The first boy I ever loved was named was Daniel. He was a year younger than me, and therefore had not yet been exposed to the horrors of kindergarten. He was strawberry blonde with sleek soft straight hair that I envied, with my unruly dark pouf. He had greengray cartoon-wide eyes in a perfect cherub face. He was nowhere near as smart as I was, but not so dumb that he was intolerable.
He lived in the house beside the big new house we got when Dad somehow managed to get a promotion. Now we had a deck in the back and a little pond with a mechanical waterfall and goldfish inside. There was a huge fenced-in backyard, with trees and a swing. It was a two-by-four scrap painted brick red, with a hole drilled at either end for two ropes that were knotted from a wide straight branch that the tree must've grown just for a kid like me. It swung out over a hill, so that it was easy to sit in but at the end of each arc I was dizzyingly high above the ground, almost flying. If I jumped out, I really was flying for a second or two, before I landed hard enough to hurt until I learned to bend my knees to take the shock. This was a lot more fun if you wore a cape.
Before, in the apartment we lived in for the last ugly story, Tommy was the only kid close to my age, so I didn't have many friends. The closest had been an older kid named Matthew, maybe twelve to my four, that played doctor with me behind a thin screen of not-quite-woods by stroking me with the smooth cool plastic instruments of my Fisher-Price medical kit. After a week or so he finally dared to venture between my legs with his dirty gorgeous wide-knuckled hands, staring with soft concern down at me, quietly prefacing every delicious new liberty with "Don't mind?"
I owed Matthew the knowledge that if you called it doctor, you could play all kinds of sticky naked games with other kids. Thanks, Matthew, wherever you are. I hope you don't feel guilty about that game, if you even remember it now. I loved every minute. It's one of my most precious memories. You're one of the few things from my single-digit years that I remember with nothing but joy.
Like most other things from then that made me happy, when the grownups found out I was "messing around" with him, they put a stop to it. I don't think they knew how close to right they were about messing around, just that I trailed after this boy three times my age and size with something much too worshipful in my eyes. They ruled against me going outside at all, just to make sure I didn't sneak away to see him ever again.
For the months until we moved, when ordered "out" to play I sat on our third-floor balcony, on the permitted side of the charcoal-line Dad drew two feet from the rail. Like I was stupid enough, or "talented" enough to fall over a railing as tall as my head, or through bars that were about six inches apart. This left me with a little rectangle about a foot by four feet. That was my outside.
I could watch other kids playing on the other side of bars I wasn't even allowed to touch. Sometimes Matthew would walk by. I'd wave, but he wouldn't wave back, just look at up at me and grin, like we both shared a secret the grownups couldn't take. I wished he would ask why I didn't come outside anymore, so I could tell him it wasn't because I didn't like him, but he never did.
The first time we played a game where clothes had to move, Daniel started it. I finally got the long-begged-for permission to go the entire fucking mailbox-to-mailbox distance to his house and play in his room.
He had these, Lego like things, not real Legos--little studded flat plastic bricks about half the size of a playing card that would notch into each other and build all manner of useless shapes. The closest visual comparison is the underside of a car floormat-lots of pegs sticking out, but these were more densely placed, longer, and more plastic than rubber. Not quite sharp, not quite dull. The oval floppy thing you can buy in the shampoo aisle to scrub your scalp is close, but still no cigar.
I have been looking for the same toy ever since but I've never had any luck. If you have any idea what they might've been, let me know. And yes, that's exactly why I want them.
He said, "Lay on your stomach," sweeping armloads of clutter aside to make an empty patch of carpet.
I was sitting in the middle of an explosion of toys still overwhelmed from the IDEA of having so many toys you could cover your room in them this way-I guess Tommy's room would've been like that, but I was never invited to His Majesty's apartment. I was one of those kids with cheap clothes and secondhand toys.
Daniel didn't seem to know he had a right to be a snotty brat. He was friendly and not at all grabby, letting me play with anything I picked up.
He pushed at me gently, smiling, until I knelt and then stretched out, mistrustful and nervous. His warm hands fumbled at the intersection of my pants and the hem of my shirt, sending chills up my spine, making the roof of my mouth feel very strange. He dragged the cotton up over my shoulders. He took an orangepink panel of this not-a-Lego and put it on my back over my left shoulder and leaned on it, not fast, not suddenly, but slowly and hard, like a deepmuscle massage with each tiny point distributing the pressure. Then he wobbled it with his palm. Just a little hurt. Just his thighs against mine and his little-kid breathing over me, and this plastic gouging pleasure into my skin that I had never fucking imagined in all my life. And then he moved it and did it again. And again. And again.
It was delicious. No touch had ever felt as good as that before, and possibly since, though I have no right to judge that now through the blur of memory. I was boneless. Thoughtless. Limp and almost asleep and probably purring. He printed my entire back, not missing an inch, shoulder to shoulder and neck to waist. It took forever. He would lift it, stroke the dappled light-red marks with his fingertips, sometimes doing it over again as if the result dissatisfied him, otherwise putting the plastic sheet so that the little spikes just lined up beside the old mark, and press again. Wobble it again. Then he'd move it over and start over.
I have no idea where he learned it. I don't remember him hanging out with any kids but me. Thinking back I'm sure neither of his parents was the molester type, if such a thing has a type. Certainly they were not the source of the artistry and attention to sensual detail that their son was. Many fantasies and tastes I remember having at that age seemed to have no outside source for me, either. Maybe we both remembered pieces of past lives, as close as we were to the Veil, though on the wrong side.
Daniel's dad was a distant rich fat graysuited banker, and his mom was a pageboy blonde with social clubs and the perfect house and always pies to make and church events to go to, leaving us in the apathetic care of some local teenage girl who sat on their mint-green couch watching their cable and giving zero damn where we went or what we did.
He worked his way to my waist, and I was a melted groaning puddle of misfit boy. My dick was hard. Oh, it meant nothing-it never went anywhere, an itch you couldn't scratch, but it mingled with the warm sense of being safe and yet also vulnerable. I'd been pretty sure I loved him when I first saw the gleam of his hair, but now I was certain. As soon as he let me up I was going to hold him as close as I'd only ever held toys and cover his face with kisses, if he'd let me. I could not remember ever being touched for so long with such care, could not remember another human being ever giving me such delight. I was hoping he'd take off the rest of my clothes and cover me with these dappled marks, these tiny hurts. He pulled my shirt back down, smoothed it with his hands. "Will you do it to me?"
