In boyhood, my brother was a fugitive of the world’s natural laws. He starved himself against his doctor’s sustenance lectures. He laid awake in defiance of the psychiatrist’s insomniatic warnings. He removed the tape with which his tennis instructor had wrapped his splintered wrist, insisting loyalty to the pagan theory that a decaying body ought to be allowed, free of intervention, to go the way of the flesh.
After his best friend drowned this Christmas up at Hanover, he became a fugitive of the world. Two years ago, he wore laurels as Alexander the Great in our school production, and off the stage he might have as easily been that man. His Princeton acceptance is a piece of mail he’s neglected to answer, however, and his mind one abhorrent of the intellectual pursuits through which he used to domineer.
He lives in an apartment above a watch store in a Tudor building in Princeton, NJ. A block and Aaron Hill’s waterlogged lungs separate him from campus. Retaining the graham-colored hair and strong jaw which marked him an actor, he is a model on the cusp of nineteen. He hasn’t orated Shakespeare to his mirror in eight months, however, or finished a box of Kleenex and Jergen’s in nine. He’s a wrapper, if an attractive one: the bone and skin cocoon of the person he used to be.
He has a desk pushed up against the window. If you sit there you can see the gates of campus, the jet-black iron he once imagined crossing, as into the garden of celestial reward. He keeps the screen down. He doesn’t sit at the desk anymore.
Around New Year’s, he wouldn’t let me into the apartment. I left him frozen crab-cakes, which he used to like, and a note asking if he’d remembered how dad used to tell us we were his “sunshine, when skies are gray.” In the morning, I found an un-opened freezer box smelling of Maine. On the yellow journalist’s sheet, he’d circled “skies are gray” and signed “your raincloud-contained broth., Jamie.”
Last week, however, my persistent knocking was met with my brother’s disgruntled, tired face. “Walter,” he says, stepping backward. He wears a Princeton Champion sweatshirt circa high-school, plaid pajama pants, and lambskin slippers.
I stare at the name of the University across his chest. “You thinking about—”
“Force of habit,” he says. He returns to the couch where Casablanca is playing on a dinosaur-sized TV.
“Brought you something,” I say, rifling around the kitchen. From the meticulously ordered utensil drawer I extract two spoons. The apartment is eerily clean, like a museum of someone’s crisis instead of a crisis itself.
On the couch, I hand him the carton. His eyes are fixed on the TV, where a smarmy Humphrey Bogart pours a reluctant Ingrid Bergman a glass of cab. “Maple Nut,” he says, the texture of the famous New Hampshire ice cream announcing itself beneath his teeth.
For a minute, it is quiet. Jamie slowly eats another spoonful as Bogart leads Bergman in an aggressive kiss. His face is emotionless, his body unmoving except for the hand which moves the spoon in and out of the Maple Nut carton with the mechanism of a rig.
“I realized something,” he says.
“Gimme that.” I take the carton.
“About that joke Dad made at the grad party.”
I eat beside him in silence.
“My sons—”, he said, imitating dad’s verbal composure. “I told them they’d be happy anywhere. Princeton or not. Or unhappy anywhere.”
I passed back the carton. “The world’s dead to you after Aaron.”
“I thought Dad might be right,” says Jamie, “But I wanted to be sure.”
“I went down there.” He nods at the window. “To campus. Concert at Alexander Hall. You remember how we used to like that? To sneak in and sit there when he was still there? Have brownnosing undergrads court us? Wear sweaters and gel back our hair. Eat peanut m and m’s.”” He is now eating the Maple Nut mindlessly, muddling his words with spoons of cream. “Listen to Bach. All that crap.”
I take back the carton.
He sits up momentarily to face me. “All I had to do was step into the lobby to know.” He settles back into the couch now, pulling the throw blanket under which he was sitting up to his shoulder blades, taking the Butter Nut carton back and nestling it in the space between his two ribs. Tucking his arms at his sides as though to dive back into his cinematic amnesia, his diorama life of North Africa, of bead-fringed entryways, of passionate movements to subsidize not only his own lack of them, but to mask from him his own lack of want for such things.
My brother’s breath smells like pecans and maple and is cold with caramel cream. I am in his little apartment above the Tudor building watch store, but I am not with him, and he is not with me. Beneath the cashmere throw, his feet are erect as those which grace a sarcophagus.
“It was nothing to me,” my brother says in a voice that I would prefer to but cannot bring myself to call sad. “It was nothing, Walt.”
A clump of pecan and caramel ice cream marbles his speech until it is like that heard underwater. “Rarthin. Rarthin sho me. Jush a pribby shomb.”