My grandfather’s bedroom on Paul Street was the most private place I’ve ever known. His was the only room with a door; it had a chain lock on the inside, so he could crack the door without ever unlatching it and look through like a fugitive hiding out in a shoddy motel. Smoke always poured out into my lungs, burning my eyes, shrouding the silhouette of my grandmother, or mother—women he’d reduced to unrecognizable husks—lying wounded and musty in the fog. A bottle of Bacardi in one hand, he’d de-crust his beard with the other and demand: “Fuck you want?”
Typically food. For myself, or for my sister, when her hunger meant she’d distract me from playing Sega; Sonic The Hedgehog’s world held more promise than my own. Earl’s hands were heavy; so, I’d learned to be careful with my words even though most times he’d just raise a palm and leave it above his head to watch me squirm. He took raw pleasure in my flinching; hunching down and away became a permanent part of my posture. Sometimes he couldn’t reach me through the door’s crevice; I wanted to laugh, but that would only make him angrier. Angry enough to draw him from the room. Only the women—their visages crumpled and sullen behind him—could have wanted that.
“We’re hungry,” I said.
His eyes grew smaller, squinting, struggling to see if I’d really said that. He straightened his back, puffed his hairy chest.
“Hungry? All that fucking food I buy in that freezer and you tellin’ me you hungry?” It was a favorite line of his. More than him saying it, I was frustrated by the expectation that a nine-year-old should know how to thaw and cook red meat. I was forever failing at things I was never taught to do. “Why don’t you tell that bitch ya mom to get you some food? Tell that stank bitch to get a job. Where the fuck she at? And who the fuck you lookin at like that?” I’d stare straight ahead, my eyes not much higher than his green-checkered boxer shorts; his penis, like a big, brown, slug often hung outside of their un-buttoned hole.
He’d unlatched the door, opened it just wide enough for a good slam. Then he mumbled ferociously, berating unknown demons until he’d worn himself out enough to say, “Aye bitch get up and get them fuckin’ kids some food.” Even though “bitch” was his common name for every woman, I could usually tell which “bitch” he was addressing by his pitch. The lack of reply confirmed it was my grandmother. Most other women—though the end result was the same—would prolong the conversation, arguing him down until just before he got physical. She rose from the bed slovenly and distressed in her nightgown, on loan to quell another hunger. Being careful not to open the door too wide, she glanced down at me with disdain as she made her way towards the kitchen.
My grandmother would die young—her fully gray hair and sparse, orange teeth, stained prematurely. And I always wondered if Ganny hated me for being dropped in her lap by my thirteen-year-old mother, for spending her youth taking care of us children who intensified Earl’s rage by handing him more mouths to feed. How much longer had my presence, and then my sister’s, required her to stay with Earl? How much did it magnify her suffering? I didn’t treat her much better than he did. Nearly every day I called her a crackhead or a thief; said she was lazy and dumb.
That I never called her a bitch, I realize now, probably doesn’t mean all that much. I had taken on Earl’s world view as a man, fortifying myself by denouncing her humanity, and if I didn’t understand the scowl she flashed back at me while lighting the stove that night, it is all too clear now. I wanted something from her that she probably had no capacity to give. Our inability to see that under Earl’s gaze we weren’t much different—woman and child—haunts me still.
That bedroom was off limits, until the day it wasn’t. I’d cut school and tested the door as I had plans for the T.V. My grandfather hadn’t locked it. My grandmother was out—she never did drugs in front of us—and maybe that’s why my grandfather didn’t lock it; he had no need to fear the vanishing of cash from jeans and leather jackets, each hanging by their own long nail on the walls of his room. I hated everything about even the idea of school: the nosey, underprepared teachers—their thoughtless lessons on the D.A.R.E. program, its sole virtue of abstaining from drugs, which offered little else; I abhorred the grimey niggas my age and much older boys, always anxious to test me; I detested the rusted metal fence surrounding the schoolyard within which netless basketball hoops hung above black asphalt where blood was sometimes spilled—sometimes mine; I loathed the bright hopscotch chalk where little girls who knew me only by “pissy boy” would play during recess, seemingly oblivious to all the world’s repugnance and how we got dumped right in the thick of it.
But this day I was free. An older boy my grandfather had introduced me to—in the hopes of making me more manly—offered to come over with his Playstation. Earl’s every utterance to me insisted on a more aggressive, less sensitive grandson. His “be a man; stop actin’ like a lil’ bitch” campaign was the standing rebuttal to cold winter showers, the death of pets, lost fist fights, general depression and every human emotion except for rage. He disapproved of my only budding friendships with Jonathan and Grant. They were too white for him and therefore too meek, just as I was. So when he introduced me to an older, bigger, blacker boy, the intention was clear.
It was at Earl’s job, Lustrik Corp. down the street one day after school. I was trying to bum five dollars off him for a cheesesteak, some snacks and an Arizona Iced Tea; he’d usually relent after a few obscenities. Inside, rusty steel cranes grinded along the high ceiling, bathing metal bars and railings into rectangular pools of acid. The smell itched at the back of my throat. There were many hard hats around that no one wore. Tim, the high schooler who I first mistook as a man, was to be a proxy for my grandfather’s will. He stood taller than Earl and wore a big bookbag; “weird too” was all I remember Earl and Tim’s dad saying to one another.
