Monthly Archives: February 2010

Strange Dreams

Strange dreams

We awake atop the bluffs at Luffenholz Beach, just north of Arcata, just north of Moonstone Beach. Ven, Raquel and I decided to camp in a tent. The sounds and smells were heightened all night. I didn’t get cold until about 3:00 a.m., when the wind switched directions, became a gale.

Upon awakening, stillness. My tights had shimmied down, my socks loose like fins, all night I felt like a sardine. As it got progressively colder, Ven and Raquel immersed themselves into their goose down sleeping bags. I, on the other hand, froze. I’ve had to urinate since half way into the night.

I do so now, then jump back into my bag as the other two rouse.

We sit up, warmed by the sun, peeling off clothes, and talk about the night.

“Did anybody dream?” Raquel asked. Her thick hair sticks in all different directions.

We’d all had strange dreams.

“In my dream,” I said, “I was a lot younger, running though fields. There’s a tent, I’m supposed to meet friends. But when I go inside, I don’t recognize anybody. They’re all strangers. Then it becomes a stream, present day. I’m floating down a gentle current, laying back in a canoe, staring at big, puffy clouds.”

“Sounds lovely,” Raquel muses, laying back against the tent floor.

“Sounds hallucinatory?” Ven said. “Maybe influenced by our talk of L.S.D. yesterday?”

“Yeah,” I agree. “Could be.” We’d actually talked about the psychoactive properties of peyote. Ven is reading a book about medicine men, shamans, and rituals that use hallucinogens for purposes of having visions.

Raquel’s dream was about a turtle thrown from a truck. The whole dream focused on that one course of action. “It represented my feelings,” she said.

I didn’t follow. “How do you figure?” I asked.

“Well, you guys are going to stay in Humboldt.” She motioned out toward the land where our tent sits, on a promontory separating the beaches of Luffenholz and Moonstone. “On the other hand, I return to the madness known as Manhattan.”

“Ah,” Ven sighed, nodded, as if he understood. I was still unsure.

There was a sad pause, crows cawed. The swells of the Pacific whooshed.

“What was your dream, Ven?” I asked.

“It was too personal.”

“Too personal?” Raquel teased, elbowing him.

“No,” he shook his head, emphatic. “Graphic.” He blushed, twisting the ends of his glimmering long hair.

The early morning sun creates a hazy filter. It is the celestial being of worship. A powerful source of warmth and light. The city feels light years away. In these surroundings, one is reminded of the days before urban communities existed, when befriending cultures worlds’ apart was not uncommon.

When we arrived in Arcata yesterday, we went to Luffenholz Beach to explore. It was low tide and we saw starfish hugging a rock, their home. We saw barnacles and other sea creatures that waited for the salty brine they depend on to eat, sleep and behave. We looked at rocks: moon gems. They seemed pearly, diffused, and ancient.

There is a sanctity here, aligned with eternity. Feels raw, so uncommon. As we walked on the beach, I wondered, why do we always turn to people for these needs? There is something about humans being from this- their natural composition, their inner beauty. But amidst the fierce roar of the ocean’s floor, the senses overload.  I feel a humble desire to be synonymous with the love of the beach for the waves, the sun for the dew, the birds for the new day.

“Anyone for coffee?” Raquel wonders.

I nod. Rub my eyes.

“Wildflower Café it is,” Ven says.

Grin & Bear It

Grin & Bear It

I don’t know why I hated houses so much. Maybe they reminded me of the house I never had, the house I didn’t grow up in. I never met my dad, and mom kicked the bucket when I was three. My grandparents, her folks, took us in. My brother was barely born, an infant. We were raised at Grin & Bear It, a nudist community near San Jacinto, outside of Palm Springs. I know what yer thinking- all those tits and bush. And hairy backs, dangling balls. But I was a kid. I didn’t see people that way.

Still don’t.

I’m in San Francisco now, staying in the Mission. Got a friend with a Ford F-150 who lets me sleep in the back. Today we worked on a new house, one of those massive McMansions near Mt. Diablo. I guess its ironic. I build houses, make custom furniture. All these jobs that have to do with homes. And I don’t live in one.

I mean, what’s in a house, anyway? We build these huge shells, eventually filled by people who are rarely home. Instead, they take extended vacations to places like Costa Rica or Fiji, heliski on back bowls of Whistler, scuba in Aruba. I don’t get it!

And don’t get me started on the whole “ownership” aspect. In my book it’s over-rated. My friend Trent with the truck says it’s the American Dream embedded, (micro-chipped was his word) into our culture. I say it’s the American misnomer.

My brother asks me, “But don’t you miss living somewhere, like a neighborhood? With neighbors and all?”

