Triptychs – Chapter 1
Every time I think of you
I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue
It's no problem of mine
But it's a problem I find
Living a life that I can't leave behind
But there's no sense in telling me
The wisdom of the fool won't set you free
But that's the way that it goes
And it's what nobody knows
well every day my confusion grows
(New Order, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’)
Most people are polite, when it comes to my scar; either they pretend not to see it, or they say it’s nothing, almost unnoticeable, just a little mark. And to be honest, they’re almost right, it really isn’t all that bad; it’s not much of a scar, as scars go.
But it’s there. And it’s noticeable. I mean, really; I’ve got a mirror.
And every once in a while, someone – like my new friend Anda, this cute lesbian I met at a party, just a little while ago – someone will reach over and try to wipe the smudge off of my cheek, thinking it’s a line of red ink, or lipstick, or some other kind of shit. And then come the explanations, or the partial explanations, anyway, and the embarrassment . . . although Anda wasn’t embarrassed at all, actually, when she found out; she was totally cool and accepting about it. I really like Anda.
But. Anyway. The point is, I know it’s there. And I know people notice.
So, with those other people – the people who pretend they don’t see my scar – it’s the hypocrisy that amuses me; that, and the discomfort it causes them, the contortions they go into, to pretend they don’t see it. To pretend that it isn’t there. I mean, how hilarious can it be, watching people try to keep their eyes away from my cheek, then kind of look at it, then decide not to ask any questions - ?
It IS hilarious. And so, when it happens, I react the way I usually react to so many things, by breaking out laughing; usually at the wrong time. Usually in a way that embarrasses me, and whoever I’ve talking to, all at once. That’s kind of the pattern to my life; enter stage left, laughing, because life really is hilarious, and maybe laughing is the only response to it.
The scar itself? It doesn’t bother me at all.
I kind of like it, actually. It defines me.
“Hey, Mom,” I went; coming into the kitchen, the keys to the truck in my hand. “I’m heading down, now.”
“All right, honey.” Still that little bit of tension, between us; we’d talked about this trip, before. More than once.
I hesitated a beat, looking down at her a little. “I’ll probably get dinner with Cole and Jeremy, somewhere; but I won’t be late.”
“That’s all right, honey, take your time.” She went on slicing carrots, for the lunch salad she was building; the slow ‘thock, thock, thock’ of the knife hitting the worn, yellow cutting board, a thing that was a part of the furniture of my whole life; like the turquoise paint of the kitchen, and the places up in the corners where it was peeling. “Is Cole still going with you?”
“Yeah. I’m going to go get him now.” I shrugged. “He says he wants to see the campus.”
Another painful moment of silence; we both knew why. So I tried to change the subject; and of course, I chose exactly the wrong direction. “I’m pretty sure I can get all my books used; so don’t worry, okay? I can always borrow somebody else’s book, rip somebody’s cd, if there’s a new edition, or something – ”
“Trevor, please.” She stopped her chopping and looked up at me, scowling; blue eyes in a pale face with fine lines, under thick straw-colored hair, the same hair as mine. “We’ve been over this, and over this; I want you to buy whatever you need, new or used. Do NOT scrimp on your textbooks; I’ve done that, myself, too many times, and I know exactly how you’ll pay for it.”
Poor choice of words; I winced at it, and she saw.
“Don’t!” She set the knife down on the counter, hard. “Do NOT go there, young man. We are paying for your university education together; you will be doing far too much work study as it is. We are paying for your education together; that’s our agreement. Is that clear?”
What was clear, was that I had my mom’s credit card in my pocket; and I was going to use it, today, to buy the textbooks for my first freshman quarter at college.
Me, eighteen; using my mom’s credit card.
We don’t have that much money, anymore. And textbooks are absurdly expensive, unbelievably expensive, even used. I mean, have you looked, lately? It’s got to be a racket, some kind of conspiracy between all the publishers.
And textbooks are just a fraction of the cost of going to school. I honestly don’t know how we’re going to do it, even with me living at home.
