Westside Story: Adolescence, Early 1990s

by Tim Gilmore, 7/24/2017

Your strange sense of humor remains the same. It’s been not quite 30 years. You were 13 years old. I was 15.

You were 12 years old when you brought money out to strange cars, came back to the house with a sheet of acid. That driver’s now a cop, no surprise. Same game, different side.

I see still your 14 year old face, now 41 years old.

You remember my telling you I was in love with Leslie, which I don’t recall confiding. You don’t remember my being in love with Tanya, which is what I most remember of three years of my adolescence.

I thought back then I was born in-love without yet having met the object of the preposition. I knew her, though, when I saw her. You expected me to be angry. I was angry, always, but stung bitterly, gentle. I was always angry, but my anger never had an object.

You rarely drank when you were 13 years old. I rarely drank until I was 31.

Memory is always inaccurate, and I know that. Life never happens in narratives, but stories are all we have to guide us.

You remember everything, you say, because you have no sense of time. I see your face clearly, 14 years old.

You were so tall, so pale, so smart, your voice so deep, none of which seemed right for your being so young. Your red hair fell straight down your back to your waist. You slept all day. You stayed awake all night. You read thousand-page novels. You watched the backyard swimming pool from the lawn chair you perched on the roof of that 1960s ranch-style concrete-block house.

You interrupt me when I say, “When I was young,” and tell me I never was. I could say the same to you, though certainly you had no crow’s feet, no gray in your hair, no beard back then.

I asked you not to be angry that I loved the girl you’d started dating. I take your word for it. Sounds like me.

“It was in your bedroom,” you say, “where your parents lived, over off 295.” You describe the bookcases as they stood in my teenage room. You’d read most of them, but borrowed a few, Bram Stoker apparently, and I asked you not to crack the spine. You remember I’d written Leslie poetry. I’ve forgotten.

“I was just this kid,” you say, “and it was me who went out and bought the acid.” You point a finger and say, “including for you.”

I’m sure I didn’t know that, though I’ve forgotten so much. I’m sure that detail would not have been okay. What percentage do we remember of what we’ve lived? You say you remember everything. I say we’re all monsters.

You rarely drank back then, but kids moved in and out of your childhood home and dropped acid every day.

I’d grown up Southern Baptist, sheltered, all the world a sin, my mother sick for two years until she died, lost my faith, tried to hang on to Jesus, wrote a few dozen melodramatic little stories, wrote a story about a Jesus with devil horns walking over me in bed, felt guilty, felt guilt not just for blasphemy, but because the story came to me so easily. I remember. It did not feel like creativity at all.

All these years, my dear old friend, I did not know that you were there in your parents’ bathroom with me and Kara that night. Perhaps only five or six nights had I ever drank beer. That night, I downed shot after shot of tequila. Kara grabbed the toilet bowl before me. Our faces touched, I believe. I remember moving her face away when she’d finished puking so I could puke into the bowl.

Tonight you remember you held my long hair from before her face, directed Kara next to vomit into the sink as I crashed my face into the shitter.

I never knew you were there. I never knew you held my hair.

You were 12, 13, you were 14 years old, and though you too tripped on acid, you felt a responsibility, deep in the night and all night, many a night, to keep an eye on the rest of us, 16 and 18 years old, or in the case of Scott and Jack, 25 and 28.

Scott never tripped, just drank all day every day. He drove some old boat of a car, 1970s in the early 1990s. He considered it his responsibility to fuck with the kids doing LSD since he was only always drunk.

Scott drove us, round and round, in circles somewhere downtown, I kept seeing the same street corners, the same dark hulls of buildings, and he kept slurring, “Don’t worry, chil’ren. I’m not gone die tonight like my brudder did, drivin’ ’round these same streets like my brudder did, all them years ago.”

The three years we knew each other so well were 30 years at the time. We’d had so few years on earth. Every event was historic, good training for a writer. I could have been shot, could’ve gone some even more stupid death, any accident at all. So was being lost, and I was. Good training for a writer was every accident, but I, stupidly, each foolishness I witnessed, fell in love again knocked askew.

