Here’s how I remember it: I must have been God knows how old, maybe six or seven, which is funny because I thought of myself as pretty old at the time. My best friend Jason was visiting from Wisconsin and I wanted him to meet my other best friend Frankie. Frankie is this kid I used to beat up all the time, as in every day, without exception. I know this is true because I remember on Valentines Day saying “Hey Frankie, guess what? Because it’s Valentines Day I’m going to be so nice to you! I won’t hurt you at all today.” I remember feeling so joyful and proud of my selfless declaration, like when you say “I love you” to someone you’re dating just to make them happy, even though it isn’t true. I beat him up anyway. He was my best friend in Miami.
But on this day Jason and I went to Frankie’s house and rang the doorbell, and as soon as he opened the door things went quite awry, as without even saying “hi,” Jason started punching the kid in the stomach, and urging me to do so too. So I hit him a few times on the arm, and suddenly felt really bad, because Jason seemed to want to hit him more than I did, and I knew there was something wrong about that. It felt imbalanced. No one wants to hurt Frankie more than I do. Frankie stood there weeping, his long skinny body bending slightly, but he didn’t move. We dragged Frankie out onto the grass, and at the time I had this big plastic tractor I rode everywhere; it was awesome. I was a suburban farmer with my big plastic tractor, full of power and speed, mowing the pavement on the way from my house to Frankie’s. Well, Jason threw the tractor on top of Frankie and sat on it; the poor kid was crying miserably, and I felt kind of icy, like whoa we’ve gone too far. My heart wasn’t in it. You know, I thought maybe the two would get along. I wanted to apologize to Frankie for this excessive, what’s the word for that, brouhaha maybe, but instead I said, “Jason, we really should go, I think maybe it’s lunch time.” I didn’t want to seem uncool.
When I was eight we moved to Wisconsin, and ended up living down the street from Jason and his mom, who my mom was very close to. My mom has all these stories about how Jason was bossy and controlling, which she repeats like she’s on autopilot when she and I drink together now. I guess he used to tell me exactly what to do, and I would quietly do it, without questions. She says he invented a game where he would play with Star Wars dolls on his bed. He told me his bed was hot, and if I touched it, I’d get burned. So I watched him play Star Wars, and whenever I had the urge to touch one, he’d scold me, saying, “No! It’s hot, what did I say?” And my hand would drop quickly back down. What I remember though is I used to ask him if we could make the dolls pass out, like faint. I couldn’t even say the words. I’d say, can we do that thing? And he’d have one doll hit the other on the back of the head, knock him out. And I remember I would get wet when he did that; I didn’t even know what that feeling was I just knew I liked it. The doll had to be a certain kind of vulnerable to make it happen.
When we drink together my dad says, “I actually think we taught you to be too nice of a kid. We wanted you to be good and kind, you know, our little angel-you were pretty cute-and so we taught you to share with other kids. We thought it was important; I mean it seemed important. But you did what we said almost too well.” He tells me this story. When I was seven, my dad and his friend Doug used to watch me and Doug’s daughter Helen on weekends, while our mothers went to work. The two men sat on the side of a sandbox while Helen and I built castles and forts. Apparently Helen called me names and hit me the whole time-she would punch me on the leg and pinch me-to which I would respond pleasantly and thoughtfully. You know, “Please don’t say that, it hurts my feelings,” that sort of thing. Or, “I wish you wouldn’t punch my leg.” My dad said, “Doug just sat there and didn’t say a thing to his daughter. I couldn’t believe it! He thought she was perfect, but she was a brat. Nothing special about her! Finally I said to you, ‘If Helen hits you again you have my permission to hit her back. Hit her as hard as you can. Just go for it!’ You had this look! You were so excited, and you said, ‘Okay Dad, I certainly will.’ That stopped her real quick. I look back and wonder if I should have said that to you more often. Just deck her. Punch her, for the love of God.”
My mom, when she gets drunk she gets into a groove with certain stories, and I hate all of them. She says, “You had that creepy friend Liz in Wisconsin, man, she was a weird one. I never knew what to do with that. You seemed to like her, but she made me nervous.” Liz was three years older than me, and at that time I guess I was anywhere from eight to ten years old. We played long involved imaginative games that lasted the entire day. I remember a lot of times kings were involved, and whoever was king ruled over the other. Most of the time she was king. We battled with swords, and I’d end up dying, and she’d say, “You’re dead so you have to lay still.” So I’d lie still on the ground, and my job was to not respond while she lay on top of me. Eventually my mom told me I couldn’t be her friend anymore. “Liz was older than you and she was manipulative. I should have told you to deck that girl. I think we raised you to be too nice.” But what I remember is lying so so still, pretending I was dead, hoping I could be dead forever, while she lay on top of me. When we stopped being friends, she lurked in our side yard, staring up at my bedroom window, while I looked outside, my skin on fire.
