Side by side, Jordan and I hunch over a workbench fashioned from sturdy beams and graffitied plywood. Through the window, a gloss of daylight combs the dust. The walls and floors are made of silvery, dappled cement that holds the metallic scent of spray paint. In one corner, an ancient, fire-breathing furnace moans.
It’s a cloudless Sunday morning in September, and we’re half-underground in what Jordan calls his studio, though technically it’s the cellar of an old duplex in Rochester, New York. Jordan rents the apartment above our heads with his high school sweetheart and wife of one year––my best friend, Melissa.
The studio is crowded with dismantled doll parts, papier-mâché figurines the size of cats, plush puppets, and bicycle wheels. The space above the workbench is wallpapered with Polaroids and sticky notes. There’s enough of Jordan’s artwork to fill a gallery. Enough supplies to furnish an art class.
A yellow sticky note on the workbench lists our weekend plans:
Jordan & Emily
thrift store—clothes ✔
film at Genesee River (may need help)
Jordan and I each have our own monster head to construct before we’re ready to pack up and head to Genesee River to film. Jordan’s monster is named Doc, and mine is called ZoZo.
With a black Sharpie marker, Jordan contours Doc’s eyebrows. Each stroke is confident. Each follicle is boldly drawn. I take more time with mine. When I sketch ZoZo’s eyebrows, it’s with a pencil first, then a brown, fine-tipped marker.
Our short film, Are You One of Them? was written over three months via email, snail mail, and phone conversation. Because I live in a Chicago suburb more than six hundred miles away, Jordan will take care of the editing after I’ve left. Artistic collaborations were easier a few years ago, when we all lived in Illinois. Then, the apartment I rented with my now-husband Michael was so close to Jordan and Melissa’s apartment, we communicated via cheap, two-way radio.
Melissa doesn’t allow cigarettes upstairs, but down here the air is heavy with smoke and turpentine. Jordan takes a flask from his back pocket, unscrews the cap, and sips. He offers it to me, but I wave it away.
At Lollapalooza, we’re among hundreds beneath a giant LED screen. The skyline is made of buildings that cut through the blue. Jordan and I sit at one end of the rainbow beach towel I brought from home. The grass beneath the towel is crisp from a recent heat wave. I slip out of my sandals. My shoulders are pink from wandering the urban park in a sundress all day. Michael, Melissa, and several other friends are getting hotdogs or beer, while Jordan and I guard our space.
Jordan is wiry, with freckled arms that give his fair skin the depth of a night sky. In the summer sun, his hair is the color of copper wire, chin length, and tucked sloppily behind his ears. He wears oversized sunglasses, a striped tee, high-top Chucks, and faded jean shorts. Everywhere he goes, he carries a backpack decorated with patches and safety pins; heavy with sketchpads, pens, and markers. He lights a cigarette. His sunglasses reflect the sea of people around us.
Jordan readjusts himself on the towel so he is half-lying on his side, and with the cigarette dangling from his lips, he pulls his backpack close and takes out a notebook, a pen, and a flask of Wild Turkey he managed to sneak into the music festival. He always seems to have a flask lately, but I only see him every few months and wonder if it’s a practice reserved for vacations. He takes a drag of his cigarette, unscrews the silver flask, sips, and tucks it away again. He opens his notebook and begins to write.
After a while I ask, “What are you working on?”
Jordan answers without stopping. “An idea. You never know when one will hit.”
Half a football field away, a blue balloon breaks loose from our congregation of concertgoers. It floats, shrinking and drifting upward until it’s a colorless speck above a row of skyscrapers. A breeze snakes through the crowd, and the giant screen shows stagehands setting up microphones for Wilco.
At last, the sun begins to fall behind the buildings, and the grip of Grant Park’s blazing heat softens. The crowd swells. Small clusters erupt in cheers. I stand barefoot on the towel, consider folding it up as the crowd tightens around us. I push my sunglasses over my head and turn to read Jordan’s take on the changing atmosphere, but he’s still half-lying, puffing on his cigarette, recording ideas.