I sat up, slowly, groggy and pleasuredazed. This hadn't occurred to me, the idea of reciprocation. Like I said, no other kids to play with, really. We traded and I pulled up his shirt. Little rush of heat from his skin. He was pinker than I was, smaller but less bony, softer. He had those little dimples on the backs of his hands that babies have, and two bigger versions in the small of his back like dolls have. I wasn't sure how hard to push, but he cat-arched his back up into my hands until I got the idea. Then he made little noises, just one note, not even a moan, not every time. When I found a place that resulted in that sound I pushed harder. He reached back to where I was sitting on his legs, snagged a handful of my pants, tugged just a little, turned to look up at me over his shoulder and smiled a babytoothed angel smile.
In our vast fenced backyard there was a great big doghouse, a triangle just steep enough to make it hard to climb to the top, with no vertical end-walls, just the pointed roof and the narrow floor. It was painted the same brick red as my swing. We didn't have a dog, so it was my clubhouse. There were old carpet scraps on the floor, and once you were inside the wooded yard and the tiny dark door hid you completely. It was dusty and warm and private.
The spiders in the corners were polite enough to share their space with a kid who thought they were way too spooky and cool to ever poke at them with sticks. I learned to give them bugs by flicking them very gently at the web. They'd run with busy nimble legs, reminding me of someone playing piano that I'd seen on TV. They'd grab the bug and wrap him up tight and pull him close and kiss him dead. I loved them. Even then some piece of me knew what I was.
It was plenty big enough for me and another kid.
One day I lured Daniel inside this private little space, and taught him to play doctor.
My mom was a pharmacist before she quit to be a full time alcoholic bitch. Uh, homemaker. She had a narrow, softcover green book from college that I have searched their house for many times since. It had a red cross on the front, but not the same as the one they used to stand for their God business. It said FIRST AID. There were a dozen or so colorplates in the middle.
Some were of plants that Mom said were poisonous. I looked in our yard but I never found any of them. Some were of snakes that were supposed to be poisonous too, and I had only ever seen one snake, and that one from far away while Dad killed it with a shovel and I cried. I wanted him to check if it was poisonous, but by the time I came running up with the book he'd chopped it into several candy-colored squirming little segments. "A snake is a snake," he told me, digging a lazy shallow hole and nudging these terrible still alive pieces into it, scraping a lazy scoop or three of dirt over it. Parts of it squirmed up from under the dirt, already slowing. He chopped at them once or twice, and each blow made me scream. I crouched with hands in my hair and could not look away and cried and cried. He rolled his eyes at me, mouthing baby. Then he went inside dragging the shovel in a few lazy S-curves to wipe it off, like snake blood was dirtier than dirt.
The real lure of the book was the last set of these shiny thick color pages. First of these was a naked man, and as you turned each page it was a picture of deeper and deeper inside the body. Second, the skin missing, which scared me, all this skein of red. I asked Dad and he said it was muscle, and that was what we were eating when we had meat, only from cows or pigs and not people. After that for some reason it didn't scare me anymore.
Then my favorite picture, all the things that were hidden underneath the muscle, the meat. The man with his face still Ken-doll expressionless and his arms out like he was showing off, proud of being open from neck to hips. Ta-da! Like a, flasher, ha.
Inside him were Christmas-colored shiny shapes that were like worms and like chicken livers and turkey giblets but were mostly like nothing I had a word for. I tried pressing against my own stomach to see if I really had these weird things too, but I couldn't figure out which bumps and lumps and sloshy things I was feeling were the same as the ones I was seeing. The heart was the best one, so pretty in the picture, like a closed flower, and it was easy to find my own because I could feel the thumping under my hand, though the little cage of flat bones kept me from feeling it directly. If I pushed under the edge I could just barely feel the very edge of that movement into my fingertips.
I got in trouble for "stealing" this book a few zillion times.
I remember asking Mom why the last picture, a grinning white skeleton, didn't have a penis bone, when the first naked picture was clearly a man, penis and all. She laughed and never answered me. My own penis was soft sometimes and hard sometimes, and I decided the bone could slide in and out like the claws of a stray cat I'd petted once.
"Maybe he'll be a doctor."
I got the idea, and told them that was exactly why I wanted it, and then the book was allowed to stay in my room where I could stare at the strange sculptures inside the windowed-open chest as long as I wanted. I told them I was studying, because Mom said that was what she'd used the book for. They found that very cute.
I learned to say "A brain surgeon," whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, because my Dad said ("Too smart for your own damn good!") that was the smartest thing you could be. I didn't really mean it. The top of the man's head was missing in one of the pictures like a lid someone had lifted off, but the brain looked too simple and too familiar, the same smooth dome as packages of hamburger meat from the store.
I had the idea a doctor was like a mechanic for people, and I didn't want to fix anything, and certainly not the boring pink brain.
I just wanted to see if real organs were really as mysterious, magical, colorful and tempting and soft as those pictures made them look. At the time I was reminded of the bright expensive playsets that swung open on hinges to reveal all kinds of complicated smaller playthings inside like they were secret. The things in those pictures were like the noisy or stolen toys you had to keep hidden, or some grownup would take them away, put them over your head so you couldn't reach, couldn't play with them anymore.
I'd pretend I wanted to be a doctor until I got to see a real person's insides, then quit and write stories instead. By then I'd be so big They wouldn't be allowed to boss me around.
It was my doctor's kit, and my clubhouse, and I thought of the game, so it was only fair that I got to be the doctor. Daniel giggled at this, but didn't argue. He just took off his shirt and looked at me with all kinds of trust.
I put on the yellow-and-light-blue stethoscope, feeling very powerful and important. I moved the fire-engine red cup around until I found the loudest place on Daniel's chest, exactly where the thumps were the strongest on my own chest, just left of center and a little higher than the baby-round jut of his stomach. My own stomach curved in and not out. Mom said that was because I kept making myself sick.
