To say Kim Powers endured a traumatic upbringing is an understatement.
His mother committed suicide when he was a child. His father and fraternal twin suffered from alcoholism. Both Powers and his twin, Tim, had to deal with coming out as gay men. And at the age of 28, Tim mysteriously disappeared.
In his haunting memoir, Powers, an Emmy-award winning journalist, recounts his search for his twin brother. With the suspense of a mystery, "The History of Swimming" is a memoir like no other.
Read an excerpt from "The History of Swimming" below:
My twin brother Tim wrote these paragraphs the night he had a nervous breakdown, seven years ago, our senior year at the same college. He had stayed up all night finishing a paper on Richard Henry Dana's novel Two Years Before the Mast, about a boy who goes off to sea, and this was a sort of preface to his paper:
"The History of Swimming"
My older brother taught me to swim when I was five years old. Edwin, who was nicknamed "Porky" by my father, led my twin brother Kim and me to the water one Sunday morning near Easter. He promised we would not drown if we did what he said.
Porky held his arm across the water's edge and told us to fall over it until we felt the water. I stared at the pool until my twin leapt over Porky's arm and into the water. Kim turned back around to me, smiled, and I followed. We shared an adventure in space.
In adolescence, I forgot how to swim, but spent a great deal of time yearning for the water. At Boy Scout Camp, I panicked when a water safety instructor told me to run to the water's edge, strip, and save a pretend drowning victim. I am still amazed by the speed at which the water becomes a razor's edge.
With this story, I go swimming every night for a new adventure in space. I am surprised that time and memory have taught me to swim again.
I've read and re-read those paragraphs countless times over the years, but they've never seemed as foreboding as they do now. Tim writes, "With this story, I go swimming every night for a new adventure in space," but which "story" does he mean? The novel he had just finished reading -- Two Years Before the Mast? The anecdote he had just told, about being taught to swim by our older brother Porky? Or the paper itself, the one he had written for his "Literature of the Sea" class?
I keep thinking it's that, the actual paper, that holds the key to his breakdown. I read it once, years ago -- before I was looking for clues -- but it's disappeared since then. I doubt it even made it out of Tim's dorm room at graduation; I can imagine him leaving it there, hammering it into a wall like an angry edict from Martin Luther, a warning about the dangers of thinking too much about the past to the incoming freshman who would inherit the room and all its secrets.
Maybe Jim Gray, the English professor for whom it was written (a Vietnam vet who once told me the experience of war was like one long, unrelenting rock concert), still has a copy of it. Not filed neatly away, able to be retrieved at a moment's notice, but never completely out of mind, either. Just like me, Jim's always looking for that one clue in it that might unlock the mystery of Tim's breakdown; he's always thinking maybe he could have prevented it, had he only known. But known what? That's the real mystery.
In Two Year Before the Mast, a boy goes to sea to find himself. It's the basic plot of practically everything: somebody goes somewhere -- New York, Louisville, Africa, the moon, fill in the blank -- and discovers, for better or worse, wondrous, strange things about himself. What did Tim discover about himself, reading that book? And did he write about it, leave a map in those words, written seven years ago? "With this story, I go swimming every night for a new adventure in space. I am surprised that time and memory have taught me to swim again." I keep reading those sentences, but all I can see are separate words, nouns, no verbs, themselves swimming in my mind and refusing to do anything: night, adventure, space, time, memory, surprise. Little words, big ideas. Scary things. I keep thinking I'm just on the verge of understanding, but then the picture falls apart. The images don't form a logical story, even though I think I remember the separate images he conveys: being taught to swim by our older brother, the humiliation of Boy Scout Camp, the sadness of Easter (maybe that's just my memory).
Who knows (and who the f**k cares -- except me, right?) what Tim meant in that G*****n preface. It was written ages ago, long before either of us could have predicted what would happen in the years to come. So why do those few, mysterious paragraphs keep tumbling over and over in my head right now? Because they keep my mind off the thing at hand? Because they're so beautifully written? Because I think there might be hidden clues in them?
All of the above.
My twin brother Tim is missing, really missing this time, and I have no idea where he is. For the first time in my life, I think he might be dead. I don't know if I can live without him, even though I don't think I can live with him anymore, either.
