The front of the church was dark now, the volunteers had all departed in their minivans, taking the decorations and leftover orange-frosted cupcakes with them. The street was quiet and I was alone in the rain in my soggy black trench coat, standing under a streetlight so she could see me when she pulled up. It was the first time she had to pick me up because of a stupid drunken mistake and I wanted to shrink under the eaves of the gloomy church, to disappear, but I didn’t have bus fare and didn’t want to walk home in the rain.
It was my own fault for going to a party in a church basement. My best friend Majohn had gotten the tip from his sister, and we didn’t have anywhere else to go and didn’t want to stay home passing out candy like losers so I put on a pair of black cat ears borrowed from my sister Lucy’s costume and Majohn got himself up in a thrift store fur suit that could have been meant to be any number of animals. We shoulder-tapped outside the liquor store until a helpful stranger who needed five dollars got us a fifth of vodka and we drank it on the walk to the church.
By the time we were half-way there we were half-lit and thought it was a good idea to start knocking on doors. The first waves of little ghosts, ghouls and princesses had already gone to bed and many houses had already turned out their lights and extinguished the candles in their jack-o-lanterns. But a few carved pumpkins still leered goldenly and a few porch lights still burned.
The door of a nicely kept house with stone pillars was opened by an older man with dyed blonde hair and big teeth. The arms of a cream-colored sweater were tied at his chest; he looked as if he hoped to be mistaken for a Land’s End catalogue model, but he wasn’t quite handsome enough.
“Now what do we have here?” he boomed over the strains of classical music floating from big speakers in the room behind him. I could see tall fringed lamps that looked expensive and under one of them a bottle of wine sitting on a small antique table. In the man’s hands was a large stainless steel bowl of candy.
“We’re comic book characters,” said Majohn, always quicker at a comeback than I was. He held out his hands. “Candy?”
“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” The man clutched the bowl to his chest like it was his baby.
“We look old for our age.” Majohn flashed a charming grin. “But we’re still in middle school.”
This wasn’t quite true. We were in our first year of high school. But close enough.
The Land’s End catalogue man looked at us quizzically, then grudgingly smiled. “Young enough, I guess.” He dumped a bunch of Reese’s peanut butter cups in Majohn’s open hands and then into mine.
“Be safe, now,” he said, before shutting the door.
A block away we broke into a run, whooping and laughing. I took a big chug of our vodka and chased it down with a peanut butter cup. Majohn followed suit.
“That yuppie motherfucker!” Majohn howled, chocolate gathered at the edges of his mouth. We had recently realized we were old enough to use the word motherfucker and sprinkled it liberally into any conversation.
“Let’s hit this party,” I said.
“Word, motherfucker.” He slapped me on the back.
The party was even dumber and more embarrassing than we could have imagined. The large room was lit too brightly and nerdy teenagers in costume bumped around to music from the previous year’s top 40. A person in a wolf mask jumped up and down, yelling along to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop.” Majohn and I pointed and nudged each other. We had only recently learned from a girl in our English class that this song was about masturbating, and we lorded this knowledge over others who were ignorant of the song’s true meaning.
On the way in, we’d dumped our vodka bottle in the one men’s room toilet, and the sight of it bobbing there made us laugh, but also made us afraid we’d be caught by one of the adult chaperones, and we had scurried out of there the minute a tall vampire came through the door.
Majohn hopped up on one of the large window sills in a somewhat dim back corner and pulled a pack of cloves out of his costume pocket. He cracked the window and lit up, passing the clove to me. As I took a drag of the spicy sweet smoke, he started choking, and bent his head down to blow smoke out the window. Before I could exhale, he jumped off the window sill and walked swiftly away.
I felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder and before I could speak the clove was yanked from my fingers and dropped into a cup of soda, where it hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?” asked Majohn’s aunt Ligaya, her voice tight with fury. She dragged me back to the harsh fluorescent light of the kitchen where a bunch of older ladies were making little salami sandwiches on white bread and brewing coffee. She pointed to a phone in the corner. “You’re going to call your mother right now and tell her what you did.” She crossed her arms and watched me.
“Majohn…” I started.
“Majohn had nothing to do with this.” She looked around at the other women as if asking them to bear witness. “Thank goodness.”
I had more than once seen Ligaya do this thing where she’d pray for Majohn right in front of his face, staring off to the side and addressing God as if he were in the corner of the room and only he could understand how deeply frustrating her nephew was.
But now she just shook her head, turning away from me.
“I told him not to get mixed up with you.”
This was a dig, I knew, at my family. My mom hadn’t remarried after my dad died and had dated a number of questionable characters, some who’d spent time in jail, some who didn’t have fixed addresses or regular jobs. Majohn’s family was deeply Catholic, but that hadn’t stopped his parents from being kind to me and feeding me when I came to their house. Ligaya had never liked me, though.
