Apr 12, 2012, 09:27AM

My Cousin Who Died

She drew clever greeting cards and died in a surprising way.

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Jonathan Wiles

In my 20s the person I admired most was my cousin Amanda Cullingham. She was five years older than me and a success. Not only that but she was a success in terms I could understand. She lived in a big apartment not far from Union Square, which is a neighborhood with clubs and so on, and she swung the rent by designing—greeting cards, which threw a wrench in my admiration, but the cards were fashionable. I’d see them on a cubicle wall and think That’s Amanda.

I knew her well enough to stay in her apartment a few times, when I was down from college and later when I was looking for a place. She smiled at me maybe three times in my life, one of these being when I imitated a line from a French movie we’d just seen. I remember sitting beside her before the movie started. She craned her neck and kept an eye on the rows filling up—not for any particular reason, just because. She always seemed preoccupied with something that needed doing or monitoring.

Amanda went through a number of boyfriends, older fellows who were pushing 40 and carried briefcases. They showed up at the end of the day with collars loosened and would attempt a peck on her cheek while she worked. I saw a few of the guys, and pre-peck they all shared the same hesitation, the sense of stepping up to the plate and here goes. “Hi, babe,” one of them said, and the words hung in the air. Imagine calling Amanda “babe.”

She was pretty wide in the can, though I say it about my cousin and someone who’s dead. But her face was a heart-stopper. She had cheekbones like doorknobs and her lips looked like they were carved, and she had a wide mouth. Her upper arms were good too. Maybe drawing all the time is good for muscle tone. At any rate, her one touch of vanity was to wear dresses without sleeves. She did this even in winter. Otherwise she bothered with nothing but keeping her hair clean and occasionally picking up her apartment. She didn’t have funky lampshades or black-and-white photos of Europeans kissing. There was her drawing board, a big couch (where I slept), two chairs, and a little TV set on which she watched Taxi before going to bed. Aside from that the place was mainly floorboards and art supplies. “Where are the cats?” asked one of the boyfriends, who was a joker. “There ought to be cats.” But there weren’t any.

I guess I figured that’s what it took. If you were going to make it, you worked all the time. That’s what you hear when you’re a college kid who wants to be an artist (or writer, in my case), and Amanda was the proof. She used to be at Rhode Island School of Design, a very good art school, but then she dropped out and that had been a terrible crisis for her parents. I remember the shame felt around the table when it was revealed that her job in New York was selling tickets at a movie theater—one thing to do that if you’re working your way through college, another to do it for a living. And then the slow dazzle of relief brought on by the news of her freelance design sales, one after the other until she had her contract with the greeting card company and was making “lawyer money,” as my brother put it.

She was 26 or 27—young for big money but still a long, long time after dropping out of school. I loved that combination and the effort it implied. Between very young failure and rather young success there was a tight rope of work. She had strung that rope herself, set foot on it by her own choice, and traveled along it by never breaking concentration. Now, I told myself, I had to do the same. Of course, my failure took the form of a poor grade in a creative writing class, nothing so dramatic as leaving school. Sometimes I thought if I had really flamed out, did it right the way Amanda did, I might get my act together and forge a destiny. Instead I went to movies and felt bad about not writing in my notebook—one more liberal arts grad.

For years I saw Amanda’s designs in bookstores and high-class stationery shops. Wherever there were spin racks and fancy products, there you saw her cards. Toward the end they even showed up at Tower Records, a special display. I stood on line with my Brazilian pop compilations and gazed at what she had done. I think I was high, since that was my mode in those days, and I reflected on how she juxtaposed bold, simple colors with dainty line figures. She knew how to use form too; lines and curves broke in unexpected places without throwing the eye. I judged that she took a banal pop assignment and made it something special, and that’s why she was a success. By my reasoning, special people made something special and everybody else stood on line with Brazilian music tapes.

Before I shuffled up to the cash register, I spent a long time looking at one card in particular. It showed a big yellow pitted moon against a blue-black sky. The sky had a ragged lower edge that swooped from the card’s bottom left hand up toward the center. That left some white space in the lower right, and sheltered there was a city skyline: silver-blue rectangles, tall and short, with lopsided smaller rectangles jotted on them to represent windows.

A restaurant table floated near the crest of the swoop, and at it sat two of Amanda’s typical little line figures. One was a beau in suit and tie, and the other was a girl with long hair, a long gown, and (I think) a peaked fairy-tale hat of the sort found on damsels. I’m pretty sure that the hat, if present, was complete with dangling scarf. The girl was a princess. A pair of arrows and handwritten notes floated next to the figures. “Him” said the one next to the beau, and “You” said the one next to the princess.

Did I mention that Amanda’s market was single young women? Well, it was. Years later I figured out something else: The card’s set-up was taken from a Burt Bacharach song, the one he did for Arthur. “Between the moon and New York City,” etc. Apparently you can do that with songs. As long as you don’t quote the words, you can hang a picture on them and pay no rights. Looking back, I think a lot of her big greeting card designs followed this pattern. Motown, Simon and Garfunkel, more Bacharach—the pictures acted out lines from their songs. I’d see the sheet music sometimes, the edges curled up and stiff from ink and whiteout. But she didn’t listen to the songs. She played cassettes of solo violin or cello, and not much of that. The music she liked impressed me. A superior temperament was needed to listen to that music—I certainly couldn’t do it.

