Arthur, My Cousin and Me

I don’t know how to detangle myself from Arthur. What follows is something like half him, half me. It’s more journal entry than elegy, but it’s what I’ve got.

Remember this if and when you get to the end.

To start with, what I'm thinking and feeling:

I felt like I knew Arthur, up until now.

Then I heard what others had to say and saw what others had to feel, and I realized I wasn't in as much of his inner circle as I thought. His death exposed the truth of my more recent position in his life.

It’s a practical observation, not a dramatic one. I’m not saying he had a dominating and hidden alter ego or that he pitied me with his company. It’s simpler: his death revealed our bond as something innocuously leftover from being kids together, from when we spent serious time together.

I want him back now like I’ve continuously wanted back what we lost long ago, the thing I remember so strongly that's been polished and faded by time. Now, though, that want is double-permanent and legible. Before it was remediable and blissfully low priority — embarrassing in hindsight, like most nostalgia.

One thing that makes me feel better is I know that Arthur held on to that nostalgia too. I wasn't totally alone in my pitiful state. That thread to our shared past was strong for both of us. It gave us a lot to lean on. But without that crutch our adult lives were mostly opaque to one another.

But we were also we were getting close again, involving each other again. Building anew. It's the left hook following the right: (A) It’s a shame we weren’t closer than we were, when he died. (B) It’s a shame our getting closer was cut short.

I guess it makes sense: as adults, we’re all doing niche things, and niches are small and excluding, so everything else trends towards small talk. (And that’s fine and right, because focus is part of growth, and who's not trying to grow? Just try and stay loyal, which Arthur did and my cousins do.)

Maybe it wasn’t so much that I was uniquely outside of Arthur’s confidence, but more that we had both (or all) grown a bit into our own isolation. In any case, I mourn the loss and its new finality.

That’s him and I as adults, apart.

Who was he, though? What can I tell you?

Briefly, some personal context. Who I am is still him, the result of his influence, for sure. Of growing with, then adjacent to him. Then apart, then converging again.

If you distilled me down and got rid of all the litter and trivia, the unique and potent stuff remaining would be similar to what I knew of Arthur. We had some of the same essence, as I saw it.

I can show you a reflection of that essence, and you can tell me if it’s accurate (See: first paragraph’s disclaimer.) (Also, note my calling out our similarity is carefully placed right before I go on to flatter him best I can — tactics, baby — but don’t read my ego into this. What follows is my cousin.)

Arthur and his confidence. An old saying: the pro fails more than the amateur tries.

The subtleties of his personality were sophisticated and complicated. He could spar at an exceptional level from an early age. But he started out wide eyed and lazy, overthrowing a lot of his punches, gassing out quickly.

As a kid, he was autistically independent, preoccupied and hyper focused, but without any of the social hangups. He could talk to anyone and impressed everyone. He was adored, and rightfully so, but he also marched exclusively to the beat of his own nunchucks. You couldn’t bullshit him and you couldn’t placate him. He only gave his attention if he was genuinely fascinated with what you were saying or doing. And isn't this how kids should be: ideal, insatiably curious, and wild. It was my favorite era of his, and where we spent the most time together. I was such an asshole to him, and he still always hung out with me. And we followed each other into a lot of similar interests.

Then he got his first hit of testosterone, and followed a phase where he literally held a fist up in every photo taken of him. Puberty’s rough. That didn’t last long. Reality checked and he stabilized. The important thing is that, from there and then: he knew he wasn’t going to watch, he was going to play. I loved him then, jealously and from a further distance. I couldn’t hang.

Then, maturity. The firm handshake, the direct eye contact, the bright teeth, the smiling cheeks. Approachable, but not daffy. If anything his charisma was a prank and shrewd tactic. A car salesman during the first act. A playful subversion before the intellect and wit made their debut; or, worse for you, they didn’t. You’d start talking to Arthur and think you were walking in on a frat-house breakfast table, then he’d go on to tell you why your problem was really because of what Robert Moses did back in ‘56, or he’d ask what you thought of the Napoleonic victory counterfactual.

To him, your reasons were more important than your choices, which is an axiom of all good conversation, one that most people are afraid to admit because doing so requires the ability to tread water. It’s easier to talk about the weather or watch sports. But Arthur wasn’t afraid of going deeper, and he had the tact to know when it was the right thing to do.

He was a man of appetite. A true traveling gourmand. He could scoff at you from within a seersucker, but he never compared oysters. If a menu offered Seattle’s or Rhode Island’s, he’d reply, “keep ‘em coming” and demand littlenecks or (and) crawfish to follow. He was less interested in varieties of wine, more in varieties of tomato and whether you had a good coarse salt.