The first call came around noon today. Joyce, the secretary where Tim worked, called to see if I knew where he was, or rather, in her not-wanting-to-scare-me-but-beginning-to-get-pissed-off way, if I had "heard from him" this morning. He hadn't shown up, hadn't called in, couldn't be reached. Joyce sounded like she wanted to say more -- call me paranoid, but I'm an expert at hearing things that aren't there -- but knew this wasn't the time.
I tried to stay calm, and asked if this had happened before.
She said nothing, and in that silence, I knew it had.
I'd been expecting a call like this; I'd known something was going to happen, sooner rather than later. Tim was following a familiar pattern: any time he had to face a major change -- and he was supposed to move to a new apartment tomorrow, or rather, escape his old one, with me helping him -- he would disappear, usually on a drinking binge. There would be no apology or explanation when he resurfaced, only anger; usually directed at me, because he refused to direct it at himself.
Things had been too strange lately. Things had been too strange the last seven years. We had lived apart most of that time. I had migrated from college in Texas to New York, moved in with a lover, gone to grad school, gotten a coveted job, finding scripts and books for a semi-famous TV star to turn into movies. Tim had moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and social service, one of JFK's Volunteers in Service to America. He discovered drinking in Louisville, and long distance abuse toward me over the phone. Drunken calls late at night, telling me how I had failed him. How I had become a New York snob. How we had been cursed by our childhoods (that part probably true.)
But on occasion, there was also long-distance love over the phone, and through the mail. We'd blithely make long, rambling phone calls to each other in our lean and hungry post-college years, no clue how we'd pay for them, just certain there'd be some way once the bill came due. (The same way we'd gotten through life to that point -- no clue, no map, just a vague hope we'd find a way by the time we got there -- wherever "there" was. Let it be said the Powers twins coasted through life with a certain charm, but nothing a parent could call "real life skills.") We'd exchange magnificent letters, more from Tim than me; his crafted over long periods of time and written in different inks: this one from work, that one scrounged on a bus, another from home late at night. Letters that treated his drinking as a joke, a punchline. "I'm sitting here in a bar, writing this letter. No, don't worry, it's 8 a.m., but I've only had a few drinks."
But the drinking, or the cursed childhood, or the absence of a map, took control, and things in Louisville became more difficult for him, until everything "crashed and burned," his frequent description of things. He moved to New York, where I had already lived for several years, and we didn't have the soften-the-blow cushion of long distance anymore. Things got worse for him. He started losing small things: phone numbers, keys, Citibank cards. Then bigger things: jobs, apartments, boyfriends. Finally, he attempted suicide. I had gotten to the point where I literally stopped breathing whenever the phone rang, afraid of what might be on the other end of the line: Tim, the police, a hospital, the morgue.
End of the line, indeed.
But none of it was worse than this: no phone call at all, his complete disappearance. Even with his suicide attempt a month or so ago, when he tried to hack off his hand, there was something to do, an action to take: sew him back together. After his breakdown in college, he used to say he'd let it happen so he'd have the luxury of being put back together again, like Humpty Dumpty. But now, what if there was nothing left to put back together?
With that one phone call from Joyce in his office, all the panic I'd stored up over the last seven years came flooding over. "Maybe he's just not picking up for me. Why don't you try calling him?" she sneered, then hung up.
Well, f**k you, too.
And my little brother.
My little brother by all of five minutes.
There were a dozen useful things I could have done just then, but my brain had stopped -- one phone call and bam, it just froze -- and all I could think about was the little orange pumpkin on my desk.
I had brought it back from the country the weekend before, the first bit of decoration in my new office at a new job. I had brought back miniature pumpkins for the whole staff of four. For a while, they were the only bit of color in the plain white rooms we had just moved into, where I worked the phones and did lunches, begging agents to let me see their "female-driven" projects first, before actresses who could actually get the movies made saw them. (Once, when I had to go to my boss three times in as many weeks to say a bigger TV star had beat us at getting books, she said, "If I have to hear that bitch's name one more time, I'm going to scream." So much for camaraderie among female stars of a certain age, and a certain talent.)
