Disclaimer: you all know it's Mr. Larson's
I like trains. Trains are the best form of transport there is, as far as I'm concerned. Airplanes... Airplanes terrify me. Airplanes are not safe. How often do you turn on the television, or the radio, or open the newspaper, and discover yet another tale of a crashed airplane? Not only does an airplane require the risk of falling thirty-six thousand feet, there's the danger of getting crushed by a burning hunk of metal plummeting down from thirty-six thousand feet.
I don't like cars, either, and neither would you if, when you were sixteen, your best friend showed up soaked and bleeding after flipping a car. I never recovered. I guess that's part of why I always loved New York City. You can walk or take the subway or take a cab; driving is an option, and an unsavory one.
However I will note that I have a drivers' license. It happened while I was working on my doctorate. One summer I spent a weekend at home; my father drove me to a large parking lot, a church I think (because if there was a God, I was gonna need His help), and tossed me the keys. I didn't have a permit or any training, and for a moment I stared at these metal slivers resting on my palm. Finally I managed, "…Dad?"
Dad smiled at me. "Now, Thomas. You mastered calculus at the age of thirteen, I'm sure you can manage the car." It was a beat-up old Nissan. The bonnet didn't close properly and one of the mirrors had fallen off, but the heat and air conditioner worked well. That was nice, since the day was scorching. My first breath on stepping out of the car reminded me of the city in which I was born, where hot air tastes like Cayenne pepper and feels like specks of sand hitting the inside of your throat. The waves of nostalgia made my knees weak.
"Tom," Dad called, bringing me back to reality. "C'mon, kiddo. Let's give this your best shot, ok?"
I sat down in the driver's seat. Dad sat next to me, encouraging me. "Okay. Turn the key like this," he said. I did and the engine started. "Good. Now put the car in reverse." What breed of man considers driving in reverse a good introduction is beyond me. He placed my hand on the gearshift and his hand over mine and guided it to "R". "Okay. Now very, very gently, put your foot on the gas."
I put my foot on the gas pedal and had one of the most startling moments of my life: the car moved. It grumbled and moaned and lurched backwards. I slammed the brakes, sending both of us forward. "Gently, Thomas, gently!" Dad said, once he had regained his breath.
We kept at this until it was dark. At the age of eighteen I received my driver's license and I have not driven since. I'm happy to walk, or take the train.
Now I know, logically, that a train could jump the tracks, flip and crash, but I can't imagine it outside of a cartoon. A train just moves well, too. There's something about the steadiness of the rocking that's almost like being a baby rocked to sleep. You're not stuck in place, either. On a train there is the option of standing, walking, even running.
I thought about all this as a couple of small children raced by, speaking loudly. "...Fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight..." called a little girl with bouncing blond pigtails, apparently counting each row of seats. I watched her and another girl who was probably her sister. When they ran out of the car I slumped back into my seat.
I could swear all I wanted, no one else was in the car. Even the rhythm of the train couldn't take my mind off of what I was about to do.
Of course, there was one person whose full lack of respect for such conditions was more than a lifesaver. Roger thumped down into the seat next to mine, sank down in his mock-shearling mock-sheepskin jacket and nudged my arm. "Here," he said. He dropped a package wrapped in brown paper.
"What the fuck, Roger? Is this a bomb or something?" Yes, Roger is that crazy.
"Would I tie licorice to a bomb?" Roger asked.
I turned the package over: there was a package of red licorice tied to it. Roger reached into his pocket. There was a crackling of cellophane and he popped something in his mouth. "Is that--" I began, but Roger stuck out his tongue. A chocolate gummi bear rested on it.
"Okay! Put that away and brush your damn teeth. The minute we get home, brush your teeth."
"Open your present."
"It's your birthday, moron."
I could only say, "What?" It couldn't be my birthday. I would know if it was my birthday, and my birthday wasn't until-- shit. It was November. My birthday is November sixteenth, same date printed on my train ticket. How could I forget my own birthday?
Because I was dead, that's why. Because I had HIV, and I was dead, so what did it matter if I died at the age of twenty or twenty-one?
"Hey." Roger's arm came down around my shoulders and he gave me a shake. "You're still here, Thomas," he said, showing a surprising amount of empathy. "You're still alive."