He was spoiled rotten — as we all were, and mostly by the same sources — but he lacked pretension, except for that deliberately wielded for ironic effect. Underneath all his developed and developing taste was a lot of comical stoicism — laughing at gross injustice and absurdity, but also doing something about it, literally. His principles were conjured up from experience with the trappings of pleasure, with readings of history, with a variety of surprisingly worldly stories. I always wondered where and how he got it all. The guy had seen things, but not that many things. How was he always so versed? I don’t know, but if you’ve ever watched him eat an entire box of clementines straight up, unblinkingly wide-eyed, in a wrinkled rugby shirt, then you would also know he was more pensive than pleasure seeking.

Entertainment was a defense, one he was growing out of as he realized it interfered with his goals and their requirements. A defense against what? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the typical. On one hand, a lack of patience and a petulant refusal to be bored. On the other, the existential and solipsistic. A defense against the subconscious shame and pain of cynicism. Was love real? Was wealth worth anything? Was the world bogus? Was anyone authentic? Ethical? Himself? Others?

Look, I’m not saying he was overwhelmed with this gooey crap. He was a thinker, not a navel gazer. I don’t know if he even said any of this stuff out loud, but anyone with a brain is going to ask some questions about the life they’re living and the society they’re in, and most of us don’t like the first obvious answers we come up with. Then we do something about not liking those answers. We put fingers in our ears some of the time, we do what’s easy some of the time, and we do what’s difficult some of the time.

And also, anyone with any talent is going to find themselves stuck in between being bored among the average and falling short of their own high standards.

These were Arthur’s struggles, I think. Or maybe we're both just pompous assholes, spurious aristocrats from the suburbs. Or maybe that was just me.

To some, it might seem appropriate to haunt him here in this postscript, as if to justify his death as the terminal approach of a depression into cessation. Let me be clear: this was totally not the case. Instead, the above attitudes are more like the required cost-of-entry to a great show. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it does not mean the examined one is easy to live. The alternative is Judge Judy and a monogrammed armchair. Not for Arthur. Caulfield eventually quits his bitching, but he has to eat a lot of dirt first. Siddhartha finally leaves the brothel, but he had to walk in that door in order to walk out of it later. Hard times are the prerequisite to epiphany. Painful and confusing; but hopeful, not despairing.

And you could tell Arthur was in the company of these characters because the personas he employed became increasingly useful, attractive, and comfortable. From the brawling, pack-leading, indulgent, jokester/show-off into the relaxed, independent, luxurious, conversationalist who wasn’t as afraid to let his guard down, who was increasingly responsible. He was cultivated. He had a tamed self-consciousness (as we all aspire). It was impressive to watch him pull his own strings, to compare that with your own attempts and be humbled.

And thus, as I see it, the irony is that Arthur was finding answers to life’s hard questions in fistfuls. Love was possible. Work was worth it. Meaning was meaningful.

And he was learning patience and conviction, already better at their practice than most (e.g. me). As Dan put it, he was just taking off. He jumped and then a hand reached up from the almost escaped gravity and cut him by the heel.

A complete, but simple tragedy.

Complete, because the good guy lost.

Simple, because Arthur’s life was not some melodramatic airport novel. His death was a lightning strike, a deus ex machina in reverse. A two sentence accident, not an assassination. Not much more to be read from it. Mortality is hard, right? (See, say,... Genesis?).

And for all my elaboration, I don’t even think Arthur was all that noxiously introspective or exceptionally self destructive either. The guy knew how to love and be loved. How to let his hair down, appropriately. How to shift gears and drive forward. How to resist temptation. How to find and be good company. How to stare at a fish tank. How to sit down and read. How to eat fruit in the sun.

He was typically bright, with a lot of flair and personality. I know he was grateful.

Or I’m wrong. Maybe I’m inventing a story to make sense of something more concealed or of pure chaos. I don’t know. I don’t think so.

In any case, it’s a tragedy. And regardless of what is true, I’m still glad I got to hear his story and be part of some of it. He was and remains a good influence to me. He’ll live on for a long, long time. And I keep talking to him.

That’s some of what I knew of him. And given this is my catharsis, forgive me further, but more about me:

Sadness, gratitude, and disappointment.

I’m sad. Still? Yes. Always? Probably not. The inevitability of death hits a certain emotional bedrock after enough love is lost. I’m probably not there yet, still more distance to fall, but things are tapering off, in the aggregate. Maybe I’m just cold.

Sadness is the least interesting. I am separated from someone I love, and that sucks. We all have people we’ve loved, and we are all damned to lose them. But yes, I get those black bile clutches to the chest as I’m reminded that Arthur is gone. And I wanna hold your hand, if you’re feeling it too.

