In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I come home one afternoon, in my first year of high school, and immediately go down to the basement, known as the “family room” in what were supposedly better days. I’m a scrawny, messy kid in a faded black T-shirt with yellow lettering, dirty white high-tops, and pissy-smelling jeans with thready pockets — nothing too original in the world of youth.
No sooner am I down there than I hear her clomping across the kitchen floor above, coming to the basement door, and opening it. “Where have you been?” she calls down.
I don’t answer.
Then she goes, “What are you doing down there?”
How could my father have ever loved a woman with a voice like that? Love must be deaf and blind. At this moment, I’m almost ready to forgive him for splitting.
I’m not doing diddly shit down here, but I don’t tell her that. I’m in a pissed-off, private, nonanswering mood. I can’t explain to anybody, especially her, what’s got me so low.
Then my brother, home from college, strolls over to the basement door with his new quiet, sneaky, shit-eating walk and goes, “Answer her.”
What’s there to say? I’m sitting on the crummy chair that used to be in the living room, doing absolutely nada. Don’t they ever think that maybe some crisis of a serious nature has rendered me mute? Can’t I just be resting up from spending all day in a boring, moron world? Apparently I can’t exist in a state of nonactive silence without triggering a household investigation.
Clomp, clomp. She’s coming down the dusty wooden stairs in her high heels, because without them she is literally the height of a midget. Now she’s peering over the plywood banister at me, full of breathless fury and serious body fat. I’m sitting on the turd-colored chair, my eyes lowered. I raise them to meet hers. Her glasses have slid down on her lump of a nose.
Joe College is on the steps right behind her. He’s home a lot, having thoughtfully arranged his classes so that he can take four-day weekends. Having “cleaned up his act,” talking all this clean-and-sober crap after years of smoking pot and drinking booze and driving under the influence — after bringing our father to the very edge of murder by cutting classes and failing subjects and sneering at everything and everybody. But that’s the past. Mention it and he’ll shake his head and give a quiet whistle. The past is past.
“Don’t you have any homework?” the midget asks. “Where were you all afternoon?”
I’m listening but pretending like I’m not, like I’m living exclusively in my own private world at the moment. Joe College gives me his new smirk, a solid-citizen variation on his old one. It says, I remember being you. You’re back where I was before I became the redeemed person I am today. You’ll grow out of it. You’ll see the light and develop healthy and acceptable aspirations. You’ll see.
My mother keeps talking. This is the voice that drove my father off, never to be heard from again. I imagine he could hear her voice fading into the distance the night he fled. I’m out of here, he thought. No more of that voice. No more of her. Leaving us, the gruesome threesome, to our twisted fate. “That deadbeat fuck,” she always calls him, especially in front of me, who carried his nails and tools while he finished this basement, which she never fails to put down. “What about the checks that come in the mail?” I always ask her. “I’ve seen them. That’s supporting us. You’ve misnomered him,” I say, using a word from our midterm vocabulary list.
“That’s just money,” she answers. “That’s nothing.”
“It’s something,” I say.
“Where is he, he loves you so much?” she says.
“A state in the Union!” I shout. “That’s a clue. Find him.”
“You find him!” she shouts back.
Now she leans in close. I see my face in hers and smell her perfume and the sweat she’s worked up coming downstairs and talking her hateful shit, and I get the murderous visuals flashing through my brain. I get choking murder, gun murder, pillow-over-her-face murder. When she’s not around, these visions can calm me down, put me to sleep at night, help me to escape the endless drone of my teachers (while at the same time putting a pleased and attentive look on my face). But now the midget’s odious nearness causes my head to fill with her. I am full of her, as if I’ve swallowed her whole, like a bad, fatty meal. Her voice clogs my brain.
I leap out of the chair and start spitting. I’m spitting her out, spitting both of them out. I want them out of me. I’m spitting at the walls, the floor. It must look like I’m angry at the room, desecrating the memory of carrying my father’s nails and tools.
My mother has stopped speaking and my brother has stopped his wise smirking long enough to dodge my spit. After the initial shock wears off, my mother’s mouth starts up again, shrieking invectives, and my brother puts in, “How stupid can you get, even for you?” This is actually an improvement over his usual comments, which come straight from the pages of some psychology textbook.
