by Adrienne Pine
(See Part One in SHARK REEF’s Issue Forty-Two)
Four years later, Keith and I were married and living in New York City, and Jordan was no longer a “young bullock without blemish.” He still had his issues with school, and Mom and Dad transferred him from the suburban public high school the rest of us had attended to an elite all-boys private school. During his senior year, he was driving Dad’s car late at night when he hit a tree at a deserted intersection. No one was in the car with him, and he was unharmed, but Dad’s car was totaled. Dad told me about a conversation he had with the parent of one of Jordan’s classmates. The police were tipped off about a party and arrested the man’s son for drug possession.
“How could you not know that your son was using drugs?” Dad told me he had asked the boy’s parent.
The other father had looked at him in the eye. “People in glass houses,” he began, and paused meaningfully.
“What do you think he meant?” Dad asked me.
“You know what he meant,” I said.
But he did not want to know.
Jordan came to visit us in New York. I didn’t know what to do with him. We had almost nothing in common. He wasn’t interested in visiting museums or going to plays or taking long walks through the city. His obsession was comic books. He dreamed of accumulating a valuable collection.
I found his foul mouth upsetting. He couldn’t speak a sentence without a curse word. “Don’t you know you’re a difficult person to get along with?” I told him.
I didn’t think Jordan would shock me, but he did. He told me a story about how he bought a stash of cocaine with some high school classmates and figured out a way to sell it so he made all the profit.
“So you’re not only selling drugs, but you’re cheating your friends?”
“That’s not the way I see it,” he said.
I didn’t like it, but what made me even more uncomfortable was the extent to which Jordan led a fantasy life. He seemed to believe that Keith and I could be his cool, permissive parents instead of the parents he had. The way Jordan glamorized us upset me. He thought Keith and I were not who we really were, which was a graduate student and writer-teacher struggling to survive in a difficult and dangerous city. I wondered if the lure of us was behind his decision to attend Columbia. I was reminded of the phrase in Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding that Frankie Addams uses to describe her brother and his fiancée: “They are the ‘we’ of ‘me.’” Keith and I did not want to be the “we” of Jordan’s “me.”
I wondered how Jordan would adapt to college. All his life, he’d managed to avoid school as much as possible. The one time he went to summer camp, he returned home early because he didn’t like it. He was used to having his own way.
His first act at Columbia was to get out of having a roommate. Unlike his four sisters, he’d never had to share a room, and he didn’t intend to start at the age of eighteen. He went to the office of the Dean of Freshmen and proceeded to burst into tears in front of her. Only when she agreed to let him switch to a single did he calm down.
“You actually cried in front of the Dean because you’d have to share a room?” I was dumbfounded.
He nodded. He didn’t appear ashamed in the least.
I went to see his dorm room. It was in a new high-rise building just east of campus, overlooking Morningside Park. After going to so much trouble to get it, Jordan hadn’t done anything to fix it up. His dirty clothes were strewn all over the floor, and the bed was unmade. The walls were bare, and there was an unpleasant smell of unwashed laundry.
“It’s depressing,” I told Keith that night. “He just doesn’t care.”
I wondered if it was because Jordan, unlike the rest of us, had never had to do any housework, if that was why he was so clueless. I offered to meet him at Woolworth’s to help him shop for his room. It was a tortuous process. Jordan insisted on examining multiples of every item and calculating price comparisons and unit costs where applicable. He wrote it all down in a notebook in his miniscule handwriting.
His indecision tested my patience. “You’re putting too much time into this,” I told him. “There’s not that big of a difference in the prices.”
I helped him carry his purchases back to his dorm. On the way we passed the local branch of the post office. “Come inside with me for a few minutes,” I said to Jordan. “I need some stamps, and there’s someone I want to introduce you to.”
A few minutes later we stood together at the window. “Dale, this is my brother, Jordan. He’s a student at Columbia. And Jordan, this is Dale Earnest. He was born and raised in Tuscaloosa.”