I sighed. It was easy enough for him to say, when he wasn't sick. "How do I know that, Roger?" I asked. If he had any ideas I would take them. How did I know I would be here tomorrow? How did he? And for a second, I really expected him to give an answer.
Then Roger pulled back and socked me on the shoulder.
"Hi, Mr. Collins." Tom has gone inside and I stand here, on the doorstep, awkward. There was a small amount of powdered happiness in my pocket but I don't think Mr. Collins would appreciate if I sniffed it on his doorstep. "I'm Tom's friend--"
"Roger Davis," he interrupts. He smiles and shakes my hand; he has a good grip. His palm is warm and I feel strange when he holds my hand, safe in a very young way. "Of course I remember you!" I haven't stood on his doorstep in five years, but then, five years ago when I stood on his doorstep for the first time I was soaking wet, crying and bleeding. I guess you don't forget seeing a sixteen-year-old in that state, but Mr. Collins seems pleased to see me and I won't press my luck. "Come inside," he welcomes me, and I do.
I follow the sounds of Tom. He's in the kitchen crumbling chocolate chip cookies into a glass of milk. "Roger," he says. "It's three o'clock."
I excuse myself and run. My bag has barely fallen to the floor but I'm sprinting out the front door. I wind my scarf while I run, and believe me that's no easy feat. It chokes me. I stumble. The pavement leaps up at me and my feet accomodate, leaping up and landing with barely a moment lost. It's raining. Drops of water attack my unprotected skin. They're cold. I'm cold, shivering with each of hundreds of rivulets runs across my skin. I yank on my jacket and zip myself into a warming second skin.
Fur, meat and leather are murder. But meat is delicious and leather is warm, not to mention enduring. The fact that I know these things are wrong doesn't stop me doing them. It also doesn't stop me from enjoying them. The leather warms me very quickly and seals the warmth against my skin.
It's a block from my childhood home that I stop running. I can't continue on farther. Can't go nearer my father's house. All the horrible hours spent there, all the awful moments wishing he loved me and fooling myself that he did, threaten to overwhelm me. Why did I come here? Why did I run from Mr. Collins' house, where I was safe and warm and among friends, to come here? I cast about, looking for any enemies, then check my watch. It's eighteen minutes past three o'clock in the afternoon. The school let out at three, or at least it used to, five years ago. Or isn't she in high school yet?
I shake my head, shake away the rain, and focus. "Hi." A woman stands in front of me, a very pretty woman with a small child in her hands a slightly less small child holding her hand. "I'm sorry, do I--"
"Roger Davis! Oh my God, I can't believe... after all this time..."
She can't seem to form a sentence coherently, can't seem to figure out what she wants to say. The bigger child tugs at her mother's hand and whines, "Mama, it's raining!"
Then it hits me: "Olivia?" I haven't thought of my sister-in-law in years! My brother's wife, who had given birth to her first child shortly before I left home, is standing in front of me, and she remembers me. Obviously her baby girl doesn't. "Roger, come inside. Dry off."
I shake my head. It's a kind offer and were it not my brother's house, were it instead hers, I would be honored to accept. "I can't. I'm waiting for Sarah."
"Sarah? Roger, she's at home. Her school had a half day today, didn't you know?" She asks me all of this with a look of concern. "Come inside. I'll call Sarah." Still I shake my head. I can't stand the idea of having to see Peter again. He's my brother but he doesn't love me and I don't love him. "Your brother's out of town. With your father," Olivia says, and I take her up on her offer.
I sit at her table and have cocoa and oreos with Olivia and my nieces. Her children are Leah and Rachel, and the way she touches her belly tells me something. "You're pregnant again, aren't you, Liv?" I ask without thinking.
She smiles. She smiles a lot... she just doesn't seem happy when she's smiling. She nods. "I'm hoping for a Rebekah," she says. "But what are we telling Daddy?" she asks her girls, and they answer on cue, in unison, "This one's going to be Adam!"
I remember when Peter found out, and I remember what Dad said to him. They were in the living room. I was sitting in the kitchen, and I still remember the contents of the paper I was writing. It was for Mrs. Jones's class, AP United States History, first period. And I was awful at it which, coming from someone aced Euro without trying, well, it was tough. But Jones was unfair in my favor, and I was writing my extra-credit essay for the week on the California Gold Rush.
