“Surfing,” by Flynn Berry

“He’s missing.”

I am not sure why I said that. It is not even entirely true—he’s not missing in the way mountain climbers, or soldiers, or kidnap victims can be missing. He’s just out of contact. If we made enough phone calls, we might be able to find him.

I look up from my plate. We are sitting outside at a restaurant in Bridgehampton. There are a few other tables of diners out of earshot, and a large tree above us. A warm maritime wind rushes through it. If I focus I can feel it streaming against me. It is satisfying in a way, how you think life is unmovable, fixed, but then a few words can change so much. Madelyn is holding her breath, I can tell from across the table, and waiting for me to say I was joking. I try to remember this effect of words, and to use it to a good end some other time.

“What do you mean?” As we talk, I keep eating. We have a whole pizza bianca before us, and it involves artichoke hearts and roasted garlic and ricotta specked with black pepper. I wonder if they find it strange that I am still eating, but I am not going to stop. They have though, and by the end of the conversation, I will have finished it. I am eating with deliberation, with pleasure, with something like revenge.

I had not planned on this. Certain questions are risky, like Sarah’s minutes earlier: “What does your brother do?”

“Drugs,” I considered answering, but didn’t. He prefers alcohol anyway.

Another time this happened, I was in Amsterdam with a few friends. We’d spent the day doing mushrooms, but by the time of the conversation it was evening, and they had worn off, leaving trace deposits of longing and unspecific regret. We were at a beautiful jewel-box tapas restaurant and were surprised, wary and grateful, to find ourselves readmitted to the civilized, non-drug world. The day was spent in a different city, some non-place place in which electric trams came around corners without warning, a man with a glass eye—“Really? I didn’t imagine that?”—threatened to kidnap us, and a small birch-lined pond glowed with impossible prelapsarian beauty. We went to the Van Gogh museum, obviously, half of its visitors were American kids who’d taken drugs and wanted to see the paintings dance. And they did: the cherry blossoms seeming to actually grow, to pulse out with life, and the wheat fields blowing down to one side, and the cypresses shifting in the wind. The museum is mostly glass, and we gathered at a huge window overlooking the city. Somehow we timed it perfectly, so our comedown coincided with twilight, and both were long and violet.

At the restaurant, Nick asked about my brother and I said, “I don’t know where he is.” I was wearing an oversize black cashmere sweater that I’d stolen from someone early during the trip, and then spent the rest of the time avoiding for fear he’d take it back. The fabric still felt nice—though less hallucinatorily so—and I pulled it down around my hands while we talked about Max.

I would not see him again for nearly two years.

“I worry about it all the time.” It is like living with a constant, low-grade panic attack. If my mom calls me a few times in a row, I look at the missed call record with certainty and with sorrow. I think of what I’ll have to cancel for the funeral. I wonder how long the grief will last, and if it will warp me forever.

The best part about surfing is the fear. It is thrilling, and it rinses away the old, familiar worry. The waves in Montauk are strong, especially in hurricane season. When you fall off at the end of a ride, it is into shallow water over rocks, and I wonder why I haven’t yet hit my head. There are also sharks. Jaws, famously, was filmed nearby.

Once I traded boards with someone. He took mine and promptly bashed it into another guy’s head.

“You have to go to the hospital,” we told him. Blood streamed down the side of his face.

“Do I look like I have health insurance?”

He was back in the water the next day, wearing a tight skullcap, the cut held together by a butterfly clip. I think of him when I fall, wincing, trying to tuck my head.

One afternoon, a pod of jellyfish surrounds my board. A few slide over its surface. They are mostly clear, with a knot of electric red at the center. They are harmless, so I let them hover around me. When I fall into the water, one stings me near my eye. I press my finger to the raised skin and feel more than a little betrayed. I wonder if it might be poisonous. How funny it would be, if I died first.

Once, when we were little, my brother and I talked about death.

“It’s just like being asleep,” he said. Even then, this worried me. It seemed unnatural. He should have been more afraid.

When we were around that age, we often went hunting for ghosts. They lived mainly in the foundation of a house in the woods. I don’t remember now if the house was being built or torn down, just the wide cement foundation and us walking through it. Some ghosts were dangerous. They were still angry and they could manipulate the physical world. “They can throw rocks,” he said. I nodded. But most of them were too weak to pick anything up. They just want to be seen again.