Once, Jordan told me I was thinking about art all wrong. I had just finished my last stretched canvas and was complaining about having to give up painting until I could afford a new one.
“Who says you have to paint on canvas?” he said. “Go to a dumpster. Find a wooden board or scrap of metal. Use stuff in your house––old tee shirts or bed sheets. Whatever you have. Just fucking paint.”
When the hissing furnace in the studio explodes, it spreads fire to the house. No one is hurt, but Jordan’s artwork––prints, puppets, Polaroids, the monster heads, supplies for future projects––all of it is consumed.
The studio isn’t the only loss. Upstairs, Jordan and Melissa throw away bedding, rugs, clothes, books, and cushions. Everything that didn’t burn is infused with smoke.
After a few weeks, I ask if Are You One of Them? survived the fire.
There’s silence on the phone, a hesitation, before Jordan says, “I think so.”
My monster head is the size of a beach ball––a lumpy sphere made of bent wire coat hangers covered in duct tape with a nose fashioned from a Camel cigarette box. I hold a razor blade to ZoZo’s unfinished head. Carefully, I follow the curve of the circle I penciled in, half the size of my palm. I set the blade on the workbench once the circle is complete. Pop the center out for the first eyehole. ZoZo’s eyes must be far enough apart to capture her desperate nature, yet close enough together that when I slip the head over my own, I’ll be able to see without double vision.
I turn ZoZo’s head over in my hands and study her: the single carved eyehole, waves of wrinkled skin, the rumpled, errant nose. I smooth over her crown, where the brunette wig we picked up from Goodwill will soon be hot-glued. Carefully, I slip the head on. Inside, it’s black. I have to shut one eye in order to see. The sticky sculpture slides awkwardly from one ear to the other. As I turn, each movement echoes. I stretch my arms out and paw at the air. “Help me, Doc!”
Jordan stops what he’s doing and laughs, gives me the finger, and pulls Doc’s head over his own. He waves his arms like cornstalks in the wind and says, “There’s no hope for you!”
On Skype, Jordan looks different. His hair is short––shaven to the scalp––all but what’s on top. When I ask if he’ll ever grow it again, he says, “Can’t,” and turns to show the back of his head where Ralph Steadman’s artwork is tattooed above a pair of barbell nape piercings.
“Right,” I say.
His smile comes less frequently than I remember, but when it does, I recognize it––all crescent moon teeth and high cheekbones. When he laughs, it’s the same giggle ending an octave higher than it began.
It has been six years since we’ve seen each other and five since Michael and I moved with our two children to New Hampshire. Melissa and Jordan divorced three years ago and their son is eight years old.
I look different, too. I’ve gained fifteen pounds and recently cut my hair pixie-short. Sitting in bed with my laptop propped against a feather pillow, I’m wearing a pair of yoga pants and one of Michael’s tee shirts. Hours ago, I secluded myself in the bedroom to work on a fiction story for workshop.
At first, Jordan and I are bursting with nervous energy that leaks out in stilted laughter. After a while, he confesses his recent burdens. Panic attacks have become more frequent. Bad days outweigh the good. When I ask what he means by this, he shakes his head slowly, as if the question alone has drained all his blood.
I tell Jordan grad school will probably kill me, but at least I’m forced to create. “I want to write a novel before I die,” I say.
“I haven’t made shit in months,” he says.
Melissa warned me about this. It’s the change in him that seems to bother her most. But after years of infrequent reunions and only necessary communication, Melissa, Jordan, and their son have started spending long weekends together, again. I can hear the excitement in Melissa’s voice when she calls to tell me about their days wandering the city as a family, nights filled with champagne and laughter. This is why I started talking to Jordan again. Or maybe it’s because one year into graduate school, I feel as though a strong wind might knock me down, and I could use the company of an old friend.
“What else?” I ask.
