Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 124 in September, 2010.
I grew up in aluminum houses all over Michigan. You can see it in my face. You can see the rusted cars in the front yard, and my mother vacuuming the bottoms of above ground swimming pools as if they were Olympic sized. If you look close enough you can see kids with lice and cousins with fetal alcohol poisoning kissin’ and touchin’ each other in the woods. You can see crack addiction and Canada where balloons with tiny letters handwritten by children tied to their strings ended up.
The first boy I ever loved is shirtless in the photograph, standing on a balcony overlooking a rocky beach. The boy is wearing a wet suit, but the top half is pulled down to his waist, the deflated arms hanging limp at his side as if the lifeless remains of a conjoined twin. His right leg is bent at the knee with his foot propping him up against the wall behind him, so in the picture it just looks amputated from the knee down, balancing on his one good leg.
Some kinda casualty....
my family stayed at a cheap condo called “the dunes” every summer. The same condo in the picture with the boy blown apart. The first boy I ever loved.
That year I rode the elevator down to the first floor, which led out to the beach, and on the fifth floor a group of older kids in wetsuits got on with me and piled in behind me.
I could hear them whispering. I watched the numbers on the elevator decrease, and on cue, as the doors opened onto the first floor, I was ejected out and planted face first into the stuccoed wall. When my parents asked about my busted lip and the cleat-like indentions on my face I just told them I tripped on the boardwalk.
For the rest of the vacation I stayed inside, sometimes wandering out onto the balcony. I remember looking seven flights down to the water. In the clear ocean I could make out a tiny bull shark as it weaved in and out of the people wading in the shallow waves, unaware of its constant threat.
The boy in the photograph is wearing a shark’s tooth around his neck on a thin string of black leather. He is smiling at his girlfriend who is taking his picture.
My mother’s babies all had soft spots on their heads that I was warned against ever touching as a child. I had eager fingers and a strange compulsivity my whole life. I suppose that's why I moved to New York in the first place. Having never even been I bought a plane ticket and boarded on the fifth of July with a backpack and twenty valium hidden in a box of juju bees.
In the Midwestern winters back then my mother would send me out to warm the car for my younger brothers. She'd give me the keys and I’d sit in the driver’s seat tuning into the hip-hop station on the fm radio that I wasn't supposed to be listening to. I was ten. I had three slits shaved into my right eyebrow. I wore a raider’s starter jacket and a pair of all white Filas. I would read silence of the lambs secretly while the windows were still frosted over. Every body was always talking about eating people. Jeffery Daumer was in the news. People were working in factories with heads in bowling ball bags. But I was in my own igloo, with the exhaust from the old muffler billowing all around me in the cold Michigan morning, and I knew this was the only time of the day that I was ever really safe.
I was in the 5th grade and living in warren, mi, a white trash county just outside the city of Detroit, when Dana Weaver was kidnapped.
Just days before it happened, I remember seeing her in the schoolyard. She was the same age as me and in the same grade, but in the classroom across the hall.
That day I noticed her fingernails were grown long and painted with a silver glitter nail polish that had started to chip away.
She turned up missing a few days later. After the kidnapping we were paraded out of our classrooms in a single file line and into the schoolyard outside. We tied little yellow ribbons on the chain link fence while being videotaped by local news film crews.
The whole thing lasted for several months. The entire neighborhood got involved, and used Dana’s home as a sort of headquarters where flyers were distributed and reporters gathered. At one point a psychic was enlisted.
My mother would manically drive me and my younger brother around in the old, beat up GM station wagon and hand out flyers with Dana’s image on them to local convenient stores, supermarkets and churches.
I remember sitting in the very back seat, it was one of those back seats that faced the car behind you, and I would try making desperate eye contact with the approaching car, especially at stop lights, silently but psychically trying to convince them that I had been abducted and needed to be saved. Just short from mouthing the word HELP.
They found her body in a dumpster not far from the school. My mother kept a photograph of Dana in her jewelry box. For years I would sneak into her bedroom and stare at it, mimicking the pose: chin up, eyes aside.
Colleen was half Japanese, and was my mother’s friend and age, but really, she favored me and would have me over for days, sometimes weeks.
She’d get migraines all the time, which left her bedridden often in a sort of tragic way I found as a little kid both mysterious and enviable. She would just lay there, hair piled on top of her head as if it was all that she could do. She told me if she had a shotgun she’d blow her brains out. I understood her sense of severity.
Colleen always had a scarcely decorated apartment with walls painted a light gray. Her only consistent possessions were two black leather couches and four matching black leather and stainless steel dining room chairs that accompanied a glass table with silver legs. There was a sleek Toshiba television, Toshiba VCR and stereo system, as well as a single tall black halogen lamp with a dimmer switch.
The only laborious activity I ever witnessed her doing was when she’d wipe her couches down with a gauzy white rag and a ceramic dish filled with warm water. She tended to them the way you might do to a lover with a fever.
After the couches dried, we’d watch the weirdest foreign films we could find at the local video store. I ate ramen noodles with chopsticks and she drank rum and diet cokes. If her headaches were really bad she would get naked and have me massage her neck.
It’s the C1 I think or the C2, she’d say, her face muffled in between the couch cushions. She worked at a chiropractic office, just like all suburban witches would, and had been teaching me the different bones in the spine, so I placed my hands on her back, like you would on a Oujia board, straddled her naked waist, and began counting her knuckle-like vertebrae in a whisper all the way from the bottom of her back to the top.
After my family moved us to the South, I slowly lost touch with her. The last I heard she had moved to the Upper Peninsula where she never returned another phone call again. 15 years later I still like to picture her holed up tight with her leather couches, rum and diet cokes and a migraine weighing down on top of her like a beautiful Brancusi sculpted headdress the size of a national monument.
I’m catering a job on the Upper West Side. West End between 88th and 89th. It is a private party for 18 people in a young white couple’s apartment. I’m de-boning white fish with a small paring knife. I slide the blade under the spine from the bottom up until it comes off clean. Then I quickly pick out the tiny ribs. I make sure to leave one in.
We are making white fish and white asparagus per request. They are both sautéed in the exact same lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. Pinch of salt. Some fresh coarse black pepper.
I overhear a conversation between two 30 something year old white men:
-hey, you wouldn't know anybody nice to set Paula up with, would you? She's single now, but she's really nice.
-She's really nice?
-Yea. She’s really nice.
And they start to brainstorm…
Another guy grabs a smoked salmon hors d’ourves from a passing tray and eats it, then grabs for a second... this one's for my wife, he says with a grin. As soon as the waiter leaves he discreetly pops it in his mouth, and his eyes quickly scan the room...
When I was a kid I used to make braces for my teeth out of chewing gum tin foil wrappers, because only the kids whose parents had money wore braces. I’d walk around with the uncomfortable electric taste of metal in my head and wonder what it was like to not be poor...
After work I take the train downtown then the L into Brooklyn. I get off on the seventh stop where they still open fire hydrants when it’s hot. Where I can still buy heroin at my bodega. Where whole families hang out on their stoops and play dominos on old fold away tables. The woman on the corner makes snow cones by shaving ice from a huge frozen block she keeps under a wet towel. There’s a rainbow of different syrups to choose from.
I point at a red one and say what flavor is this?
Bah-neeluh she says.
I point at a green bootle, and ask: what flavor is this?