We did not talk about where the other dead were. The non-ghosts. Now, I’d like to think they have something to do with particles or energy, possibly the horsehead nebula, a cloud of pink hydrogen and gray smoke near Orion. Or the massive waves that rise far out at sea, towering one hundred, two hundred feet, and rush forward, and fall back down unseen.

There’s no way to help, or if there is one, it is metaphysical. My aunt in Oregon advises looking directly at a candle flame, a literal way of holding him in the light. I have not tried that yet.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve felt it, the moment he’s in the most danger. And if, at that moment, there is anything I can think or say aloud that will help him. What if, when he is in trouble, I am doing something else?

I feel guilty while talking about him, and more so while writing about him. Do I really want to do this? Use him as material?

Anne Carson wrote a poem about her brother’s death called Nox. It includes a slow, word-by-word translation of an elegy by Catullus, for his own dead brother. I wonder how she felt after writing it. If she felt guilty or ashamed, or somehow clarified. If she had been, in some ways, writing it for years and just waiting for the ending. Maybe on writing the last word, she opened the door and stepped outside into a dark, cold Canadian night.

Maybe she felt relief.

“When did it start?” asks Sarah.

“When he was fifteen.” At first, the rehabs were expensive and almost luxurious. The first looked like a private school, or a small liberal-arts college. It was out west, and I pictured Max walking under purple hills, under a large western sky. It seemed sort of relaxing, or at least cathartic; they had intensive sessions with thoughtful therapists. He met one of his first girlfriends there, and they wrote letters back and forth for months. I only ever read her half, but assumed his must have been wonderful to receive these in return. I think I half fell in love with her too. She was briefly in jail, and she wrote that the thing she missed most was being able to pick out clothes in the morning. At the time, this struck me as deeply perceptive.

Rehab had a level of cachet then. It was more than a little glamorous. He read a lot of books, and had long talks with the troubled members of well-known bands.

The rehabs now are holding pens. They are places where he can detox. They are places where he has a lesser chance of dying. They are run by the government or Christian groups, places like the Salvation Army, and they are in urban areas. He does not go for long walks under purple hills. I wonder if they are even allowed outside.

The problem, at first, seemed to be what you gave up by becoming sober so young. What would you do in college? How would you get through young adulthood without drunk, streaming, neon weekends?

Now—now the problem is that there is some dark pool that he keeps pulling himself out of, and then getting tugged back into. I do not understand its composition or its source. I imagine him choking on its banks, and then a white skeletal hand grabbing his ankle and pulling him back down into the water.

“Why do you think it happened?”

“I don’t know.” Sometimes, in the womb, one twin engulfs the other. The surviving adult might feel a hardness in her thigh or side. I was born three years later, but still somehow I have subsumed his happiness.

More than once, he has gotten himself to an emergency room with no memory of what happened to him. He had a seizure on the street and ended up at a hospital for treatment. Hours later, doctors were confused by his behavior. They tested him and found, bafflingly, that his blood alcohol content showed he was drunk. He had gone to the bathroom to drink Purell.

Once, he ran through Grand Central to escape from the people he thought were chasing him. He ran down the stairs onto the tracks, then sprinted down the platform until he was past the lit section. He was running and then suddenly there was nothing beneath him. When he landed, he shattered the bones in his foot. He crawled back the length that he had sprinted, until someone saw him and went for help.

I wonder what I was doing at exactly that moment. The moment he was in the bathroom, considering the pool of disinfectant in his hand, the moment he tumbled from the train platform.

It is like living two lives. In this one, I foster a dog. His name is Alfred, and he is a pit bull with a lovely brindle coat. He avoids subway grating and barks at strollers, of which he is inexplicably terrified. His fur smells like smoke, like hay. I like to fit my forehead on the crown of his skull, my nose resting on his. In this life, I go surfing. The water is green, the moon above a pale yellow imprint on the sky, and small waves carry me in over, and over.

In the other life, I am walking next to my brother as he steps into a new nightmare.

“It’s strange to be here when he’s off somewhere. It’s so perfect.”

“Especially that house,” says Sarah.

Hours earlier, I am sitting in a hammock in Laura’s house reading a memoir by a former crack addict. The house is almost eerily beautiful. Her parents bought the house next door and landscaped the two together. Pollen filters down the wide expanses of lawn. At night, the trees are lit up, like sculptures.

“We’ve rearranged some trees,” her mother says. We nod, not thinking of what that means, the massive root systems involved.

