Your little girl's screams brought the neighbors. Did you know? She was in the back yard; the place of birthday parties, long lost balloons, that friggin Barney birthday cake, Easter-egg hunts, your ashtray up on the fence post, mom's still-going-strong Boston fern in the corner, the pot rotted and cracked, and you working on a bike engine. Oldies on the radio, "Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to shore?" and Grace splashing in the wading pool. There, there, she was screaming and screaming in your quiet, special little garden, with the lawn overgrown, your early-marriage cottage door still open, still inviting. She was screaming outside her home, your lost home, before the only unfathomable terror. There, with every dream gone, your daughter was screaming so terribly that she had to be medicated, begged to be medicated, and all because of you. Did you know?
Oh, how that would have destroyed you. You would have fought off God himself to be there, to stop it, to grab her and hold her splayed against your chest, a victory of love against loss. You would have knelt on the ground and hugged her straight into yourself and sworn it wasn't true, wasn't so. She was safe. You'd have brought out a God-damned rifle to protect her. But you didn't. You couldn't. Did you, my love, my only complete friend, did you know?
When I came back to Moscow, the usual sadness at leaving you, the guilt too, was with me. But something strange happened as I exited passport control, as I had done so many times before, at Sheremetevo. I had felt all the way to New York, and then from Amsterdam, so blue - a feeling we in our family know as well as a guardian angel for the much luckier. Yet as I was walking toward the baggage carousel, feeling as lost as a sinless child beyond the Confession Booth at leaving you behind yet again and assuring myself I would alleviate that by calling you as soon as you were back in LA, something happened. It was a sudden, and for that disjointing, sensation of pure joy. In our family we do not experience joy, although we, perhaps more passionately than some, understand it on an intellectual level. At least that is how we might put it. We understand it as one who once sang beautifully might remember, even feel, in old age perhaps, the smooth, round, angelic perfection of a high "C" sung and left hanging suspended in the air of a small country church on a Sunday morning in summer, when the air is misty and full of heat and that perfect tone swells as full as a hot-air balloon that suggests, just for an instant, "Step on board, let's go home."
So, just for a moment, so small as to be nothing, yet the full pitch of everything, I felt the pure remembered thrill of producing that note. I felt that old and, perhaps only, musical concept of joy. It was all of us gathered round Mom at the piano, singing, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and awaiting the morning. (And no one would creep in and hurt us. And nothing would come between us. And, if only in our dreams, it would snow in Los Angeles. And only we would feel, settling on our noses, the first fluffs. And we would never really speak of this miracle, for others would say it had not been so as we knew they would. But later, in whispers, over and over again through the years, Ralph, we would speak of it to each other, and only.)
It was so full, this sensation, such a definite experience, that I, who have no understanding nor patience for the paranormal at all, felt quite taken aback. It was as if a light had shone all over my face, for just an instant. A kiss from an angel, encountered on a drunken evening in an alley, had found me and given me a poem just down from my eyes, touch upon touch, to my lips. It was as if I believed in morning.
I went into a small lounge. I knew Dima, my taxi driver, was waiting for me. Had texted him that I would be outside soon. But I went into the lounge and just sat there.
There in that quiet dusky room I took a Marlboro off a guy. I needed to be there. I didn't want to leave. I think now that I was sitting and waiting until someone came up to me and said, "Hi Barb." But, of course, no one, nor you, came up to me.
It was always just you and me. People said we looked like twins, although I was blond and you had black, black hair. As kids, with three bedrooms for three girls and a boy, mom and dad finally put us together. Margarete was way too grown-up to share a room, and Snookie was impossible with me, so it was just we two for a long time. We were fine together. Sitting up late, me telling you tales. In fact, most of the pictures from then are of the three girls and then, "Barbara and Ralph". Always, "Barbara and Ralph". There is a picture where dad perched us on the hood of his old Chevy. Me, wispy blond hair, soft dress, you in little boy shorts, looking nervous, our hands reaching towards each other, not frightened of falling as long as we could reach toward the other's hand.
As I was disembarking, or waiting for my bag, or greeting Dima, (the next day I would ask him to take me back to the airport, barely able to speak for my weeping, while he said over and over and over again in heavily-accented English simply, "I am so sorry") something happened. Well, of course. We were always meant to be just us curling up: the ones who tried to be still, quiet, reading in our home. (A childhood friend once told me that when she was first going to sleep over, another friend told her, "Barbara's family is really nice, but sort of weird. They all just sit and read.") We always just tried to slip by, unnoticed, just singing in our living room - people separate somehow to whom we hoped nothing would happen. But Lord, we knew that flame was waiting . Would come.
