd met in a park, an accountant who lived in a boardinghouse near Dupont Circle. He and the man never really spoke, Davis said; nothing was exchanged between them, nothing but sex, which was hurried and guilty, and which provided only the most momentary relief, followed by Davis's long drive back to our house in the suburbs, listening to the call-in shows on stations our mother had preprogrammed on her car radio. He'd also had sex a few times with a popular boy, he said, a football player he'd occasionally brought back to our house while our mother was working, offering him some beer or a little marijuana, though the boy never acknowledged him afterward, not even with a quick nod if they happened to pass one another in the hallway the next day at school.
As for me, I had less to tell: I had fallen in love with a straight man, not for the first time, and I couldn't understand why he wouldn't love me back. As I spoke, I gestured with my hands for emphasis, as I always did, even though my mother had told me she found my behavior "a bit theatrical."
I noticed that my brother was staring at me.
"What?" I asked him.
"It's your hands," he said. "It's the way you move your hands. It's beautiful."
"Oh," I said. Because I thought it was shameful. Because it was something I was always trying to stop.
A few months later, Davis took off for San Francisco in his mail truck; and six months after that, he was back again—he hadn't even made it across the Rockies. When his truck broke down in Atlanta, he somehow managed to get it repaired, he said, but then it broke down in New Orleans, and then again in Austin, where he ran out of money. When he phoned our mother from Austin, he told her he hadn't eaten anything but dog food and saltines for almost a week, and now his teeth were hurting him, too, and when he went to the clinic, the dentist told him he wouldn't even look at him unless he paid in cash up front.
"Can you cable me money for the dentist?" he asked. "Can you send it overnight by Western Union? Bill and I really need to eat."
"Who's Bill?" our mother inquired. "Who's Bill? I haven't heard
of this Bill before."
"All right, all right," she said. "I don't need to know more. But I want you to tell me you're coming back. Just come back home and be yourself. Can you promise me that?"
On that condition, she cabled the money. And a few weeks later, there was Davis, back on her doorstep. But there was no Bill along with him. Bill had bailed in Memphis, Davis later told me, as soon as he met someone else.
I told my brother we could share an apartment. After all, he needed a place and so did I, having just recently returned from my teacher training to take a part-time job at a local school.
While Davis found work of his own, as an aide at a group home for retarded adults, I found us an inexpensive place in Dupont Circle, two rooms on the first floor of a dilapidated row house, with a small kitchen, from which a steep flight of rickety stairs descended to the basement. The basement was dark and windowless, with pipes and electrical wiring running along its low ceiling. It had once served as a coal bin.
That was where Davis lived.
He lived in the basement, along with a battered chest of drawers, a bookcase, and the mattress he'd salvaged from his mail truck. When I first showed him the apartment, suggesting we split both the space and the cost, he said he'd have to live in the basement, since he was too broke to pay even a third of the rent. He didn't mind the basement too much, he claimed, not even with its dampness.
I lived upstairs, grading papers by a sunny window. I had a Boston fern. A few spider plants in glazed pots.
On weekends, I had friends to dinner, straight friends from college or teaching colleagues whom I felt I should impress. Chicken breasts in white wine, with tarragon. Steak au poivre, with a mustard sauce. Thick stalks of white asparagus.
When he was home, Davis came upstairs to join us, whether or not I'd invited him. I tried to control the conversation, embarrassed by his recitations of plots from Star Trek and his earnest lectures on the prophecies of Nostradamus or the dire necessity for zero population growth. At the same time, I feared he'd go off at any moment on to what I considered to be one of his hectoring monologues, particularly if he managed to turn the topic to homosexuality, a subject I was often trying to avoid, at least around straight people, whom I imagined myself as needing to protect. "What you fail to realize," he might suddenly announce to the dinner table, "is the specific nature of homosexual oppression, which has a name: It is called self-hatred. You fail to see that it's society that requires us to hate ourselves—that it is society and not people like me who need immediate and interventional psychiatric attention!"
"Yes," the guests would warily assent. "Yes, quite so," they would say. "You make your case well."
After dinner, he sometimes took them down to the basement to show off his handiwork. He had already covered two of the sooty brick walls with plasterboard; he was planning to drape an old parachute from the ceiling to hide the plumbing pipes and rough wooden beams.
"Nice job, nice job," the guests would say as they climbed back up the stairs toward the kitchen, where I was scraping dishes into the garbage. But no one ever asked me the question I both feared and expected—why my brother was living downstairs in a dark basement while I was living upstairs, in rooms with windows overlooking a sunny street. And what would I have said if someone had asked? That it was simply a question of money and nothing more?