I had bought the pumpkins at the last minute as my boyfriend Jess and I headed back to our apartment in Brooklyn, after a weekend trip to Connecticut. The little pumpkins weren't even officially from New England; I got them at a roadside stand just before the New York turnpike, set up for weary travelers who, stuck in Sunday return traffic like ourselves, had put off buying their rustic mementos until it was almost too late. I thought Tim, who had been staying at our apartment that weekend, would like some farm-grown apples or fresh-pressed cider -- he was Mr. Fruit and Vegetables, always had been, since childhood; I was Mr. Cookies and Cakes -- and I got those for him too, as well as a pumpkin to carve for Halloween, never thinking a sharp knife was the last thing I should be putting in his hands.
But by the time we got back to our apartment, our weekend get-away euphoria was gone; we were tired and cranky from the drive, the traffic and exhaust of New York. The same fear I used to get every Sunday night about going back to school on Monday was gripping my gut, but now, it had transformed itself into the dread of the happy face, the high-pitched, happy voice, I'd have to put on for Tim. The walking on eggshells. The discovery of some new calamity. And, like time and tide, he didn't disappoint.
We got home and the big iron gate that was the entrance to our ground floor apartment was open and unlocked, and I knew Tim had fucked up. The bolt was turned, but hadn't caught in its slot; a sloppy mistake, typical of Tim thinking he'd done what he was supposed to, but hadn't done at all.
My face clenched, I went barreling in, already yelling his name, ready for war, even as Jess tried to pull me back. And even before I saw Tim sprawled out on the coach, I smelled him: beer cans and empty popper bottles, porno tapes stacked high and unwound on the coffee table. He was still asleep, in a drunken blackout, even though it was six or seven in the evening; his consciousness was buried under boozy dreams and too many cum shots. But hearing me, it took him no time at all to come alive and fly off the couch -- fully clothed, fully awake now -- and know why I was so mad. It took us no time at all to start screaming at each other, no time at all for him to grab his things and run out of the apartment, his final "F**k You" ringing in my ears. That or the clang of him slamming the metal gate behind him; it was hard to tell which was louder.
At least this time, he remembered to close it.
I chased after him, begging him to come back, at the same time I wanted him to go away and never return.
When is a pumpkin not just a pumpkin? When you just gave it to your twin brother, who's now running down a dirty New York street with a hangover headache and no shoes. When your twin brother turns around one last time, not to say he's sorry, not to beg the heavens to explain why the twin boys who used to love each other so much now hated each other, but to hurl the pumpkin at you, splattering its rind and seeds all over the sidewalk.
Oh, yes, Mr. Sondheim was right: a weekend in the country.
F*****g baby pumpkin.
I twirled it in my fingers, fingered its serrations like Rosary beads, as I tried calling Tim from my office. (Mr. Bigshot, that's me. I've got an office with no window; I've got a framed poster in it. I've got an expense account. I don't have to answer phones. I've made it. Oh, yeah.) The message on his answering machine was his regular one, Tim in happier times, not drunk, and I already wondered if it would be the last record of his voice I'd ever hear. I spoke through the machine, hoping that if he heard me, who had seen him through the worst and still not abandoned him, no matter how much I had felt like it, he might pick up. But there was no answer, for me or anybody else, so I went to his office, just a few blocks away from mine, to see if I could figure out anything more in person.
Tim works for Frank, a director who once made important "films," but now made "movies." Bad ones. And even those he had trouble financing. Tim was Frank's lackey, reading scripts and running errands for his socialite wife. The company had just set up shop, like my employers, but unlike us, their walls were already covered with posters that were a retrospective of the director's career, as if to remind him he once had one. Of course, Tim, not Frank, had the job of schlepping around and getting all those posters framed. There wasn't enough money to make movies, but there was enough to buy big, expensive frames. (And really, was there that much difference between me and Tim and our jobs? I had a business card that said "Director of Development"; he had no card, no title, but we both schlepped home books at night and on the weekends, to wade through for other people. Mine came in the form of hundreds of loose pages of manuscripts that practically dislocated my shoulder with their weight; Tim bought his off bookstore shelves, already published, too late to really play the game, but we were both doing the same thing: reading, the thing we'd taken refuge in since childhood.)
