I have written 16,600 words of a new and very dark book. I knew all this dark reading was going to take me somewhere deliciously unpleasant. It has also brought some astonishing pleasures to me, and more laugh-out-loud correspondence than I've had in awhile.
Life is certainly a journey.
Anyway. If I follow that thought train, it's going to go deep. So how some dark instead?
I have never hated myself.
If I held the straight-edge to my flesh and pressed it until it drew blood, if I dragged bladed red patterns into my skin to carve a memory, it was always, always for love.
Never punishment, never mutilation, and certainly never self-loathing. Only this pretty-sad-bitter failure to have loved hard enough.
The pain. Oh. This I cannot describe, not really. The pain of the blade nothing compared to the pain of my regret.
I was wrestling three unruly plastic grocery bags as I came out of the store, one of which had slipped past my hand and strangled my wrist. About to start cussing out loud for real, a phrase floated out of the semi-darkness from twenty years back. A simple phrase that jerked my head to attention.
That was all.
Yesterday, dragging two unruly pre-adolescent boys and one angry teenage girl in and out of the same store, I might have not have heard. But five minutes ago, in the store alone for once, I'd stared at a Hershey candy display, picturing the neat little rows of rectangles that are exposed when an old-school Hershey bar is unwrapped.
He was leaning against the brick corner of the building, long dirty-blond hair almost obscuring his face, looking more ninety-eighty-nine Axl Rose than Axl looks these days. Just to give you an idea.
My breath caught, and crunched plastic handles slipped from my hands, all but the one tangled around my wrist.
I couldn't tell if he was smiling.
There are memories you share with only one other person in all the world.
My husband of all these many years knows a million things about me that no one else knows. If you asked him to spill my secrets, he'd come up with a few. Like how I text pictures of myself to his phone when I masturbate in the middle of the day, or how, if I'm reading a really good book, he can call my name three times with increasing volume, but I've been so transported away from my body that I don't even hear. He'd probably also mention that I can suck a golf ball through a garden hose, although no one needs to know that, and it's not true anyway.
Somewhere buried deep in his subconscious, he probably knows the candy bar story, too, but has filed it in that space of brain we all have for 'things not very important.'
When, indeed, it is one of the most important things of all.
"Jeremiah," I said to the tall, slim figure leaning against the building. For a second I couldn't say anything more. I'd looked for him, over the years, time and time again, and finally gave it up, deciding he must be dead.
He laughed. " Nice poem. My remembrance."
A surge of heat flashed through me, under my skin, over my skin, until my very fingertips broke a sweat. The last plastic-handled bag slid from my arm and hit the ground with a crinkled thump. It was a relief to let the burden fall.
He sauntered over and picked the bags up. "It's quick, now."
I shook my head, familiar with his way of leaving me in the dark. He'd always done it on purpose, I was sure, and was doing it now. "What is?"
And there was that old smile, the one that was almost a grimace, as if he'd had to teach himself in front of a mirror how to smile like a normal person. It didn't reach his eyes. But then, it never had. They'd always been aching pools of sadness. Well. When they weren't empty, that is.
"My name. Now. Quick."
The laugh came out of me, an embarrassing bark, but I couldn't help it. I'd always laughed easily. It was why he'd liked having me around, even while at the same time it was part of the reason he hated me. We couldn't possibly understand each other, but in the end neither of us tried very hard to change that. Even the candy bar never worked to change that.
The candy bar.
Sophomore year of high school – our first together in that building, a compilation of students from too many parts of the city. His friend, the one with no eyebrows, was in a class with my friend, and I can't even remember the hows or whys of the introductions, but it happened within the first few days.
And when schedules got smoothed out, there was not one person that I knew who shared the same lunch time as me. Except Jeremiah. Excuse me, now Quick. There are a lot of x's and even a q in that sentence. So odd. Almost as odd as this whole encounter.
I said he looked like Axl Rose, the original Axl, of course, not the fat balding adult Axl turned into. I thought maybe his facial expressions looked like Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, of Sid and Nancy, who, to tell you the truth, I'd never even heard of until Jeremiah. But prettier, of course. So maybe. There was no goth back then, you know, not for us, where we lived. Nearest thing to it was punk underground. It was, as near as I could understand, anarchist, anti-Christian, political, and angry. It wasn't emo, wasn't cool, and Jeremiah got hassled for it something fierce – punched, kicked, rolled into snow banks. Often right in front of the rest of us. Me.
His long, dirty-blond hair was a Mohawk, but I didn't know that until Halloween, when he spent his sleeping hours making it stand up in eighteen inch spikes. I have a picture of that, even, one of the only three photographs I have of him.
There was a photograph of Quick hanging by one corner from a drying string in the art room at the end of the year, an eight by ten black and white, his hair smooth along the sides of his face, his face unsmiling and tenderly naked without glasses. He was gone by then, and I almost stole it… but I supposed it belonged to the artsy girl, and I guess I hoped it was precious to her – she who'd had so much more of him than I ever had. Still.
I should have taken it. Now I picture it dumped in the trash by some clueless janitor, who had no idea and no care what he was throwing away – that he would just toss something that precious. I should known that whoever had snapped the picture would have the negative. I was naïve in too many ways.
I didn't take it. But it remains in my mind, and in full-color, even, so in a way it does belong to me.
He wore knee-high steel-toed boots, black, that zipped up the back, clearly twenty years before that became a fashion statement.
Only the misfits wore them.
