A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Dave loved my older sister at a time when a lot of boys loved her. During parties at our house, the boys would get a little drunk and sometimes fight. I would watch from the stairs that overlooked the front room.
We called it the front room, not the living room. In the old house we’d had a living room. And a dining room. And a library, a sun room, a kitchen with a fireplace, and a laundry room. And that was just the downstairs.
But that was the old house. This house — the house after the divorce — had just the front room, the back room where we ate, the kitchen, and the bathroom. It had two tiny bedrooms upstairs and a huge finished basement like a barracks where my older brothers slept.
The front room was actually quite large. It was the reason my mother had bought the house, which was otherwise too small for us. The front room had what my mother called a cathedral ceiling, and a fireplace with a wide, stone chimney.
My sister wasn’t beautiful in the usual sense. She was small and quiet. But her eyes drew you in. They knew something. They saw and they knew. Boys would come from the high school or from the raggle-taggle garage that fixed the weird little foreign cars my mother bought cheap and drove till they broke down. Some boys would come from the beach: not the big, healthy lifeguards, but the ones who hung out at the beach late in the day, never even going in the water, just standing and looking out over the waves. They all longed for something; they thought it was my sister.
So they came over and sat around in the front room and listened to records. Some claimed to be friends with my older brothers. One came to see if the oil pan on the NSU Prinz was still leaking. Dave went to my sister’s high school and just started showing up.
Dave with eyes like Jesus and bad skin. Dave with his beaklike nose and a voice so soft and deep you could drown in it smiling.
From the front door there were two steps down into the room, and Dave usually sat on the top one, barely in the house at all, watching.
And I sat on the stairs watching him watch. I suppose he figured he didn’t have a chance, with his bad skin, his big nose, his huge, pointy Adam’s apple.
My sister played records: Olatunji, Missa Luba, Sandy Bull. She wore black turtlenecks and black eye makeup and listened to mostly black music. She was no fool. She was as close as you could come to being a beatnik without smoking dope.
Sometimes she sat at the bottom of the stairs, almost out of the room herself, and watched the boys get drunk. Sometimes she would turn and look back at me with just the faintest smile on her face.
I was too young to know what was going on or why, but I was rooting for Dave. My ten-year-old heart went out to him. I wanted to say, Here, and give my sister to him. He was the only one who deserved her and he never even tried.
One hot Friday night, the boys tussled and someone punched out a window. Embarrassed, they all hung their heads in front of my sister. My mother said no more parties, and the next day three of them showed up and silently fixed the window. My sister didn’t seem to miss the boys, but I did.
My sister moved to the city and got a job before she finished high school. On the weekends, she started jumping out of airplanes somewhere over New Jersey and fell deeply in love with her jump master. He fell in love with her, too, but didn’t realize it until after he had moved to the Far East. So he sent for her. We threw rice at her at the airport, then she turned from us and went to him.
The boys who had loved my sister were gone from the front room, drifted away to early marriage, to war, to the city. I descended the stairs to the empty room to commence growing up.
To kill time while I waited for my life to start happening, I read the books that lined the walls of the front room. There were four sets of encyclopedias. I studied and compared their diagrams of the male and female reproductive systems to make sure I had it right. I examined my mother’s nursing texts: Pathologies of the Urogenital Tract, Diseases of the Skin and Their Treatment, Abnormal Psychology. I was relieved to find that no matter what odd thought might weasel its way into my head, it was nothing compared to what I’d read about in Abnormal Psychology.
I found a thin, blue book that had been my father’s; he had written his name on the endpaper. I studied his signature and practiced writing my own name fast, sloppy, and slanted, the way he wrote his. I tried to read the book with a dictionary open next to it. I struggled to fit the definitions together like pieces of a puzzle, but ego and transcendence had me stumped — and that was just the title. I finally decided I didn’t have an ego yet.
About that time, Dave came back. I was almost fifteen. When he came to the door, it was open to let in the summer air. I was bent over a book and didn’t see him at first, so he knocked and I looked up to see him standing very still in the doorway, staring at me. His hair was longer, almost touching his shoulders, and his pants were loose and ragged at the bottom. He had heavy, leather sandals on his feet. I knew him right away.
Hi, I must have said. Something in his expression shifted and he smiled and said hi and stepped down into the front room. He must have thought for a moment that I was my sister.
He said he was looking for my brother Johnny. I told him Johnny would be back soon and asked if he wanted to have a cup of tea and wait. When I brought him his tea, he was sitting hunched over the book I had been reading.
