trains, bodies squished against the glass, brains banished, London bells
ringing, Woolf’s howls, Russell’s damned bloodstains, Newton singing Dies Irae,
Wittgensteinian whispers, last stabs unsuccessful, too grandiose, too fascist,
free fall off St. Peter’s, Mussolini and Pound munching popcorn–watching,
waiting, progress past, the we seeing only me, preaching who’s to say, the ancient wonders of the world crumble, the cathedrals
once again decay, the skyscrapers and Cantos fade into Twentieth Century
history, left with the ash memories of everything, left with our minimalist
nihilistic faith, mocking ourselves with our own irony, shrouded in our
I’m sitting in one of
the classes inside the English department building on the south campus of NYU.
It’s late morning, but that doesn’t prevent many stifled yawns. Most are
slumped and generally unkempt, including me, but attentive in that
pseudo-intellectual, undergraduate way. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage
tuition this semester, much less stomach the antics of frat boys and sorority
princesses. The smell of draft beer still stems from the pores of the guy
sitting next to me.
British poetry, and
we’re in the latter end of the semester. The professor wants to create a
graduate aura, so we are sitting on desks arranged in semi-circle. “We are all
scholars and equals,” and that sort of nonsense. Each has a stack of books
piled on our desk, the “Used” stickers, in various colors, sizes, and
conditions, boldly face their consumers as a symbol of subculture. Our graying,
still hot professor is propped on top of his desk, facing the class. He strokes
his chin in thought like a parody of his profession. Looking at each of us in
turn, he drums his fingers against the open page of Keats: Collected Poems
“Why do you think Keats
wrote women as agents of destruction?”
The class avoids making
eye contact with him. Many delve back into the text in search of a witty
Professor Abel prompts
consideration the last assigned poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, for
instance. Look at the way she seduced the knight, then rendered him a ghost.”
quintessential quiet kid in the corner, musters up the courage.
“Well, I’m not sure,
“Don’t qualify your
answer, Blake, just give it.” Abel is anything but coddling.
nervously, visibly regretting his self-imposed martyrdom.
“I think Fanny Brawne
made him that way.”
The class reacts with
ill-concealed dissent. The girl across from me visibly rolls her eyes and
scoffs. But Abel seems interested.
“I see. So you think
Fanny Brawne was to blame for Keats’s misogynistic tendencies?”
Blake scrambles to
re-direct his inadequacy.
“Not directly, no. And
certainly not intentionally. I just think that—maybe—Keats couldn’t handle his
feelings for her. You know, sleeping in the next room and not being able to
touch her. It must’ve been unbelievably frustrating.”
Some students lean back
to consider this.
At the penultimate word
his gaze shifts momentarily to Cam, sitting next to him, and then back to his
Cam was short for
Cameron. She was the prototypical college boy’s wet dream. Thick strawberry
blond hair that cascaded in artful waves against her chest. Actually enjoyed Monday
night football and quipped with the best of them who the next draft pick should
be. Snorted white lines like a genuine cocaine cowgirl. In short, a girl that
practically patented the effortless cool.
Cam bites her lip as
she looks at Blake. He sees her and swallows hard. Then she looks at Abel with
a smirk plastered to her face.
“Personally, I think he
was tripping off all that laudanum.”
Class laughs on cue.
Abel betrays a smile
while shaking his head.
“Alright, alright. Ever
since Mark and Courtney gave that presentation on Keats’s unfortunate affair
with opiate derivatives, the general consensus has been that he wrote
everything on a bad trip.”
Several in the class
Mark quips, “You got
that right,” then directs his response to Abel.
“Well, doc, it does
explain a lot. C’mon. Ode on Indolence? It’s like reading a
junkie’s journal. If they were awake long enough to write, that is.”
Again the class erupts
into gratuitous laughter. What a mindless herd, I think. Meanwhile
I am writing feverishly in my notebook, transcribing some lines from the ode by
memory, whispering as I write: “how is it shadows, that I knew ye not? How
came ye muffled in so hush a masque?…benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and
less…” It’s always been a strange habit with me—whispering to myself.
I’m startled out of my audible transcriptions when Abel calls on me.
“And you, Margot? What
are your thoughts?”
He raises an eyebrow,
expressly looking in the direction of my notebook. I stifle a gasp and try to
wet the inside of my mouth but my tongue is suddenly parched. Stupidly, I look
to both directions for an escape route, or maybe as a silent plea for someone
to jump to my rescue. No such luck. I purse my lips and look down at my
writing, which doesn’t help at all.
“I—uh, think whatever
Keats had inside of him was more powerful than any drug.”
Bullshit, but the class
sobers. Though some roll their eyes. Just then, Abel gets a phone call. He
looks briefly at his phone, fully intending to ignore it, but a wave of fearful
recognition passes over his features and he pales.
“Sorry everyone. I’ve,
uh, really got to take this.”
He goes outside to take
the call. The door latch is broken and allows to overhear his conversation, but
no one is interested. Something compels me to listen in, but the whispering
between Mark and Cam forecloses any possibility of eavesdropping on Abel.
“So, you going
tonight?” says Mark.
Cam whispers something
muffled in Mark’s ear. As soon as she is finished, Mark abruptly leans away
from her, voice rising.
“Oh, no. Not that. You
said we wouldn’t have to anymore.”
Some ears, including
mine, perk up like Meer cats.
“Keep your goddamn
voice down!” Cam hisses.
Mark looks at her in
consternation. Cam looks to her sides, but everyone is back in discussion about
the odes and acid trips. Everyone except me, who is ostensibly trying to bore a
hole in the middle of my desk. She returns to meet Mark’s gaze and furrows her
eyebrows. She takes the notebook off his desk and I’m able to glean her large,
slanted, hurried letters: “It won’t be someone you know this time.” She passes
it to Mark. Mark reads and studies her. She rolls her eyes, takes back the
notebook, and adds: “Promise.” Mark chews at his bottom lip. Cam narrows her
eyes, frustrated with his hesitation. In her large, confident penmanship, she
adds: “You’re acting like someone who has a choice.” Mark looks up at her in
undisguised dread and she just arches her eyebrows. Finally, looking down at
his desk, he nods. The chatter from the class, previously reduced to the
background, presently seems to rise.
The guy a few desks
down nods eagerly.
“Mine’s was a bad trip.
I thought the piss on the floors of the club restroom was sodium hydroxide.
It’s like it had a mind of its own, coming to melt my flesh. I ran out of there
so fast I didn’t even have time to zip up my pants.” He chuckled. “My boys
thought I had gotten some.”
The girl next to him
“What the hell is
sodium hydroxide? An acid or something?”
“Actually it’s a base.
Saw it on a show once. Mix it up with some water and throw it on a corpse. In a
few minutes, all you’ll have is something resembling horseshit, and smelling
worse. Totally unidentifiable.”
Something compels me to
look at Cam at that moment. My intuition is rewarded.
She raises an eyebrow
at Mark, evidently interested. He looks back at her uneasily. My mind started
to unravel the knots of possibility that brief exchange just tied. What was she
involved in? Whatever it was, it was enough to emasculate Mark’s frat boy
pretenses, so it must’ve been heavy. I needed some air. I ripped out and
crumpled a page from my notebook and shuffled out of my seat. As I do, I get
that prescient feeling that someone’s gaze is on me. I look back quickly, and
see it’s Cam. Only she doesn’t turn away as most people would, she merely
smirks at my discovery. My face burns as I find my way back to my desk.
Abel re-enters the
class, looking at his watch.
“All right, everyone,
it’s that time. I know you’re devastated,” he adds in mock regret. “Make sure
you finish the Odes and a reflection paper on one of your choosing by next
The class files out.
Some hang back for predictable extracurricular planning. As I debate whether I
should ask Abel a nagging question about one of the Odes, everyone has shuffled
out and I decide to leave it for an email. Emails are my preferred method of
contact with people that are much smarter than me; it makes me feel less inadequate
since I can deliberate on my diction for a quarter of an hour before hitting
send. As the door closes behind me I realize that I’m actually the second last
to go. Cam is still in there. For once, I sing praises to the University
Commission that opts for board member kickbacks instead of fixing the
facilities. I squint to see through the sliver in the door frame.
Cam bends over to pick
up something that she probably knocked over in the first place. The neckline on
her airy tank is, of course, low enough to reveal her snug fitting pink bra.
She purrs in faux innocuousness.
“How long do you want
that paper, again?”
Abel is making himself
busy with the papers sticking out of his tattered books, but the bra was not
lost on him.
“As long as an
effective argument calls for.”
Cam turns up the smug
factor as only she can.
“Well, you know how
pithy I can be—”
Abel seems amused but
wary. “Go on! Don’t show up with a paragraph or I’ll drop you from the course.”
“Sure thing, Doc,” Cam
says, grinning. As she squeezes past the desk where Abel is standing, she
intentionally brushes her breasts along his back.
