Amsterdam store front, March 22, 2016
I envied Andrew Gabler for all he had that I didn’t have. He wore name-brand clothes, had chestnut-brown hair that shone, was good looking and built, athletic, played soccer better than I did and wrestled (though I always thought wrestling a bit homoerotic), and lived on the west end of town, where all the pretty girls lived.
But Andrew was Jewish and around Christmastime he’d complain about all the lavishness of the holiday and commercialism, he’d wrinkle his nose and go on about the fake niceties and tradition, we disingenuous Christians, and as he did, I thought he just sounded like a spoiled brat.
It was almost Christmas one Saturday my parents were gone and I invited Andrew over because I thought I had something he’d want, alcohol. It was hard to get as a 14-year-old, and my parents didn’t normally keep it around, they didn’t drink, but they were hosting a Christmas party and had stocked up, and I’d heard of something called a kamikaze which meant you mixed all the liquor together in the same glass and chugged it, so I did: gin, tequila, whiskey and rum, the browns and the whites, and I stood there bracing myself at the kitchen sink wanting to puke but unfortunately didn’t, not yet: and after it settled in and Andrew had some, we decided we’d walk the short walk from my house to the McDonald’s, they had something new on promotion called a McDLT: hot on one side, cold on the other (they made it sound so special, but it was just an open-faced bun, with fresh tomato and lettuce). And we bounded in giggling and ordered and paid and staggered home, it’s amazing we didn’t die, and then Andrew went home, and I got sick.
The house was the second place I’d lived, our first real house since we’d lived in a two-bedroom apartment most of my childhood, and because I was an only child I got the upper floor, one bedroom for TV and video games, a bumper pool table—the other, my bedroom facing the street below.
When I got sick it was in 360 degrees on both rooms. It was like a scene from Monty Python in its garishness, the scene with the fat guy having a mint after dinner and blowing up, his heart and rib cage exposed: that was me, spraying the walls, the carpet with molten lava, pinks and oranges, rust-colored stomach bile and grease.
And because I was still drunk, I cleaned it up with the Yellow Pages, I gathered it in the folds of the pages and tried to scoop it, and throw it in the trash…and then, used some dirty clothes to gather up some more, and threw that in the laundry hamper…and then to erase the rest I got out the vacuum cleaner my dad used to suck the ashes out of the coal stove and ran that for a while and then returned it to its spot, and when my parents got home, they asked what smells.
I guess being 14 I was still of the age (I see this now in my kids) where I felt like things got put away for someone else to deal with. Like, out of sight, out of mind: you put stuff in a laundry chute and it just disappears, for someone else to manage. That was my logic with the vacuum cleaner. I just assumed the puke would get co-mingled or lost with the ashes, and that would be that.
I told my mom the cat got sick (we had four at the time), and she said WHAT, ALL OF THEM? AT THE SAME TIME? And I probably nodded and slunk away and left it at that, and heard bit by bit as they discovered the remains of my mess on the other floors, their anger and slamming things and mumbling and cussing, and when I saw Andrew back at school I hoped he wouldn’t view me poorly, I cared more about what he thought than my parents.
After I grew up and moved out west and started a family, we began going back to Pennsylvania every Easter. It was our annual visit with my dad’s side of the family (my mom and dad had gotten divorced, and mom moved to Germany with her new husband, John).
Because I felt proud of the lifestyle we’d landed for ourselves and our children, it was important for me to take my kids to see the places where I’d lived, thinking it might have some profound effect on them, to see how good they have it by comparison.
We didn’t live in bad places at all in Pennsylvania, they just weren’t as charming as where we live now. The apartment was one of a series of red brick units staggered alongside a hill across a busy street from a park, and it was that park where my mom and dad and I would sometimes go with our toboggan when it snowed, or on Easter Sundays we might pack a picnic and peel colored eggs there and sit in the grass, and feel like spring had finally come.
I’d go back alone or with the kids trying to recreate that, trying to find something more. Maybe that’s being nostalgic or inclined to write memoir, I just kept going back, looking.
But of course it didn’t work, the kids were either uninterested or bored, and I couldn’t blame them. It became clear it was my problem to work out, so I’d find a couple hours in our visit I could steal away in the rental car, and slink around the old house on 12th street, the one where I got sick that Christmastime with Andrew.
It was a style back east they call r0w-homes, where all the houses are connected to one another and separated by a small front porch, many with screen doors and similar looks to them.
I drove around the back to the alley and peered in at that little yard, and how sad and congested and poor the people looked who must have lived there now. And as I got to the end of that alley there was the house where my old friend Donnie Short once lived, and what could only be his mom out back in her sleeping gown, now old as death, gathering up things in plastic garbage bags, either moving out or disposing the remains of someone recently deceased…and our eyes connected for a minute and I thought how strange, she hadn’t seen me in 30-some years or more, would she even remember who I was if I said anything to her…but why would I, and would I even remember myself?
I parked across the street from our old house and took a picture of it with my phone, and just then it rang and it was my mom, calling from Germany to wish us a happy Easter.
She asked where I was and what I was doing and when I told her I could hear her react on the other end of the line, and how odd it was, to imagine going back in time and being here, that one day in the future she’d be living in Germany and me in Seattle, and here we’d be talking to one another through a cellphone on 12th street—that was unimaginable then, as far away and hard to believe as talking to someone on the moon.
Post title from the song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Bob Dylan, 1965.