Once the guests left, I relaxed a bit. Alone with my brother, I began to regard him not as a social liability but as someone quite likable, as someone who was not so much unpredictable as he was original and bold. At these times, I saw him in the role of the older brother I wanted, the one who might guide me safely into a sexual life I both desired and feared. Once we were alone, Davis and I would smoke a little dope together. He would drop a Quaalude, maybe two. If it was a Saturday night, we'd drive across town to hit the gay discos that had just opened in an old warehouse district. The Lost and Found. Pier Nine. Grand Central.
Inside the disco, I stood alone at the bar and watched Davis talk and flirt with guys he'd met while cruising at other gay bars and dance clubs. He had a way of holding his beer bottle in one hand—low, and close to his hip—that made him look dashing and sexy and languorous, standing there in his Levi's and denim jacket.
I hadn't remembered him as being so beautiful. When had it happened? And how had I failed for so long to see it? For years I had seen him only as the abjected one. But now The Abject was moving across the dance floor, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal his muscled chest and his arm around another man's waist; and it was I who was now standing in the corner, watching him—my handsome older brother—as he moved through a world I was afraid to enter, no matter how much I wanted to. He sometimes danced for hours, first with one man, and then another—"Love Train," "What's Going On," "Bang a Gong," "Walk on the Wild Side," "Killing Me Softly With His Song" . . . I watched him the whole time as he danced and danced, exuberant, tireless, laughing, beneath the pulsing strobe lights.
Invariably, I went home before him. I told myself I had papers to grade.
A few times, I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of him moving across the kitchen—Shh, he was drunkenly whispering to whomever he'd brought back with him. Then I heard two pairs of footsteps hurrying down the basement stairs.
Those nights, I lay awake, listening to him down in the basement, having sex. A few times, I tried to discern his voice from the voice of the man he'd brought home from the bar. If I could figure out which voice was Davis's, I thought, I might know how I myself sounded on the rare occasions when I had sex, because our voices were identical. Everyone said so. But whatever noise it was that I was hearing—a moan, a quick laugh, a sudden crying out—I didn't like it. It scared me, that sound of losing control.
Our mother loved history. She loved best her own history, of course, her stories of growing up in one of the largest houses in Park Slope, with a Stutz-Bearcat and a chauffeur and two servants from the West Indies. But when she had to, she liked the other kind of history as well, the public kind that others can share. She liked the Civil War. The worst thing about the Civil War, she used to tell Davis and me when we were growing up, the very worst thing of all, a horror she could barely stand even to consider, was that it had turned brother against brother.
"Brother against brother!" Davis and I hooted, mimicking the things she'd said to us throughout our childhoods as we drove together out to the suburbs every other Sunday to see her. This is how we entertained ourselves, working her up into a character whom we could then deride: "Brother against brother! What a drama queen! Can you believe it?"
She was living then in Orchard Village, the retirement community to which she had moved with Jerry, her new husband, a childless widower whom she'd married at the county courthouse the year before. Jerry was taciturn; for his hobby, he liked to track the infinitesimal daily shifts in interest rates on tax-free bonds and government securities, which he recorded each evening in a red spiral notebook. The night my mother first met him at Post-Cana, her social club for widowed Catholics, she phoned me with breathless excitement: "He has haunted eyes," she said, "like Glenn Ford." But as soon as I met him, I saw she was wrong: His eyes weren't haunted; they were dead.
This particular Sunday, as we drove out to Orchard Village, Davis sat beside me in the passenger seat of my VW, getting stoned. "You want some?" he asked, offering me a hit from the hash pipe he'd just rigged from aluminum foil.
"Not me," I said. I had been stoned only once in my mother's presence. The whole time I'd felt as if my skin were transparent and she could see right through me.
Davis fiddled with the car radio, unable to find a song he wanted to hear. He was growing sullen, now that we were getting closer to our mother's.
"I don't know why we go there," he said, after a few miles. "You know she's never going to accept us, not the way we are. She's never accepted me at least, not since I came out. Don't you get sick of it?"
Did I get sick of it? Yes, most certainly. Right then, for instance, I was sick of this very topic, and I was angry at Davis for having gotten stoned. I knew from experience where this was headed. Soon he would be telling me that it was high time that I came out to her, just as he had; it was long overdue, in fact. Then he would start saying that he would be quite happy to tell her for me, if that was what it was going to take—after all, carpe diem.
"We are going there," I told him, "because she is our mother."
As soon as I said this, I regretted it. According to Davis, that was all I ever said: She's our mother, she's our mother, she's our mother.