Frank's secretary Joyce had always been gracious to me, intrigued by the mystery of twinship, asking the same first-meeting questions people always ask: Can you read each other's minds?
(We can't, not really, but in the breath he takes before he says hello on the phone, I can hear his life.)
Do you know what the other one is thinking?
(I don't know when he feels a specific pain, but I know he's in pain.)
Can you feel when he's sick? Can you "mind-read" where he is all the time?
(I don't know when he leaves his house, but I know he is not there now.)
Did you ever try to fool each other's girlfriends?
(Maybe it was the fact that we are fraternal, not identical, that saved us from that one; more likely it was the fact that anyone could tell we didn't have girlfriends.)
Now, all that polite curiosity was gone, and Joyce wanted to hold me accountable for Tim. His absence had screwed up her day, and she needed someone to blame; it might as well be me. To her, at that moment, we were the same person, interchangeable, even though we weren't identical.
In our looks, and certainly in our voices, there is the hint of kinship -- that gap between our two front teeth, from the Perkins side of the family, the barest touch of a Texas accent -- but Tim has always been taller than me, maybe because he stands up straighter, with light blonde/brown hair to my darker locks. (Our late grandfather called Tim "Blondie" and me "Brunie.") Tim always has a tan, no matter what time of year; I don't like the sun that much, and have the "pasty white skin of the stay-at-home," the only phrase from the Boy Scout Manual that has stayed with me all these years. I look small, even frail. People always assume I'm the little brother, not the older, by a big fucking five minutes. (When we'd go to weekly movies every Saturday as children, the popcorn lady would say to Tim, "Now, don't bring your little brother next week. The movie's too grown-up for him." "Just give me extra butter and shut the f**k up," I felt like saying back to her, sailor-mouthed at six.)
"Look," Joyce said. "Is this a joke?" No preamble, no "I'm sorry," no "I hope he's alright," no "I can't imagine what you're going through."
"Just give me extra butter and shut the f**k up," came back to mind, but I held my salty tongue.
She pointed to Tim's desk, piled high with papers, scripts, receipts, old New York Posts and Daily Newses, the packs of gum the director needed to keep from smoking, probably even a change or two of clothes.
I didn't know if the mess was the joke Joyce meant, or something else. She just kept staring, pointing with her head, hands on her hips like the proverbial little teapot -- I expected her to say "Tip me over and pour me out." Did she want me to clean it up? Is that what all this was about? He hadn't been hired for his neatness; surely she'd figured that out by now. (There's a picture of him in one of our college yearbooks, sitting in his dorm room, which was overtaken by papers, books, records, dirty clothes and, so help me God, a vacuum cleaner. What that was doing there -- it had certainly never been used -- I never could figure out. Tim should have pasted copies of that picture on his resume: "Here, this is who I am: smart, but a mess. It's a package deal. Take it or leave it.")
"Look," she said again. Alright already, I'll clean it up. I went over to the desk, and finally saw what she meant. Excavated from the rubble was his "Day at a Glance" calendar. Joyce had flipped to today's page, where Tim had written, in the spidery, almost old-fashioned calligraphy that was his trademark, "Swimming."
He'd also written, in the pages leading up to it, that familiar phrase that made my stomach seize up: "Crash and Burn." He'd written it so often he even came to abbreviate it: "C & B."
"What's that mean? Crash and Burn? Swimming?" She shook her teapot head again. "I don't know how much longer Frank's going to stand for this."
I looked at the page again; there was something else about it, something more than those foreboding words "swimming" and "crash and burn" in all their isolation. Was it the relative blankness of the pages earlier in the week that was so strange? Monday through Wednesday were completely empty, unlike most of the previous weeks, which were filled with appointments written in different colors of ink -- "red/blue/green", said very fast, the punchline to a joke I remembered from grade school. No erasable pencil for my brother, no sir. Thursday night, the night before this, he'd written "Something with Peter" around 6:45. Tonight, Friday, he was supposed to go out with "Dan M." (No last names for my brother, either. It's not me protecting the innocent, that's just the way he wrote them. And we're yet to see if anybody's innocent, in the tale to come.) On the next day's page, Saturday, he'd written "Moving to Weekhawken, NJ" with big stars around it, like the light bulbs on a movie marquee, the same icon he had started drawing in high school and college on special letters to special friends.