When I was in sixth grade we moved from Wisconsin to Swarthmore, PA. I lived there for seven years, until I graduated high school. My mom says, “I don’t know what happened to you in Swarthmore, but you were suddenly so shy I thought we had a ghost for a daughter. Your eighth grade teacher said he worried more about you than anyone; that you might be forever lost. I think he was the only teacher who cared about you at all.” This is an elusive statement that I don’t ask her to clarify. I hate this conversation. She says, “There were so many personalities in that class of yours, teachers never paid any attention to you. We got report cards that said, ‘Pleasure to have in class’ every time. They thought you were a pleasure because you required no attention like the other kids in your grade. There were sixty kids on the suicide list, for one thing. They had a suicide list! I think they were happy to have just this one kid they didn’t have to work for.” And this is another topic my parents bring up every single time I see them, over bottles and bottles of wine. There’s no end to the wine we drink. Why does she always bring up the fucking suicide list is what I want to know, but apparently not that badly, since I never ask her. She says, “You were the only kid in your class NOT in the gifted program, do you remember that? Do you remember how you and that brain-dead kid Billy had to sit in the back of the class and get extra tutoring?” Billy was mentally retarded, not brain-dead, but who’s splitting hairs here? “And I found out later it was because you refused to take your placement test. You got bored midway, and decided filling in circles was a waste of time. So you didn’t. You got a 48% score, and I thought, ‘Well, I guess she just isn’t that smart.’ You know, some kids aren’t.”
It was in college that I started dating women. I chose my girlfriends carefully; I wanted someone I knew would shake me up. I felt empty, silent; I don’t know how to explain it. I had slept with a few women, each of whom told me they loved me, even though I felt nothing in return. I felt sick of myself, my stomach burning with the only intensity I could feel-shame-while I hurled myself on top of my dates, grasping at shirts, belts, desperate to feel something. I felt like some kind of terrible, lesbian demon. I remember one date asking me to please slow down: “just because we’re kissing doesn’t mean we have to fuck,” she suggested, which was weird. Another woman thanked me for petting her hair, briefly, on my way out the door, and I felt ashamed of that too, how little I respected her. And I remember this other girl crying-we were next to a waterfall that roared loudly and because of this she cried in silence-just shaking and crying. She leaned close and grabbed at my arms and whimpered, “Why can’t I just love you?” I felt pathetic and repulsed holding onto her. “Because you can’t,” I said. I needed to feel some kind of burn. I needed to find someone who loved and hated me more than I loved and hated myself.
I don’t know how to bring it up. Of course she never hit me. We had rules. At night I would get into bed after Cyndy and pull her shirt up over her head quickly, clasp it around her wrists. Mostly tying her hands together was playful, as was holding her shoulders down roughly with my arms while fucking, or her forcibly dangling me half off the bed so the blood would rush to my head until I coughed and felt faint and begged her to let me back up. One night as we wrestled in bed after arguing passively all day I moved to kiss her and felt a lurching angry hurt tense my lungs and throat. I kissed her like I hated her, like kissing her was the meanest thing a person could do. I wanted, for a second, to mash her face in with my mouth. She pulled away. “No mean kisses,” she said. My face burned.
After we broke up I wanted to tell my mom, “Really, it wasn’t good,” but the best I could get was taking down all the pictures of the two of us from the walls in my parent’s house. I did this under the guise of my brother’s weird behavior. “Simon had to take down all the pictures of Sheila,” my mom said, shrugging, like my brother’s your regular nutjob. “He said she was evil and can’t exist in picture form.” “Uh huh,” I said, ripping open the back of her black stained hardwood frame. “It’s a little like that.”
But at the time I thought she was fantastic. She was the first girl I really fell for. She had bright sparkly green eyes and an open smile. She was a dancer and had majestic strength, and absolute control over her body, such that when she walked, she seemed to command an invisible personal force. Like drawn depictions of baby Jesus in pop art, she seemed to emit dynamic energy in a ten-foot radius around her soft, lean body. When we hugged I felt as though I fell through her, that with my chin snuggled into her neck, my eyes could see out the back of her head. I was like a stick of butter melted into a piece of toast. Eventually, everyone else perceived us that way too. I started getting communal emails from friends. People referred to us You Two.
