My cell phone rang Friday night as the One True Wife and I were going to bed. As is my custom on Friday night, I ignored it. It stopped ringing -- and then the land line rang. That's when your blood runs cold.
My sister Martha was on the phone: Jacques had died.
Jacques, as he freely admitted, was from another planet and another era. He was a giant Romanian, with the look of a Teutonic knight. He had hands the size of George Foreman's, and thunderous, gnarled feet. He had survived imprisonment and slave labor in the Soviet Gulag, from which he managed to escape in the dead of winter (and if you read his book on the experience, you marvel at the fact that he had feet at all). He had been a lumberjack, a short-order cook, a prize fighter, a U.S. soldier, the owner of a jazz bar, an actor, and God knows what else. He was a black belt in karate. He was an avid reader and chess player. He hated humanity but loved people. He loved my sister Annie. And he really loved cats.
He was my Annie's significant other for almost exactly 39 years, and her husband for about 15 of those. It was a relationship that was hard to understand until you spent a lot of time in their company. They bickered, argued, hurled accusations, fed each other, made each other double over with laughter; lavished love on their cats, worked out, read -- they did everything together. They were "Brains & Brawn" -- Annie and Jacques even wrote a thriller, featuring Annie as "Brains" and Jacques as "Brawn" -- but Annie developed brawn of her own over the years with Jacques; and his street smarts and powers of observation, and his hunger for music and his appreciation for language, betrayed a brain that, like his body, was incredibly strong despite and perhaps even because of the privations it suffered.
Jacques became a towering presence in my life during my teen years, when he did his best to rip my friends and me from the grip of the cerebral insecurity and repressed sexuality that was, sadly, the hallmark of my high school experience. He simply couldn't understand what we agonized over. You liked a girl? So kiss her. She didn't want you to? Kiss her again. She smacks you? Laugh and move on. We thought so hard about so much that was of so little consequence to him. Our moral agonies were useless luxuries to him, and our appetites were busy trying to tell us the only thing worth listening to: follow your hunger.
He sustained me physically through my angst-ridden 20s when I was living in New York and trying to figure out what to do with myself. Jacques practically force-fed me the gut-busting, mouth-watering meals he would cook up on the tiny gas stove in the 5th-floor walkup that he and Annie shared in Greenwich Village. The evenings in that garret were straight out of The Owl and the Pussycat (in which he had a memorable cameo), or Breakfast at Tiffany's: a cacaphony of cats, Erroll Garner, a Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese movie on TV, street noises, radiators or air conditioners (as the season dictated) -- and Jacques' bellowed orders, observations and exclamations (the most oft-repeated and memorable: "What the f*#k is the matter with you?!!") -- and the smacking of lips and sipping of sweetened coffee in the winter, or ice tea sipped from plastic pyrex measuring cups in the sweltering summer. There was one memorable evening spent slurping Szechuan noodles while watching a Nova episode in which a tiny camera was, shall we say, positioned to capture audio and video of the journey of a human sperm to the egg. At one point, the tail of the sperm thrashed in unison with the noodle I was inhaling. That almost killed my appetite, but not quite.
Jacques was determined to help me develop a bullshit detector. Most people, he was sure are lying, thieving, cheating, murderous bastards, and it was very important to understand what they were after. It was more important to understand what you were after. He felt I had talent and wasted it agonizing over it. He wanted to clear a path in front of me.
He could have: he had the largest hands of any human being I'd ever met. I made it a habit to shake hands with him, at least 10 times, each time I saw him. He would grimace and make his karate-master noise ("Eeeeeuuugggh!!") as he squeezed my hand, but clearly he wasn't even trying, while I squeezed with all my might and felt my bones turning to soup between his palm and the first knuckle of each digit. The next day my wrist would feel like it had been pinned under a truck all night. (Jacques showed me a photo of himself as a young fighter, in which he posed in a boxer's stance with the great Jack Dempsey: their fists were the same size.)
All these impressions don't add up to anything, I know. They recur to me now because their store has been capped. Jacques was partly gone before I knew him, but precisely because of that was more vividly here than anyone I've known -- possessed of fevered dreams and haunted by his enslavement, he was a bullshit-buzzsaw. He just couldn't take it -- didn't have time for it. He was also, perhaps, a little jealous of anyone who could indulge in the luxury of bullshit: they had time on their hands and food in their bellies, and they felt safe -- a feeling that had left him well before I was born.
Jacques was a dreamer, and he wanted his dream to be Annie's dream: he wanted the story of his life to be told in a movie. It may yet happen, but it didn't happen in his lifetime. It wasn't that he wanted fame and fortune -- not only that. I always felt that he wanted people to know how they were balanced on the knife's edge and thought they had all the room in the world. It was almost as if he experienced a demonic version of Harry Potter's Platform 9 3/4 -- he was swept onto a train and into slavery, and after that, part of him was exquisitely conscious of this different dimension of human evil and raw misery. He needed the people he loved not to get near that edge; too many had already gone over it.
I was lucky enough to visit Annie and Jacques less than a week before he died. He was much thinner, and greatly weakened by dementia, and only intermittently conscious, but when awake his eyes widened at the sight of me. He grasped and crushed my hand as always, and smiled his heart-breakingly beautiful smile. When I told him I missed his cooking and would love some of his trademark grilled eggplant dip, he managed to say, "Soon." Annie played Erroll Garner for him and fed him ice cream. After polishing off most of a pint, he looked at her adoringly, kissed her, and said, "Me love you," which was how they always said it to each other, and how Annie and I say it to each other now, and how Jacques will go on, in every expression of love between us, for the rest of our lives.