But what else was I going to tell him? That I feared having a relationship with her that even resembled his, with its endless squabbles and quarrels and long, reproachful silences? After all, I was the younger brother, which meant I'd had more than ample opportunity to observe their enmeshed and ferocious battles and, from observing them, I had learned how better to soothe our mother's fears and sudden rages, for which, in exchange, I received from her something that felt like approval—this was my famous "instinct for survival," I suppose. And even though I'd been only an observer, I had never once been able to forget—as neither had Davis—what had happened the first time he was arrested for selling marijuana, when he was eighteen, and our mother sent him away to live with relatives and then refused to allow him to return, despite his repeated entreaties, despite his long, wrenching letters, quoting from Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King and Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, begging her over and over to let him come home. From witnessing what had transpired between them, I had most certainly drawn different conclusions than Davis about how best to handle our mother. But I had nonetheless absorbed the same stark lesson as he: From our mother's house, it was possible to be banished.
Why then should I risk myself by coming out to her, I reasoned, if that seemed the possible price? I had lived a long time in what felt like her light.
When we arrived at the entrance to Orchard Village, we stopped at the guardhouse, as was required, to explain whom we had come to visit. The guard eyed us with suspicion, then consulted a roster and waved us on. Soon we were parking at the curb in front of our mother's retirement cottage, and she was standing at her front door, waving.
"Hello!" she called out. "Hello! Hello! Long time, no see."
"Mom, it's only been two weeks," Davis told her.
Her brief kiss. The dry scent of her carnation talc, matching perfume. A glimpse of her husband seated at the table in the dining nook behind her, clipping articles from the newspaper.
"How about something to eat?" she asked Davis and me. "How about some sandwiches? I could make you boys some sandwiches—if you'd like some, I mean."
"No," Davis told her.
Then it began: the standard Sunday afternoon visit. The Ceremonial Visit, as Davis called it, when speaking just to me. The Deep Bowing Down to the Hour of Tedium. The Royal Presentation of the Chitchat.
It started well enough. Jerry joined us, at our mother's insistence; we all sat together in the living room in upholstered chairs banked with needlepoint pillows. Our mother went first, recounting a rambling story about living in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village during the war, and how she and her girlfriends had only one pair of silk stockings to share among themselves, which they did without fighting, granting the highest priority of use to those who had dates with active-duty soldiers. She asked how my job was going, and whether or not I liked teaching, and if I had any students who showed talent or promise. She asked Davis and me if there was anything we needed to take back to our apartment with us, some canned fruit, maybe, some pears or peaches in heavy syrup, because she'd picked up some extras on special at the store. Occasionally, Jerry interjected some stray remark about his wartime experiences as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, stationed in the South Pacific.
"You know, I have a job, too," Davis interrupted. "In case anyone wants to hear about it."
I had noticed Davis was growing edgier and edgier the longer we sat there. To compensate, I had already adopted a voice of resolute cheer, responding with anxious eagerness to whatever anyone said, no matter how trivial: Goodness! Is that right? I had no idea! Now when did that happen? No, I hadn't heard. That's so interesting! I can hardly believe it.
"All right," our mother suddenly said, looking at Davis. "I would have asked about your job. If you had given me half a chance, I mean."
I trained my eyes on the front window, through which I could see a Latino groundsman mowing their lawn.
As for Jerry, he was still in the Pacific: "The thing no one seems to realize," he was saying, "is that we would never have won the war without the Aussies."
"Is that right?" I said. "I had no idea."
But something had already broken.
Davis turned toward Jerry and looked at him directly. "I hear there are a lot of gays in the navy," Davis said. "Now why is that? Did you know any gays during the war?"
"Oh, Christ," our mother said. "Here we go again. Just tell me one thing. Just one little thing: Why must everything always come back to that?"
"To what?" Davis said. "Come back to what? Just say the word. Just say it once. I dare you."
"No," she said. "I don't have to say anything. I just want to know why you have to make it such an obsession. That's what it is with you, you know—an obsession."
"An obsession?" Davis said. "Is that what you said? An obsession?"
She turned toward me, as if only the two of us were sitting there. "Maybe you can explain it," she said. "Maybe you can help me figure out this one thing: Why is he always talking and talking and talking about it? Why? What does he want? Is he doing it for attention?"
Oh, right, I thought. Of course. For attention.
After all, that was her prevailing theory of his life: Whatever he did, he did for attention. That was why he'd gotten bad grades in school and why he'd gotten arrested; that was why he'd dropped out of community college and why he'd let himself run out of money in Austin. It was all for attention. For as far back as I could recall, she had had a way of speaking of attention that made even the slightest desire for it seem suspect and pernicious. Attention? What a joke! What a ridiculous thing to want! Who in his right mind would ever admit to wanting something the world simply wasn't prepared to give?