“Okay,” said my mom, still glaring up at me. A pause; and she looked down, and picked up the knife. She began slicing carrots again; slowly, deliberately. ‘Thock. Thock. Thock.’ “Do I get a kiss?”
We have such a complicated relationship these days. We have had, for the last couple of years; complicated, going both ways.
“Yeah.” I moved up beside her, and I kissed her on the cheek, and squeezed her shoulder; the smell of carrots and cucumbers coming up from the cutting board. “I won’t be late,” I said again.
“Don’t worry about me, honey,” she went.
But I did. And we both knew why.
Out the door, down the worn brick steps I’d grown up with, onto the hot September sidewalk, feeling the heat and the glare hit me. Headed towards Cole and Jeremy’s place, making my way block by block through the streets of Berkeley, that I know so well; one block east, past the brown-shingled house with the magnolia tree, then one block south, going by the monster ‘60’s apartment building with rusty iron railings, that looks more run-down, more shabby, every year. Gradually getting closer to the U.C. Berkeley campus, which has a lot less relevance to me, to my life, right now, than I ever thought it would.
Yeah, Mom and I have a complicated relationship; it’s all colored by guilt that flows both ways, and we both know it, which is what makes it so warped.
And we can’t seem to find the words to talk about it, which makes it worse.
Maybe it’s because we love each other, so much; and we let each other down, when it was important. And we both know it.
Anyway; it’s all done, it’s all in the past, and kind of settled, now; and so we get by with each other, in our own twisted way. We do love each other, after all, and that’s what counts.
But one of the side effects of the whole situation is, that Mom falls into that weird camp of people; the one that ignores my scar, pretends not so see it. My mom does that; she pretends, the way she’s always pretended, about so many things. Except when she forgets, and she tries to tell me that it’s really minor, and reminds me that the doctor said it’ll fade more and more over time.
And I’ve begun to accept that; I let it go, I say nothing. Does that make me any less of a hypocrite, myself - ?
Down one last street, past a house with a giant bougainvillea that was like a cloud of vivid red, sticking out into the sidewalk; and as usual, I thought, I really, really need to take some pictures of this, and, fuck me! that I kept forgetting to take some really good, well-framed pictures of this –
And then I was at the gray wooden Victorian where they live, and I was pressing the buzzer to Cole and Jeremy’s apartment, and waiting a beat or two until I heard the door open above me, and the sound of their voices, and footsteps, and then the rattle of keys as their door was closed and locked from the outside.
Cole doesn’t pretend.
“Hey, Scarface,” he said, clattering down the exposed staircase, shoes thumping hollow on wooden steps. Brown hair, brown eyes, about my size, and his own quirky smile; and my heart just jumped in my chest, when I saw him.
“Hey, Shithead,” I went back. Then, to the tall, narrow, blond guy at his heels; “Hey, Jeremy.”
“Hi, Trev.” Jeremy’s sweet smile washed over me, for a second; then my eyes were back on Cole, and I moved in and gave him the quick, one-armed hug that was all I allowed myself these days, and he hugged me back. Then, the same thing with his boyfriend.
Cole’s been ‘Shithead’ since we were both in the sixth grade. Up until a couple of years ago, I was ‘Dickbreath’.
If I had anybody’s dick on my breath, most of that time, it was Cole’s. Almost always, it was Cole’s.
And when we all pulled apart, Cole’s brown eyes clicked on mine, and just as always, I could tell most of what he was thinking, most of what he’d been up to, all the shit he’d pulled, and I could just feel the huge grin spreading over my face, the way it always does when we get together.
And he did the same back, of course; he read me. With an ironic little quirk of one eyebrow, and a kind of enigmatic half-smile, just the upturned corners of his mouth. So Cole; so Cole.
“All set?” I went, to him.
“You can still change your mind, Jeremy.” I turned my grin on him. “We can all squeeze into the truck.” I deliberately amped up my smile, a little, on one side. “You can be in the middle!” I said, brightly.
And that made him blush, of course. Jeremy blushes so easily; and it’s fun to do, I’ve been making him blush like that for two years, now.