“Oops. ‘Scuse me.”
Cam is the kind of
predator you can’t help but watch, enraptured. Abel goes rigid but says
nothing. The last thing I see as Cam walks in my direction is Abel furrowing
his eyebrows and smoothing his paisley tie in an effort to recompose himself. I
turn the corner just as Cam pushes the door open and slinks out in her glorious
“fuck-me” stride. I am still reeling with my bewilderment when she stops
abruptly, about fifty paces from me, and turns in my direction. She looks
directly at me, but I cannot read her usually transparent expression. I am
rooted to the spot. She walks toward me in an uncharacteristically neutral
gait. Standing in front of me now, she studies my features at leisure.
“Listen, I was
wondering – do you have something in mind for the group project on Keats? Like,
are you working with someone yet?”
There is detectable
condescension in the tone of this last question, which is meant more as a
formality than anything else. I bristle a bit.
“No, but I was thinking
I would just ask him if it’s okay to work alone. It tends to be better for
everyone that way.”
Cam waves off the
rejection like a winged pestilence.
“Oh c’mon! I never see
you talking to anyone. It’d be good for you. Plus, I haven’t read so much as a
sonnet all semester.”
“Keats didn’t write
“You’re missing the
point, Margot. The point is, we can help each other out.”
I consider a
not-so-subtle reply, like walking away, but then I remember her earlier
conversation with Mark.
“Fine. Where and when?”
“Coffee shop on the
south side of campus. Noon tomorrow.”
I nod and turn to go.
Her voice stops me again.
“By the way, me and
Mark…we’re heading over to Clap tonight…you know, the place in Williamsburg…”
She spoke slowly,
making sure I’d get all the details. Had she noticed me reading their notes?
“Can you can make it?”
The more dignified part
of me that wants to say no, fails miserably.
As soon as I give in to
her, she disengages.
“See you tonight. Say
my name at the door,” she adds, already halfway down the hall. She disappears
behind a corner and all at once, I hear the gaggling of people all around me.
Had they been there this whole time?
I’m mildly dolled-up,
at the club in Williamsburg. I’ve gotten past the bouncers and I spot Cam.
She’s wearing a silver sequin top, cropped right below the bust, along with
tight black jeans. Just like after class, she somehow catches me looking at her
and turns to face me. She waves me over with her erotically charged smile.
Anything but reassuring, it feels like she’s going to eat you alive. The music
is pounding, a combination of indie punk and techno. Wall to wall–it’s crammed.
I have to squeeze through a series of gaping guys and girls who reluctantly
move aside for me. The club has a kind of Shoreditch hipster vibe to it, where
everyone exhibits the kind of modern sprezzatura that allows
you to wear a $40 skinny tie and still appear indifferent. Treading leisurely
down the dim hallway like she’s in her house, Cam indicates a space for me
right by Mark. He looks at me and smiles in a way he’s never done before. Must
be the alcohol. Cam stops by some people lounging on the adjacent couch with a
few bottles of gin on ice in the center table. A couple of them are smoking
menthols and have a sleepy disposition towards everything. Two newbies are
looking antsy, watching the writhing crowd below spilling drinks while
attempting to dance. They are both wearing, with only the slightest variation,
The Bandage Black Dress—the one so short and stretchy it hardly allows one to
dance but gets the right kind of male attention, which, in their cases, clearly
takes precedence over comfort. Their heels, in keeping with their dresses, can
best be described as impossible. Cam smiles wanly at the sight of them as she
sits down between them. They are surprised by this intrusion, but Mark quickly
“Girls, this is Cam.
She tends to pop in out of nowhere.”
As he says so, he gives
Cam a knowing smile and a wink before returning to his drink and
self-deference. He ostensibly leaves their names out of the introduction. The
girls are now smiling up at Cam, not even noticing the omission.
“You girls smell great,
like vodka and bubble gum. What are you wearing?”
Girl One seems all too
eager in what is apparently her area of expertise.
“Something by Vera
Wang. “Princess,” I think it is?”
A look passes between
Cam and me, and just like that, we’re confidants—at least for the time being.
Cam sidles over to me and whispers in my ear, “Figures.” Her warm breath makes
my follicles stand in alert. How can she do that? Then, returning her attention
to the girls with faux delight, she says, “You wanna dance?” Girl One nods
maniacally and Girl Two exclaims, “Oh-my-God, we’ve been dying to get out
Cam rises indolently,
grabbing my hand as she does so. The girls are already teetering down the steps
like drunken flamingos. The four of us enter the fray of thrashing bodies,
dodging bouncing behinds and flailing arms to find an adequate space.
Cam starts dancing with
the girls to some fast rhythm, gyrating and pumping, sandwiched in between
them, when a well-dressed young man approaches. Just as he does, the song
transitions to a slower beat. His hair is closely cropped and light brown eyes
twinkle in sharp contrast to his dark olive skin. His friends are already there
to take care of the two girls, and me, though I less-than-politely decline. He
asks Cam with his eyes, and encircles her waist. She makes her body pliable to
his as they start dancing. I remain close and listen in.
“I hate to go for the
obvious, but what’s your name?”
He means to purr in her
ear, but with the music so loud it’s more like a scream.
“Isabella,” Cam lies
“Don’t you want to know
Cam laughs blithely.
“Sure. Why not?”
He seems to enjoy her
Cam looks genuinely
interested, for once. “Is that Hindi? What does it mean?”
Arihant matches her
earlier laughter. “Now look who’s predictable?”
Cam playfully narrows
her eyes at him.
Arihant smiles and
presses her closer. “One who has killed his enemies.”
Cam raises her
eyebrows. Then, catching me off guard once again, she leans over and whispers,
“We’ll see,” to me as if I’d been part of the conversation all along. What was
she playing at? How did I turn into her unlikely ally?
“Did you say
something?” Arihant asks her.
reassuringly. “No, nothing.”
She looks over to the
two girls and sees they are in consensually binding positions similar to her
own. Smiling again, she glances at her friends on the couch and catches Mark’s
eye. He has been looking at her the entire time. She gives him an almost
imperceptible nod, which he returns. He doesn’t seem to notice that I am privy
to the whole exchange, or else doesn’t care. Taking a small baggy from his
pocket, he slips it into one of the mixed drinks on the table. The powder turns
the liquid a blackberry red for a few seconds, before returning to its original
color. The song starts coming to a close. Cam grabs Arihant’s face and slowly
kisses him, just enough to leave prospects dangling. As the kiss progresses,
slowly, the last third of “Tricksy” by Lark is amplified.
“Come. Have a drink
with us.” She includes me in this proposition by tenderly tucking a loose
strand of hair behind my ear. Arihant looks at both of us appreciatively and
nods his assent. She leads us by the hand to the table where Mark is. When she
arrives, she ducks down and whispers into Mark’s ear.
“I’m Isabella tonight.
We got ourselves a live one.”
Immediately I notice
the change in Mark as he introduces himself to Arihant. He is playing the
colorfully gay friend.
“You two were quite the
item on the dance floor.” He stops to cross his legs and then remembers
something. “Oh my God, I just had this brought out, (indicating a drink) but as
you can see, I’m already done for!” He laughs and slaps Cam’s thigh for
emphasis. “Ahh-ree-hant,” he over-stresses every syllable, “Do me the honor.
You do like G&T’s, don’t you?”
“Not my first choice,
but a close second. Thanks.”
Arihant takes the drink
and raises it in cheers, taking a generous gulp. Cam and Mark smile at one
another knowingly, then Cam includes me in their web with a long-lashed wink.
She knew I
couldn’t—didn’t want to—stop her.
Before long, Arihant
was slurring every other word and nodding off. Cam nodded at me and Mark, and
stood. Mark flanked Arihant at his right, propping him up under his arm. I
followed suit on the left side. We follow Cam to a private room behind the red
floodlit bar. To everyone, it must appear like we’re graciously helping our
debauched friend. The room is lined with royal purple velvet from top to
bottom, accented with brushed gold baseboards and crown molding. Mark and I
deposit Arihant on a single armchair with leather pincushions resembling
Morpheus’s from The Matrix. From the shadows, a group of five men
in tailored suits emerge. They approach Arihant, who by now is catatonic and
slumped over the armrest. One man, the eldest, nods at Cam and hands her a
briefcase. She returns the gesture and the men carry Arihant out of the room,
leaving the three of us alone.
“Cam, what are they
going to do—“ I begin.
She shushes me gently,
placing her forefinger on my lip. She opens the briefcase, and I quickly
estimate about twenty stacks of crisp Euros inside. I recognize the image of
the Baroque arches on each note; one hundred.
I stifle a gasp, but my
breathing quickens at the sight.
Cam grabs four stacks
and hands them over to Mark. He takes them, stuffs them inside his blazer, and
gives her a quick kiss on the mouth before taking off. Cam says nothing and
divides another four stacks from the lot.