I can’t believe you never knew how much in love I’d been with Tanya. After three years of such torch-song life, when finally I found a girlfriend, she told her she’d stolen her best friend. News to me.

As if afraid, despite all these crimes and all this pain, of violating something sacred, we speak now without names. I never knew another good friend suffered what she did at home.

I never knew that friend slept with this friend. It’s stupid that after all these years this fact yet makes me so sad.

Another friend was 16, I think, when her boyfriend was 25 or 26. He stole refrigerants from American Coolair, “Quality Ventilation Products for More than 85 Years,” where he worked, “American Made, American Owned,” on Mayflower Street in Murray Hill. He “huffed” those all-American coolants and sold them to particular dealers. I hadn’t heard he was dead. I guess he’d be 52 or 53 now.

This period of my life, as we remember it together, lurches away from me, so pivotal. I’d always been the outsider. With these friends, at this time, I felt that I’d found some kind of home. And yet I know, even now, with memories of the young people I recall as my closest friends, I still stood far outside. I was there, every moment, in the moments I recall, but still I stand peripheral in the memories of my friends.

I knew I was gentle. Back then it shamed me. A nonviolent male was weak, a genetic flaw and fluke. I knew I’d been older even than my older friends. I don’t think I realized how those characteristics made me a freak, even to the freaks. Yet these memories make me feel peripheral to the lives of the people I thought I well knew.

Yes, I remember George and Georgefry. I didn’t remember the twins’ line, “You buy one George, you get the other George free.” They’d come from New Hampshire. One had short hair, the other’s hair was long. I seem to recall a third or fourth brother too. One twin looked uncannily like the Incredible Hulk, and I remember the purposely devastating way both twins walked drunken down any Jacksonville sidewalk.

I remember being buried in the back seat of a car, late some night, perhaps in Scott’s big drunken boat of a ’70s auto, while one twin demanded the car pulled over. He’d seen someone walking some way he did not like along some night-time sidewalk. He wanted to beat somebody to death.

Everything broke my heart. I felt bad about it then. It meant, though I was not a “faggot,” I was a “sissy.” Then again, being a “sissy” made me, though hetero, a “faggot.”

I wasn’t a survivor. Seeing Frank kick that man, ribs and then head, back underneath that mobile home. Seeing that young Navy guy, hanging out with us kids, chase down a stranger, across the apartment complex on 103rd Street, kicking him under the car, kicking him repeatedly in the head, in the face. It wasn’t supposed to bother me. If I, this boy, were a man.

I knew I was gentle. The friends I cherish from this time of my life I will always hold deep in my heart.

In these years occurred the most violence I’ve ever witnessed.

Tonight, you tell me, maybe I shouldn’t have asked you, we’ve each had several beers, this violence has followed you all your life.

You have the same smile. I remember it distinctly. Back then, it broke sudden into your baby-skin face, flashing white teeth, and looked both sweet and broken. I didn’t, at the time, understand, the brokenness. I perceived the sweet, but wondered what I could not decipher. Your smile today opens the same amidst your beard and your stunning handsome sunburnt hardworking face. I saw that smile and knew it all those years.

I’d never known you’d been sent away for a year to “a home” in Georgia since your middle brother beat the shit out of you every day. What was wrong with you, wondered the good Christian men at the “home,” that he’d do such things to you?

You were strange and aloof and sweet and adorable and clearly too old for your age and too smart, you’d read more than most 50 year olds with bachelor’s degrees, and you stood so lanky and tall and so babyfaced and new.

I knew Frank was a bully. Everyone knew he was a sociopath. I’d watched him kick a man, boot to head, underneath that mobile home in that 103rd Street trailer park.

Once, apropos of I knew not what, Frank flipped me over, ass over shoulder, my skinny teen frame upside-down on your parents’ kitchen floor, and wrapped his fist around my scrotum. “How you like that?” he said, “I can squeeze ’em ’til I bust ’em, or I can break ’em off.”

