The Other Side of the Coin

by Andrew Sarewitz

I have ridden on a motorcycle two times. Once in California, then in New York. Both times spread eagle in leather boots and Levi's on the bitch seat. Santa Monica: I was saddled against a woman who remains a great friend. She was conservative in her attack of the Los Angeles streets but it still felt as if we were flying above a fantastical black river, adrenaline as seductive as Brazilian music. New York City: I sat behind a man who was my age, same palette, similar build. He too was cautious in his biking etiquette as we headed to a pool hall in East Village.  My arms were wrapped around his waist, hugging him with replete trust, feeling secure and finding it strangely erotic. It was also privately uncomfortable since it was my straight cousin Zachary I was pressed against.

 

Born six weeks apart and raised in the same New Jersey town, Zachary and I fused as twins. There is a third cousin from a second aunt who is one year older, but the automatic bond between Zach and I was exclusive, though not intentional. As a child there was no one I loved more.

 

Our houses were on equal longitudes, separated by a mile of private homes, a duck pond, a lawn-tennis club and the Erie Lackawanna train station. Zachary went to an elementary school that many wealthy town kids attended. I was sent to a school with a more diverse student body. Ironically my father was a cardiologist with a private practice while my uncle was an art teacher in the public school system.  From my side, Zachary and I were the same. We each had mothers who drove station wagons, we both loved tunafish sandwiches and chocolate milk, we slept at each other's houses without any thought of financial disparities.

 

Zachary's father earned a sabbatical that took his family to the Netherlands in autumn of 1968.  We were ten years old when Zach returned home the following summer by ocean liner. In customs at the Port of Newark, separated like refugees by plexiglass and cement, I spotted him.  Dressed in khaki shorts and a blue blazer, he was donning a souvenir fez in burgundy with a black tassel, jumping high to find me on the other side of the smudged plastic dividers. It was one of the most exciting moments of my young life.  My best friend had returned.

 

Junior high would supply the first corrosion when we were placed at the same school. Simultaneously, there was a muzzled but palpable divide between our mothers that bled to the surface over income and perceived stature when my parents built a vacation home in the mountains of Southern Vermont.  On the year that our mothers' mother died, we all traveled up to the new house to celebrate Thanksgiving with the idea that a nontraditional location might make things easier for our grandfather. I opened a can of worms at age twelve when I obnoxiously announced to Zach that this was my house so I was going to have first choice of which bed I wanted. When we returned home, Zach raked me over the coals for being a spoiled rich brat. He had written a list highlighting all of the infractions I had laid upon him. I listened and apologized.  I also was aware that it probably wasn't Zachary who initially assigned blame to my family's income for my behaving like a petulant prince. The dissension had to have seeped in from another source. Years later, I found out that my aunt had screamed at my mother, accusing her of showing off our luxuries and ruining the holiday.

 

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My mother and her two younger sisters were raised in Philadelphia during the Great Depression.  Zachary's mother was the middle child. My grandfather had emigrated with his family from Manchester, England in 1902, at the age of six. With limited education, he built a career from the ground up in tar and paving stones at Liberty Corporation (part of Eastern Asphalt Company). They lived comfortably in the Jewish and Italian section known as Wynnefield, at 54th and Gaynor Road, in a single family semi-detached house, with live-in help and a Buick. My grandparents were even able to send all three daughters to college.

 

By the early 1960s, with families built, my mother and her sisters purchased homes in northern New Jersey within a few miles of each other. We were ten children being raised by a village. The Philadelphia sisters became and stayed best friends from the time my youngest aunt moved to the area. There may have been hope that some among us kids could form bonds as strong and lasting as the sisterhood. Zachary and I were the promise.

 

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When our solid friendship broke, it was often my treachery. The arc in time isn't terribly clear nor the tools I had sourced as a turncoat, but shutting him out was one invisible strategy.  I would guess I reacted less to some evident behavioral changes and more to a teen rivalry. I didn't want to share the attention, friends, parts in plays, cliques, personality traits. And in an unintentional aggression, when a classmate would say, "I didn't know you and Zachary are cousins," I often spewed back, "God, I can't stand him." Through the school gossip channels, my reflex inevitably would travel back to Zach. It may not be unusual that boys as close as we had been would fall away when put into the same river, but it doesn't explain why I treated him so terribly.

 

At the age of fifteen, I started to see a psychiatrist.  Having entered senior high, I began to withdraw into myself to escape the non-stop verbal attacks I was sustaining. Sometime before my breakdown, Zachary began fighting a different enemy. Where I was searching for strength and identity, Zach was downed by mental illness. His parents and sister in particular became mortal foes and in his mind were "contaminated" (his word). His survival mechanism was to manifest a severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’d have thought of it as an ingenious shield, if it hadn't been so detrimentally disabling.

 

My parents took the lead in telling me about Zach’s handicap, probably because of the levied sanctions we now needed to follow while visiting my cousins' home.  When Zachary finally talked to me himself, we had the discussion in his bedroom. I had to follow a mapped out path through the house and sit in a certain chair. He defined the illness in plain terms. He explained it isn't a literal characterization; like being unwashed.  It is what and who he perceives as being poisonous, untouchable. He did adopt some recognizable behaviors such as constantly washing his hands, but the enormity of the disorder went far beyond. The conversation somehow shifted to girls and masturbation, easing the sobriety and making us laugh out loud like the teen boys we were.