“No . . . No, actually,
thanks, I’d really like to. But Derrick and Drew got back from San Diego last
night, I’m supposed to get together with them in a little while.” And then he
looked down at me, directly, with that sincerity that just shines out of him so
often. “But I do want to see the campus, sometime soon, I really do.”
I’d known he wouldn’t come. Jeremy’s really good at giving Cole and me space; time to be alone together.
“Well . . . I guess five of us in the truck seat WOULD be a little tight.” Still grinning up at him; and from the corner of my eye, I could see another eyebrow-twitch from Cole, half-amused, half-telling me, ‘Stop teasing him’.
I really shouldn’t. Tease Jeremy, I mean. Partly because he’s a little serious, and sensitive, on top of being so sweet; which is one of the reasons Cole fell for him, of course, Cole’s a total pushover for sweet and sensitive, it’s always been obvious, even though he won’t admit it to himself.
But I also shouldn’t tease Jeremy because I owe him. A lot. There’s a deep, personal debt between me and Jeremy, going back to that bad time, two years ago. And in a weird, REALLY twisted way – a way that’s all wrapped up in my situation with Cole – in a weird way, what Jeremy did for me back then, made me fall just a tiny, little bit in love with him, myself.
Maybe more than just a tiny, little bit.
See why I wind up laughing, as much as I do? I mean, ALL of the relationships in my life are complicated, right now; they’re complicated, and kind of fucked up, and now I’m headed down from the UC Berkeley campus to Cal State, Hayward, woo-hoo, to buy my textbooks with my mom’s credit card, spending money we don’t have.
With Cole, of course. The single most important person in my life, now or ever. And the relationship which is at the same time the most complicated of them all.
“Meet up back here for dinner?” went Cole, looking at Jeremy; that couples-communication thing sparking between them.
“Sure.” Those blue eyes, and that expression for Cole, that he never uses on anybody else. “Six okay? Or seven?”
Cole looked at me. “Can you make it?”
I shrugged. “Yeah; I’d like to.”
Cole turned back to Jeremy. “Let’s make it six, then.”
He knows, I don’t like to stay out too late, without making arrangements with my mom. And Jeremy knows too; and the way they’ve made little adjustments in their lives, like having earlier dinners, just for my sake . . . do I really deserve them?
We split off from Jeremy, and all at once, it was Cole me and walking uphill, towards the truck. Not saying much; still that little leftover tension of our own, between us.
And at the same time, me feeling that little rush I get, being with Cole; it’s like a hit of oxygen, I think, sometimes, or a fix . . . it’s a rush, and all mixed up with that, there’s the usual undercurrent, the tightrope-walk feelings starting up again, the high-wire act; me telling myself, don’t blow it, don’t blow it . . . The rush, all wrapped up with me, trying not to blow it.
I’m used to it. I’ve been used to it for years, now.
“Thanks for coming with me,” I said, out of nowhere.
Uh-oh. Starting out with honesty, and spontaneity. Surprising myself; not planning it out ahead. Not necessarily smart.
And it got me a sideways glance. An unbelieving one.
“I told you I wanted to see the campus.”
I felt myself grinning at him, again. “Like, you really need to? If I’m right, you’ve already downloaded maps, and jpegs, and probably the whole course catalogue . . . you probably know your way around better than I do.”
Cole’s really good with systems; and he’s really anal about data. REALLY anal; for Cole, there’s no such thing as having too much data.
And I’ve always teased him about it, of course.
“Yeah,” he went; firmly. Not taking my bait; turning to look ahead, again, his mouth a little set. “Yeah. I really want to see the place myself.”
That tension back, just an echo under the surface, as we walked uphill to where I usually park the truck.
Cole and I live in Berkeley, California; right across the bay from San Francisco, and home to the University of California, Berkeley, one of the most famous, most prestigious schools in the state. Maybe the whole country.
