At the end of each school day in seventh grade, my friend Ryan and I would spot his mom’s Volvo on the corner of Oceania Street. The car, black with a crinkled leather interior, was one of Ryan’s dad’s experiments and had been refurbished with a Hemi engine. I’d often see Billie, a cute name for a dad I thought, in his driveway, lying supine under one of his cars, tinkering, a constellation of tools set beside a tire. My friends and I thought he spoke like Christopher Walken, had his hair slicked back the same way too, sort of vampiric. Sometimes he’d wheel out from under the bumper on a little dolly and smile, smudges of grease on his cheeks, an unlit cigarette between his lips.
The Volvo always had an evergreen air freshener tied to the rearview mirror that would dangle as Lily, Ryan’s mom, drove us home. The car smelled faintly of cigarettes, almost sweet. Our houses were three blocks apart. Ryan’s was just before a deli called Gunther’s where an older German lady worked the counter. Gunther’s wife or mother, we figured. The best after-school snack was a scoop of their rice pudding, which I prized for its impurity: Foamy bits of egg, which had somehow resisted the custard, offered an unpredictable mouthfeel. After a spoonful, I liked to let the vanilla flavor linger on my tongue. I liked to open my mouth and breathe it in.
After Lily would drop me off, the first thing I’d do, even before taking off my backpack, was turn on the TV. I’d put on the Food Network and see Gale Gand’s gleaming face. Gale Gand was the host of a show called Sweet Dreams in the heyday of celebrity chef television, when Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay had just begun to emerge as stars, but were not yet complete caricatures of themselves. I found Gale, who devoted her half hour exclusively to desserts, to possess a gentleness of attention that these chef dudes did not. While Gale would dot the circumference of a cake with fleurs de lis, Bobby would quench grill flareups and Emeril would wantonly toss cayenne at a defenseless chicken breast, shouting “BAM!” with a preacher’s conviction. I was left wondering what this chicken had done to warrant such an exorcism. Their cooking was quick and messy, full of minor catastrophes. By the end, their brows shone with sweat. Meanwhile, Gale was tempering a ganache, showing me how to keep a coconut panna cotta from getting too firm. While watching, I’d pour myself a glass of Snapple and break open a bag of pretzel sticks, a ritual I had inherited from my mother.
During those years, my father, who had managed restaurants when I was younger, started a catering company out of our house in Queens, NY called the World Sandwich Company. He made everything from peasant bread to chocolate truffles in our claustrophobic kitchen. In the morning, there were often trails of cocoa powder on the counter. Sometimes my dad would pack one of the extra sandwiches in my lunch, and it would embarrass me. A muffuletta, curried chicken salad on an onion roll, caprese on focaccia. Though it broke my heart every time, I threw them all out. I’d opt for a Linden’s cookie or a bag of BBQ chips instead, something processed and discrete. For whatever reason, artisanship, like good handwriting, was seen as girly.
There were other things I wish I could have just thrown out. One day at lunch, Layla, one of the few girls from my class who had a real boyfriend, touched my hair without asking. I gulped and felt stupid for gulping. “You know what this feels like?” she said. I was silent. “Pubes,” she said. I was mortified, but a little relieved that I at least knew what the word pubes meant. A year earlier, in rehearsal for a sixth grade production of Oliver!, in which I was Oliver, Joey, who was playing the Artful Dodger, “dissed” somebody by saying, “Man, I bet your pubes are longer than your dick.” When I looked up “pubes” later that day, I couldn’t decide if Joey was saying that this person had a very small dick or very long pubes, though I suddenly worried about both.
The diss was an essential part of the conception of the middle school male self. For a time it seemed as though the only valid identity was the one constructed from other people’s social ashes. You had to either burn other people or blow away. “Bloody knuckles,” “your mom” jokes, getting “pantsed” in gym: dick size was directly proportionate to how vulnerable you could make the people around you feel. And little distinction was made between vulnerability and femininity, which is why the worst epithets were merely feminizations.