I thought of ratting out Majohn. That motherfucker had stranded me here. But then, he would have been in a lot more trouble than I was if Ligaya had found him. His parents, though nice, were strict. It wasn’t uncommon for them to ground Majohn for a month at a time. And Majohn knew my mom wouldn’t really do anything. She wasn’t big on discipline, meaning that she didn’t care much what I did, as long as I helped keep the house clean and made dinner for Lucy and Sarah.
The rain drizzled down my face and into the collar of my trench coat, cooling my neck and nearly erasing any lingering feelings of drunkenness. Tipsy, it would be easier to deal with my mom’s annoyance, but I was glad to be almost sober. The night had sucked. Sucked balls, Majohn would say.
Out of the wet dark a pair of headlights turned a corner and headed toward me. I tried to look contrite, slouching under the streetlamp. As the car got closer, I saw it wasn’t my mom’s beat-up green station wagon, but a sleek black sports car. It pulled up at the curb and I felt a shiver of fear as a silver-haired guy in the driver’s seat smiled at me. I stepped back. This old pervert had another thing coming if he thought he was going to lure me into his car for some Halloween jollies. I was preparing to run when the window rolled down and I heard my mother’s voice. “Ryan, get in.” She was leaning over the silver-haired man and she didn’t look mad.
“Get in, honey. You’re soaking wet. This is Reg.”
I climbed into the backseat. Looking through the space between the two front seats, I could see that my mother had her hand on this guy’s thigh and I noticed he was wearing nice brown slacks. Her boyfriends usually wore jeans. Soft jazzy music played from the speakers, the kind you’d hear in fancy department stores. I looked away and tuned out, watching the slippery streets slide by, the black eyes of burnt-out jack-o-lanterns staring from strangers’ porches. When I tuned back in, my mom was saying, “I’ve been wanting you to meet him for a long time, but I was waiting for the right time to introduce him.”
“And the right time was Halloween?” I asked.
“I wasn’t planning on it being tonight. I wasn’t planning on picking you up tonight.” Her tone sounded kind enough but my mother was a master at couching passive aggressive comments in pleasant-seeming tones. “But here it is. Here he is. Your sisters have already met him.”
“What? They have?”
“Don’t freak out, honey. Just tonight. They met him tonight. When he came to pick me up he just came in for a couple of minutes.”
I leaned back into the plush seat. His car was unnervingly clean. I consoled myself with the fact that at least I was getting his seats wet and hopefully a bit dirty.
A meticulous man. An odd match for my mother, who never cleaned the house if she could help it, and let encrusted dishes pile up in the kitchen for days and then threatened to rescind my allowance if I didn’t wash them.
Up front I saw Reg take my mother’s hand, holding it still on his thigh. He turned his head slightly back towards me. His perfectly-trimmed gray moustache gleamed in the passing light. “How was the dance, Ryan?” he asked.
“Okay.” We were passing the drugstore a few blocks from our house. “Pretty lame, actually. I mean, it was in a church.” I laughed to show I knew that it was uncool to go to a party in a church.
“Not your scene, huh?” I could tell he was smiling from the way the side of his cheek lifted.
Was he making fun of me? I decided to play it cool. I shrugged and looked back out the window.
But he wouldn’t let me ignore him. He pulled the car up in front of our house and cut the engine, turning around fully to look at me. “I don’t like churches either,” he said. He smiled and squeezed my mother’s hand. “Religion is a bunch of b.s.”
His swearing surprised me. Usually my mom’s dates tried to make a good impression and held off on using obscenities until at least our third or fourth meeting.
“Yeah, it’s pretty fucked up,” I said. I could see my mother’s shoulders stiffen. She didn’t like it when I cussed in public or in front of my sisters, although when we were alone she’d sometimes drop an f-bomb and allow me to do the same.
Reg turned to my mother and laughed. “Pretty wise little dude you have there,” he said.
She laughed in response. “Wise-ass is more like it.”
This was my chance to escape before Reg demanded a handshake. I quickly turned the handle and leapt from the car. “Thanks, man. Thanks, Mom. Later.”
I ran up the stairs to the house and Reg drove off into the night with my mother at his side, back to his apartment, to do things I didn’t want to think about.
At school on Monday Majohn was all apologies and excuses. He bought me a chocolate milk and a bread roll at lunch and took me to stroll around the track to “check out the honeys.” He had his eye on a new girl named Tamiko who sported a half-shaved head, bleached hair, and pierced cheeks and eyebrows. She was a sophomore and I was pretty sure she didn’t know we existed.
“I can get her, bitch,” Majohn told me as he led me closer to the bleachers where Tamiko was lounging with her punk friends. “Bitch” was another term of endearment we had recently taken up. We thought it made it us sound tough and worldly.
