Thinking about Tanner tonight starts with a bottle of Dijon mustard, the worst condiment if you ask me. Though, I can’t remember if I’ve always hated Dijon, or if it was just another thing that changed about me with Tanner gone. I wipe the bottle down and try not to think about the particulars of Dijon mustard and how when Tanner moved out of our childhood home, and invited me over to see his new college apartment, he asked me to bring two things: Dijon mustard from the fridge and the off brand bottle of shaving cream he’d forgotten under our shared bathroom sink.
I put the bottle of Dijon back on Table 18. I’ve been working the dinner shift at Buddy’s Bistro for two years now, mostly on weekends. Buddy’s Bistro has done a lot for me over the last approximately 350 shifts and I am thankful that I am staying in the city for college and can continue to work here. I love seeing the students from New York University stumble in, drained from classes and exams with stacks of books to continue their all-night study sessions. I love the rare Broadway star that would come in after the show to down a cup of coffee and an almond croissant. Mostly, I just love people watching.
I empty my tip jar into my purse before ducking out of the front door and onto 9th street. It’s nearing midnight, which in New York City actually means that it’s not out of the norm to have the streets crowded. Especially in the summer, when the late-night heat drives people to act crazier than usual. Even though I’ve spent my whole life as a child of New York City, the mid-July heat is something I’ll never get used to.
Out of habit, I walk through Washington Square Park and think about stopping in front of Tanner’s old building. I imagine my older brother sitting at his window and staring down at the action in the square below. He would be twenty-one this winter, a junior at NYU, and who knows what else. Unfortunately, was frozen in time at twenty, despite doctors promising my parents that the likelihood of his leukemia coming back was very slim. Tanner and I were always close, probably because when he was going through treatments for childhood cancer, I was dragged along for the appointments. At the time, my parents hadn’t wanted a babysitter in our cozy Brooklyn apartment, who knew what kind of germs they would unknowingly bring in, so I became Tanner’s cancer sidekick. At three years old, I would sit in the chair next to his bed with my coloring book and toy ponies and we’d make up stories together. At seventeen years old, I did the same, as the weight dropped off his body and he slept more throughout the day. It’s felt like both the longest and shortest two months of my life since Tanner died and I’ve been missing him more than usual these days.
So, to hell with it, I walk by his old building.
In the fall, I start at Columbia University, major undecided. The summer before college is supposed to be the greatest summer of your life. With so much sprawled ahead of me and growing up in New York City means that the adventures are limitless. Instead, the day after graduation I stopped answering my friends’ text messages and picked up extra shifts at the diner. I miss Tanner, and while I still have my parents to keep me company and to understand what it feels like to miss someone who had been promised to you for your whole life, that still didn’t feel like it was enough. I hope that when classes start in the fall, I’m too busy to miss Tanner.
“Parker?” I turn around and see Jacob walking towards the building.
I look at him for a second too long before saying hello. He stops digging in his side bag for his keys and just smiles at me. Jacob was Tanner’s roommate all through college, classmate in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Music and best friend.
“It’s good to see you. How are your parents doing?” Jacob asks as he shifts his weight from foot to foot. I just nod.
“It’s funny that I ran into you, I found a box of Tanner’s things in our living room. I’ve been meaning to send it to you or stop by and drop it off, but…” He doesn’t need to finish the sentence. I know that what he really wants to say is that he doesn’t know how to act around my still mourning mother and stoic father. “It’s mostly old textbooks and stuff, but there was an envelope addressed to you. I can run up and get it, if you want.”
Before I know it, I’m sitting on a bench in the park, staring at Tanner’s scrawled handwriting on a plain white envelope.
“You know, most people usually open it. You can just rip that flap in the back,” Jacob says, and I notice instantly that his warm smile is comforting to me.
What is in the envelope? This is my last piece of my brother that I have. After opening this envelope, that’s it. I’ll just have memories of Tanner: us on the F train going to the beach, us fighting over the remote on Thursday nights (he wasn’t a fan of Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder), just us together. I flip the envelope over and over in my hand before taking a breath and ripping it open.
Happy 18th birthday. To celebrate, here’s your voters registration form. New York needs voters like you, especially if you ever want to be able to pay back all of the loans you’re going to drown in after Columbia. I wish I could say I was kidding. There’s also this list of five songs. Each one should remind you of a memory between us. By now, we’ve both come as close to acceptance as possible, which means that I hope you’re not mad that I’m missing your birthday…hopefully these songs make up for it.