That is: She herself had often hungered for attention that had not come to her, even as a child; now she had learned to guard herself by rejecting such hunger as weakness and by replacing it with what she considered to be her pride.
But did I say any of this? Of course not. I was the good son—unlike Cain, I wasn't known for my back talk.
Besides, it was already too late for that.
"You want to know what an obsession is?" Davis was shouting. "This is an obsession!" he said, pointing to the breakfront where she displayed her collection of cut glass. "This is your obsession, an obsession with things that are fragile and breakable, an obsession that nobody's even allowed to touch!"
"No," she said. "That is what happens to be called 'cut glass.'"
"Right," he said. "Cut glass. Your precious cut glass. But let me say this—what I am trying to talk to you about is not an obsession. It is me. It is who I am. It is my life."
Right then I saw him look toward me for a moment, almost pleadingly, as if asking me to step in and defend him—or perhaps even to stop him.
I didn't know what to say. After all, I wasn't the one who'd wanted to talk about any of this to begin with—it hadn't been my choice. I broadcast him a quick look that meant: Don't. Don't you dare. Don't even think of saying one single word about me.
And then I saw the argument drain out of him. His shoulders sagged, and his face drew shut, like a door that had just been quietly closed.
"Okay," he said. "All right. I guess it's time that we got going. I guess it's getting kind of late."
"But what about coffee?" our mother said. "Don't you want some coffee while you're here?"
"No," he said. "No, thank you. No coffee. Not for me. Not today."
"Jerry," she said, "tell them to stay for coffee. Tell them you'd like to have some coffee, too. Tell them they don't have to go yet."
But Jerry just glanced toward Davis and me, presenting us with a brief, thin-lipped smile. It was getting close to five o'clock, the hour when he liked to be served his supper. Each night, he started with the same thing, a mound of small-curd cottage cheese, draped with a few canned peach slices. He didn't like his dinner ever to be late.
"Mom, it's all right," I said. "We really do have to go. I have papers to grade."
"I know you boys are busy," she said. "I know you've got places you need to go. But I wish you'd take something with you. Isn't there something you need?"
"No, we're fine," I told her.
"Davis," she said. "What about you? Isn't there something you need? Tell me—some canned fruit, maybe . . ."
"No," he said. "There is nothing I need."
And then: The Ceremony of Good-Byes, as Captured in the Pier Mirror in the Foyer.
"Good-bye," she said. "Good-bye. Be careful. Drive safely. Come back soon. Come back. Come back."
As soon as Davis and I were back in the car, he turned to me. I was pretty sure I knew what he was going to say: He was going to accuse me of having deserted him, and maybe I deserved it.
But instead he just sighed and leaned back against the headrest. "Let's get drunk," he said. "It's time to get drunk. Let's get drunk now."
"Where?" I asked.
"Dolly's," he said. "I would say this is definitely a Dolly's kind of day."
Why not? I thought—it seemed like a good idea. Dolly's was one of his favorite hangouts, a country-and-western drag bar next to the Trailways bus station downtown. It was always cheering, at the least, to watch the drag queens with their towering haystack hairdos, as they lip-synched to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and Minnie Pearl and Patsy Cline. Occasionally, a Diana Ross or a Carmen Miranda would amble onto the small plywood stage, perhaps as a joke, and the guys in the bar would go wild, banging their beer cans against the tables, although whether they did so in pleasure or disapproval, I never could tell.
But what I'd told my mother was true—I did have papers to grade, a set of themes my students had written on subjects taken from life; I'd promised to return them quickly. I told Davis that I'd drop him at Dolly's and come back to meet him later, as soon as I was finished, in just a couple of hours.
It was almost four hours later when I got back to Dolly's—the papers had taken longer than expected. But as soon as I came through the door of the bar, I saw Davis was still there, sitting at a table in the corner with some guy I'd never seen before.
"Hey, brother!" he called out when he spotted me. "Hey brother, get over here!"
I waved at him through the crowd. I was wondering if he was drunk already. There was something forlorn about him, a homeless quality, as if he'd been waiting for me all those hours because he wasn't sure where else he had to go.
I made my way toward him through the smoke-filled bar, through the noisy crush of men in flannel shirts and Levi's, some of them huddled together in small groups, drinking cans of beer, while others—the ones who'd come alone, it seemed—stood sentry along the walls. On stage, a drag queen was lip-synching to "Stand by Your Man," although each time she extended her opera-gloved arms toward the audience, enacting what she took to be some particularly dramatic portions of the song, I saw that her mouth was moving slightly out of time with the music.