The stethoscope really worked. Listening to Daniel's heartbeat was much, much more satisfying than listening to my own. I thought of the cherrycolored heart in the green book, tried to imagine what it looked like while it was making that low, liquid, perfect sound. I had the idea that it was hopping around in there, and that the purpose of the ribcage was to keep it from escaping and wandering all over your body. I fell into something like a trance, the drumming in either ear making it sound like it really came from inside my head.
Finally Daniel squirmed from boredom and dusted spiderwebs out of his hair. He said "Am I gonna die?" which deafened me through the earpieces and made me snatch them off so fast it got both of us laughing. It led to a brief side game of trading the stethoscope back and forth, making stupid noises into the cup to hurt each other's ears. When we were tired of that he submitted to a toy thermometer in his mouth.
That wasn't where I wanted to put it (and not where I put it when I played with it alone, and come to think of it I'm pretty sure I never washed it, ha) but I didn't want to scare him or perhaps send him running to the grownups. They were bossy and selfish about clothes coming off, and insisted that touching yourself--and presumably anyone else-on your "privates" was nasty.
If they were private, why was it any of Their business what I did with them?
I knew better. They didn't want me to touch my between my legs because it felt wonderful, the same reason they seemed to have most of their rules. They didn't want me to have ways to feel good all by myself that they didn't control, because promising or forbidding fun things was how they made me do whatever they wanted. I'm still pretty sure that's the reason the self-proclaimed grownups of the world are so anti-masturbation.
This idea had all kinds of nifty applications.
I knew if they knew I wanted that green book because the pictures made me feel good inside my head and inside my stomach and between my legs, they'd take it away. So I told them the doctor lie. It made me feel a different kind of good to hear them beam at each other about it, because I'd finally tricked them, for once. Now I understood why Mom smirked when she got her way by tricking me.
I took the thermometer out of Daniel's mouth, spun the little yellow knob at the end so the red and white middle made candycane swirls. I told him he was very sick and needed a shot. He pretended to protest and whined that he didn't want a shot and he didn't feel sick, but he knelt up in the cramped doghouse space, tugged his pants down to his knees without my having to suggest it.
Oh, how I loved him.
He laid on his stomach, watching over his shoulder the way he did for the non-Lego game while I took out the redyellowgreen toy syringe and the redyellow toy vial that had the same cross on it as the magical green book. I did quite a good job of pretending to load it. I even knew to thump the syringe a few times, though I didn't understand why. He did big-eyes like he was scared, hid his face in his arms.
I wanted to bite him, but other kids tended to run to grownups as fast as bad news if you bit them. You had to get them to do what you wanted without getting in trouble, and so far I hadn't figured a way around the biting thing.
The only shot I could ever remember getting had been in my thigh. That had hurt worse than anything I had ever felt at the time, until a bee sting in my palm took the high score for agony. The lady doctor who gave me the shot told me it wouldn't hurt. Because she was pretty and smiled at me and hadn't hurt me yet and smelled nice, I believed her. After, I tried to hit her, yelling at her that she was a liar until Mom hit me. More proof that all grownups were mean, cheating jerks, as far as I was concerned. They were allowed to lie, when I got hit for lying even sometimes when I wasn't lying.
Still, I knew it was possible to get a shot "in your butt" because of Dad threatening me with the same when I was "making myself sick." I also knew that scratching myself in a certain place caused Mom to scream "Don't put your finger in your butt!"
I connected these two ideas to figure out where, exactly, the syringe would go.
At least, that's where I guess I got the idea. Matthew had never tried to penetrate me with anything, and until then he was the extent of what I guess would be called my sex life.
I had to push at Daniel's knees so he'd spread his legs. That still didn't work, and I had to spread him apart with my hand. He made a worried little noise, but he didn't try to stop me.
I was slightly grossed out, on the off-chance that the grownups were right about between your legs (and especially your butt) being nasty, but he didn't look nasty to me. Quite the opposite. He had soft blond fuzz that started in the small of his back and wandered down between his cheeks. What little kids called nuts were even smaller on him than on me, covered in that same almost-colorless down. They looked very fragile and soft. I wanted to
touch them, but again, I was afraid I'd scare him in the wrong way. He also had the same tiny brownish pink wrinkled hole that I did when I managed to steal a hand mirror and investigate. I centered the dull green "needle" of the syringe (just a nub, not even a point) here and pushed, very gently.
He did a lot of ow ow ow, but he didn't move. It didn't really hurt me when I did it to myself, though I never pushed it in very far. I figured he was just playing the game with his usual talent. I stopped, just in case, and pushed the plunger down (which did nothing but thump a yellow cover over the red plastic cylinder down inside the syringe). He made one more little ow at that and lay still, breathing hard.
I took it away, waiting for him to yell or move or something. When he didn't I put one finger against the tiny hole, pressed, rubbed, the way the lady doctor rubbed the bruising knot where she'd given me the shot in the thigh. He was warm and just a little sweatsticky, and his flesh seemed to tug at my finger. I pushed until I couldn't see my fingernail. I expected him to stop me, surely, now, but he looked back at me with those graygreen eyes, and did the same arch that meant harder when we played the non-Lego game. Made all the same happy, one-note noises.
I pushed harder. More encouraging hum from Daniel. Inside he was warm and slippery and wet. He kept doing that lean in my direction, wanting more and harder until my finger was in him all the way up to my hand. He felt exactly like I'd imagined the gleaming alien things in the picture-book would feel. Something about how soft he was and how tightly he was gripping at my finger made my stomach and head and between my legs feel the same warm tingly deliciousness the pictures gave me.
Afterwards I could smell him on my fingers for hours. I still didn't think it was nasty, still, quite the opposite. It took a long time to sleep that night. It made little tinglepangs happen lower than my stomach every time I caught his scent.
We played this game almost every time he came over. Sometimes we traded, but I wanted to be the doctor and not the patient, and once he realized that he had no objection. I think he preferred it that way too.
After I had him pretty well trained for this game, I decided to try something new.
I did the required stethoscope-and-thermometer foreplay, thumped his knees with the mustardcolored plastic hammer, peered into his ears and eyes and mouth through the light-blue little funnel on the light-blue little handle. Then I shook my head, like it was very, very serious, probably imitating some shitty actor on one of Mom's shitty soaps.
"You need an operation."