As we neared the bleachers I saw that Tamiko was done out in dark blue lipstick and a long black skirt and combat boots. She looked cool and serene, smoking with her friends. Majohn waved at her as if they already knew each other and she looked confused but raised her hand hesitantly in return, smiling half-heartedly.
Majohn turned his face to me and said under his breath, “That’s what I’m talking about, bitch.”
“She doesn’t know who you are, man.” I slurped my chocolate milk. I felt protected in my lack of desire for Tamiko and her crew. I knew they were out of my league.
“She does now,” he said, puffing up his chest like a pigeon. He rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and felt his muscles, signally me to do the same.
“Give me a break, motherfucker,” I said. Majohn had recently started lifting weights and going for runs. I preferred to retire to my bedroom after school, playing video games until my mother yelled for me to start dinner. If I got a little chubby I just drank diet soda for a couple of days and my jeans fit again. I used to be fat in middle school, but a growth spurt in eighth grade had thinned me out. These days I didn’t need to exercise, but even if I did, there was no way I was going to start hanging out at the gym with a bunch of meatheads.
The bell rang and we turned slowly back towards the school. As we passed Tamiko again, a tall boy in black with a red mohawk took off his earphones and slipped them over her ears. She bobbed her head slightly to the music. Majohn suddenly broke away and jogged over to the bleachers. I kept my cool and kept walking. After a few paces I snuck a peek back and saw Majohn pull a pack of cloves from his back pocket and offer them to Tamiko and her friends. Tamiko lifted off the headphones and said something and they all laughed. Majohn bent close, cupping his hand around Tamiko’s clove to light it. It didn’t look like they were planning to make fifth period. I guess I could have joined them, choked on clove smoke and traded dumb stories about music shows we waited in line to see but couldn’t get tickets for, instead I hurried off to class. It was Algebra, the only subject I was doing well in.
Majohn usually came over on Friday nights to have dinner with us and then stayed up late with me watching MTV after my mom went to her boyfriend’s and my sisters went to bed. Cable was one of my mother’s extravagances–Majohn’s parents didn’t believe in wasting money on it. Majohn loved Tears for Fears and always hoped to see “Shout” or “Everybody Wants To Rule the World”; he often sang the lines “they gave you life and in return you gave them hell” to me when I recounted fights I had with my mom as we walked around the track. I was stuck on anything by Duran Duran and Depeche Mode. I often implanted myself in scenes from the videos, imagining that I was playing the synthesizer or the guitar, crooning alone as I walked the beach, or singing along with the band as they sipped pink drinks in a sleek restaurant.
That Friday Majohn said he couldn’t make it because his parents wanted him home, so I stayed up past midnight, hoping to see my favorite, Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur.” It was one Majohn and I had only seen a couple of times together, but when it came on I always wished I was alone. But that night I was alone, so when the video finally did come on, I crouched close to the T.V. to watch every action.
It was in black and white, which made it seem sophisticated rather than old-fashioned. The women were gorgeous and elegant, with dark lipstick and long eyelashes. Heat rose in my neck and face at the close-ups of their sheer black stockings and garters. I stared at the long black gloves, the broken piece of mirror one woman kissed as if it were her lover, the shots of the bridge as the black limousine drove across it.
The entire video mesmerized me. Watching it, I felt like I had fallen into a slow, shadowy dream, hypnotized by the refrain of the synthesized piano. Even though I had only seen it five or six times, I had each frame memorized. I watched the chauffeur dance in the shadowy light and felt myself getting hard. I wanted to keep watching but also wanted to go to my room where no one would discover me.
Alone in my room, I would return again and again to two scenes. In one, the woman in a garter belt and corset steps out of the back of her limousine into a dim parking garage where another woman waits in a belted trench coat. Under her coat, she is wearing a garter and stockings, black lace panties and bra. There is a close-up of her eyes as they widen with desire. No words are exchanged, just the pulsing melody of the piano as the woman from the limousine slinks over to the other woman and opens her coat.
In the other scene, the chauffeur, a handsome man, turns into a beautiful woman. She takes off her chauffeur’s cap and jacket, revealing short bleached blonde hair and bare breasts above a black leather corset. Her breasts are small and taut, shining as she begins the angular moves of her seductive dance.
Under my blankets, I touched my chest, grazing my hands softly over my nipples as I imagined the women stroking me. I envisioned the two of them in black garter belts, holding their pieces of mirror, running them over each other’s bodies. The chauffeur pulling a small knife from her corset, trailing it up the seam of her stockings, sliding it over her nipples. She watched the women kissing, hands inside each other’s lace panties, bras pushed to the side as they licked each other’s necks and breasts. She watched them and licked her knife. Her nails polished in black, her heavy eyelids dusted black.