It’s a curse that requires gratitude. Time keeps on slipping, and the portion of time that one spends with good people is shorter still. I’m thankful for Arthur’s good company. From childhood to peerdom. This is what I’ll try and focus on. It’s the mantra I’ll repeat. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Then there’s the sulking disappointment. My head slowly shaking, my eyes unfocused contemplating the loss of the unpredictable conversations, the refreshingly interesting trivia, the uniqueness, the independence, the honed never impersonated taste, the great breadth of knowledge, the artful ball busting, the avoidance of cliches, the shared recommendations, the belly laughs. Obnoxious mutual indulgence — food and talk — during Thanksgiving at Stacy’s table, the shared past at Everit Ave, the just started planning. The feeling of a just missed answer to the question of how to get it back, continuously nagging.

More on that: I’m dealing with a huge mess of unanswerable questions and impotence. There’s so much broken by his leaving, least of all in me, and I can’t fix any of it. No way to organize it. I can’t even help others fix it. Acknowledging the impossibility of the situation seems better than ignoring it, so I will (…acknowledge that death breaks the world and makes inconsistent a lot taken as granted). Arthur’s death is an oily surreal void in the middle of the road. A portal to nowhere. And sure, life will go on. We will preserve. Time heals all wounds. That’s all true. But any schmuck can offer a platitude. I want to be responsible for what he’s left behind, in precise detail. I want to pick up the slack, fill in the blank. But what was his remains his, locked up behind whatever door his soul is now shut. It’s maddening.

I went so far as to tell Olivia that I was her brother, too, and that I would be there for her. Idiot. I love her, she knows I love her, I know she loves me. Yada, yada. I need no pity for my vomiting on the rug. My point is: I can’t be Arthur. I can’t even be close to Arthur. I apologized for being so naive and sloppy, but the moment taught me what I was trying to say above: that I am ignorant of so much of Arthur’s life, and in ways that can’t be remedied by interviewing his friends or reading his book or wearing his shoes, sort of speak. A lot of it isn’t just unknown, it’s unknowable.

This requires more thought. Surely something can be done. Entropy can’t be rewound, but duct tape can keep a plane in the air. So here’s something I’m going to try: I’m going to be more vulnerable. I’m going to expose myself the way a brother or a son might, and see what happens. It won’t transform me into a replacement, and I’ll probably make a clown of myself. But it’s worth a shot. To build different connections, instead of replicas. I can already see that the cousins have been hammered stronger by this. Now it’s time to be deliberate, and keep that train going, if possible. And yea, I’ll do the practical stuff. You can’t call Barb, enough. And I’ll call Liv, too, but with finesse, without overdoing it. And the rest of our family, as well, because we all lost something. For some a spleen; for others, more vital organs.

Moving on.

It’s nauseating to have Arthur’s death aligned and intertwined with so much of my pleasure. I’m a week into marriage. I’m ecstatic and overwhelmed by the potential of my future. I’m also newly terrified of losing a child not yet even conceived. That’s a fun one. Probably a lot more neurosis to come. But, yea… it’s a violent set of waves to endure and ride. It’s crushing and exhilarating, and guiltily I’ll admit, more of the latter. I’m pronoid.

The guilt compounds as I realize that I’m only comparing the conflict between my pleasure and pain, when the actual accounting includes my pleasure, my pain, and all the pain of all the others he left behind, those we both loved. What about Alexandra? Barb? Liv? Dan? A dominating, trailing factor; ego-hidden and selfishly deprioritized. What would Jesus do? Not have a wedding during shiva, although I appreciate all the encouragement and insistence from the also-mourning invitees.

Back to Arthur and I having grown apart and then, more recently, back together:

There exists a line separating most relationships. On one side of the line you have people who have a reasonably complete model of you in their head. (See: Theory of Mind.) On the other side of the line are people who have a functional model; they know what they need to know to get the job done, but they don’t know, perhaps have never seen, the whole thing. For ex., a spouse vs a colleague (most of the time).

The line is called intimacy, and relationships on both sides of the line can be valuable, but the intimate ones have more potential in both directions, fat tails; the intimate ones can yield fortunes and bankruptcies. Acquaintances are tepid.

I described it above, how Arthur’s and my relationship moved from the intimate to the distant. I’ll skip further detailing that transition, and just get to the thing that hurts now: we were getting markedly closer, again. I could see the trajectory of our friendship and would bet on our returning to intimacy and confidence.

If the isolation of vocation and growth drives most bourgeois adults apart and into impersonal silos, then eventual mastery and plateau allows room for a focus on humanity, again. And humanity is universal and objective. People can stand on it, together, and get to know each other (again). That’s where I felt Arthur and I were.