He looked a little uncertain, but he obligingly breathed in and out of a paper cup held over his face, pretended to sleep. I drew slow harmless lines up and down his naked chest from throat to pelvic bone with a butter knife that was very hard to steal. He shivered, but I didn't really notice. It made me breathe funny, faster and faster. It made my hands shake and my mouth dry and my stomach do strange rolling loops that weren't quite excitement and weren't quite dread. It made me kiss his neck and his face and his hair, like I'd, explode, if I didn't.
When he was tired of this game and had to go home I pried the white plastic casing out of the toy doctor's kit and hid the knife behind it. It's probably still there.
That one made it impossible to sleep that night, made me wish I had a real knife and not a rounded safe one, made me angry that he had something I wanted all selfishly tucked away under his skin. It made me angry that I loved every bit of him I could touch and that therefore, there were bits of him I couldn't love.
I never suggested that particular variation on the doctor game again. It felt too dangerous. I thought about that round butter knife and the dent it made in his skin when I pressed a little too hard, tried to imagine it opening him like a book and those pictures inside, only real. It made me too sad. It made me roll in an uncontrollable fit back and forth across my bed, burrow into the blankets, kick my feet, open my mouth into a pillow and do a silent scream of frustration, over and over until my head hurt. It made me too hungry for something that scared me. It made my dick too hard.
They made good on their threat to drag me to church. It didn't make me stop liking Michael Jackson, or Mr. Spock, or boys in general, or brown people. It just meant there was one more day in addition to the five of kindergarten that I had to get up when I was nowhere near finished sleeping, two more hours of my life a week that I had to spend doing some idiotic thing They insisted on.
I invented a new way to use that disconnection-magick that kept me from really feeling when they smacked me. I could sit very still with my face and my eyes pointed at the loud fat man at the front, but the real me would be in my head where none of their rules could stop me, where none of them could even see me.
Later they learned to call this daydreaming, and, of course, it was against their rules, too. My theory that pleasures they couldn't control were forbidden was proving pretty sound, so far. But I learned to keep my face expressionless, to keep a tiny corner of my mind Out Here to answer them with when they tried to catch me escaping them that way.
For now, they were plenty satisfied that my body was present and not fidgeting or sighing--another word I didn't understand for something I wasn't allowed to do. As long as I could stay quiet and still, my mind was my own, and the let's-pretend games that no one else ever played just right could go on as long as I liked. The fat man rambled on about Jesus and sin while I opened Daniel like pushing curtains apart, like pulling bedclothes back, without blood or screams. I gave him shots with real needles in ludicrous sizes, dressed him like the painted boys on MTV, summoned Matthew from wherever-he-is so that we could both be doctors together with Daniel spread and red between us.
Now, I think the reason He came to me was because He could hear what I was thinking.
Sometimes people went out during the fat man's speeches, either alone and embarrassed-looking, or dragging/carrying a fussing or leaking kid. Everyone would stare or pretend not to until the big doors banged open, banged closed. Sometimes the same clatter would preface someone who'd overslept or whatever coming in late, to find themselves the focus of a million offended eyes, the subject of a brief subaudible hiss of disapproving whispers.
When He came, there was no noise at all, and no heads turned. He was just, suddenly, there.
He had a long black coat that reminded me of Darth Vader, and which I immediately, deeply envied. His hair was longer than I'd ever seen on anyone, man or woman. I'd tell you what color it was, or what color it wasn't, but I can't. Looking straight at Him made me so dizzy I couldn't have told you my own name.
He stood right in the middle of the aisle-we were sitting just to His left-with His hands in His pockets. He was staring at the fat man, and something moved from Him to the preacher like a wind, and the fat man lost his place, shuffled through his papers, took a handkerchief out of his pocket and blotted his face even though he wasn't sweating. Finally he said "Let us pray," which meant that we had to close our eyes while he prattled on in a slightly different tone of voice, begging the ceiling to make us all good and keep us from getting sick.
The magick-man turned His head, then, looked at me with eyes the same everycolor as His hair with an expression I could not name. Later I realized it was love.
He was rockstar beautiful. My jaw was hanging open, and when I realized it I closed it so hard my teeth clicked. I stole a look at my parents, since men with hair nowhere near as long as this (including most of the men on television that made me want to keep looking) made my Dad say mysterious words like hippie and queer in a tone of voice that let me know these were bad things to be.
Mom and Dad both had their eyes closed and their heads bowed.
The man turned his back on the preacher, rolled His eyes, overdramatically, just for me, cocked His head at a ridiculous angle and silently moved his mouth in exaggerated nonsense words, imitating the preacher's babbling self-importance. I started to giggle, but He took one hand out of His pocket and put one finger to His perfect lips. Shhh.
I shushed, more out of awe than because He'd told me to. His fingernails were dangerous-long, more round than flat like mine, the color of the pearl in a ring my Mom wouldn't wear.
The preacher closed with the usual amen. Now they would notice-but no one did.
Then I realized none of them could see Him.
Maybe He was a ghost. No, probably not--I couldn't see through Him. He was as solid as me or Mom or Dad. I was pretty sure ghosts were like Casper, like they were drawn on a windowpane. Maybe an angel, like in the box of books Mom only got out for me at Christmas, though they wore bedsheets and tinsel and not a Vader-coat, and I was pretty sure they wouldn't make fun of the preacher, or he would tattle on them.
The beautiful man winked at me with one luminous eye, twiddled His fingertips goodbye. He walked up the aisle, past me, putting His hands back into His coat.
I waited, but there was no sound at all from the doors.
I turned my head to see if He was sitting behind us, even though it earned me a pinch and a hiss from Mom.
He was gone.
In the car on the way home I asked my parents if either of them had seen the man with the long hair and the shiny black coat. They looked at each other, that grownup-look that means they're talking nothing good about you even when they don't say a word.
Mom said, "You fell asleep and dreamed it."
Dad said, "Quit making up stories."
Since then I've made up quite a few stories. This is not one of them.
I tried and failed to draw Him all day. I wasn't much good at drawing-then or now-and my attempts were so very far from how perfect He was I threw them all away, ashamed.
I could think of His coat, His fingernails, but I could not remember His face.
I still can't. He doesn't work that way.