“Cam—“ I start again.
Before I know it, she
stuffs her hand, along with the money, down the front of my jeans. She pushes
me to the wall and I feel the soft velvet against my neck and the pressure of
the money on my lower abdomen. Her thumb latches onto my panties and stretches
them up, making it unbearable. Her lips graze against mine as she speaks.
“Are you in, or out?”
She continues to stroke
her thumb against me, waiting.
“In,” I whisper,
closing my eyes.
Fall tuition: Check.
I got in trouble at
school. I cut French class and went to hang out in the bathroom on the second
floor in the lower atrium by the cafeteria. My friend Wally Finnigan was there
by the sinks smoking an E-Cig. When I’d come through the door he’d straightened
and folded his arms, turning the cigarette up into his palm. The “cool look”
made you look stiff and uncool, but he was a sophomore.
“You scared me shit,” he
“Don’t burn yourself.”
“Won’t, no worries.” He
took another drag, his prop-hand back on the rim of the sink area, his butt up
against it as well. Behind him, the depression in the chipped porcelain up by
the faucet had water build-up with soap residue floating the skin like an oil
slick. One sink away someone had jammed paper towels in the drain and left a
scum-pond, and the sink to my right was speckled on one side with curly hairs
that looked pubic. Made me think for a sec about why I was noticing this stuff
and wonder why I was noticing my noticing and all that. Maybe I was O.D.D. or something.
“You going to take Patty
Marsh to the Spring Formal?” I said.
“Naw. Ginny Finster.”
My eyebrows peaked up.
“Ginny Finster? The junior with the pink-tipped bangs and
He winked, but it was
because he always did that while inhaling.
“The one and the same.”
“She’s good looking,
“You’re kicking past your
coverage,” I said, but he didn’t respond. Thinking about it, when we played
video games on X-Box they were always war related, like Call of Duty – Black Ops 3. I didn’t even know if he watched sports
come to think of it, let alone if he played them. I’d met him a month or so ago at lunch. He’d
had on a funny black hat that looked like he’d borrowed it from some dude named
Pierre, painting out in the mountains of France or whatever. That took balls.
“Is she sweet or stupid?”
“You got wheels? You gonna do her?”
He looked at me.
“She plays clarinet.”
In a crazy way that
The door came open with a bang making us jump because
the steel door handle smacked against the block wall by the yellow industrial
trash can. It was Mr. Tulley, the campus aid.
He had a bent over, crooked look to him, he walked bow legged. He had
thinning silver hair and a round baggy face, one of those older guys who
couldn’t admit he didn’t look quite natural in jeans anymore.
“Gimme that,” he said, grabbing Wally’s cig. He paused
to get all deep and look at it like a chemistry professor staring at a beaker. Then
he palmed it meaningfully. “Still warm,” he said. He licked his lips. Wally looked
down at the floor. I felt bad for him. That was a Vuse. He’d gotten it at the
Funky Monkey, not some gas station.
“You’re coming with me,” he said, grabbing Wally’s arm.
You could tell Wally wanted to yank it away, but he didn’t. “You too,” Tulley
said, jerking his forehead my way.
“You’re in this.”
“How?” I put my thumbs under the straps of my backpack
and switched my casual stance from the weight on the left with the right toe
pointed out to the other way around. He blinked and his cheek twitched.
“You’re cutting class.”
“Where’s your pass?” He
was still holding onto Wally’s arm like a toddler at the zoo.
“You’re kidding, right?”
I said. “I don’t need written permission to take a squirt, yo.”
He moved his mouth a
second and nothing came out. It wasn’t as easy to grab me around, because I was
a senior. There were unwritten rules. I was eighteen and I was bigger than
Wally. It was late April. I was ready for my senior project where I was going
to student teach 4th graders in my mother’s district where she ran
“Come with me or it’s
your ass,” he said. His face had gone a
funny shade of red. He’d picked a hill
to die on.
When Dad got home I was
sitting on the couch button-mashing on my tablet, making Deathstroke beat the
living shit out of Spiderman. Ma was knitting with her glasses on the end of
her nose, lips pursed and sour.
“Hey,” Dad said.
“Hey,” I said. I turned
the tablet up sideways and was tapping so hard my tongue was poked out the side
of my mouth.
“Are the soda cans still
scattered up in your room?” he said.
“How about the paper
He walked past to the
kitchen to get a beer.
“I’m glad we had this
discussion,” he said over his shoulder.
“He got written up by
Bagley,” Ma said.
Dad was back in the
archway quicker than I anticipated he would be. A Heineken was in his hand even
though he preferred his Sam Adams. They’d been out at the drive through
distributor yesterday and he’d gone with his second choice, his stand by, but
they’d changed the recipe. Piss-water he’d said. I didn’t drink, but I knew
every time he took a sip he’d be more and more annoyed as the night went on.
“Do tell,” he said.
“I was searched because
they thought I had drugs.”
“What do you mean,
“You know. Strip searched.”
“What?” His voice had
gone quiet, like hushed. Ma put down her knitting and folded her hands in her
lap. She was going into story telling posture.
“Mr. Bagley called me in
the middle of an I.E.P meeting I was having with Andre’s mother, and you know
how tough she can be. It was a mess. I was on hold for ten minutes and when Mr.
Bagley finally came back on, I begged him not to suspend him, you know, because
he’s worked with us before…”
“Katherine?” Dad said,
almost a whisper now.
“Do me a favor. Go on the
computer upstairs and find me Bagley’s email address, no better yet, the
“Oh,” she said. Now it
was her turn to talk quietly. She made for the stairs rather quickly.
“Talk,” Dad said, still
in the archway. I put my feet up on the coffee table. My shoes were off. I have
knobby feet and they looked awkward, so I pulled them back down.
“I was in the bathroom
with Wally. He was smoking an E-cig.
Tulley the aid came in and made us go to Bagley.”
“Go on,” Dad said, coming
in to sit across from me in the space Ma just vacated. He didn’t like Bagley;
he’d never met Bagley; they had history, the kind where they knew about each
other indirectly like dogs chained up at opposite ends of the block. When I got
caught cutting a bunch of classes earlier in the year Bagley had sent a note
home claiming I needed to see a social worker. When Dad saw that statement he’d
almost blown a gasket, because Bagley was no “social psychologist.” And I
wasn’t cutting class to piss in the pool and chuck pencils into the drop
ceiling either. The fact was simply that I’d racked up so many hours working at
the Pet Valu that I went to the maintenance closet near the pool to sleep on
the wrestling mats sometimes, during dumb-shit classes like cooking and
environmental studies. Dad called the
school for me, to basically tell Bagley he had no right to judge whether or not
his son needed to see a social worker, but Mrs. Juniper the attendance lady
took care of it, erasing the suggestion from the record.
“No one likes Bagley,” I
said. “He bullies teachers and disrespects students. He makes comments to the
girls. He used to teach gym. How he got to be Vice Principal is the biggest
mystery on the planet.”
“What did you have on
“A couple of empty Hookah
containers. I wasn’t carrying a Mod or
anything like that –“
I folded my arms up high
like a kid.
“I didn’t have a tank and
a canister and a battery or anything. Just replacement bottles.”
“You shouldn’t smoke that
“I know. But I like it. I
do smoke tricks. I can do like forty of them – like variations of Ghosts, O’s,
French’s, and Tornados. Gets me chicks.”
He smiled in a thin line.
“You like being old
enough to tell me this shit, don’t you? Well, bravo. I can just feel the moment
of empowerment in the air. Is it
“They don’t know what it
is to tell the truth. I don’t think so.”
“You like smoking your Hookah
bullshit so much you don’t mind being on this asshole’s radar?”
“Yeah. You keep drinking
beer and eating noodles with white clam sauce even though your asshole doctor
says it flares up your gout?”
Our eyes laughed and
twinkled back and forth for a second. It was good being eighteen.
“So tell me about
Bagley,” Dad said. “What did he do exactly? And don’t leave anything out. Go
slowly. Think. Your retells are always all over the place and I need details in
the right order.”
“Yeah,” I said, “so he
gets me in that small office and starts joking back and forth with Tulley all
about me but in the third person, like, ‘These seniors sure are cocky and
stupid, aren’t they, Mr. Tulley? Just walking around thinking they own the
place, acting like scumbags, sliding through the system like sewage’ and
what-not. Then he empties my bag and finds the juice canisters. Then he has me
take off my sneakers and he smells them.”
“He smelled them, like
putting his nose deep inside and inhaling like it’s a flower and he’s a poet on
first day of spring and all that. Said it smelled like weed. Gave it to Tulley,
and he sort of held it away and sniffed at the general area. Said he couldn’t
smell anything, but Bagley told me to take down my pants.”
“Oh, he did, did he?”
