Brotherly Love

 

Adam had died in late August just before the High Holidays. Her husband Nathan’s only brother, Adam had been the youngest in the large family of five. He had passed away suddenly -- one day after an unexpected motorcycle accident on the 10 Freeway caught him under a Ford Explorer. His skull was crushed against the hard curve of his helmet. The paramedics scraped the pieces of him off the emergency lane, placed him into the ambulance, and rushed him to Cedar’s Sinai. It was in the George Burns South Wing where Adam stopped breathing.

Nathan’s parents buried Adam in the Jewish Cemetery on the top of the hill overlooking the Valley. They moved the family plot, his grandfather’s grave with it, so that Adam, the baby, could have a better view. In September, when the summer haze cleared, he would be able to see out over the Valley, past the hills, into the city he loved.

Louise was concerned about her husband Nathan. He carried his role as the oldest like a heavy book on top of his head, struggling every moment to keep his posture straight. In that same vein, Nathan had been a steel rod through the funeral, the burial, the Shiva -- never shedding a tear. Louise had wondered if the tears would come later, after Roshashanah, the Jewish New Year, or perhaps Yom Kippur, the official Day of Atonement. Maybe then Nathan could release the heavy deep breath he had inhaled the night his brother died. The breath he was holding all to himself.

But as the holidays came and went, Nathan’s lip became a thin drawn line on his face. With a deep sigh of her own, Louise pondered if the dark cloud that had descended upon her husband could last. She hoped it would be gone by December’s Chanukah.

Louise had noticed a few unusual details about Nathan, like the candles he lit around in the house that met her as she came home from the grocery store. He had dug out of her trunk a book she had bought years ago, written by a psychic, who now had her own television show. She found Nathan at night curled up in bed reading the book cover to cover. And there was the annoying habit he had of leaving the television on whenever he was home and all night. Quiet was now something he avoided as if it was a dangerous stranger.

Louise was puzzled by these details until she began to see Adam. At first, she caught glimpses of his brown leather jacket in the corner of her eye as she pulled towels from the dryer. She couldn’t miss the curl of his dark hair as she dipped into the bedroom one morning on her way to get dressed. She didn’t mention any of this to Nathan – perhaps it was a figment of her tired eyes or a wishful skip of her heart.

Until one Saturday, Louise pulled the coffee from the freezer, prepared to fill the Krups and there he was – leaning casually against the kitchen counter. Louise’s scream caught in her throat and escaped her mouth as a squeak.

“Adam,” she stuttered. “You scared me.” Her scolding tone was familiar – to them both.

“Sorry,” he shrugged away an apology.

“What are you doing here? Does Nathan know you’re here?” she asked, and belted up her robe.

“No. Just you,” Adam grinned sideways at his sister-in-law.

“What happened to you?” Louise sunk into the chair at the table. Questions began flooding her mind.

“I died,” he said with a laugh and joined her at the table.

“I know,” Louise blurted. “But what has happened to you since?”

“Not much,” he motioned to her coffee cup with his long finger, urging Louise to take a sip.

Adam watched Louise place the bright yellow cup to her lips and waited for her to swallow before he said: “I’ve been watching you. And Nate.”

“How long have you been here?” Louise’s green eyes met his dark brown ones.

“Awhile,” he shrugged again, wanting to change the subject. She was uncomfortable with his surprise appearance. He knew she would be. She was always nervous around him: Nate’s younger, leather-jacket-wearing, motorcycle-driving, brother. He had gotten the new motorcycle with her in mind in fact. Hoped that he could, over time, with the right urging, get her on the bike with him up on PCH to Malibu and maybe beyond.

“Are you in pain?” Louise asked him and put her own finger gingerly towards his eyebrow. There was a scar there, just above his left eye. It had been there for years; from the time he was 16. Louise hadn’t noticed it, hadn’t allowed herself close enough to him before.

“That’s not from the accident,” Adam told her. “At least, not the recent one.”

“Everyone misses you, Adam,” Louise told him and her eyes filled from the bottom with clear liquid. “Nate especially.”

“Does he?” Adam asked suspiciously, the same previously injured eyebrow curving into an arch.

Louise drew her hand away and sat back in the kitchen chair. She had always sensed the tension between her husband and his youngest brother, always smelled it like pungent cologne on their skin. The other siblings in between didn’t suffer as much as they had. As they did, she reminded herself. They seemed locked in some post-fetal touch football game, from which neither of them could free themselves.

“Nathan loves you,” Louise stated. Her words interrupted the silence that was stretching between them.

“Nate doesn’t love anyone,” Adam told her. And with that, he was gone.

