By Julia Heaberlin
(D Magazine, July 2018)
The first time Johnny asked his mom if he could play with me, she said no.
Johnny was 8 years old. White. Splotched pink with sun, humiliation, unexplained rashes.
I was 10. Black. Small, but intimidating.
We were a perfect match.
His mom was pissed when she saw us together a second time. She slapped Johnny so hard he wore some of her makeup to school the next day to cover up the bruise. His mom, still a little drunk, had suggested it. She said no one would be able to tell. She said he’d better not tell.
Two boys shoved him into his locker and asked if he had a vagina. Called him Maybelline Boy. In the gym, they pinned him down and painted his lips bright red like a Texas whore with lipstick they had snatched from a cheerleader’s purse. They bawked like a chicken when Johnny ran.
Some games never grow old.
Johnny found me and cried for hours. He said he wished I’d been around.
Johnny wasn’t chicken enough to stop playing with me. His mother grounded him a dozen more times when she saw us together. She seemed halfhearted about it.
“Mr. Blonde,” he’d say. “We’re going to be somebody.” Mr. Blonde was just one of his nicknames for me. Superchicken, Big Daddy, Genius, Chocolate Candy, Amigo, Ms. Congeniality, Toastmaker—it was something new all the time.
His dad didn’t care what Johnny did. He had his other family to worry about now. Twin boys—two more shots to get it right. A wife with bleached hair, breasts that spilled out of her t-shirt, a hawk nose that men barely noticed. She told his dad that Johnny was a freaking weirdo she didn’t want rubbing off on their kids.
The last time Johnny saw his father was kind of a blur. His dad was gripping his mom’s throat until her breath sounded like a stuttering teakettle. He was yelling. Johnny was pressing his hands tight against his ears, but he heard what he was supposed to hear: “He’s not mine, slut! No kid of mine would strike out looking.”
Johnny stumbled from behind the couch after his dad slammed out. His mom stayed crumpled on the living room floor for a long time, sobbing, not saying a word to Johnny. She wouldn’t look him in the eye, even after he kept bringing her one thing after another.
A glass of water. A pillow. A bag of frozen peas for her throat because he heard that could help. A whole bottle of wine with the top unscrewed.
She grabbed the wine and the car keys and didn’t come back for 18 hours.
While Johnny waited for her, he had plenty of time to count the minutes. He had plenty of time to think about why his father hated him.
He had plenty of time to stare at the veins that crawled down his pale arms and legs like blue worms. He had plenty of time to vacuum and dust, to scrub at the permanent stains in the toilet, so his mother wouldn’t hate him so much, too.
Plenty of time to walk 3 miles to the laundromat off Lancaster, the one that didn’t scare him as much. He wanted to wash his only sheets, stamped with red trucks, because he’d wet the bed again that night.
His dad never came back. Never sent money or Christmas presents.
His uncle showed up, though. For years, he and Johnny would go on long car rides to the Piney Woods and secretly take me along.
We’d hang out in the middle of nowhere, shattering the silence. We were so loud sometimes, the sky cracked.
His uncle liked to think he was turning Johnny into a man. He thought I was helping.
In his bed at night, while the moon shined light on those little red trucks, that’s exactly what worried Johnny—how much of a man he was.
He never told on the bullies at school. He learned to do the minimum of what his mom asked—exactly the right amount to keep the peace.
He carefully washed his mom’s wineglass by hand every night, the only one she hadn’t pitched into a wall, and let it drain on a kitchen towel with yellow daisies.
When he made Toaster Strudels after school, he always cleaned up all the crumbs, because one single crumb could be a bomb.
When he baked a chocolate cake out of a box the day after his 13th birthday, he hid it in his room so his mother wouldn’t yell at him that she was too tired to remember everything.
That last summer, I was never far. He talked to me all the time. He turned up the volume of the video game so it drowned out his voice, just in case his mom sneaked out of work early.
He told me for the hundredth time that I was his best friend.
At 14, I was everything to him, and I wasn’t enough.
He no longer wanted me to be a secret to his mom or anyone else.
He took me into the school gym, boldly, proudly, in front of everybody. He bawked like a chicken over the screams.
Now I’m lying beside him on the gym floor, his blood all over me.
A cop is carefully picking me up.
Calling me by my name.
© Julia Heaberlin