Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jeff is a Long Story

Ladies from the Mooresville High School Class of 1991

Heading south down I-77 Ashley said, "What are you going to say when someone asks about Jeff."
"I don't think they will.  Everyone knows."
Ashley said, "I had a dream that a man without a face would ask about your brother.  You need to know what to say.  Do you want to say, 'He passed away?"
I kept pulling at my wrap dress and looking at my glossy lips in the rear view mirror and I said, "I don't use that phrase.  I'll just say he died.  I won't go into a whole long story.  It'll be okay."
We were quiet for a moment and I turned up the Adele cd.  I told them that they needed to get Adele's cd.  It was a beautiful afternoon turning into a beautiful evening.

It was the night of my 20 year high-school reunion and I was sure that everyone knew my brother was dead. 

My brother, Jeff, earned the nickname, "Pluck" on a week-long chemistry field trip during the summer of 1989.  I never knew how he earned it, but "Pluck" stuck.  Jeff was two years older than me and had a little tiny space between his front teeth.  Jeff was the kind-of person who, if he found you asleep on the couch, would wake you up by putting his finger in his belly button and then putting that finger under your nose.  Jeff self-taught himself to play jazz guitar.  Jeff is a long story.  

At the reunion it was too cold to dance under the tent.  The best pictures were taken before the sun went down, but hardly anyone was there then.  I walked around the front of the house and sat on the rocking chairs on the porch.  My biggest duty was to set up the powerpoint slideshow I'd made of pictures of our classmates.  I'd gone way back into my middle school yearbooks and old prom shots.  My memory is full of moments and teachers and smells, but all these old pictures really took me back.  I think the reunion for me was much longer than one night.  For days I had been thinking of those people, those streets, those t-shirts.  

Jeff got sent to the office one time because he asked Mrs. Henderson if she'd woken up on the wrong side of the coffin.  My mother said, "And what was so funny was that I was sitting there across from her and she DID look like a vampire, so how could I be mad at the kid?"  Jeff went joyriding 5 days before he turned 16 and crashed his two-toned Camaro into a power transformer and knocked out the power for two miles.  We got out of school early because of it.  Everyone in my town knew Jeff. I depended on the grapevine to let everyone know that he died.  

James asked, "What are you up to these days?" Leslie asked, "How old was your son when you adopted him?" Melissa asked, "Where are you living now?"  Then Jeremy asked, "How's your brother?"

There were four of us standing there.  I touched Jeremy on the shoulder and I kind-of winced-smiled.  I said, "He died."  It wasn't enough of a thing to say.  It wasn't enough, but it was all I could say.  I couldn't feign trauma because the intense grief and pain of Jeff's death has left me.  I've grieved my brother's suicide, and it didn't seem like the right time for details.  I couldn't even spit out, "It was five years ago."  I don't know how, but our foursome broke up and I walked into some other thought like, "There are alot of people smoking."

Jeff laughed like a crazy man.  He took great pleasure from funny movies, comic books, and car dancing.  When I got my first apartment, he took me to the dollar store and bought me plates. He told me that the bread I bought was too expensive.  He took me by the shoulders and shook me and said what he always said, "You need to call me more."  When Jeff got deep into alcoholism and depression, he started every day with bourbon in his coffee, and he didn't work.  He cut me off.  When the eviction notice came on his apartment door and his checking account was overdrawn, he left a weird note and shot himself.  

Near the end of the reunion, I took it upon myself to gather my classmates in one room.  The catering people were starting to clear tables and to give us that nudge.  I felt the need to say something.  I felt like you couldn't come together after 20 years and stand beside each other and drink wine and not say something.  So I herded them into one room.  Some people hadn't taken off their coats all night.  It was an indoor/outdoor kind-of event.  I said thanks and I said cheers and I said something about the next time, but I wanted to say, "I am saying thank you for coming tonight, but I'm really saying thank you for all THOSE times, the old times.  You don't know that going to school was the best thing that I ever had, that going home scared me to death, that you helped me survive.  You don't know that people in my house rushed into death like a kid runs into the ocean...or maybe like a kid that's getting chased into the ocean." 
People know more than they let on.  You have more in common than you know, more in common now than you ever have before.  I thought of all I didn't know about what had happened to them over the past twenty years, and all the questions I never thought to ask at the reunion.  At least some of us danced.  Then we hugged and said goodnight.  My cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing.  I would go into more details, but it's a long story...