She said, “I have to get their phone numbers, otherwise they’ll think I’m gay.” We were at a hostel in Prague. Sitting in the communal kitchen, eating dinner, Cyndy flirted with the guy sitting next to her while I silently ate the spaghetti I cooked for dinner. I tried getting his attention, acting like I might have interest in him, to broadcast that it didn’t bother me to be excluded. I both knew and couldn’t believe she would sleep with other people when she could have me, and was determined to out-compete anyone who tried. Later, I asked her, “Why not just say you don’t like them? Just because you’re not attracted to every guy you meet, that doesn’t make you seem gay.” She looked at me with pity and said, “But it does. The problem is that it’s so obvious when I look at you how much I love you. It radiates. Everyone can see it, and then they’ll know we’re together.” She flashed me an intense dreamy look, almost watery, like a perfect reflection of the moon in a still pool. I had to blink. “Okay,” I said.
We told each other absolutely everything. She told me her dreams and desires; we talked about art and the creative pulse of every rock, tree, or seemingly unwanted fallen leaf around us; we talked about how we had never felt this purely connected with anyone else. I told her about growing up, playing arm wrestling games with my brother, wild pillow fights I used to have with my cousins, and fake wrestling tournaments I created with the neighborhood kids. I told her about Frankie and Jason, and the time Jason crushed him under the tractor. Her smile could shift in an instant. “You’re a violent person. Your stories really scare me,” she said, dropping my hand. She told me that when she was young she went to an alternative school, where they sat on the floor in a circle and never used desks. “I was taught to live peacefully,” she told me on those occasions. “I’m surprised that you weren’t.”
But I was, wasn’t I? Wasn’t I raised peacefully? Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about all this time?
Listen, let’s sit down. Sit down and relax, we’ve got the whole night to talk about this. Pour a drink. No, like a big one in a big cup. Yeah just leave the bottle. And whatever there’s a whole other box where that came from. Box wines: they’re making them really good these days. Like, who needs glass when you’ve got a whole box?
When we drink my parents tell me dueling stories about how I was as a kid: serious, quiet, goofy. And it’s interesting because I have my own memories-we all do-and yet I get drawn in by these weird mythic impressions of theirs, which are like the crazed technicolor versions of mine. Apparently, when I was really little my dad and I used sit side by side on the couch and watch The Gong Show together. Comedians would get on stage and perform mercilessly awful talent-show-esque stunts, a sort of American Idol with an intentionally wry sense of humor, and I would furrow my brow, squinting at the stage while the performance went on. The family lore here is after each performance I would turn to my dad and sternly inform him: “They really should gong that guy. He’s just not good.” During parent-teacher conferences my elementary school teachers told my parents they worried over my lack of a sense of humor. She’s wound up tightly, the teachers explained, she won’t laugh.
I was in the sixth grade when my family moved from the sleepy town in icy Wisconsin to the intellectually intense college town of Swarthmore. My classmates were the precocious children of Swarthmore College professors and biochemical engineers. My young friends took the 99th percentile seriously; I remember obsessing over whether my #2 pencil was sharp enough to make a dent. In fifth grade one friend explained to me earnestly that she would never have children, because she had read plenty of studies showing that parents are likely to raise their children exactly the way they were raised. “That makes good sense,” I told her, thoughtfully, and vowed the same. In seventh grade this same friend pronounced that she wanted to kill herself by the age of 23; she maintained an eerie certainty that life would go irreparably downhill at exactly that juncture. In 7th grade my teachers cancelled our monthly dance held in the local church because the most popular kids kept showing up drunk; in 8th grade a classmate wandered onto the train tracks drunk in the middle of the night and got hit by a train (he lived, he lost an arm); in 9th grade another friend attempted suicide and was sent away, somewhere-who knew where away was?; in 10th grade a friend was known to “drink alone” which we all knew was “the unhealthy way to drink.” There was a list, damn it, a suicide list my mom reminds me-over and over again she reminds me-and she doesn’t slur her words when she drinks: she says it clearly. Life isn’t safe.
When Cyndy and I broke up, it was kind of quiet. We were loud, so loud all those years together: screaming during sex, screaming during fights, banging doors shut, throwing things. One of the times she cheated, I broke her favorite cd in half with my hands and hurled it at her head; I was trying to blind her the way I felt blind, sear the tears out of her eyes the way mine felt hot streaming down. But when we broke up, finally, it just sort of happened. I helped her pack, she helped me. We nodded, we waved. I remember the sun gleamed her blond hair a golden orange when she left and I remember the way her jeans matched the blue pavement so her legs sort of melted into the road. She just, left. She walked away.