His leather jacket was the standard motorcycle variety, heavy, purchased from a thrift store, and supple only after years of wear. New, it would have been stiff and uncomfortable, hardly tolerable.
He'd customized it, adding a British flag to the back, secured to the leather with riveted metal spikes. A hundred or more of the spikes dotted the jacket, covered the shoulders, sleeves, front and back of the thing. If ever something screamed keep your distance, it was that jacket.
I was fascinated. The urge to get close irresistible.
It still was.
"You saw it somewhere? The poem?"
He stood there, holding my grocery bags, then spread his arms, lifting the bags into the air, out to the sides of his waist. Title the scene Expansive Shrug Awkward with Plastic. His voice was flat. "I Google myself now and then, like everyone does."
I ran the words through my head briefly, trying to remember the first stanza, feeling faintly embarrassed that he'd seen something of my inner world. Which, of course, I'd happily flung out to the blogosphere, finally giving up on the possibility that he was still alive.
There's a childhood friend
You'll never forget
He's the one who affects you the most
He'll make your heart melt
With the things that he's felt
But the memory's only a ghost.
"I wrote it after you left," I said. "It's awful."
He shrugged with a rustle of plastic, almost looked angry. "Naïve," he said. "Just naïve. And that's not your fault. It's not like you could help your life."
I didn't know what to say. Does one apologize for a lack of childhood trauma? But I didn't have to say anything. He said it.
"It wasn't things, you know. It was… Pain. Poverty. Desperation."
He'd paused between each word, letting me feel just how much anger was nestled behind and between them.
I recoiled, just a fraction.
In a lot of ways, I prefer to be naïve.
"Fuckin' Candy Bar," he said. "I never forgot you. In fact, I'm completely amazed that someone so sheltered could still be alive."
"I thought you weren't. Alive, I mean."
His voice came at me like a weapon, then, vicious and hateful and spitting. "I'm glad it made you sad to think I was dead."
I stiffened, reached for my grocery bags. It was so easy to become the child I had been Before, hopelessly innocent, middle-class born and bred, brainwashed. The only fallback I had, the only way I knew how to cope with his being cruel to me, was first to agree with him, and then acknowledge that we were so, so different. "Yes, I mourned you. Mourned the fact that the silver spikes of your jacket only ever pressed into my body once… and more than that. I never felt like I was done with you because you just fucking disappeared. No goodbye, nothing. Back then – way back then –I attached myself to you and stayed, even when you were mean to me. I desperately wanted to love you, but you wouldn't allow it. So, yeah," I said. "I can see that it would make you glad. Even though you have no capacity to understand why."
I attached myself to him during that lunch period, on the excuse that I didn't know anyone else, but in truth, utterly fascinated because he was so polar opposite of every other person in my whole world. He didn't like it. Sometimes he was mean to me. "Why are you here?" he would ask, and every time he asked it, he looked baffled. My memories of those conversations are like an iPod track stuck on replay – just… very little script deviation.
"Because I don't know anyone else."
"You don't know me, either."
"But I will," I said, ever the optimist, though I understood that his "ha" in response was sarcastic, but choosing to ignore it.
In the mornings before school, and during break time, he stayed as far away from me as he could, and still be behind the red smoking line. Red-liners, they called us, you can smoke so long as you stay behind the painted red line. It was laughable, but much nicer for us back then than the tobacco free schools are now, I bet. And somehow my little group of friends gravitated toward him and Chill, the eye-brow-less friend, until they were enfolded. It was Chill's fault, really –making eyes at one of my friends, and I was making eyes at Jeremiah, and so the group just… kind of drifted around him. He didn't join my small group of friends; my group gravitated toward him until he was enfolded.
And I didn't make friends with Jeremiah so much as I forced him to be my friend, completely against his will. And no, that isn't one hundred per cent possible, so yeah, there was something about me that he couldn’t stay away from, even if he would never admit it.
I started bringing a Hershey bar to lunch. A peace offering. Just one, for the two of us to share. I'd open it and break up the rectangles, doling them out one piece at a time, one for him, one for me. Nothing so simple as halving the damn thing at the outset, no, and I'm not even sure why. We ate the small pieces slowly, letting them melt away in our mouths, maybe because it was easier than talking. Once in a while, I'd break my last neat rectangle in half, offer it to him, and we'd quibble over who should eat the largest of the minuscule piece.
Every day, one Hershey bar.
Until the day I didn't bring one, because I thought the candy bar didn't matter, I thought we were friends without sweet treats. But I was wrong.
The expression on his face was like I'd ruined his birthday.
It didn't happen again.
Yes, I was hopelessly sheltered and naïve.
It didn't occur to me that he didn't eat lunch because he couldn't afford lunch.
I should have brought him a sandwich.
I did try to buy him lunch, once or twice, but he was insulted, called me a bitch, and stalked off campus, and not return until the next morning.
I was too young to recognize pride.
I didn't eat lunch myself, because I spent my lunch money on cigarettes.
Standing here in the almost-dark, twenty years later, I said, "I should have given you a sandwich. Or nine of them. You were too thin."
He dropped all three grocery sacks at his feet, then raised his arms and held them out from his sides, palms facing the star-sprinkled sky. "What the hell difference does that make now?"
I shook my head, unable to explain just now about regret. About only having regrets about the things we didn't do.
"My old man kicked the shit out of me as many times a week as I managed not to avoid him. You gave me chocolate nearly every day. Believe me, it was appreciated."
"I'm sorry," I said, and it was almost a whisper. "I didn't know."
"I didn't want you to know. I didn't want anyone to know."