I would call those people, Peter and Dan M -- I knew who they were -- but it wasn't the appointments, who had last seen him when or where or who was supposed to see him, that meant something. It was the date, the end of October.
I closed my eyes -- not easy to do under the watchful, judgmental glare of the ever-present Joyce -- and tried to think. And again, all that came to mind was pumpkins. Orange. Late October. Days before Halloween. Early sunsets, dark, jeweled nights. And then something started taking shape. I pushed harder, and tried to make my mind zero in on something specific. The smell of fall, my favorite season. ("I praise the fall; it is the human season," the poet Archibald MacLeish once wrote.) College. Rehearsing for "The Faust Project." Standing by some bushes, talking to Tim.
And there it was.
I suddenly knew.
If not the exact anniversary of his breakdown, it was certainly around the time he had left school, near a holiday, Halloween or Thanksgiving.
When he had gone "swimming" in time and space.
In the weeks before his breakdown, that fall of our senior year, Tim had been reading Moby Dick for his "Literature of the Sea" course; "Moby's Dick" we'd yell out with a cackle, across the din of the cafeteria, then stretch our arms as far apart as they'd go, a visual of Moby's dick that left nothing to the imagination.
That was when we were talking to each other. More often than not in those days, we weren't: we'd pass each other and stare, a challenge, angry over some unspoken slight. Those silent looks were our favorite weapons then, much more than words. Strange: the boys who were so much better with words than anything else -- people, cars, whatever -- couldn't use them with each other, at least at that strange juncture in our lives.
And I couldn't figure out why we weren't talking. Tim seemed to have undergone some sort of sea change that summer and fall. He'd come back from a summer spent with our college's theater troupe, off in the Hill Country near San Antonio, and he was different. Strange. Moody. I'd ask him why, and he'd just give me what I'd started calling his "Pip look."
Pip was Melville's servant boy who went underwater and came back -- what? Dead? Alive? An unholy, visionary mixture of both? An almost beatific look would come into Tim's eyes whenever he talked about Pip, which was often, as if they had both lain witness to the same thing. Maybe Atlantis, maybe God, but whatever it was, Tim couldn't wait to see it again. And those of us who hadn't seen it -- whatever it was -- weren't worth talking to.
Tim was Pip that fall.
My last conversation with him, before his breakdown later that night, took place by a row of bushes surrounding the campus's central administration building. It was early evening, and I, self-important little college actor that I was, was racing off to a rehearsal for "The Faust Project," our attempt to be avant-garde, when I ran into Tim. Literally. I was playing Faust and mumbling my lines to myself, wondering how in the world I could convince an audience I had seen Hell -- later, it would be so easy -- when I bumped into him. He blurted out he didn't have time for me, didn't have time for anything. I said something nasty in return, and we stood there, wondering who was going to have the last word.
That's what it always came down in those days -- who would have the last word.
For those few, silent seconds, I remember picking at the waxy leaves of that hedge, getting their rich green and chartreuse pulp underneath my fingernails, as if I needed to dig my nails into something, to keep from digging them into my own skin, or Tim's.
Several walkways radiated out from where we stood, like spokes from a central hub, and we could have taken any one of them to escape each other. But for some reason, we didn't. Maybe we were bonded, for those few minutes at least, by memories from our childhood: the feel and smell of waxy leaves; the sight of streetlamps on timers, flickering on and off as falling nighttime teased us, then finally took hold, in those waning days of summer, the last days of childhood, when we would try to squeeze every last second out of the darkness before we had to go in for the night.
Now, Tim smiled first, a little cautiously, like dipping his toes in water to test the temperature, then apropos nothing (or maybe everything), began telling me about a painting that my dorm room neighbor had been working on: a mystical, almost other-worldly depiction of two naked bodies, neither male nor female, their hills and valleys beckoning to the acolyte. As Tim described it, he was overtaken by the Pip look -- that inscrutable set of his eyes and mouth, his brow and the brain behind it, that harkened back to some wondrous, strange thing that only he had been chosen to witness.
