Letter #5: BS
I remember you arriving in perhaps fourth or fifth grade. You were overweight, with eyes that tapered in the outside corners to sharp acute angles. They were tight triangles, your eyes, very geometric. And your irises, I remember, were a deep shade of brown. I remember your hair to be mousey brown, slightly curly, a touch more than a wave—your cheeks a rosy red. I remember there being something vaguely rodent-like about your appearance. And not rat- or mouse-like, rather, perhaps more like a Pika, or a rabbit. You were very cute. And when you smiled you seemed to wiggle, self-contained and inward. You looked like a baby being tickled.
I remember I was not always kind to you, Billy. Although I was your friend—I cared very much for you—I also took perverse joy in riling you up. It was fun, I remember, to make you angry. Your eyes would slightly widen, and your nostrils would flare and un-flare, huffing, and you would splay your hands wide at your sides and you’d make groaning growling noises and pace back and forth—you were actually a lot like a cartoon, or Jackie Gleason, a fourth Stooge. It was lovely.
I remember you and your parents moved in to the house across the street from us. I remember you lived for a while with your grandfather in that house. He was your mother’s father, I believe. His surname was Stern but I cannot conjure his first name. Hal? Summer afternoons my father would lay on the porch and watch my mother mow the lawn and I remember Hal used to shuffle across the street and shout at my father—calling him a lazy sonuvabitch. Hal’s house, I remember, was eerily dark inside, which was strange as the second floor—north facing—was a veritable wall of windows. I remember the interior to be like a shallow sea, blue-green or grayish, and I remember you telling me once that you’d seen your grandmother (who was dead) down on the first floor late at night. You believed in ghosts, I remember. The story was vivid, but I don’t remember it. I have an urge to make something up, but I honestly don’t remember it.
I do remember you had a brother. I cannot recall if he was your half-brother, but I remember his name was Ramie, or Ramy, or Rami—I don’t know the spelling (plus I think it’s an Arabic name(?)—but it was pronounced ‘Ray-Me’. I remember he was older than us by about ten or twelve years. I remember you telling a traumatic story in which you walked in on him having sex. I remember this almost pre-dated our knowing what the word ‘sex’ meant, or its implications. I remember you telling the story while we rolled pool balls around the pool table in your grandfather’s ground floor, which felt like a basement. The pool table was always covered by a large tannish leather cover. I don’t believe there were cues, so it was abnormal that we’d uncovered it. It felt like it belonged in a Lion’s Club. I remember it had the scrotal sacks below the holes, not the labyrinth of chutes one found in other pool tables of that era. I remember you describing the position in which you discovered Ramie and the girl and I remember a sort of fusing happening in my mind then; Ramie, it was either known or implied or assumed, was troubled. He had either drug or alcohol problems and this, at the time, I remember, seemed to solidify his status as a kid who’d wandered astray, and why?
I remember when you moved farther up into the south hills into a Spanish-style house (one of the only ones in town) you had a bedroom with a nook perhaps intended for a wardrobe. In it, on the carpet, you built a Lego town. We were in sixth grade by then and I remember finding it both charming and a little embarrassing that you still played with Legos. I also remember in that same room you introduced me to the Fugees, so there was a balance.
In seventh grade in Mr. McGrane’s class I remember this feeling, or sensation, came to a kind of head. I remember at that time you were insistent, much in the way children are, that you were one day going to be a fireman. In fact I think you’d always had this goal. But it was unusual, I remember, that you’d kept it this long. Mr. McGrane somehow caught wind of this. Then, one day in class, there was a fireman’s uniform. The full thing: pants, jacket, boots, helmet, etc. I don’t remember if it was his or yours but I remember the conceit was that you had to get into the suit within a prescribed time limit. Every Friday at the end of class we watched you practice getting suited up. You would scramble into the pants, your shoes sticking to the vinyl-like material, falling over, and you'd then reach for the coat, barely able to move, zipping it up, as Mr. McGrane counted down the seconds. Everyone laughing, joyous. Looking back I find it kind of sweet, actually, but in situ there was something sinister about it. I remember Mr. McGrane had a kind of dark sarcasm about him. Most kids liked him because he was funny and unorthodox but I found him cynical and somewhat cruel. I remember I knew he was making fun of you, that he held no affection or sweetness for you. He liked spectacle; it made his students like him. I have a very clear memory, Billy, of you—we were on the second floor, with windows on the eastern wall wrapping around to the southern wall, overlooking the rear parking lot and a section of the baseball fields—running back to the cabinet where your practice suit was kept, then fidgeting giddily in the center of the room, waiting for Mr. McGrane to say ‘go.’ I was both embarrassed for you and hated him then.
Billy I also remember on the top floor of your grandpa’s house, toward the back, a hot tub. I remember it was seldom in use, but for a stretch of perhaps a week or two we discovered its joys. I remember the windows in the sunroom in which it was kept. I remember how the glass would collect condensation and we’d not be able to see out to the rear yard. I remember covering ourselves in turn with the heavy folding case and hot darkness of being under the cover alone.