I had been transacting business in the post office one day soon after I moved to New York when Dale and I recognized each other’s accents. He was biracial (as I soon learned), and I was white, but being from Alabama created an immediate bond between us.
“Pleased to meet you,” Dale now said, reaching over the counter to grasp my brother’s hand. “You need anything, you come right here.”
“That’s a kind offer,” I said.
After we left the post office, Jordan expressed his enthusiasm for Dale. I was glad. It was hard for me to know what to do for Jordan. It turned out that Dale was the only friend that Jordan made in New York.
* * *
Mom asked me to keep tabs on Jordan, but I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t want to. I figured he deserved his own college experience, and I was relieved that he no longer seemed to idolize us. Even though he lived less than a mile from us, we rarely saw him, and I was surprised and pleased when he accepted Regina Behrman’s invitation to come with us for dinner at her apartment on a Saturday night in mid-March.
Regina was a journalist and television writer whom we’d met through my maternal grandmother when we moved to New York. Not only was Regina Grandma’s friend, but she was a cousin of Grandma’s sister-in-law, our great aunt Amelia. Aunt Amelia lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where our maternal grandparents were from, and she was the widow of Grandma’s youngest brother Jerome, who had suffered a fatal heart attack two weeks after Jordan’s bar mitzvah.
That was six years ago. Three years ago, Grandma died of cancer. She liked to bring people together, and she would have been happy about this dinner. Regina liked to say that she and I were “kissin’ cousins,” and ever since she had found out about Jordan, she had been eager to meet him. Aunt Amelia’s visit to New York provided the incentive.
On a rainy Saturday night, we met Jordan at the bus stop on Broadway and West 110 Street to go across town to the Upper East Side. Jordan was only wearing a sweatshirt. The hood was pulled low over his forehead, and his hands were stuffed in his pockets. He was already wet.
“Don’t you have a raincoat?” I asked him.
He didn’t bother to answer but stared down at his big feet in scuffed sneakers. When we got off the bus, I gave him my umbrella for the walk to Regina’s apartment and shared Keith’s. Regina lived in an Art Deco building in the East Seventies. The lobby’s curving walls were decorated with mosaic tile, and her one-bedroom apartment had a sunken living room and enough space in the kitchen for an office.
Regina was a tall, handsome woman in her early sixties with an aquiline nose, dark eyes, and a white streak in her black hair, like Susan Sontag. She had lived in her apartment since the 1950s, and it was rent-controlled. She fussed over us, hanging our wet raincoats from the shower curtain rod in her bathroom. Impressed by her umbrella stand, I thought about getting one of my own.
She ushered us into her sunken living room, where Aunt Amelia and her friend Theodora Fanshawe were already ensconced on the couch. We soon learned that Theodora was visiting from London, and that Aunt Amelia was planning to rent a flat in London for the summer and maybe the fall as well. She and Theodora intended to go to Wimbledon together.
“You know the little old lady in tennis shoes?” declared Aunt Amelia. “That’s me.”
I had a sudden vision of the three ladies as birds. Regina was a Little Blue Heron, dark, elegant, and purposeful, inclining her long neck gracefully. Aunt Amelia was a pigeon, with bright, beady eyes and a cooing voice. At first glance, she looked gray and ordinary, but there was a delicacy about her. Theodora Fanshawe in her tweed jacket resembled a Mistle Thrush with a speckled breast, a common sight on an English moor, but exotic in New York City. All three were independent, talkative, and opinionated
Regina had furnished her apartment with mementos from her travels. On her coffee table, a brass tray from Morocco held little bowls of salted peanuts and pretzels. A set of coasters printed with London attractions waited for our drinks. Regina’s bar was set up on a wheeled cart with two mirrored shelves, and she invited her guests to mix their own. Aunt Amelia declared that although she came from the land of bourbon, she was fond of Scotch and milk. Theodora took her Scotch with soda. Keith drank Scotch on the rocks.
“When I was a journalist, I had a wooden leg,” said Regina, “and I could frequently drink male colleagues under the table, but these days I stick to a glass of wine.” I joined her, but Jordan would only drink a glass of water.