It’s hard to go ape for very long. As I’m spitting, I start to see all too clearly my connection to them. I see myself in their expressions, the way I’d be looking at me if I were on their side. I feel scroungy and thoroughly foolish, but I keep spitting until my mouth hurts and my lips feel swollen and I’m all dried up. I’m letting out noises I never knew I could make, jumping and stamping, pushing away the sound of my mother’s voice and my brother’s ironic tut-tutting, whirling around in my one-person crazy show. Then they both become still, as if it’s part of a prearranged strategy, something my brother learned in psych class and taught my mother: what to do when a younger son goes bananas. Maybe they see me entering a highly dangerous phase, having an episode of ultimate delirium. Whatever it is, I take the opportunity to run up the stairs and out of the house.
Once outside, I hop on my bike and just pedal, not seeing much of anything or thinking any particular thought. I’m in a state of gleeful rage, shouting things that don’t sound like words in any known language. I have no sense of speed, no destination in mind, just riding these suburban streets that are neither familiar nor unfamiliar. The cars are parked in driveways and the lights are coming on in the houses with people somewhere within, people I know but can’t imagine now because I’m moving so fast and so madly.
Audrey is this girl I’ve been looking at in English class day after day, all period long, while Mona “the Big Moan” moans on about The Grapes of Wrath and the poor old Okies of old. I’m in an Audrey trance. How can I explain being tranced-out by Audrey? She’s a redhead, no breasts to speak of, looks like a pale orange cake sprinkled with chocolate freckles, and has these still blue eyes, as if she, too, is entranced by something deep within.
Then there’s me, the flunking genius, Dad’s favorite nail-and-tool carrier, the Gunga Din of the finished basement, fallen into disfavor and a life of misery. “Who has answers to these things?” as Quigley, my stooped social-studies teacher, would ask, addressing not us but some alter-Quigley. I like Quigley’s remoteness from us, his befuddlement. He’s invented a class in his imagination to replace the one that doesn’t listen to him. He poses my kind of rhetorical questions. “Who has answers to these things?”
Anyway, this pale, frail, freckle-faced girl has me mesmerized, has me by the balls. Even the Moaner, having moaned everyone into various stupors and daydreams, stops one day to check out my empty stare. When her back is turned I slip a fist under my chin and ponder the Big Moan in such a way that the class, starved for some entertainment other than the plight of the Okies and the depressing Depression way back when, goes into fits of laughter. When I look over at Audrey, she gives me a wink that alters her whole face, suggesting the limitless secret pleasures hidden beneath her quiet, dreaming, skinny exterior. Love at first wink. In a moment I have married her and am watching CNN in the living room of our house.
We don’t talk in the corridor after class, but the next day there is a second wink, as unexpected and hope-raising and love-inspiring as the first. When class is over, she disappears again. And the next day, another wink, then a wink a day, but every day she is out of there faster than I can get up from my seat. I begin to wonder whether she is somebody only I can see. She seems not to exist in the larger world of our high school. Maybe that’s the way of love. What do I know? I have a girlfriend and not a girlfriend, a dad and not a dad, a brother and not a brother. I am living in a world of Houdinis, here one minute, gone the next. My father, misnomered Deadbeat, lives in a post-office box. My brother has taken up residence among the respectable and the righteous. And my girlfriend (also misnomered?) winks and runs. Dad used to wink, too. Did my brother, in his earlier life, have a wink? I forget.
That day, when my spitting tantrum is still hours in the future, I see Audrey at the bus stop. Seeing her outside of English class is a shock to my system. My tongue gets all heavy and dry. Blood surges hotly to my throat. The rest of my body does more subtle and complicated things that I won’t even try to describe. But I figure if I don’t talk, she’ll wink and be gone. You see, there are two realities here: one I’m sure about and one I’m not. I know she’s Audrey Sayers and she’s in my English class. She gets good marks on her compositions, slides her thin, faintly lipsticked lips to one side to express disappointment, and smells of some sort of perfume. (I once smelled her as she passed by on her way to somewhere else.) She has real skin and hair. She’s flawed, like everyone else. I can see this even as she lives out her perfection in my dreams of her.
So now here I am coming toward her, trying not to play the starry-eyed love card, trying for distracted indifference, bookless dishevelment. I walk right up to her. She’s small, but not as small as my mother. I’m more my father’s normal height, his former helper and dark genius of the family he fled.
“Hello,” I say.
This is no fantasy but a real conversation with real faces facing each other.
“You take the bus?” I ask.
This amuses her. She puts a hand over her mouth to conceal her teeth. I want to see them. They are another covered part of her that arouses my desire. Now that I have her this close up, I want something more than the winks that send me into mad dreams. Winks are for the classroom, with classmates between us. Here, even though we’re on a public street, we have a sort of privacy and can observe the actual details of each other’s faces.