I say, “Are you crazy?” Most folks I know hate their neighbors. I work with this dude from New York, lived in one of those high-risers, hundreds of residents crammed into a building. Ten years. Never knew a single one.

Recently I got a P.O. Box so Gran and Gramps won’t worry. They send postcards from Grin & Bear It about once a week. Usually get some resident to scribble some sweet message” “How’s it hanging?” or “Free to be, you and me.” That sort of stuff.

And I got things covered- my membership at the health club on Market Street provides health and cleanliness benefits.

Plus, I don’t have to answer to anyone. Works for me.

I Move for Love

I Move for Love

In 1987, I moved for the only reason I ever have: love. We’d met at Boy Bar, a club on St. Mark’s in the heart of NY’s East Village. Doug was bound for St. Kitts, a family vacation. We shared two intimate nights before he jetted off to the isles. While there, he sent two colorful postcards, illustrating dark exotic island natives in vivid beach scenes.

Doug returned to Los Angeles the week between Christmas (which as a Jew, he didn’t observe) and New Year’s. Our lengthy phone calls prompted me to spring for a round-trip ticket, arriving on New Year’s Eve.

It was my first trip to the west coast. Exposed to the chilly December evening air, we sped down Sunset in his Cabriolet convertible, top down,  heat blasting. I was charmed by the immense palms and the roller coaster effect of the canyon roads, the varied colors of the apartment buildings, ubiquitous neon signs, unfolding neighborhoods: Westwood (where Marilyn Monroe was buried), Belair (where the Clampetts lived), Beverly Hills (omigosh- Rodeo Drive). Seeming like the dreamy pages of a glossy magazine, it was intoxicating, fresh, and fascinating.

On New Year’s Day, I called a pal in New York to wish him a happy birthday. Tom mentioned an apartment that our friend was subletting in East Hollywood. When I called, Robin was enthusiastic. She said the manager lived in the adjacent unit. Things were progressing nicely with Doug, so we drove over that afternoon. Doug lived in cushy West Hollywood, and was wary about the location. Howard, the manager, showed us the spacious two bedroom duplex. After, we stood on his front porch facing the beckoning Hollywood sign framed by the Santa Monica Mountains. I asked the rent, expecting it to be pricy. Two-sixty he said. I thought he meant per person, so I did the math. 520? Nope, he shook his head: that’s the entire rent. I was shocked; it was considerably less than my New York flat, and easily quadruple in size.

I called my room-mate, Gregory. We’d often daydreamed about California while attending college in upstate New York. He was easily convinced. We gave two weeks’ notice and early in February, loaded my Mustang and hit the road. It was our first cross- country car trip. It took an entire week and we slept in raunchy highway roadside motels. We learned about rocky mountain oysters in Colorado. In New Mexico, we were certain we spotted UFO’s in the evening sky. We stopped at the Grand Canyon and sat on the wall overlooking the immense abyss.

Los Angeles was quite different to New York. They’re compared constantly, and yet there is no similarity. People would say, hello, how are you, and I’d think, whaddya want? Groups are a big Los Angeles trend, and Doug was affiliated with Young Artist United. It was fledging actors and writers motivated to help high school kids with social problems: druggies, rebels, outcasts. I got involved with a speaking network where Meg Ryan, Daphne Zuniga, Sarah Jessica Parker or Bruce Toms would go to a school and just talk with kids. It wasn’t preaching to them as much as telling our own stories, and identifying with their problems. It was a huge success, and the concept began to get attention from the media. Eve Plumb, who’d played Jan on The Brady Bunch, was on the Board of Directors, as was Doug.

Shortly after Doug’s parents visited that March, our relationship dissolved. Perhaps they weren’t smitten by his unemployed writer boyfriend. On the other hand, Eve and my roommate, Gregory were getting cozier. I’d call Andrea, my best friend in NY, and laugh about my room-mate sleeping with Jan Brady, all grown up. Los Angeles was like that; a magical 1970s sitcom, without the conventional laugh track. Jennifer Jason Leigh lived directly below my writing partner. We’d see Charlie Sheen during brunch at Brite Spot on Sunset. When a friend became Billy Idol’s hair and make-up artist, I was hired as his stand-in for the “L.A. Woman” video, and actually appeared, dancing atop a staircase. Don’t blink, you might miss me!

The bubble came crumbling down in early May. I arrived home from my job at Hamptons, slinging burgers and fries. While scanning my mail, I listened to a phone message from my eldest sister. Her formal tone suggested something was wrong. I took a quick shower, then made green tea and slowly dialed her number. She asked if I’d read the Sunday paper. I said no. She went on to explain that my close childhood friend had been murdered. According to the New York Times, his body was found in a hotel room in Bangkok. James had finished his doctorate at the University of Tokyo, and I knew he was traveling. His last postcard was from Hong Kong, and I was expecting him any day in Los Angeles.