 

Louise wandered the rooms of the house she shared with Nathan that day and the following days, hoping to see Adam again. She startled herself in the bathroom mirror, while brushing her teeth, or entering the back door with her shopping bags. She ran her hands over the kitchen counter several times where she had first seen him, thinking if she retraced her steps, the miracle could be repeated.

Nathan didn’t notice the change in Louise. He was too preoccupied with his candle burning, his book reading, and, of course, his work. He had always been obsessed with something – other than Louise. His concentration could at times be alienating to those who loved him most. She tried to understand as best she could. But knew that Adam never did.

Just because Louise couldn’t see him didn’t mean Adam had left the house. He stayed up in the rafters, on the seam of the drapes, high above the bookcases and the cabinets. He watched Nathan carefully, studied him in the bathroom as he shaved, in the bedroom as he buttoned his shirt, put on his suit jacket. Adam cringed when he saw his brother brush a kiss onto Louise’s cheek before he left for the office each morning. To his brother, schedule and structure were the ironclad keys to success. For Adam, they were the chains that held you down to a 9-to-5, word-a-day existence, which drove you to your grave long before your body had died.

Yes, it was true. He, Adam, had died in that accident on the 10 Freeway going West, but his spirit was still alive. Nate’s spirit had died years before, possibly even decades when he took on what their father had left him when he retired, the family’s import-export business, and the concept that your value as a man could somehow be measured at the end of your life by the pennies in your bank account and the number of kids you could fit into your mini-van.

 

Adam punished Louise with his absence for three days before he appeared again – this time in the bathroom during her evening bath. There she was with her red hair up in a tie, her head back, eyes closed, soaking in the bubble-filled water.

“Do you think Nate loves you?” Adam whispered into her ear as he knelt beside her face, picking up their conversation right where they had left off.

Louise wasn’t startled this time. She had expected him, breathed in his scent before the words were placed softly into her ear. She opened one eye, which appeared as a sort of wink, and answered.

“Yes. Yes. I do, Adam,” she too whispered, so not to disturb Nathan in the living room at his after-dinner appointment with the McNeil Lehrer News Hour.

“How do you know that?” Adam asked and shifted to sit cross-legged on the bathroom mat.

“You don’t give your brother as much credit as he deserves.” Louise’s eyes were open now.

“I’m just asking.” Adam tried to play it off as a joke.

“You’re not asking.” Louise turned under the bubbles to face him, making sure not to expose her body. “You’re stirring up trouble. Just like you always did.”

“Always did?” Adam’s eyes lit up with surprise. He was used to the competitive debate with his older brother. But coming from Louise, this was new and uncharted territory.

“You know what I’m talking about.” Louise was smiling now, giving in to Adam’s charm.

“No, I don’t.”

“What you’re doing now.”

“What am I doing now?” Adam asked as he slowly crawled over on his knees in front of her.

“Making me like you.” Louise closed her eyes, so that Adam’s lips could come down on hers.

 

Louise wasn’t sure that Adam had kissed her that night during her bath. She wasn’t sure of much anymore since her brother-in-law’s death. But if she were honest with herself, her doubt went back to the beginning of her marriage.

She had met Nathan on a blind date just after her own mother had passed away. Louise had taken care of her mother for most of her twenties. An actress, Brigid Sullivan was mostly known in the theater, but her star had faded long ago. Louise nursed her during the last years of her life, and emerged from her mother’s death what some would have considered decades ago an old maid – her marriage possibilities slim at best. A friend of her mother’s knew Nathan’s family and decided to play the matchmaker.

Louise was very impressed with Nathan upon first meeting. He was tall and thin, well dressed in a suit, and clean-shaven. He had a round face with brown eyes and a long, brave nose. Louise thought perhaps over dinner, and was convinced by dessert, that this was a man who could take care of her. That maybe, she could lean back into him and not have to worry so much, as she had as an only child of a theatrical actress, where regular paychecks didn’t come in the mail, only late notices.

And Louise knew Nate liked her from the start, because of the beads of sweat on his forehead as he tried to explain current tariff restrictions. Or how he quickened his step each time they approached a door, in order to ensure he could open it for her.

After dating several weeks, he introduced her to his family and Louise’s commitment to Nathan was secure. She felt embraced by his large family; his parents didn’t appear to mind that she wasn’t Jewish, instead relieved in fact that their son, approaching 40 now, could make it down the aisle.

His sisters were all chatty and welcoming to her, as they shook her hand while scolding their myriad of children running under foot. And then, of course, there was Adam who always seemed to take the seat opposite her at family events. Louise knew he flirted with her, and was relieved when it was clear Nathan didn’t notice. In fact, Nate always excused himself from the table to review numbers with his dad or to surf the Net for a new software program. So Louise was left to talk to Adam about his recent trip to Oregon on his bike, or a peace march he and his friends had attended.