“Do you have teeth?” I suddenly ask.
Audrey laughs, her hand still clamped over her mouth, her head going up and down, then bends backward as if she were in a shower and wanted to get her face wet.
“I have these,” she says, straightening up. She shows me her braces. I’m looking at a freckle-faced girl with braces.
“I like them,” I say.
She laughs, holding her hand over her mouth.
“Are they going to get out?” I ask.
I’m doing stand-up. I’m a clown, not a lover. I somehow tell her about my mother and how she wants a second-by-second account of my comings and goings. I do my mother in caricature, make her into a TV mother, a sitcom mom. I am a normal teenager going off on his mother. Audrey’s teeth keep coming through her lips and she keeps pushing them back in. There’s saliva between her fingers, which have these cheap rings on them. Her hair is straight and lifeless. She’s neatly dressed in jeans and white tennis shoes and a thin pink sweater. I’m a messy-looking jester. I can’t get enough jokes out of my mouth, my imagination going at lightning speed.
Then she turns her head.
“You have glue on your lips to keep your hand on?” I go on.
But her laughter has closed down. She wants the bus now instead of me. My time has passed. I feel my suffering returning. Then I see it’s not the bus that’s coming along; it’s a guy, and he’s not just coming along. This guy is everything I’m not, or he’s me put together right, with styled hair, pressed jeans, and loafers worn in my brother’s fashion, without socks. He’s my brother if he’d cleaned himself up while still in high school. No discreet hello or wink for this guy, either. He delivers a passionate tongue-twirler deep into the bracey mouth of my dream girl, right there at the bus stop. This is no bare stage. There are other kids here, talking about homework, giggling, staring into space. There’s no mistaking me for a rival. I’m the comic relief, a raggedy walk-on, an innocent bystander to this French action.
“Is this your boyfriend, or did you two just meet?” I say, in true the-show-must-go-on spirit. The guy gives me a perfect look of puzzled condescension. I continue to stand there, not knowing where to position my feet or hands, or what expression to put on my face. I’m not even feeling the hurt I will demonstrate later when I get home and head for the basement. I have offered cheap laughs with my mother and myself the butt of my jokes, and here she is, my imaginary wife of many years, unabashedly betraying me with this male in the guise of my brother, who seizes her like property, with know-how and arrogance.
“I guess you two know each other,” I say, continuing to play the scruffy joker, maintaining contact with reality on some minimal level, keeping myself in operation so that I can walk around and breathe, despite being only a few steps away from going totally bonkers. They both give me knowing smiles. The guy has his hands all over her ass. He looks into her eyes. You can see this guy is practiced in the ways of females and deceit.
I pretend I’m looking for the bus, pursuing a normal course of action, but I have arson and murder on my mind. I am envisioning hateful chaos, looking hard for the bus.
Then I see that they’re not waiting for the bus. She’s been waiting at the bus stop for him. He has wheels.
“See you,” she says.
“See you,” he says.
They go off arm in arm across the street. I am left at the bus stop, having suffered my first cuckolding.
After my mad, post-tantrum bike ride, I make my second entrance of the day into the house. I come in the side door, walk right through the kitchen and down the basement steps.
“Is that him?” I hear my brother ask from the living room.
I close myself in the basement bathroom, a flimsy cubicle with cheap fixtures and rusty faucets with toothpaste stains on the chrome. The shower has a handheld nozzle my father thought was very inventive. I remember my mother’s frown when he showed it to her. I have all these memories of her frowns and tight-lipped looks and head shakes. The tension of my childhood, which I was too young to measure then, comes back to me now in waves of guilt, as if I am the one responsible for producing it. “You like him best,” my mother would say to my father. “He’s the one you like, and the other one knows it.” If my brother ever forgot my father’s lack of love, he always had my mother to remind him. I, on the other hand, was the one she didn’t like. I can see her pointing her stubby finger at my father, acting like my brother’s defense lawyer, his single parent doing battle with my single parent. She made me sound like some type of pornographic material my father kept hidden in his toolbox. She won the case. He split.
It’s hot in this bathroom. I feel enclosed and exposed all at once. The walls are too thin and too cheaply made for me to feel safe. Any moment now, everything could collapse.
They come down to the basement, not quite immediately, but close enough. I hear their feet thudding on each step. I hold my breath and sit cramped on the plastic toilet seat.
“Where have you been?” she asks.
I don’t answer. I hear them breathing. I hear restraint in her question, hesitance, self-consciousness, as if she’s practicing some new way of speaking: how to talk to the insane. Probably learned it from my brother. When I don’t answer, she asks again in the same tone of voice.
