Alone Together for the Big Bang

Current LABA fellow Ari Brand reflects on LABAlive, when he performed excerpts from SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD, a play based on his discovery that his father, the renowned pianist Natan Brand, lived much of his life as a gay man. Natan Brand died of AIDS in 1990.

It was a warmer than usual night in the beginning of February, and our long evening was probably over. My brother and I walked our mother home.

“Do you want to come upstairs for a bit?” my mother asked me.

I paused for a second. It was late, and I was tired — I have a toddler now, and the last few weeks had been grueling — but something was happening.

My brother was back in town to see an early presentation of the play I’d been writing, an autobiographical piece that deals intimately with the early death of our father, and the way our family talks, or doesn’t talk about it. Needless to say, it had been an intense evening. After the performance there had been a bustling reception, and then a large group of us had a late dinner at an Italian restaurant in the East Village. In the few quick exchanges I stole with my mother and brother, it was clear that, at the very least, they weren’t angry with me, which was the low bar I’d set for myself. My mother even teased me: “What’s all this ‘hard work’ you’ve been doing? You’re just writing down exactly what happened.” I thought that was nice.

Now we stepped across the original earth-toned tiles of our lobby and into the elevator. On the brief trip to the second floor, I noticed the newly refurbished elevator took us on a smoother, quieter ride than it used to. I wondered if the two of them felt it too in that moment, but I didn’t ask.

We sat down at the kitchen table. My mother poured a glass of wine. And then, suddenly, I realized why I had come upstairs. My stepfather was out of town, my brother’s wife and kids had stayed in D.C., and my wife had gone home early to relieve the babysitter. For the first time since I could remember, probably decades, it was just me, my brother and my mom, alone, in our old apartment. It was the way it had been for so many years after my father died.

We started telling sad stories. We talked about when, in that bedroom down the hall, our mother told us that Daddy had a disease, and that there was no cure. We recalled the time when, in that bathroom over there, my father’s legs stopped working, and my mother had to call the doorman to help get him out of the bathtub. We debated who was watching my brother and me, in that living room, the night he died in the hospital.

In the piece I had performed earlier that evening, my mother and brother, along with about a hundred people, watched as our past was recreated on stage. We were played by actors; in some scenes I portrayed my father myself. He was a lively and passionate man, with a funny accent and a playful demeanor, and I look a lot like him now. So for a short time in that theater, he was back. And all of these other people were sharing him with us, along with some of our most painful memories. For a moment, an audience had (hopefully) experienced something close to what my family had experienced so many years ago: that parts of our lives had been tragic and beautiful, and that we had been dealt an almost impossible hand, and that we came out the other side resilient and hopeful. It made me think our story was worthy of being told.

I asked the two of them what their experience of the night had been. My mother was kind. She said she was proud of me, but that it was difficult to relive her past like that. It was a really sad evening for her.

My brother thought about it for a while, and then said, “Well, it was kind of like the Big Bang.”     

The moment he walked into that theater, he explained, it felt like his life, his memories and our family’s story exploded out from its nuclear place, the three of us, and into the minds of all the other people in the room. During the reception, as he spoke with extended family, old friends, and audience members, he felt spread thin amongst them, every interaction raw, tinged with the feeling that these people were privy to his most vulnerable moments.

But, he continued, as the universe expands, it also contracts. The night went on and our numbers dwindled, and our story’s reach began to fade, first to our smaller group at the restaurant, and then finally back home, with the three of us alone. It sat now, concentrated, there in the kitchen. And because we had been so exposed, our world was burning brighter than ever.

I shared that Big Bang feeling with my brother in that moment, that expansion and contraction of our lives within a matter of hours. I think maybe my mother did too. And as I sat there, I wondered how long it’d be, if ever, before the three of us were at that kitchen table again, together, alone.