The Stranger I Am (from Genre)

For Dave

I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel …

—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

He promised we would go together.  I never heard Jakey wrong.  We were scrabbling down the cliff – it seems like 10 years ago – and Merlin was unsure on his paws.  Jakey said as soon as summer came we’d hit the beach with backpacks and his brothers’ tent, and we’d leg it all the way to the National Forest to camp out.  Thirty miles of empty beach and just me and Jakey.  Of course I didn’t hear him wrong.

That was October.  Two months before the accident.  My father says I won’t take life for granted now, not since “That December Day.”  But I never took time with Jakey for granted—especially not last fall while I waited for our summer adventure.  In fact I was thinking about a night on the beach in sleeping bags when I tipped the ride-on mower with the plow attachment and tumbled down the driveway over my little brother, Ray.  No one believes I heard our bones crunching.  My father says it was the ice, or maybe Ray’s shovel.  The world’s supposed to hate me now because I lived to be a burden and Ray didn’t live at all.

“The world is fair, but the odds are no good,” my Gramma says.  “Like Vegas.”

Good Jakey came all the time.  He visited practically every day at the hospital, and helped my parents around the house for weeks.  It was Jakey who dressed in a monkey suit and said kind stuff about Ray at the funeral.  It was Jakey who finally finished plowing the icy driveway.  Afterward, my Gramma made him stay and take a hot bath.

When I got home from the hospital, he came after school every day to supposedly tutor me.  They said I would miss the year and have to suffer seventh grade over.  Jakey hated that idea, so he promised to keep me up to date.  He particularly liked Earth Science and the character of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, which he called “Tequila Mockingbird.”  I tried to muster enthusiasm for schoolwork, but my eyes hurt when I read for too long, and I couldn’t sit up for more than a few minutes without getting dizzy.  Jakey got frustrated a lot.

My father stayed “patient with the patient,” as my Gramma recommended.  He just kept bringing trays of tepid tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.  My Gramma napped in the afternoon, so it was just us “men” most of the time.

I lost weight.

In the spring, Jakey made the soccer team and got buff.  He came late at night and walked Merlin down the cliff to the beach the way he liked it.  Sometimes he swam, and I could smell the brine on his skin as he shucked his boxer shorts and borrowed mine before hiking home.

“And you won’t be needing these, I guess,” he said, lifting my Reeboks off the floor.  “You mind?”

“They’re all yours,” I said.  “For now.  I want ’em back for the adventure.”  I called it “That June Day.”  Around April, I started to call it “That August Afternoon” to be more practical.  Both my knees and some discs were broken, but they had nearly healed by spring.  The ribs weren’t even sore anymore, and I was getting on OK with only one and a half lungs.  It was the head, they told me, which kept me confined to bed.

I didn’t hurt my head exactly.  But it was hurting me, my father said.  He was really good about Ray.  I was their favorite anyway—my Gramma told me so.  She said Ray took after her son – my father – and was bound for the pokey with his lip.  She based this solely on one dramatic incident the prior year when Ray told his fourth grade teacher, “That ass of yours is too much, Miss Elkin.”  But it was true, I told Gramma—Miss Elkin’s ass was way too much, and she had to be told.

“We gotta rub that child out and draw him again,” said Gramma.

I liked Ray.  I was even sorry when my parents let me have my own room a few years before because Ray kept pissing his bed and the room stank.  Ray was funny.  That December Day he was whining to my father that I always got to ride the plow, and he wasn’t a baby anymore.  My father was in no mood.  He was cold and his hands were blistered.  He tied Ray’s hood tightly under his chin, and said, “Next time, Baby—now scrape!”

My head:  It was hurting me, my father said, because I wouldn’t forgive myself.  It was an accident, of course.  Or if anything, it was his fault, he said, slurping soup at my desk.  The driveway is sloped, and when it’s icy, even a car can slip into the woods.  We saw it happen once with a UPS truck.  So I should stop the silliness already.  I should stop talking like the “conjuring kook” my Grampa was.

“Look, life’s an uphill battle here on out, kid,” said my Gramma.  “Fantasy is for the fearful, understand?  Buck up and down to earth.”

