If You Knew Then What I Know Now, page 1
Table of Contents
If You Knew Then What I Know Now
The Men from Town
To Bear, To Carry: Notes on “Faggot”
The Goldfish History
Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date but Won’t
You Can’t Turn Off the Snake Light
to my parents
For their support and expertise, I’d like to thank the editors of the following publications in which these essays first appeared, often in slightly different form:
“First” in Gettysburg Review
“Lake Effect” in Indiana Review
“Practice” in The Southeast Review
“Discovery” in The Iowa Review
“Specimen” in Ascent
“If You Knew Then What I Know Now” in River Teeth
“Youth Group” in You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Stories On Growing Up and Essays by the People Who Wrote Them by Writer’s Digest Books
“Cherry Bars” in Quarterly West
“Tightrope” in Colorado Review
“The Men from Town” in Agni Online
“The Goldfish History” in Fourth Genre
“Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date but Won’t” in Gulf Coast
“First” was reprinted in Best American Essays 2009, guest-edited by Mary Oliver and “If You Knew Then What I Know Now” was reprinted in Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to Present, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone.
For allowing me to share their stories and for their kindness and affection all these years, I’m profoundly thankful to Geoffrey Aldridge, T Fleischmann, Bennett Honson, Angela Howell, Christa Lohman, Margaret MacInnis and Kim Shafer, my parents Carla and Gary, and my brother Garrett. I’ve been tremendously fortunate as a student of writing, and the list of generous teachers who’ve taught me essential lessons is long: Jo Ann Beard, John D’Agata, Robin Hemley, Trudy Lewis, Susan Lohafer—my incredible and patient MFA thesis director, Michele Morano, Lia Purpura, Mary Ruefle and Vershawn Young all deserve much gratitude, as does my agent, Matt McGowan.
Ben and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon. We face glowing white headlights of cars following us, our sneakers pressed against the back hatch door. This is our joy—his and mine—to sit turned away from our moms and dads in this place that feels like a secret, as though they are not even in the car with us. They have just taken us out to dinner and now we are driving home. Years from this evening, I won’t actually be sure that this boy sitting beside me is named Ben. But that doesn’t matter tonight. What I know for certain right now is that I love him, and I need to tell him this fact before we return to our separate houses, next door to each other. We are both five.
Ben is the first brown-eyed boy I will fall for but will not be the last. His hair is also brown and always needs scraping off his forehead, which he does about every five minutes. All his jeans have dark squares stuck over the knees where he has worn through the denim. His shoelaces are perpetually undone, and he has a magic way of tying them with a quick, weird loop that I study and try myself, but can never match. His fingernails are ragged because he rips them off with his teeth and spits out the pieces when our moms aren’t watching. Somebody always has to fix his shirt collars.
Our parents face the other direction, talking about something, and it is raining. My eyes trace the lines of water as they draw down the glass. Coiled beside my legs are the thick black and red cords of a pair of jumper cables. Ben’s T-ball bat is also back here, rolling around and clunking as the long car wends its way through town. Ben’s dad is driving and my dad sits next to him, with our mothers in the back seat; I have recently observed that when mothers and fathers are in the car together, the dad always drives. My dad has also insisted on checking the score of the Cardinals game, so the radio is tuned to a staticky AM station and the announcer’s rich voice buzzes out of the speakers up front.
The week before this particular night, I asked my mother, “Why do people get married?” I don’t recall the impulse behind my curiosity, but I will forever remember every word of her answer—she stated it simply after only a moment or two of thinking—because it seemed that important: “Two people get married when they love each other.”
I had that hunch. I am a kindergartener, but the summer just before this rainy night, I learned most of what I know about love from watching soap operas with my mother. She is a gym teacher, and during her months off, she catches up on the shows she has watched since college. Every summer weekday, I couldn’t wait until they came on at two o’clock. My father didn’t think I should be watching them—boys should be outside, playing—but he was rarely home early enough to know the difference, and according to my mother, I was too young to really understand what was going on anyway.
What I enjoyed most about soap opera was how exciting and beautiful life was. Every lady was pretty and had wonderful hair, and all the men had dark eyes and big teeth and faces as strong as bricks, and every week, there was a wedding or a manhunt or a birth. The people had grand fights where they threw vases at walls and slammed doors and chased each other in cars. There were villains locking up the wonderfully haired heroines and suspending them in gold cages above enormous acid vats. And, of course, it was love that inspired every one of these stories and made life on the screen as thrilling as it was. That was what my mother would say from the sofa when I turned from my spot on the carpet in front of her and faced her, asking, “Why is he spying on that lady?”
“Because he loves her.”