It wasn't just that I couldn't stop thinking about Him. It was more like I could feel Him, outside, or maybe inside, the way you can sometimes feel that there's going to be a thunderstorm.
Getting out of bed at night and sneaking around was risky, but if He was outside, I had to let Him in.
I looked out my bedroom window, but there was a big rustly bush that blocked almost everything. I tiptoed to the back door, cupped my hands against the glass and peered out. Everything was blue-violet, spooky and abandoned-looking. My swing looked lonely all by itself.
Night made everything match as though the same person had painted it all. It made the grownups go to bed so that you could have some peace for once. I was rarely allowed to go out after dark, but when I did it seemed so much easier on the eyes and the lungs and the mind. Softer, cooler, safer, more real.
I had been sure He was outside, but He wasn't.
He was already in my room.
He was sitting on the floor with His back against my bed.
I suppose I was expected to scream, I suppose I should've been afraid of a stranger, but I closed the door behind me, turning the knob first and then letting it go so the latch wouldn't click against the frame.
He held out His hands to me. I went to Him without hesitation, with something warm and relieved inside me as if I'd been waiting for Him to find me all my life. I let Him swallow my tiny hands in his huge inhuman ones.
I was not at all afraid of His claws.
He smelled of chocolate and matches and the kinds of flowers that attract bees. He let me touch His yards of hair, soft as spiderwebs, crackling with energy that left my hands buzzing. I told Him it was the same color as the night outside, and that made Him smile. He put His mouth close to my ear and His breath made my tongue feel, unruly, like the red dreams sometimes did. He told me His name, and then kissed the middle of my forehead, and everything inside my mind was quiet and still.
I remember Him holding my face, saying because you know.
Whatever He meant, it made me straighten my back.
Other than that one phrase, I can't remember exactly what He said to me. It isn't because I've grown. He hid it so far inside me that even I couldn't find it, so that They could never get at it, so that no one could ever take it away.
Whatever it was, I know it was the truth.
"The man in the black coat was in my room last night."
All right, I don't know why I did it. Something like the reason you say so there or I told you so.
It was breakfast. Dad lowered the wall of newspaper so he and Mom could exchange another of those infuriating, amused looks.
I'd been put in front of the ubiquitous eggs again. For the first time it occurred to me to try to disconnect my mouth, the way I'd learned to disconnect my ass or my thighs or my mind to make their various tortures futile. Maybe He taught me. I just, decided, I would not taste them.
And I didn't.
I put one slidy, slimy forkful past my teeth, waiting for the burst of nausea. It never came. I swallowed (without chewing, I admit) and the eggs went down and stayed down. I went through the rest of them as fast as I could, afraid the magick would wear off.
Dad lit a cigarette. "Uh huh." He was dripping with that dry mockery that I didn't know was called sarcasm just yet, though I knew that the same tone of voice resulted in a smack when I used it. "So you have a new invisible friend."
The eggs were gone. Neither of them even noticed. I'd just defeated both of them and they hadn't even had the good manners to be pissed off about it.
"He's not invisible. Yours might be, but I can see Him just like I can see you."
"Of course he's invisible," said Mom. "That's how imaginary friends work. It's in their contract."
Dad thought that was very funny. I didn't.
"Then maybe He isn't imaginary." I was eating bacon. Oops. I turned my tongue back on. Much better.
"Then where is he? Why can't we see him?"
Sometimes, I swear, they were dense on purpose just to drive me insane so they'd have an excuse to be jerks to me. Like they needed any additional excuses. "Because He isn't here."
Dad: "What did I tell you about that tone of voice?"
See? He was allowed to be "rude" and I wasn't.
Mom found the idea of Him not being here very funny too, for some reason. "So what's his name, this absent friend of yours?"
I told her. I still had a knot of scar tissue under my tongue, and I still tangled words from time to time, plus if I was loud enough to be understood it got me yelled at every time for "tone of voice" violations. Try whispering a name with a Lifesaver under your tongue to get the idea. The result had them both laughing at me, Mom the loudest. "Zipper?"
It made me so mad I couldn't keep the subservient near-whisper they insisted on. "Ziffer. Lou Ziffer."
Explosion, sudden and utterly without rhyme or reason as far as I was concerned. "Young man, that is not at all funny!" Dad swatted at me with a crackling handful of newspaper. It was too unfolded to hurt, though it was quite good at upsetting my milk glass into my empty plate. To Mom he yelled, "I told you, he needed church!"
Mom: "That's probably where he picked it up-"
Me: "I told you, that's where I met Him. Maybe He followed me home-"
Dad, weighing in with his solution to anything and everything. "Go to your room!"
Clearly he meant me and not Mom. She never had to go her room, no matter what tone of voice she used.
I was only in there a few minutes, sitting where Ziffer had and sniffing my bedcover where He'd leaned against it. I could still smell Him. Dad did his usual mean sharp rapid-fire knock, opened the door and came in. I had to knock on their closed door and wait for an answer, which was often an order not to knock again. They'd just open mine before I even had a chance to say a word. I wondered for the millionth time why they even bothered to knock.
"Your Mom says you probably have no idea why you're in here."
Usually I'd have gone with no sir to avoid making the situation any worse, but I didn't care today. "You asked me His name, and then you got mad when I told you."
He sat on the edge of my bed. It sent something dark and furious through me for him to touch where Ziffer had. I didn't want his Dad-stink to cover that wonderful scent of Other.
"I know you just picked up that name in church." Cute. They always come up with whatever they want to believe and insist it's the truth.
"No, sir. He didn't say anything to me when I saw Him in church-"
He was red-faced. It was time to go with short, short answers. When kids at school did that to smaller kids, it was called bullying and it got you in trouble. When they used their bigness to threaten you it was OK. They were selfish about their power.
I shut up, but apparently I couldn't keep the anger off my face.
"And don't you dare get mad at me!"
I said nothing, silently thinking that he could yell and hit all he wanted but he was never going to be able to make me stop being mad at him. And I knew he knew that. No matter how crazy it made them, my mind was my own. They knew all kinds of things while insisting everyone pretend the opposite.
"I told you about making up lies. You're not dumb, so quit acting like it."
That was just too much. "I'm acting dumb? If you can't see Him how do you know what He did or didn't say?"