“You’ll have to come next time,” he would say sincerely before his mother shooed him into the kitchen to empty the trash.

 

Even on Louise and Nathan’s wedding day a year before he died, Adam kept his eye on his new sister-in-law without blinking. It wasn’t right of course, falling in love with your brother’s wife. But perhaps it was the ultimate self-destructive act in the intricate game he and Nate had played since childhood.

Louise knew that what Adam was doing was not fair to Nate. He had been a good brother to him, and she was going to tell him so – the next time he appeared.

 

“Nate should get you a maid,” Adam’s voice slipped into Louise’s ear, as her heart jumped into her throat.

“Adam!” Louise yelped in frustration. “Should I get you a bell, so you stop scaring me to death!”

“Promises, promises,” he said, accented with his signature smirk.

“I want to talk to you,” Louise slammed the dryer door closed, and carried the full laundry basket into the kitchen, dropping it on the table angrily. She crossed her arms across her chest and faced Adam who lingered in the pantry room doorway.

“You need to stop ridiculing Nathan. He was a good brother to you and you have only been ungrateful.”

“Now, you sound like my mother.” Adam moved to the kitchen sink and looked out into the back garden.

“Nathan loves … “ Louise corrected herself “…loved you. He hasn’t cried a tear since you died he’s so upset.”

“Well, that’s ironic,” Adam’s back was now to Louise.

“Why do you want to hurt him, hurt us?”

Louise thought she saw tears in Adam’s eyes when he turned to face her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was doing that.”

Louise began to pace the kitchen.

“Well, you are. And you need to stop it. You need to understand that I love Nathan, always have, since I first saw him. He’s been a very good husband for me. He’s a good provider, serious, dedicated ….” Louise knew she was talking to herself now, trying to convince herself of her reasons for loving Nate.

 

In April, Passover came and Louise hadn’t seen Adam for one full month. So many times over dinner with Nathan, she almost blurted out that she had seen his brother, talked to him. But good sense always stopped her. Would her husband believe her or would he think she was crazy, as she was beginning to think herself.

The family was awkward as they joined together. Just as on the previous holidays since Adam’s death, everyone pretended to be upbeat. It was as if they had all pasted on their smiles while getting dressed.

Adam’s usual chair across from Louise sat vacant, and the family went through the Passover Haggadah routinely, sticking with the rituals of matzah ball soup, manischewitz wine, the egg dipped in salt, and the lamb shank. It was all mesmerizing to Louise whose mother never really celebrated holidays, except for Christmas and it was usually just her and Louise. Even Louise’s birthday was overlooked, or spent at some cramped, after-performance soiree.

It was on the drive home that night in April when Louise finally made her confession.

“I’ve been seeing Adam,” she said, so quietly, Nate only heard a mumble.

“What, Honey?”

“I’ve seen Adam.” She closed her eyes after she said this as she did on a roller coaster about to take a dip.

“You what?” Nathan began blinking his eyes hard.

“I’ve seen Adam, talked to him. He sends his best by the way.”

Nathan pulled the car over on Ventura Boulevard and turned his whole body taking Louise’s shoulders in his hands.

“That’s not funny, Louise.” His face, usually so expressionless, was clenched with pain. Louise was afraid.

“It’s true,” she said, as if confessing to a sordid affair. “I’ve seen him three maybe four times. First in the kitchen. Then the bath. Then the laundry room. We’ve talked.”

“I don’t believe you.” His voice continued to be restrained, not raising, but lowering in the darkness.

“Believe it or not, it’s true. But I’ve sent him away now.”

A million thoughts about Adam filled Nate’s brain. He missed his younger brother, particularly on holidays when the family was no longer intact. He knew he didn’t let it show. The pain was so deep below his heart and stomach, so far into himself that he didn’t know how to find it anymore. It only jumped up into his jaw and surprised him from time to time, like today, like now.

“Why did you send him away?”

“Because…because….” Louise stammered, “He was saying negative things about you. How you don’t love anyone. How you don’t feel anything. I told him that wasn’t true, and he needed to stop saying it. And now I haven’t seen him since March.”

“Well, if he’s gone. Then it’s over.” Nate felt as if he was telling his wife how to deal with a lover, who was now gone, left town, never to return again.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because I didn’t want to hurt you and I thought you might think I was crazy.”

“Well, I do.”

“Think I’m crazy?”

“Yes.”

Nathan started the engine again and maneuvered the car home by memory only.

 

 

On Passover, the angel of death was meant to pass over Jewish houses if lamb’s blood was smeared on the front doorway. For Louise, Adam had passed over her heart when she told Nathan of their meetings.