I remembered how, not too long ago, Jordan told me that when it came to drugs, he’d “try anything.” I thought his abstemiousness was a pose. It seemed to me that he was always pretending, to see what kind of reaction he would get.
Regina was telling us stories about her treasures. On her sideboard was an alabaster demitasse set she had bought in an Istanbul bazaar. Above the sideboard was a framed photo that she had taken from a bus of Elvis graffiti carved into an Irish hillside. In her dining alcove was a framed poster Man Ray had signed for her when she interviewed him in Paris in the 1960s.
“He was taciturn, even gloomy,” she recalled. “It was hard to get him to talk. But he gave me the poster as a souvenir.”
Jordan was taciturn, too. He retreated into a rocking chair in a corner of the room and responded in monosyllables to any question directed to him. After a while, the ladies left him alone and kept up a lively conversation without him.
Tension arose when he declined to join us at the table for dinner and refused the dinner Regina had prepared of meatloaf, roast potatoes, green beans and almonds, and green salad. I could see Regina was taken aback, and I regretted he had come. All he would accept was a bowl of cut-up fruit, which he ate seated by himself in the rocking chair. He also refused dessert.
Yet, as disagreeable as Jordan was, I think in an odd way he enjoyed himself. Even though he appeared to be indifferent, he rather liked the old ladies to make a fuss over him. All his life, older people had doted on him. Despite his morose appearance, his broken-out skin and the lock of greasy hair falling into his face, a half-smile danced across his lips, near where his dimple used to be when he was a chubby little boy.
He left before Keith and I did. After he was gone, we all discussed him. “Detached,” was Aunt Amelia’s word for him. “I’d like to see him in a year.”
“He’s reacting against his earlier self,” I suggested. “When I asked him about his birthday, he said, ‘Birthdays are bullshit,’ but when he was younger, he used to send out birthday lists of what he wanted, numbered and annotated.”
“I remember how he used to eat a half a pound of bacon at one sitting,” said Keith. “Now he says he’s ‘working on vegetarianism.’ It would better if he ate a balanced diet. A bowl of fruit won’t do.”
“He’ll come around,” predicted Regina. “They usually do.”
I found their general attitude of tolerance reassuring. By the time we left, it had stopped raining, but the streets were still wet. After Regina’s overheated apartment, the cool moist air on our faces and the swish of traffic on the avenues were like a balm.
“I doubt Jordan will stay in New York long enough to graduate from Columbia,” I said to Keith as we headed toward the bus stop.
One night a few weeks later, Keith and I ran into Jordan on Broadway, and when Keith asked him how he was, he pressed his lips together and smiled a fake little smile, then nodded his head emphatically.
“What’s going on, Jordan?” I demanded.
He kept on nodding vigorously and smiling his sickly smile. It was an indication to me of his pleasure in trying to torment me.
“I’m not in the mood for mime,” I said, and we separated rather quickly.
“The family joker is now silent as the dead,” I remarked to Keith later. “It’s enough to drive me wild, but I don’t want to be his mother in absentia.”
* * *
I wasn’t in touch with Jordan the rest of the semester. I left a couple of messages for him, but he didn’t return my phone calls. That spring Lois graduated from the University of Michigan and moved to New York. While planning the move, she and a college friend stayed with us, sleeping on the foldout couch in our living room. In two days, they had rented an apartment in the West 80s, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, and found jobs, Lois as a publicist for a major book publisher. I was proud of Lois. She was practical and resourceful. She was one sibling I didn’t need to worry about.
Years before, when Mimi and I went to college, I to the East Coast and she, a year later, to the West, we vowed never to return to Alabama. We were both unhappy in high school and imagined we’d be better off elsewhere. But when Jordan left for college, Mimi changed her mind and moved back in with our parents after eight years in California. Thus began a pattern, to be repeated for decades, where Mimi would live with Mom and Dad for months or even years. Then she would make elaborate plans to venture out on her own. However, things would invariably go wrong. She would discover it was all a mistake, and she’d move back.