Put your headphones on, let your memory run wild, and GO.
Love you, Tanner.
Inside the envelope I see five folded pieces of paper, marked numbers 1-5. I pull out the paper marked ‘1’ and open it.
Song number 1: A song to make you laugh. “Sweet Caroline.” I know, I’m sorry.
Just remember how fun the all-night karaoke place is?
“What’s it say?” Jacob asks and I flash the letter to him. He reads it at least three times, breathing in Tanner’s handwriting just like I did and looks over at me.
“What are you doing tonight?” I ask, a smirk on my face and tears in my eyes.
Jacob pulls open the front door of Killer Queen Karaoke Bar, a hole-in-the-wall karaoke bar that I frequented with my theatre friends. Our nights of drinking Pepsi and belting showtunes at the top of our lungs will forever be a fond memory of my high school years. When my friends and I would sing pop hits that were on the radio or heartfelt renditions of Tony Award Winning classics, there was a late 50’s man who would always sing the same three songs: “Piano Man”, which was expected, “Make You Feel My Love”, which was depressing, and “Sweet Caroline”, the song that Jacob and I had swayed our heads to just minutes earlier while we shared my headphones on the R train. Before hearing it weekly at the karaoke bar, I loved turning it full blast and screaming along. Now, I hate it.
The familiar sight of the dull fluorescent light above the bar and the smell of New York City sweat nearly take my breath away as Jacob approaches the bar. He orders a beer and looks at me, remembers I’m underage and gives me a “should we try anyway?” look. “Make that two,” he says to the bartender, who doesn’t question it when Jacob slides him an extra twenty. We find a small table in the back and look at the stage. It’s a Thursday, nearing midnight, which explains the groups of people dancing shoulder to shoulder on the dance floor. Jacob and I sip our drinks and both find ourselves singing along to the music that is playing between singers, some cover of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer”.
Tanner’s envelope comes alive in my purse. We’d been planning my 18th birthday for years, it felt like, but when it came around, I didn’t feel like celebrating. My birthday was a little over a month ago, Tanner’s death just two weeks before that, so it’s hard to say when Tanner accepted the reality that he might not be alive to watch me blow out the candles.
“Should we sign up to sing?” Jacob asks, and gives me a devilish grin as he pulls the binder of available songs across the table. He flips open the pages, runs his finger down the rows, before stopping and pointing at one.
“Let’s see, we have “The Best” by Tina Turner, “Dancing Queen” by Abba, oh, and my personal karaoke go-to, “All Star” by Smash Mouth.”
“If I’m going to sing a song, it’s obviously going to be the one Tanner recommended.”
Jacob sits back in his chair as I scribble the code to the same song that, months earlier, would have made me roll my eyes and take a bathroom break. Jacob hands it to the karaoke host for me as I look around the bar. When Jacob sits back down, he takes another sip of his beer.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called you guys to see how you’re doing,” he says.
“It’s okay. We didn’t call you either.”
“My new roommate isn’t as cool as Tanner.”
“Of course he’s not,” I say and Jacob smiles a tight smile. We both look at the group on the stage, three girls screaming the lyrics to some break up song, laughing and dancing as they do. The noise of the room bouncing off the walls, cradling me in its mess.
“They’re calling your name, Parker,” Jacob says. He gives my shoulder a squeeze and I walk up to the microphone. I’m not a stranger to performing, not only because of karaoke bars, but also because of my four years of musical theater training in high school. This time feels different though. I hope that wherever Tanner is–I don’t know what sort of afterlife there is for us– he’s getting a kick out of this. I hold the microphone to my mouth, gave Jacob an eye-rolling smile, and start to sing the same words that I once hated.
How was the karaoke bar? Did you sing your FAVORITE song?
Now, for Song number 2: A song to remember family: “Wonderwall” by Oasis.
The Whitman Family is banned from this place because of this day and this epic argument
between mom and dad. I’m still on mom’s team, by the way.
Our parents met the day after my dad moved to New York City and they always told us stories about New York in the 80’s. My dad, as a graphic design student at Pratt, my mom, as an overworked intern at an event firm, and the ten-year-old dog they adopted walking the paths of Central Park once a week and spending the afternoon staring up at the clouds and planning their future together. For their twentieth wedding anniversary, Tanner organized a park date for them, complete with picnic blankets and tupperwares of brownies baked with marijuana, a snack that my parents laughed about as they told us their stories of their “safe and recreational” drug use. We sent them off for a romantic afternoon in the park, and Tanner and I went on our own adventure.
