Take it or leave it.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

MORE HERO THAN HERO

So I'm with my brother Justin. We're sitting in my Jeep in the Santa Monica Civic Center parking lot getting ready to go inside to see the rock group White Zombie. Justin had won 2 tickets from the radio station KROQ. Boy stayed up half the night dialing in before finally getting through. He's always been persistent. He invited me though metal is not my thing because by his own admission he has no friends. I can sympathize. Because neither do I.

Before we exit the car Justin pulls out a joint and takes a hit, despite its being broad daylight and our being in a crowded parking lot. This being August of 1995 and four in the afternoon on a Friday. He hands the joint to me. I'm not the seasoned smoker that he is, in fact I hardly touch the stuff, least of all in public. It makes me feel unsafe, and I've always thought it invites negative energy into the mix, makes you susceptible to other people's bad vibes. At least it does me. But I take a small hit anyway, just to satisfy him. Don't want him thinking his older brother is a wuss.

We are at the entrance waiting to hand over our tickets. I am dressed in white Bermuda shorts and a white polo shirt. So preppy I look like I just stepped off the courts. And I have on Topsiders. I'm feeling very out of place. I look around at my fellow concertgoers and wince. It's like someone let the underbelly of society loose and they all congregated here. I have felt safer at Raiders games which everybody knows are like prison yards attended mostly by ex-cons. At least Raiders fans are ex-cons, unlike these criminals. Vacant stares, skin so white you can see neck veins, pock-marked complexions and guttural voices that you'd swear were let loose from the bowels of hell. Avoiding eye contact (bad vibes, remember?) I try to look straight ahead at nothing in particular. I wish I had grown a goatee, to hide behind. Leave it to Justin, always pulling me out of my comfort zone.

I glance at my brother, who is laughing to himself. At me or is he just having a good time? He clearly feels right at home in this milieu. Why wouldn't he, with his concert T and baggy black Levis and combat boots and wallet chain and tongue piercing and his black hat and tats. I think how different we are. Must have been some gene pool we swam out of.

Inside the arena, the concert is already underway. Zombie is onstage in beard and makeup, his hair in dreads. He's darting around frenetically from one end of the stage to the other, like a man being electrocuted. The music is uncomfortably loud. It jars my whole body. I know afterwards my ears will ring for at least a day. This is me being an old man, and I'm only 22. Justin and I locate a place to sit down. No assigned seating. Just bleachers, like you would find at a high school basketball game.


I sit through it, crouching into myself like a constipated person trying desperately to evacuate his bowels, butt cheeks so clenched I could crush a diamond. From the stage the sounds rage at me like cannonballs. The speakers, as large as baby elephants, vibrate on their platforms. I only recognize one song, Zombie's More Human Than Human, which all summer long has been reverberating in Justin's room. Justin seems to be enjoying himself. He says nothing, though he looks over at me a couple times. I can't tell if he's wondering whether I'm having fun or just making sure I haven't disintegrated.

In front of the stage a mosh pit forms. Teenagers mostly. Some of them twice my size, and not just males. They are swirling around and slamming into each other. They wear that stupefied expression I sometimes get when I've drunk too much beer. Justin asks if I want to join in the fun. Go right ahead, I say. He laughs but doesn't budge. A friend once said Justin had the mind of a 250-lb linebacker in the body of a 98-lb weakling. That was when he was 98 lbs. Now he's probably 135. I guess the linebacker in him decided to take the day off.

The set seems to go on endlessly. I can't wait for this show to end, I hear myself think. How did I let myself get talked into accompanying my brother to this madhouse? But I say nothing to Justin, who is now bobbing his head in time to the beat and mouthing the lyrics. Finally an intermission. Justin suggests we buy some snacks. I am grateful to get away, anywhere just away. I swear I'd feel more at home in prison. At least there they make the inmates shower now and then. Unlike these filthy creeps. This place stinks. I need a beer. (This is me feeling insecure.)

This is not a dream, though it feels like one. A remote one. One I awakened from a long time ago.

The concert finally ends. Praise Jebus. We cruise Main Street, in Venice. We stop for a bite at this restaurant called The Galley. It is made to look like the outside of an old ship. We order draft beers. The waiter asks to see our IDs. Justin, who turned 21 the month prior, proudly displays his driver's license for the first time since becoming an adult. We order steaks. I ask for mine to be medium, but it comes burnt to a crisp on the outside, though the inside is still somewhat juicy.

After dinner we step out onto the patio. Justin lights a cigarette. I may have had a cigar I don't remember. We feel like men. This is the first time we have gone out alone as two adults. We are more than just brothers. More than just men. We are friends. This is also the last time we go out together. Later that year I get a job at a restaurant. This is where I spend my weekend nights. Justin, who graduated high school two years later than his peers, enrolls at the city college and works at a coffee house. Come the new year he has quit school and gotten fired. He spends most of his time drinking, smoking pot and watching the tube. There are worse ways to pass time, but not many.

The following summer I move out of the house. It's time I go out on my own. Justin can't seem to understand why I would want to leave without him. I don't know what to say. It's just my time. Your time will come, I tell him. Sooner than I think. A week later he gets diagnosed with cancer. The doctors give him six months. Before the year is up he dies. I often think back to that day by the beach with my brother Justin, how I felt so out of place and had no taste for the music. How I was so outside my comfort zone. How much fun I had just being with him. How things change, like your taste in food and music, things change.

Since then Rob Zombie ventured out on his own. As a solo artist he's had modest success, come out with a couple solid albums, which I went out and bought. Some of my new favorite rock songs are on there. With names like "Never Gonna Stop" and "Demon Speeding" you can imagine they're great to listen to while running. His movies are pretty good, too. I probably wouldn't be a fan if not for Justin's introducing me. I have Justin to thank for a lot of things. Many of them often go unnoticed, even by me, which doesn't make them less important. Maybe more.