I never could figure out exactly when, given my flying and the time difference and all - although I've spent hours like a drunken mathematician trying to do so - you got on your wonderful new bike (like the rider you were, you only rarely referred to it as a motorcycle) and rode seven minutes to the highway and it happened. It happened! The truck driver who crossed the line and exploded you, our perfect boy, our always special dream, our writer, our poet, the boy who played the banjo and the trumpet, into an inferno of a nightmare, claimed he did not know what he had done. The considerate biker who just happened to be riding behind you had the decency and grace to bother to tell us you had no chance, were hit straight on, had been doing everything perfectly. That he, also, as a rider, could not have turned nor escaped. The man who slammed into you and pulled your long, strong, beautiful baseball-player body, the body I once held in my lap, the body that once reached down and embraced me when Mom died, when Dad did, -so few special times, my friend, you embraced me- in flames across a field, well his insurance paid up, but he never bothered to call, to write, to say a word, even through his lawyer, about killing you. He never bothered to say "I'm sorry" about killing you, my brother, my love. You just weren't that important. That you were a brilliant writer? Who cares? That you played bluegrass banjo? What of it? That you played the trumpet? That you spoke Spanish wonderfully? That you were a gifted writer? That you at 15 were a boy from a poor family who, on my 20th birthday, had saved enough to give me a quarter carat ruby pendant and say, "I wanted to give you your first ruby, but I hope it's not the last, nor the largest you ever get." That you were Our Ralph? Who? Well that guy, who did none of these things, claimed he had a medical condition that made him fall asleep at the wheel. They arrested him, but the small-town prosecutor, for reasons that I suspect were economic, did not prosecute. Maybe it also helped that the man who killed you was a cop on vacation from another state.
But none of this matters. Forget their statutes and their proclamations and their this and that obscene excuses. This is you and me. I will not give in. I will never speak their language, I will always know the key and, no matter what happens, I will defy the God-damned devil of physics to be with you there in our home. In our living room. With mom at the piano, you adding your trumpet or bass voice, dad as a tenor. We will sing again. And, I don't really care about the strangers. The cops, the prosecutors. That man? Well, he will never have the peace of being fine in anything. I will give him this only; his "vehicular homicide" of you, you (!) made me so thankful Mom and Dad are dead.
The charging horses thundering up through the sands on our beach, crashing into nothingness our leftover sand-castle creation, meant to be toppled only by us, at our pleasure on the next sunny day, were unheard by me as I got into Dima's taxi and we wove our slow way through the waves of the long Moscow-evening autumn traffic. Dima had on as usual, Hendrix. Amid the feedback and our Russian-English chatter, I never heard even the whisper of the coming hooves and the clashing of swords, nor did I hear the bellows at the outside world's victory, won at the end. I was not alert to the suggestion of the lancers dripping in blood. I messed up. I thought it was just a taxi ride.
I did not scream. That surprises me even now. They had been talking about getting a fast visa in order to fly to Moscow and tell me. I could not be made to hear it on the phone. (I called to say I had got home, and Margarete's hysteria told me.) So, as it turns out, I was made to hear it on the phone. God forsook me. I kept thinking that. "He has forsaken me!" Yes, in that so old-fashioned language, I reasoned, or failed to, or shouted inwardly, or whimpered, I don't know. I just know that my love had been killed. No that's not true. That's not true. I did not say that then. I did not scream, "My love has been made to leave me." That was how I tried to put a place for it later. But if I thought at all then, it was, "Oh God, of course." No, no, I did not even think that. I just put on my sweater and walked outside.
I went out and walked and walked and walked around the enormous Stalin building into which I had recently moved. When I think of those first hours, then days, then weeks and months, I remember walking round and round that building. First the autumn leaves stereotypically crunching beneath my feet, then the ice and snow. Over and over, circling the building. Go in, take some pills, fall asleep clutching a flashlight, wake up.
Do you remember that last day? Driving into Gig Harbor? You wanted a souvenir for Grace, your girl. The small shop we first entered had nothing that was quite the thing and, being as how it had the small town ambience, the small town gentleness, grace if you will, the ladies at the shop were sweet about pointing us to another. Isn't that some sort of a weird modern miracle? They even suggested a shortcut out their back door - they unlocked it - down a flight of crooked wooden stairs, and along a back alley toward the recommended establishment. We stepped off the lower riser and you cupped your hand and lit a cigarette. (Like a matinee idol from the 50s, and you were that good-looking too, you could always light a smoke with just one elegant flick of the lighter. You were an old-fashioned Cary Grant, Bogart when you smoked: introspective, the sure suggestion of a gentleman, the very image of a poet. You were naturally classy, simple in aspect, a man from another era, and never more so than when you smoked. The type of man who could have danced, although you would not.)
We walked down the alley. And rather as out of nowhere, to our right, was a lovely chapel. It was a church of course, but anyone with an ounce of sentience would have called it a chapel. White clapboard, simple steeple. I remarked on its loveliness. Said it should be in another place, not there as a surprise past a souvenir shop and surrounded by a parking lot. I imagined it to you in a grove of trees, talked about it in a small town, and going there in an imagined time, a 50s sort of time, a clean time on a Sunday morning when church was ordinary and of contemporary moment; a place of visitation for a happy wedding or the funeral of a beloved grandparent. You understood. We had one of our walks as we had had so many times before. We always and forever could walk for hours in perfect companionship, with or without words. It had always been thus. It was always you and me.
