MY KISSING COUSIN
It didn't matter that he had a beaky nose and protruding ears. He was tall and thin, with a charming, slightly crooked smile. Nor did it matter that his grandfather Louis and my grandmother Sadie were brother and sister. Decades earlier, Louis and his brothers had treated Sadie's husband so poorly in their laundry business that our families hadn't talked to each other since. So I thought of Andy less as a cousin and more as the sexiest boy in the sixth grade, the one all the girls imagined kissing whenever we practiced with each other at pajama parties.
A dozen sixth graders played Post Office one Saturday afternoon at a birthday party, and Andy chose me as his partner. Mesmerized, I followed him out of the living room into the hall where he looked at me calmly before kissing me so softly that for the next week, I couldn't stop bringing the back of my hand to my lips pretending that I was kissing Andy, and he was kissing me back.
His kiss confirmed that he "liked" me, just as, until then, he had "liked" Phylis, also Sadie's granddaughter. (When they were only six, Andy had walked her home from school and kissed her on her front steps.) But to say Andy and I became boyfriend and girlfriend would be taking it too far. There were no special looks between us or holding each others' hands when we hung out with our friends. And when it came time for the sixth grade prom, Andy and two other boys tossed a coin to see who would take me. Andy lost and didn't seem all that upset.
That summer, at the beach, he reportedly placed a long stick on the sand, put two little stones near one end and told his buddies it described me: "A beanpole and a carpenter's dream, flat as a board." Hearing what he called me behind my back cut like a sharp knife against tender skin.
The pain of his rejection was short-lived, however. As soon as we got to junior high, I fell in love with another lanky, sexy Jewish boy with big ears and a prominent nose. He became my steady in high school while Andy, his nose bobbed, dated a girl with a great figure and a wry sense of humor. I studied hard and participated in extracurricular activities to ensure my acceptance into the Ivy League while Andy, bored by his classes, starred in school dramas, played in a rock band, and perfected a cocky, unapproachable demeanor. We had so little to do with each other he didn't even scribble the obligatory note across his picture in my senior year book.
Later, I heard he dropped out of college to study acting in New York, landed a part in a popular scooter commercial and moved to Los Angeles to work in TV. He got his big break when the director Martin Ritt cast him as a lead in a movie.
I was a modern dancer in New York when the film was released. That summer, I visited Phylis, who was living at Venice beach. She invited Andy over one evening. Lean, tan, self-possessed, his smile still sweetly askew, he seemed happy to see us and told us that his girlfriend, an actress, was out of town shooting a movie.
After Phylis went to bed, Andy asked if I wanted to take a walk on the beach. I followed him out of the house into the dark night as unquestioningly as I had out of a living room twenty years earlier. As we walked on the soft, cool sand, he asked, "Why do you pretend you don't know what you know?"
That he had been observing me startled me. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do."
Was he saying I was privy to some kind of gossip or that I was more intuitive or wiser than I admitted? I decided on the latter and took his question as both a compliment and a piece of advice.
He asked me to open my mouth. I wondered why, but did it anyway. He ran a finger lightly along my gums. When we sat down, I realized he'd applied cocaine to them. I'd tried cocaine only once before and hated the lump it caused in my throat. I noticed no lump this time, only dots of stars in the black sky and the insistent rhythm of the Pacific as it repeatedly reached the shore. Then he leaned over and kissed me as lightly as he had when we played Post Office. "Where are you sleeping tonight?" he asked.
I told him as though it were obvious, at Phylis's. He nodded and not much later, walked me back to the house and left.
I remained in a dreamy, stimulated state for hours. Only the next morning did it occur to me that he may have been asking if he could sleep with me. I was flattered but dumfounded. It seemed impossible that he'd be attracted to the sixth grade beanpole or the high school cheerleader who'd been as gung-ho as he'd been aloof. Despite my toned dancer's body hidden beneath my poncho and bell bottoms jeans, I was no match for an actress. What about her anyway? Wouldn't she mind? Then I remembered something he'd told me as we walked on the beach: According to Martin Ritt, a movie star's most important criterion was "fuckability." The director told Andy he had it. Perhaps Andy felt compelled to try out his sex appeal the way a sports car owner yearns to speed.
A couple of years later, I moved to Los Angeles with the man I would marry. A few of us from New Bedford got together in someone's house in Santa Monica. Andy was there, now single, still acting, still flirtatious. At one point, he pulled me onto his lap, making me giggle and my fiancé uncomfortable.
A month or so later, he invited Phylis, my fiancé and me to his house for tea in his backyard. In a Polaroid taken that day, wearing a crimson t-shirt, his brown eyes big under a mop of curly dark hair, he has one arm around Phylis and another around me. His smile is affectionate while ours are radiant, as though we're both aglow from being in his presence.
I thought nothing of the color of his t-shirt, except that red looked good against his olive skin, until he mentioned that he had joined a spiritual movement that required its followers to wear red. I found out years later that he'd moved to Oregon to live in that spiritual community, married a woman who channeled the dead, and together they ran a wild animal sanctuary. The old gang thought he'd gone weird. But having been intrigued by Muktananda and Meher Baba, I understood his quest for something more lasting than an acting career that had reached its plateau.
Decades went by with no news of him. Then a few years ago, I got curious and looked him up online. His IMBD bio said he'd never lost his passion for acting, that he and his new wife had traveled the world and lived with Aborigines in Australia's outback. They were now living in the same L.A. neighborhood where he'd once served us tea in his backyard. I lived only ten minutes away. I had the impulse to see him again. Maybe we could continue our conversation from thirty years earlier about "knowing," comparing what we'd both learned since then. But before I mustered the courage to contact him, an email arrived from a friend who'd seen Andy's obituary in the New Bedford newspaper.
