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Personal Essay: So Many Sweaters
So Many Sweaters
By Bob Raymonda
A group of seven or eight of us from around the block is playing together before dinner. I am ten and my stepbrother Tim, twelve, is here with me. We’re across the street from Dad’s, in the small green field that runs between the Planned Parenthood and the first house on the hill. This is where we sled, play kickball, and light off firecrackers late at night. Today we are wrestlers from the Worldwide Wrestling Federation. We are all spread out across the grass, play-fighting and muddying our clothes, an offense we’ll pay for later. Some people team up and pretend to have tag matches, taking turns wrangling each other to the ground.
Alex, the fattest and most annoying boy on our block, decides it’s our turn to fight. I am Stone Cold Steve Austin, who is Tim’s second favorite wrestler, and because of this I’ve gained a false sense of confidence. Alex is The Big Show, because he is big and fat. Tim is Dwayne the Rock Johnson, his all time favorite wrestler. I don’t even particularly like wrestling—I’m small and bad at sports. But I’m hoping if I can beat Alex in our fight, Tim will side with me next time. Alex is a bully, older than me but a year behind me in school. He and Tim get along for some reason, though I don’t get it.
Everyone stops to watch us fight. Alex is farther downhill than I am, so I have the advantage. He lumbers up after me, and I dodge quickly behind him. He grabs onto my bright yellow Spongebob shirt and stretches the collar. This slows me for a second, but I get out of his grasp.
When I turn back toward him, I find an opening and go right for Steve Austin’s finishing move, the Stone Cold Stunner. I punch Alex in the nuts and he lets out a little yelp. As he grabs himself and leans forward in pain, I turn around putting him in a headlock over my shoulder and pull him down to the ground.
Tim runs over and counts, “1... 2... 3...” Alex doesn’t move. I stand up and Tim lifts my hand into the air. “Stone Cold is the winner!” Everyone laughs and ignores Alex as he writhes in pain on the grass. Tim gives me a noogie and we hear his mom calling us back for dinner. He puts his arm around me as we walk back to our house across the street.
He can’t stop laughing. “You know that Stone Cold punches people in the stomach and not the balls, right, Bob?” he says.
For the first time in months I think maybe he likes me.
When I was very young, I learned that everyone responded to my behaviors differently. Understanding how a person would react to me shaped how I behaved and indicated to me which parts of myself I should restrain or enhance in order to get what I wanted. Around my mother I’d talk at great length, buttering her up over time to get her to bring me to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal or a stint in the indoor playground. With my father, it was simpler; I’d merely point at an action figure in the toy aisle of Wal*Mart and it would be mine. This was a subconscious manipulation, but we all do it. Its called mode switching. And it stays with us forever.
As I age the task becomes more complex. The more I go through, the harder it is to decide what is the best part of me to let people in on and what I should hide away. Around Person A, I love explosions and severed pig’s heads; but with Person B, my temperament is sweet and my impulse is to listen to slow music and look at the stars. I know who likes which “me” better, even though I recognize that the selves I produce for others utterly contradict one another. There’s something performative in this behavior, almost mathematical. I try on personae like so many sweaters looking for the perfect fit.
And it’s so exhausting because it never stops.
The sun bears down on my back. Small pieces of sediment impale themselves in the cracks of skin on my knees. I’m eight or nine. Kyle is one year older and kneeling on the faded red deck next to me. He’s my best friend, and in the summer time, we have as many sleepovers as our parents will allow, spending days at a time together. I have already been here a night, but I won’t be leaving until tomorrow morning.
I’m on the concrete patio around his pool with thirty or so tan plastic army men, one wheeled cannon, and three miniature trucks. Dividing the first slab of concrete next to the steps and the pathway around the pool is a strip of smooth polished rocks embedded in more concrete, the perfect setting for our war.
My troops are scattered around the rocks in a somewhat broken line, flanking my lone cannon. Farthest behind the group of them is my leader army man, Colonel Lightning. He stands straight up, his legs a shoulder width apart, and he holds two guns pointed to the sky, an M-16 assault rifle in his left and a pistol in his right. When I’m done setting them up I sit down and watch Kyle as he continues to stare at one of his green army men, contemplating its placement on the deck. “How long do you suppose they’ve been fighting for?” he asks.
“Years at least,” I say, smiling at him. “Lightning obviously wants to take control of Major Dirk’s Fort James.”