The next day was Saturday, and Reg took us all to the falls. My family had been going to the falls for years, since before my dad died. It was a big provincial park a couple of hours from the city, with a stunning drop of white foaming water that fell from a rocky cliff, and a grassy area to admire it from as you sat on your blanket and chewed your picnic foods. It was too cold really to picnic, but my mother insisted it would be fun, so I packed the hamper and we set off.
Getting out of the car, I took a deep breath. When I was a kid I called it “watery air,” and I still thought of it that way. You could feel it in your lungs when you breathed, this fresh tumbling scent, something green about it.
My sisters promptly devoured their sandwiches and apple slices, and then ran around, playing some screaming chasing game. I sat shivering with my mom and Reg on the blanket, our coats wrapped around us. We watched the falls and made small pieces of conversation. Reg started telling a story about his time in the military. It involved a conflict over a woman, and Reg was the victor, apparently because he had pulled a knife on the other guy.
“That mofo didn’t know what to expect,” Reg said. “Of course, I wasn’t going to use it. But he didn’t know that.” He laughed. “Scared little bastard.” Then he paused, looking contemplatively at the waterfall. “We dated for two years,” he said.
“You and the guy?” I asked.
Reg mock punched my arm. “No, buddy. The lady. Not that I have a problem with gays. You been around as long as I have and you meet a few. It’s no skin off my nose.”
This was a first. Usually my mother’s boyfriends didn’t like “fags” as they called them, although more than one had told me that it was “okay for girls” if it was “casual.” Meaning they had once had or hoped at some point to have a three-way. I was impressed that Reg had gay acquaintances. He didn’t really seem like the liberal type, but I guess I had read him wrong.
As if she heard my thoughts, my mom reached over and patted Reg’s leg.
“He’s very open-minded.”
I hated it when my mother tried to sell me on her boyfriends. Most of them were stupid, racist creeps. One guy, Fred,– he made us call him “Freddy” even though he was over fifty–used to refer to Majohn as “little China boy.” When I told him it wasn’t cool, he said it was all in fun and hummed a few bars of Bowie’s “China Girl.” “It’s just like that song you guys listen to,” Freddy said. “And Majohn doesn’t mind. He even laughs when I say it!” The truth of it was that Majohn had this thing about respecting adults, even assholes, so he pretended to be amused but seethed quietly and stopped coming to my house until Freddy was banished by my mother.
“Fuck Bowie, man,” Majohn said after that.
A lot of people thought Majohn was Chinese because his name sounded like mahjong and he looked Asian. His name was unusual, I’ll admit, and had caused him some trouble –from teachers’ mispronunciations to mocking from classmates. His Filipina mother Malaya and white New Jersey-born father John had thought it was an act of deep devotion, or perhaps just cute, to combine their two names to create this new one. Over time, Majohn became proud of his name and it came to distinguish him as someone who wasn’t afraid to stand out from the crowd. If kids in middle school tried to make cracks about mahjong or some other dumb smear, he threw it back in their faces, calling them ignorant losers and motherfucker hillbillies. After a while the bullies left Majohn alone.
I was an easier target–chubby, shy, headphones always clamped over my ears, blaring Depeche Mode or some other “gay” music. A group of mean jocks took it upon themselves to single me out–they even gave me a special nickname: “Slug.” I never knew what it meant. Did they think I was slow? Slimy? Or just fat? I was definitely smarter than any of them–in middle school I had actually made the effort, got good grades. And unlike most guys my age, I bathed a lot, made sure that my hair was never greasy. Still, the torture continued daily until I graduated.
“What about you?” Reg asked me, taking a bite of his ham sandwich, careful to wipe any mayonnaise from his moustache. “What do you think about the gays?”
Direct questions like this usually make me uncomfortable, and I froze.
My mother answered for me. “Oh, Ryan’s very open-minded too. Very open.” She waved her hand at my black nail polish and blonde-at-the-roots shoulder-length black hair. “Look how in touch he is with his feminine side.” She laughed. “And the bands he listens to–you can’t even tell the boys from the girls! Not that I mind. They’re all pretty. I like the makeup.”
She turned to me. “And some of them might be gay. Who cares? There’s lots of gay people in the world. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of your friends was gay, you know.”
“I only have one friend,” I said.
“But you’d be okay with it if Majohn was gay.” She looked to Reg while making this point. “You just take people for who they are.”
“Majohn isn’t gay, but whatever.” I grabbed another half sandwich and stood up. “I’m going to go check out the falls.”
“Just one thing,” said Reg, finishing his sandwich and wiping his mouth one more time. He looked up at me. “If anyone ever tries to give you shit for anything, you come to me, okay? I’ll have a little talk with them.”