Looking at the Bacharach card at Tower Records, I felt sad. By this point Amanda had dropped me. I have to put it that way. I guess she agreed that I didn’t have her kind of backbone. For a couple of years there she’d put up with the occasional, very occasional, movie or dinner (there were cheap Indian restaurants that she liked). These had always been at my suggestion. Making the necessary phone calls involved a major screwing up of nerve, and maybe that’s why I never noticed how bad my ratio was becoming. At last, on a bright Sunday in April, the ax fell. I had struck out with a girl and figured Amanda and I might see Blue Velvet. “I’m really not interested,” Amanda said. Why not? “Sometimes I like being alone.” I didn’t quite know how to get off the phone, and Amanda said, “I really have no interest in seeing you.” So I didn’t call her again.

By now she’d broken up with her boyfriends, meaning she had finished with the last of them (he did something on Wall Street) and nobody followed him. That had been a feature of our last get-togethers, the absence in her life of a Doug or Lyle or Aaron. And she was complaining about her leg, which was something new—the idea that her body might be against her. The complaining took the form of notation. “Okay, there it goes,” she’d say, and “There’s one.” She meant the pains in her leg. She sounded bored and matter-of-fact, the tone she later used for my kiss-off.

To tell the truth, our get-togethers had stopped being any sort of fun, and it was just as well that she shut things down. But I still felt like I’d been left flat, and it wasn’t like my life became so much more green and interesting to make up for getting dumped. I didn’t rebound, from that or any of my mid-20s crap. I stumped along. I worked at a trade newspaper. Probably, I figured, Amanda was cut out for a better sort of life than I was. She knew as much and moved on, and I was living out the daily proof that she was right. Not that I thought about her so much.

Maybe a year after I saw the display at Towers Records, Amanda left New York. Not only that, but she left her career. She would be a designer no more. Instead she would live in Oregon and teach yoga. Her parents were brave, my parents were baffled. I remember my father’s reaction: a slow headshake performed with a dissatisfied twist to his mouth. He was not actually related to Amanda, but he had bitter feelings about screwed-up careers.

A couple of years passed. I was still at the trade paper but now I ran the copy desk. I was making good money—let’s say the starting salary of a junior investment banker recruited out of Dartmouth. It was a huge surprise. It was like turning a corner in an anxiety dream and finding a pot of gold instead of a door. The only things that made my situation seem plausible to me, seem like my sort of situation, were my boredom and lack of prestige. Aside from that I was doing a lot better than I’d been expecting. I was out of my 20s, and life is supposed to get in gear then.

We got news about Amanda at family dinners. She was partners in a studio, and then the studio had expanded. This was all in the background, of course, a remote thing that we touched up against every four months or half a year. But I sensed a drift to the news. Amanda was a success again. I could accept that. All right, I thought.

At a Seder, Amanda’s mother showed us a clipping. Amanda had started a camp; I mean the studio she was partners at had started it. But the photo showed her front and center, knoblike cheekbones under her wool cap, a whacking big plank balanced over her shoulder. Pine trees were in the background, a timber lodge, some dudes. I think there was another girl and she looked pretty, but maybe that’s my imagination. The headline said, “Serious About Personal Growth? Build Your Own Paradise.” And there was Amanda, commanding the landscape.

The camp opened. I was still copy chief, and feeling old for the job. A colleague and I got involved, but she was engaged to somebody else. One Saturday, after a dismal week, my mother told me that Amanda’s camp was being expanded. That’s what Amanda’s parents had said. The business the camp was doing, it had to go bigger. Her parents said Amanda had a whole philosophy about the camp and how it was designed and its purpose, what made people need it. Apparently the customers, or patients or members, did a lot of the work in putting up the buildings, but my mother didn’t bother to get details. “It just sounded like bullshit,” she said. “Enough.”

The news stayed in my head.  I thought of the timber buildings going up. I saw Amanda, her hair cut so short it was down to the scalp. She’d be wearing coarse woven garments and stalking about with no expression. People did what she said and everything in sight got knocked around and put back the way she wanted it. She was building a world. That thought snuck up on me. She wasn’t just making money and being treated like she was important. She was taking people who wanted to be remade and putting them somewhere that remade them, and the place was her idea.

There’s a panic that hits when you realize the other person is going to do so much better than you after all. Or maybe you don’t feel it. But I did. My stomach tilted away. I saw how unfair life was going to be.

I think that, all along, what Amanda was getting with this camp was what I secretly wanted for myself. But I had decided that it was impossible. I figured it wasn’t the sort of goal people got a chance to achieve in this sort of society. Now I found out it was. Amanda could do it. I couldn’t.

And then Amanda died. She was 37 and there had been no talk of a man or anyone else. I guess the studio and camp had become her all in all. At any rate, she had been directing the excavation of a pit that was going to be used for group yoga exercises of some sort; being down in the ground was supposed to make a difference. But she was too ambitious and tunneled too far. The ground was soaked from long rains, and a section slid on top of her and choked her.

Characteristically my parents couldn’t agree on the details. But a man from the studio had flown east with the news, and they saw him at my aunt and uncle’s place. “He had such a pink mouth,” my mother said. “This big man with a lumberjack shirt and a beard, and in the middle of it this big pink mouth.” I gathered that he had been a gentle, unassuming sort, and also a partner in the studio. My parents agreed that he praised Amanda to the skies. “A force of nature,” my father said of Amanda. “I expect she was first among equals in their operation.” He liked phrases of that sort.

I kept on with my boring life, still not sure I had a direction, still stuck with empty weekend afternoons and weekday nights when I had to see movies by myself. When I was in my late 30s, around the age that Amanda died, I bought a CD of Bach cello music and listened to it a few times. It was dull, and I threw it in the closet. I suppose that I was hoping for a breakthrough, that I would hear what Amanda did. I couldn’t, but it didn’t bother me so much. At least she had died.


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