With my dick size in a daily state of flux, sex, the one thing that could bump you straight to manhood, seemed as impossible as a year of snow days. So when Layla said “pubes” with her hand on my jewfro, I wanted to throw out my hair, but only because I wanted to throw out the feeling underneath it, that in a world which demanded manliness of me I could only offer my falsest parts. I laughed at Layla’s Joke: “Yeah, pubes, I know what you mean.” And, after that, I began to get my hair cut short, a number two on the razor. It wasn’t my hair’s fault, but its increasing unwieldiness was an easy scapegoat. Layla lived across the street from me, which steeped my walks to school in a light haze of paranoia. My head tingled.
At the beginning of sixth grade, on the way back from a class trip to Six Flags, Ryan kissed Mandy Moscowitz in the back of the bus in response to a dare. Soon after, with help from the witnesses, they decided they liked each other and should therefore begin officially dating. Over the next few weeks, they would hold hands between classes and repeat the kiss a few times to ensure that its repetition was in fact possible. This was officially dating. Their relationship culminated in Ryan buying, with his mother’s money and approval, a stuffed bear for Mandy on Valentine’s Day. I don’t remember why, but a short time later Ryan broke up with Mandy. I think he said something along the lines of: It’s too rushed. Whatever the reason, one day it was decided that we boys had to shun Mandy. We even went so far as to circumnavigate her when distributing worksheets.
Though it might not have been cool to feel “rushed,” Ryan’s experience was a kind of currency that my life, and the lives of our other friends, did not yet possess. I didn’t necessarily understand why Mandy was now no longer friend-worthy, but I was more acutely aware of my deeper lack of understanding–that I did not know how a kiss felt–and so I couldn’t challenge the consensus with any certainty. I deferred to better authorities and practiced on my hand in the meantime.
I got the part of Oliver because: One, my voice hadn’t changed yet, and I could hit all the notes in “Where Is Love?” Two, I was genuinely uncomfortable on stage, which worked for the part, and which the Drama teacher, Ms. Campioni, must have mistaken for acting. And three, I was as thin as an orphan. At my yearly physicals, I was consistently in the bottom percentile for weight in my age group. My family facetiously called me Skeleton Man. In the locker room at school that nickname mentally haunted me. I didn’t like to be seen shirtless. I came up with a way to take off my regular shirt and put on my gym shirt without being exposed. Meanwhile, other boys were slapping each other with sweaty towels, waging Axe body spray wars. It was hard to get rid of that smell.
Though I dreaded gym, I wasn’t completely inept at sports. Ryan was, which evened things out between us somewhat. In fact, in the summer, I had joined a basketball league and was voted one of the two allstars on my team. The other was a girl, the only girl in the league, named Jessica, Jesse for short. Jesse had blonde hair to her waist and a nasty crossover. I liked to watch the other boys’ knees buckle. We were responsible for running the backcourt together. She’d inbound the ball to me, and I’d pass it right back to her. It was her team.
By seventh grade the kiss had worn off, and I got the sense that Ryan, since he wasn’t athletically inclined, sought craftier ways to avoid sinking into nerddom. He started to bring Red Bull’s to class, as though he had had a rough night. In sports he’d either trash-talk or completely derail the game. He’d get a pass and throw the ball behind his head and say, “Where’s your peripheral vision, dumbass!” And it worked. It was a way of asserting himself without really having anything relevant to assert, which I half-admired.
There was a video game we used to play on PlayStation called “Demolition Derby.” Everybody had a car, and when you got the green light, you just drove into each other and tried to make the biggest wreck possible. That was the whole point, jamming the X button as fast as you could, watching the metal fly. Ryan told us that his dad used to street-race back in the 80s. I found that cool, but I found what he was doing now, looking at cars so closely, cooler. Anyone could drive fast, I thought, risk crashing; it seemed harder to take the time to give something speed, and to give that speed a direction. Lily never broke 30 mph with her Hemi engine when she was driving us home.