Once she bought a house in the neighborhood where we grew up, just a few miles from Mom and Dad. Another time she moved, sight unseen, to a planned community in St. George, Utah. But no matter where she went, whether near or far, it never worked out. The neighbors near the house on Faring Road had dogs. Although she put in a six-foot high chain-link fence to keep them out, their barking still disturbed her. Because she had poor circulation in her hands and feet, the climate in St. George, Utah, was too cold for her. There was always a reason why a situation that she thought would be ideal turned out to be wrong.
When Mimi came home to live with Mom and Dad as an adult, the family dynamic changed. She commenced a second childhood with our parents, this time as an only child. She jealously guarded her closeness to them. Mimi’s concerns monopolized their attention. Only for Jordan, Mom perhaps might have put Mimi’s needs aside. But he turned against her.
* * *
In June, I called Mimi for her birthday. In a delighted voice, she told me that Mom had tied balloons to the mailbox that said, “Happy Birthday, Mimi.” She sounded like a child instead of an adult turning twenty-seven. My heart constricted with pity. I didn’t know how to respond.
Two months later, when Keith and I returned to our apartment after weeks away, we heard the phone ringing as we unlocked the front door and switched on the light. I recognized my mother’s voice being recorded on the answering machine. She hardly ever telephoned, and although I was jet-lagged, I picked up the receiver.
She hadn’t called to welcome us home. She’d lost track of when we were returning. She wanted to talk about Jordan. In a voice trembling with emotion, she said that Jordan was no longer in New York. He’d moved to California without telling her or Dad. Once there, he called them to say he was transferring to Santa Cruz. He berated them at the same time that he demanded money from them. He said he hated them, and they had ruined his life.
Mom was crying. “I’m so badly hurt I can’t express it. I loved Jordan, my only son, lousy as he is. I thought I had suffered enough from rejection, but I guess life wasn’t through dealing me these blows.”
In the ensuing silence, I hesitated. Did Mom want me to reassure her that Jordan loved her after all? Did she want me to condemn his ingratitude to make her feel better? To get it wrong risked her anger.
“Did you hear what I said?” Mom demanded. “Are you even listening to me?”
“Yes, I’m listening,” I said. Suddenly, I felt the weight of my exhaustion. “It’s only that we just got in, and we’re tired from our trip.”
“My heart’s breaking. It really was a special relationship, and I miss it more than I can say. But it’s gone now and can never come back. That’s what I called to tell you. But I’ll call you back when you’re not too tired to listen.” With these last seven words, Mom’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
I felt my happiness from having been away evaporating. It was always like that. I would return from vacation in a good mood, and Mom would instantly destroy it. She wanted a sounding board, and when I didn’t echo her, she directed her anger and disappointment at me.
Jordan’s transfer to Santa Cruz didn’t pan out. He was back at Columbia that fall, but he was still planning to leave. He called me in December to tell me his application to Berkeley had been accepted. I invited him to lunch at the Mill Luncheonette. He ordered a mug of plain hot water.
“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” I said.
He left without saying goodbye.
After the new year, I was in the post office when I caught the eye of Dale Earnest. He motioned me over and told me a story about my brother. He said that in December, he invited Jordan for dinner. He had planned to take him out for a drink first, but Jordan didn’t drink, so they went to his apartment. Dale lived in a high-rise apartment, and Jordan admired the view. Dale’s wife had prepared a Southern dinner for them before leaving for her night shift, and Jordan ate two helpings of black-eyed peas and rice but refused the meat. Dale told me that he co-signed the lease agreement for Jordan on the rental car he drove across the country. He even gave Jordan his American Express credit card number. I was too surprised to ask him if he regretted it. Dale said that when Jordan left the apartment that night, and he walked him to the elevator, Jordan told Dale that he never could have survived New York if not for him.
“This is going to sound strange,” I said to my husband that night, “but I feel a little hurt that Jordan didn’t come to us. I find him unpleasant to deal with, and I don’t trust him when it comes to money, but all the same, we’re his family.”