“What are you saying?” I asked. “You’ll beat them up?”
He laughed. “Beat them up? No. I said I’d have a little talk with them. A little walk perhaps. Straighten them out.”
“Uh, okay. Thanks.” I walked away quickly. Why did my mom always have to make things so awkward? She could never just leave it alone. And Reg too. What was with the questions? Did they think I was gay, was that it? Had they talked about it? I imagined the two of them in Reg’s sparsely furnished studio apartment, sipping whiskey on the rocks and calmly discussing my possible gayness. The thought filled me with rage. I could even imagine my mother asking Reg if he knew any suitable young men. And complimenting him on how liberal-minded he was, how unlike her other boyfriends. Fucking gross.
Reg started coming over a lot, bringing sausages or hamburgers to grill or a bottle of the
sweet white wine my mom liked. He’d cook for us while my mom sat on a chair in the kitchen nook, entertaining him with stories from work. She was a secretary at an elementary school and loved to talk shit about the teachers and the principal.
After dinner one night, while my mom was upstairs reading my sisters a bedtime story, I made the mistake of settling in on the saggy brown couch to do homework instead of sneaking off to my room to play Mario Brothers on my Atari. Reg took the opportunity to plant himself down next to me.
“Need any help with that?” He gestured at the algebra textbook open in my lap.
He laughed. “Just as well. You probably know more about it than I do anyway. I think I failed it in high school.”
“I thought you dropped out of high school.”
“I didn’t drop out. I just didn’t finish. Didn’t need to once I joined the army.” He picked at one of his front teeth with his pinky nail, then caught himself and dropped his hand.
I stared at the fractions. In the glossy lamplight they seemed to slide around on the page. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” He smiled.
“Can I see your knife?”
His smile disappeared. “My knife?”
“Yeah. The one you were talking about the other day. Do you still carry it?”
“I’ve been carrying it for thirty years, Rye.” He looked around the living room slowly as if trying to make a decision, his eyes passing over the soot-smeared bricks by the fireplace, the peeling beige paint my mother kept saying she’d get to fixing some weekend. His gaze finally settled on the old wooden credenza, the plastic lid of the record player my parents had gotten in the 70s. He turned to me and pulled a small rectangular object out of his front pocket and pressed a button. A short blade sprung out.
“Cool,” I said.
“Do you want to hold it?” He passed it to me gently, as if it was something old and valuable, as if it was made of glass. “Be careful.”
I held the switchblade’s handle and turned it this way and that. The blade gleamed in the lamplight. It looked slim and sleek, like something a rock star would carry in his boot. “I want one,” I said. “Just like this.”
Reg took the knife back, closed the blade and slipped it back into his pocket in one swift motion. “I don’t think your mother would like that,” he said.
“She won’t care.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” He looked like he regretted what he’d done.
“I won’t use it or anything. I just think they’re cool.”
“I think your mother will say you’re too young. Maybe when you’re eighteen. For your birthday.”
His assumption irritated me. How did he know he’d even be around by then? Given the way my mother went through boyfriends, he could be gone in two months.
“Whatever,” I said, returning to my algebra book.
My mom came back and poured Reg a glass of the sweet wine and they started snuggling on the couch so I hurried off to my room.
To Reg’s surprise, and mine, my mom agreed to let Reg take me to the pawn shop. We went after school on a Wednesday, while my sisters were in dance class and my mom was doing aerobics at the community center.
The place was in an old brick building on Burnside and smelled of dust, oil, and old leather. A woman with large dark freckles and a Caribbean accent greeted us. She was sitting on the floor, organizing a pile of cassettes that had slid off their shelf. There were stacks and stacks of them in plywood bookcases, coils of cords in baskets, piles of old stereo equipment, a tall rotating case with watches that were all stopped at different times. On the walls hung electric guitars and a few rusty bikes leaned against the back wall. A classic rock station was playing and the woman hummed along to “Free Bird.”
“How can I help you?” she asked.
“Do you have any knives?” Reg said. “Nothing big. Just looking for something for my nephew here.” He patted me on the shoulder.
I gave him a look and mouthed “Nephew?”
“Those are locked behind the counter.” The woman hoisted herself up and strode to the counter, where she pulled out a shallow wooden box with a glass cover. Inside were knives of various sizes, none much bigger than my hand. “They’re mostly hunting and fishing knives, “she said. “See anything you like?”
I pointed at one with a wooden handle, its blade hidden in a black leather cover.
She unlocked the case and took it out, handing it to me. I pulled off the cover, examining the short blade. It curved sharply, which I hadn’t expected, but I liked the way it looked–it made me think of Medieval times, for some reason, knights on horses, bandits in the woods, fishermen in fairytales. It fit perfectly in my hand. There was even a little hole to slip my thumb through.
