It’s how he gets his rocks off, that’s how I look at it. He’d never say it so bluntly, but there it is. Henry, he’s a romantic. You give him hay and he spins it into gold; you show him an alley reeking of piss and horseshit from the last hansom cab stable in Chicago, with the el hammering the tracks so loud you can feel it in your teeth, and he makes it sound like some kind of special-effects Shangri-La. I’ve heard what he says. Showers of stars. Lights like an open-air disco. It’s fairyland, which I guess it is, if you want to be funny about it, but what does that make me? Some kind of chain-smoking Peter Pan? A big white rabbit stalking a sexed-up Alice? I’m the guy that tails him there night after night, and I stand on the corner and I wait for him to get what he needs and the whole time I’m praying this isn’t the night he gets busted by the cops or worked over by some bruiser or else jumped by kids so goddamn scared of their own need that they go and kick the shit out of some guy doing exactly what they want most. But this is what brothers do for brothers. It’s an unwritten rule, I’ll be the first to admit that, and I’ll bet there are plenty of brothers who’d say that it isn’t a rule at all — written, unwritten, or tattooed in green ink on the soles of your feet. Where the hell did I get that one, right? Too much time with Henry, that’s what that is.
Of course I know he’s there. I could tell him not to follow me — to mind his own business and go live his own life, but following me has become his business, even a part of his life. The funny thing is, I never thought of him as the nurturing type — he’s more Grant Park pigeon than mother hen — but right now he needs to think he’s taking care of me, if that’s what he’s doing out there. I worry about him, though. The whole neighborhood is one big social experiment gone awry. Why else would you cram together, cheek by jowl, a comedy club catering to the suburban bachelorette-party circuit; a rundown peep-show hawking damp, smudgy magazines for every dank, smutty fetish; a mobbed-up restaurant surrounded by a phalanx of Town Cars, their engines always running; the city’s only upscale gay porn theatre — may I direct your attention to the single tumescent, vased orchid in the front window; and the source of my fascination and my brother’s quiet consternation: the Near North Side’s premier no-names-no-faces under-the-tracks cruising spot? And let us not forget the scowling, bruised-brick housing project two blocks to the west. Or the milk-white lakeside condos two blocks to the east. The alleyways and their blank-eyed garage doors gauded up in gang tags — crowns and eyes, bloated numbers and shivering letters — codetalking boasts and threats to the brutally initiated. Or the clopping of hooves against asphalt as the horses bring their carriages home for the night, lending the scene a Dickensian flair, if Dickens hadn’t been such a prude about what really happened after lights-out in the workhouse. You take all of this, and then compose as a soundtrack the throaty hum of the bells from the Church of St. Michael, his flaming sword raised against reentry into paradise. My brother must get cruised and mugged and heckled and threatened, hit up for money and asked to buy this drug or rent that part of his body, but he never says a word to me about it. Now it’s his turn to keep secrets. My days in that line of work have ended.
Henry’s brother again
I do this for my brother because for a long time I didn’t do shit for him. I watched him sinking under the weight of God knows what and I never tried to lighten his load. He was a moper, a sad sack, a bookworm, and that’s just how it was. He thought he was good for nothing and who was I to argue? That’s what kind of a brother I was. So one day he drank about a gallon of sterno, and when they called me from the hospital I thought he was dead. I still haven’t figured that one out. Not why he did it — I know all about that now — but why he picked sterno. It was close at hand, he said to me. Close at hand — do you see what I mean? It’s been a year and I still wonder if he tastes it in the back of his throat. So anyway, typical me: when I got to the hospital and saw him lying there, I really laid into him. About what a stupid shit he was and what was he trying to pull with a stunt like this and thank God Mom and Dad didn’t live to see this, and I’ll tell you, he went to fucking pieces. Tears like you’ve never seen, and the nurse coming in to tell us to pipe down and does she need to call security and Henry’s crying and then I’m crying because it hits me smack in the face that this is my brother. This is Henry. And I love the son of a bitch like he’s the last good thing on the planet. Really. I mean, what else did I have? Joanne had left me and Mom and Dad had passed and it was just us, and I came this close to losing him to a mouthful of sterno. Without Henry I’m alone in this world and I’ll admit it, I’m not big enough to face that. I moved him in with me when he got out of the hospital and after a week of quiet nights he told me about the whole thing with men and how he felt and how what he really liked was — what did he call it? — the exquisite anonymity. Jesus, do you see what I’m up against here? He’s a flake, and a perve, and he’ll never use two words when he can get away with ten, but he’s my brother. When he first laid all this out to me, and let me tell you there were plenty more tears, I was ready to send him on his ass right back to the street. Return to sender, right? But I saw myself back in that hospital room crying my goddamn eyes out and I didn’t want to lose him twice.