In the car, Ben and I hold hands. There is something sticky on his fingers, probably strawberry syrup from the ice cream sundaes we ate for dessert. We have never held hands before; I have simply reached for his in the dark and held him while he holds me. I want to see our hands on the rough floor, but they are only visible every block or so when the car passes beneath a streetlight, and then, for only a flash. Ben is my closest friend because he lives next door, we are the same age and we both have little brothers who are babies. I wish he were in the same kindergarten class as me but he goes to a different school—one where he has to wear a uniform all day and for which there is no school bus.
“I love you,” I say. We are idling, waiting for a red light to be green; a shining car has stopped right behind us, so Ben’s face is pale and brilliant.
“I love you too,” he says.
The car becomes quiet as the voice of the baseball game shrinks smaller and smaller.
“Will you marry me?” I ask him. His hand is still in mine; on the soap opera, you are supposed to have a ring, but I don’t have one.
He begins to nod, and suddenly my mother feels very close. I look over my shoulder, my eyes peeking over the back of the last row of seats that we are leaning against. She has turned around, facing me. Permed hair, laugh lines not laughing.
“What did you just say?” she asks.
“I asked Ben to marry me.”
The car starts moving forward again, and none of the parents are talking loud enough for us to hear them back here. I brace myself against the raised carpeted hump of the wheel well as Ben’s father turns left onto the street before the turn onto our street. Sitting beside my mom is Ben’s mother who keeps staring forward, but I notice that
“You shouldn’t have said that,” she says. “Boys don’t marry other boys. Only boys and girls get married to each other.”
She can’t see our hands but Ben pulls his away. I close my fingers into a loose fist and rub my palm to feel, and keep feeling, how strange his skin has made mine.
“Okay?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, but by accident my throat whispers the words.
She asks again. “Okay? Did you hear me?”
“Yes!” this time nearly shouting, and I wish we were already home so I could jump out and run to my bedroom. To be back here in the dark, private tail of the car suddenly feels wrong so Ben and I each scoot off to our separate sides. “Yes,” I say again, almost normally, turning away to face the rainy window. I feel her turn too as the radio baseball voice comes back up out of the quiet. The car starts to dip as we head down the hill of our street; our house is at the bottom. No one speaks for the rest of the ride. We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road—the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.
I don’t understand why he calls it a houseboat. It doesn’t look like a house, and it doesn’t look like a boat. What it looks like is a white box with windows cut out of the sides, railings clamped all around, and deck chairs tossed on the roof. The whole thing bobs in the lake, tethered to a dock post by a soggy green rope. Inside, everything is brown. The walls are covered in plastic panels printed with a wood-grain design, as if to remind us that wood floats and it’s perfectly reasonable that we’re loaded on this box for the next six days, instead of at home in an actual house. He, my dad, is one of three dads for whom this trip is now an annual thing, the third summer in a row that these college friends have brought along their elder sons for a week of fishing on a giant lake—this year, in Minnesota.
The kitchen in the houseboat is brown tile instead of brown carpet. I’m eleven years old and standing in front of the sink, washing every dish from the cupboards. The dads and the other sons are sitting on the slick white top of the boat, a deck on the roof above me. The sunset is beautiful, they keep telling me, but I keep doing the dishes, which is taking a lot longer than anyone would have guessed. We’ve already unpacked, already uncoiled the rope linking us to shore, already buzzed out across the water, turned off the engine, and started our slow drift around the lake in whatever direction the waves and wind push us.
Even though I’ve endured two previous trips, something about this houseboat idea unsettled me as soon as I heard about it. Maybe the intimacy of all of us aboard one small vessel, three dads and three sons in too close quarters? When my dad announced our plan, I tried suggesting how disastrous my habit of sleepwalking might be on a houseboat, the way I could silently slip into the dark water before anyone noticed I wasn’t tucked inside my sleeping bag anymore. This was unconvincing because, to his knowledge, I’d only sleepwalked once—when I was five and stood in the hallway snoring and peeing in a corner before shuffling back to bed—and because it hadn’t happened since then, he wasn’t worried.
I also hate fishing, but that’s never worked, so I didn’t bother bringing it up. I’ve always hated fishing because it’s boring. For that first trip, I was simply excited by the fact that I was going somewhere on my own with Dad—no little brother or Mom. And I was so intrigued by the special pants required for trout fishing that I forgot about the fishing part. The waders looked like green rubber overalls, and as soon as my dad returned from the hunting store with a pair for me, I wiggled into them and started sliding my slick feet across the carpet, pretending I was figure skating. Besides wearing special pants, trout fishing also involved special rules, which he told me at home before the trip, and again on our first cold morning as we all walked with our poles and stepped down the riverbank. I plunged into the frigid stream, the pants suddenly sucking at my body, and as the pressure of the water squeezed my legs and crotch, I fidgeted and tried to pretend I didn’t already need the bathroom.