“That’s so you can hold on to it while you’re skinning a deer or whatever,” the shop woman explained. “Better grip.”
Reg nodded in agreement. “A good size, it looks like.”
I nodded too. “I think this is the one,” I said.
There were rules. I couldn’t take the knife to school. I couldn’t show it to my sisters or tell them about it. I couldn’t cut myself with it (my mom had recently had a training at her work and learned that cutting was a phenomenon among disturbed young people), I couldn’t give it to Majohn or take it to his house. I had to hide it in my bedroom and I wasn’t allowed to bring it anywhere else in the house. I agreed to every rule. I still didn’t know exactly why I wanted a knife and I was still surprised that my mother had let me get one. Was she getting more lax since dating Reg? Was she just supremely confident that I wouldn’t hurt anyone else or myself? Even I knew that a boy with a knife is a worrisome, possibly dangerous, thing. But Reg must have worked some sort of magic on her, because my mother seemed unperturbed by my new acquisition.
It was only a week before I took the knife to school to show to Majohn. We were walking around the track as usual, chugging chocolate milk and telling dumb jokes. Majohn was still trying to get closer to Tamiko. They had actually spoken on the phone a few times, but they still weren’t going out. Majohn was working on a plan to take her to the movies and to McDonalds for lunch. I told him McDonalds was lame and he should take her to The Black Cat, a cool coffee shop downtown. He countered that it was cheap not to take his date out for lunch. “Then take her somewhere nice,” I said.
“I can’t afford anywhere nice.” He kicked a tuft of grass at the side of the track with his sneaker. “I need to get a job.”
Majohn and I were just at the age where we could start working, and both of our parents had been giving hints that we should.
“Maybe you can get a job at McDonald’s and treat her to lunch on your break,” I cracked.
Majohn gave me a dirty look. “I’m serious,” he said. “I have to show her I can bring it. That I’m, like, for real.”
I glanced at the bleachers. Tamiko and her crew weren’t hanging out there today. They’d probably decided to skip their afternoon classes and head downtown. Maybe that’s why Majohn was so testy–they hadn’t invited him along.
“Want to see what my mom’s boyfriend got me?” I asked.
Majohn shrugged. “I guess.”
I pulled the knife out of my pocket with a flourish and whipped off the leather sleeve.
“What?” He looked shocked.
“I know. Cool, right?”
Majohn looked around furtively, but there was no one nearby, just the track smelling of rain and old tires, the drooping wet grass. “What are you doing, man? You don’t bring that shit to school.” He shook his head. “You could get expelled. Put it away.”
“I thought you’d think it was cool.”
“It’s not cool. It’s scary. Seriously, man. Put it away.”
He didn’t call me “bitch” or “motherfucker,” which meant he was upset. I hastily slipped the sleeve back on and shoved the knife down deep in my pocket. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out.”
He looked annoyed and started walking faster, toward the school. “We’d better get to class.”
The bell hadn’t even rung, but I hurried after him as if it had. “Look, I’m sorry, Majohn. It was stupid of me. I’m a stupid motherfucker, you know.” I tried to smile.
He shook his head and kept walking. “Sometimes I don’t know about you. You won’t even smoke a clove anymore, you won’t even skip class, but now you have this knife. It’s just weird.”
“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just something my mom’s boyfriend got me. I’ll leave it at home, I promise. I won’t bring it again.”
Majohn shook his head angrily and rushed into the building. The bell blared and I followed after him, taking the stairs two at a time.
Back home I slammed all of the doors on the way to my room, but it was a Wednesday and there was no one around to experience my wrath. I climbed into bed, pulling the covers over my head, and put my earphones on. I tried to think of a song that was sad enough to play but none of them seemed good enough. I lay back in bed. What had I done? It was stupid, and now Majohn was mad at me. I thought of Majohn smoking on the bleachers with Tamiko and her friends. He was looking cool, saying all the right things. Tamiko was laughing. Tamiko. An image of her in a lacy black bra and panties flashed in my mind and I got hard and felt ashamed in the same instant. But I couldn’t stop myself –no one was home. I started unbuttoning my jeans. The Tamiko in my mind now had a riding crop and was hitting it against her hand as she sat with her legs suggestively open on the couch. My family was on vacation. She was saying her parents didn’t expect her home, we had all the time in the world. I stroked myself faster. Tamiko was pulling off her panties, climbing on top of me. She was so wet, so warm. I came hard into my hand, panting into the blanket covering my face.
After a few months, Reg stopped coming around. My mom became depressed. She drank lots of weird herbal tea, mixes she got at the health food store that she said were for cleansing, and cried a lot on the couch, wrapped in a scraggly crocheted blanket. I tried to comfort her by playing sunny Beatles songs on the stereo and cooking apple pancakes on the weekends. I picked my sisters up from their dance lessons and took them to the park on weekends, pushing them on the swings and the merry-go-round.