He laughs. “That’ll be the day.”
His men are placed at various points on the steps. At the bottom is a mismatched group of army men with simple rifles pointed forward. On the step directly above them are Kyle’s cannons. There are three of them in the set, and he told me that since his army has a fort, it obviously has more guns than mine. I’m okay with this. Kyle puts his leader Major Dirk highest up in the fort, on top of the railing, three feet (though hundreds of feet in army men terms) above the highest step. He doesn’t have a gun, but instead kneels with a telephone strapped to his back. He is flanked by two other men with bazookas. I think he’s the stupidest piece, but Kyle says leaders never actually fight in wars. They just give orders.
He stares at his last piece, the green version of the one I call Colonel Lightning and announces, “This is Double-O-Seven. He’s my spy, and I get to put him behind your army to relay information to my army.”
Kyle steps off the deck, still wearing his swim trunks. He slept in them. He isn’t wearing a shirt, and his tanned skin is much darker than mine. He kneels down next to the chain link fence where the concrete meets the grass of his huge backyard.
“That’s not fair,” I say, scrunching my nose and picking up one of the army men standing in my line. “If that’s your spy, then this is my spy and he gets to be in your fort,” I say.
“No, he doesn’t,” he sneers. “Double-O-Seven has camouflage that hides him in the grass beyond the concrete, but your guy doesn’t have anything that will blend in with my fort.”
I groan, but don’t put up much of a fight. “Fine, let’s just get this over with.”
At this, we both start making what we assume to be gun noises with our mouths. Lips tight, we yell “pew, pew” and grunt explosions with our teeth clamped shut, all the while taking hold of one or two of our men and using them to knock over the others. Since I’ve positioned my men closer together, Kyle has an easier time knocking them all down first. But since I hold Colonel Lightning in my hand, all isn’t lost. I walk up to the top of the deck and before Kyle notices I knock both the bazooka men and his telephone man off the gate. “Hah,” I yell. “I won!”
Kyle looks up and arches his eyebrows. “Nuh uh, you wouldn’t have even made it that far. There were proximity mines all over that part of the fort. They blew Colonel Lightning up hours ago, you just didn’t know about them.”
I roll my eyes and look at the army men knocked over all over the place. “I’m tired of these,” I complain. “And it’s hot. Let’s go swimming.”
We run off, forgetting the corpses of our war.
It is the summer, and I work nights while my friends work days. I spend hours curled up into a ball on my bed in food-stained clothing, ignoring the nice weather and watching TV shows on the internet. My eyes glaze over, fatigued from staring at computer screens all day. My current obsession is Breaking Bad, which is about a high school chemistry teacher with cancer who cooks meth to pay his medical bills. I finish all three seasons in three days. This fake man’s antics are all I talk about for weeks. I see a friend whose life I find only marginally interesting, and we skip pleasantries in favor of character misquotes and hazy recollections of brutal violence. We forge the most superficial connections to ignore our boredom together.
Sometimes it’s simpler to obsess over things that didn’t really happen and people who don’t exist. They live consistently exciting lives, without having to take breaks for pointless things like going to the bathroom or to bed. I can’t disappoint a fictional character and he won’t disappoint me. Show me something that’ll allow me to forget what’s happening in my life, and I’ll pay attention.
I’m thirteen and in my bedroom at my dad’s house for my bi-monthly overnight visit, part of my parents’ custody agreement. I can hear my father and stepmother yelling downstairs through my closed door, but I try to ignore them. I can’t make out what they’re saying exactly anyway. My stomach is in my throat because it sounds like Dad is going to leave. I’m not sure where he’s going, but when he does I’ll be alone with my stepbrother, Tim, whom I hate.
“This is the last fucking time,” my dad bellows.
Something slams. Tim tells my dad to fuck off, that he’s a shithead. Maria, my stepsister, yells at both her mother and my father. Dad screams at my stepmother about how her kids have no damn respect. I turn my eyes back to the fantasy novel I’m reading to try to ignore this.
Erevis Cale is a butler by day. He oversees the affairs of a wealthy family of nobles and provides verbal advice for their wayward and young adult children. By night, he is an assassin, with a gnome companion who has sticky fingers. The two slay werewolves and cripple mages guilds. I want to be them. It doesn’t seem fair that my life isn’t like theirs.