Smack, half-face and half-shoulder. It wasn't very well executed and didn't hurt much, but it left me blushing and teary from sheer frustration.
"That's enough backtalk!"
When grownups did it, it was called a conversation or an argument. When I did it, it was backtalk and summarily forbidden. Do you remember this shit? I'm amazed you haven't grown up to be just like me, amazed the streets aren't overflowing with kids like me in a pissed off, fed-up army. Come to think of it, maybe that's pretty close to the truth. And the grownups act mystified about it.
"Lou Ziffer is one of the names for the Devil. And that is not cute and it is not funny."
Quiet from me. I vaguely knew about the Devil, too, though until Ziffer I'd figured he was as imaginary as the other guy, like the kids that got in cars with strangers and never came back. Just a backup lie to control you, scare you.
"Now you can have all the imaginary friends you want-"
How generous of you.
"--that's a phase all kids have-but I don't want to hear that name again. Do you understand me? "
I nodded, hoping it would make him shut up and go away. I knew phase too-it was what they called anything they were tired of you doing, to belittle it. So Ziffer is imaginary, while God is just invisible yet calling him imaginary gets me a smack. Ziffer is visible, and telling you so or telling you His name also gets me smacked. How clear it is. No idea why I wasn't getting it before. Thank you, Dad, for this gem of enlightening fucking parenting.
"Do you understand what it means to go to Hell?"
I nodded again to keep him from explaining it to me. A great big version of wait till your father gets home. I tried to think of Ziffer hitting me, found it impossible to imagine. Why would Ziffer want to punish me for not doing what God said if he didn't like God? Wouldn't that make Him happy with me?
I was pretty sure asking Dad about this would just lead to more trouble.
I yes sirred until he finally went away. Then I buried my face in the blanket where He'd touched it again, smelled Him until He filled my lungs and my head and my fury was still.
The Devil. That explained His magick and His fingernails. And it certainly explained why they were so anti-Devil. He was beautiful and smart and nice to me, and He didn't seem to like grownups and Their rules any more than I did.
I couldn't wait to see Him again, but as far as I remember that didn't happen for many years.
Though sometimes, there were dreams...
Dad came home from work that night doing the twinkly-eyed friendly thing at me, crackling a paper bag in his hand. I was immediately mistrustful. I suspected something I really wanted as a bribe, and I suspected the condition would be if you stop this Ziffer thing. I was wrong, but close.
"I have a present for you, Erik."
It was a book, which made hopeful, but it was a fat shinycovered blue children's Bible with insultingly large print and pictures on every page. My dentist's office had the same book. So did yours, probably.
"This is so you can learn about the Devil and you'll know why it isn't funny to pretend about Him."
Well, now I was interested. I said thank you and sir and dutifully paged through it, noticing as usual that for some reason while grownups could draw women pretty they invariably made the men thick and hairy and bulgy and awful. Maybe they had special books for girls drawn the other way around to like, convince you.
Dad beamed at me like a king who'd just handed out a knighthood or something and then forgot about me, settling into his chair with bourbon-and-coke to watch television.
I fled to my room with this book.
It didn't tell me much of anything useful. God had Adam and Eve imprisoned in this garden, and he treated them exactly the way grownups treated me-bossed them around, made up stupid rules. He told them if they ate from his apple tree they'd die. I suspected he just wanted to keep them all for himself. Mom and Dad did the same thing with steak. They gave me a piece of the bigger half along the T-shaped bone, and told me that I didn't like the other half, though I'd never tasted it. I knew it was because the smaller half was softer and better. I could tell by the way they hardly had to cut it. Boy, grownups have had just the few tricks since the beginning of time.
A snake told Eve the truth-that she wouldn't die at all, but that it was magick fruit and if she ate some she'd become smart. Right about then I was thinking that I already knew this story, mixing it up in my head with Snow White.
Eve ate the apple. She didn't die. She got smarter, just like the snake had promised. She gave Adam an apple too. I guess otherwise he'd have been a pain in her neck, now that she was smart and he wasn't. Good on her, because playing with the dumber kids was the complete opposite of fun.
God got really mad, and said that he was gonna let them live forever, but now he changed his mind.
That made me laugh.
I was gonna give you a surprise, but now I'm not.
So that's where Mom got this trick.
There never really was a surprise, and they were in no danger of sudden death. God just wanted them to stay dumb so he could boss them around.
I read the rest of the book with increasing disappointment. It was a commercial for doing what God said, and of course, God said to always do what your parents said. It was as obvious as the nauseating kid's shows that tried to convince you to share or be polite or eat your vegetables. I didn't know the word propaganda yet, but I understood the concept perfectly.
The book ended somewhere after the Noah story. That one did nothing to improve my opinion of God. I knew about rainbows from a science book Dad had gotten me at a garage sale, and I was pretty sure the refraction of light had worked the same before God decided to take credit for it.
I paged through it again, to make sure I hadn't missed anything, but I found no mention of Ziffer, and certainly no pictures that looked anything like Him. All the men had great big ugly moustaches and beards, and Ziffer's face was as smooth as mine-I could remember that much. The men in this book looked mostly like Dad would in a few years, if he decided to wear a bathrobe and carry a stick all the time.
I was hoping that book would tell me how to make Him come back.
When Dad asked a few days later how I liked the book, I told him God acted an awful lot like he did. He looked pleased, and said yes, that God was everybody's father. He didn't seem to grasp that I was insulting both him and God. I told him maybe I needed the sequels, because I didn't see Ziffer or any other Devil anywhere in the book. Dad looked considerably less pleased. He said the snake was Ziffer, and that because of His lies human beings died, when they would've lived forever.
"But they didn't die. They got smarter, just like the snake said they would."
Immediate red-facedness. He slammed his drink down so hard it slopped over the side of his glass onto Mom's end table. He said "They did too die! That's why they're not here now!"
If I ever tried acting like that it was called pitching a fit, but he was allowed. It was right there in the book that he gave me, that they ate the damn apple and then knew everything. I tried to show him, and I got smacked for backtalk. Again. "Don't you try to tell me about the Bible! God said they would die and they DIED."
"They were gonna die anyway. God lied so they'd feel bad because he was mad he didn't get his way!"