 

I didn't know how he managed at home, let alone in school. What do you do in the gym locker room? Can you turn a doorknob or share a classroom desk? Can you use a public bathroom?  Does it ever go away?

 

At some point in his young adulthood, Zachary was also diagnosed as a manic depressive, now termed Bipolar. 

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The re-ignition of our friendship evolved slowly, years after graduating high school. It began when I ran into Zachary coming out of a Greenwich Village cafe. We started talking with an ease that only a shared history rewards. We went for drinks and walked the neighborhood ending at Washington Square Park, where Zachary headed east for home.  Over the next couple of years, we would randomly run into each other and began to build a more sustained friendship he could count on. During this period, Zach's career took off. I silently hoped he could handle it.

 

I can't deny my feelings of guilt were part of the structure of our new friendship.  I was so sickened by my teen mistreatment of Zach that my tolerance for aspects of his behavior was fueled by believing that he was owed. But the affection and mutual love were genuine. We contemplated writing together. Before the ground-breaking comedy "Will and Grace," we had come up with an idea for a half hour tv show about two best friends (maybe cousins), one gay, one straight, sharing an apartment. We thought the situation could be hilarious.

 

What wasn't funny -- or fun -- was navigating the relationship. He was aware his illness affected everyone that mattered to him, yet Zach didn't seem to have the tools for controlling his own knee-jerk. It sounds small but he didn't understand many social morès. He screamed at me once when I phoned him and casually asked, "whatcha doin?"   Taking part in the ritual greeting, "How are you?" answered by "I'm fine, how are you?" infuriated him. Zach heard it as disingenuous. When he made this type of backlash, even if it pushed my buttons, I generally could wave it away. It was the emotional rants I found exhausting.

 

At the height of the trust years, Zach heard that his father and I had plans to visit SoHo galleries and discuss art. Zach phoned me from Los Angeles, fuming.  He was trying to put together the pieces. Structure equals control. What was the timeline? Had he and I talked previous to my having made the date with his father? Why was I keeping this from him? I reminded him that our last phone conversation centered on his talking and me listening and that the subject of his father never came up. I added that by now he should believe I wouldn't do anything to intentionally hurt him. He said he hated his father so uncontrollably that the idea of my spending time with him -- especially behind his back -- was betrayal.

 

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As skeptical as I profess to be, I shared a preternatural connection with Zachary.  I had it with my mother and grandmother as well. One October night while playing pool, a feeling so strong came over me that I had to stop what I was doing to sit down. I started to cry for no reason. I looked at the clock. It was 8:15 pm. I knew something was wrong with Zachary. The feeling passed and I decided I was just being melodramatic. The next time we talked, I asked Zach if he remembered what he was doing on that date, at that time. He became quiet. Then he confessed he'd suffered a complete breakdown. He had dropped to the floor and was unable to move.

 

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Zach could have a stinging, uncensored tongue. And I could be hard, keeping my rules of primarily only meeting with him one-on-one. But the great times were great. One Christmas we decided not to go home to family but to have a holiday dinner like tourists at Tavern on the Green.  He booked us a table in the famous Crystal Room, not an easy reservation to land. The maitre d' conspiratorially smiled as he seated us. We were an enigma among the middle aged men with comb-overs escorted by their big haired wives in cotillion gowns, staring out onto the snow laden evergreens of Central Park.  It was so much fun, that the next year we celebrated the tradition by having Christmas dinner at the Rainbow Room. Somewhere in a box stored above my blazers and button-downs there is a framed 8x10 photograph taken of us at the top of Rockefeller Center.

 

In the mid 1990's, I moved to a small one bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. The bedroom walls literally were higher than the room was wide. During my first summer there, Zachary called saying he was coming to New York in August and needed a place to stay for a few days. I told him I didn't have a couch and with such a small space, I don't like having overnight guests. After a moment of dead silence he said "I need somewhere to stay where I feel safe. Please. I can sleep on the floor."  I reluctantly agreed with one non-negotiable demand. I have a work-out schedule that I keep religiously and I use the living room as my gym. On the Friday night of his visit, I asked that he please be out of the apartment between 6 and 8 pm. However shallow the request, he understood.

 

It was a sweltering August. But in one of my own obsessive behaviors, heat was not going to keep me from lifting weights. With the air conditioner on full blast, I stripped down to my underwear.  Halfway through the routine, I heard a key in the lock. Zachary walked in. Soaked in perspiration I said, "Jesus Christ, Zee. I ask you to do one fucking thing for me and you can't even do that." He said, "I'm sorry. I just needed to come home. I'll go into the bedroom." He took the landline telephone, walked it into the other room and closed the door. Whomever he tried to reach had not answered.  Zachary came back into the living room, tears streaming down his face, his body shaking. Sobbing he said to me, "I'm in so much pain."

 

Dressed only in my briefs and drenched in sweat, I sat down. My straight cousin in crushing agony sat on my lap like a child, buried his face in my neck and wept.

