A Word Outside

A 1987 Bruce Weber photo inspires a meditation on the delicate dynamics of family relationships

Last night my cousin Jordan opened his suitcase and showed me all of the insane gear he’d amassed for our trip: a digital compass, an inflatable neck pillow, two headbands with tiny lights affixed to their straps, tin cans of wild sardines—“deeply important equipment,” he assured me. When I asked if his parents had finally given him their blessing on our big excursion (an excursion, I might add, that is supposed to begin this weekend), he winked and slapped me on the head.

“That's not your problem. You bought the plane tickets, didn't you?”

I had asked Jordan the same question via text two days ago, just before his family's car pulled down the driveway of my grandmother's house. You told your parents, right?

My phone signaled an incoming message just as I watched Jordan climb out of the backseat, his smile as sharp as an arrowhead under unruly dunes of blond hair. I ran up to him and we hugged and behind his shoulder I read his text: “You're going to have to kidnap me!”

• • •

With Jordan, the simplest plans become annoyingly complicated. We’ve been planning and plotting for months now, ever since he told me he wanted to spend a summer seeing the planet and maybe I might want to tag along. To be honest, I only agreed because Jordan has something of a reckless streak in him, and I thought if I were to watch over his shoulder, he might steer clear of the trouble he’s so good at finding. For the past few days of this annual family gathering, relatives have speculated on my “summer of roving irresponsibility,” even pulling aside my adorable, never-backs-down-from-a-decision-once-it’s-made grandmother and telling her that it might be lapsed parenting on her part to let me set off south for places unknown. How could I say that this was all Jordan's idea?

• • •

I take my coffee black. My father took his coffee black, and after he left, I decided that’s how I’d drink mine, too. I’ve adopted a few of his habits as a sort of reminder: black coffee, an obsession with atlases, a general indifference when family members begin to suspect my motives. They aren’t exactly keys to survival, but I figure there’s something shrewd about them that will be revealed to me in time. I take a sip, and just as I’m leaning down to kiss my grandmother on the cheek, Uncle Jeremy touches my forearm.

“Gavin,” he whispers, for half of my extended family is collected around the breakfast table. “Would you mind a word outside? I was hoping we could have a talk, you know, mano a mano.”
                            The photo that inspired “A Word Outside,” taken by Bruce Weber as part of the Fall 1987 Polo Ralph Lauren campaign
The photo that inspired “A Word Outside,” taken by Bruce Weber as part of the Fall 1987 Polo Ralph Lauren campaign

One of the drawbacks of my father being gone is that I’m vulnerable to lectures. Relatives feel the need to corner me with unsolicited advice dumps. “When I was your age….” Really, I don’t mind. I see my role as primarily therapeutic. The lecturing party is looking to vent, and I provide all of the necessary expressions—nodding through pauses, teeth braced at mentions of past troubles, my foot stirring the gravel when the conversation turns to my own faults—to help provide a sense of camaraderie. It rarely occurs to me that there will be a lesson worth learning in these speeches. I am of the school that believes you have to fall down on your own. Jordan is not of this school; he thinks lessons in general are overrated, like fences that get in the way of the adventure beyond them.

Uncle Jeremy opens the glass door, and we step out onto the driveway. The morning is so soft even the ducks calling in the meadow are muffled. Ringed and streaked reflections of the overhead trees glitter across the car hood. It’s as if home takes on special dimensions only when you’re about to leave it, and this place will always be home to me.

“Look,” Uncle Jeremy says. He offers a pained smile. “Don’t think for a second I didn’t get into my share of trouble at your age.”

Uncle Jeremy’s goldfish eyes go rheumy. A blush rises from his shirt collar and fans across his face. His mouth is trembling, uncovering a row of tight purple teeth. The usual lecture has taken an uncomfortable detour.

“Jordan,” he wheezes, the name of his son causing the water to break from his eyelids. He locks his hands together as if to stop them from seizing my coat. “Please, Gavin, whatever you’re planning….”

Jordan is still asleep in the room right above us, his yellow hair curled across a pillow. And when he does finally descend the staircase, everyone in the family will follow his movements with such wonder and pride. His simplest actions take on the stuff of minor miracles—shoveling eggs into his mouth, wearing his napkin like a nurse’s cap, mimicking Aunt Shelley’s overly dramatic tennis serve. He’s right about one thing: You almost do want to kidnap him just to keep him with you at all times. Only my grandmother seems to have called his bluff.

“You’re charming, too,” she had told me this morning as I set the breakfast table. “In fact I think you have something better. Goodness. Do you realize how rare that is? Promise me you’ll hold on to it.”

Uncle Jeremy is shaking, and his tears have brought broken-car chokes up his windpipe.

“For God’s sake,” he shrieks. “Don’t you care about this family?”

He recovers just enough to try to reach me through sympathy. I am already filled with it.

“Gavin, I know what you cooked up for this summer with Jordan. Please, I’m begging you.” He wipes his forehead. “Please don’t take him.”

And it hits me, right there on the driveway as I reach for Uncle Jeremy’s shoulder, that Jordan won’t be accompanying me to South America, that all the views in Chile and Peru and Argentina will be mine alone. I never would have planned this trip without Jordan. But for once, my punishment for his recklessness is the gift of a bigger world. It’s all there, a few days away, beyond the trees of my grandmother’s house, waiting for me.

The window opens above us, pale hands on the panes.

“Dad,” Jordan calls down. “Is there any coffee left?”

A nest of blond hair frames a smile and two harmless blue eyes. Uncle Jeremy and I are both staring up at him, as if admiring the sun.

Christopher Bollen is the author of the novels Lightning People and Orient, and editor-at-large of Interview. He lives in New York City.