Sunday, September 4, 2016

My Sister’s Boyfriend

I remember my sister’s first boyfriend in flashes. Sitting in the backseat of my father’s car when he picked up a bee that was freaking me out with his bare hands and tossed it out the window. Singing and playing guitar to songs by Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Telling me that he wished he had a cool younger brother like me.

My sister had other partners. An absurdly tall guy who busted my balls before I was comfortable enough with him to appreciate it. A bearded computer programmer who drank a lot of Mountain Dew. An guy who flooded the bathroom when he showered at the house. The guy who turned out to be her husband who, quite thankfully, turned out to be the kindest, most balanced, funniest, and most stand-up guy of the bunch.

But for all of the people in between, and all of the passage of time, I suspect I’ll always remember Jim.

I caught glimpses of his relationship with my sister, always cognizant that what I saw was the tip of the iceberg--tidbits gleaned from when Jim hung out at the house or rode in my father’s car with us; half of conversations when my sister talked on the phone in the same room as me; and, rarest, but perhaps the most valuable, those moments in our respective teenage lives--me just entering that phase within the walls of junior high, her in the thick of high school and looking ahead to college--when she confided in me that the two of them had their own pet-words that they shared as a private language; when they performed together, him on guitar and vocals and her on viola in lieu of accordion to perform Nirvana’s “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” at the school pops concert; when I learned that they were kind of sort of engaged.

They came from different worlds. My sister a perpetual honors student and overachiever; Jim a kid who placed into gifted programs in his youth but was prone to skipping homework if not school altogether, and thus just made passing grades. My sister followed him into the percussion section of the marching band. Jim followed her into Model United Nations conferences and onto the yearbook staff.

The two of them got together, broke up, and got together a number of times. In between one such stint, I caught a sliver of conversation between my sister and one of her girl friends in which she questioned why she had wasted so much time with Jim when her new boyfriend was so much cuter.

I took offense. Not only on behalf of Jim, but all the more so for the fact that their relationship had represented a certain ideal--funny teenagers who were into alternative rock music, Monty Python, and Muppets in more or less equal proportions. They represented a kind of cool that I aspired too when, even then, I was conscious that they weren’t necessarily cool by conventional high school standards.

More than any of that, they had seemed happy together.

I tried to articulate all of that to my sister. She told me that I couldn’t understand then, with the implication that I would someday. And, to be fair, with the benefit of eighteen, nineteen years since, I have enough experience that I can understand what she meant; and enough of a nostalgic heart that I suppose I’ll never really agree with her sixteen-year-old self.

Jim and my sister got back together toward the end of high school, but broke up before they each started college, and I never saw him again. Anecdotally, I’ve heard he dropped out of school after a year or two. That he still played guitar for bands in my hometown. That he married, had a child, and divorced.

When I was home for Christmas one year, my father told me once that Jim had called the house. That he sounded drunk and was looking for my sister. That he had trouble understanding my sister didn’t live there anymore--that she hadn’t for over a decade. Later that Christmas night, I recall sitting at a friend’s house, sitting in the dark, sipping whiskey, watching the ever-changing lights of a fiber-optic tree. We chatted about old times, and when he got up to use the bathroom, and I became transfixed with the lights. I imagined myself like Jim, sitting in the same space I had ten, fifteen years earlier and wondering where the time and everyone I once knew had gone.

A year and a half or so later, my sister emailed me, my mother, and father to share that Jim had killed himself.

She expressed her uncertainty about whether she’d attend his funeral. She worked as a school teacher at that point, and was a week removed from starting up for the year. She could make the trip, but it would mean rushing to New York and back down to North Carolina in a flurry that would set her behind before she had even started the semester.

I went into over-eager mode. I offered that she could fly to Baltimore and I’d drive her back home from there, then drop her off at whatever airport she wanted to get back to her new home to ready herself for work. Though she was very kind and polite about it, I’m sure she recognized the plan was half-baked and declined.

One of my sister’s high school friends who had played music with Jim and off over the years started a project on Kickstarter, on which he’d record many of the old songs Jim had written, and weave in some surviving recordings of Jim himself singing. The project was fully funded and a few months later, I received my copy of the CD, complete with an old pencil sketch of Jim’s face that my sister had contributed for the liner notes.

I don’t expect my sister, much less I would have any meaningful relationship with Jim if he were still alive today, and it’s strange to think of that cool older kid, and know that I’m now older than he’ll ever be. Just the same, when I look back on those most awkward years in my life, Jim remains one of the brighter spots--a musician, a clown, and an unlikely friend.

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