“The day of their twentieth anniversary, Tanner organized this brilliant little party for them,” I tell Jacob as we walk into the park at the entrance near 59th street. It’s nearly one in the morning, so the usual horse drawn carriages and joggers are tucked safely into their beds. In fact, Jacob and I might be the only people in the park.
“And it got ruined because it started pouring, so they packed up their things and told us to meet them at the Starbucks, right there.” I point at the chain coffee shop across the entrance of the park and see the stacked chairs and still glowing menu.
I press play on my phone, hand Jacob one of my ear buds, and the opening guitar strums of “Wonderwall” light up the sky. I listen to the song for a moment and remember the look my father gave my mother when it came on that day.
My parents bicker over the smallest things. Who left the coffee pot on? Who didn’t start the dishwasher? Who forgot to sign the permission slip? The funniest thing they bicker over is what song they danced to at their wedding. Dad swears it was “Wonderwall” by Oasis, mom promises us it was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen, and somehow, there is no recorded evidence of what it actually was, so we may never know the truth.
“My dad smiled at my mom and said something like ‘honey it’s our song!’, and my mom just gave him the most disgusted look.” I start to laugh as I tell Jacob this memory.
“She starts yelling ‘God dammit, Will, for the last time this was not our wedding song!’ and attracts a huge amount of attention. People are just staring at her as she goes on this tirade about this song. Meanwhile, Tanner and I were trying so hard not to laugh. The manager eventually had to come over and ask us to leave.”
I remember Tanner and I busting out in laughter as our family trudged back into the rain, my parents not even slightly embarrassed, as they made a pact to never talk about their first dance again.
Jacob laughs as I finish telling him the story, his eyes bright despite it nearing one thirty in the morning. He’d been privy to our parents’ weird arguments before, so it feels good to share this memory with him. I try to ignore how Jacob smells like my favorite laundry detergent as he plops down in the grass and lays on his back, inviting me down with him. We stare at the lights in silence, the music of the city still around us, reminding us that we are always surrounded by something.
“Have you gotten used to life without Tanner yet?” I ask.
Jacob’s arm brushes against mine as we continue to stare at the sky.
“Are you excited to start school in the fall?” Jacob asks.
“I haven’t really thought too much about it.”
It’s nice to be with someone who has memories with Tanner. Jacob’s memories may include their time sneaking alcohol into their room and ordering take-out at weird hours of the night, but their memories together are another part of Tanner that I can hold onto.
“I can’t believe he left me this letter. I feel like it’s giving us one final adventure with him,” I say.
“He was always putting other people first, wasn’t he?” Jacob’s voice trails and it makes me think of the day we moved Tanner out of his apartment and back into our family apartment, setting him up in his childhood room to make him as comfortable as possible.
“Tell me another story about him,” I say, and I gently relax into Jacob’s arm as he begins to tell me about Tanner, an expired Metro Card, and a Yankees game day before I pull out the paper marked ‘3’.
Have you had the guts to go back to that Starbucks? I definitely haven’t.
So, if you did, kudos to you. Ready for Song 3?
A song that reminds us to expect the unexpected.
“The Room Where It Happens” from Hamilton.
The Richards Rogers Theater is ten blocks away from where Jacob and I exit the park, so we decide to just walk it. Earlier this year, schools closed for a snow day and Tanner and I knew that it was finally our chance to try to get stand-by tickets for the Broadway phenomena Hamilton. We planned on meeting outside the theater at the crack of dawn because we knew from media coverage of the musical that lines formed almost immediately. That morning, when we met outside the dark theater, we were surprised to see that we were first in line. We were so excited, nearly jumping up and down at the prospect of getting tickets to the Broadway musical of the decade. It took us two hours of waiting for the box office to never open to remember that it was Monday, which meant there wasn’t a performance that night. Though I wanted to cry, Tanner laughed so hard as he led us to our favorite twenty-four-hour diner in Midtown.
As we meander down 8th Avenue, Jacob asks me what no one else has had the guts to ask me since Tanner died: now what?
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. My whole life, Tanner was a guiding force to me. With just two years between us, he paved the way for the moments in adolescence that would have been way scarier if I didn’t have him. Our experiences were different, of course, but when he wasn’t warning me about the math teachers that refused to give extra credit or teaching my friends and me how to sneak into football games, he was helping me grow up by example. I didn’t know what life meant now without Tanner and since he was always the person who had helped me for so long, I didn’t know how to begin to figure it out.