I forgave Jakey.  It was already six months, and a lot can happen in six months, he said.  Not if your legs are crushed, I thought.  Not if you’re stuck in your bedroom the whole time except to hop twice a week to the bathroom for number two.  “You’re still my best friend, Val,” he said.  “And you can’t ask for more than that.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Just because I was laid up didn’t mean he shouldn’t go to the National Park.  Going alone would be an even greater adventure, he said.  Figures, I thought.  Even when things had been incredible—when we once danced to an ABBA song, the whole time laughing, on the new wooden deck overlooking the ocean; when we pulled a razor clam spike out of Merlin’s snout and got so close our noses touched—even then I knew it would never last.

We’re just not cut from the same cloth, as Gramma would say.  For one thing, I’m a chalk scribbling and he’s a da Vinci marble.  Two inches taller.  Ten pounds weightier.  His dick is bigger—longer, meatier.  He’s first trombone in band and I’m second clarinet.  When he goes to a party, kids punch knuckles with him, ask him about football scores.  When I go to a party, I follow Jakey, drink what he’s drinking, try to think what he’s thinking.

The only one I ever told about all this was Ray.  I told him boys usually go for girls, but not necessarily.  I said sometimes certain boys come along, and other boys can’t help falling for them.  He said there was a boy in his class who was the best at baseball and didn’t need braces, and when that boy smiled, he knew what I meant.  I think he might have.

I never told Jakey.  I was afraid he’d say he didn’t want me on that 30-mile trek up the coast.  I was afraid he wouldn’t want to build a fire with me, wouldn’t trust me snuggled up near him in a pup tent.  Sometimes, like once when we parked our bikes overlooking a cove, he looked at me like he wanted me to tell him.  Or wanted some boy to tell him, but not really me.  If only I could be for him the kind of boy he was for me, it would have to happen.  I was sure of it.  But I couldn’t be.  And things were bad enough before I wound up a brother-killing botch-job in bed with jagged scars and a messed-up head.

So I understood why he had to go on the Great Adventure without me.  It didn’t prevent me from crying, though, and my crying didn’t stop him from setting off after Independence Day for the park he’d promised we’d see together.

My father and I played Yahtzee in my bed while I imagined Jakey five miles up the coast where the beach widens to nearly a mile and the wind whips up sand.  Maybe “imagined” isn’t exactly the right word.  My father said it was hallucinating.  Gramma called it “the fevers.”  I basically zoned out for minutes – sometimes longer – from the perspective of anyone in the room with me.  From my perspective, it was different.

During dinner, I listened to my father watching Cops, and imagined Jakey sitting on an overturned green rowboat, eyeing the cliffs.  He was eating a Jazz apple with peanut butter, digging his bare foot in the sand.

My whole body felt heavy, hot and lifeless as a seal in the sun.

Late at night, my Gramma came to check on me.  I don’t remember her coming in, just the worried look in her glaucous eyes, and her thin lips pulled tight across her dentures.

Shaking her head no in the doorway, she said, “The stranger you are, the more I’m sure those quacks downtown left the real Valentine on the operating table.”

She left and I thought, Well, maybe so.  Because in my head at least, when I closed my eyes, I wasn’t necessarily me anymore, didn’t have to be.  Extending my spine, I got an electric shock through my whole body.  I can rub myself out and draw me again, I thought.  I can be perfect, as perfect as possible without actually being Jakey Mitchell.  I wondered who he’d be in his head if he could change himself.  Though why he’d think he needed to change a thing escaped me entirely.

“Stuck here this way, all I’ve got is pretending to be out there like a normal kid,” I told my Gramma the next morning.  “Otherwise I’d go bananas.”

Jakey was supposed to be gone a week.  His mother was together with an art dealer in Spain or someplace, so she couldn’t have cared less.  His father was an Army man, so he was all for the macho challenge.  He even gave Jakey a canteen and a compass and old rations and maps.  The second day, I lay in bed stroking Merlin and picturing myself dragging my bones down the driveway and through the trees, then soaring off the cliff toward the rocks below.  The last thing I’d see is the glistening water I watched once while Jakey and I sat naked on the beach as the sun went down.

