Triptychs – Chapter 2
I remember the first time I met Cole.
Well, maybe not the very first time I met him; we went to the same middle school – I’d transferred in, after the last time my dad lost his job, and they had to take me out of parochial school, and put me into the public school system –
I transferred into Cole’s school in sixth grade, when we were eleven; but I don’t really remember him before that one class we had together, a few days after school started.
It was Sixth Grade English with Carla Rodriguez, who insisted on assigned seating, by front-to-back rows; so by total chance, it was Cole and me sitting side by side, towards the back of the class, in our little student desks. And it was January, the start of the new semester.
Cole had a hulk of a kid sitting in front of him.
His name was Tom Connelly, I learned later; all I knew at the time was, he was huge, he had red hair and piggy blue eyes, and he was an asshole, and in the space of two days I’d already seen him push around three smaller kids, the kind of defenseless kid that gets bullied when you’re eleven.
It’s funny. If I’d seen bullying in high school, I would have done something, I would have gone ballistic; I hate bullies, I always have. But when you’re eleven . . . somehow, you don’t do that. It’s like a code, or something. You know?
So this hulk of a piggy-eyed kid was sitting in front of Cole, and Cole – I didn’t even remember his name, then; just that he was a smaller, brown haired kid, around my size – Cole was kind of coughing, deep, into his hand, which kind of annoyed me. I mean, why come to school, if you’re sick - ?
That’s not true; about Cole. Not complete, not honest, anyway. I’m trying to be more honest about things, more honest about myself, as I get older.
So. Truth is, I knew Cole was brown-haired, and around my size; but I also knew he was beautiful, and I’d already perved on him, big time.
Yeah; I was perving on boys, at eleven. Gleefully, happily, perving. I remember thinking, maybe I’d switch over to perving on girls, sometime, but I didn’t worry about it; I was just having way, way too much fun perving on boys, LIKING boys, getting hard and jacking off over boys, in bed, at night . . . Even then, even at eleven.
For some reason, it never bothered me, that I never did switch over to liking girls.
And perving on Cole, even before I knew his name, was FUN.
But, since I’m being really honest – Cole coughing like that, right then, next to me in Carla’s class, really did annoy me a little. Even if I HAD been perving on him.
And then, Carla went droning on, for awhile, and I was kind of spacing out, wishing I was back at my old school, with my friends –
And I saw something moving, out of the corner of my eye.
It was the kid next to me – Cole – putting his hand palm-up, cupped, on the top of his desk; his eyes riveted on Carla, as she went on and on about some crap, I think it was something about synonyms and antonyms, I don’t really remember.
I looked sideways, a second; then back up at Carla, trying not to grin. I figured something was up.
Nothing for a long stretch of seconds; then more movement, out of the corner of my eye. I peeked sideways, just a little . . . and then I full-on watched, fascinated, as Cole carefully, deliberately, deposited a big glob of phlegm, the lunger he’d just coughed up, into the inside of the piggy-eyed-boy’s sweatshirt hood.
He was so smooth about it; no hesitation, just quick, sure, the greenish-white blob dripping down, and then both his hands were in his lap, like nothing happened . . .
And then he looked over at me. And saw me watching the whole thing. Busting him, totally.
I remember his expression; so well. I can play the whole scene back in my memory, so easily. His face was totally calm; kind of serene. Innocent, almost, not-quite-smiling . . . and watching me, close.
And I couldn’t help it, I really couldn’t, I just broke into this enormous, delighted grin, and I could see Cole just a split second later start to grin back, with just the corners of his mouth – he does that, it’s the way he grins, it’s really distinctive – and I looked at the piggy-eyed hulk boy in front of him, so totally unaware, and I started to laugh, I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh, and I tried to cover it by turning it into my own coughing fit, as Cole looked right back at Carla, totally straight-faced, utterly, innocently focused on her . . .
That’s how it all began. Cole and me.