Although she had missed him at first, now three months since her last sighting, she was relieved. Perhaps his mother was right when she called him a pot stirrer in Yiddish. He was a troublemaker and she didn’t want him to ruin her marriage. She did love Nate in her own way, loved him more now, since the Passover night in the car when he listened to her. With that, her confusion, her own guilt for playing along with Adam, was lifted like the veil from her eyes at her wedding.

She understood well now why Catholics ran to their priest. It was comforting to have someone hear about your sins, and tell you all was going to be fine, in the end. Nathan hadn’t given her a penance. Hadn’t given her absolution. However, just in the process of telling him, her conscience had been cleared.

 

As the one-year anniversary of Adam’s death, and the unveiling of his gravestone, approached in August, Louise became more accepting of Adam’s absence. Two weeks before the event, Louise and Nate were having dinner. They sat opposite one another as usual at the dining room table, exactly a half hour after Nathan’s arrival home from work and exactly a half hour before the news.

They exchanged the common, every-day niceties that couple’s do about their day. Nate had landed a new client. Louise paid the phone bill in-person because she had overlooked the due date. In fact, Louise was describing the clerk behind the counter who took her check, when she looked up to find Adam standing behind Nathan – and she choked the soup into her nostrils.

“Honey, are you okay?” Nathan asked Louise, who covered her mouth and coughs with her napkin. “Do I need to come over there?” he asked, leaning into the table towards her.

“No, no. I’m fine.” Louise closed her eyes – willing herself to open them and not see Adam there in the middle of the dining room. But when here lids and lashes snapped open, Adam was still standing behind Nate, a bemused look on his face.

“Louise, what is it? You’ve gone pale.”

She thought twice about being deceitful, but knew that she had to be honest. “It’s Adam,” she said. “He’s here.”

“Louise. I told you. That’s not funny.”

“No, it’s not funny,” Louise addressed her sentence to Adam.

“Tell Nate he should lighten up.”

“You tell him!” Louise was angry now.

“Tell him what?” Nate was starting to be convinced that his wife was delusional.

“Adam says you should lighten up.”

“Louise. Stop it.”

“Stop it, Louise,” Adam mimicked Nate. “Are you his wife or his child?”

“Oh, you stop it!” Louise threw her napkin in the middle of her bowl and stood up.

“Me?” Asked Nathan, his hand in the center of his chest.

“No. Adam!” She wasn’t sure which one of the brothers was making her angrier.

 

Nathan’s face contorted, as it did that night on the way home from Passover – with pain, excruciating pain. Just as Louise thought his large body was going to lunge at her out of his chair in anger, instead, Nate laid down his head on the table and began to cry. His body, jerking with sobs. Louise stared down at him for a moment, startled, never having seen him release the slightest emotion. This was overwhelming to her. She moved instinctively to his side and gathered him up into her – letting his arms embrace her, they slide together down onto their knees and then collapsed into each other on the hardwood floor. They stayed there, locked in an embrace, Louise rocking Nathan back and forth as he cried. Nathan held onto his wife tightly until his tears subsided. Darkness had filled the house, unexpectedly, because the sun was now set.

Louise focused on comforting her husband, of being of use to him, of having something to offer him, rather than feeling, as she had up until this moment, always dependent upon him. She was so preoccupied in her care for Nathan that she didn’t even notice – Adam was gone.

 

Nathan and Louise stood together in the same place they had stood exactly a year before, beside Adam’s grave. But so much had changed between them. August’s dry heat in the hills of the Valley was unforgiving as it bore down on the tops of their heads. Neither of them heard the Rabbi’s words as he blessed the spot of Adam’s last rest, and tried to make sense of the passing of someone so young. At the conclusion of his remarks, the Rabbi lifted the cloth from off the gravestone, and the small crowd of family and friends gathered there collectively gasped as they saw a photograph of Adam with his motorcycle meticulously engraved on the smooth gravestone.

Louise’s thoughts weren’t on Adam, strangely enough. They were on Nathan. She saw how his jaw ticked and his back stiffened. And between his thumb and pinky finger, he twisted his wedding ring – a new nervous habit that threatened to wear down the gold. In the past, Louise would have stepped away from him, removing herself from what she thought was his non-emotion. Now she knew, instead, that Nathan was containing his feelings because he thought that was what everyone depended upon –relied upon – his strength. Rather than removing herself from him as she used to do when he began to withdraw behind his walls, Louise stepped caringly into her husband. Her body leaning into his. Her right hand slipped into his left – quieting it and him.

Nathan grabbed her hand tightly in his, and leaned down to place an acknowledging kiss on her forehead.

Louise looked up into the trees and knew Adam was watching them. But was glad, as glad as she had ever been, that she no longer could see him.