About a week in to seventh grade, Ryan and I were sitting in Ms. Lippman’s math class. Ms. Lippman had a naturally shouty voice and frantic eyes. She would get angry at people for no reason, but it was a kind of contrived anger that you almost thought was supposed to be funny. Her prime target was a kid named Christian, whose long frame seemed to mock his squeaky voice. When he got nervous, he had a bad habit of laughing. “Let’s see if somebody can–CHRISTIAN. Can you read the question?” Ms. Lippman asked. Christian read the wrong question. Ms. Lippman went right up to his desk. He tried to suppress them, but a few high-pitched chuckles escaped his lips. Everyone laughed. “Are you a gerbil?” Ms. Lippman said. There was a long pause as everyone puzzled at Ms. Lippman’s choice of animal, followed by more laughter. Then the phone, the corded one in a little gray metal box near the door of the classroom, rang. Which was unusual. Ms. Lippman picked it up. She listened for a minute and stepped outside, the cord wrapping around the door.
A few moments later, she staggered back into the classroom backwards and hung up the phone. She was sobbing. We looked around at each other. “They’re gonna take my son,” she said, in between sobs. “There’s gonna be a war, they’re gonna take my son.” She gave us free time for the rest of class. We looked at each other in confusion. I don’t think anyone asked about this “war.” It didn’t look any different outside. The cars were still parked. I assumed the news Ms. Lippman had been given was personal, though I did think it was strange to use the word war like that.
The second line in “Where is Love?” is “Does it fall from skies above?” When I sang it, I would cheaply look to the ceiling. I didn’t realize I did this until one of the stagehands, Evan, brought it to my attention. During rehearsals, Evan would wear a Superman sweatshirt and crouch in the wings and try to distract me while I was singing. It was cooler to be a stagehand than Oliver, and Evan wanted to make sure I knew. I did. It was such a hopeless gesture, looking up, but we all did it. Evan looked up to Superman, apparently. Though I didn’t want to, I looked up to people like Evan. Everyone took turns being closer to the sky. I was already getting Bar Mitzvah invitations. My birthday was in two weeks. I wasn’t very optimistic about becoming a man anytime soon. And I didn’t know if I even wanted that. I didn’t like being Skeleton Man, but I didn’t like the alternative either. There was no way to know what would be there for us, on the other side of the sky. But it was a race. Speed, a good crash, we thought, could get you there. I had dropped out of Hebrew School back in elementary school so, without a Bar Mitzvah, my religious boyhood would continue for at least the immediate future. Who knows, maybe things would just fall from the sky. I looked up at the ceiling. I squinted in the spotlight. I felt so small at center stage.
After Ms. Lippman’s class, I don’t remember the rest of the school day. All I remember is Lily driving faster than usual. You could actually feel the Hemi. The car smelled more like cigarettes than evergreen. She began a lot of sentences that she didn’t finish. She didn’t say the word war, but did say something about an explosion. She said the world had changed. She said she had to get Ryan’s brother, but assured me she had spoken to my mom and she would get home soon after I did. Ryan and I related the story of Ms. Lippman’s outburst. Lily didn’t laugh like we thought she would.
When I got home, I turned on the Food Network. Instead of Gale Gand’s face, there was a news anchor’s head. Then a video of people running through ash. A plane going through a building as though it were made of ash. They showed that over and over, and I thought it looked like Demolition Derby. It looked like somebody had won in Demolition Derby. A building, two buildings, fell from the sky. My mind drifted. My birthday was in two weeks. I suddenly didn’t like the idea of getting older, more muscles, a deeper voice. I thought about going to get some rice pudding from Gunther’s, but didn’t want my mother to worry if she got home and didn’t see me. I had some pretzels and a glass of Snapple instead. I looked at the sky burning. It looked like something a boy would do.