(I'm trying to push through to the end, so this entry is a continuation of the Earl soap opera about my relationship with an older man in my teens. It's a direct sequel to Jim, from earlier this week.)
I wasn’t physically bullied a lot when I was a kid. I was teased, though. I can’t say for certain I was teased any more than any other children, but on my receiving end, it certainly felt like it. Anything seemed to attract hoots and catcalls of derision—the way I carried my books, the clothes I wore, the color of my sneakers, the way I cut my hair. Having to wear glasses from the second grade on got me a lot of attention. Later on, I’d be teased for the way I played kickball, or the fact I liked to read. I was teased for being smart enough that the school entered me in the city-wide spelling bee, then teased for losing and coming in second.
Nothing I did seemed to get anything but jeers from my peers, so my parents gave me the gift of endurance as a coping mechanism. They’ll stop teasing you if they don’t get a rise out of you, my mother would say. My father would add, The only reason they’re mean is because they want a reaction. They were right, to an extent. People would stop teasing me if I pretended not be affected by it. They’d grow bored and move on to something else for a while.
So I learned fairly early on to present a frozen face to the world in times of adversity, to keep my affect unruffled and rigid. Being made of ice when I’m under fire is my go-to reaction to this day. I freeze people out when they displease me, rather than ever let them see that they’ve gotten under my skin.
I can’t tell you that it’s the best course of action, but it’s instinct.
The last day I ever went to Earl’s house was one of those days I had to exercise my frozen-in-ice countenance for an extended period of time. I remember it as being a Friday or a Saturday in that late winter period that in the South felt an awful lot like the middle of spring. I’m thinking it was a Friday afternoon, because I spent a lot of Friday afternoons in Earl’s company. It was when he’d decompress, when we’d both fuck away the tensions of work and school and start the weekend off right. Even in the post-Topher days when I no longer wore Earl’s collar, Friday was still our day.
Only on this particular Friday, he wasn’t there.
I was used to being in Earl’s house on my own. It was allowed. I knew where he hid an extra back door key. I had free access to the refrigerator. I’d grab some junk food, hunker down on the sofa, and generally treat Earl’s home like some kind of boys-only clubhouse. That Friday, though, Jim was home. He usually wasn’t. His retail job was only part-time, and barely above minimum wage, if that, and I knew its hours well enough to ensure that I could predict pretty well whether he’d be hanging around to torture me or not. On this afternoon, I’d either miscalculated badly, or else things had changed enough around me and I’d not been there to notice. Earl wasn’t in the kitchen, or the den. And Jim was sitting at the kitchen table. I couldn’t really remember a time we’d been alone together—maybe ever.
“Your boyfriend’s in the dungeon,” he snapped.
Earl and Jim had a basement dungeon of sorts. It had a sling and a couple of sofas, and an area with a drain and a makeshift showerhead on a hose. By that day’s standards it was pretty elaborate. Compared to some of the basement dungeons I’ve seen since, with their finished walls and ceilings, their lighting, their sound systems and elaborate sex furniture, it was pretty bare-bones. Without saying much of anything, I walked to the basement door and opened it.
The stairwell was dark, and the basement inky-black beyond. I closed the door again. “He’s not there,” I said.
“Yeah, he is,” said Jim, in that shit-starting tone of his. “Go on down. He wants you to go down there.”
“He’s not there,” I said. I closed the door and put it on the chain.
For a minute he seemed like he was going to try to argue me into it. Then he rolled his eyes. “No shit, Sherlock. He’s upstairs.”
“His car isn’t even here,” I pointed out. I knew Jim was fucking with me. It was his favorite sport. I could have left—I should have left. I should’ve gotten on my bike, gone home, played cards with my mom, and spent a normal afternoon and evening with my family.
But one of the bad side-effects of living a frozen life in the face of adversity is that it teaches a terrible stubbornness. I was determined that Jim was not going to get my goat. In fact, I wasn’t going to let on that he was bugging me at all. I went to the refrigerator and poured myself a Pepsi and sat down at the table opposite him. Then I proceeded cooly, deliberately, to drink it as if I didn’t give a shit if he were there or not—just to show him.