Henry has something he would like to clear up
About the sterno, which I’m sure he has mentioned. There was a lot going on at the time. Living one life is hard enough. Living two was, I found out, more than I could handle. And when things went sour in the life I kept secret from my family — by which I mean my real life, the one that mattered most to me — I had only the pretend life to shore me up. Which became like hanging a lead vest on a paper doll. And it wasn’t just sterno, although that seems to be the part he has fixated on. It was a handful of Percocet and a pitcher of sangria. Right at the last minute — afraid that a cocktail of pharmaceuticals, alcohol, and fresh fruit wouldn’t do the trick — I larded the sangria with half a dozen cans of sterno. It was supposed to be for a party that had never been thrown, which was part of the original problem. Anyhow, it was under the sink. It was close at hand. I didn’t realize at the time that what I had concocted was a magic potion that would allow me, after some effort, to live one life rather than two. It was in the hospital and later at my brother’s apartment that I opened up to him. I figured that I had burned down one life and now I would burn down the other and see if anything survived. I knew that he hadn’t had an easy go of it either. Our parents, whom he had always been close to, had lived just long enough to see his own marriage succumb, and when all the drama with me started his divorce wasn’t even a year in the past. So we had both seen our share of wreckage, and after tears and words that didn’t come easily in a family raised, as they say, with the good graces to conceal virtually everything from each other, what was left standing was me and him. I can’t say we were transformed into creatures breathing nothing but the air of complete honesty: have I mentioned that he follows me at night, and stakes out a street corner without, he believes, my knowledge? But right now he needs someone to protect, and without that mission I fear he will crack up, like I did, and that his crack-up won’t result in a magic potion but instead the blunt reality of a hole in the head or a rope around the neck. So this is a gift I can give to him, my feigned ignorance, but also a gift I can give myself: the continued presence in this world of one person who loves me.
Still, there’s something Henry’s brother wonders about
There was this guy he was with, that much I know, and they had a huge blowup and the guy walked out on him for good. This came after years of Henry being alone. Most of the time alone-alone, just Henry waking up in his cold bed, sulking off to work, eating in front of the TV or going out to some 24-hour place like the Golden Apple, party of one, which can make you feel worse because when you’re sitting alone the whole world looks like it’s part of a couple. Trust me on that one. But I’d also seen Henry alone-together, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I’d met some of his girlfriends over the years, and what I’d always thought was, man does he have lousy taste in ladies. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like he always had a woman on his arm. He averaged about one a year, and the whole lot of them were sour-faced, mousy, skittish, sexless, and angry. Not all of them, but if you mixed up those words in a hat, you could have pulled out two or three to fit any one of them. The thing was, he made sure to bring each one around to meet me and Joanne or else to dinner at Mom and Dad’s. He was the one who’d set it up; it wasn’t like we were forcing him to parade around with his latest conquest. But then through the whole visit he’d look glum, like he was embarrassed to be sitting next to them. I thought, jeez, what does he see in these girls? But at the same time I had to admit that they might be the best he could do, because Henry himself could be pretty goddamn sour-faced, and at his worst he could be a moody and skittish little SOB. I just chalked it up to bad taste or bad luck, and sooner or later the two of them would make each other miserable and one or the other would end it and after six months or a year he’d move on to his next lousy girlfriend.
How clueless was I that I never caught on? I think Joanne might have figured it out, but she never came right out and said it. Back when we were first together, or even during the first five years or so that we were married, I probably would’ve laughed it off, maybe said he should give the boys a try because it sure wasn’t working out with the ladies. But if she’d’ve said anything like that in the last years, I don’t think I would’ve taken it as a joke. I’d’ve probably gone off on her, you know? Just Joanne looking for another way to take a poke at me. Again, typical me. And I would’ve said, yeah, I get it: I’m an asshole, my parents are always on your back about not having kids, and on top of it all, my brother’s a fag. Is that the latest? Am I hearing that right?