When I got to the other side of the bar, I took the seat Davis had been saving for me beside him. "Hey, brother, have some beer," he said. "I bought a pitcher. Why don't you join me?"
He lifted the pitcher of beer and began to pour me a glass, but, as he did so, his arm suddenly drooped and jerked as if the muscle had gone slack, and the beer spilled across the table and started dripping down onto the floor. There was something wobbly about him, as if the synapses in his brain weren't firing in quite the right order.
"Hey, man, watch it!" said the guy who was sharing his table.
Davis started blotting up the spilled beer with some napkins. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. There, I said it, okay? I'm sorry."
"Fuck you," the guy said. He got up and left, taking his beer glass with him.
I moved my chair closer to Davis's. "Are you all right?" I asked.
"Yeah, sure," he said. "I'm wonderful."
I could see that wasn't true. "Have you taken something?" I asked him. "You don't seem right."
"'Ludes," he said. "I took a few Quaaludes. Is that all right? Maybe you should try a few, brother."
I knew what he was telling me, and not for the first time: I was too uptight for my own good. He had told me more than once how Quaaludes made you feel relaxed and vivid and sexual, all at the same moment, but I resisted because I wasn't sure that was a combination I was really ready to feel.
It seemed best to say nothing. Davis pulled his chair closer to mine and put an arm around my shoulders. For a while, we just sat like that, watching the drag performer together. To someone who didn't know us, I kept thinking, we probably looked like a couple.
"I guess I fucked up," Davis said after some minutes. "This afternoon at Mom's, I mean. Go ahead and say it. Go ahead, since you probably want to: You're a royal fuckup, Davis, that's you . . ."
"That's not true," I said, even though I wasn't sure I meant it. When I looked at him, I saw his face was flushed from the beer and Quaaludes mixed together.
He moved even closer, then waved his free hand toward a group of men standing at the bar. "You see any guys you like?" he asked.
"I don't know," I told him. When I looked at the men at the bar, I felt uncertain, just as I always did in gay clubs, since I found it so hard to distinguish between my anxiety and my desire.
Then Davis leaned forward, as if to whisper something into my ear. "You know," he said, "you're a good-looking guy. Do you know that? Do you know you're a good-looking guy?" I could feel his warm breath on my face as I spoke.
"Oh, thank you," I said. "You are, too." I was using my pleasant voice, the one I always used when I was nervous.
"That's not what I meant," he said, his voice slightly slurred. "I mean you're really a good-looking guy. I mean—come on, you know—haven't you ever thought about it, even for just a minute? You know, you and me, the two of us, maybe going back to our place together . . ."
For a moment, I didn't believe what I was hearing. He can't possibly mean what he seems to be saying, I told myself.
Then his words suddenly assembled themselves into some order, and the question he had just posed struck me with blunt force—Haven't you ever thought about it? Yes, sure, of course, maybe I had—maybe for a moment, maybe once or twice at the most. Maybe I'd even thought of it a few times, those nights I'd been awakened by the sound of him down in the basement having sex—but it was wrong to think of it for more than a moment, and it was even wronger still to speak . . .
I felt Davis's hand settling on my knee. "What's the matter?" he whispered.
I jumped. "What's the matter?" I said, my voice surprising me in its shrillness. "Are you really asking me that? It's you. You're what's the matter. What's the matter is you!"
I pushed back from the table; I pushed back hard and stood and started moving quickly toward the exit. And as to what happened next? Don't even ask me if the bar I was moving through was still crowded or noisy or smoke-filled, or whether or not a drag queen was performing one of her numbers onstage. I don't know. I don't know. I just don't remember.
Here's what I do remember: For three days, I stayed at a friend's house, afraid to return to the apartment for even a change of clothes. I couldn't imagine how I'd ever live there again, not with my brother in the basement below me, moving around at night, making sounds I didn't want to hear. It was as if I had cast some part of myself down in the basement with him, and now that I had done so, I wanted it to remain down there in the dark forever, without even the slightest chance that it might one day climb back up those same stairs to greet me.
On the fourth day, I made myself go back. I found Davis sitting in my bedroom, reading a book by the window—a book about space travel, if I remember correctly.
"Where have you been?" he asked, looking up from what he was reading. "I was worried about you. I thought maybe you'd gone off to trick with someone."
"I have to talk to you," I said. "We have to talk about Dolly's."
"Oh, Dolly's," he said, closing the book and setting it on the small table beside him.
"I'm not sure what I remember. I remember having a few beers. I remember taking some 'ludes. But after that—I don't even know how I got back here. I was in a blackout, I guess."
"A blackout?" I said. "Are you serious?"
"Yeah, a real blackout," he said. "I've never had a blackout before."
