Does it smell like Libby Land in here?” I asked my husband as I opened the oven door to check on dinner.”
“Must be the chocolate cake,” he observed. And damn, wouldn’t you know it? He was right; a happenstance that occurs from time to time, causing me no end of grief. . The generic fish sticks in conjunction with the cheap-ass brownie mix from the dollar store, which I just threw into one large disposable cake pan so I wouldn’t have to do any unnecessary girly-girly culinary maneuvers, combined to bring out an aroma that I hadn’t experienced since childhood. (It is such moments of sheer useless reminiscent synchronicity that makes me remember why I married the guy in the first place. I can’t even tell how many times we’ve used the complete Life Cereal “what’s this stuff” patter as a prelude to sex. Okay, never, but I’m making a mental note.)
It was then that I started having an odd flashback, complete with creepy sound effects and weird-ass visuals. Everything around me started to fade in an out and get all wavy. And as John came to turn off the gas stove, my mind began to wander back…somewhere.
I was nine years old. In an old apartment building that I despised. We were poor. And I knew it. And I hated it. Hey, don’t t ever let anyone ever give you that bullshit about a child not knowing the difference between poverty and, well, if not riches, then how about non-poverty? Jesus. I knew. Every damn day in that cramped apartment as the victim of non-educated, non-ambitious, happy just to have a roof over our head parents, I knew. Oh, I could lie and say it used to be a much nicer place thirty years ago. That things go to hell with time, bad elements move in, etc. But the fact is that it was always a slum. Always smelled of urine and dirty mops dipped in buckets of bleach.-lip service cleaning by the old maintenance man who got to live there rent free in exchange for duties he mostly ignored. And now, in retrospect, I can see it was probably we who were the bad element.
God, I wanted a house. With my own room, and a yard, and a tree, and places to hide and dream and just be a kid. Like my schoolmates down the suburban side streets, My schoolmates whom my mom always told me were wealthy because they had homes and cars and took vacations. Something other people did, but not us. Everyone else in the world, save for us. My siblings were never home. I really can’t blame them. They hid their desperation and hatred of our lifestyle behind a facade of extreme popularity and massive amounts of friends. Something I myself could never quite pull off, being more comfortable with those mysterious objects called, “books.”
“Oh, she’s a reader,” my parents would point out in confusion and a bit of awe, before they went back to staring dully at the television, each and every time I would attempt to lose myself for a bit in some kind of written word, as if I had some kind of weird medical condition for which there was no cure.
Then, there was for Matthew. Never “Matt” or “Mattie.” Always Matthew. His father’s idea, for he thought the diminutive wasn’t “butch” enough for his crew-cut-cropped son. (Three decades later I am still trying to wrap my mind around that little tidbit; of why in the world a seven year-old needs to project “manliness.” I mean, he had a few years yet before the testes were going to drop.) Two years younger than I was, a foot shorter, and in pretty much the same boat. He was my best friend. And he was also a hunchback. With a limp. Okay, so maybe the bum foot was most likely an affectation, as the limp had a tendency to switch sides, depending on the layout of the terrain, but one had to admit that it was still pretty cool to witness this completely spontaneous bit of improvised characterization, especially from a kid who had not yet reached the double digits.
This was the mid-seventies. The time of Cocoa Puffs, big hair, and live-action Saturday morning TV that actually had you looking forward to getting up early on a day you could otherwise sleep in. Before life eventually intervened and filled you with that weekend dread, with all its “get it done before Sunday so at least we’ll have a few hours to flake before the oppression of the workday world rears its head once again on Monday.
Anyway, “Igor” was my buddy, and our friendship was forged much like many of the great pairings in history – our mothers were “coffee klatchers.” (Back when coffee used to be evil and not my now Honest to Jesus Bestest Friend in the Whole Damn Universe.) So at least twice a week we were obliged to stare at each other for several hours until it occurred to one of us, I don’t recall which because it doesn’t matter, that maybe we should try to get along and form some kind of alliance, to better enable us to endure the frequent java ordeals.
