A few months after moving in with us, my brother-in-law Michael landed a job selling Cutco kitchen knives. It was one of many jobs he’d had over the last several years: He had been a ski instructor, a substitute history teacher and had worked in a medical billing office. But Michael struggled to find his footing in life and was fired from countless gigs before packing up the house that he was sharing with a bunch of friends in Portland, Ore., and coming to live with my husband and me and our two kids in Los Angeles.
Michael was also a recovering alcoholic and addict coming up on four years of hard-fought sobriety. So his move was not only about gaining professional traction, but also about maintaining the drug-free lifestyle that he was so proud of and worked daily to preserve. We provided familiarity, food and a foldout couch. Michael helped with babysitting, walking the dogs and doing the dishes. He and my husband, also a recovering addict, went to AA meetings together, and they played tennis. Michael even convinced my husband to join a gym. They spent so much time hanging out that I sometimes felt ignored.
So when my husband bought a kitchen knife with a white handle and sparkly silver blade for $120 dollars, I understood that he was doing it to give Michael some encouragement — it was a part-time gig and he was paid on commission — and maybe a little bit because he was the one who did all the cooking in the house. But we already had like a million knives and certainly didn’t need another one, especially since we had a stack of unpaid bills that merited attention on the dining room table.
“You spent $120 dollars on a knife?”
But it was the best knife ever. Unlike my husband, I’m a terrible cook — and do everything I can to avoid it — but this knife made so many things easier, liberating even: cutting the price tags off new t-shirts and socks, slicing apples for my son and challah for my daughter to make strawberry jam sandwiches, sawing off the tops of bottles of Garnier Nutrisse hair color so I could touch up my roots between salon visits.
Michael’s knife job didn’t last for long (as far as I know, we were his only client). By spring of last year, he moved from California to Florida and began a new job working in an addiction recovery center. He met a great girl and rode his bike along the beach; his teenage son came to visit and they went fishing together. Life held nothing but promise.
Then last July Michael was killed in a cliff jumping accident on Lake Champlain. Ever since that knife has taken on meaning that extends far beyond its original intent as a culinary instrument.
Since Michael’s death, I can’t look at that knife without thinking of him, or having conversations with him in my head. It’s charged, that knife. I hold it and think about the times Michael bought my kids toys and books, and gave them baths, and took them out for Mexican food. I think about that day in January we went to Paradise Cove in Malibu and I took pictures of Michael and his son, and the way Michael tousled the teen’s curly brown hair as the cold surf hit the sand. I think about “Silver Linings Playbook,” a movie Michael and I both loved, and the day we all took the kids to the Cars Land amusement park and got whipped around on the Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree ride.
I wonder what would happen if I dropped the knife from that same cliff. Would it bend? Would it break into a thousand pieces? Or would it emerge unscathed, sharp and shiny as ever? It’s just a knife, insignificant in so many ways. And yet it’s still here, and Michael is gone. It makes no sense.
When Michael climbed barefoot up those ragged cliffs, the sun beating down on his wet reddish hair, he didn’t want to die — he wanted to live. That jump was the ultimate expression of his wanton love for the outdoors, the ultimate grab at freedom. He was supposed to hit the water with a magnificent splash and then surface with arms raised in the air sounding a triumphant yawp that would reverberate around the lake. Like in an old Mountain Dew commercial.
Now, months later, I find myself standing in the kitchen, angling the knife against whatever it is I’m prepping to slice — kosher salami, wheat bread, cucumber. I’m drawn to it like it’s magic. And sometimes, if I tilt it just the right way, I swear I can still see Michael’s reflection in it.
Malina Saval is the author of “The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens” and the novel “Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.” She’s an associate features editor at Variety.