For some reason, Frank listened to Ricky. Ricky stood often in the background in his denim jacket and grunted softly to himself. He’d recently picked someone up, whom I don’t remember, nor why, and slammed him into a Taco Bell drive-through sign. Ricky told Frank to let me go and he did. I’ve not recalled this moment for more than 20 years. How have I not remembered?

“I know why he hates you so much,” your oldest brother told me back then. “I mean he really hates you. It’s because you’re smart. He hates that.”

Yes, I remember which friends of ours Frank slept with. Goddammit. Let me back up. I was always too gentle. Yes, I remember when Frank fucked my friend. My friends. I remember what he said afterward.

“I love it when my balls hurt from slappin’ her in the cunt.”

Oh this stupid sensitive boy who wrote poetry for the girl you later dated! I don’t think I’d ever heard anything so brutally and excrementally ugly. I told you. He’s one of the only people I’ve met, all my life, of whom I was ever afraid.

There’s nothing to fear more than stupidity and ugliness. If only I could have sat down and shat among everyone we knew, then risen from the whole scene beautifully on my own wings, I think I’d have told my life story.

There’s nothing less to fear than the ugliness you repurpose as your own meaning and beauty. I hope. Or even now, I’ve nothing to live for.

I knew about Marty showing up to fight Frank that sometime-1990s night. I knew Marty had armed himself with PCP. Thank God, I wasn’t there. I heard about Larry, that saint of my adolescence, the coolest person I knew—as he fixed up his own VW Bugs, inked his own tattoos, represented peace among the varied angry factions at N.B. Forrest High School (which everyone, white and black, knew was named for an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan), and led certain kids, and I was proud to be one, down to art shops in Orlando, down to the first Lollapalooza—planting himself out in the street and seeking peace.

Larry, early ’90s

Yes, and everyone heard how this vengeful drug dealer high on “Angel Dust” beat the shit out of Frank out front of his house, with half the Westside watching.

Much less was said when Frank was dead.

I’d instantly and always and deeply loved his littlest brother. Apparently I’d leant him books from my teenage library and asked him not to break the bindings. Apparently I’d told him I’d loved girls I thought never knew I’d loved them. He tells me they knew. I believe him.

Few specifics ever reached me. My atmospherics overwhelmed me. I knew so little about the day you killed your brother.

I know almost nothing of the actual altercation, but I recall fully, tactually, and deeply these midcentury subdivision streets. I walked them and walked them and walked them.

Back then I read Rimbaud and Baudelaire and my first Whitman and then Keats’s Endymion. I think I loved you differently, my friend, because I knew no one else who read. I wanted already to crucify myself on the history of all the world, but to the tune of Jane’s Addiction, if only my friends would read the transcript and recognize me and love me.

Surely I never afterwards knew you. I know no specifics of the actual violence.

When Frank died, I was not surprised.

I think it surprised me that you’d killed him.

Then again, I think it didn’t.

You had to learn to speak again.

Your eyes are the same. I admire the crow’s-feet. The beard is new to me, but a shadow of the smile you’ve grown before.

Your smile is the same. Then again, nobody saw what you masked with your mouth 30 years ago. I remember so well your mouth.

My friends, who were always mostly girls, and I ventured down to Orlando to see the first Lollapalooza late in the summer, 1991. Jane’s Addiction. Violent Femmes. Siousxie and the Banshees. Nine Inch Nails. So I missed the first day of my senior year of high school, sleeping until early afternoon in the living room of your parents’ house.

I never knew, but I after all knew so belatedly cluelessly whom I should never have so deeply loved.

I’d assumed I’d known the source of the Great Romanticism of my life. My life had other ideas. She wrote long trails across decades, pulled me up from grass graves, reminded me after all this time how I’d never threatened anyone. I’d never felt the need, the inclination.

We stand. Years pull apart between us. Our breastbones, tough. The night moves us apart. Both moves come as life ever has done.

I’ve got to stop naming names and naming places. I must stop identifying movements across the map. I have forgotten so much and perhaps it’s right I should.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll never again write another line and I’ll just live the rest of my life.

What an enormous relief!

Finally, it’s like my whole body can breathe.