I thought to press harder. I wasn't sure whether or not to believe him.
But at the same time, I felt relieved. After all, why bring up something so troubling and difficult if he didn't even remember it? Perhaps if I said nothing more, I thought, it would be over and done with. In fact, it might in time become something that had never really happened at all. Yes, that was it: It was just something that had happened to me and me alone—and since that was the case, wasn't it up to me as to how real it had to become or how much of it I would even need to remember?
In the weeks that followed, I kept telling myself that nothing had changed between Davis and me, not really. After all, wasn't it true, what we had told ourselves as children—that no matter what, we would always have each other as brothers?
And then, a few months later, I suddenly packed up and moved away. I decided to return to graduate school, this time in the Midwest, 1200 miles from anywhere I had ever lived. I was thinking to write a doctoral dissertation on homosexuality in American cinema, since I seemed so much better at theory than practice. Maybe my dissertation would be published as a book, I thought, and attract some favorable attention, and maybe even win an award or two, as something notable and scholarly. And if that happened, I imagined, I would never have to come out to my mother, at least not directly, not in so many words. Instead, I would have discovered an alchemical process capable of converting something shameful into an irreproachable achievement, an offering that I could set before my mother and that she would then be compelled to recognize as something prestigious and worthy, at least in the eyes of the world. And the Lord had respect unto Abel. . .
Not that I ever wrote such a book, of course—and not that I even finished grad school, for that matter. Not that I would have given her the pleasure.
As for Davis: A few weeks after my departure, he found a new roommate, a scrawny Vietnam vet who had just come out but who'd already developed the habit of referring to himself only in the third person as "Miss Kitty Carlisle." It was Miss Kitty Carlisle who told me they had transformed what had once been my bedroom into a sunny living room that they could share.
Occasionally, that fall, Davis and I spoke on the phone late at night, although never for more than just a few minutes. I complained to him about graduate school, the dismal earnestness of my fellow students; I complained about the Midwest, and the inane pleasantries one had to endure in living there.
Davis said he was happy. Or happy enough. He had his friends. A few lovers.
He was given a promotion at the group home for retarded adults where he worked; now he was the supervisor of dinner preparations, in addition to being the driver of the van for the disabled.
He said he was thinking of taking a second job, this one checking IDs at the door of a new gay club that had opened in Dupont Circle. He needed money.
He needed money, he said, because he'd begun developing a whole new plan for achieving his lifelong dream of moving to San Francisco. He felt sure he was going to make it this time. He was planning to buy a used car, as soon as he was able. He was planning to cut back on his drinking.
And then my mother phoned to tell me that Davis had been arrested again, this time for having sex with a man in a park at night. "Maybe he keeps getting into trouble because he thinks I'll come to his rescue," she said. "Maybe this time I should just let him sit there."
But I have already told you that story.
So let me tell you this instead: Counting forward from the night I left him at Dolly's, my brother had only nine more years to live.
As always, there were still a few key facts the future had yet to disclose.
For instance: the fact that I would find myself sitting here one day without him, as I am now, attempting to remember the same things I had once urged myself to forget. Or the fact that I would want to tell someone that a long time ago, when we were children, our mother dressed us as twins.
That I sometimes crawled into his upper bunk at night to fall asleep beside him. That "peanut butter" meant "I'm sorry." That "applesauce" meant "Laugh!"
What can I say of the years that remained to my brother—or of all the years that have passed since his death? Shall I tell you his life was difficult? That he seldom had a regular paycheck? That he was poor and had only a lockbox under his bed in which to store small bits of cash and never so much as a bank account or a credit card? That he was beloved by his close circle of friends who found him smart and garrulous and loyal?
At first, in the years right after his arrest in the park, his life was on the upswing. At his trial, the judge sentenced him to a year's probation, assuring him his court record would eventually be expunged, on the condition—as the judge put it—that he comport himself in the meantime with "accepted standards of decent behavior." That spring, he and Miss Kitty Carlisle moved to a new apartment, where he now occupied a sunny bedroom overlooking a garden that blazed all summer with crape myrtles and gladioli.
The next fall, he was admitted to a local college, aided by a city grant designed to help repeat offenders; on the basis of his "life experience," he was awarded sufficient credits to become a junior. When he graduated two years later, our mother attended the ceremony, carrying her instant camera so she could snap his photo wearing a mortarboard and tassel.
She gave him money, which he used to study American Sign Language at Gallaudet College, with the idea of becoming an interpreter. He met Paul, the deaf man who became his lover, and when Paul moved in with him and Miss Kitty Carlisle, Davis hooked their phone to a TTY and rigged some wiring so that a light flashed when anyone rang the doorbell.