I have to think of anything else right now. The tears keep building in the back of my throat as we turn onto 46th street and see the ever-present lights of midtown Manhattan. Somehow, Jacob and I snag the same table that Tanner and I had sat at that night. Jacob orders a black coffee and I salivate as I order a plate of French fries for us to share. Sitting across Jacob in that booth is different from sitting across Tanner for many reasons, and I can only hope that Jacob isn’t about to drop the same bomb that Tanner had dropped that morning: “Parker, my test results came back,” he said, before trying to lighten the mood with a Hamilton joke: “Don’t tell mom and dad yet. They don’t know. They weren’t in “The Room Where It Happens.””
Song number 3 on Tanner’s list: Act two, song five of the musical that Tanner would never get to see: “The Room Where It Happens”.
“I keep thinking that Tanner had a grand plan for all of this,” I say as I put a too-hot fry in my mouth and watch Jacob sip his coffee.
“What do you mean? Is this not a grand plan?”
I feel the guilt immediately. Tanner was my brother and he left me this. Jacob got nothing.
“He knew he was dying, Jacob. I can’t shake the guilt that in his final months, this is what he was working on.”
“He loved you, Parker.” Jacob smiles. He knows Tanner too, I suppose. I just nod. Maybe the point of Tanner’s list is to just sit back and enjoy the music. It’s a tour through some of our best memories together. But with him gone, it hurts to know that I’ll keep walking these streets and listening to these songs and he won’t.
“What’s the fourth song?” Jacob asks, leaning over the table. I see his eyelashes curl at the end and the small birth mark he has underneath his eyebrow, and it’s something else about him that brings me comfort.
Song number 4. A song to keep you going. “Carry On” by Fun. The star lyric: “Though I’ve never been through hell like that, I’ve closed enough windows to know you can never look back.” Full disclosure, Parker…This song has been on repeat for a while now. It gives me a sort of acceptance. Like everything is going to be okay. Put this song on repeat and take the A train to High Street. It’s a hell of a train ride from midtown to Brooklyn, huh?
“Of course,” I say. Jacob takes a sip of his coffee and eats another fry off my plate. “I’ll be right back,” I say and leave the table with my phone, headphones, and Tanner’s letter and head to the bathroom. It’s a single stall bathroom and as I lock the door behind me and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I see the night has settled on me. My straight blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail and I’m still wearing my apron from work. My phone, which has been on do not disturb, has a goodnight text message from my parents, who fell asleep before I even got off work. And as I look at the letter for song number four again, I’m immediately angry at myself. In my selfish ways, I want to rip this piece of paper and flush it down the toilet. The only memory I have attached to this song is the memory of Tanner slipping away in his bed. Over the final months of his life, I remember Tanner listening to this song over and over, muddling any happy memories I’d ever had with this song. Song number four is here to walk me through Tanner’s death, and how could he not know that I would never need a reminder of that?
I have an unspoken allegiance to my brother, though, and his playlist. I scroll through my phone, re-download the song that I had deleted after he died, and press play. The opening music is so heart wrenching and so heartbreaking, for me. Even though it’s a song about hope and moving forward and being okay, all I see in my mind as I close my eyes are images of Tanner’s final days. I don’t want the last “us” memory of Tanner to be sitting on the chair by his bed as he listened to this song in his final days. But, I keep listening. I lean against the bathroom door and as the chorus swells in my ears, close my eyes and try to shake those images of Tanner out of my head. As the music plays, I replace the image of my mother helping Tanner in and out of bed with an image of Tanner and me eating vanilla ice cream cones on Coney Island. I delete the image of Tanner shivering and vomiting after another round of failed chemotherapy and instead see Tanner and me on Christmas morning when we got our puppy. The music soothes me, calms me, as I fight against the idea that my brother is gone forever. How can he be gone when I can just press play, close my eyes, and be right there with him?
I walk out of the bathroom and Jacob is waiting by the door. He tilts his head to the side.
“I thought you fled town out of the bathroom window,” he says.
“I thought about it.”
“What’s up, Parker?” he asks, surely noticing my red eyes and my running nose.
“Song number four sucked,” I say. Jacob gently touches my shoulder and I exhale a breath that felt like it has been stuck in my chest all summer.
