I don’t exactly wake up from the sound of the phone, but rather my husband’s elbow in my stomach. “How many times do I need to ask you to turn your phone off before you go to bed?” He shoves me to my side of the bed, towards my bedside table with a flickering phone on top of it, like a beacon in the darkness of our small bedroom. I know my husband isn’t an angry guy, he just doesn’t want to wake our four-month-old and have to try to sleep to the sounds of crying baby. I quickly put the phone on silent and habitually tap the fluorescent green Messages window on my iPhone.
At first, my groggy mind isn’t quite sure what I am looking at, but then I snort loudly trying to contain my laughter and get shoved in my stomach once again. “Will you turn this damn thing off and stop radiating my head?”
I stick my head under the comforter and zoom in on the picture of my old neighbor Xander. In the snapshot, he is wearing my brother’s old baseball cap that says Goofy (quite appropriately!) above the velcro, that the latter left during one of his visits home. How did it end up on Xander’s head? I try to think back to the last time he and my brother interacted? And the last time he and I interacted?…
Anyway, he is wearing a cap backwards as well as the very apparent blue eye shadow, generous strokes of blush and pink lipgloss. Because its 2AM, i think even slower than I have already been thinking ever since the influx of hormones from my fourth pregnancy. Why is Xander wearing makeup and my brother’s baseball cap? Why did he send me this picture in the middle of the night?
For a second I think that maybe he decided to come out of the closet, the way I accidentally forced my friend Jordan to come out in high school. We were all at a big Thanksgiving dinner at Jordan’s house – my mom, her boyfriend, my brother with his first wife, me and my then boyfriend Drake with his mom, Drake’s cousin Jordan, his parents and some more relatives I can’t recall… I was quite sure that Jordan was gay and even more sure that it was common knowledge. He was seventeen, gorgeous and showed absolutely zero interest in all the slutty girls in our high school that were throwing themselves at him. He dressed with an effortless cool, was neater than our school principal and knew every Madonna song by heart. When my boyfriend’s mom, Jordan’s aunt, asked Jordan why he wasn’t playing football for our high school – “You have the looks and the physique, hun..” I blurted out without pausing to think (unfortunately, I never outgrew this habit) – “Yeah, J, why not? Imagine all those dreamy Seniors tackling you to the ground.” Jordan chocked on whatever he just put in his mouth, gave me an evil stare and quickly left the table. As everyone got silent, I wanted to stick my foot in my mouth and choke on it to change the focus, but it was too late. When i think back to it, however, I don’t even think my stupid comment was that obvious, but clearly Jordan wasn’t ready for these type of pronouncements or jokes. Neither were his parents.
But back to Xander.. Did he decide to come out to me at 2AM? But the more i stared at the picture, the less oxygen I had under the new thick comforter that we just got at Kmart last week, the more I wished i could say that all this rouge and ridiculous make-up made him look less manly or less brute…
He and I became friends when we were ten. I started fifth grade and he was the new kid that year. He was athletic and very funny; popular with the girls, so for a while, I didn’t approach him. I was always easily intimidated by popularity. Towards the middle of the year our class went on our annual field trip – to an ice-skating rink. While my friend Sarah and I were holding on to each other, desperately trying to stay upright, she pointed out that he was looking at me. I wanted to be half as cool as the other girls he hung out with, so I inquired: “What are you staring at?” He shrugged and skated off.
Back on the school bus he plopped right next to me before Sarah could say a word in protest. “Your mom is really nice,” he said, and I found out that his older brother was in my mom’s class at the technical school down the street from our house, where my mom held her second job to pay for the house after my dad left us. I don’t remember what else we talked about that day but our friendship progressed. We walked to school and from school and sat together at lunch. Sometimes he carried my backpack and at other times he hit me on the head with it. We usually went to his house to do homework but ended up playing board games on top of an old wooden storage cabinet, so his younger brother Finn couldn’t get to us and steal all the game pieces. When we got sick of board games we got more adventurous. Sometimes, we jumped from the top of the storage cabinet across the room onto his sofa bed. One time Xander missed, hit his head on the metal bed-frame and ended up in that same bed for three weeks with a severe concussion. And it wasn’t even his first concussion, as he was proud to announce in class, three weeks later. Two years prior to the jumping incident, he slipped while blatantly ignoring the stupid sign “No Running” at the kiddie pool at the Y, rattled his brains quite a bit against the old cracked tile and ended up in the hospital for a while.
For three weeks, I brought him homework every afternoon but mostly stories of what happened at school while he was missing all the fun. I lay next to him for what seemed like an eternity, we were eleven, have been best friends for almost two years, and it didn’t seem awkward, except one time. While watching some old movie on the vcr his dad only let him have in his room for the time that he was on bed rest, we fell asleep. When we woke up, his mom was standing over us saying that it was very late and time for me to go home. I felt as though I was caught doing something wrong, I just wasn’t quite sure what it was. Other than that aforementioned moment that as a child, I desperately tried to erase from my memory; I would shudder nervously when it would creep back up to the forefront of my recollection of memorable recent events; the three weeks on his sofa with as much potato chips as we wanted and more movies than we have seen in the entire year prior were nothing but unabashed joy (at least to me, as I was not the one with a severe concussion).