The news hit hard. I got his wife's email from her website and wrote her that I was Andy's cousin, that we had grown up together, and that I wanted to attend his memorial service. She wrote back saying the service had already occurred, that she was sorry we weren't able to get together while "Andrew" was alive. I wrote asking if we could meet. She wrote she would like that, but she was going out of town and would get in touch when she got back. I dug up an old picture of Andy at eleven, hanging out in front of my house, smiling broadly, his arm around one of his pals. I couldn't wait to show it to her and to hear about Andy's adult life. But by the time she returned home, I was traveling. Our schedules kept eluding each other's until the emails stopped. After a year, I wasn't sure if meeting was appropriate. Maybe she'd moved on or was trying to, and bringing up old memories of Andy would stir up her grief.
Then Phylis called. "I have an Andy story for you," she said. She'd been at a family event in Massachusetts and ran into Andy's first cousin, Eli who told her "the strangest thing happened." After not seeing each other for a decade, Andy had called Eli out of the blue to ask if he could visit him. He had "something important" to tell him. Once Andy arrived, Eli asked him what was so important. "I don't know how you're going to take this," Andy had said. "But your father came to me in my bedroom one night with an urgent message: 'Tell Eli he has to start walking in order to keep his heart healthy.' He didn't think you would be open to hearing from his spirit, so he appeared to me knowing I would be."
"I believe it." I said. For weeks after my mother died, I'd felt her presence in my house, even suggesting once that I put on lipstick. "So what did Eli do?"
"He started walking."
We laughed at the punch line.
"Did Eli tell you why Andy moved back to LA.?" I asked.
"He said Andy wanted to be near his doctors. He was doing some kind of alternative treatment for lung cancer."
I winced at what he must have suffered. And again, I wished we had communicated before he died. I wanted to understand his journey from a small, New England city to the outback, from being the coolest boy in our childhood gang to receiving messages from the dead; how his movie star sex appeal conflicted with or complimented his spirituality, how he changed as he aged, faced illness and death, and how he didn't.
A few weeks later, my daughter and I were standing in a ladies room line at a Broadway Theater. Two women ran past us. My daughter said, "Sorry, but this is the end of the line." They apologized and got behind us. One of them was the actress who'd been Andy's girlfriend that summer I had visited Phylis in Venice. The film she'd been shooting then had launched her career. She'd become a major star.
I turned to her, my hand on my heart as a gesture of apology for invading her privacy. "I just have to tell you that Andy Rubin was my cousin."
Her eyes widened. "Really? How?"
"His grandfather and my grandmother were brother and sister."
"You grew up in New Bedford?"
"Yes, in the same neighborhood as Andy. We were children together. I knew him before he fixed his nose."
Her friend laughed. "What a great metric."
"Everybody loved him," I said.
"He was wonderful," she said, wistfully
"I saw him in 1978 when he was going out with you."
"What's your name?"
"It doesn't matter," I said.
She tilted her head and asked again. I told her and then introduced her to my daughter as though I had bumped into a friend from my youth. "I read your Wikipedia page," I confessed. "I noticed the first line of your "Personal Life" section states you were in a relationship with him for three years."
"He was a great love of mine. We bought a dog together. After we broke up, we shared custody of it for fifteen years."
"He loved animals. I heard he ran a wild animal sanctuary at one point."
She rolled her eyes. "That was when he was married to the channeler." Was she scoffing at his involvement in the occult, or did she feel competitive with his first wife? "He asked for me when he was dying," she continued. "His new wife didn't like it, but I came anyway. He was in a coma, trying to leave his body." Her face, still beautiful in her 60's, grew soft and sad.
A stall emptied, and it was my turn to use it. I said it was great to meet her and walked away, grateful for our encounter, feeling as though Andy, responding to my wish for contact, had somehow pulled strings for me to meet his old girlfriend so I could see how vibrant their love had been.
As soon as I got back to L.A., I bought a copy of the actress's memoir, a collection of lyrical insights and memories. Towards the end of it, she recalls being young and falling "hard in love with an actor." They met at a screen test. At one point, the director told them to kiss. The moment was so electric the director had to holler "Cut" three times before they pulled away from each other. She and the actor became inseparable after that and were soon living together in a little cabin overlooking the Pacific. Then one day the actor's best friend and girlfriend came to visit. Returning to the house from working in the garden, she found the actor and his friend's girlfriend sharing a passionate kiss. "Stunning" was how she described her sense of betrayal. Who could the actor have been but Andy, unfailingly seductive whether he was playing a southern horse breeder's son, a city cop who faked a Spanish accent to "get the girls," or himself, the once gangly, charming kid from Massachusetts?
Still wanting to know who he became as he aged, I found a documentary online about the connection between emotions and health in which he appeared a couple of years before he died. His lined face was still handsome, his curly hair thick and dark, his manner confident. He'd been told ten months earlier that he had at most a year or two to live, but he believed he was healing. With his pretty wife sitting close to him, he said "Love is everything...truly." His eyes watered, and his mouth twisted the way my mother's used to whenever she'd cry. He was still the boy who had kissed me at a birthday party when we were twelve and the man who had kissed me on the beach at thirty-two. And he would always be a member of my family. If he has further messages for me, I'll be listening.
Lisbeth Davidow's writing has appeared in over a dozen literary journals. She won second place in Event's Nonfiction Contest and was a finalist inAlligator Juniper's National Creative Non-fiction Contest and The Southeast Review's Narrative Nonfiction Contest. She's also a Feldenkrais Practitioner i.e., she teaches people how to move more easily and with less pain. She lives with her husband in Malibu, California. Lisbeth.firstname.lastname@example.org
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