One Saturday night we all dressed up in my mom’s old dresses, brightly colored polyesters in paisleys and stripes, and wigs from her partying days–bouffants, Cleopatras, long blonde curls. We put on a show for her, prancing around the living room, the dresses slipping off my sisters’ shoulders as we lip-synced to “Come Together” and took pictures with her camera. She laughed for the first time in weeks and called us her cherubs. Watching me sashay across the living room, she said, “You know I don’t care if you’re gay, right? You know I’ll still love you.”
My sisters laughed and chanted, “We’ll still love you too! We’ll still love you!”
“Mom, shut up.” I said. “Everyone, shut up.”
She swiftly changed the subject. “What happened to Majohn? He hasn’t come over in awhile.”
Of course I couldn’t tell her the truth, so I made up a serviceable lie. “He got a girlfriend,” I said. It was only after I said it out loud that I realized it probably wasn’t a lie. He and Tamiko were probably dating by now. I followed it up with a truth. “He got too cool for me.”
“Oh sweetie,” my mom said, patting my wig.
I shrugged away. “It’s cool. I was getting sort of sick of him anyway. Always showing off. Flexing his muscles and dumb shit like that.”
My mother shot me a dirty look at the word “shit.” My sisters snickered.
“I mean stuff.” I took off my Cleopatra wig and set it by the stereo. “And he smokes now. It’s gross.” My mom hated smoking.
“Oh honey, well. Maybe it’s for the best.”
“Yeah.” I knew I didn’t sound very convincing.
Reg was only gone for a few weeks. He returned one evening when we were all out on the front porch playing gin rummy. It was spring and the neighbourhood was full of droning lawnmowers, neighbours pruning rose bushes and planting gardens. Reg roared up on a shiny red motorcycle, and when he pulled off his helmet, I could see that his silver hair was shorter than ever–a crew cut –and his face was deeply tanned. He’d been on a road trip, he said. Texas. That’s where he traded in his car for the motorcycle. He apologized for not sending us postcards.
He bent my mom over backwards to kiss her and she shrieked happily. Or was she acting? Either way, it was back on, it appeared. Had he told her it was only a vacation, only temporary? I wasn’t sure. My mom sometimes told me too much about her dating life but at other times she withheld her confidences. I could never figure out why certain things were shared and certain things weren’t.
My sisters hugged Reg’s legs but I kept my distance. “No postcards, huh? That’s no way to treat a nephew.” I glared.
He laughed and tried to grab me in a bear hug, but I squirmed away.
My mom looked back and forth at us, confused. “Nephew?”
“Private joke,” I said sarcastically, giving Reg an exaggerated wink.
My mom looked at him questioningly.
“Not in front of the girls,” he said, then mouthed the word “knife” at my mother.
My sisters were looking bored anyway, so my mom sent them back up to the porch to play cards.
After an awkward pause, Reg explained, “When we went shopping for the knife, I told them he was my nephew so it wouldn’t seem strange.”
“Oh…the knife.” My mother sounded hesitant. Had she forgotten about it? I never brought it out while she was home. In fact, I hadn’t even looked at it in weeks. It was tucked away in my bottom dresser drawer, under my socks and boxers. It only showed up in my imagination, when I thought of Tamiko. I imagined her taking it out of its sheath slowly and sliding it carefully across my arms, then down my stomach. I never went so far as to imagine her cutting me–the sight of blood made me nauseous–but I did imagine her pressing the blade into my skin, telling me to take my clothes off or she would slice me. She held it between her teeth, as I had once seen a brawny actor do in an action movie. She licked it and held it up to the light.
“Still got it, buddy?” Reg asked.
I shrugged. “I guess. I don’t really take it out much.”
He patted me on the back. “Well, it’s there if you need it. If anyone at school starts giving you crap.”
“He’s not taking it to school.” My mom’s voice was indignant. “What are you saying?”
“Not to school. I mean…if bullies at school…he could meet them off the grounds….”
I had never seen Reg stumble like this before. He was trying to bring the pleased look back to my mother’s face, but I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen–at least not tonight. And something about my mother’s expression–lips clamped, eyebrows knitted together–told me that it wouldn’t be long before she told Reg to take a hike. She’d already made it through the heartbreak, after all. She wasn’t going to let him put her through that again.
“Well, I’d better hit the homework,” I said. It was hard not to sound cheery. “Later, you guys.” I took the stairs two at a time, patting my sisters’ heads as I passed them.
Majohn had been avoiding me for months but toward the end of the school year he sought me out again as I was walking my new route in the field by the back fence. It had been a dry spring and the grass had a burnt look. The air smelled like dry hay and rubber. I was going over algebra equations in my head for the test I had that afternoon.