I was beyond devastated; heartbroken and numb. I made two quick calls; first to Gregory, who was a fitness trainer at the Sports Connection. He’d also known James, and he came home immediately. Then I called Doug. We’d remained friends, and he stayed those first few nights with me. It seems like a blur now, twenty years later, but my entire experience of Los Angeles changed that fateful day. I probably experienced some kind of break-down, but it was undiagnosed, and I embarked on a two year odyssey in search of some  reconciliation for my soul. James and I had made a pact: we’d be Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple. He was supposed to be the guy who’d outlast all the others.

That summer, I helped a friend move to San Francisco. Bobby was HIV positive and wanted to experience his last days in his favorite city. I painted his new apartment, played piano for him, read my poetry aloud. For catharsis, I’d write every morning at Café Flore or New Dawn. One morning, I met Herb, who was co-producing an evening of new One Act plays at Merry The Dog Theater. I said I’d been working on a one act. Intrigued, he listened to my pitch: it’s about a married couple: Wife’s bedridden, but screams orders from the bed, like a raving lunatic. Husband is a caricature of a man, puppet and clown- like, nervous, skinny, jerky. There’s a narrator on the sidelines, maybe just a voice in the dark. It’s revealed that Wife was bedridden from loss of a baby. Husband becomes fed up with her hostility and is seduced by the Narrator into trying to snuff out her life with a pillow at the end. Audience sees her legs flailing as he suffocates her while the lights slowly fade to black. A match is struck to reveal the Wife standing beside the bed, and the Husband lying there, presumably dead. She throws the match at the bed, and walks through the audience and out of theater.

Herb loved the concept, asked if it was completed. I lied and said that I had the beginning written, but it was at my Los Angeles apartment. He said he could try to hold a spot for me based on our meeting. But to convince the other producers, he’d need at least a page or two of dialogue and the plot summary. I said no problem thinking, can I actually do this?

I returned to Los Angeles, and wrote the play in less than a week. The title, BOINK: THE MARTYRDOM OF SAINT SEBASTIAN had nothing to do with the piece, but I liked the way it sounded. It was selected for the January 1988 festival and I moved to San Francisco to cast and direct my first play.

Some time during this process, I realized that I’d set some internal wheel in motion.

James, my childhood friend, was a writer. Before turning 25, he’d co-authored a book with a professor at Cambridge University. I have no doubt he would have had a brilliant writing career. When his light was extinguished, I eventually realized the desire to write for both of us.

And twenty years later, I’m still doing it.

Felix, I still am.

The Wait

The Wait

She lies in bed, wondering: what will it be like? The end.

Fran waits, apathetically, hoping the telephone will ring and it will be someone she likes on the other end. Lately, it’s mostly bill collectors’. Or it’s Sylvia, who is desperately lost. Or Maya, who she still has to translate into English.

Earlier that night, Fran watched a Lifetime movie about a woman. She’d had a horrible car accident, and wasn’t able to work anymore. When she died, she was alone. This really struck a deep chord in Fran. That poor woman. The same thing could happen to her, Fran worried.

On nights like this, when no-one calls, Fran looks through her A T & T phonebook at names that sound or resemble an old lover or acquaintance. Fran jots them into a little notebook. She keeps long lists of people’s names, then memorizes them in alphabetical order.

Olympic Judge

The Olympics

“I love the Olympics,” she said, her enthusiasm showing on her beaming face. “I even cried when they played the national anthem for Bode Miller. When he finally won his gold medal.”

“Uh huh,” he said, turning the stocks page of the newspaper.  “Is there any more coffee left?” It was the first time he’d spent the night. Up until now, he’d always left after they had sex.

She poured the remainder into his mug. “You’re not even listening to me,” she said.

“Yes, I was. The Olympics. I watch them too.” He smiled, patted her hand.

“You do?” She was pleasantly surprised. Her best friend, Trudy, was skeptical. Had told her, I don’t think you two have anything in common other than your profession.

He set the newspaper down. “Sure. I like the Olympics. I watched the hockey match-Canada and the U.S. It was wild.” He added milk and sugar to his coffee, took a big swig. “I like your coffee. Is it Alterra?”

“It’s Caribou. Obsidian. “ She got a sudden chill, pulled her robe tighter. “Did you see the Ice Dancing?”

“What’s that?” He bit into an everything bagel. Picked up the newspaper again.

She tried not to look at him while he chewed. “I think it’s called Ice Dancing? Not pairs, but another partner skating event? Anyhow, they had to choose a national dance from a country, like a folk dance. There was this crazy Russian team.”

“Crazy and Russian; isn’t that equivalent? ”

“Maybe. But this one Russian team, they wore these Aboriginal costumes.”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing.”