I looked at the airplane clock on my bookshelf across the room, and only 15 seconds had passed.  The day would take forever.  I fell asleep a few times and woke up huffing and heart-racing, afraid Jakey had almost snapped his ankle on a slippery rock while crossing a stream.  From high on a sandy bluff I saw him peeing on a bush, careful on his smarting ankle.

On the third day of Jakey’s adventure, I got sick.  First my left knee started to ache much more than usual.  By nighttime it was pounding, and I was sweating from the pain.  My head hurt, too, and I threw up ramen in my bed.  Over the phone, the doctor told my father it sounded like an infection from the pin in my leg.

***

“There was this kid there,” Jakey said at my bedside.  Days had melted into each other, and all I remembered was twisting endlessly in my hospital sheets, hot and dopey.  “You woulda‘ loved him.  To tell you the truth I was getting freaked there all alone – wolves or coyotes and shit or whatever’s out there – and I killed my fucking ankle.  I was thinking of coming back.”

“But?”

His head cocked like Merlin’s, and he looked off into space for so long he didn’t even notice me staring at him.  I could see him looking that way across a campfire just after dark.  His shirt is off, and he’s shucking a corncob.  Our eyes meet and we smile.  “Talk,” I said.  “It’s all I’m good for.”

“Right.  You remember stuff well, right, Val?  Notice stuff?”

“Everything.”

“That time on the beach together?  We went skinny-dipping?  Ever think about that?”

It was an imperfect moment to answer, of course.  Warm in the corner of a second-rate bonehouse children’s ward.  The bag the catheter led to was hooked to the bed between us.  My hair was greasy.  I was thinned-out and sallow.  There was goop on my teeth, crust at the corners of my mouth.

“’Cause I do.  Think about it,” he said.  He let out all his air, sank back in the vinyl chair.

Did I think about it?  How could I stop thinking about it?  Sitting knees-up nude in a warm tide pool, his blue eyes sparkling, even in the dark.  Just faint silky hair the color of honey holding to him the way I wanted to, holding everywhere.  Jakey’s outie belly button, Jakey’s pink appendectomy scar.  Wet sand and seaweed stuck to Jakey’s butt when we got up.

“This kid—” he said.  “This kid and I—”

“A surfer dude?”  He smiled.  “Blond.  Straight teeth. Tan.”  He looked at me funny.  “Figures.”

“But how’d you—?”

“How?  He’s everything I’m not, OK?  That’s who that kid was.”

“God, Val.”  He looked angry, his eyebrows warped in a V.  On the corner TV, Frankenstein’s monster silently beat his chest and wept.  “You know you’re my best friend, Val.  I don’t know where that kid came from.  But you’re the best, man.”

“You mean second best.”

He opened his mouth, shut it.  He looked out the window at the tarred roofs of downtown.  He chewed his thumbnail.

“They’re saying I almost bought it,” I said.  “That I almost slipped this mortal coil.”

“It just happened, Val.  I didn’t plan to do what we did, but he … It’s like he knew something, like he was so sure.”

“You’re glad.”

“I don’t know what I am,” he said.

My neck was stiff from unconsciousness.  I could feel the blood pooled in my legs, not pumping.

I know what you are.”

I closed my eyes and opened them, and he was gone.  No need to keep them open anymore for anyone.

I could see the kid pulling jeans on over bare skin in the morning.  He flaps a flannel shirt in the salt air before sliding his arms through the sleeves.  He scratches his smooth chest beneath.  He kneels and kisses Jakey awake, rubs Jakey’s belly.  Tells him it’s OK.  It’s right.  The summer’s just started.  Life’s just begun, Jakey Mitchell.

He buttons up his shirt, squats over the fire cooking a tin cup of coffee.  All the while Jakey, curled up, can’t take his eyes off the boy.  When he stretches, stands, smiling, Jakey can’t smile.  The kid cracks his knuckles, tucks his shirt in, tightens his belt.  Then he heads off up the coast, in the direction of a long life in a big world.