I cranked down my window as we rolled through the streets, headed for the freeway south; it was hot and still, and my t-shirt was clinging to my body. September’s one of the hottest months, in Berkeley.
“Sorry,” I went to Cole, over the roar of the engine. “No air conditioning; no sunroof.” I shrugged.
“No shit,” he half-grinned over at me, then scowled back at the road. “And no clutch and no stick; this feels really weird.”
“Hey! You’ve driven this thing before.”
parking lot. And that was before I started driving Jeremy’s car. After his car,
this thing feels like driving a house, with half the controls missing.”
The F-150 could probably haul Jeremy’s Mini Cooper around in the truck bed. I’ve never thought that thing of his was safe; even though I never said anything, even to Cole. Jeremy loves his car, he really does.
“Yeah,” I said, instead. Grinning. Beginning to enjoy the air flowing through the window. “Yeah. Well, wait ‘til we hit stop and go traffic on 580; you won’t miss the clutch then.”
“Maybe,” he said. Still sounding a little dubious. And I kind of felt him glancing over towards me. “So . . . are you going to be driving to school a lot?”
“Nah. Well, it depends on my work-study schedule; I’ll take BART when I can, there’s a shuttle running from the Hayward station up to the campus. But if I have to work weird hours, I’ll probably drive.”
Is anybody, anybody at all, better at sticking his foot in his mouth than me? Just talking about my work-study schedule made things instantly tense again between Cole and me, brought up that whole argument again, the after-echoes of our argument, and things got a little quiet for awhile.
The piggy-eyed Tom boy did get slimed, as soon as he put up his hood, after class; that’s why Cole did what he did, the hulk-kid was a wannabe gangsta, and was always putting up his hood.
And he was pissed, of course. But he didn’t make the connection back to Cole. Turns out, he may have been a hulk, but he wasn’t that bright.
And even though we’d grinned at each other, even though we’d kind of shared the experience, Cole and I didn’t exactly become instant buddies, or anything. I mean, I was still The New Kid; you know? At eleven, if you’ve been the new kid in school, you’ll know what I mean . . . I was kind of untouchable; except for the real outgoing kids, and with them, you never know if they’re really being friendly, or just kind of charitable, or maybe setting you up for something. I’d seen it before, at my old school.
That changed, a few days later, when Hulk Boy tried picking on me.
I guess it was bound to happen; I mean, I was on the small side for my age, and I didn’t obviously fit into the Great So-Cio-Dy-Namic Pecking Order at school, since I was new and everything . . . it was only a matter of time.
So late one afternoon, in front of the Admin building, near where the buses lined up to get the kids who needed to be bussed home, Tom the Piggy-Eyed Boy tried pushing me around.
He actually had help. He had this dirty-blond, rat-faced friend named Jude who hung out with him; they started in on me together.
It was after the last class was over, but before the bell that would let us off campus. It was always a dangerous time; loads of kids in one place, waiting, doing nothing. It’d been raining; the world was wet and gray, with heavy gray clouds overhead.
“Hey, kid,” went Tom the Pig Boy. “What’s up with that hair? Your mommy cut it for you?”
We were eleven, remember. This was fairly witty, for eleven, for being in the courtyard in front of the school.
It was also a fairly typical opening move; I knew what was coming.
“Awww, don’t be like that! We just want to be your friends. Won’t you be my friend?” Half-acting-sincere; half-sneering, underneath, laughing at me. It was dangerous.
“Yeah, won’t you be my friend too?” Jude the Rat Boy leaned in close, batting his eyes at me, with a fake grin on his face.
“Friends. Okay, sure,” I said, trying to look bored. Measuring the distances, if I wanted to walk away, tried to walk away. But the thing is . . . you don’t just walk away, from a situation like that, in middle school; it’s hard to explain, you just don’t, it’s like running, and you can’t run, ever. You have to see it through.