I was surprised by Tim's description of my neighbor David's painting; I didn't even know they were friends. I'd taken to nightly chats with David as study breaks (I had a little crush on him) and had never heard him mention the painting, or even knew he painted, because he was a bigwig in the music department. I told Tim I'd have David show it to me.
Mission accomplished, Tim half-smiled as he walked away; the missing half of the smile was a mystery I was supposed to solve.
Later that night, I was at "Faust" rehearsal when Tim "broke down," unreachable even if he had tried to reach me. I've always needed to think he did. (Did his breakdown happen in a single minute, an hour, a night, or did it take the twenty-odd years of our lives to gather force and strike?) Ironically, after that night's rehearsal, I'd been talking to my friend Ken about his own sister's breakdown. He'd charted a whole world, at that time unknown to me, of lithium, therapy, nerve synapses, auras. Seeing Ken recently in New York, he said, "Everyone always thought you'd be the one who'd go nuts; I always knew it was going to be Tim."
Inadvertently, I was told on the phone the next morning by one of Tim's professors that something had happened. Dr. Hinkle assumed I already knew; I didn't. That was the first time I've ever felt the panic on a phone call, that has been a frequent visitor these past seven years.
Tim wrote this that very first night my father brought him home:
"Time At Home"
I stopped crying after midnight and told my father about a friend at school.
"His name is Michael. If boys are pretty, then Michael is such a pretty boy."
My father stared out the window of the house where I was born.
"Last summer, he went across the United States and spent only $30. Can you imagine that?"
My father counted streetlamps from the window and reached for a cigarette on the table.
"Michael met so many people on the road. They bought him dinners and gave him places to stay."
My father drew the shades. He stubbed out his cigarette in a cup of cold coffee and said, "I think, son, if I were not such a scarecrow now, I could make the trip for $20."
My father kissed me goodnight and walked down the hall to his bedroom. I got up from the couch and heard the clock strike from the courthouse square:
It is no time/To make your father cry.
It is no time to make your brother cry either, but that is what I was on the verge of doing, when Joyce brought me back to the present and said Frank wanted to talk to me.
I was intimidated by Frank's fame, and always worried if I sounded intelligent and witty in his company. "Company" was hardly the word for it; presence was more appropriate. But at the same time I felt awkward around him, I was privately dismissive about the commercial comedies he was now making, and angry at him for causing so much of Tim's unhappiness. (That's right, Kim: blame everybody but Tim. Blame everybody but yourself.) Tim felt differently about Frank's movies each time he saw them, depending on how he felt about Frank at the time. When Frank was nice to him, the movies, even the bad ones, were works of genius the rest of us failed to understand. When Tim was mad at Frank, and I had finally figured out something nice to say about the movies, Tim thought they were a mess, and was I out of my mind?
Frank was the kind of person I deepened my voice to talk to.
The first, and only thing he asked, was if Tim had cut his wrist the month before: the scar, the roll of gauze bandage he had passed off as covering a burn…
Maybe he had tried the very same things in his life.
I'm not a very good liar; I told Frank the truth, even as I knew Tim would be furious at me for doing it.
Even though Frank said he was worried, and wanted to find Tim and get him help, he seemed determined to let me know he wasn't going to tolerate his behavior much longer. It was a threat, an ultimatum. Not only did I have to worry about Tim's whereabouts, but what might happen to his job when -- if -- he were found.
At one point, maybe the only point of real kindness in the short conversation, Frank shook his head and said, "Oh, Kim." Nothing more, but I understood. He had been a child like us -- nervous, sensitive, not sure of his way -- and maybe he still was, even though he couldn't let it show anymore. He knew what could make a sensitive boy disappear, but not how to find him. That would be up to me, and he didn't envy me the task.
He wished me good luck, and our meeting was over.
I took the calendar on Tim's desk on my way out.
Joyce saw me do it -- she opened her little tea spout and started to say something, to protest "We paid for that, it's ours" -- but the pain and fear in my eyes silenced her for once.
Maybe the calendar would help me find my brother, wherever he was swimming.