Then I hear it: “Robert, come down here right now!”
My stepmom Linda yells again. Maria is crying. They’re in the kitchen, which they have recently remodeled. The house is always a project, an ever-changing attempt to fit seven people into a four-person home. I continue to ignore the yelling and turn the page of my book, but I can’t pay attention to what the words mean. My father calls up to me again and I realize that I’ll have to go down now.
On the way downstairs I pass our antisocial cat, Princess, whom my youngest sister named. She’s hated all of us since we had her spayed. Now she’ll only tolerate Linda. She hisses at me, and I whisper, “Shut up cat!” She runs away.
Downstairs I poke my face into the kitchen. Dad stands in the doorway of our mudroom, his eyebrows straight and his face red. Normally he looks pretty goofy, like a chubbier and older me, but when he’s mad, he’s someone else. Linda stands near the basement, crying. Tim hovers protectively between them. He’s wearing a ridiculous tank top, an attempt to show off his muscles and make up for his lack of height. As I walk in Tim is saying, “dare EVER call her that again. I’ll kill you!”
“Pack your things,” Dad says, turning to me. “We’re leaving.”
My face gets hot. Tears stream down my face and my glasses fog up. I hate living here, but the idea of being somewhere else scares me. We might get to stay at Grandma’s house, but that’s in Utica. I’d never see my friends.
Maria is curled up on the couch in the next room, the TV on in front of her. “Go back upstairs, Bobby,” she says.
“No, we’re leaving, and you’ll never have to see us again,” Dad says. He isn’t yelling anymore. He’s speaking calmly, and that makes things ten times worse. I walk back to the stairs but can’t summon the strength to even go up. I collapse into a ball at the bottom and weep.
Maria comes to comfort me. Linda stares down my father. “Let him go upstairs Frank. He’s reading. He likes to be in his bedroom. Don’t make him listen to this.”
Linda does laundry, and Tim plays the Playstation 2 in his bedroom. I want to play too but I don’t want to be in the same room as him. Whenever he plays and his character dies, he punches the ground and hits himself in the head with the controller. Maria has disappeared into her bedroom, and my oldest brother Matt is gone too. I’m not sure where my little sister—the only one who belongs to both Linda and my dad—is for all of this, but I’m glad she isn’t around. I wonder what it will be like for her if they get divorced. I was two when my parents split, so I mostly don’t remember them ever being together. But Maddie’s had six years with two parents in the same household.
The house is quiet and I wish it would rain. I try to read more but my mind keeps whirling back to the fight, so I don’t get past more than a sentence or two.
I put the book down and turn on the TV. Anything to drown out the silence.
My brother Matt and I face each other, smiling and strumming each other’s guitars. Matt is my full brother, the only one. He’s twenty-three and I’m twenty, and for the first time in the years since we’ve picked up instruments we’re playing together in a band. The venue is nothing new: a graffiti-strewn room in the Student Center of my college, a room I’ve played in countless times before with the three other bands I’ve been in since coming here.
We’re in front of thirty or forty kids, a surprisingly large crowd for us, and they’re dancing, throwing their sweaty bodies into each other, knocking into the PA speakers as we scream into spit-soaked microphones. I kick off my shoes as I dance too. I feel like I’m creating something larger than myself. I fall into the music so hard that I literally fall onto the slippery concrete floor, standing back up just in time to play the next note. None of my band members notice, though we share a laugh about it later when we watch the video of our performance.
It doesn’t seem like it amounts to much, playing in front of people who only attend because they know you. But there’s more to it than that. The people watching don’t matter as much as the people I’m playing with. Not even after the song finishes and they break into applause. It’s the experience of performing with a group that counts.
It’s intoxicating. And it’s something I’m doing with my brother. It makes me forget about all the other shit in my life, if only for half an hour.
I have a tendency to blurt out very personal things when I first start dating someone. I say something inappropriately private, like how my parents got divorced when I was three, or how often I get bad gas. After that, if I haven’t completely scared her off, one of us will become infatuated with the other. We’ll start spending all of our time together, sharing our deepest secrets curled up in bed. But no matter how close we get, I’ll eventually start to pull away. I’ll ignore her, expressing a need for more time with my friends, which in truth roughly translates to by myself. This goes on until she’s left me, confused at my change in behavior, at which point I’ll notice the error of my ways and try to coax her back into my life. Only to start it all over again.