He stared at me with his mouth and his eyes VERY open. I thought perhaps he was stricken by a revelation of how true this was, but I was too mad to stop and investigate. "How come people are supposed to share toys but God isn't supposed to share his apples? Can't he just create more apples if they run out?"
I wanted to point out that I couldn't create a new toy when some kid down the street broke mine, and I STILL had to share, but he thundered over me before I could get a new breath.
All together now. Dad's favorite line. "Go to your room!"
Meaning, as it always did, that I was right and they were the ones making up stories.
I snuck Mom's HOLY BIBLE out of her bookcase, thinking maybe the grownup version was different, and still hoping for, a spell, I guess, to bring Ziffer back. Grownups were sometimes so specific in what they did not want you to do that it was like they'd handed you an instruction manual. I was hoping this was one of those times.
I puzzled through the weird language and squinted at the tiny words. Same story. Still just the snake, except they called it a serpent, and I liked that word much better. It sounded much more like a liquid ribbon of muscle and tongue. It sounded like His shiny black coat felt under my hands.
Still no mention of Ziffer. Eve ate the apple, got smarter, God lied, nobody died.
I was positive I'd seen both Mom and Dad eat apples at least once, and we had apple pie every Thanksgiving.
I wondered how in the world they were both still so dumb. And both quite alive and kicking.
Now I knew why Dad had killed that snake, even though he said it wasn't poisonous. It made me hate them just a little more. It was like them hitting me when I was telling the truth, only much worse. It hadn't even been trying to tell him anything. It just wanted to get away from the lawn mower.
I went into the back of the yard and did my best guess as to where he'd buried it. I stole a perfect flower from Mom's azalea bush and put it over the grave. I hoped Ziffer could see me. I wanted Him to know whose side I was on.
Daniel didn't go running to any grownups about any of our games. He'd learned, in fact, to make his eyes too round and his mouth too sad and tell me he felt really sick so I'd drag out the doctor's kit. Not that I minded. Pretty much the opposite.
The very few times Mom walked out to the doghouse instead of just shouting orders out the back door we had plenty of warning to get dressed and look innocent, because there was a permanent layer of crackly dead leaves from my swing all the way to the back fence. On rare occasions when rain destroyed my security system, we didn't play doctor.
I was pretty sure she suspected something because of the mean-eyes looks she'd give me, but she'd either order me to come in for lunch or just say that was enough playing for today and Daniel had to go home. Sometimes she'd order us to get out because of the spiders, though I knew it was because we were flushed and grinning and she didn't want us having that much fun even without knowing what exactly we were doing. Without being able to control exactly what we were doing.
One of those times, after she'd gone back inside, I got the bright idea to climb to the top of the doghouse roof and slide down. I'd done it before by myself; it wasn't much fun because it wasn't at all smooth and it didn't give you the same velocity as a metal slide on a playground, but we were tired of the swing.
So I slid down, if you could call that utter lack of speed a slide. Daniel had to take my hand to climb up. Then he slid down.
And started to scream.
I had no idea what was wrong with him. I thought from the hysterical pitch that a bee had stung him. I tried to get him to tell me but he ran towards his house, still screaming, leaving me alone and dumbfounded. It didn't occur to me that I was wearing jeans, and he was wearing shorts, and the roof of the doghouse was bristling with splinters.
Mom was as mystified as I was. She sent me over to see if he was all right. I had never gone to the front door before, but I rang the bell and stood, fidgeting, with the sinking feeling that I was going to be blamed for it, whatever had happened. I was right. I could hear muffled crying inside, and that worried me.
"Just a minute!" Hostile, nothing like the polished politeness I associated with Daniel's mother. She opened the door, glaring over my head before she looked down at me. "Oh, it's you."
That was all she said. She turned her back on me and left the door hanging open. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to follow her, or what. Finally I did.
Daniel was lying on the kitchen table in a circle of lamps that didn't belong there, on his stomach with his pants down and a small array of shiny things beside him. I thought they were playing doctor for a minute. I was pretty close to correct, except I guess this wasn't playing.
His mother sat down again, which increased his crying. He was dappled from nearly his waist to mid-thigh with tiny dark marks and little streaks of blood. He gave me one teary look and hid his face, embarrassed. She tilted a magnifying glass that's mounted on a gooseneck, picked up a sewing needle and tweezers, did something to his left thigh that made him wail so long he ran out of breath. She didn't look at me, only said "Well, I hope you're happy."
She sounded like she hated me.
I understood, now, what had happened, and I whispered, "I didn't know, I'm sorry, I didn't think-"
"No. You didn't think. And you-" She jabbed hard at Daniel so that he shrieked and tried to squirm away. She dragged him back by one ankle. "Maybe you'll think next time before you let Erik talk you into something as stupid as this."
"I'm sorry," I said.
I said it to Daniel and not to her, but she sniffed and said. "You should be."
I watched for a minute longer. His mom would scratch at each splinter, not being all that careful, until she could get hold of it with tweezers. Mom had done the same thing to me once when I got one in the top of my toe, and I'd had to go very, very far inside my mind to keep from screaming. Apparently Daniel didn't know that trick; he screamed until his voice sounded like mine had last winter when I'd had a terrible cough. Finally I mumbled a bye to him, let myself out.
I stayed on the porch for as long as I dared, listening. The screams were lovely. Magickal. All my fault, and somehow more delicious for that. I felt bad that Daniel was hurt, but it wouldn't help him any for me not to enjoy the screams, would it?
I replayed them in my head for days. They made me feel scared and sick and
joyful. There was something in it like the sensation I got in my stomach when I flew out of the swing. I hoped he forgave me before his marks went away, if he ever forgave me at all.
That probably would've been the last straw, if his mother hadn't been too busy to really care. I thought she was mad because she had to spend hours removing Hell knows how many splinters, instead of watching television or whatever it was that she did. Now I guess it scared her or worried her, or something, but I still think of how she looked down her nose at me and suspect my first theory was the correct one.
I wished I'd offered to do it myself. I thought of wringing that kind of scream out of him, of having real shiny pointy sharp things against his skin, and it made me positively crazy. It must have taken hours and hours. Hours of that. All for me, wasted on Daniel's nasty vacant mother who had seen it as a chore.