We grew up in Berkeley, together. Really close to the campus, actually; it was our playground, it was like our back yard, and we knew every building, every pathway where we could skateboard, every little corner where we could hang out and snark at the students and smoke, without getting hassled by the campus cops. Or maybe keep one step ahead of the campus cops, anyway.
We always knew we’d go to school there. We just assumed it; I mean, Cole and I are both smart, we’re both local . . . and Cole’s mom works for the UC system; on the Cal campus. We just knew we’d both go to UC Berkeley. Together.
Well, that didn’t exactly work out, did it?
But the fact is – I’m really not sorry, deep down. It all actually kind of had to work out this way; and hard as it is, on Cole and me both, I’m sort of relieved.
The really hard part, though, is – I can’t tell Cole that. I can’t share it with Cole. It’s yet another thing I have to hide from Cole, on top of everything else, while he hides absolutely nothing from me.
And that’s so painful; it’s so painful to me, it really is. But what can I do?
Up the long slope paralleling Bancroft, up past Prospect, and half a block south, and we were at the truck, parked at the curb. No flats; I felt the usual quick rush of relief, as I saw.
I unlocked the passenger-side door, and Cole reached for the handle, and I started for the other side of the truck –
And an idea hit me, and I stopped.
“Wait,” I said; and I thought another second, and a really BIG smile just spread over my face.
“What?” went Cole, his hand on the door.
I just held up the keys, dangling.
“Wanna drive?” I went, after a couple of beats. Grinning all over my face.
See – I’ve got my license; obviously. We’ve got a truck in the family, and Mom wanted me to know how to drive, and in the end I had to drive, I wound up driving to my summer job this year at the Port of Oakland . . .
But Cole’s still on his learner’s permit. Jeremy’s teaching him, in his Mini Cooper; but they don’t have lots of time for driving, and they don’t need to drive much, they live just a few blocks from campus.
And Cole lives for driving. Getting his license is important to him.
I just kept looking at him; grinning.
“Ummmmm . . . ” he started, his face a little blank.
“You know, it wouldn’t be legal.”
“What - ?” I went, again. Blinking at him. Still holding up the keys.
“With me on a learner’s permit, you’d need to be twenty-one to be a teacher. We’re both eighteen. So I can’t drive, legally.”
I just stared at him.
I mean, you have to understand – this is COLE. Cole and me have been gleefully breaking rules, ignoring rules, committing crimes together for years and years and years . . . A few felonies, too, if you count the underage-sex crimes; those are the ones I like to remember the best.
And here he was, worried about driving on a fucking LEARNER’S PERMIT - ?
I gaped at him for another beat . . . until I noticed something; just an infinitesimal something, about the blankness of his expression; the really, really slight tilt of his head, the way he was barely blinking . . .
I felt my own heard start to tilt, just a little, too; and I knew the grin was coming back on my face.
“You fucker,” I said, admiringly; and I backhanded the keys to him, and he caught them, and he was up and in the truck and sliding over behind the wheel before I could even take two steps.
“Jesus, this thing is big,” he went, a little later. Sounding worried; we were moving through the streets, really slow.
“Of course it’s big, it was my dad’s. Big Car, Small Dick, you know?” I held my breath as we almost scraped a car on my side. “Just take it slow, okay? And don’t be afraid to go to the left a little more.”
“I’m practically in the other lane already!”
“Don’t worry.” I grinned over at him. “They’ll get out of our way.”
It IS a big truck; a Ford F-150 pickup, a real contractor’s truck, with a V8 engine, and a single bench seat, and a lot of dents it didn’t have, when my mom got it for my dad. It’s one of the older F-150’s, red and a little rusty at the dents, all straight up-and-down lines; people really DO get out of the way, when they see me coming at them in the narrow streets of Berkeley.
And it was incredibly weird, sitting on the passenger’s side again; I hadn’t done that since my dad was around.
And it was even weirder, watching Cole driving. I mean, Cole driving my dad’s truck; can you get a bigger contrast, a bigger collision of the pieces of my life - ?
The good piece; the good piece, the priceless piece, actually – and the dark piece. And both of them are parts of me, and that scares me. More than a little.