In 1849 a lump of gold was discovered at Sutter's Fort, actually by Sutter's friend because he was too much of a pussy to wade into the cold river himself. Tom says he was getting over a cold. I say he was a pussy with an excuse. Anyway. Hundreds of people moved to California looking for gold, but the only people to turn a profit were those who overcharged. You could charge a person for doing laundry, charge a person for breakfast, and he had to pay. He'd do it because he wanted to get out to his plot to search for the gold he was sure would make him rich.
I was fascinated with the entire thing. Loving this essay. It tied into the wild cat banks and the Oregon trail, and so many fascinating things -- and those are few and far apart in American history!
Peter had at least said hello to me when he came into the kitchen. I admit, I was less than polite in returning the comment. I returned a little too quickly to my essay and trying to imagine I was drinking beer by drinking my juice straight from the bottle. From the living room, their voices carried. "...guess I was just wishing for a son."
My father assumed that Peter, as all good Catholics, would have more than one child. From the looks of things, he was right. Then he added, "And sometimes..." And he paused. He paused for a long time, and I could feel them looking at me. "Sometimes a son is not a blessing as you'd hope."
Happy birthday to you,
happy birthday to you,
happy birthday, dear Thomas...
happy birthday to you!
I laughed along with everyone else and the candles flicker. All twenty-two of them. It wasn't my twenty-second birthday. There should have been twenty candles on that cake, but I'd been calling myself twenty for ages and it was nice, for once, to feel my age. My parents knew it, and because they knew it they put an extra couple of candles on the birthday cake.
I blew hard and didn't even get half of them. I blew twice more. There was one candle left; I leaned over it and blew. It went out, then lit up again. "Okay..." I sat back. "That's just cheating."
"If I may..." Roger reached forward. He plucked the candle off the cake and pinched the flame between his fingers. When he moved his hand, it was gone. He smiled at me. "I guess we'll have to agree on a wish," he joked. And my parents laughed and cut the cake. They both were watching me, and they both were smiling. They both were so proud, my divorced-for-the-last-decade parents agreeing, finally, on this one thing. Nothing could have felt better to have gone from those early years when my parents fought after putting me to bed, always fighting, it seemed, about me... to where we were today. With both of them so proud of me.
I smiled. I had never been in so much pain.
On the train ride home, Roger shared his gummi bears with me, holding the bag out to me with a casually turned wrist whenever he wasn't taking one himself. For a long time, we didn't speak. I wish I was thinking anything, but it was just the pain. I began to fear I was dying. I wasn't going to survive. Then and there on that train my intestines would burst. I was done for, then and there on that train, and I wasn't going to die with my loved ones. I was going to die with... Roger.
"How'd they take it?" he asked. I turned to stare in disbelief, but it didn't matter. He hadn't even turned to face me. Roger was staring straight ahead. He was just as lost as I was.
"They didn't," I murmured. Roger turned to look at me and I met his gaze by rolling my eyes and holding a face a parent might warn would stay that way. "Because I didn't tell them." I guess that's an advantage to having a fuckup asshole for a friend. He toussled my non-hair and offered candy.
We were only a few minutes from the station when he told me, "I saw my little sister."
"Oh yeah?" He hadn't mentioned that earlier. "How is she?"
He sighed, and his face crumpled. His eyes darkened. For a moment, Roger covered his eyes and shook, dry sobbing. Then he looked up and he was clear. "She chopped off her hair and dyed it black, put a metal hoop through her nose, and while most kids are focused on acne she's sucking dick to buy her next hit." He shook his head like he couldn't believe it, that his own baby sister had turned into a little drug whore.
The train stopped. We jolted forward gently, and he stood up. He picked up our bags and headed off the train, too quickly for me to keep up. I lost him in the station, but a boy like Roger doesn't just disappear. He waits for you. If I hadn't found him he would've eventual found me, but as it was I found him clutching a sink in the men's room and shaking.
"Roger?" I put my hand on his shoulder. He sobbed, and I realized what Roger had seen. He had seen what I saw every day, someone he loved disappearing from him, not even realizing her love was being eaten up by drugs. Rationalizing, rationalizing prostitution as barely a teenger because that is what addicts do, everything they do is ok through the logic no one else understands -- no one else, that is, who isn't so
Roger wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, then said something I already knew.
"I have to get clean, Collins."
to be continued!
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