And then I remembered. Four summers ago, when Gaby was only 2 and my husband and I took her and our older son and drove down to the Outer Banks for a week in August. My brother came there too with his daughter, he and his third wife were on the brink of divorce, and we shared a small house in Corolla right on the beach. We ran into Xander during our second night there while scanning the menu at the door of one of those seemingly plain looking restaurants that end up costing a fortune because they are the hidden treasure of the islands that are not so hidden anymore. Gaby was crying because she missed her nap, and because my husband and I had a big fight in the car on the way to dinner, and it always took her a long time to calm down. It still does. Last week, her first grade teacher told her that she can’t chase boys during recess because its unladylike and because it will make boys not like her, she cried from 11am until the time I picked her up. Her teacher, Mrs. B, told me that I need to show her to a specialist, because no normal child can cry for three hours because of a meaningless comment. But, anyway, Gaby was crying and my husband was trying to read the menu and decide whether or not we will have enough money to last through the remaining 5 days if we eat at this particular establishment. Then I turned around and saw Xander and a skinny blonde woman in a lime spaghetti-strap dress with a white cardigan neatly thrown over her shoulders. My first thought was that I don’t remember last time I wore white. My second thought was interrupted with Xander’s arms around me – “Quit stalking me, T” – he laughed loud in my ear and pressed me just long enough for me to realize he smelled the same, a cocktail of hay thats been out in the sun too long, oranges and childhood. He always called me T, even though I always thought that Tina is already short enough. We had dinner and went home to put Gaby to bed.
That night my husband and my son watched Mighty Ducks on tv, while I washed the dishes and thought of a night in November when I was walking home from school and ran into Xander holding Ellie’s hand. I didn’t expect it to feel the way it did, because it was he first time I felt this proverbial ground disappear below my feet…I struggled to find my balance and when I did, I asked them how they were doing? Ellie looked beautiful. Her cheeks were flushed from the November cold and the lack of warm clothing. She was wearing a tight black hoodie unzipped, revealing a white fitted t-shirt with some perfectly sparkling design and great jeans that I only ever saw in teen magazines. Everyone knew that Ellie was ‘experienced’ with boys. There was even gossip that she got her experience from her mom’s second husband. But to this day, I hope it was only jealousy fueling the imagination of my classmates, and not real events.
After that November day, Xander and I saw each other less and less. I ran into him with various girls and in various compromising positions and after a while I stopped noticing it as much. Only that November evening got imprinted, perhaps, because my mom couldn’t afford warm clothes that year, but I wasn’t cool enough to go around without them like Ellie, and who was I kidding, my mom would never let me…long story short, my mom bought a long winter coat from our 45-year-old neighbor Anne. There they were – impeccably dressed, holding hands and there I was – in Anne’s old grey coat that reached all the way to the ground but couldn’t hide me from the pain. My mom never did find out why i cried all night in my room and why i never again wore that coat no matter how much she threatened to ground me indefinitely.
Towards the end of our week in Corolla, my husband and my brother invited Xander and his wife to our rental house for some drinks; a small goodbye gathering to celebrate the end of our vacation and a big reason to drink which neither my husband nor my brother could ever refuse. The house was tiny, space limited and the louder the men got the more scared were the kids. I sympathized because I very well remembered that long before my dad left, he used to drink and behave in a way that frightened five-year-old me without really giving any reason, other than the fact that he acted differently that the dad i knew. Girls are always more sensitive and more easily frightened, so I gave Gaby and my brother’s daughter my makeup case to distract them from the drunken state of their fathers. I don’t remember how Xander ended up as the Gaby and her older cousin’s first client but he ended up lying on the floor while a toddler and a kindergartener were applying his makeup. My brother’s daughter said that he needs to gel his hair back so he looks like a beautiful girl, which is when Xander’s patience ran out and he said, “Enough girls, let me talk to grownups for a bit.” I didn’t want Gaby to start her wailing so I took the cap off of my brother’s head and placed it backwards on Xander’s head. I was stunned at how manly he looked with all this make up on, his features were blatantly staring at me reminding me of everything that pulled me back to my childhood, when no one woke me up six times in one night and when I thought that I will grow up and be famous. He was beautiful – strong and so familiar. I held back my breathe but must have been very obvious because I noticed that he was looking directly at me. I thought that I shouldn’t have had that second glass of Asti because I was seeing things. I don’t remember how Xander and I ended up alone in the kitchen, but there we were and it was just us, not counting the loud commotion just a thin wall away. He walked towards me and I thought he would ask me if I ever regretted not being with him, the way beautiful, glossy haired heroines always get asked in the end of sappy romantic films, my husband and I sometimes see at the cinema on Fridays when our neighbor agrees to watch the kids….But he didn’t say anything. He put his entire hand on my hair and firmly pressed against my head. He moved his hand down along the length of my hair and played with the strands for a mere second before stepping back as we both heard footsteps.
I didn’t know that someone took a picture of him that day. And a blurry closeup too. He is staring right in the phone camera, his brown eyes laughing and piercingly intense at the same time. It must have been his wife who took the picture because I doubt my brother or my husband would text him the shot, as neither is big on texting.
I turn off my phone. I think off putting it on airplane mode, but am worried that the light will wake my husband and baby. The comforter is no longer over my head and I can breathe. The air feels cold against my overheated face and shoulders. I must have been starved for oxygen because i just lose myself in this sensation for a while and think about how little we value things that are basic and given and always right here, just like this fresh cool air…