I felt like Arthur and I had taken two separate tracks at a fork 15 years ago, and just recently those two roads started to merge back into the same path. We had stories to tell each other, of our time in the wild. It was the basis for a new bond, perhaps stronger than the old one.

Unsolicited phone calls. Talks of marriage, health, wealth. Suggestions of books and podcasts that were actually followed through with, instead of disappearing into the void like most cocktail party prescriptions. We’d follow back. Not rushing each other past awkward silence. Being patiently invested in one another. Showing up. Talking about vulnerable topics, like fears and aspirations for careers, and relationships, and family. And then, right during the peak of this jubilee, he died. And I doubt that I was the only one whose newfound growth and compatibility were cut short. You’re not alone.

So I hurt for the spent love, yes, like that of most grief. But I hurt more for the lost potential. I had so many fresh dreams that included him. It’s disappointing and sad.

To be clear, I’m disappointed in what’s lost, not disappointment in him. I blame him for nothing, even if maybe I should or others do. But any of his mistakes could have easily been mine, and so I sympathize. I’m not angry. Ambition implies risk. Vice is vice is inevitable. Growth means growth from something. Different contexts, need not apply.

Anyway, what else? The thing I linger on now is a weird faith.

I have little faith or rather I have difficulty finding faith. I scrutinize faith until it’s demoralized. And yet, the discontinuity introduced by Arthur’s absence gives me faith, illogically but compellingly. I don’t strive for it, it’s simply there, point blank. I can’t explain it, but I can describe it:

Arthur is gone forever, and Arthur is part of my future. Both irrevocably true, yet incompatible. What to do about it? Apparently, not much. My mind absolutely and happily refuses to budge. The feeling that Arthur is part of my future supersedes the knowledge that he’s not. Knowing he’s gone does nothing to my belief that my future includes him. So it continues to. Sue me, I can’t help it.

See you in the funnies, Arthur. (More trivia: I never called him Artie or Art or Archo. He was always Arthur to me.)

Lastly, some good, more recent memories:

The last thing I spoke to Arthur about was extensive advice, over the phone, on how to structure a prenup. “Don’t put anything about kids in there, because the courts won’t accept that you understood what you were agreeing to, prior to actually having the kids.” Smart. “Everyone should get one! The courts encourage it! Helps ungunk the works.” Ha. Kelly and I never got a prenup, but the candid advice on such a touchy subject makes me laugh.

Eating a whole pig at a communal table, biergarten style, at Saxon and Parole, in New York. Arthur talking the whole table’s ear off about everything, and then after discussing eating brains, we asked the chef to bring the pig’s over, and he did. Afterwards, walking to our trains, jolly, drunk.

Visiting Arthur in Scotland. Going out to some Uni warehouse party, and me getting lost with some bird. I didn’t have a working European phone, and so when I got home at dawn, seeing him and his big bravado looking like a worried mother goose made me laugh and proud, like a big brother again. Him cooking the two of us mussels and linguine with three whole heads of garlic. Delicious. Steak in Edinburgh, and him showing me the castles like he was himself a duke, personal friends of Hume and Smith.

I wished we went on more walks together.

Us planning on going to Joe Beef, in Montreal, with Alexandra and Kelly.

Him calling me to tell me Anthony Bourdain had died, and subsequently talking about it. “If he can’t make it, who can?” There’s that cynicism again. But it was a candid moment. And we ended that talk, more or less, believing we could make it, even if Bourdain couldn’t.

Discussing whether we were fated to end up like our parents.

Him shooting the .38 up in Gilboa.

Legos, spanky, ice box bedroom, V8-turbo toilet, the pool, the trampoline, the screen porch and its green furniture, endless chicken rolls followed by cold pizza, karate in the basement (no shoes on the mats), rolling on the carpet (i.e. roll mosh), forts, the Barbie game on the gateway computer in Izzy’s room, Snood, army men in the mud ripping up sod by the square foot unit, jealousy listening to Timberlake camp stories, the suburban with 100 blankets in the third row and Don McLean on the radio, toxic farts, the Pokemon store, the Pokemon cards I’d steal from him after going to the Pokemon store, a million cups of Lipton at Barb’s table, Rage Against the Machine in Dan’s car, lanyards, fishing in the Hewlett Bay, Harry Potter, him never sleeping over my house and getting rides home at 2am after attempting to (me pissed), hiding in that lone pine tree in the front yard, making window art out glitter glue, salamanders, watching him attempt to ride a bike in the driveway.

A menial history, but ours. Anyway…

Arthur, you were great. It’s not for me to say that you’re now resting in peace, because I think you were pretty zen while you were alive, in your own pastel-colored kimono kind of way. So instead, I hope you’re as satisfied there as you were interested here. I’ll see you soon, and until then, I’ll try and hold the line for you.

Love ya’.