The green book's pictures had made it all seem so, tame. So quiet and orderly.
I knew I liked to hear the kids at school scream when a teacher paddled them. I was scrupulous about not getting into trouble myself. The other kids predictably hated me, and framed me once for
who cares what. When the cunt of a teacher told me she was going to paddle me I told her if she did, I was going to hit her back until I killed her. She told me to sit down, and she pretty much left me alone after that. Now, that'd have been reported to a shrink or something, but back then I guess she had no idea what to do about it, so she did nothing. Lucky her, because I was serious.
I'd never thought of the open, red pictures, and the screams together. I'd never imagined those two, delights, overlapped.
Now, I could think of nothing else. I wished I'd stayed to watch.
I wished it had never happened to begin with, because I was sure Daniel would want nothing to do with me ever again.
Daniel tapped on our back door a few days later and asked Mom if I could come outside, just like always. Once she set me free and we were alone I hugged him hard, something I'd never done before, and said I was sorry over and over.
I wasn't exactly, sorry, now that I knew he still liked me. I was glad he was all right, and I was glad I wasn't in trouble. Part of me wondered if I could get him to do it again.
He shrugged, still looking a little embarrassed. He couldn't swing, he said, but did I want to play trucks?
I suppose it was inevitable that we'd be caught.
Dad, with his usual logic, instead of sanding down the roof or forbidding us to slide down it anymore tore the doghouse down. Spiders, now homeless, fleeing through the dead leaves while I watched mournfully until I was made to help drag scraps of carpet and wood to the curb. Now there was a dead rectangle on the ground like a grave where I'd first loved as much of a boy as I could touch. This left us with no trysting-place. Fucking grownups.
Daniel's parents had two yippy poodle-dogs and a plastic-tent over what used to be a porch where they lived. It connected to the house through a glass wall. I suppose we chose that because it was still a doghouse, in a way.
I have no idea why we didn't realize anyone could see us from the living room. Probably because it was the babysitter who was there till sunset most days, and she was forbidden to use the living room in favor of the less-expensive den. Daniel's mother was home and we didn't know it; the phone rang in the living room, and she walked in, picked it up, and saw us in a very fucking compromising position, clear as day in the sun-room through the glass wall. We weren't ten feet from her. And we'd long since quit bothering with the doctor's kit every time, so there was no possibility of fudging the truth with excuses about studying or being a surgeon.
I was ordered home. Daniel's mom was in tears, which scared me plenty, since I knew Moms used that to make Dads start swinging. I went home and went straight to my room and waited for what I figured would be the worst beating of my life.
What pisses me off about all this, now, is that I'm pretty sure sex-games are normal between kids, gay or straight or whatever. It's the stuff with the knife that should've been the real problem. Grownups.
She called my parents and told them I was forbidden to see, talk to, visit, or I guess even think about her precious boy, ever again. She didn't tell them why. They nagged at me every minute of every fucking day for what was probably a week or more, begging me to explain it. As amusing as that should've been it really wasn't. I couldn't think of a lie that would shut them up, and I didn't want them to have this, too, when they seemed determined to have and control everything about me, inside my head and out in the world.
Finally I was so sick of it I told them. I knew, somehow, not to mention anything about surgery or screams, but otherwise I told them pretty much everything. I was hoping it would, hurt them, somehow. They always got their way, anyway, and I was too tired of it and too, griefstricken and lonely to fight them anymore.
I didn't get in what I'd call trouble. I think they were too flabbergasted to even know where to begin, like that teacher was. I was forbidden to ever ever ever play any game like that again. I shrugged at this. I'd been forbidden to play any game like that to begin with, unspoken or not, and I had decided that it wouldn't stop me any more than it ever had next time I got another chance.
Sometimes I would see Daniel in his backyard, playing lonely little games and staring wistfully towards the fence between our houses. I'd sit on the back deck as close to his house as possible, but his fucking mother must've had a periscope or something, because she'd scream for him to come inside right now as soon as I'd gotten comfortable. As if I might get him dirty by squinting at him through the honeysuckle.
What I'd done to him had always made him smile. He'd never cringed away from my hands. Every second I'd spent subjecting him to my evil he'd looked secretly delighted. Now he looked empty and desolate, now that he was safe from me.
Right about then Dad handed down from on high that we were moving. He said it was because the house was no good, but he was home suddenly an awful lot, and I'd seen him looking through the part of the newspaper that had tiny little words in tiny little boxes. I'm guessing someone at work had noticed the reek of alcohol I noticed most mornings at breakfast and suggested that he not let the door hit him in his drunk ass on the way out.
Daniel came to the fence while men were loading all of our stuff into a great big truck backed into the driveway. He whispered "Erik, Erik!" until I saw him. It was easy enough in the chaos to sneak over to see him. "I don't want you to go."
"I don't want to go." I didn't. The new house had a backyard, but it was all walled in, with no trees. And no Daniel. "I'm sorry I got you in trouble." Again.
He shrugged. There was too much green between us, but I could see one oceancolored eye through the diamonds of the wire fence. "Mom said it was nasty. And she said you were crazy."
"Did you-" I couldn't finish it. I had no idea what I was asking.
"No, I don't believe her." He put his mouth into one of the diamonds, and I kissed him with leaves in my eyes. Behind him, his mother screamed for me to get away from him. She got her wish.
Before we left that city for good, a few years later, we were in the neighborhood and my parents drove by so they could snipe at how the new owners had fixed up the house and made the yard all kinds of beautiful. Daniel was in his driveway with a skateboard. He was taller, his baby roundness gone, his hair longer and darker. He was exquisite.
I waved. He squinted at me, for a minute, with the first sad ghost of standard male hostility towards any stranger. Then he recognized me, and his face lit up like Christmas.
Observe the damage I apparently inflicted on him.
He waved with all of his darling little might. I waved back with a furious hunger from teeth to stomach to dick. Damn them. Dad lost his job and the nice beautiful house, but he could get a new job, a new house. I'd yet to find a new Daniel and at the time I didn't think I ever would.
My Dad noticed. He immediately lost all interest in making fun of the landscaping. He drove away as fast as possible.
I waved, stared, ached. I didn't cry. I knew better than that, now.
Dad turned the corner with a squeal of tires.