“Why don’t you answer?” my brother asks, like the mentor demonstrating to his student how it’s done.
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” I blurt out.
“Such language,” he says, showing that, when dealing with messed-up kids, one must remain calm.
“Where have you been?” my mother asks. “We were worried.”
I can hear her straining to keep control. Getting a glimpse of how I must look — a spoiled asshole kid sitting on a toilet seat — I almost feel sorry for her. But I also feel pissed off. Whatever other emotions are mixed in there in pinches and minute doses, the pissed-off feeling predominates. I can imagine my brother standing behind her, doing his wiser-than-shit routine, showing off his college education and laughing his ass off at these oh-so-familiar antics of his kid brother. He thinks it’s all a joke. The fact is, though, there’s serious bad blood and hatred coming to a boil. I’ve got myself locked in a basement bathroom, in need of an exit, an escape. What I come up with is this: “I’m cutting myself. I can’t take it.”
It comes out in a fairly convincing way, even to my ears. On the other side of the door, it produces silence from my brother and a gasp I haven’t heard in a long time from my mother. At least I think I’ve heard it before, years back. I can’t remember what caused her to gasp then. It’s a memory from her lighter-weight years, when she was short, thin, and cutesy, with long hair. I’m probably matching up the gasp with photos of her from that time.
“Let him,” my brother says. This strategy seems to come from an even dumber psychology book than usual. Not even a book, but a movie: You want to jump, jump.
“What do you mean, ‘cutting’?” My mother has returned to her normal, exasperated, high-blood-pressure mode. “Get out of there and stop this crap,” she says.
“He wants to cut himself, let him cut,” my brother persists.
“What is this? You think you’re getting attention?”
I feel them waiting.
“What’s the problem?” my mother says, growing uncomfortable with my silence. “What is it with you?”
“Being fifteen is what it is with him.”
“What is he doing?” my mother screams, as if the picture of my gruesome suicide has been held up to her eyes like a wiggling rat.
“I want you to go away and stay away,” I say when she stops, “or else I’ll slit my wrists.”
Then my brother comes in with the flattener: “He’s not going to do anything.” He’s put aside the psych book now and is speaking with the smug voice of experience.
“Don’t, please don’t, please, please come out.” This doesn’t sound like my mother, but it is. It’s as though the emotion has shrunk her larynx. It’s hard to fathom the coexistence of these two selves she slips in and out of.
“He’s not going to do anything,” my brother continues, the unshakable voice of reason. “See what you’re doing to her?” he says to me. “Why don’t you grow up?”
I say nothing. I have not thought about what I can cut my wrists with, if that is what I am about to do. I’ve been so caught up in trying to convince them that I’m cutting my wrists that I’ve overlooked the obvious. Now I’m beginning to enter the reality of what I’ve said I’m going to do. I look in the medicine cabinet, conscious of acting out the part of a desperate person, grunting and breathing heavily, shoving things off the shelves: a half-full bottle of Listerine, a twisted tube of toothpaste, band-aids, tweezers, a few old toothbrushes with dark crud on the bristles, a jar of Vaseline. In the space below the sink, I find a pair of scissors with chipped paint on the handle and rusted blades. I sit down and look at the scissors, thinking of how they can cut into my flesh and veins. I see myself on a stretcher with an IV dripping into me, on a mad, sireny ambulance ride through the streets. It strikes me how stupid suicide really is, a scary escape into nothing at all. I have come up against the unimaginable.
“I got the scissors!” I yell out, my voice clear and strong. I sound as if I am about to do some everyday task and have found the right tool for it.
“He’s doing this to me,” my mother says. “Are you doing this to hurt me?” she asks.
“It’s bullshit,” my brother says. “Scissors couldn’t cut shit anyhow.”
“I got a knife, too,” I say.
“Suddenly he has a knife,” my brother says mockingly.
“I’m cutting!” I say.
“Cut,” my brother says.
“He will,” my mother says.
“He won’t,” my brother says.
“There’s something wrong with him.”
My mother’s words make me pause — not that I was really going to do anything. I realize at that moment that she has reached a conclusion about me, and what I am doing is consistent with what she has always imagined I’d do. Getting me out of the bathroom is merely a delaying tactic, putting off the inevitable.
I open the door, holding the scissors in front of me like a knife. My mother’s eyelids flutter. My brother has his fingers to his chin, a pose he picked up in college.