They had always wanted the house next door. It was not on the market, but the owners finally agreed to sell it. Her mom is thrilled and vindicated.

“It might take a while, but you can get what you want. Nothing is unattainable,” she says. She likes how this sounds, so she repeats it. “Nothing is unattainable.”

I am not sure why this is the applicable lesson. The more obvious one seems to be: Money can get you what you want.

In my book, the man begins to spiral down. He orders rent boys, drinks bottles of vodka, smokes crack for hours and hours. I think: It’s not so bad. He’s sober now. He used the advance from the book to buy an apartment in the West Village. He is not, say, homeless.

At what point does someone become homeless? Max does not have a home, and definitely not a job. He has spent nights on the street. But that word still seems premature, and damning.

From my window in the city, I have a clear view down Saint Mark’s Place. There is often someone leaned up against the corner of the building opposite mine, someone in various stages of delirium or distress. Once I watched a man slide down until he was entirely laid out on the sidewalk. I watched, telling myself to call an ambulance, until someone else did.

So here is the worry. I will go out with my friends. We will be walking quickly, in the way we always do while on our way out, and I will step around someone on the sidewalk. It will be my brother.

The last time he went missing, he was found on the street. He had been beaten up, but did not remember it happening. I was fine through the day, but then at a friend’s apartment I went into the kitchen to get a beer and began sobbing into the open fridge so hard my face took on a tight grin. The cold air felt good on my face, so I kept it open even after I slid down into a crouch before it.

At my parent’s house, I found a picture of Max, aged three, having a conversation with our mother. She leans across a table towards him. He looks a little pensive; they both look very serious. Once, my brother told my mom that he had been an old man in China before he was her little boy. I think she believed him.

In the class picture from his magnet school, he wears a white shirt and blue suspenders. He loved Legos, obviously, and dinosaurs, and space.

From the album, I took a photo of him wearing what appears to be a handmade bee costume. It is a cardboard vest painted with gloppy yellow and black stripes. There is a paper crown on his head with his name in upside-down letters. The antennae droop. He is incandescent.

“Are you close with him?” asks Sarah, fiddling with her straw.

“No.” And yet. Our first big heartbreaks coincided, and he was sober at the time. We talked a few times a day. He said, “There’s this guy in the office, Steve. His fiancée left him and he didn’t speak for six months. No one knew his name until last week.” This was hugely reassuring.

When he was about eight, Max told me that a family of elves lived in our bathroom. As proof, he removed a loose porcelain tile from the wall and pointed back to what looked to be a network of tunnels, of rooms. I leaned forward. I didn’t see anything.

“They were probably scared of you.”

It was nearly Christmas. The main elf (his name, of course, was Elfy) began to leave behind traces of his work. Max slid back the tile and gasped. “Look!”

And I reached my hand in to take out a shred of wrapping paper, or a bit of green fabric. Max once saw Elfy’s dog, an elfin golden retriever. Sometimes there would be a minuscule note written to me.

“Look! He was just there, he’s running down the tunnel!”

I remember sticking my face into it to look. I was probably jumping up and down. I nearly saw him.

“I’m so sorry,” says Madelyn. They are so much better than my boyfriends have been. When I tell a boyfriend, he often says, “If you ever need to talk about it, let me know.”

This is the point at which I know the relationship will not last. What a stupid thing to say. I always need to talk about it, and I never do, because the only thing I want to hear is from him, and it is: “I’m better. I’m going to be fine now.”

“What is he like?” This is a good question. The boyfriends never ask it.

“He’s the smartest person I know.” As a kid, he read The Way Things Work and actually came away from it understanding how things work. When he was twelve, he wrote a letter to the author of a book called Hyperspace, which is about string theory, parallel universes, and the tenth dimension. The author, impressed, invited him out to lunch. My mother called to ask if she could come too, explaining that he could not yet drive.

I’ve learned much from him, like that in jail, people love Scrabble. There’s an entire jail-Scrabble culture, and the inmates are phenomenal because they have enough time to memorize the Scrabble dictionary.

Last spring, when I was eviscerated by a break-up, he sent me this, from Marcus Aurelius: “This is misfortune, but to bear it bravely is good fortune.” He relapsed a few weeks later.