I remember in the summer between fifth and sixth grade I briefly became closer to your sister, Elizabeth, than I was with you. She was about six. Every afternoon I would play with her and another neighbor of ours, Lily, who was a year older than me. I remember I genuinely had a good time playing with your sister, Billy, but I remember being totally infatuated with Lily. Which was why it was so devastating for my parents (perhaps your parents had called my parents) to explain to me that it was strange for a boy of my age to be playing with a girl of Elizabeth’s age. I think they figured something perverse was going on. When in reality Elizabeth was merely a decoy for Lily. It’s incredible, Billy, I’m married now, many miles from home, and I can still conjure that irrational draw toward Lily. I remember looking up past the neighbors' tiered garden at the garage of Lily’s house and imagining, somehow, her face superimposed on that dull wood structure. I remember thinking she was the most perfect creature ever.
I remember in fourth grade, Billy, that we had a birthday party at your house. I remember your birthday was a day before mine, the 24th of March. I remember the hoopla of that party. I remember the pizza. I remember a group of people was watching Speed in one room while another group hung out downstairs. It’s funny, really, how my memory of that party—one at which there was not even a possibility of the presence of booze—is surprisingly similar to those of more recent parties where booze was decidedly a factor.
I remember we eventuated on the front lawn. I remember there being a clear, and yet somewhat obscured, view of my parents’ front lawn. And I remember the obfuscated view proving or in some way epitomizing the fact that I was growing up. I could literally have thrown a rock—with a good enough toss—through my living room window, and yet I felt miles away. We had a bottle of something—coke, or orange soda—on the front lawn, and a group of us played spin the bottle. This gets reiterated plenty in culture, the phrase: The Perfect Night. The implication being nothing went wrong and everyone’s mood was high and it was like some sort of possession, everybody moving on a tide of good feelings; this was my first experience of that. It was like a good improv show, only without the architecture or rubric or expectation of acting. I don’t even remember who I kissed. I instead remember the feeling of everyone playing along—a sort of buzzing sensation.
I remember your parents, Billy. I remember your mother’s name was Jeannie. I don’t know how it was spelled—genie is a homonym. I remember she was a small woman, somewhat round, with a short bob of very straight hair and round eyeglasses. I remember she had a high-pitched voice that would have handled an English accent well. It was enormously sweet. She seemed, perhaps, too sweet. She seemed sweet in a way that potentially obscured reason and practicality. Like perhaps she wasn’t giving you the right tools. She was your biggest fan, basically. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
And I remember your father, too. I don’t remember his name. Alan? He was, in a sense, a kind of pole to your mother. I suppose this is common. He was very quiet, with a short-trimmed auburn beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a face that was very much anonymous. That might sound odd, or rude, but I cannot find another way to put it: he looked like a lot of other people.
I remember in sixth grade our parents carpooled all of us to school. Or partook in a carpool. Participated. I don’t know exactly how to structure that in a sentence. But I remember your parents owned an Eagle Summit Wagon (my best friend Andy chipped his tooth on the windshield of it) that was much smaller than the others’ vans and SUVs. I remember when your father would deliver us home in that car he would say this phrase: “back to your respective domiciles.” I remember I didn’t really understand what he meant or what the words meant—they sounded like a single sound, in the way early prayers do—but I knew I liked him. He was funny guy. I still say that phrase.
I remember in sixth grade in your Spanish-style house it was the first time I saw internet porn. I remember you’d come across your father’s links, Billy, and I remember you reconnecting to them and the—now—hilarious waiting time. I remember we waited at least ten minutes for a single photo. I remember watching the screen, rapt, as the blurry photograph warped into focus, or, depending on the site, dropped a curtain of focus centimeter by centimeter.
I remember in the fifth grade I dated Angela. She had been my first girlfriend back in kindergarten, and I remember being strangely proud of our re-union. You dated Erin, one of her good friends. I remember all four of us going to the movie Seven Years in Tibet. I remember it was showing at the Gaslight, now long defunct. I remember for the entirety of the film you and Erin made out. I remember listening to the two of you and watching you in the darkness and thinking: that can’t be pleasurable. I didn’t like the film.
I remember on a sleepover sneaking out of your grandfather’s house to see Erin and Angela. I remember it being maybe 9:30 at the latest and thinking the world had fallen asleep. I remember standing in the street and talking with them for five minutes. The pressure of sneaking out, followed by the reality of being untethered, then meeting our girlfriends, was overwhelming. We quickly went back home.
I remember a strange afternoon. We were in a room in your grandpa’s upstairs. I remember there being unusual adornments around the perimeter; mirrors, jewelry, amber light–although realistically there probably weren't any. I remember there were four or five of us. You, me, Andy, and possibly two others. Andy, who was in those days, and most of our lives, the most forceful and charismatic, was on the bed talking on the phone with a girl. I don’t remember who it was, but I remember that was in the days of Andy being in the heart of the friend-zone—before he copulated with the whole town. I remember standing and looking in the mirror and playing with the top button on a blue short-sleeve button down plaid shirt—buttoning it and then unbuttoning it—and feeling Andy looking at me in the mirror and then saying (with a kind of loving irony): ‘Joe’s going to be a male model.’ I remember processing that and liking the sound of it. I remember that being my very first interaction with my own vanity.
I don’t remember losing touch with you, Billy. I remember you went to Gonzaga. I remember looking at you on Facebook, many years after we’d last spoken. In the photos on Facebook I remember seeing not the person for whom I’d felt a mix of embarrassment and pride—the person who was going to be a fireman—but rather a blatant compensation for all those traits. I remember in the photos—you were eighteen, nineteen—you had a stern face, almost angry, and you’d grown a goatee, and you seemed to exude all the things your previous self had successfully repelled. I'm sure you were the same. No one changes that much. But the barriers had gone up and the illusion withheld: you were gone.