I knew these accounts were attempts by those who loved him to soothe the pain of an otherwise inexplicable absence, and for this I could not fault them. But I took it as my duty to preserve some ambiguity, if for no other reason than to allow him an inner life of some complexity, resistant to pat answers. He deserved that much from his only brother, I thought, and I hoped that time and patience would one day reward me with the truth.
Meanwhile I had a life to live. I graduated from college, moved to New York and landed a job at the Wall Street Journal. I made friends and stumbled into relationships, which invariably foundered on my inability to let myself be known—what with my fervent interest in the concept of self-murder, my acute case of survivor’s guilt. The ambiguity I preserved in the story of my brother’s life became the story of mine too: one minute attentive and the next minute distant, one day hungry for intimacy and the next day desperate for freedom, one week exalted by the energy of the city and the next week oppressed by the weight of all the longing played out in the towers and the streets, in the privacy of little rooms. The enigma of his death made me enigmatic by association, and by remaining so—by refusing to be any one way or any one thing—I honored him. I became him. He would forever remain unfinished, and so would I.
Every other year or so I felt the lure of New Mexico, the place where the pieces of his life lay like a shattered stained-glass window I could not quite restore. Six years after his death I traveled there once more, to sit down with his ex-fiancée and see what I could learn, if anything, from her stories of him—a rather neat role reversal from the first time we’d met. She had grown into a woman in the time since I’d seen her last, married now, with four kids. I had traded combat boots and army fatigues for a suit and tie, my bohemian notions superseded by my need to pay off student loans. We sat and made small talk over beer and pizza, avoiding the subject that had brought us together once more, aware that to broach it was to risk reopening the wound. Finally, with a bit of prompting on my part, she began.
It was like there were two sides to him, she said. He was different when he drank. He got angry. One night he threw a glass against the wall and it shattered everywhere. That’s when I started having second thoughts about marriage. I wondered if I really knew him.
She asked, Did your parents hate me when I called off the wedding? Did they blame me for what happened?
I assured her they didn’t. A full year separated the planned wedding day and his death. If anyone, they blamed the new woman, the older married one who, rumor had it, had played rather carelessly with his heart.
She leaned across the table, and a hush came over her voice.
I don’t know why, she half-whispered, but I feel a strong connection to you. Like you’re my brother in a weird way. I know that makes no sense, since we only saw each other once before, but maybe we went through some of the same things afterward.
Yes, I told her, no doubt we did.
There’s something I want to ask you, she said. Dan had a secret. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one he ever told, but I wonder if he told you too.
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I couldn’t think of any secret.