“My point exactly. They had body stockings, art painted on them, fake bushes and leaves appliquéd to the costumes, even her skates had leaves sticking out the tops.”

“Sounds ridiculous. Which is why I stick to hockey matches. You know what you’re going to get.”

“I wish I had. Their skating was a joke. I kept thinking about how these Olympics opened by honoring all of the indigenous Canadian tribes. Remember?”

His nose was buried in the paper again. “Huh?”

“We watched them together. Anyhow, these two goons stuck out their tongues, aped at one another and the audience the entire time. He dragged her around by her frizzy ponytail.”

He peered around his paper. “Sounds like pre-historic s and m.” He raised his eyebrows.

She laughed. “They even went so far as to mimic the hand over mouth gesture associated with American Indians.” She stood, picking up their coffee mugs, placing them in the sink. Pantomimed the gesture.

His mouth dropped open. “And they probably ended up in first place.”

“They were third after everyone skated. I thought they should have been disqualified.”

He smiled. “Maybe you ought to get another degree? Become a judge?”

“The next Judge Judy? Nah,” she said, “I’ll just stick to judging from my living room couch.”

Parrot Man

Parrot Man

It was our first morning on the beach. Perfect sun, scant clouds on the low horizon, my tummy full of fresh mango, papaya and pineapple. We’d arrived at our resort late last night after an entire day of travel, mainly preparations: dropped Duke at the boarding kennel, asked local police to keep watch on our house, called my sister to say “hasta luego.”

And now, the beach. Aaahhh. I applied SPF, and watched Benny as he arranged his towel, and got out his latest Sidney Sheldon novel. Nearing 50, he looked great in his new checked blue suit, the board style that I preferred. Up to him, he’d wear one of those heinous ass- crack sliver of material things. As we all know, those who ought not to wear them always do, just like the skimpiest of bikinis. Chalk it up one to hot weather, yet the bennies of vacation outweigh the inconveniences.

“I wonder if our beach server will be the same this year?” Benny asked.

“You mean Serapio?” I chuckled.  “Don’t go too far in the ocean, it’s dangerous,” I imitated him. Except he’d say, “Down yer ass,” instead of dangerous.

“That guy was a perv,” Benny said.

We laughed.

“You’d better put on some SPF, it’s going to be a scorcher.” I handed him the bottle. Lay back against my towel, stretched out, all the way to my toes. “What a gorgeous day.” Average home temperature: 25. Here? 78.

Slowly, in twos and fours, people selected beach lounges near us.

“Look at the size of that iguana!” Benny said. “He’s climbing those massive rocks.” There was a breaker wall, twenty yards behind us, beyond that green grass, hotel rooms and restaurants.

“Guests probably feed them.” I gazed over, already fuzzy. It required me to sit up and I suddenly felt drugged, like the effort was way beyond my capability. “I don’t see it. ” I was glad, iguanas freak me out. They look prehistoric, like miniature dragons. Benny always re-assures me “they won’t hurt you” but we’re in their environment. And nature is unpredictable.

“Uh oh, I do see someone else,” I said, nodding down the beach.

“Oh, Christ, he’s up early.”

“Gotta sell to the fresh batch who arrive on Sunday mornings.”

How did we know? We were suckers our first trip here. It was our honeymoon, so we were wide-eyed, eager. And yes, a little green, naïve. The Parrot Man photos were the least of our negligent expenditures. Pricey at 15.00 a pop, our favorite photo still sits on our antique hutch.

“Just pretend you’re asleep,” I suggested to Benny, fishing my iPod from my backpack.

“Hell, no,” Benny said. “These four are gonna get screwed! I want to listen,” he nodded toward the young couple and parents.  “They’re the ones who shared our transport from Cancun, remember? From New Jersey, getting married here this weekend.”

I nodded, watching the Parrot Man weave closer, trudging down the beach, a scarlet Macaw on his right shoulder, a blue gold Macaw on his left. Sure enough, he slowed by the new beach guests, the wedding couple ripe for picking.

“Hello, my name is Enrique, without the Iglesias.” They all laughed.

“Here we go,” my husband smiled, setting his novel down. “This is going to be good!”

The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox

The day is unrelenting, and yet it’s still early morning.

His alarm sounds way too soon. She is tired of waking up at the crack of dawn, in complete darkness, the daylight reducing. She’s just tired. Period.

The acrid smell of the recent San Bernadino wildfires lingers. How did she end up here? She misses the fall colors, the soft peaks of the Presidentials.

“Did you have time to make my lunch?” he asks. His suit looks new, pressed, hair groomed, sweeps off his forehead, like George Clooney. Well, maybe more like Jay Leno. She points at the lunchbox, thinking does he ever eat this crap?