Jordan, in his bedroom, in a chair at his computer, spins and opens his arms to showcase the wall behind him. It’s covered in neatly arranged, professionally framed artwork. Some are stills from his films. Some are the work of friends.
He shows me an empty bottle of Wild Turkey and takes a sip from a fresh can of Coors. He stands, sets his beer down, bends one knee, and with his foot on the seat of the chair, pulls hesitantly at the bottom of his Levis. He rolls his pant leg up his calf as far as it will go and looks back at the monitor to measure my reaction. It takes a few seconds for me to see the marks clearly––dozens of angry red slashes––a crooked train track that runs from his ankle all the way up to his leg. Some are the ghosts of old wounds, but many are new.
“It’s bad, I know,” he says, fixing his jeans.
My whole body stiffens. “Wow,” I say, finally. “That’s a lot.”
I tell myself to take it slow. I tell myself to keep him close. I tell myself not to push too hard or I’ll lose him again.
After we sign off Skype, I send a text:
So glad we r talking again. Let’s never stop!
Jordan sends me pictures of vintage Clorox bottles he found at Dead Horse Bay, his favorite place in Brooklyn, and says he wants to take me there. He sends pictures from the frame shop where he works, from his bedroom where he drinks, and from the stoop outside his apartment where he smokes cigarettes among city pigeons at sunrise.
I send mine from the University of New Hampshire. I send them from the classroom where I teach and the one where I take classes, from the grassy hill on campus where the trees look like they’re on fire, from a bar, from a bookstore, from the gym where my youngest son takes gymnastics, and from the fields where my oldest son plays soccer. Sometimes, Jordan calls because he’s having a panic attack. More than once, he tells me he has to drink by noon or else his hands shake. I tell Melissa all of these things, but she already knows.
When he loses his job at the frame shop, he cries into the phone, saying, “I need to sober up.”
Quietly, hesitantly, I ask if he might consider treatment.
“No,” he says. “This is something I have to do on my own.”
On the phone, Melissa tells me about Jordan’s visit to the house in Rochester. He stays the week, counting his beers, slowly bringing the number down. He stays busy fixing what’s broken. He replaces the window in the kitchen, repairs the leaky faucet in the bathroom, and gets the garage door going again.
He texts me while he’s there. Drying out.
Before he boards the bus home to Brooklyn, he brings their son into the bathroom.
Melissa tells me how she watched from the doorway as Jordan removed the blade from a handheld razor and handed the plastic end back to their son. There, Jordan painted a beard of shaving cream onto their son’s face and positioned him in front of the mirror above the sink. “From top to bottom,” he instructed. “Like this.”
On a snow-dusted evening in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a bartender in her mid-twenties, ten years my junior, fills a glass with ice, shakes a bottle of vegetable juice, and eyeballs a pour of vodka. Her hands move with the fluidity of an artist.
When my cellphone vibrates, I mine it from my purse and see a text message from Jordan:
Ill send a pic when im conscious.
At first, it doesn’t worry me. Lately, I’ve received similar texts and have come to understand them as a plea for reassurance––a grasp at comfort. Still, I’m never clear on how much he drinks, what other drugs he takes, or who he hangs around with.
There’s a photograph to go along with the text. In it, Jordan stands before a mirror in the Brooklyn apartment where he lives. He’s shirtless, fish-eyed, clutching a can of Coors.
When I text back, I ask if I should worry, and he tells me no––he’s with a friend. When I ask what their plan for the evening is, he says they’re going to watch a movie.
The bartender slides my drink across the bar. A swirl of red juice, ice cubes, and an olive pierced by a cocktail pick.
The lights dim, and the chatter that has filled the loft with a robust hum for the last twenty minutes begins to ebb. I tuck my cellphone into my purse and rejoin my friends at a table near the stage. It isn’t long before I have my phone out again. This time, I pass it around the table and ask what my friends think. One says Jordan’s just looking for attention. Another wonders if I should step outside to call him.