So anyway, there’s Henry, and either he’s trying to put on a show, or else he’s trying to convince himself of something that just isn’t true. And it makes him miserable, and that makes these women miserable, too. I don’t think he was trying to do that, but it’s got to tear you up to love someone who won’t or can’t love you back. Or to want to love someone, but know that you just can’t. That you’re just not built for it. Still, there’s one thing that I’ve got to wonder about: it’s not like things magically got better when he was with a guy. All this business that landed him in the hospital — that was over a guy. I’d like to think that with a guy Henry would be different: looser, freer, happier. But maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe he was just as glum and hard to be with. Maybe that’s what pushed him over the edge. That he finally gave it a try, and he realized that it didn’t matter who he was with: he was what he was. Maybe Henry isn’t built for relationships of any kind, and he knows that, which is why he goes under the tracks. Five or ten minutes isn’t much time to invest in anyone, and how bad can you feel if it doesn’t turn out like you hoped? It’s the years invested in loving another person, or trying to love them as best you can, that can turn your heart to stone and drag you down, deeper than you ever thought you could go.
Henry has something to say, in the interest of balance
He took me in, but I can’t say it was a comfortable fit. I was a wreck, I won’t deny that, but he wasn’t exactly Gibraltar. When Joanne first left him, all I could think was, good riddance. No, that’s not exactly it. The first thing I thought was, ding-dong, the witch is dead, but I kept that to myself. When you’re trying to throw yourself and your family and a city of three million off the scent of your shameful, hell-courting, man-loving ways, you keep the Wizard of Oz references to a minimum. I had always thought Joanne was a hen who pecked and pecked in search of some seed of fulfillment she would never find. Not that I saw him as the cock of the walk, but there they were — birds of a feather, stuck together. That’s the picture I had developed, without much thought or insight, during my limited contact with them — limited, I’ll admit, to a dwindling number of holiday dinners I was unable to avoid despite tales of office emergencies that required my immediate attention or the weddings of close friends I could not miss. You would be shocked at the number of Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving-weekend weddings I claimed to attend, how many dear college chums I said had chosen me their best man just so I could deliver one of my famous tear-jerking, marriage-launching toasts.
God, where was I? Birds of a feather, which was a cruel thing to say about my own brother, given my low opinion of his wife. But it was also a terrible thing to say about Joanne. To me, she was always just my brother’s wife. I suppose I could have made an ally of her, someone from outside the family who might have seen inside my heart and taken my side in the inevitable blow-up — assuming that I had ever been brave enough and self-aware enough to take that step. From the beginning I had the niggling suspicion that Joanne might have been just a bit more perceptive than my brother or my parents, but she was never what you would call warm, so who’s to say she wouldn’t have been the worst about it? I’ll never know, and that’s my fault, my loss. I never made the effort the get to know her as anything more than a category — the Wife, the In-Law. And maybe I was never any more to her than the Brother, the confirmation that the whatever blank spots and broken pieces she found in her husband weren’t just personal failings, but were hardwired into him by his screwy family.
It would be arrogance beyond measure for me to think that I could be such a master of deceit and yet believe that my brother harbored no secrets from his wife. I don’t imagine his secrets were the same as mine, but if he was half as closed-off as I was, that would have been enough to shut Joanne out of his life. What I saw as a harpy’s talons lashing his undeserving hide may have been a desperate woman clawing at the door that once opened onto love, and was now closing her into a dark cell with nothing to keep her company but her severed heart. She knew it would only get worse, so she scabbed over the raw, hot wound and met the world armored by her anger. I have to give her credit for that. I’ve certainly never learned how to do it.
Henry’s brother has one last thing to add
We adapt. People, I mean. Humans. I like to go to the Field Museum on my lunch break when there’s not so many tourists. Lots of screaming schoolkids, but what are you going to do? If I could go after hours, if I had my own key and could just let myself in late at night, I’d be the happiest guy, really. But that’s what all the signs in the Hall of Evolution say: we evolve, we change, we adapt. We learn to do things that would have been hard to imagine right up until the time we actually do them. Am I making any sense here? It’s like when the Ice Age hits, and suddenly you’ve got to kill a big, hairy elephant with a sharp stick if you ever want to eat again. Or you’ve just walked across Alaska — which is already crazy enough — and then the ocean starts to rise, and you’ve got to figure out how to turn trees into boats so you can get to a place where the weather is warm, and the bushes are full of fruit, and you can all run around all day naked and happy. I tell you, it sounds crazy, but you do it because it’s worth it.
And finally, Henry
I keep casting about for a way to describe what it is that holds the two of us together. I thought it was as simple as gravity, some powerful, unseen, unthinking force that has locked us into a mutual orbit. But something about that picture doesn’t work: two round, perfect bodies separated by cold silence and vast distance? Our need for each other is much too messy for that. It’s visceral, not celestial. I bleed, he bleeds, and keeping each other close may be the only way we know to keep pressure on the wound.