“Hey Ryan!” Majohn jogged up to me.
I turned to him. “Hey Majohn.” He was wearing a new black New Order t-shirt and some grey Converse that he’d drawn anarchy symbols on in thick black marker.
“I go by MJ now, actually.”
“Really?” I tried not to snicker.
“Yeah. Trying to keep it short, like simple, you know.”
“Listen…” he looked around the field, then back at the school. His friends were draped over the bleachers, smoking and laughing. I saw Tamiko leaning over her hands. It looked like she was painting her nails. What color? I wondered. Probably black.
“I’m sorry about freaking out. You know, about the knife,” Majohn said.
I shrugged. “That was a long time ago.”
“I know, but I just wanted to say.”
“Okay.” I looked over at the track where a couple of preppy girls were jumping up and down, practicing a dance or a cheerleading routine. I wasn’t interested but I watched them as if I was.
Majohn seemed nervous; he kept running his fingers through his black bangs and pulling them back from his face. “It’s sort of awkward to ask, but…” He looked away from me, back at the bleachers. “Do you still have it?”
I felt heat rise from my stomach and flood my face. Was he going to make me part of some practical joke? Humiliate me in front of his cool friends? I tried to make my voice stone.
“Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” He combed his bangs back again. He had grown them out over the last few months and they fell down to his cheekbones. His face looked thinner, and strangely, older, as if he’d been travelling in some rugged country for a few years and had just returned. Even his shoulders seemed broader. He looked at me closely. “I can still tell when you’re lying, you know.”
“Why do you care?”
“I was going to see if I could buy it off you.”
I stared at him, not knowing what to say. Behind him the group on the bleachers were starting to gather their bags and cigarettes. Tamiko was waving her hands in the air to dry her nail polish. Today she looked tomboyish, in ripped black jeans and an oversized t-shirt that came down to her knees. I quickly averted my gaze, feeling embarrassed. I had still never had an actual conversation with her, had never really looked her in the face.
“Not for me,” Majohn said quickly. “It’s for Tamiko. I want to get her one.”
I still didn’t say anything. The girls on the track were doing lunges, and then one crouched down and the other climbed onto her back. It looked like she was about to balance herself on the other girl’s shoulders. Definitely cheerleaders.
“So she can feel safe, you know?” He tried to meet my eyes. “She’s small. I want her to be able to protect herself.”
“Well isn’t that sweet.” I had meant to be only lightly sarcastic, but a bitter edge crept into my voice.
Majohn looked at me, surprised.
I tried to even out my tone. “Does Tamiko even want a knife? I mean, have you asked her?”
He looked bashful. “I was going to surprise her.”
“It might just freak her out.”
Majohn shrugged and shifted uncomfortably. “I just want her to be safe.”
“You want to be a hero, is what you want.”
“Listen,” Majohn said, “I know we don’t hang out much anymore, but you don’t have to be rude.”
The bell rang. The cheerleaders sprinted past us, laughing. Maybe they were on the track team. I dully watched students stream toward the building, some dragging their feet, clutching greasy fast food bags; others gossiping in clusters or throwing a football back and forth as they ran, yelling. I stared down at the dry grass, wishing I knew what to say.
Majohn turned and jogged back toward the bleachers where his friends were huddled, waiting for him. Tamiko held out her arms as he ran closer.
I thought of the knife back home, nestled in the drawer with my socks and underwear. I imagined myself taking it back to the pawn shop, the woman with freckles putting bills in my palm. I imagined handing it back to Reg and telling him I didn’t want it anymore.
I imagined Majohn giving it to Tamiko, the two of them lit in cozy lamplight, sitting on the floral couch at Majohn’s house, the knife wrapped in some tacky paper patterned with gold hearts and roses. Would she smile and lean in to kiss him, or would she hold it limply like a dead fish and look at him with disgust?
I watched Majohn’s gang trail towards the school doors. The tall mohawked kid looked like he was chuckling at something as he bent down to grind out his cigarette in the grass. Majohn had his arm around Tamiko’s shoulder and was whispering in her ear. Beside me was the dusty field, the grass dead before summer had even begun. Behind me were blocks and blocks of drab houses and run-down apartments that lead to my own small house with its peeling paint and broken bottom step. In front of me was the school where I would have to spend the next three years. I hoped I wouldn’t always be alone.
About the Author:
Jen Currin is the author of five books, including Hider/Seeker: Stories, a 2018 Globe and Mail Best Book, and The Inquisition Yours, winner of the 2011 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. Jen lives on the unceded territories of the Qayqayt, Musqueam, and Kwantlen Nations (New Westminster, BC, Canada, a suburb of Vancouver), and teaches writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.