“You got any money?” he asked. Then, when I refused to say anything, “You think you’re hot shit, don’t you?” Again, I said nothing. I didn’t look at him. My face was still as granite, and colder by far. I stared off into the distance, as if he weren’t even there. “Aw, come on.” He changed tactics, wheedling me now. “Let’s be friends.”
Even that didn’t get a reaction out of me. He said a couple of other things to try to make up his rudeness, but I knew Jim well enough to realize that he was just a shit who’d do anything to get what he wanted. When he realized I wasn’t going to look at him, he got up from his side of the table, came around, and planted himself right in front of me. He crouched down so that we were at eye level. “Seriously. Why can’t we be friends?” I just stared at him. My lips were pressed together. My eyes were cold, and betrayed nothing. “We should be friends. We’ve got a lot in common. We both have Earl.” He put both his hands on the arms of my chair. “We both want to make Earl happy, right? And you know what would make Earl happy? If you gave me all your fucking money, you little shit.”
I had expected a verbal sting on the tail of that particular serpent, but I’d not been quick enough to anticipate that Jim would make a snatch at my pocket and wrestle out my wallet. I scrambled for it, but he was off and running.
In high school I’d gotten a Land’s End wallet made out of some kind of canvas and fastened with velcro, which was very space-age at the time. I heard its loud rip as Jim ran off. Now, I am really hard pressed to tell you exactly what I kept in my wallet at that age. I didn’t have a driver’s license until I was twenty-one, so it wasn’t that. I don’t remember having more than five dollars in cash at any given time. I didn’t keep any form of identification. I was too young for credit cards. I might have kept my public library card, which was just a plain rectangle of cardboard embedded with a numbered metal plate for stamping. It didn’t have my name or address on it. In other words, there was nothing really too valuable in my wallet, and I knew it at the time, but it was my wallet and I wanted it back.
I didn’t run after Jim. That would’ve betrayed too much emotion. But I did sigh, and follow at a slow pace. I called out that he was acting like a child. True enough. I heard him pound up the stairs, calling out taunts as he fled. Then I heard the door to the third floor open, and the creaking of the rickety attic stairs.
I was furious with him, but I was still determined not to let it show. I must’ve had a few dollar bills in my wallet, because when finally I reached the little shithole that was nominally his room in the house, he was sitting on his bed and flipping through them. It really was a stinky little place, a gerbil’s nest of comic books and magazine porn and dirty laundry. I didn’t care about the money so much. “Where’s my wallet?” I asked. He shrugged. “Just tell me where you put my wallet,” I said, in a pained voice.
“I hid it,” he said, sounding pleased with his own cleverness.
“Tell me where you hid it,” I said, sounding long-suffering, but calm.
Back and forth we went, with him trying to get a rise out of me and me resisting, until at last he nodded in the direction of his closet. It was one of those old-fashioned closets prevalent in my part of town—deeper than the average hole in the wall and large enough to walk in, but not as organized as anything you’d see in a modern house. I didn’t see any reason to disbelieve him. So, shaking my head like a weary schoolteacher dealing with a real turd of a child, I sighed and walked over to the closet.
The floor was littered with his crap. Shoes, clothes, dirty laundry, an ancient shoe shining kit in a wooden box like the one my father had—only Jim’s had obviously not been used in years. He hadn’t been lying, though. My wallet had been tossed casually into the leg of one boot. It was sticking out at the top.
I bent over to retrieve my stolen property. Then I felt a rush of air, and the slam of the closet door behind me. The door hit my ass as Jim pushed it shut. By the time I managed to turn around inside the space, cramped by all Jim’s clothing hanging from the wooden rail above, I could hear him locking it from the outside.
“What are you doing?” I asked, annoyed. I struck the door with the heel of my hand a few times. “Let me out. You’re being stupid.”
“Gotcha, you little shit,” he called through the wood.
I crouched there, silent for a moment, certain that Jim would realize what an ass he was being. I was certain he’d unlock the door and make some asinine apology, and that I’d stalk away furious, but seeming unruffled.
I was wrong on all counts.