I consider my position: I’m here to attend my cohort’s reading. Jordan is two hundred seventy-five miles away. Michael is at home with our boys, taking care of the nightly routine. Jordan is with a friend.
A silence falls over the loft, and a man in a pea coat takes the stage. He introduces our first reader, a poet. I silence my phone and slide it back into my purse.
Later, when I’m home, like a ringing in my ear, I can’t stop thinking about Jordan. I brush my teeth, crawl into bed and call his cellphone. By now, it’s after eleven p.m. It rings and rings, but no one answers. The third time, I leave a voice message. “Listen, I know you said not to worry. Just call me when you wake up.”
I don’t know it yet, but the methadone has already begun its slow, destructive prowl through Jordan’s body. It’s not a substance he’s taken before. Three Narcan injections and half a dozen specialists will not be able to save him. He dies, thirty-five years old.
In lieu of a funeral, his friends and family come together on a snowy February evening to hold a memorial art show in Rochester, New York––the city where Jordan created his most memorable work.
Inside the art space, the walls are mounted with Jordan’s framed stills, sketches, paintings, and stencils. There are gas masks and light-up goggles and portraits of friends wearing them. There’s a tree growing out of a television, a plush puppet with mismatched pupils, and dozens of prints featuring men in business suits. There’s a light-up guitar, projectors and light boxes. Several televisions placed around the gallery loop Jordan’s films.
It has been five years since he graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology, since he won the Princess Grace Award and was featured on Nicktoons Film Festival. It has been ten years since we filmed Are You One of Them? and despite half a dozen moves across three states, I still have the script, though I’ve never seen the footage.
To distract myself, or perhaps to look useful, I take the folded square of paper from the pocket of my winter coat, unwrap it, and read over my list:
Jordan’s art show
3 large stencils ✔
baby doll speakers ✔
Cat in the Hat ✔
light up guitar ✔
It took weeks of searching my home––the shed, the boiler room, closets, and attics––for artwork of Jordan’s I’d hidden away years ago.
The box with the twin baby-doll speakers is in a shoebox from Amazon, barely big enough to contain them. I tuck the list back into my pocket, find the box behind the curtain where we stashed our belongings, and set it on the floor beneath a display case. I crouch and extract the dolls one at a time, each the size of a real-life newborn.
On the clean display shelf, several other baby-doll speakers are already arranged––a small silver one without eyes, a brown one, and a red one with a detachable face. There’s room on either side of the largest––a baby in goggles, ribcage carved into its chest. I add mine to the display: a family, reunited. Later, I learn which friends brought the others. Jordan often made art just to give away.
People begin to trickle into the art show with snow on their boots and tears in their eyes, saying, This should have happened years ago, when he was still alive.
The pieces Jordan gave me are not for sale, and I check on them throughout the evening, worrying the list in my pocket. I walk the gallery as if I am protecting them; as if little pieces of Jordan live somewhere inside.
When I slip into my pink velour jumpsuit and olive-green Chucks, tie my blonde bob back, and walk along the Genesee River wearing the head, I am ZoZo––depressed monster in a human world.
Beside me, Jordan is clad in a billowy suit, collared shirt, and necktie. His head is buried in Doc’s––a cobalt-blue globe with heavy eyebrows.
The film opens with Doc (licensed therapist) taking a phone call from ZoZo (psychotherapy patient in the midst of an existential crisis) inside his beat-up car parked near the river. When Jordan yells, Action! the two of us amble down the sidewalk toward our friend Bernie, who is manning the camera and tripod. Jordan had positioned Bernie on a tuft of manicured grass beneath the pale sky and told him not to move until he hears End scene!
We take our time walking in full costume. Each deliberate step causes our monster heads to shift like ill-fitting astronaut helmets. I took a few acting classes as a child and hated them. Trying to convince someone of my character pains and exhausts me, but in the head, I’m comfortable.