I looked over like you
did when you realized you were talking to someone but saying it to the wall,
and sweat broke out on my forehead, because Dad was a bit psycho about stuff if
he got riled enough. He’d taught English for years in the city and always
struggled with Principals and authority figures and bullies. He especially
didn’t like big bullies, physically big, like Bagley. Even though I was five
foot eleven inches, Dad was small, like five foot five and three quarters, not
small enough where you look at him and say, “Whoa, that guy is short!” but
short enough that big guys with attitudes could present a problem in certain
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “So I
take down my jeans, and I’m not wearing undies, but instead I have on my
flannel jammies, the black ones with the stars on them. So he frisks up the
sides of them, grabs at the pockets, and suddenly I got paranoid thinking he
was going to pull them down and shit. I grabbed the top band and said, ‘Get off,
Bagley,’ and then he went to call Ma.
Gave me a detention.”
Dad got up without
He emailed Principal
Larraby. He showed me the email. He was mostly bitching about the shoe
sniffing, but he claimed he wanted a meeting with everyone involved, especially
Bagley. Larraby got back to him saying they were allowed to search students
suspected to have illegal substances. He said he was at a conference and if Dad
wanted a meeting to email his secretary. He said I would have to be there and
that my Dad would have to face Bagley…he said it just like that too, as if my
Dad wasn’t the one to have made that suggestion in the first place. The secretary gave us an appointment Tuesday
of next week, and Dad sent another email saying that Tuesday wasn’t good enough
especially since he wanted to discuss “an administrator’s improper conduct with
a child.” Larraby agreed to a meeting tomorrow at 4:00. Dad asked if Larraby was going to have
Bagley’s union representative there and counsel. Larraby said, “No, will you
have counsel?” Dad answered casually, “No.”
Larraby and Bagley were
counting on the helplessness parents felt when put in a board room to face authority
figures. They were counting on unspoken rules of custom and decorum. They were bullies, ready to prey on the
instinct most people had to be courteous, to listen, to do what they were told,
to be team players and rational adults.
Dad retired from public
schools last year. He taught a couple of courses at community now. He had been
a good father to me, and if there was ever anyone who believed in decorum, it
He’d also never won the
boardroom; we’d heard his war stories. Said they were snake pits, no place for
anyone with an ounce of decency even though everyone talked in these soft silky
The next day after my
detention I went down to the lobby for the meeting.
Dad was waiting.
He was in the waiting
area, sitting in a chair facing the hallway, staring blankly through the big glass
picture windows. His feet were together and his hands were in his lap. He was
wearing his black dress pants, a black sweater, and his purple tie. He’d gotten
a haircut and the sides were buzzed nearly to the scalp. He was staring
straight forward and his eyes were stone. His hands were folded in his lap and
his knees were together, almost as if he was trying to make himself look
smaller than he was. The stare was unnerving and weird. I knew the offset was
purposeful. He looked like a little
I took a seat next to
“I hear Bagley went canvasing
my teachers today,” I muttered through the side of my mouth. “Asking whether I
was late all the time, sleeping during lecture, you know.”
“That’s fine,” Dad said. I
had to strain to hear him. “When we go in,” he continued, “don’t speak unless I
invite it, clear?”
“Yeah,” I said. This was
important on a whole new level, I could tell. Dad usually joked about things, all
sarcastic and shit, especially when he first saw me after not seeing me for a
day at school or a sleep-over or whatever, but there was no joking now. He’d
told Ma to stay home. She’d been
disappointed and he’d said there would be no place for her in this boardroom. What
he’d meant was that it would be no place for cooperation, discussion,
commiseration, compromise, or listening.
And the little guy
sitting with his hands folded and his little leather bag at his ankles was
going to be underestimated. In fact, he had been counting on it.
Someone walked behind us,
and I turned to look. It was Principal Larraby. He’d been in the nest of offices
back here all along, probably noticing us through the slit in a door or
something, but not positioned close enough to listen, at least it didn’t seem
so. He was wearing a dress shirt, a brown tie, and dark pressed slacks. He had
pointy administrator’s shoes that were shiny and an identification card in
plastic fastened to a lanyard around his neck. Larraby was a little guy too,
but a different breed than Dad. Larraby had
a sharp and skinny lawyer’s sort of a face.
He had a wiry stance, and that sober expression that always defined the
smartest guy in the room, the one who came from money, the captain of the
debate team, the one who aced all his college classes, the little guy’s guy who
always knew how to win over the thugs, speaking for them and laughing at those just
outwitted behind closed doors. He was bald up top and had one of those pronounced
ridge bones going front to back on his skull like some warrior’s helmet,
perfectly shaven and shining under the lobby fluorescents.
“I’ll be with you guys in
a second,” he said, all “friendly coach,” the confident camp counselor, walking
briskly past the front desk and to his office behind it back to the left.
In front of us two men
were approaching from the hall, talking to each other, but you couldn’t hear
anything through the glass.
“That’s Bagley,” I
whispered, “the bigger one. The older guy is the campus aid, Tulley.”
Dad might have looked but
I couldn’t tell because he wasn’t moving his head. I believe he flicked his
eyes for a glance, but I couldn’t be sure.
Tulley looked like the
eager side-kick walking alongside the reigning school bully. Bagley was wearing
loafers, khakis, and a green golf shirt. He was six foot five with thick black
hair slicked back. He had those flat hard eyes that sneered at you, letting you
know up front that he might not have been Ivy League material, but he had a
lifelong track record of being cunning and cutting and personal and mean,
making people submit. He was the big kid who threw a kickball into your face at
recess, the creep who took your lunch money and shoved you hard against a stall
door in the bathroom, the big drunk at the Phillies game wearing a cap turned
backward and his collar up, thinking it was cool to get out of his seat, groove
to the music between innings with his eyes slitted and his lips puckered, and then
yell at some quiet guy five seats down, saying he was a faggoty-ass Red Sox fan
who needed to go shave his armpits or what-not.
When he came through the
door I saw him size Dad up and smirk. He’d already seen Dad through the glass,
so this close up display was for show, for us, so we’d sweat. He shook his head
ever so slightly, all cocky and subtle, looking at something he picked up on
the counter and letting breath come through his nose. Before he went off to the
office, he hitched up his pants and rubbed his nose. In his mind it seemed he
was bathing himself in the roar of the mob as an announcer reeled off his
corner color, his weight, and the fact that he was currently undefeated.
They called us in right
off, and Dad told me later that this was a huge mistake. Trick number one was
to make parents sit and sit and sit, minimum of forty-five minutes so they
would rethink things, out-guess themselves, let their argument lose focus and
But they had already made
a plethora of errors.
Similar to the above,
they’d granted Dad a meeting soon after the fact instead of a week later, when
he would have had time to think and rationalize and measure the idea of making a
stink, slowly wearing down to admitting to himself that he “just didn’t want
any trouble.” Larraby had insisted on email that they didn’t do strip-searches
and had divulged the fact that he was not bringing counsel.
I followed Dad into the
Tulley moved to the head
of the table on the near side, and Larraby was set up at the far end. Dad and I had the left side and Bagley was
across from us. We were all standing for a second behind our maroon cushy
chairs. Larraby leaned forward and shook Dad’s hand. Then Bagley reached across
the table. Dad shook his hand with the old grip-firm and one-pump, but he
looked away when he did it, letting Bagley’s hand go with a cast-off just hard
enough to send a message like calling a guy “pal” or “chief” when everyone and
their mother’s knew you weren’t talking “friend” or fearless leader” or
We sat. Larraby had papers
in front of him, two piles. Bagley had a manila folder open on the table at his
elbow. Tulley was sitting a bit back and away with his forearms on his thighs,
hands folded. He had a smile in his eyes, the bench player on the team stacked
with hardened veterans. Larraby sat back, legs crossed, pen up by his ear as if
he was about to click it for punctuation.
“This is Mr. Bagley, our
Vice Principal and Dean of Student Discipline,” he said. “And this is Mr.
Tulley, our head campus aid. He retired from the police force three years ago
and we’re fortunate to have had him come aboard.”
Dad hadn’t moved. He was
on the edge of the seat cushion, knees together, looking quiet and small. Larraby
sat forward with purpose then, all business, eyebrows furrowed as if drawing
together his concentration for the next phase where the going got tough and he
was the man to put all the ducks in rows. He put down his pen and spread his
hands over his papers, looking at them.
“Ok,” he said, “We’ll
start with –“
“It’s not Ok,” Dad
said. Larraby’s eyes flashed up.
“It’s not Ok,” Dad said. “This
isn’t your meeting. I called this meeting.
I’m not interested in your papers and your agenda. I’m interested in telling
you what I’m after. I’m going to tell you how this is going to go, and you are
going to sit there and listen.”
“Really?” Larraby said, sitting
back, eyes wide. He was amazed and smiling a bit with amazement. Bagley started
to say something.