Then the life he had just begun to make for himself started to unravel. No one, not even he, saw it coming, I suppose. Who could say why?
He resumed his drinking. He started cutting morning classes at Gallaudet because he was hungover. He fell behind in his share of the rent and borrowed money from Paul. When the time came for him to take his exam for certification as an official ASL interpreter, he refused, claiming the exam was meaningless and so poorly made as to be rigged against those like himself who were fluent.
He and our mother renewed their old arguments. She accused him of using drugs again. He accused her of being cold. When she threatened to stop paying for his health insurance, as she had been doing for years, he refused to return her phone calls.
Then Paul moved out, taking with him everything he and Davis had purchased together, even the pair of ceramic lamps Davis had smashed one night while he and Paul were fighting.
For a while, Davis worked as an office temp, but he inevitably fought with his employers. For money, he taught occasional classes in the basement of his building for gay men who wanted to learn a bit of ASL, a few signs to use when flirting with deaf guys in bars: CAN I BUY YOU A BEER? WHERE DO YOU LIVE? WHAT KIND OF SEX ARE YOU INTO?
Increasingly, he spurned the hearing world as much as possible; more and more, his friends were men who were deaf or profoundly hard of hearing. Often when strangers stopped him on the sidewalk to ask for the time or directions, he shrugged his shoulders and pointed an index finger to his ear to indicate he couldn't hear.
He did odd jobs. He cleaned apartments. Occasionally, he worked weekend nights at the Chesapeake House, a gay dive where he go-go danced on the beer-slicked bar for the tips that men tucked into his G-string. It was there he was arrested the third time, for selling amphetamines and Quaaludes to an undercover cop who'd approached him in the men's room.
And how do I know these things?
Because I saw him once a year at least, each time I came back east to visit our mother and Jerry in Orchard Village, where they sat at their dining room table night after night, bickering over their household budget or the relative merits of freeze-dried versus regular instant coffee. Each time I went downtown to visit Davis, our mother sought to recruit me as her emissary, asking me to return with a report on his drinking.
I did as she requested. And why not? I was still more my mother's keeper than my brother's, at least back then.
The last time I visited him in his apartment, I sat beside him on the sofa, working the conversation toward the inevitable: "Mom's worried about your drinking," I finally said. "She wants to know how much you drink."
"Tell her whatever you want," he said. He picked up his glass of vodka and drained it in a few gulps. Then he looked at me directly. "Just tell her you've never even seen me touch so much as a drop."
The next time I saw him was a hot August afternoon ten months later. I was doing a few errands in his neighborhood, though I hadn't yet told him I was in town. I spotted him coming down the block toward me.
He looked terrible—pale and tired and sweaty, as if he had a bad summer cold or the flu. His appearance scared me, and for a moment, I considered turning away as if I hadn't seen him. I remember thinking, Thank God we're nothing alike.
"Hey, brother!" he said when he spotted me. He rapidly signed the words as he spoke them, as he always did.
"Hey," I said back.
I just stood there. And then I suddenly found myself telling him I was in a hurry, sorry, I didn't have time to talk. I left him there, standing on the sidewalk. Don't turn around, I told myself.
He died a month later of a drug overdose. He was thirty-five.
It was Miss Kitty Carlisle who found his body. When he got home from the dance club he'd been to the night before, he noticed there was water all over the bathroom floor; then he noticed a trail of water leading down the hallway. He knocked at Davis's door; when there was no answer, he went in and found Davis lying dead on his bed with his clothes soaking wet. Miss Kitty Carlisle said he could tell right away that Davis had been dead for hours.
He'd been "partying with friends," someone who knew him told me later, though this person kept insisting he hadn't been there. He told me that everyone had been smoking dope and snorting coke, except Davis, who had been drinking vodka and shooting heroin. When Davis first showed signs of an overdose—he kept nodding out, his breathing was shallow and labored—his friends had tried to revive him by carrying him to the bathtub and plunging him into cold water. When that didn't work, they carried him back down the hall and placed him on his bed. It was there that he died, a police detective later surmised, after noting that the mattress had been soaked with urine as well as water. In any case, as soon as they placed him on his bed, his friends pulled down the blinds and fled the apartment, leaving his body behind.
"The people who were there that night must have been deaf," my mother said to me after she learned what had happened. "I know it. They were deaf. That's why they didn't call the rescue squad. They didn't know how to use the telephone."
"That's not true," I told her. "The deaf know how to use a phone."
Then the coroner's report arrived with its unambiguous summation: "MANNER OF DEATH: ACCIDENTAL."
But even now, years later, I still have some questions of my own.