Jacob and I spend the thirty minutes from midtown Manhattan into Brooklyn Heights letting our knees knock and our eye fight from fluttering closed. Whenever he yawns, I immediately follow, and each time, it makes us laugh. After leaving the diner, I expected to give Jacob a good-bye: as we near closer to sunrise than sunset, both of us know that the subways run less frequently, and he’d have to turn right around and make the trip again. He was persistent, though, and I was thankful. Now, we are the only people on our subway car, the one closest to the conductor, a safety precaution my parents taught me when I was granted permission to ride the subway alone.
“I haven’t been to Brooklyn in a hot minute,” Jacob says, the classic East Village dweller who felt that there wasn’t life outside of his blocks of neighborhood and life. “Then again, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been to Central Park in the last three years, so it’s an adventure all night, huh?” he adds, and we exit the train as the conductor calls our stop. As soon as we step out of the High Street station, we see The Brooklyn Bridge.
“That’s where we’re going,” I say.
Jacob and I walk up the bridge in silence and we stop and take in the view when we get to the top. Manhattan is lit up, Brooklyn looks sleepy, and we joke that it feels like we can see The Bronx from here. Jacob leans against the rail.
“Thanks for bringing me along,” he says. I smile. I don’t know how to tell him that I wouldn’t have been able to get through this night alone or that it seems that Jacob understands a part of me that very few people will ever understand: how it feels to have loved Tanner and lost Tanner.
“Do you want to do the last song alone?” Jacob asks. I shake my head and he reaches for my hand, squeezes it, and I dig through my bag to pull out the envelope. There is one final folded piece of paper left.
Song Number 5. “So Long, Marianne” by Leonard Cohen I’ve always thought that there is no point in wasting words when songs like this exist. I think it says everything I’d ever want to say. It’s no advice for your future, no heart-felt memory attached…Just a song about goodbye. “Oh, so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”
The tears start instantly, and Jacob wraps an arm around my shoulder. My head finds a place under his arm as if it’s meant to be there, and it takes a second to gain enough composure to speak.
“This night is exactly what Tanner would have wanted. I should have known that he’d put so much thought into the final song,” I pause, “This is my all-time favorite song.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard it,” Jacob says. I think of the first time I heard it.
“Tanner and I got bored one day and went through all of our dad’s old records, and we came across a record of Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits. We listened to it, and this song was the last song on it. Something about it just struck me, but I forgot about it, you know. That night, Tanner taught me the history of the song.”
I think back to Tanner walking into my bedroom and throwing his phone onto my bed and telling me to read what was pulled up on the screen.
“The story goes,” I begin, “That Leonard Cohen befriended a woman, Marianne, and they lived together for a decade as friends and eventually lovers. In the song, Cohen wishes her well, and hopes that she comes back one day. They remained friends until the day she died, and in her last few months of life, Cohen wrote her a letter.” I stop, compose myself again. “He signed the letter: ‘Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude.’ And it just always got me so messed up thinking about how the people we love are connected to us forever.”
Without needing another word, I grab my phone out of my pocket and unplug the headphones so that Tanner’s final song plays at full volume on the top of the bridge when I press play. I ignore the ache in my throat and the quiver in my lip as I bite it to keep from completely losing it. When it gets to the chorus, Jacob must notice, and he gently slides his hand across my back. I think of everything in my life that Tanner will miss. I think about everyone we have ever loved or ever will love and how if we’re lucky enough to love them hard- how I loved Tanner and how he loved me- maybe they don’t ever leave. It actually sucks to think about. I have to live the rest of my life without ever seeing Tanner again but I’ll feel him in every moment of my day. When Jacob starts the song over, I become positive that Tanner knew he wouldn’t be here to watch me blow out the candles on my cake, and it pains me that in his last months of life, he obviously dedicated time to thinking of me. Of course, he did.
“That’s a beautiful song,” Jacob says, after a few minutes of silence once the song has ended. I just nod. As we stand at the top of The Brooklyn Bridge, the sun starting to think about rising.
When I get home an hour later, I don’t waste time brushing my teeth or washing my face. I simply kick off my Nikes, peel off my dirtied jeans from my shift the night before, and curl into my pillow. Just as I’m about to fall asleep, I hear my phone buzzing and see a text message from Jacob. I open the message, a link to a playlist on a streaming service, and smile.
Here’s five more songs that Tanner loved.
I press play.
Sam Cooke is a Boston based fiction writer. She enjoys writing about friendships, first loves, the beach, and anything related to music.