She wonders how many trips she’ll make to the pantry, a room she’s considered locking. Lose the key. She misses sitting in the hot tub. Can’t do that now, doctor’s orders.

“Thanks, sweetheart,” he says, pulling her close. Her massive stomach, swollen with eight months of child causes him to arch forward to give her a kiss. She smells his overpowering cologne, nearly sneezes.

“Any big plans today?” he asks, grabbing his briefcase.

“Oh yeah. I’m running the Left Coast marathon.”

“Ha, ha, sweetie.” He laughs, his adam apple bobbing. “You’re a riot.”

A riot. She feels more like a failure.

A big, fat, heinous, gross, unattractive blob.

“See you tonight,” she says. Swallows her emotions.

He opens the garage door, starts to get into his Lexus. Turns around. “Oops. I forgot my lunch.” Turns back to grab it off the kitchen counter.

The kitchen is empty. It’s as if she’s disappeared.

Mail Order Bride

Mail Order Bride

I’m 19 next Wednesday and I’ve never used a tampon. Too scared to ask anyone. Not such big deal. I mean, for some people, but not me. No one ever tell me. I had no parents, at least not my own.

I’m Gulzina, now Tina. I’m from Kyrgyzstan. Never hear English until 12. Most of life I dodge bullets. Soldiers come after women. Young girls. I’m not sure how, was kind of like that game Vietnam prisoners played. I think, roulette.

Then, I wish I had gun, just one bullet in head. Would have done the trick.

I live in Oklahoma. Married to truck driver. His name Chip. How did I come here? Good question. I try to tell. They have ladies for purchase right? Like Tamika, at Sam’s Club. She’s a Tajikistan girl, from Pamir Alay Valley, near my country.  A mail order bride.

Yeah. Me too. Before, I had no address, or anything. Guess you don’t really need one.

First, when I come to U.S., we live in motel, the Chelsea Motor Inn. The owner’s buffalo lived in a field behind the motel. I stare at that beast. A woman, Mrs. Barlett, sit on bench. She wear curlers in her hair and have spotted hands. She smoke a lot, I remembered the men in Kyrgyzstan. She tried to talk to me, but I know so few English. I smile a lot.

I don’t drive. Tamika is my friend. She’s nice but she only know Farsi. She doesn’t want to study English. Okay, but I feel like I’m here now. I want to learn it.

Dana Hill

DANA HILL

I was lying in bed, and the muffled tones of my parents voices drifted through the heat register.

“What about them?” I heard Dad say.

“Oh, Dirk. You know that this isn’t about them. Don’t drag them into it.”

I could tell she was smoking, barely heard the exhale.

“Well, how the hell you think they’re gonna’ receive the news?” Dad sounded upset, but the way he did upset, that familiar way he shrugged off any emotion. Not something I could do, even when I wished I could.

“I’d be stupid if I turned down this opportunity,” Mom reasoned.

My heartbeat crept into my throat during the long pause.

“But Los Angeles, Miriam? It might as well be Tahiti.” Dad got up, could tell by his footsteps, probably retrieved another beer from the pantry. Everything in our two- hundred year old farmhouse creaked, even the curtains. “Christ, I don’t think there’s a direct flight from Manchester.”

We’d moved to New Hampshire during the Reagan boom. Dad excelled at finance, the stock markets soared in the early 80s before my brother, Bear, and I were born. Mom played cello with the New York Philharmonic, and they enjoyed the trappings of an upwardly mobile urban lifestyle. Their introduction to New England came when Mom took a summer teaching gig at Tanglewood, Massachusetts in 1984. Every year following, during the orchestra’s hiatus, Mom and Dad would leave the city and play in New England’s finest jewels: camping in Acadia National Park, hiking Mount Kathadin, boating on Lake Champlain. When Dad pushed to expand the family, Mom rescinded. Despite her protests, Bear was born in 1989. His name isn’t Barry as one might assume, it’s Brian. But I couldn’t say my r’s, so his name became Bwyan. I had a stuffed bear that I slept with, so I called my brother Bear one day. The name stuck, and he grew into it.

The voices below became more stifled, lower. I kicked off the patchwork comforter, feeling a tinge of perspiration, wondered if Bear was already asleep. I glanced at the clock on my bedside table. 11:35. I decided to check. Tiptoed to the door which was already ajar. I didn’t like it entirely closed, couldn’t fall asleep if my room was pitch black. Bear was the opposite, his room was always like a cave.

I opened his door and it creaked. The dank odor of sweaty socks and musty coolness greeted me as I stepped into the darkness. “Bear?” I whispered, trying to be heard over the creaky window fan. His bed was on the far side of the room. For just a flash, my forearm hair’s raised, imagining his body not able to be roused. I cleared my throat, choking back the fear.

“Bear?” I repeated, slighty louder.

“Huh?”