The rules were that we had to wait until a bell sounded before casting our lines. A game warden would watch us. The clear water streamed by as I shivered, and at the opposite bank, root-beer-colored trout darted in the current. Men in their own sucking pants stood in the water around me, their poles raised and patient. Somewhere in my waders, there was a sudden small coldness like I was leaking.
Sometimes I don’t act the way boys are supposed to: in a high, panicked voice, I told my Dad about my waders. I felt the eyes of the other men turn to us. “Your pants are fine,” he said, keeping his own voice low, his head still, his face calm. I had the feeling I’d done something wrong, and the anxiety snagged at me, forcing my leaking legs to shudder. My shaking fingers unlocked my fishing line. Before I knew it, I reflexively dipped my pole back and cast out to the opposite bank, the lure flying perfectly—in a way it never did from my arm—plunking down in the glittering cloud of fish under the water; they scattered and disappeared.
“What are you doing?” my dad asked, dark lines creasing his forehead. I shook my head and tried to explain, but my voice wasn’t working.
The rushing sound of the water grew loud like headphones turned up too high. I couldn’t remember how to reel in my line, and I couldn’t help but just stare at the thin, white wire that spanned the width of the stream connecting me to my mistake. Every man’s eye in the water pointed at me, except my dad’s. The strange men groaned, whispered to each other, sighed. My stiff fingers finally snapped down the catch on my pole, and I quickly wound in the line, cranking the lever, hoping the fish would ignore my lure and that the warden wasn’t watching. As soon as my hook lifted from the water, the bell went off. But the fish were already gone.
“You’re not done with those yet?” Jim, one of the dads asks, as he pushes open the sliding glass door of the houseboat kitchen and steps inside.
“I’ll be done in a minute,” I say. My fingertips are fat and numb, whitening and wrinkling, but I don’t care. The evening sky is dark by now, and the square window above the sink is like a mirror; the yellow kitchen light puts my reflection up there, a small mouth drawing a tight line across a white face. Behind me, I see Jim bent over and rooting around in a cooler. He cradles a can of beer in the crook of his elbow, and digs around for two more. Three beers, three dads.
Jim is the oldest of the three by just a year or two, though he doesn’t look it. He actually doesn’t act or dress much like a dad either—or at least not like any of the dads I know—the ones who wear T-shirts dotted with house paint and furniture stain, or ripped jeans smeared with car grease, like mine. Jim wears clothes like the popular boys at my middle school, the ones who live on the other side of the highway in the sprawling subdivisions with names. Polo shirts with flipped-up collars, plaid shorts, deck shoes. In clothes like those, with his carefully combed hair and his trimmed brown beard, he never looks ready to fish, but he still fishes anyway.
“Your dad says you’re not playing baseball this year? Jimmy’s missing a game this week, and it’s killing him.” In the window, I watch him yanking on a can of soda, trying to separate it from its clear plastic ring. Jim’s son is also named Jim, but everybody calls him Jimmy. The third son on the boat with us is Eric. Jimmy and Eric live close enough to each other to be good friends. Because I only see them about twice a year, each trip it’s like I’m meeting two brand-new boys.
I rub my sponge back and forth on the rim of a plate until it squeaks, and then it gets quiet enough to hear the dish-soap bubbles popping rapidly. I shrug to Jim.
“Well, Jimmy’s pitching again. He loves it,” he continues, and I turn around to finally face the real him, instead of the reflected one. He’s holding three beers and a can of orange soda, and the hair on the backs of his hands is slicke
“I know.” With my sponge, I’m scrubbing hard between all the tines of all the forks. “I like it,” I say. He doesn’t know I keep refilling the sink with fresh hot water and new squirts of soap. What I like best about this chore is I’m the only one here that wants to do it, so it’s mine, alone.
“Okay,” he says, and he’s gone. Last year, when we stayed in a cabin on another huge lake in Minnesota, I washed all the dishes on our first night too. I loved the cabin, especially being alone in it. When the dads and sons wanted to walk down to the slip and check out the boats, I stayed behind, pretending I was tired and needed a nap. Once they walked off far enough, I started my skipping. That summer, the year I was ten, I was convinced skipping got you across the house, the yard, the grocery store, or the baseball field better than either walking or running—though skipping publicly was strongly discouraged by my dad. After a few skipped laps, I decided to pretend I was a mom, a very busy woman, and this was my bustling house. I checked the beds, made sure the tub was scrubbed, jerked open each kitchen cupboard, removed every dish, washed and dried them, and stacked them back inside. During my charade, I talked aloud, scolding invisible children for standing under my feet while I cooked, warning my imaginary husband to stop asking if dinner was ready. Pretending to be characters like the Busy Mom, or my other favorite, Beauty Pageant Winner, was something I did often, but only alone in my tree house or in my bedroom with the door closed.