For instance: Why didn't anyone stop to call the police or even just an ambulance before fleeing his apartment? No one would have been required to give his real name. And even if they were all both deaf and mute, he had a TTY. How long did Davis's dead body lie there alone?
And this: Why did I run from him that night at Dolly's?
If what he proposed that night was really so unthinkable or appalling, I see now I might have responded simply by saying no. Didn't some part of me want to go with him, to descend those basement steps to his room?
I know I now miss his body—the body I pressed against in sleep as a child, back when I still imagined we were sharing just one body between us.
Why did I leave him standing on the sidewalk, alone, the last time I saw him? Why did I tell myself not even to turn and look back? Was I so afraid to see myself reflected in him, to glimpse those parts of myself that I most feared and thus repudiated as belonging only to him—those parts of me that were angry and desirous, rebellious and sexual and scared?
And as for Cain and Abel, who were themselves divided: I know what the Torah teaches, that separation and distinction are the basis of all creation, that heaven is distinct from earth, just as light is distinct from darkness and the firmament distinct from the seas—Baruch Hamavdil Bein Kodesh l'Chol. But why did the Lord differentiate the two brothers and set them apart?
Was Abel's offering really the more deeply meant, as some Midrash commentaries suggest? And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof. Each brother gave what he could, at least as I now see it. Who could blame Cain for the hurt and anger he felt when the Lord showed to his offering no regard? He was very wroth, and his countenance fell . . .
Was it the Lord who rended them asunder? You are the good son; you, the bad.
I was Cain and Abel both, as was my brother.
It is more than a decade since Davis's death. But at night I sometimes find myself studying his old photos. I am still trying to determine how slight or strong the resemblance was between us.
I suppose I have an answer each morning when I look at myself in the mirror. In middle age, I have grown more and more to resemble him, as if time itself were whittling away all differences—although, of course, I'm the older brother now.
I suppose I have an answer each time I hear myself on a tape recorder—Davis! I think, because our voices really were identical. A few times, when I've heard myself moan or cry out while having sex, I've thought of that voice I heard down in the basement years ago.
Perhaps I even had my answer the autumn afternoon my mother and I scattered Davis's ashes, a few weeks after his death. That day, there were still yet months to come before I found myself at long last willing to risk her displeasure by coming out to her, sitting face to face at her dining room table.
We were scattering his ashes atop my father's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. I was irritated with my mother, because I had wanted to fly Davis's ashes to San Francisco and release them there, in the bay beside the city he had so long dreamed of but never seen. But she wouldn't hear of it. She said she couldn't bear to think of him as being so far away from home forever.
"Hurry," she told me, as we knelt in the grass, emptying the small wooden box that held Davis's "cremains," as the man at the mortuary had called them. She was afraid a guard or a groundsworker would spot us, since what we were doing was against military graveyard regulations.
We said a quick "Hail Mary," then drove back to Orchard Village in silence—I had promised her I'd come back to her house for lunch. "Don't you want a sandwich before you head back home?" she'd kept asking me that morning. "Won't you let me make you a sandwich before you go?"
When we got to her house, I headed for the bathroom, so I could be alone for a moment. On the way, I passed the door to the den where Jerry sat working at his desk, copying figures into his spiral notebook.
"Hey, come here a moment," he said, looking up. "I want to ask you a question."
"What?" I said, pausing in the doorway.
He set down his pencil and turned toward me. "It's a personal question," he said. "I hope you don't mind if it's personal."
A personal question? I thought. A personal question? Poor, befuddled Jerry, I thought—always at least a few steps behind the game. After all, he wasn't what one would call a "conversationalist." What had he ever wanted to know from me or anyone that could possibly have been considered "personal"?
"Okay," I told him. "Shoot."
"It's something I've wondered about," he said. "I mean, let me ask you—I just want your opinion. Do you think Davis was a real gay? Or did he do it for attention?"
For a moment, I just stood there, staring. For the first time, I could feel something hard and fierce building suddenly inside me, a rage I had always imagined as belonging only to Davis. I glared at Jerry. There he sits, I thought, with his buzz cut and dead eyes and Twist-o-Flex watchband: the marks of the beast.
"What the hell do you mean?" I exploded. "What the hell do you mean? Nothing you say means a thing to me. Nothing you say ever has—not one fucking word. What could you possibly mean by a term like 'a real gay'?"
Right then we were both startled by my outburst. Everything was quiet. I could hear my mother unwrapping dishes in the kitchen, and I wondered if she'd heard what I had just said. I suddenly felt ashamed of the tone I had taken toward her husband.
Then Jerry leaned forward. "You know what I mean," he said. "You know—a real gay, like you."