Tim and I were nudged into each other; two introverts meeting for the first time, we tried to yell over heavy machinery. A forklift passed between us twice. We were able to get across our mutual interest in video games though, as well as what the kids at both our schools called “white music.” We had a short-run laugh over that. Tim opened his bookbag, its bulk made up mostly of CDs. He gave me an album from our mutual favorite band, The Red Hot Chili Peppers called One Hot Minute, relaying no fixed date for its return. I listened to “My Friends” every day after school, the first song I ever memorized or sang out loud. In spite of my dislike of people and fear of speaking, coupled with the noise of a metal coating factory, it was the easiest conversation I ever had. Like talking to myself or someone I’d always hoped to meet. Most of all, there was the joy of knowing my grandfather’s plan would fail.
I never knew there were other black kids who liked the same things as me. Tim was obsessed with anime and videogames, not girls or fighting. Earl mocked me endlessly for listening to “that white boy shit” whenever he heard that album, but Tim loved it more than me. I thought of our meeting at the factory when Tim suggested cutting school so we could play video games all day. I didn’t expect that from him. He seemed even more meek than me or Jonathan or Grant, way too tame to cut school. Much taller and clearly overweight, Tim was also dark-skinned like Earl, his presence was dominant—except for his nappy head and laughably hefty glasses. I saw myself in five years, though I prayed I would be more attractive. Or that girls would think so.
I chose to play in my grandfather’s room because his T.V. dwarfed the one in the living room. The privacy also made me feel more grown up and safe. The room was mostly bed. The T.V. sat on a single black dresser at the foot of a king mattress. Next to the television there were three brown ashtrays littered with leftover roaches and filtered Kools cigarettes. An empty 40 oz of Old English stood proudly in front of the cable box. Even with no one actively smoking, the air was thick with stale liquor and old smoke clinging to the walls and bed. I’d gotten used to the strain on my throat from the constant dry coughs just from being near Earl. We moved clothes aside to make room for the Playstation on the floor and Tim gamely offered to set it up. I fidgeted with excitement as he pulled the bright white system from his Jansport, my hands sweating onto the red silk sheets. Tim closed the door before sitting next to me. He handed me the controller.
“Here, you can go first, I’ll explain stuff to you,” he said.
The game was Crash Bandicoot. Suddenly I was an Indiana Jones-esque bandicoot (an animal I hadn’t previously known existed) sprinting through mazes, dodging traps, jumping over pitfalls and collecting all the Wumpa Fruit my bandicoot heart desired. I was damn good. As I tended to be with all video games, but never with many people before Tim. With him, it was easy to forget the most recent school yard stomping from that over-aged elementary school kid Terrence just a few days prior, my mom’s most recent jail stint and even my grandfather’s gun tucked in the ceiling tile just above my head. I stopped wanting to use it, on myself or anyone else.
For the first time I glimpsed into a future where being a nerdy black boy might turn out okay. As Tim explained how the game worked, his words drifted through my ears and across the room. I was focused, being sustained by the 32-bit system, the comfort of an older brother I’d never had and infinite hours ahead of it all. I was lulled into an unfamiliar state of comfort from which I did not intend to return.
Until Tim put his large right hand on my inner thigh.
My khakis suddenly seemed too thin. I hadn’t realized how close he was sitting to me before that moment. We were shoulder to shoulder, my legs dangling from the end of my grandfather’s bed, Tim’s huge butters planted firmly on the dark brown carpet. His voice never changed. He never took his eyes off the screen. My mind slowly backed out of Crash Bandicoot. I fought it. Reality wasn’t for me. I took a deep breath and considered pretending it never happened. Maybe his hand slipped or something. Maybe he would just move it and say “my bad.” In my infinite disbelief I even hoped to God or whoever else might be out there that his hand on my thigh was a mistake. But it wasn’t.
Tim moved his hand inward, insistently across my pants, following the curve of my dick with his open palm. Unmistakeable. I dropped the controller and sprung from the bed, pushing out of his reach.
“Yo, what are you doin’ man?” I said more than asked. I felt disgusting, like I’d be permanently tarnished. My face would forever be the face of a little gay boy who invited another boy over to play with his dick. I was terrified at the idea of what Earl might do if he ever found out, at what people might say about me. Had I done something to make Tim think we wanted the same thing? I couldn’t think of anything. He wasn’t forceful, he didn’t make me submit, but his gentleness didn’t make me feel any less like potential prey. My heart raced, but I stood puffed out, working hard to appear tougher than I ever was; I wished I could teach him a lesson in the broad power of fear like Earl could. I needed to be the opposite of the weak, suspected gay boy his actions tried to tell me I was. I hated myself. I hated him. In that moment, I wanted to make us both believe that I, not my grandfather, was the one tried for murder in the 80s and that today I was willing to do it again.
“What do you mean?” he asked, conveying what seemed to be genuine confusion. I didn’t know what to believe. Every lesson—and there were precious few—told me that gay boys, faggots as Earl called them, were foul monsters who would fuck me in the ass till it ripped and bled unless I stopped being so soft. But I’d never wanted to be friends with someone more. Tim wasn’t a monster even if he touched me without permission. Even in places I didn’t want a man to touch. He’d also stopped. But this was all too much. Too dangerous.
He had to leave. I didn’t want him there. Not with me. Not in Earl’s room. Not anywhere in the apartment. I’d been brutalized enough as a suspected faggot in everyone’s eyes—the closest sin to being a woman I’d known—and I’d be killed if Earl even considered that two boys might have touched, whether it was reciprocated or not. I shrunk and fumbled with all manner of excuses before I told him to go, none of which seemed to matter until I said that my grandfather was coming home early. He didn’t object. Packing away his Playstation, Tim slung his bookbag over one shoulder and walked out slowly; sad, but leaving. I tried to rationalize letting him stay, maybe for the game or for my impending loneliness, but pride—either mine or my grandfather’s—wouldn’t allow it. After accepting his coming absence, I cried until my grandfather got home and offered me “something to really cry about.”