They say that the hardest thing to get through in life is a parent's loss of a child. I have no doubt that this is difficult. I saw how my folks suffered when Justin passed, and how it went on for years, still does. His death broke them up. But at least they can remember a time when their son wasn't around, a time before he was born. Not me. We were only separated by 16 months, so most of my earliest memories involve my younger brother, our lives inextricably entwined. When he died part of me died as well. It's like being an amputee. This is me feeling phantom pains in my heart.

But the pain is of a bittersweet sort, the growing sort. It's so easy to take a friend for granted. I thought Justin would be around forever, or at least for as long as I lived, and what young dude doesn't think he will live forever. Even though he was reckless and accident-prone. What wayward teen isn't? But just like that he was gone. An appearance in consciousness.

No amount of rationalizing will bring him back, or wipe away the longing, but the longing itself is another of life's many flavors, itself an appearance in consciousness, something like the oddly enticing flavor of those burnt steaks, something to be savored. I see now living in the house we grew up in how much things are different with him gone. He had such a presence, always the center of attention, which for a guy like me who prefers to be left alone, was a good thing I realize.

Don't get me wrong. After a certain age we weren't all that close. I went through a growth spurt at in the seventh grade and almost overnight I towered over him, a foot if an inch. I had my baseball buddies and would hardly let him join in our games. As a teen he was closer with our younger brother the baby of the family than he was with me. But we took several trips together, including to Brazil and to India. I had to always play straight to his Hardy, or is it Laurel? And when he wasn't out raising hell and crashing cars or chasing tail and doing drugs with my girlfriend's father, he was in his room just across the hall, usually listening to metal, smoking and probably fantasizing about chasing tail and crashing cars - or jerking off, as he called it. Whenever I needed Justin there he was, just a stone's throw away. But it was he who often came and talked to me - maybe because he knew how much I needed him.

We were so different, our tastes mutually exclusive in so many ways. Take music. He was into metal, while I preferred love songs, though our tastes converged around power ballads. Somehow we both appreciated Bette Midler. And recreation. He liked to smoke and drink, I preferred lifting weights and reading books. Once we did both together. He supplied the LSD, I spotted him on a couple sets of bench press. I don't recommend lifting weights on acid. It was one of the only times we fought.

I am dark-skinned and dark-eyed, he had porcelain skin and eyes a beautiful shade of grayish blue. There was no competition, but also little common ground. Except the love. And where others would criticize his smoking or laziness I respected him for being himself. When he got real sick with the cancer we had to move him into what had been my room since early teens. He was hesitant. But it's your room, Adam! I felt bad that when I was 14 I had moved him out so I could have a place to make out with girls. I said I'd be honored if he moved back into the room. It was about time. Once ours, always ours, right Justin?

When he was settled in, and I was about to go back to my own place, he asked me please not to leave him. He said it in a whisper, like he was almost embarrassed. I said of course I'll stay. Three nights later, I was asleep on the floor by his bed when he died. I write these words in the very space he took his last breath. Which was also the very space we used to play together as toddlers in his crib. Oh, the cycle of life.

Growing up there were a few times I hit my brother. Not hard, just smack him around a little, to make him behave. He was so wild, and liked to test you so! And words never seemed to work! How he could press a person's buttons. Afterwards I'd feel terrible. I'd sit in front of the bathroom mirror and cry my eyes out. I stopped trying to keep him in line some time during our early teens. But other kids picked up where I left off. No shortage of playground bullies, and with his glasses and braces, his scrawny legs and flat head, he was an easy target. I'd defend him when I could. But Justin still got more than his fair share of butt-whippings. Like I said he could really press your buttons.

Growing up, many of my best times coincided with Justin's worst. I made the All-Star team at 14 on the day he fell out of a tree and cracked open his head. At 17 I was elected most popular kid in school around the time he had to undergo surgery to relieve intracranial pressure induced by that fall. It was like he took on all the hard stuff, like he was my shadow. Like he was the wind beneath my wings. He'd call me cheesy if he heard me say that. He is burning off the family's karma, my parents, who believe in that sort of thing, used to say. Maybe they wished to endow him with a higher purpose, to justify all his hard knocks.

At his funeral the priest called him the lamb of God, just like Jesus Christ who "died for our sins." Maybe Justin died so I could truly live? I know after he was gone I let loose a little. Ditched the Polo shirts, started rocking to Metallica. And maybe he was God's magic instrument. When we went to go see Sai Baba, who my father reveres as God, the holy man made us sweets and fed everyone out of Justin's hand. Except me. I always wondered at the symbolism of this. Justin always used to say, usually when we'd smoke pot: "Adam, let's work together some day." I didn't know what he meant. Our skill sets were so different. Maybe he's helping me write this.

So let's let Justin speak. What would he say? When a loved-one is lost, even before his time - and it's always too soon - his memory feeds the relationships that survive. Aware of the transience of it all, you live more fully and love more deeply. And so the beloved lives on. And in other ways, too. As a wise man once said, "Think of me and I am with you."

Then Justin is with me all the time, because bro, I think of you every day. And speaking as myself I just want to say, "You gave me the strength to be me. And for that, you're my hero. More. Because you were so unsung."



This is not a eulogy. I gave one at his funeral. This is just me telling my brother how much I love you and how fondly I look back on our brief time together. And happy belated birthday, bro. Somewhere you are 41 years young. You'll always be 22 to me. Now excuse me while I go fetch me some Kleenex. I think that chair in front of the bathroom mirror is calling.

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