“It’s Randy, Bear. Ssshhh.”

“What the f, Randy?” He sat up, his night light clicked on. “I was totally asleep, man.”

I realized that I was only wearing boxers, felt awkward, wanted to run back to my room. Bear must have seen the look on my face.

“Come here,” he sat fully up, patting his bedspread.

I did what I was told.

He rubbed his eyes. “What’s going on?”

Suddenly I felt foolish, like a child, my insecurities circling in the air. I felt I could burst into tears; instead, I swallowed hard. “Mom’s leaving.”

Bear squinted, lay back against the headboard of his four poster bed. “What makes you say that?”

“I overheard them talking in the kitchen tonight. She’s gonna take the job in L.A.”

I fiddled with the raised pattern on Bear’s heirloom blanket, tweaking it so hard I could make a hole.

“Hey, stop messing with that,” Bear said. “Did she say when she’s leaving?”

“I came in here before they’d finished.”

Bear looked at me. “Come here,” he said, patting the empty spot beside him. “Lay

down.”

Again, I did as I was told. Lay beside Bear, staring at the stippled ceiling, felt numb. It wasn’t the first time she’d left, I reasoned. There was the time when Bear was 12 and I was 10, she’d moved to Boston to be closer to her job. The commute was killing her, she’d reasoned. That only lasted a year. But it was the only year my grades plummeted.

I closed my eyes and sensed the heaviness of my brother’s body next to mine.

“It’s okay,” Bear mumbled, as if he’d read my thoughts.

I rolled away from him. Wanted to say, oh yeah? What about when you leave for college this summer? What about Dad? I’ll be left to deal with him. Bear turned off his light and I felt his arm wrap around my waist, pulling me closer.

As I was falling asleep, I thought I heard the hushed sounds of Bear crying, but it might have been a dream.

By July, Mom and Bear moved to Los Angeles. Dad wasn’t home a lot, and when he was, he buried himself in books and booze. The rare conversation we had would go something like this:

Dad: School okay? Me: Yup. Dad: Got a girlfriend? Me: Nope.

We were like two tropical storms building toward different destinations. I missed Bear like hell, mostly the way he picked on me, or made bad jokes about our teachers.

Mostly I was just bored. Then one night, Dad actually appeared in the kitchen. I’d just started my favorite Swanson’s TV dinner: salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and peas.

“Spoke with your Uncle Chuck today,” he said. Took a swig of Molson’s.

“Oh?” It wasn’t like they never talked. “How’s he doing?”

“Says he could use some help on the farm.” Uncle Chuck lived in upstate New York. Had beef cows and boarded horses.

“You trying to get rid of me?” I couldn’t look at him.

“Of course not, son. Just wondering if you wanted a little adventure.”

Working on the farm didn’t sound much like an adventure. It had been ages since I last saw Uncle Chuck. He was dad’s youngest brother, and there were some wild stories I’d heard over the years at those rare family reunions: Ladies man. Trouble with a capitol T.  He never came to a single one.

“What about you?” It was an odd thing to ask, given that I hadn’t seemed to care since the day Mom and Bear left. I never once asked Dad are you okay? How are you doing? Just wasn’t our thing.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. Finished his beer and opened another.

I wasn’t the kind of kid to just jump. So, I said, “Let me think about it.”

Later, long after dad was snoring on the couch, I called Bear. “What should I do?”

He said, “Sounds fun. Would get you out of the house. You know if I had the bucks I’d fly you out to L.A. buddy. It’s amazing. The beaches and…the babes. Holy cow.”

I swallowed my jealousy. “Sounds nice. How’s Mom?”

“I rarely see her. She’s busy as hell with her job and getting settled. Plus, I’m near the UCLA campus. It’s in Westwood. She’s lives in the Hollywood Hills.”

“Uh huh.” I said, pretending I understood what that meant. I only knew Beverly Hills from that dorky TV show. “So, you think I should go? To Uncle Chuck’s?”

“Why not? What does Mom say?”

“I didn’t tell her.” Mom called almost every night, but after the first week, I didn’t get on the phone most days. I’d hear Dad answer, and could tell if they were arguing from the level of his voice through the heat register.

“Do it, Randy. Could really be a great time. Would get you out of that house, and you might even have some fun. Eww, imagine that, you having fun?” he joked.

“Bear, I’m worried about Dad. He never eats, just drinks.”

“That’s been going on for years. Just focus on yourself. I’m telling you, this farm option looks better and better.”

“It’s like our whole family is just-”

I heard him sigh. “Yeah, we’re not your typical picture postcard. But, you’re gonna be 16 in a couple of weeks. You have the whole world before you. And if you keep up your grades, you are, right?”

“I am, yeah.” I maintained an A average, just barely. Somehow made Honor Society every year.