The idea of pinning myself indefinitely down to one person terrifies me. I’ve never had a model for a healthy relationship, so even if I start one I convince myself I’m incapable of maintaining it. It’s a vicious cycle, but one I’m not sure I’m ready to break. I’ll keep trying out relationships because I’m still trying on selves. I need to find someone who can help me smooth out transitions from being one person to another. Someone okay with how polar I’ve become.
Until then, I’ll keep pushing everyone away.
The walls are red and people fill the room. They sit on musty old couches, on green camping chairs, and on the floor, which is freshly painted and sparkling. It is entirely packed. I know some of the people, friends who are here to support the event, a monthly literature open mic, but most are faces I’ve never seen before. My brother and his girlfriend are both here, sitting together somewhere in the back, and I’m glad to see them, but they only complicate what I’m about to do.
I watch the guy ahead of me deliver his poetry. He’s holding a small Moleskine notebook but it isn’t open. He’s closing his eyes and remembering the words, and I can’t even listen because I’m so worried that what I’m about to read won’t be as good as his. When he’s done, people cheer and he gives a little bow. I wish I were that smooth. My best friend walks up to the mic and pulls it down a bit to speak.
“Up next is...,” she says leaning down to take a closer look at the sign up sheet, “Bob.” She glances back to me smiling. “He’s reading us some of his nonfiction.”
I get up to stand in front of the lone microphone, my hands shaking only slightly. I clutch three pieces of paper, covered with type, double-spaced and in Courier font. For the past year I’ve been scribbling down every private moment I’ve never had the courage to share, and now it’s time say them out loud. When I start to read, my voice quivers for a moment, but I push forward, determined to tell the truth, or something like it. The first few sentences are clunky and awkward, so I edit as I speak. In a short time though, I find rhythm.
“Kyle is lying down on the couch under a heavy blanket. It covers him all the way up to his chin. ‘Doctor, doctor help me,’ he says, ‘I think something is wrong.’”
Wait, what am I doing? Why am I telling everyone about this? I’ve been trying so hard to get it all down without truly stopping to think about what the work means to me. It started as an attempt to justify the eccentricities of my childhood, but that’s not all it is. I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to do anymore. Or if I’m doing it yet.
By putting my life into words and sharing it with people who weren’t part of it, am I getting even farther from myself than I was before? Am I so afraid to contradict my own perception of self that I’ve become something else, something plastic, malleable in such a way that I can fit both my own and others’ expectations of me?
“I stand next to the couch and say, ‘Well what could be the problem, miss? You were just in for your check up last week.’ We’re never boys when we play doctor, always girls.” I look up for a split second, memorizing the next few words as I scan the crowd for any signs of disgust. Instead, the reaction seems warm. Most everyone keeps their eyes on me, only a few stop to look at their cell phones. Some people smile. Only one person gets up to leave.
“I reach under the blanket and feel the warmth of his skin. He isn’t sweating, but he isn’t totally dry either. My fingertips glide up his thighs...”
The uncertainty I felt before turns into a weird sort of pride. There’s a chance I’m being too forward, but I seem to have their attention. It’s empowering to tell fifty people I don’t know something I haven’t ever shared with more than a few people. It calms me, and my tone strengthens. I slip up less often.
“‘Your turn?’ he asks. But he doesn’t wait for a response; he pulls off my underwear and pushes me down onto the couch where he just was. He covers me up with the blanket. It’s my turn to be the girl.”
There is a small chuckle. I can’t help but smile. The lights get in my eyes and I try not to look at anyone directly. There’s a small spot on the back wall that I stare at whenever I look up, a focal point that keeps me from dropping the pages and running out of the room.
“‘I’m bored,’ he says and we get our underwear back on. I nod. ‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘let’s watch cartoons.’”
There is applause, but for a brief moment I don’t register it. I walk back to my seat with my eyes on the floor and feel as if a great weight has lifted from me. I feel an overwhelming sense of calm as I slump down on an old couch. Friends look back to me whispering, but I can’t hear any of their words. My mouth is dry, and I merely nod in return.
This moment is mine, and although I know I’m not finished, hardly whole, tonight is proof that I’m at least starting to come closer to finding that bridge I’ve been looking for from one vaguely translucent version of myself to the next.
#Real #PersonalEssay #Childhood #Memories #BuildingBridges #SecretsToArt
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