“Quiet!” Dad said to him,
pointing across the table. “Nobody’s talking to you!” He said the word
“talking’ with percussion, with force, making the “a” sound have an “h” before
it, like “t-haw-king,” almost yelling
but not crazy yelling, more like a crisp spanking, a scolding, the start of a
hard lecture. Bagley bit his bottom lip hard and pushed back from the table
looking away, rolling up his eyes. Dad’s tone went up a notch.
“And stop making faces.
You’re disgusting. You put your nose in my son’s sneaker? What are you, a
pot-sniffing dog? Do they hook you up to some special machine where there’s a
reliable measurement for levels of marijuana they track from your nasal
passages? What if you thought he had pot in his underwear? You gonna sniff his
drawers? There’s a guy who used to do stuff like that up in Grays Ferry in the
90’s. They called him ‘Fast Eddy,’ and he’s in jail now.”
He turned back to
“This can go two ways,”
he said. “Option A is that we talk about the strip-search incident and that
incident only. At the end of that
conversation, this disgusting person will be made to stay no closer than fifty
feet from my son, like a restraining order.” He calmed his voice, but only
slightly. “And I have some advice for you, Mr. Larraby.”
“Really?” he said, eyes
still hot and grinning with amazement, but the fire had withered to embers.
“Really,” Dad said. “Were
I you, I would contact my pit bull in Human Resources and launch my own
investigation into this disgusting member of the staff.”
“Now wait a –“ Bagley
“Shut-it!” Dad said,
putting up his palm like a stop sign, eyes closed. “Keep your place, Bagley,
grown-ups are talking.” He opened his eyes. “Distance yourself from this…person, Mr. Larraby, and contact the
state because now I know that you know and I would testify that I do, is that
Larraby didn’t answer
right off, and Dad pounced on his moment.
“And now, sir,” he
continued, working himself up again into a rant again, “I’m going to tell you
about Option B. You don’t want Option B. You want to avoid it like the plague,
see? Because this is the version where I
go nuclear. This is the version where you bring out some mysterious file on my
son with all kinds of issues and professional observations that would indicate
that you feel he might be a drug dealer or killing people up in North Philly on
the weekends, and let me tell you, if you decide to assassinate his character I
will hold you criminally responsible for each and every detail I wasn’t
informed of prior to this moment. I will look at it as a cowardly, spineless
attempt to attribute blame elsewhere, and I will go to the Superintendent, the
State, and then I’ll do a nice community outreach through social media and all
the parents I know, those who will cringe by the way, when they hear about the
shoe sniffing, bank on it, I’ve already told a few and they’re not pleased.”
The room was ringing.
“Can I talk now?” Larraby
said. It was sarcastic, but there was no
way to avoid the fact that he was asking permission. It was a deek too, a hit
he took to divert attention from the fact that as he’d said it he’d casually
turned one pile of his papers over, probably the official record of my class
cuts earlier in the year. Bagley also oh-so-casually closed his manila folder,
and I would have laid similar odds that it contained the one-sided, edited
results of his little teacher poll. Larraby put on his reading glasses and read
Bagley’s report of the incident. His voice was shaky and you could tell he
hated that fact, but he couldn’t make it stop wavering. The report was short
and full of lies. It said stuff like Bagley politely asked me to empty my
pockets, and I volunteered to take down my jeans. It also said that Tulley
corroborated the fact that my sneakers smelled like weed. At that point, Dad
interrupted the read, turned to Tulley and said smoothly,
“You’re backing the wrong
horse, champ. I don’t know how many parking tickets you wrote in your day, but
this is a different world. If I put you in front of a panel put together by the
state and you are found to be lying, it’s perjury and you’ll do time, look it
Tulley put his hands up
like, “Oh, I’m at my wit’s end with you!”
but it didn’t look like the hard-ass baseball coach fed up with a batter
who kept lunging, seeing a strike out of the hand and getting caught with all his
weight on his front foot. It looked like Tulley had become a housewife. Like he
burned dinner. Larraby tried to save it by switching tactics, talking to me
directly, bringing me into the ring.
“Why were you in the
bathroom in the first place?” he said.
“I had to go.”
“Your friend had pot on
“Yeah, I heard.”
“He had a pot brownie on
“So why were you in the
bathroom with a guy who had a pot brownie on him?”
It was Dad’s turn to put
his hands up, but he didn’t look like a housewife. He looked like the thug in
the bathroom about to slam you up against a stall door.
“Yeah,” he announced. “So
according to this thread of logic, Bagley walks into the bathroom when some
tenth grader has a brownie in his book bag and Bagley’s a pusher now by
association. So, Larraby, why don’t I drop my drawers and walk in front of your
secretary, buy a dime bag from Bagley, and we’ll all smell each other’s
“Enough,” Larraby said.
“Oh, is it?”
“We are allowed to search
“And frisk them?”
“In some ways we have
more power than law enforcement, yes.”
“I feel like I was
sexually assaulted,” I said. “I felt like Bagley was gonna pull down my
That one silenced the
room. Dad sat back and said,
“Slam dunk. I have a copy of Mr. Larraby’s email claiming
in bold print that you don’t strip search students. You have a white-washed
version in writing that splits hairs, claiming you can if it’s voluntary. You
just said you’re more powerful than the police, and my son feels sexually
violated. Game changer, boys. I’m thinking S.V.U. and Channel 3.” He got out
his cell phone. “Stay put fella’s. And don’t touch your Samsungs. I’m sure
they’re going to want to see your emails to each other before you have a chance
to delete them. They’ll probably get a warrant for Bagley’s PC at home too,
maybe do a scan of the hard drive.”
“What do you want?”
Larraby said. Bagley leaned in toward him and tried to indicate that he was
dying to defend himself, and Larraby moved his palm across like he was
polishing a table in slow-mo, his eyes never leaving my Dad’s. “Well?”
“Option one,” Dad said.
“Fifty feet away, no closer. Like a restraining order.”
We got up and left. No
one shook hands. I never really thought I was sexually molested, just
humiliated, and everyone knew this I think. I hadn’t planned to interject when
I did, and it wasn’t a lie. Not quite, I don’t know. I did get paranoid and
grab my jammies when he was frisking me. I did feel uncomfortable, but I also knew
he wasn’t going to actually pull my pants down. It wasn’t a lie, but it was,
sort of. It was the truth when you looked at it one way and not so much when
you looked at it another. It was complicated and I wanted to forget about it. I
would have loved to have been a fly on the wall after we left, and then again I
was glad I’d never know. I should have been happy that Bagley just got
ass-fucked probably worse than ever before in his life, but I wasn’t. It’s not
that I was sad or anything, but it wasn’t cut and dry.
We didn’t talk in the
car. There were no high fives.
When we got home there
were no war stories. Dad just told Ma it went fine and his expression nixed all
her questions. I went upstairs to play Madden Live. It felt weird. Dad should
have been pumped. He kicked ass. He took no prisoners. He won.
That night I heard him
get up like five times. It’s a small house, we live in a twin. Usually I don’t
wake up when he wakes up down the hall. It’s like assumed privacy you program
yourself for, it just happens, same as any given day in an assembly in the
auditorium, where there are probably at least a tenth of the girls that have
their tampons in but you don’t think about it that way, that’s all I’m saying.
I heard Dad get up five
times. He had to keep taking a shit. He got stopped up when things weren’t
right with him, when he was thinking about things, and I thought about it now even
though I usually blanked that stuff and rolled over.
He’d protected me today,
but more, it seemed he’d initially done all this as a favor, like a goodbye
before college. It wasn’t even the idea that Bagley stuck his nose deep inside
my sneaker and inhaled, as gross and strange as it was. It’s that he talked
down to me. I think that Dad didn’t want my last days around here to be
darkened with that shit gnawing at me, but go figure, now I’m thinking about it
more than I would have done otherwise. It brought up all the weird “people-math”
Dad was always so good at, only this was the one time I couldn’t ask him to
help me decode it because he was too close to it, living it, wearing it,
smelling it beneath his own skin.
I’m sorry for getting in
trouble, Dad. Sorry I got you dirty, turning you inside-out making you look at
how far you could go. I just wonder, now that I’m eighteen, half out the door
to college and grown, what the lesson was here and who was supposed to be
learning it. Did you teach me that as a
parent you sometimes have to make a spectacle of yourself for the sake of
family? That men like to fight? That in the end no one wins?
Or is the real message
here not to smoke Hookah, that every time I blow out a trick from now on I’ll
see you in it, a shifting vapor shaped like a snake in the grass, clamped permanently
to Bagley’s heel and making it so he’ll have to go the rest of his life
swearing to himself that you were nothing in the end but a cheap nightmare that
leapt from the dark, fought dirty, and bit him down low when he wasn’t looking…
at night the
angry thud of the
sounds like monsters
of the house quietly settling sounds like
I can almost see the deranged face
of my family’s murderer pressed against
he went crazy while I was still
at work. his friends had come over for lunch, saw him
go from reasonably odd to completely insane in
a matter of minutes. our son was sleeping in his crib
otherwise, they would have left, too.
