Adjacent

Hollywood sign overlooking Los Angeles, California
Photo by izayah ramos on Unsplash

I tell everyone I have a brother. Have or used to have. Most of the time it's true. It depends on whether "brother" is what you still are, David, half-ghost and half-rumor. But I think I remember you. I think I recall you as clearly as you would me. He used to be on TV, I want to confess to people polite enough to pretend to want to know. Maybe he's still there, I want to say, lost in some kind of complicated flicker or secret future.

Sometimes people refuse to leave, but die. Sometimes the opposite. What I tell people, David, is that when you were my brother you were neither, and now that you're a useful fiction you're both. I tell people you were lost, betrayed, kidnapped, murdered. I tell people polite enough to listen everything they want to hear. They want the red edge of things, the crash landing, not the translucent boy I think you used to be. When I went to Los Angeles I told people I was going in search of you, and when I was there I told everyone I met that you didn't actually exist. Maybe I feel bad you're gone, maybe I feel bad I can't tell whether you're gone or not, maybe I can't tell the difference.

I tell anyone nice enough to let me pretend to explain things to them, people who've never been there, or who were there but not for long enough, how everything in Los Angeles is contextual. Peripheral. Everything close at hand but nothing nearby. I explain to them how when I visited you, while you drove me back to your apartment from LAX, you explained all the neighborhoods we passed both for what they meant to you and what, if anything important, they were adjacent to. Your apartment, you said, was not quite located in Studio City but was also not quite in Toluca Lake, but could plausibly be called Toluca Lake-Adjacent. It's important, I tell people you explained to me, to both live and be adjacent to something familiar and general enough to seem impressive. I tell people how, the first night I stayed with you, we watched a palm tree burn like the sparklers our dad used to buy from the interstate-adjacent fireworks shop just over the state line. This did not happen, and I never met you if you were ever an adult, but a fiery palm tree is plausible, so whenever I bring you up in conversation, I can at least leave people somewhat sated for story. I tell people we met for ice cream and we both had pecan praline and pecan praline was our mutual favorite though I'm not sure any of those things are true. My wife won't let me talk about you anymore, she says it doesn't matter if I can't figure out where or when or how you became a ghost. She's right but rightness doesn't help me care more about giving up on the wilderness pressing against our medium home's medium windows and letting go and getting rest. Specificity is almost as good as closure, I would tell people when I told them about you if that were the kind of thing I wanted anyone to know.

This is not necessarily what it's like or what it means to be haunted. It might be. I don't know. What I don't tell people is how sometimes I wonder if I'm the one haunting you.

I tell people about Los Angeles, how I've never lived there, how my brother does or did or will, depending on my audience and how exhausted all of us are, waiting for night to drag us back into dreamless sleep or drifting around in this or that upstairs, trying to justify staring out the window at cautious residential streets. I tell people my brother is Los Angeles. A synecdoche or stand-in. I explain to colleagues and the husks of classmates now content with their own disasters that your loss is a core or corner of something inside me because explaining a place seems easier than explaining a person, now, explaining to anyone how you are neither alive nor, at the moment, entirely real.

Every night is a long night, now. This would be true even if you were here and we could divide them evenly between us. Fair's fair, we would say, laughing without worrying about laughing while we tore the night sky in two, black t-shirt tents bedazzled with rhinestone stars. We would conspire to erase the night by discussing the hopes and dreams of people we think we knew or know. Their thoughts and prayers. We would whisper thoughts and prayers to each other, like we did when we were kids, even after you went missing, as they put it, as if it were a decision as dry and careful as safe career or sensible college major. Your brother decided to go missing, my parents told me as much and often as they could, as I tried to seem appropriately distraught, but, they would remind me on the anniversaries of what we chose as your day of death, he remains with us forever in hazy and unsatisfying ways.

No, I wanted to and still want to say, to myself and my parents and you and all the other strangers I know. I have always wanted to offer as correction. He is not in our thoughts and prayers but adjacent to them. You are, David, a faraway star. Cold and fixed. Or you're a movie star, close and on television and in film and very far away and unreachable all at once. A ghost pressed under glass and close at hand, whether it's an anniversary or not.

My wife does not entirely believe that you are ever real. Sometimes she insists you are not, and that the difference is important. I never argue because she does have a point. If I didn't see backlit echoes of you everywhere, I wouldn't even be able to pick you out of a crowd now that everyone who matters is carefully hiding under cover of adulthood and/or death. But I did see you on TV again, recently. A pair of ashy, folded hands. An incorrectly buttoned suit. A grimace where I would've expected a laugh. Every quiet man who hosts you on the screen a little less real and convincing than the last. The main thing that prevents strangers from being you, I tell people, is that they don't seem quite up to the task.