And oh what a pairing it was! Bingo! Beautful! Lightening bolts and confetti! Throw in some Milk Duds, bro. To both our surprise, our play sessions weren’t exactly “trials by fire”. In fact, they were kind of fun. Now, this can be attributed to the fact that I have, as my husband likes to point out whenever there’s any kind of conversational lull, “a guy’s mind.” (I like to take that as a compliment because it makes the marriage easier to bear.) I never liked dolls, save as stand-ins for actual human victims during my sinister but oh so necessary experiments. I must say, I posed quite an intimidating figure there in my stolen-from-fourth-grade-artist-smock-turned-mad-scientist ensemble. And it’s really quite amazing how many ways a pose-able fashion doll can actually be posed in ways that the Good Lord never intended. And in Igor, I found a kindred spirit. Faced with the nightmare of living in a bad living situation that neither one of us asked for or would be able to escape from the foreseeable future, we did what any right-minded kids would do when faced with such insurmountable obstacles. We withdrew into ourselves. And under the bed. (Something I cannot physically or psychologically fathom now, because the burning image of my husband’s socks, or the remnants from one of his lesbian magazine sessions gives me pause.) A twin high-riser, to be exact. Where we proceeded to play “doctor.” Literally. Well, maybe more mad scientist than doctor, but it still allowed me to exhibit “MD” after my name. Quite the coup. This was our Control Central, where we would make plan after plan for World Conquest, until that one fateful day when we decided to become “good guys.”
Wow. Talk about a reversal of priorities. I blame Darren McGavin, actually. The Night Stalker was and still is the One Great Love of my life. Looking so fine in his pork-pie and seersucker, he inspired me to want to do some good in the world. (We won’t get into it now, but he was also a primary reason I married some guy who reminded me of Simon Oakland.) Every weekend for two years I looked forward to waking up, running next door, shedding my reality, and saving the world from everything from Nazis (me and my intricate grade-school knowledge of sociopolitics), to aliens, to demons from hell. (You know, I think that’s one of the main problems I have with being an adult. You can’t just go over to someone’s house anymore and jump into an imaginary scenario. Nerd-like role-play games notwithstanding because they’re lame and stupid, I can’t go up to, say, my brother-in-law and announce, “You be a pirate and I’ll be a kidnapped princess.” Well, I suppose technically I could, but then there would be all those messy complications and guilty avoidance of eye-contact later.) The one thing I didn’t count on though, was the one thing that eventually defeated us; Adult pettiness. Bam! Pow! That is, Igor’s mom and mine had some kind of fight, about what, I still don’t know. It could have been over a guy, as far as I’m concerned. All I know is that it broke up our team and plunged the world into grave danger and chaos from which it still hasn’t recovered.
I’m ashamed to admit that I let myself get caught up in this nonsense. When you’re young, you actually think your family’s motives make some kind of real world logical sense, so I assumed the not talking thing between the old broads was justified. And I bought into it completely. Igor was dead, but Matthew remained. Even into and throughout high school, where we purposely and with much bravado ignored each other, For no reason, Just because our moms weren’t talking, so we couldn’t either. It made sense at the time, really it did.
And now, here it was all crashing down around me because of a stupid brownie/fish stick combo. John must have noticed something was amiss because he asked me why I looked so dazed, almost being gassed to death by the oven notwithstanding.
“Why not just look the guy up?” he asked in a maddeningly rational uncharacteristic moment of insight. And I gave some transparent excuse about him having moved away long ago, and my not having a clue where he might be. Which was a goddamned lie. I knew exactly where he was. Same place he always was. He never left the town where we grew up, because after his father died, he wanted to be close by for his mom. Kind of commendable, I suppose. But I was just…afraid. Afraid that if I got in touch, he’d still be hanging on to some unnecessary, unfounded grudge and blow me off. Or that he wouldn’t remember me. Or maybe worst of all; that he would remember, but wouldn’t care. No, best to let things be for now. The world couldn’t endure us causing yet another cataclysm. Sad really. Because I still have my smock. Which I probably owe Franklin School for big time at this point, what with the accrued interest.
“Hey, do you want to go out for coffee later? I heard that the berry blast espresso they have down at the mall tastes pretty much like a Strawberry Quick.”
“Ah, food of the gods,” I remarked, “Sure. Sounds good. Give me a an hour or so, though, okay? I have a letter to write first.”