It was an old, engraved edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Of all the beautiful, battered things that got crammed into that too-small house after my parents’ breakup, that book was the most beautiful. My mother, who didn’t have time to wash our clothes, taught us to wash our hands before touching it. Dave and I looked at the book together, at the pictures of heaven and hell and purgatory. Heaven was glorious with its staircase and clouds and angels, but hell was more interesting.
Do you believe in God? Dave asked me.
After The Diary of Anne Frank I’m not sure, I said. But I believe in Jesus. You have eyes like Jesus.
He looked at me, amused maybe, and said, Jesus didn’t have blue eyes.
It’s not so much the color, I said, but something else.
We looked at the book some more.
I love the wings, I said. (We were in “Paradise.”) My father used to say my shoulder blades were my wing sprouts. He said when I went to heaven my wings would grow from there.
But everybody has shoulder blades, Dave said.
Right. Everybody. That would mean, I guess, that people are basically good. Of course, the whole thing about wings is silly. People don’t need wings to fly.
We were getting into strange territory here. But he was smiling and I didn’t care that I sounded foolish. The air was turning gold and I was growing lighter.
I fly all the time in my dreams, I said.
But that’s in your dreams.
That doesn’t mean it’s not real.
Do you believe your dreams?
I believe everything. Everything is true. It’s just that so many pieces are missing between the parts we know that it doesn’t seem to make sense. If we could see it all, it would make sense.
I was babbling. I had no thoughts. I was floating in the air all the way up to the cathedral ceiling.
Then I became aware that there was a warm pocket of air around me and one around Dave, and the edges were overlapping. I could feel him without touching him.
Are you warm? I said.
He picked up his mug and walked to the fireplace. When he had finished the tea, he set the empty mug on the mantelpiece.
I gotta go, he said. Tell Johnny I’ll stop by later. Thanks for the tea.
I fell asleep on the sofa in the front room, still aware of my warm pocket of air, and woke up later to the sound of a car and voices outside. The sun was going down and the light inside was dim. I went to the window and saw my brother Johnny talking to Dave across the street. I ran out the door as they were getting into Johnny’s van.
Where are you going?
To the beach — Sunken Meadow, Johnny yelled to me.
Can I come? Please?
Let her come, Dave said.
Johnny gave Dave a long look.
At the beach my brother collected driftwood and made a fire. Then he left Dave and me alone. He said he was going up into the hills over the beach to watch the fire burning from far away.
I could have thought it was strange: first, that my brother had agreed to take me along; and second, that he had made us a fire, then disappeared. I could have thought it was strange, but I didn’t. I was happy.
Dave and I went swimming in the darkness. It was low tide but clean, and we walked out and out and out, the water never getting any deeper. It was just waist high. I splashed him and he splashed back.
Spread your legs, I said.
He looked stricken.
Spread your legs, I said, and I’ll swim under.
He did and I glided through.
Now you, he said.
I spread my legs and he swam beneath me, but slower, his sides touching my legs. I laughed up into the night sky where the clouds hung still like whales sleeping in the ocean.
He swam away but didn’t come up. I turned all around and finally saw his air bubbles. His head and chest erupted from the water and he gasped for air.
Don’t do that. I got scared.
He laughed at my thinking something could happen to him at low tide in three feet of water. He pulled me down and turned me around and around underwater, then lifted me and tossed me up and away.
Come on, he said, and led me out of the water by my hand. He put his towel around my shoulders and we sat by the fire. My hair was streaming down my back. His was hanging in his face.
Your hair is long for a boy’s, I said.
I’m not a boy anymore.
A man is just a kind of boy. Your hair is a mess.
I took out a comb and he sat still for it. This also didn’t seem strange. It was a continuation, like the sky and the water, my fingers and his hair. I combed and smoothed it.
There. Now you do mine. Come on. Get up.
I sat on the log facing the fire and handed him the comb. He knelt in the sand behind me.
Ow! No. You have to start at the bottom and get the knots out first.
Gently, he worked the knots out till my hair was smooth down my back. When he was done, he laid his warm hands on my shoulders. My brother was somewhere up there on the steep dunes overlooking the beach.
Dave took my head in his hands and tipped it gently back. He kissed the place where my hair met my forehead and softly said:
No, no, no, no.
He got up and walked out of the circle of firelight to the edge of the dunes and called my brother down and we went home.
Dave came in and changed into some dry clothes in the bathroom.
Can I borrow that book? he asked me when he came out.
I put the Dante in his hands and he left. I never saw him again.
Sometime later that summer my brother said, He’s a junkie, Dave.
Junk? Garbage? A Chinese boat?
He sticks needles in his arm, my brother said.
Somewhere in my head I had a vague idea of what he meant, but it was Jesus with his wounded hands that I thought of, Jesus with his kindness and his expectation of sorrow.
M. T. Chapman