Jordan’s second California sojourn was equally short-lived. Before the end of the month, he was back in New York, but he had given up his place at Columbia. We took him in and let him sleep on our foldout couch. He was an inconsiderate guest. He didn’t clean up after himself. He left dirty dishes in the sink. Our living room soon smelled like his dorm room, of unwashed laundry.
“There are coin-operated washers and dryers in the basement,” I reminded him.
He was supposed to be working things out with Columbia and finding a place to live. Mom and Dad called my apartment and wanted to speak to him. When I didn’t know where he was, they yelled at me. The situation was also taking its toll on Keith.
When Jordan spoke about our family, I thought his mind was unhinged. The way he talked, he was a superhero and possessed powers over the rest of our family. He seemed to think he was subtle and cunning. I thought he was deluded. After two weeks, I only wanted him to leave.
He said he had decided to go back to California, and that he was leaving on a 6:00 PM flight that Saturday, which was Valentine’s Day. Keith and I were gone from the apartment all day, and when we came back that night, Jordan’s stuff was still there. We assumed he changed his mind about leaving.
I stuffed his clothes in a laundry bag and piled his books and papers into shopping bags. I took everything down to the basement. If Jordan returned, he could collect his stuff there.
A week passed without word from Jordan. I called home and spoke to Dad. He and Mom hadn’t heard from Jordan either. Dad sounded defeated. I told him we would try to find Jordan. Jordan had talked about going to a residence hotel on West 110 Street. I telephoned, but they had no record of him. I thought of Dale Earnest, but when I went by the post office to ask him about Jordan, he said he didn’t know that Jordan was in New York. Keith inquired at the Columbia Registrar’s office but came up empty. We were at a dead end.
A family friend found Jordan in Berkeley, California. Jordan had gone to his old address to pick up the belongings he’d left there. He’d been in California nine days without calling anyone. I told the super to dispose of his things I had stored in the basement.
I remembered a story my maternal grandmother told me when I was in college, and I was interviewing her for a “life study” psych paper I was writing. She, too, had a troubled younger brother, our great-uncle Ephraim. When Mom and her brother were growing up, Grandma helped Uncle Ephraim leave home in Louisville and move to Birmingham. She got him a job as a bookkeeper for her friend’s scrap metal business, and he lived with her and Grandpa and their two children. One day Grandpa said to her, “It’s your brother or me. If he doesn’t leave, I will.”
“I didn’t think it would come to that,” said Grandma, “but when it did, I chose my husband. Ephraim had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. But I guess he’s all right now.”
Uncle Ephraim lived by himself in a studio apartment and ate all his meals at Bogue’s, the local restaurant. He never went outside without wearing dark glasses to protect his weak eyes. Every Sunday he came over to our house for a visit. He made a ceremony of giving us each a stick of Dentyne chewing gum. Then Mom would sit with him in the living room. They usually talked about their physical ailments. After a while, Uncle Ephraim would leave. Whether he was really all right was anyone’s guess, but he lived on his own and self-supporting.
Jordan was difficult and ungrateful. He had disrupted our lives. Keith was in a demanding graduate program, in classes all day and in the studio until late at night. On the weekends he worked as the sous-chef in a restaurant. I was worn out by my teaching commutes, the cold winter weather, and the constant breakdowns of the New York City subways. On the days I taught in Brooklyn, I would wait for that moment when the N train surfaced on the Manhattan Bridge and gaze out the smudged, dirty windows at the view of New York harbor. Sometimes it would be raining, and streaks of rain would slide across the window before we headed back underground. At other times a yellow radiance would break through the clouds and light up the surface of the water.
The brief interlude where the train emerged from darkness to the view of the harbor, before it descended into darkness again, held a perilous beauty for me, yet I experienced it as pain, a constriction in my chest. I yearned for a different life from the one I was leading. So much seemed impossible to me then. I longed for a loving relationship with my family. I longed to be seen for who I was. I longed for my family to leave me alone. Attached as I was to my expectations, I set myself up for failure.
Copyright Pine 2024