All of those hours on my knees. The late-departing summer sun in Moscow casting a lamplight on my walls as I knelt; its early setting in winter leaving me sheltered in blackness. Praying, praying, oh so sincerely praying for only one thing, one person, you. I added in the others, but even then I always knew that was a cover, a superstition, you were ever and always the one plea in my prayers. The only one. The love of my life. Always, it was about you. Since the day you were born, my beloved friend, my prayers were about you. I can sing, I can play the piano, I once danced, but always, always, my brother, with your wonderful blue eyes, with your brilliant mind and poetic heart, it was about you, my love. It was ever, only, you, my Ralph, my only true friend, the only actual love of my life, about you. It has always been about you.
Mom used to say, and really I don't believe it was completely so, although she remembered it as so, so maybe that makes it so, that your first words were about me. In a family of people who could sing, mom was the only one who could not, absolutely could not, carry a tune. Something still so odd to me that it is as if saying she could not speak English. All of us could sing, and fairly well. Not just me. But she couldn't and she used to say that your first words were these. She was rocking you in that big old blue rocker and singing to you, or trying to, to sleep. You pulled the bottle out of your mouth and said, " Let Barbara"! I don't know if you really did that, but I do know it was my job, night after night, to sing you to sleep. Before the funeral Grace said, "You HAVE to sing for him. He loved your voice!"
Oh, I couldn't. I couldn't. I know you forgive me. I couldn't. I was on a lot of medication. I sang at the burial. I sang a simple Benediction hymn. That was easy. A singer can sing it drunk or really messed up. I suppose I was really messed up. No one knew. Maybe everyone knew. I don't care. I sang it, and drunk or sober, I do know if I'm okay musically. I was okay. I remember going up to Rachel there, near the grave, as they finished it. As they finished it. She was sneaking a smoke behind a car door. I said, "Give me a hit" and she did, no questions asked. Oh how I enjoyed those puffs.
My love, you are the sole one I wish to sing to again. All my life people have said, "Oh, I love your voice." Ralph, you are the only one I wish to sing FOR again. I want to be there at that party where I sang "Send in the Clowns" and you stayed to help clean up but mostly to tell me how you loved my singing. I want to be there in our home, our only home - we did not fit in the world - and sing "Joy to the World" as we sang every year perfectly and beautifully. I want our mother, with her weird Canadian spelling of this or that, to be at the piano as you played your trumpet and I sang "Christ the Lord is Risen Today". I do not care if it is so, just now, Christ arising, I just want to be with you in our home, with my voice, and your trumpet and mom on the piano and me admonishing her "how she should play" it, and me showing her, and her then doing it and saying, "Was that okay?" (I was arrogant with my musicality. Mom was a wonderful mother and musician. She got it right, and didn't kill me.) All of those evenings just us, singing. Mom and dad used to say, "Let's go sing." And we did. We just ran into the living room, mom sat at the piano - she could play anything - and I said, "let's do this" or "let's do" that. (We were the only family that ever went caroling on our block.)
You know, it's all a pretend place. I need nothing more than you. "Someday an old familiar rain, will come along and call my name." And we will be together again, in our home, with nothing to do with the world save kindness and pretense. It will be just us around the piano with those old familiar hymns, those 40s tunes, "Barbara, sing 'Autumn Leaves", Ralph, come on, play." Just us, singing and forgetting all of them. Locking them out. Yes, we will lock our doors and forget all of them. And then we will do something you used to remark upon. I never thought it was odd until years later when you pointed it out to me. We would get in bed and sorta shout down the hall, "Night mom, Night dad" and they would respond. Then we would sing out, "Night Margarete, Night Snookie" and they would respond. And then you and I would say "Night". Sometimes I stood in the hall and sang them to sleep. Do you recall us once doing doing "Silent Night" in the hall, in summer and dad coming out sleepy-eyed? He used to say he had crazy kids.
There is a picture I will never look at again of an impossibly elfin-looking girl, an ethereal girl really, her long bony legs folded beneath her, her white-blond hair tangled long past her shoulders, her body as flat as a ballerina's, which she rather then was. She is kneeling in the sand, her wispy body encased in a pink one-piece bathing suit as frothy and lacy as the sweetest of tutus. She is just so calmly perched on the sand, this soft, sure girl. A ballet-shoes' box next to her doubled on that summer's day as a depository for seashells. She is eight. She sits, folded upon herself, unworried, with her profile half hidden by her hair. Her skin is that burnt pink of the too-fair after a too-long, but not to her, day in the sun. (She will suffer for that day later.) She sits, expectant, with long, imperial, graceful, outstretched arms, palms up. She is, although she doesn't know it, waiting to receive a gift more precious than that shell, carefully chosen, from the black, black, black-haired toddler before her, the plump little boy in red trunks, the little boy looking surely into her eyes, approaching her as a valet, the little boy with eyes as blue as sapphires, the little boy waiting to drop into her hands that perfect shell sought and discovered just for her. She is just, in that instant, about to look up, and with a sureness unquestionable, nor thought to be questioned ("Yes, there you are. It's me and you. I will see inside you forever"), lock onto your round blue eyes. She is about to find you, my beautiful boy.