I came in the door after
a long day at work, saw him pacing, pacing
lecturing wildly and waving his arms around his
head like he was trying to scare off
“he’s all yours now,” his friends said when
they saw me, shaking their heads in sympathy but
to get involved. Ten
years later, I’m sitting in court, telling
stories of how things went from bad to worse.
“I don’t remember any of this,” says the husband
I haven’t seen since our son was two years old.
“I’d like to apologize for
anything I did to you back then.” the lawyers smile at me
as if this will make it all better, will excuse the violent fights
the things he stole from me, the nights I slept with my son
curled up in my arms, afraid
of what was coming next.
the whistling of the wind
through the leaves of the old maple tree
at the heart of the park
sounds just like a baby
sighing in his sleep
if I was
even slightly superstitious
you might even say the sighing
of the wind through the park at night
like the last
dying gasps of
the baby they found abandoned
under the tree
stroller filled so high
with autumn leaves
Denny and I could spend hours duking it out. Pick a game. We did it with ping-pong, Parcheesi, and especially with Donkey Kong. Then there was the infamous Revolutionary War playset that Denny got in the mail. We broke it out one balmy March afternoon. Denny had been yapping about it for weeks. I told him he was a doofus for wasting a perfectly good X-men comic, splicing the ad from the back page, not to mention the fact that he paid for the shipping and handling in nickels and dimes, but he kept insisting it was coming.
I was gobsmacked when it arrived. Of course the figures were a crummy batch of plastic patriots, a couple steps below the army men you’d get at Woolworth, but we were excited to put the American Revolution into practice since we were studying it in school. To spice things up, we used the weapons from Crossbows and Catapults, an anachronism to be sure, but it showed how resourceful or clever we were. We even used the Knights and the Orcs as reserves. Whenever I landed a potent shot, I’d pump my fist and shout, “Way to go Georgie Boy.” (When I was the Americans). If I had the redcoats, I shouted “Way to go Corny!” (for General Cornwallis). Either way this drove Denny nuts.
We barbed wherever we could, but I preferred playing at Denny’s place since he had a house, and a huge front lawn, his backyard dwarfed my Little League outfield. Inside the house, we had to be careful not to destroy the precious vases, stony figurines or the Louis XV style furniture. Sometimes I think I had the upper hand playing at Denny’s because he seemed cautious about his surroundings. Sometimes he was a savage.
Denny was a wizard at catapulting. He had a built-in protractor in his noggin, coupled with the feel of a first-rate pool shark. I took the battering ram approach. There was actually a battering ram in the arsenal, but I preferred my crossbows. For me, they packed a bigger wallop, and they were easier to use. I was a maven of destruction whereas Denny was a dogged tactician, to his own detriment. Funny how much a stupid kid’s game can teach you, if you’re willing to probe.
We had an ambush set up on his carpeted staircase. Denny was really in the zone, everything he launched was a bull’s eye. A couple of times, by pure accident, my elbow got in the way of his shot. These things happened. Denny didn’t blow a gasket or accuse me of playing dirty. He remained cool, focused on the task at hand, coiled into a catapulting machine. He had me right where he wanted. My crossbows were practically deadweight on the staircase, and the carpeting took away all their inherent zing. I had no other choice but to make do with the catapults.
I kept mulling over the fact that General Washington beat Cornwallis, not by brute force, but by a delicate series of retreats. It was a lot for a ten-year-old to swallow, but it was worth a shot. I needed a chance to redeem my good name since Denny had been on a hot streak. I kept up the smack talk and let Denny take riskier shots. After a series of my own retreats, Denny sabotaged a good chunk of his men with his big fat knee when he was regrouping on the stairs. Not the prettiest way to win, but hey. We took a snack break.
Denny was always stocked to the gills with candy, chips, cakes, and sodas. By my math, he never had less than a dozen bottles. They’d loaf by the bar across from the Steinway, and the bust of Beethoven. Most were half-empty and flat. Besides fizz-less Pepsi, my compadre was forever pushing his grandmother’s meringue on me. It always looked so pitiful, Smurf hats made of chalk, and tasted like it too. I never grabbed any unless his mom happened to be checking up on us. She filled my plate with so much junk: cookies, candy, and cakes, she was either the greatest host for a ten-year-old twerp or she was getting kickbacks from Dr. Derkasch (Denny and I had the same dentist). Personally, I think she was tired of the meringue and was trying to unload it.
That balmy March afternoon Denny’s mom plunked herself down beside us and played hostess. She was equally adept at delegating and made Denny refill my Waterford glass to the brim. He took exquisite delight in watching me suffer because he knew how much I hated flat Pepsi. I had to practically swandive to the lip of my glass before the cola stained their embroidered family heirloom, a hand-woven tablecloth from some village in eastern Transylvania.
Mrs. P and Denny argued in their family tongue, and I could see my pal was milking the situation because he probably wasn’t nearly as cavalier without company present. A foreign language made a family spat so much edgier. Because I was trying my best to be well-behaved, Denny decided to let loose a stinkbomb. Of course he blamed me, but his mom was familiar with his unique scent.
Denny told his mom I didn’t drink flat soda. She seemed unperturbed, for the moment. Mainly, the term flat didn’t register since English was only her second, no, make that her third language. Denny stayed the course and insisted that I didn’t drink bubbleless Pepsi. This struck a chord with Mrs. P.
“What happened to the bubbles?” she asked.
“They’re gone,” Denny reminded her, “They’re old bottles.”
I emphasize the exclamation point in lieu of a question mark since this is how it sounded plus the look on Mrs. P’s face screamed insult. A hostess, of her caliber, didn’t serve old cola. She held her jaw tight for a good eight seconds then she dropped her signature “puh”.
“That good for nothing father of yours,” Mrs. P said. “He’s a chip off the old bark.”
I knew better than to laugh, but Denny seized the chance to rib his mom, correcting her idiomatic flub. I tried to change the subject and even complimented her poofy hair, my fingers crossed under the table. She eked out what could pass for a smirk then told her son to open a fresh bottle. Denny didn’t miss a beat, informing his mother, bubbling with giddiness, that none of the bottles were new. She got up right then and inspected each one only to learn, much to her abundant chagrin, that Denny was right.
“Look at all this wasted soda,” she said.
She could’ve been chastising me directly. I was the cause of at least five freshly-cracked Pepsis. Mrs. P raised her finger and began yelling. First, in Romanian, then in English. Her consistent, catchy refrain, “Good for nothing,” still echoing as she stormed out of the room.
Denny proceed to tell me that his Pops was the critical nugget of his mom’s agida. As if I didn’t know. It seemed that Mr. P would buy, without fail, twice as much stuff as they could ever consume without going bad. Unlike his wife, who had been born with money, he grew up a dirt-poor peasant, the oldest of five children. He became the family breadwinner at age fourteen. Denny told me his father would freak out if he heard anybody’s grumbling belly, would rush out to stock up on eggs, milk, and Scooter pies. It drove Mrs. P bonkers, but he kept his family fed.
She’d been gone for a while, and I’d been hankering to duck out without anybody seeing me. I wasn’t exactly sure where Mrs. P had gone and I didn’t want to be rude, lest it get back to my folks and have hell to pay. Mrs. P did return, a bit harried with flush cheeks and a sweaty brow, a dusty two-liter bottle of Pepsi in her hand. Some feeble attempt had been made to wipe clean the shoulders. A caramel-like gob of gunk slithered down the neck of the bottle. Maybe it was rubber cement or caramelized cola. The bottom of the bottle looked as if it had swooped down a chimney. There may have been a cobweb, dangling from the side, but Mrs. P flicked it off, whatever it was, before I had a chance to get a better squint.
More than anything, I wanted to get out of there, but I was stuck like an amber-doused insect. Pepsi spurt all over when Mrs. P whisked open the bottle. She licked some off her knuckles. Rather than retreat, I sat there and had my old Pepsi which was beyond syrupy. It did have bubbles. Caveat emptor. Mrs. P may well have dug up the relic from somewhere in the basement or possibly even from the backyard by the begonias. I grabbed my chalice and slurped a bit off the rim then slugged back the ancient cola. Mrs. P seemed very proud of herself, and poured me another round.
I nursed the second one, sat back and tried to tune out the bickering. With each sip, the flavors and my sentiment kept evolving. The syrupy sensation turned medicinal. I’m not sure if that was the old cola or the family fracas, but while they argued in Romanian, I drank my Pepsi both glad and a bit glum I didn’t exactly know what they were saying, the whole while pretending I was swigging a cold glass of tap water.