I hope he repeats it to himself often. I hope he sees himself at the end of this. He’d quite like Portugal, I think. I hope that today he is thinking of himself in Portugal, with a Portuguese wife. They have a small house in the country, not far from the ocean. It’s been fifteen or so years; he’s in his forties. They have a large garden that trails out into the rocky hills, and he is an academic, a mathematician, maybe, or an astronomer. He sometimes looks up from his desk, remembering, but he does not often think of those years.

“Do you think he’ll get better?”

They do not actually ask this. It is too difficult a question. And I don’t know what I think.

The next day, I pick my way out through the shallows. The rocks are barnacled and slippery, and the water between them is full of black sea urchins. I think about this ocean farther out—its deep geysers, its ridges, its collapsed lakes of lava. I start to paddle out to the point where the waves stop breaking, a quarter mile or so from shore. Bad news does not reach you in the water. Neither does good news, but I have no need for it. I am full.

On the drive home, I keep the windows open to the marshes, the long road, the grass-bristling dunes. I am quiet. The long-burning, low-grade panic attack is gone. It has been replaced with a deep, animal contentment.

This feeling will last through the drive, and through an outdoor shower. Above me the dark pines move in the wind, and the moon is now white and full and heavy. There are brown pine needles on the soap, which I find inordinately pleasing.

Even in the dead of winter, months after I have been in the water, I dream about surfing. The best one was set somewhere in the South Pacific. The sky was pink, and to get to the water I walked through a forest hung with huge yellow lanterns. I paddled out past a large rock, water streaming from it as from a whale’s baleen. There were long green waves, and the sky above me was cratered and dimensional as a reef.

At the restaurant, we stop talking about Max. The wind moves through the leaves, the waiter brings us more soda. Madelyn begins to tell a story. I am half listening, and half playing the game I always play. It is, What would I give up for him to be okay? And not just sober—alive.

My parents have also played this game, I’m sure, and they have never reached its end.

Sometime that week, my father goes down to the beach to watch a storm at sea. It isn’t yet raining where he stands, but the air has some electricity, some static. He is in divinity school; maybe he thinks about the next paper he will write. His last one was based on Ecclesiastes, which is bleak but comforting. What I remember now is a recommendation, in times of trouble, to take comfort in the glory of God’s creation. “Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away.”

At sea, the storm raged on. Lightning shot from clouds down to the ocean but, even better, he saw lightning run from one cloud to the next in horizontal bars. I did not ask what he thought about while looking at the storm. I imagine he thought about Max. I imagine he took comfort in the glory of God’s creation.

One of the dreams I have about surfing is that the waves break far out, deep in the middle of the ocean, and so the ride lasts, and lasts. Sometimes I think of actual surfing as fragments of this dream. It is a few seconds, shards of time only, but it is part of a great, unknowable whole.

One night, I stay in the water later than ever before. Cars light up in the parking lot, the headlights sweeping across the empty beach.

It is a weekday, and I am alone in the water. Stars come out overhead; the moon is pale and crenellated against the sky. Water laps under my board, and the knobby wax on it still smells faintly of coconut. The water turns dark before the sky, but in movement it is streamed with silver light.

I look below the board at the shapes of rocks passing beneath me. It is exactly like flying.

And then—there is no panic, and no worry, only a great swooping quiet, and nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away. There is only water running below you, and you are disappeared, and you are missing.

Here is what I want, out of the many, many things I want. I want to go to Berkeley to our old house in 1987. I want to hang out with my brother when he is four, when he is bright and goofy. His hair is blond and he is three feet tall. Maybe we’d head up to the chaparral in the hills, and walk hand in hand under the eucalyptus trees. We would sit on a fallen tree at the top of the ridge. Somewhere, in a house in the flats, are our parents. Below us is the wide shining bay, with no trace of the fog he loves to watch come in. There are the tall white shipping cranes that he thinks look like dinosaurs, and everyone in this area knows inspired a certain robot in Star Wars. He does not know what will happen. He is excited, he can see only good things. He recently got a small red microscope and he loves it with a fierce, abiding love. He will tell me what he knows about dinosaurs, and about space. I will tell him to be brave. That he will be fine. If I think about it closely enough, maybe it is true. Maybe it is happening right now, in one of the universes, in one of the dimensions, that I can’t see. He tilts his head, voice excited, telling me about a supernova. There, smell the eucalyptus. Try to imagine it better. Nothing—is unattainable.


Printed with permission from Flynn Berry, copyrighted by Flynn Berry @ 2012. This piece originally appeared in Issue No. 12 of the Los Angeles Review.

Author: A Room of Her Own

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