 

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Walking a path of eggshells is not quite accurate, but gauging what action caused what reaction for more than fifteen years was a delicate journey. The paths Zachary followed didn't always apply to a predictable science. We're all flawed.  Part of what I found difficult was the constant challenge of living up to his expectations.

 

On his fortieth, I phoned Zachary from my office to wish him a happy birthday. He sounded guarded. I asked if he was alright; he said he was. Knowing better, I pressed him. He reminded me that he had wanted to plan a party for himself in L.A. and that I had offered to help him find an affordable location. He wasn't wrong. I had dropped the ball. In my defense, a few weeks had gone by and I was working my brains out at the office.  I had made a couple of calls for him and when I didn't hear back, I hadn't followed up. I said, "you're right Zee. I fucked up. I'm so sorry. But may I just say, you've known me since the day I was born. Why didn't you call me and say 'hey shithead, you said you were going to help me out?'"

 

With an arsenal of anger never shot at me before, Zachary started screaming. It was his birthday, he raged, and not his responsibility to remind me. Now he had no plans and I had wrecked everything. He continued on a twenty minute tirade. I sat at my desk, holding the phone a few inches from my ear, shaking, while he attacked. At a certain point he went silent and just cried. I eventually felt I had no choice and said I needed to get off the phone.  We hung up.

 

He called the following week.  Getting my voicemail, he reminded me that I know how he sometimes over- reacts and hoped we could get past this.  I couldn’t. It was one too many times of being razed to the ground without taking into account the repercussions for his extremities.  For me, sometimes being sorry isn’t enough.

 

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After a few seasons turned, Zach made contact by email.  I did respond and unintentionally gave him reason to hope that maybe things could be repaired. He brought up getting together. I declined.

 

In 2006, my father died.  Zachary came to the memorial.  When I saw him standing with a few of our cousins, I walked over and without thinking, hugged him. He said "whoa...!" and pushed me away. You don't just embrace someone with his kind of OCD. I should have known better.

 

I don't know what meds he takes or how he combats the never-ending undertow. He had a terrible time maintaining friends and it seemed impossible for him to keep a relationship working with a woman. Once, he confided his dream of the two of us finding partners. We'd buy a home that we'd all share and live out our history together, happily.

 

I think about Zachary and remind myself I had been closer to him than anyone in my life, save my mother.  I try to go to the good times and the innate trust once shared, but it only acts as a memory. Intellectually, I know his mental illness is just that.  Still, in thoughts I can't take back, I don't miss him.

About the Author

Andrew has written several short stories (published work listed below) as well as scripts for various media. His play, “Madame Andrèe” received an Honorable Mention from both the 2018 Writers Digest Competition, Play/Screenplay Division, and the 2018 New Works of Merit Contest (Loyola University, New Orleans), as well as garnering First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, winning the honor of opening the festival series in August of 2019. The script for his play “Five Men, Four Beds” advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition and Andrew’s pilot script for his sitcom, The White House is a Finalist in the 2019 Pitch Now Screenplay Competition.

Published and Award Winning Short Stories

Then the Tidal Wave: Prometheus Dreaming, Los Angeles, CA, published December 20, 2019
Lady Vanessa: BigCityLit Magazine, New York, NY, published November 24, 2019
A Woman Named Samantha: Bangalore Review, India, publication August 21, 2019
Miss Marcia: Cobalt Press, Baltimore, MD, issue 21, publication August 8, 2019
Stands a Boxer: Prometheus Dreaming Literary Magazine, Los Angeles, CA, publication July 11, 2019
Harold and Al, All Covered in Fur: Prometheus Dreaming Literary Magazine, Los Angeles, CA, publication June 12, 2019
Blue Roses and Diane: Second Place Prose Award, Havik, Las Positas College Journal of Arts and Literature, Livermore, CA, publication May, 2019
Color, in Black and White: Trilogy Award Nonfiction Finalist, Hidden River Arts, Philadelphia, PA, May, 2019; Prometheus Dreaming Literary Magazine, Los Angeles, CA, publication October 26, 2019
The Wholly Separate Sides: NYMBM, New York, NY, publication May 20, 2019
The Big Sneeze: Jenny Magazine, YSU Student Literary Arts Association, Youngs- town University, Ohio, publication November 15, 2018
...And into the Fire: NYMBM, New York, NY, publication June 27, 2018
The Banquet: Yes + No Magazine, London, UK, Page 58, Autumn Issue, 2017
The Tale of the Sisters Landau: Cobalt Press, Baltimore, MD, publication July 19, 2017
In the First Person: Chelsea Station Magazine, New York, NY, publication July 5, 2017
Stephen was...: Plenitude Magazine, British Columbia, Canada, published June 8, 2016
Contributed essay to "A Giant of 20th Century Russian Art, Vladimir Nemuhkin;" published by ArtDaily, June 6, 2016
Project Gus: publisher: Untreed Reads, San Francisco, CA. Editor in chief, Jay Hartman, 2013
My Father: publisher: Untreed Reads, San Francisco, CA. Editor in chief, Jay Hartman, 2011