I remember when I was a young
boy my mother had a favorite pew in the tiny St. Mathew’s church just down the
road from our home. Opposite the pulpit, about halfway back, she’d park my
younger brother and I every Sunday and every holy day of obligation, with
little deviation. Occasionally, a family would file in, a few rows in front of
us, with their adult daughter in tow, ill-equipped for the responsibilities of
those her age. She was guided into the pew by her mother and care taker,
careful to keep her from tripping over the kneeler. She sat and stood, slightly
slumped over with her right arm curled in front of her. Her long, thin hair
gathered in a ponytail on top of her head and flopped over pathetically with
each movement. Her mother would take care to wipe up any mucus that drained
from the girl’s face with her embroidered handkerchief and turn back to the
My dear mother, with her perfect church attendance
record, could not stand the sight of this and one day, quickly and quietly
moved my brother and I out of our unofficial family pew and up two rows in
front of the wretched family. I gave her a questioning look upon sitting which
she then whispered behind her white satin glove that she refused to sit through
another mass watching someone clean up snot and drool from an adult. I was only
thirteen then but old enough to appreciate the irony.
We sat, stood, knelt, and then sat some more for each
mass, my own mind wandering around through the pews and beyond the church,
desperately awaiting the grand close of the altar doors, signaling my freedom. My
little brother, George, was still permitted coloring books and crayons to stave
off the boredom. No such luck for me. Dad never went to church—ever. After his
return from France from the Second World War, shell-shocked, a chest full of
shrapnel, and an amputated leg, he didn’t have much to thank god for. I envied
him there in the pews.
Later on in my teenage years, I would defer to his lack
of piety to defend my own growing atheism and refusal to attend any more
church. Quite often, this would descend into a screaming match on both sides
with me shouting my refusals from comfort of my bed. It never worked though, I
still had to go. Her only comfort seemed to be that my dad must believe in a god in order to hate him.
My own descent in to godlessness, as my mother
contemptuously referred to it, did not begin with any sort of intellectual epiphany
as I might now like to think. I didn’t have Russell or Nietzsche hiding under
the bed, I read those later. No, initially, it all came down to a very low
threshold for boredom and a complete lack of respect for authority; traits that
would eventually get me into trouble later on.
But even now, I’m sixty-eight now, and as much as I hated
the place, the clearest memories I have from that far back are in that stuffy,
miserable church two blocks down from the Vogel household. I often wonder, like
others, how much I’ve really retained and what scenes in my head have been
involuntarily invented. Can anyone be really sure their memories haven’t been gently
altered over time to soothe the conscience? A lot can go wrong in a lifetime;
if we could remember everything
there’d be more people offing themselves. I look back through the old albums
occasionally and I find the same, lanky flat-capped teenager staring back. The
label on the back insists that this is indeed Charles Vogel in 1959 but I don’t
recognize him. However, I can recall very easily the boredom, the day-dreaming,
the people, and the choking incense that clouded the church. I remember it all
with such clarity perhaps since my whole adult life seemed to have begun there.
What made me what I am now, whether I like it or not, came from those cheerless
would take the third or fourth, “Get up, now!” before I’d even bother
pretending to wake up. I’d go through my morning routine of dressing, eating,
brushing my teeth all with an air of self-pity over the injustice of being
deprived of a sleeping-in. The three of us walked to church as we did for any
trip or errand. We couldn’t afford a car and we hadn’t had one until my uncle
gave us his old ’53 wagon when I was seventeen, saving us from having to rely
on the bus. Trips outside of town were few anyway, only made to shuttle my
father to the city hospital and back.
Though it was only two blocks from our home to St.
Mathew’s, that route would be taken in any kind of weather. Mother wouldn’t
stop at the market to pick up eggs or fruit if there was only a steady rain but
it didn’t matter come Sundays. There could be three feet of snow, hail, ice, the
fucking Russians could be swarming around over-head but never mind, we’d make
it there for 9:30 mass.
We’d file into our usual seats after the obligatory genuflection.
I managed to pull this off with a stiff nod of the head and half-hearted wave
of my right arm into a lopsided cross. I was a rebel. We’d get there forty
minutes before it even started with the only other people there, the altar boys
and the half-dozen or so widows who made up the rosary group. These women sat
scattered throughout the church and chanted that prayer as if it were a
competitive sport. If one of them missed their cue or fumbled their assigned
mystery, it would invoke the ire of the rest which would be duly punished by a
slow, turn in the pew and a steady glare at the offending parishioner. The
flustered old widow would then clamber to find her place before their leader invoked
the ultimate shaming. This was usually employed when one of them actually dozed
off, but the tiny, frailest of the bunch sat right up front and would
half-shout the missing mystery which would then incite an even louder Hail Mary
from the group afterwards. Most who had suffered through this humiliation would
quietly resign from the competition and mutter the rosary to herself from then
The only way to pass the time was to observe those filing
in around. For this, I wished we had sat farther back. Little did they know, I
was silently observing, recruiting, and casting them all in my own stories and
daydreams. Who were these people anyway and why were they here? The grown-ups had no one nagging them out of bed, they
came on their own. Some of the couples didn’t even have children and some were ancient.
I resented them because they had a choice and I didn’t.
My favorite participants would arrive just before the
start of mass, planting the whole clan of their family in one whole pew. These
were the Brazdas, even more catholic and conservative than my own mother with
their brood of eight children. Katherine was the oldest and the star actress of
most of the plays that I acted and directed in my mind. She always had her
blonde hair neatly curled beneath her hat. Her neck was long and thin with the
gold clasp of her necklace just visible above her starched collar. She sat up
straight in her pew; aloof from everyone. She knew how pretty she was.
Often enough, the roles I cast us in would morph into
something out of control. Showing Katherine off on my arm in front of others
and rescuing her from a bore at a party quickly turned pornographic. Discreetly,
I’d try to cover up the swelling bulge in my pants with the liturgy book and
try to think of something else. A glance at the rosary ladies usually did the
trick but occasionally the pressure was too much, the story too lurid, and I’d
sit there miserable trying to ignore the pain and realizing we hadn’t even made
it to the fucking Nicene Creed yet. I’d start whining to my mother that I had to go to the bathroom. I really had to go. She’d shake her head
curtly and pretend she couldn’t hear me. It would take me at least five more
minutes before I had her thoroughly annoyed, me ready to burst, before she’d
I’d carefully slide out of the pew with the liturgy book
strategically covering the bulge and absolutely failing to look natural. I
stared down at the wooden floorboards on my way to the back of the church,
meeting no one’s eye, and feeling the back of my neck steadily burn. Safely out
of sight, I made my way, painfully, down the steps to the basement bathroom.
Nothing really needed to be done at that point and I would consider myself
lucky if I could walk away from it all with spotless trousers and a non-defiled
liturgy book (that did happen once). I’d make my way back up the steps with
shaking knees, relieved yet carrying an annoying tinge of guilt. I’d glance
over at my Katherine, no longer inspiring, and resume my idle dreaming.
She never did notice me.
The one who did eventually take notice of me, but only by
accident, sat five pews in front of us. She was rarely involved in my
theatrical productions since I found her rather plain. She would sit, stand,
and kneel between her parents, the only child. Her wiry orange hair was only
slightly tamed by a ribbon tied at the back of her neck. The few times I saw
her face, usually after communion, showed a pale white face peering out through
a swarm of freckles. This was Judy, my future wife.
I found her later on when I was nineteen, at the party of
someone I kind of knew. She stood around with her fat friend, slowly sipping
her drink and looking about her through the thick smoke, seemingly bored. It
took me a while to recognize her since I hadn’t been to church in quite a
while. She was pretty, her awkwardness faded away with her freckles with only a
few dotting her high cheekbones. She smiled when her eyes rested on me, one of
relief. Having no one else to talk to we gravitated towards each other among
the already-acquainted and newly paired. I forget what we talked about but we
got drunk rather quickly. The sickly sweet punch we both sipped had a kick that
neither of us noticed. As the night went on, she leaned up against me for
support, her arm around my waist with a finger holding onto my belt loop to keep
from falling over. I felt her warm breath as she giggled into my neck and I
slowly guided her free hand down to my swelling prick which she duly grabbed
and giggled some more. At some point we stumbled our way out of the house and
into the old station wagon where she lost her virginity and we both lost a
whole lot more.
A few weeks later, I received the call. Through the heavy
sobbing I was able to piece together the fact that Judy was pregnant. I asked
her several times if she was sure.
Yes, she was quite sure.
We found ourselves back in church two months later with
our first son, Thomas, steadily growing in her womb. It was a shotgun wedding,
of course, the knee-jerk reaction to unplanned pregnancies at the time;
completely unavoidable. I remember standing there in front of the altar, in my
borrowed suit, sweating from the heat, beside my teenage wife with our small
families in attendance. The old beast who presided over the ceremony, the same
old priest, didn’t even bother hiding his contempt for us and practically spat
out the marriage vows as if delivering a curse. At one point, Judy looked even
more pale than usual, the heat combined with the heavy incense was making her
nauseous and she swayed where she stood. The old virgin must’ve picked up on
this and twice went back to refill the burner with more noxious fuel.