“Good, because then you can apply to the colleges you really want. Come out here. We’ll get a place together.”

“Sounds good.”

“Listen, I have to get going. My room-mate needs the phone. Call me when you decide about Uncle Chuck’s.”

**********

The day I flew to Rochester was gray and overcast. The plane was tiny, I actually had to bend over to walk down the aisle. The seats were so small that the man in seat 6B had trouble fitting into one.

Turns out Uncle Chuck liked beer, too. Only he drank Genny Cream Ale. And unlike Dad, he’d offered me one. I pretended to drink it. Tasted watered down, like sun tea mom tried to make one summer. Got the ratio wrong.

Uncle Chuck’s ranch house was a typical one-level built in the seventies. He’d had the original farm torn down. “Shoulda seen it, Randy. Place was decrepit.” He took me on a tour. “Got about a hundred head of Herefords. “He nodded over the gate toward the barnyard. “This time of year the herd’s out to pasture. We only feed ‘em in the evening.”

A strong odor of manure mixed with the sodden smell of the barn. Swallows darted across the sky, their blue bellies lit up as they searched for bugs. I could hear peepers in the pond.

Later Chuck made dinner: t-bone steaks on the grill, and skewered peppers and onions. He even made a salad.

“I haven’t had one of these since Bear and Mom moved,” I said. I ate like it was my last day on earth.

“Slow down, you’ll choke.” He smiled.

I had a feeling this was gonna be fun.

“You like to fish?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Got a pond full of smallmouth bass. And there’s a trout stream in Ponderosa Park if you prefer that.”

“I wouldn’t know the difference.”

He smiled again. “We’ll do both.” He kind-of stared, so I looked at the antique hutch.

“You kind-of look like your mom.” Everybody said that. Usually didn’t bother me, but for some reason I felt weird. “You pissed off at her?” He used a toothpick on his molars.

“A little. I mean, it’s complicated.”

“Not really. She left. And from what your dad said, she didn’t take a contract like she had in Boston.”

I’m not sure why I felt like defending her, but I did. “It was a great career move.”

He paused. Did that staring thing again. “Career move? It’s your fucking father,

Randy.”

It took all I had to sit there. My breath came in spurts. He must have noticed.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean- you poor kid. Listen, forget I said that. You want more steak?”

I nodded. I was full, but I wanted to change topics.

“‘C’mon, kid,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “Let’s get you more eats.”

I followed him out to the kitchen.

**********

While I did the dishes, a mustang pulled up. I ran out to look closer. It was a red convertible with slick tires, and I’d heard its engine purr before the driver shut it off.

“Nice car,” I said, still inspecting.

“Thanks, he said, getting out. “I’m Lee.” He held out his hand.

We shook. I noticed his watch. “Randy.”

“I know, Chuck told me all about you.”

That was strange. What did my uncle know about me? “Oh.”

Then Chuck came out on the porch. “Hey, Lee. How’s the hot rod driving today?”

We walked toward the house. “Like magic,” Lee said.

We watched a Lifetime cable movie about a waitress who gets pregnant then forced to marry another man when the father of the child splits. It was sappy, mellowdramatic.

Uncle Chuck and Lee sat on opposite ends of the couch. Lee had his cowboy boots up on the coffee table. They drank a couple of beers. Not the six-pack Dad polished every night.

During a commercial, Uncle Chuck said, “I got you a cell phone. That way you can call your Dad, or your brother whenever you want.” I pretended not to notice he didn’t mention mom.

“Thanks.” Cool! I’d never owned a cell phone.

“It’s in your room. I can show you how to use it in the morning.”

Lee got up, went to the bathroom.

Uncle Chuck got this serious look on his face. “Lee’s gonna stay over.”

“Okay.” I thought it was better if he didn’t drive, the beer and all. “Do you want me to sleep on the couch?”

He smiled. “No, Lee sleeps here often.”

I forced a smile. “Oh, so-”

“He’s my partner.”

I heard the toilet flush. Nodded, the shock felt like a punch in my stomach. I had no clue what to say. A rug commercial was playing, the song was super cheery.

Lee sat back on the sofa. “So, did ya tell him?”

Uncle Chuck nodded. “You okay, Randy?”

“Yeah, fine.” I looked at the TV wondering what to do. It’s wasn’t such a big deal. I wondered if Dad knew?

“Both of your parents know,” Uncle Chuck said.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Lee said.

“He’s pretty sheltered,” Uncle Chuck said.

“I am not,” I blurted. It came out louder than I’d intended.

“See?” Lee smiled. “Kids are different now than they were when we grew up.”

“He’s not some kid.  He’s my nephew.”

Lee nodded.

I faked a yawn. “I think I’ll go to bed now. I’m pretty tired.”