When it’s Doc’s turn to talk, Jordan flaps his arms, a square suitcase in one hand, saying, “Blah, blah, blah!”
Through ZoZo’s jagged eyeholes, everything is shadows and flashes; Jordan’s hand, Doc’s azure head, the oyster-gray sidewalk flanked by swells of rolling green. Bernie––a glimmer of dark hair and blue jeans behind the tripod.
When it’s time for ZoZo’s lines, I move my arms, imitating Jordan but with ZoZo’s flair. Each movement sounds like Velcro ripping apart.
In our final scene, we stand on a bridge overlooking the Genesee River. A wind picks up, and Doc’s tie flies over one shoulder. On the bridge’s apex, he opens the suitcase full of prop client notes, and dozens of yellow papers flutter and drift to the river below. With the empty suitcase at Doc’s side, he uses his free hand to take the flask from inside his jacket, brings it to his lips, and drinks. In the film, it’s Doc’s only sip of whiskey, but off-camera Jordan has been nipping all day.
Doc tucks his drink back inside his jacket and turns away from ZoZo, Bernie, and tripod. He stumbles with the open suitcase and exits the bridge among scattered papers, gesturing where our final lines will be mixed:
DOC (lightheartedly): I’m going home! By the way, I’ve been living out of my car!
ZOZO (incredulously): Doc! YOU are supposed to be the one helping ME!
A few months after Jordan’s memorial, I need a break from writing––bent over my laptop on the couch, surrounded by pillows, books, and our family’s two pet dogs. I decide to spend a few hours on this rainy day cleaning.
Downstairs, the boiler room is a small rectangle of cement lined with shelves, an oil tank, and a boiler. When I first moved into the house with Michael and our boys, I remember thinking Jordan would probably see this room as the perfect studio.
I sit on the cool floor and separate dusty holiday boxes from boxes heavy with CDs from boxes bursting with artwork. I find grade-school, stick-figure drawings by my boys, now fifteen and ten, and a stack of painted canvases from the years I spent with a paintbrush in hand, before I exchanged one craft for another. On one corner shelf, I spot the Amazon box from Jordan’s memorial art show.
I peel back the cardboard and expose the baby-doll speakers––entwined twins in the womb. Each time I have moved into a new home, the speakers have moved with me. They were displayed in four homes in Illinois and one in Arizona. Here in New Hampshire, where I’ve lived in the same house for seven years, my longest time in one place since childhood, they’ve been hidden from view—sequestered with the rest of my family’s misfit art.
I take the dolls from the box, rub dust from their shoulders, and set them on the cement floor. The dolls are dressed in matching white rompers with baby-pink ribbons for sleeves. Their skin is painted midnight blue, worn away along the outside of the arms and tops of the legs. Their hair is seaweed green. Round black speakers fill their abdomens––from root chakra to heart chakra. Even in the boiler room, the dolls gleam when light from the rain-streaked window touches them.
I scoop both dolls up in my arms and carry them into the adjacent room, which is known in our house as the workout room because half of it is taken up by large exercise equipment. Across from the machines, there’s a quiet corner with candles, a plum zafu, a stool, and two white shelves packed with books. On one shelf, there’s just enough room.
I position the stool and stand on it to dust the bookshelf with a paper towel. I center my mother’s vintage teakettle and place a baby-doll speaker on either side.
When I climb down and step back, a rush of Jordan’s energy washes over me––wild and familiar. For a moment, I can’t breathe and wonder if Jordan caused these electric currents of dynamism years ago, when he put all of himself into his artwork. Maybe the only way to access that energy now is to stand in front of the things he made.
I imagine Jordan’s energy as a copper orb of light pulsing in his chest. I imagine him taking a blade to the dolls where their guts would have been and inserting round speakers, sealing the edges with Gorilla glue, selecting midnight-blue spray paint, then seaweed-green, pulling red and black cable wires through the backs of the dolls’ freshly polished bodies, giving them life.