Rather than let this dampen her faith, this shaming only
stayed with her throughout her life rekindling her guilt long after the
ceremony. She took up the family tradition of taking our two boys to church
every Sunday and holy day just like my mother and, like my own father, I stayed
home. From Thomas’s complaining, I learned that she even managed to join the
rosary club and chanted on with the old widows before mass.
I got off easy I suppose. College was not an option but I
had a decent sales job at the used dealership, one that I would later own. I was
also the sole income for a small family which kept my ass out of Vietnam. We
played the domestic parts well, our roles carefully defined. Our marriage
existed, as was expected, and Judy and I loved each other as we felt that we
should. I was the husband, she the wife, both content but not in love. She
seemed to have resigned herself to her life, her role, supported by her
irrational guilt. The wall was up between us early on and her unwavering,
unquestioning faith kept us from being a couple. Years later, I fell in love
but not with her.
I blamed Catholicism. I blamed the asshole priest who
married us, our parents, all religious ideologies, tradition and authority. I
blamed them all for my indiscretions. We married in order to placate everyone
from our relatives to the tyrannical imaginary man in the sky who just so
happens to take an interest into where I insert my prick, you know, when he’s
not busy elsewhere giving babies cancer and permitting genocide. I was beyond
annoyed by the church, I actively hated it. I hated, its arrogant monopoly on
morality, its demand for blind acceptance, the demand that I should
simultaneously love and fear this creator-god in order to get in to some sort
of Disneyworld after I die was crude and appalling. I loathed its insidious
influence in my godless life and for what it did to Judy. I tried to “save” her
in my own way. I tried discussing and exposing the backwards, hypocritical
nonsense she held dear but it only seemed to strengthen her convictions. She
would sit through these rants smiling as she shook her head. She never bothered
arguing with me. I often wondered if she felt like her savior in the desert,
and I the tempting devil, smiling in the belief that someone up there was taking notes of our
conversations and recording her unshaken resolve. Despite her devotion, she
never felt forgiven, and carried her guilt and her faith, to the grave.
I had affairs, of course. Early on in our marriage and
after the birth of our second son, Fred, I was careful and kept them casual and
few, but I got careless later on. I fell in love with someone who was also
married and managed to keep a relationship going for two years until her
husband found out. She confessed under the burden of her own guilt. She was
made to promise to cut it off with me in order to keep her marriage and her
children. Any further attempts to contact on my part would result in a lengthy
letter sent to Judy.
I got caught as well.
Another party, a Christmas one, in the early eighties. I
had a few women I was meeting then which also included the receptionist in the
parts department. She was young, twenty-two, and I disastrously hooked up with
her right there at the party, with Judy in attendance. She managed to corner me
in the host’s kitchen, pressing her body against mine and telling me she’d be
waiting for me in the upstairs bathroom. I was careless, over-confident in my
discretion, and followed after her after what seemed to me, an acceptable
amount of time. After we finished our brief and rather disappointing interlude,
she cleaned herself up and left the bathroom first. I was still zipping up my
pants when Judy walked in. Neither of us spoke for a while, completely frozen,
eyes locked in fear, and without the slightest idea of how to process the
situation. Our life was reorganized in this lengthy silence and our identities
altered and transfigured. She was determined not to cry, resisting the urge to
blink which would release the tears gathering on her lashes. In little more
than a whisper, she told me she was going home then left, closing the door
A divorce was out of the question, the very word not a
part of her vocabulary. I apologized profusely back at home and tried to get
her to talk to me, yell at me, anything! I felt awful; I knew that I hurt her
but her quick withdrawal and resignation infuriated me. I blew up on her.
“I’m sick of you acting the fucking martyr! You take
everything that happens to you as a punishment from god. You can’t let yourself
enjoy anything; you won’t even let yourself hate me for what I’ve done because
you, in your warped-fucking-worldview, think you deserve it. It’s not noble. It’s
My tirade had little effect on her. Not a single word
incited any sort passion. I would’ve felt better if she screamed at me or threw
my clothes out on the front lawn. Instead she sat there on our bed in the dark
and refused to look at me. I could barely see her face. I couldn’t tell if she
was crying or had cried at all. I was close to tears myself from exasperation.
That night she moved her things out of our bedroom and
into the small guest room, a room barely big enough to fit a twin bed. I spent
what was left of that night drinking the last of the brandy and beer and passed
out, face-down on the kitchen table. In the morning, I awoke with my face glued
to the table in a puddle of drool redolent of the sickly mixture I consumed
only hours before. Judy was already up, cooking breakfast, the smell of frying
eggs made my stomach churn.
She was pretending not to notice me there, sloppy and
pathetic surrounded by half-crushed Budweiser cans and an empty bottle. When
her back was turned, I wiped the slime off my face with the back of my hand and
asked her what her plans were.
“Plans,” she said dryly. She continued to bustle about
the kitchen as if serving breakfast was her most pressing concern, the state of
our marriage, a minor intrusion. “What’s the point? You’ll do it again and I’m
pretty sure you’re been doing it all along. What does it matter what my plans
are?” I chose not to argue and figured I’d find out soon enough. I left her
there in the kitchen with her breakfast and went to work. It turns out her plans
were to do nothing and we carried on just like before. We shared our home but
lived our lives privately and separately.
Immersed in our own troubles, Thomas’s marriage was a
pleasant diversion. There was a brief coming together between Judy and me, if
only for collaboration. The wedding was in the summer of ‘94, an elaborate
affair that was thankfully not our financial burden and one of the few times I
favored tradition. They had what we hadn’t, a duty-free engagement. They
married because they loved each other. Thomas had just finished medical school
and his fiancée, Stacy, just started teaching at an elementary school. Judy
adored her and seemed perfectly, genuinely happy throughout all the planning
and on that very expensive day. It was as if she finally allowed herself to enjoy
something, looked past her own misery, and permitted herself to live. She
talked more, even with me, and made friends with our new in-laws, making
holiday plans and baby showers. I encouraged her and found her new-found happiness
attractive. I was in turn permitted a kind of friendship with her, more
rewarding and satisfying than anything we had before. We talked about
everything. The self-pity no longer seeped from her, her smile came easily and
naturally, no longer forced and her shoulders lost the stoop of submission and
I hope it was enough for her. If I were the sort of
person to pray or believe in heaven, I would ask this deity that she find her
rightful place among the angels. Or more selfishly, beg him or her to give me
some sort of sign to reassure me of her happiness in those few years.
I visited her grave for the last time this morning. I can
no longer drive or walk very far so my kid brother, George, drove me over to
St. Mary’s Memorial Park. It’s been eighteen years since the aneurism that
burst in her sleep and I’ve been visiting her regularly since. Once a month,
I’d let a morning pass and talk with her. I’d tell her about my life since she
passed and all the joys and pains of some girlfriend that seemed important at
the time. I told her about her boys, her new grandchildren. She would listen
and I would come up with some sort of response that she might say or only she
could say. I admit, shamefully, that I hadn’t much to go on using our own past,
our own history together, so I built a new relationship for us, one that I now
wished we had. I was far too late; I know it. These things happen all the time
though, right? I’m being mocked by a tiresome cliché. The fact remains is that
she’s gone and it’ll soon be my turn.
George, obscenely young for only sixty, offered to wheel
his old brother around for one last date with Judy. She already knew about my
cancer last year, but I downplayed the danger. I told her she was very lucky
not to have to see me now since the chemo robbed me of hair and weight for some
time. I told her that Thomas and Stacy had another baby, a girl this time, she
would have loved her. Fred also married last year to his long-time partner. I
carefully assured her that Fred is very happy and in love; I suspect she’d
disapprove of his husband.
Just before the early joggers showed up and when George turned
the bend on his last lap around the park, I apologized for deceiving her. I
explained that the cancer is much worse than what I had been letting on. I told
her that I loved her very much but I wouldn’t be seeing her again. I have
little more than a week left.
George was waiting by the car just behind me waiting for
me to finish. The goodbye that I had to give stuck in my throat as if she were
the one dying and I was holding her hand hoping for just a little more time,
ten minutes, with my love. I didn’t cry at her funeral but I cried this
morning. I cried for her; I loved her much too late.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this all down now. It’s
tiresome, exhausting work. I have to give my hand a break after only a few
sentences. I doze off when the drugs kick in and the hospice nurse constantly interrupts
with her invasive chores. The boys are flying in soon for the death vigil,
grandchildren in tow so I must finish.
I don’t believe in the existence of a soul. When I’m no
longer able to breathe, it will shut down my oxygen-deprived brain and I will
cease to exist. There are no last rights; it would be pathetic to even pretend
to be catholic now. Nevertheless, bless me for I have sinned, this is my last confession.
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