Besides. I’m a McCarthy; my mom’s a McCarthy, my uncles, her brothers, are McCarthys; we’ve been in the Bay Area for a long, long time, we have history here, we’ve got a lot to be proud of; we don’t walk away from shit like this. I felt it then, I feel it now.
“Okay. Great! We’re friends, then,” Pig Boy went, with a kind of mocking smile on his face. “We’ve got a new friend!” he called out, over towards the Jude kid on my other side.
“Ooooh, I like having new friends!” Sarcastically, from the blond kid.
“No, though, I mean it. What’s going on with all that hair? Does is grow all the way down your back, or what?” A big hand reached out and flicked some hair at the back of my neck.
“I said fuck off!” I dropped my backpack on the wet sidewalk, getting ready. “Don’t touch me!”
“Oooo-ooooh! Am I messing up your hairdo? Maybe it’s your mommy’s beauty parlor that cuts your hair.” He moved up closer; towering over me now, he really was way bigger than me. And he was really enjoying himself; it was so clear, he was enjoying himself, he had a sneering smile on his face; what a sadistic asshole.
“I said keep the fuck away from me!” I went, which was stupid, because I hadn’t said it before, at all.
“Hey, look at this!” from a voice in back of me. I looked around; the rat-faced boy had my backpack open, and he was holding up my CD player in the gray, rainy afternoon light.
The pre-iPod, Sony Discman CD player that was the single, most precious possession in my whole life; my Christmas present from my mom.
“Oh, cool. Let’s see it,” went Piggy Boy, and he caught it a second later as it flew over my head.
For all three of us, actually.
See, I get my hair from my mom; even at eleven, it was really thick. I’ve always worn it a little long, because when it gets cut short, it looks kind of like a blond scrub brush.
I get my anger from my dad.
And back then I hated his anger, and I was afraid of it; he didn’t just get mad, he’d blow up, he’d snap, and when that anger was aimed at my mom and it made her cry, I hated him, too . . .
So imagine my enthusiasm, when I found out I did the same thing; snap, I mean. Lose control. Lash out. Never at my mom, of course; but still, I was doing it more and more as I was growing up, losing control of my anger. Losing control of myself.
Like I did, right then.
I went at the piggy-eyed boy; and I tried to hurt him, I really did.
You need to understand about fights, between younger kids, kids our age back then. Usually it’s about posturing, about status; usually it’s pushing, and shouting, and then it breaks down to wrestling around, a little.
This wasn’t like that.
I just went at the piggy-eyed boy, not seeing right, not caring. Not caring when my beautiful CD player crashed and broke on the pavement. Just caring about getting in close, inside his punches, and hurting him.
And it worked, at first.
I mean, it would; Piggy Boy was surprised. And I’d violated the usual script, by going at him like that, without some more shouting and shoving first.
I actually pulled him down. He went down hard, and I followed him, hitting and hitting; on his face, on his chest . . . feeling the pain in my fists, as I hit him, again and again and again. ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’, someone was saying, and I realized somewhere in my head, it was me. Kind of sobbing it, actually; I was so out of control.
But he really was a hulk of a kid, a head taller and a lot heavier and stronger than me. He got me back a couple of times, and it hurt.
And then the rat-faced kid, Jude, kicked me in the back, once, twice, and that REALLY hurt. It also knocked me over onto Piggy-Eyed boy, who grabbed onto me, while Jude the Rat kicked me again –
And something happened in back of me; something like an explosion, and the rat-faced kid was all of a sudden down on the wet pavement next to us, rolling, over and over, grappling, getting hit and hitting back at the brown-haired kid from Carla’s class.
It really didn’t register, at the time. I have to admit it; I was crazy-blind angry, and I was back to waling on the Piggy-Eyed boy in a flash –
And of course, the fight was over in seconds. Some adults waded in and pulled us all apart. Literally; the Dean of Boys grabbed my pants and my jacket and heaved me up and away from Pig-Boy, I swear, three or four feet off the ground, it felt for a second like I was flying. It’s amazing, when you’re eleven, to find out how strong real adults – adult men – can be, when they want. It actually was what quieted me down, fast.