The screen makes you glow with an amplification of the confidence I glimpsed in you fifteen years back. As VP you pull the strings along with an intense Special Advisor and you look gathered and smooth and tall in your perfectly tailored suited and expensive white dress shirts and luxury neckties into which fake Washington D.C. daylight seems to enter but not return from, and you have a tic, when unfolding yourself from behind a desk or from a knot of intrigue, of swiping the right side of your chin almost the way a cat would, and every time you do I think that’s not him, it seems like it’s him body his body’s telling me too much. When you were alive, your body was a wall you hid behind. Now, cameras follow a body that looks more like an engine, and I keep having to look up your last name, Hopkins, and pretend it is known, familiar, an heirloom. You're famous, even if only to me. I like watching you because it’s comforting to see how you can be a hero and hew closely to distant static stories without also having to be a good person or a complete thought.

I don't exactly remember you, even the quiet lump of younger brother you probably were before you died, but I put a lot of effort into it. I like to think if you were here you might admire my workmanship. I'd be the kind of camera you most prefer.

I tell my wife that although you are not alive you maybe also are not real, and this is something we can agree on. The important thing, I tell her, is that I've stopped trying to find you, stopped expecting anything, stopped waiting for the sky to brighten, to produce evidence. My wife, whom I think you would've loved more than I do, if you were alive and real and capable, agrees that giving up is the important part, though her term for giving up is being realistic. I tell her I am always trying to be realistic, and I am not lying when I say so. But, I argue, sometimes while she's asleep beside me and can ignore me without it seeming personal, being realistic is a lot harder than it sounds, especially trying to spread it evenly over a lifetime. Make sure you have enough realism to last.

I'm not sad, I tell everyone who wants to know. I'm not that sad. Not as sad as I could be. Not anymore. I tell everyone I abandoned the summit of that soft and unnamed mountain a long time ago. People are more comforted by this than by my description of how graceful you would probably be if you were alive and real and impossible and knew how to fly. Nothing's impossible, people tell me. You're probably right, I say before changing the subject. What's new, I ask of everyone, an array of similar people in sober, solid-colored clothing––what's up. They say not much, and I pretend to believe and agree.

I’m sorry that I never got the chance to say goodbye to you, that even now this doesn’t count, that it didn’t work like I thought when my wife told me to hire somebody to be a you I could live with and then depart from, a kind of reversal of terms. The man I hired to be you when I pretend to find you in Los Angeles was slim and didn’t seem to mind the sun, and when I flew to LA what I remember the most is how he broke character after we were eating our melting hazelnut chocolate bars outside the Burbank IKEA when he called out to a woman he saw who seemed to be having a hard time despite the flat sunlit pavement. Do you need any help, he demanded of the woman, who turned and grabbed at her black floral dress and said what, because I’m an old woman? and he smiled and said no, because I know an important person when I see one. The woman got flustered at this and laughed and kept going. When I told him I didn’t think Davey would act like that, all he said, in his slightly low, gravelly voice, was you don’t have to be a struggling actor in order to be struggling. You don’t even have to know you’re struggling. If you see someone struggling, your stand-in said before taking a big bite of melting sugar, you help them out. When I asked what if it’s not enough, you shook your head and said it never is, but that’s not the point.

I still work downtown. Every time I hear a crash outside and distant from my slate gray cubicle, I wonder if maybe it's you, maybe all that happened is it took a few decades for you to figure out how to stick the landing or open the right door. Everybody tells me I am reserved, and I believe them because it sounds both true and inexpensive to maintain.

In the TV show in my head at night, sometimes, grainy and blue like a network show on an old tube TV, it’s the real you and really what happened except it’s already 40 minutes into one dramatic hour and you get saved by the cops bursting in and they grab the guy before he kills you. Sometimes I imagine I’m one of the cops, the show’s star, I rush in and before the credits roll I’m wrapping a prop-like white blanket around you and say in a stage whisper, Davey you forgive me, right? Shivering, you turn and look at me with great-plains blue eyes that were really yours, and because you’re you, you sputter a bit and then say I don’t know, Dan. Close enough.

I want to tell you this: I should’ve gotten somewhere, I should’ve replaced the soft boy with the clean and narrow adult pressed under distant sunshine, I should’ve buried you in my head the way I buried you twenty years ago, holding aloft the front left corner of the lacquered coffin and imagining your overripe face turned my way as we tried to keep our footing as if you wanted to ask me a question but weren’t sure which one to choose. You were dead, David, at least as dead as I could get you. I buried you and then I hired you back and then I waved goodbye and now I’m sitting with my wife scratching the side of my face even though I don’t have an itch. I’m staring at someone who was you, once. You were dead, then struggling, then disappointing, and now you’re this year's TV version of Vice President inhabiting Goldilocks amounts of drama in tastefully appointed rooms built to look lit by sunshine. I never catch you glancing at the camera, not even once. I know that guy, I sometimes tell people. I tried to think he was my brother, and he was close enough for me to almost say goodbye.

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