Uncle Chuck stood up. “I’ll show you your room.” We walked back through the kitchen to an area off the family room. He switched an overhead light on. The room was large with nice decorations. The bed seemed huge. There was a bathroom attached, without a door.

“There are fresh towels in the bathroom.”

“Looks nice, “ I said.

“I hope we didn’t shock you. It’s just, well, you’re gonna be here for a few weeks. I wanted to wait, but Lee was insistent on telling you.”

“How long have you and Lee-”

“Three years. We were friend before that. It became something else.”

I sat on the bed. “You’re the first person I know who’s gay.”

“Lucky me,” he joked. It broke some tension.

“There is this kid in my class, James. Gets picked on horribly by the jocks. He’s really girly. Nothing like you guys.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I just assumed James is gay. But I kind-of avoid him. Even though we’re in all the same classes.”

“Sounds about right,” Uncle Chuck said. “Listen, you’ve had a long day. Sleep well.”

“Yeah. I’m glad I’m here.” I wasn’t just saying it for him. I’d meant it.

“Me, too. You need anything, come knock. The TV’s over there.” Showed me how the controls work. “We’ll get your phone hooked up after breakfast. I’m making berry pancakes. We pick the berries on our farm. I’ll show you where they grow.”

“Yum.” I wondered if Lee lived there when I wasn’t around.

“Give me a hug,” he said. “Good night, Randy.”

“Night.” Once he’d left, I sat in bed, looked around the room. What would Bear think? My eyes got heavy so I snuggled into the cozy bed, fell into a deep sleep.

Box Within a Box

Box Within a Box

I was bored, waiting for my friend to call, but that was nothing new.

My mother, Judy used to say, “Just find something to do.”

I’d whine, “But there isn’t anything to do.”

She’d say, “I’m not your entertainment committee.”

And I’d sulk away, usually to my room where I’d light plastic G.I. Joe’s on fire. Or surf the net, looking at dirty pictures that I knew I wasn’t supposed to. I sort-of grew out of that phase, not entirely. I still enjoy a good bonfire, and the net is, well, the net.

The phone rang. Anastasia, or Shannon. Who would it be?

“Yup?”

“Justin?”

“It is I.”

“Why are you talking so weird? Did I catch you masturbating again?”

“Yer funny, Stazi. What’s up?”

“Ray Ray from Tampa Bay and I are over. Done.”

I sat up, boredom slipping away like wildfire. “No way. What happened?”

“We went to Art Bar last night. Shannon was supposed to bring that dude, Carl. Turns out she had other plans, if you know what I mean.”

I fiddled with my laptop. “I’m not sure I follow you. Shannon and Ray Ray…?”

Stazi let out a groan. “I’m so stupid. I should’ve seen it coming. She was all over him on Tuesday night when we bowled at Bayshore. I hadn’t had a single drink. Ray Ray had about ten vodka tonics. I told him that night, we’re done. Finito.”

I thought it over. I’d just cut Ray Ray’s hair for a trade. Plan was he’d give me a tattoo. I wondered now if that would happen. “I guess it’s better to know his true nature now, rather than if you, well…”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I mean, what is it with guys? Can’t keep their dicks in their pants for a day?”

I sighed. The other line beeped. “Hey Stazi, hang on, k?” I clicked over. “Hello?”

“Hey Parker, it’s Ray.” He preferred my last name.

I hunkered down on the sofa. What luck! Both on separate lines simultaneously?

“Hey Ray, can you hang? I’ve got Judy on the other line,” I lied.

“Sure,” Ray said.

I clicked back over to Stazi. “Honey, that’s my mother.” The lies were flying out faster than darting bats.

“Aw, Judy? Tell her I say hi. And Jim Squared, too.”

My mom was on her second Jim. Long story, unimportant. “Will do, and hey, hang in there. Let’s go to the mall later? Or Alterra?”

“Okay. Anyplace where we won’t run into him. That asshole.”

We hung up, and my phone rang.

“Parker?” he said.

I smiled, it was Ray Ray. “What’s up, Ray?” Spill it all, man.

“Not much. Wondered if you wanna do yer tattoo today?”

My heart raced. “Yeah, that would be cool. Should I come to the shop?” Ray worked at Cutthroat Tattoes on the east side.

“Do you know what you want done?”

Oh shit. “I was thinking, maybe some Chinese letters. You know, like a box within a box?”

“Huh? I thought you’d be down for a spiral or a dragon image.”

“Nah. Got any books at the store?” I had no clue what to get. And the only place I could imagine a tattoo was my pelvis. That way it would only be private viewings.

“I was gonna do it at your house.” Ray paused. “Is that okay?”

Okay? What would Stazi think? Not to mention Shannon. The pot thickens. Aw, why not. “Sure, that’s fine. How about this afternoon? Say, around 3?”