And I did quiet down fast. More like, I collapsed; a feeling of shock, at what I’d done, what I’d pulled, and the mess all over me and my clothes, and my CD player in pieces . . . and I felt so COLD. I was shivering, in the gray afternoon, in seconds.
And so, it was over.
The consequences hit, the next day. The immediate ones.
Cole and me – suspended one week; for fighting. The principal giving the news out in a grave voice, like a death sentence, in his office, me and my mom sitting facing him. But I swear, under the words, I saw respect in his eyes. I KNOW I saw it, and I despised him for the hypocrisy.
Tom the Piggy-Eyed Boy? Suspended for three weeks, and his parents had to pay for my CD player. He had a lot of priors, and one of the bus drivers saw the whole thing, and talked.
The rat-faced boy . . . didn’t come back to school. We never knew exactly what happened; except, kicking someone in the back, the way he’d kicked me . . . well. He had some Issues.
Not that I didn’t have my own issues.
My dad, for instance. My dad . . . was proud of me, getting suspended for fighting. He just beamed at me when he came home that night; and he actually clapped me on the shoulder, which he never, ever did.
And as much as I hated his own anger, as much as I worried about what I was turning into, following his path . . . as much as I maybe, maybe questioned whether I had ever really loved him – his pride in me, just then, made me feel pathetically glad. I was ridiculously, pathetically happy to have done one thing, this one thing, anyway, that he ever approved of.
And that made me feel kind of dirty. Soiled.
I didn’t do a lot of laughing, that week in my life.
But if I had a few issues of my own, with my anger, and my dad, and the horrifying flashbacks to Piggy Boy’s face, shockingly red with blood coming from his nose – and it is shocking, I don’t care how often you’ve seen something like that, the red of blood on skin is just to scary, so WRONG –
In spite of all that, the week after the fight was maybe the most important week in my life. Because I made friends with Cole.
It was inevitable, I guess. With him coming to my rescue, like that. He told me he couldn’t believe it when the Jude kid started kicking me in the back like that, and he couldn’t just NOT get involved.
I don’t think I would’ve been able to not-get-involved, either, in his place. Maybe that’s part of why we’re friends.
After the suspension, we started talking to each other, at school. And – we just clicked; we totally clicked together. It was like two magnets coming together; it was like we’d known each other our whole lives, already. I don’t know how else to describe it; we were just meant to be friends.
It didn’t hurt, that the other kids in our class looked at us, the next couple of months or so, like we were some kind of fucking heroes. I could see it in their looks, in the hallways, at lunch, all over school; the Piggy-Eyed Boy really had been a major asswipe, he’d made a lot of kids miserable.
And through Cole I met his friends, and they turned into my friends too, over time . . . like Jason; this dark-haired, pale kid with green eyes, who just happened to have an older brother named Erik.
Erik turned into a big part of my life, too.
Still is, actually. Today. I’m just not sure exactly HOW big a part, yet.
But he’s still not as big a part of my life, not nearly as much a part of me, as Cole.
And it wasn’t because Cole’d come to my rescue out of nowhere, like that; saving my ass, when he didn’t have to.
And it wasn’t because we were jacking off together at his house, less than a week after the fight; or that we were jacking each other, naked, a week after that. Or that we turned into Friends With Benefits, over the next few years, as we grew up.
It was because he’d seen me naked – as in, crazy with rage; covered with snot, and some of my own blood, and out-of-my-head angry – and he still wanted to be friends with me.
Cared about me. Got closer and closer to me, over the months and years; helped me with myself, talked me down when I got mad, and then later when I got deep, dark-depressed, and that started happening more and more often – he centered me, he reasoned with me, made me laugh, talked me down when I got close to that edge, again and again –
Even after seeing me crazy-naked; knowing who I really was.
I mean – is it any wonder, any fucking wonder at all, I love him so much? Love him so hard?