“What are you doing now?” my mother asks, squinting as if to see whether it’s really me before her. “You going to stab us?” she asks. “With that rusty thing?”
The longer I stand there, the less menacing I feel.
“I’ll kill you!” I scream.
Now my mother takes a step backward and lowers her voice, saying, “What’s got into you?”
“You have!” I shout.
My brother smiles. He even puts his hand over his mouth to prevent outright laughter.
“I have?” my mother says. “He goes off and leaves me here, and this is what I get? Your father’s the one who ran off — your wonderful father who claims he loves you so much.” She’s right up in my face now.
I move away from her, still holding up the scissors. “I know about the girlfriend,” I say. It doesn’t feel as if I’m speaking about my father. I don’t feel, at that moment, that any of us are the people we actually are. Even the events at the bus stop are a story about somebody else. Maybe I can stab them both and start a new life, unknown to anybody, including myself.
My mother gets behind my brother.
“Put that thing down and come to your senses, stupid,” my brother says.
It isn’t just the stupid that makes me lunge with the intention of plunging the scissors into him — the mental image preceding the act with stark clarity — not just the word that makes this happen, but the assumption that he can say this with the smug certainty that I won’t do anything.
I come down on his shoulder. I don’t feel the scissors penetrate his flesh. He has an inquisitive expression, as if he hasn’t heard a question I’ve asked him. Then he glances at his shoulder, seemingly curious about the location of the wound. I pull the scissors back. We are all quiet, as if awaiting the announcement of an outcome.
“What the fuck?” my brother says, and his face wrinkles in pain. His shirt’s torn at the shoulder, blood soaking through the material.
“You stabbed your brother,” my mother says.
Her words awaken me to a potential within myself that I never imagined, and yet I don’t feel as if I’ve done what she said. I drop the scissors and think of running upstairs to my room. I want to lie on my bed and cry. I want it to be years ago, when my father would come up and tap on my door and sit on my bed and listen as I spewed out some rationalized version of an incident involving my brother and me. Maybe this can still be like that, something harmless and childish. I don’t want to be alone. I look at my brother’s shoulder as if I am a bystander amazed at this wound some evil person has inflicted. There isn’t that much blood. My brother seems hurt, poor, wincing, for once lacking words or means of retaliation. He pulls his arm away and stands off by himself, wrinkling his face and gyrating his shoulder.
“You all right?” my mother asks him.
“No,” my brother says. “He tried to kill me. I’m going to press charges.”
Then he goes up the steps, and my mother and I hear him walking above us, from the kitchen to the living room and back to the kitchen.
“He’s going to press charges.” She shakes her head when she says this, as if wondering how this craziness she just witnessed has become a legal matter. “Some family we are,” she says. “I hope he’s pleased with himself.”
At first I think I am “he.” Then I realize she means my father.
My mother doesn’t look at me much after that. My brother drives back to college, drives home on weekends, mostly stays in his room. He will have nothing to do with me. My mother has stopped her incessant questions and nagging. Free to do what I want, to be anybody I want to be, I ironically become the boy she wanted. I get my hair cut and start wearing clean clothes. I do my homework. I have no great plans to transform myself. I just want to look different and do all my homework. Maybe this change in my behavior and appearance is a conciliatory move toward my brother, or maybe it’s just another form of concealment.
I see my brother in the kitchen one night, not long after the basement incident. He’s making a sandwich. My mother is out to a school-board election, and I’ve been pedaling around on my bike to kill time after doing my homework. I watch him from the couch in the living room. He gives no indication that he sees me, though he must know I’m here. He cuts the sandwich in half on the butcher block, gets a plate down from the cabinet, and puts the sandwich on it. Then he sits down at the kitchen table with his back to me, opens the newspaper, and eats the sandwich while he reads. I give a loud sigh. He isn’t going to turn around, no matter what.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll stab you?” I say.
He doesn’t answer.
He continues to chew and read the paper. I go into the kitchen and stand right behind him.
“Are you pressing charges?”
“I’ve decided not to,” he says, still not looking at me.
“It wasn’t much of a stabbing per se.”
“I feel sorry that you loved him so much,” he says. “He was really a bad person. He made me hate him. He made our mother feel like shit.” Now he turns to look at me, and I see a trace of that mocking grin he used to give me whenever he was about to reveal some big secret he was on to from the adult world. “I’m glad you stabbed me,” he says. “Now I can hate you the way I always wanted to: guilt-free.”
I nod and say, “Oh, I see.” I keep nodding as I walk back into the living room, then out of the house, wishing I could follow in my father’s footsteps.
J. W. Major