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Author's note: I got the idea for this piece, thinking about J.D. Salinger and the way he devoted most of his literary work to the Glass family (see "Franny and Zooey", "Nine Stories", "Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters", and "Seymour, an Introduction). I decided to focus on one character, Tristen, but allow all other five characters to have their stories as well, much like the seperate Glass children. In the same way, I hope that another story about the kids of Phoenix Ct will spawn from this.
My favorite place to sit and think is my bathtub. I don’t turn any water on or anything; I just climb inside of it and sit with my knees bent up under my chin. I can feel the hard, cool floor through my blue band tee and skinny jeans. It tingles my skin, almost as if to stimulate the thoughts. Whenever I sit there I feel like I’m in a terrarium, like I’m caught up in a mini microcosm of life as we know it, with the shower curtain as the boundaries of the known universe.
On that particular day, my seventeenth birthday, I was sitting in the bathtub for two reasons. Number one: I hated birthdays and was happy enough to spend the day dodging well-wishers, gift-givers and hug-peddlers as much as possible. Number two: Every year on my birthday marked the cul de sac’s little get-together barbecue, also something I would like very much to avoid.
Every year on August 24th, was Phoenix Court’s all-cul de sac barbecue and general get-together. It had been going on for as long as I could remember. Since before I was born, really because, my parents had moved into this house a year before my mom got pregnant. It was held at a different house every year and this year it was at my house. Hence the hiding out in the bathtub.
I hadn’t always hated the barbecue though, in fact, at one point in time it was one of my favorite summer activities. That was a long time ago, though. Seven years ago. 2555 yesterdays ago to be exact.
I walked outside on the back porch and itched at all of the mosquito bites I had accumulated over the past few summer weeks. I saw my dad flipping the burgers and turning over the brats and hotdogs and I began to feel very hungry indeed. The grill seemed so humongous to me as a ten-year-old little boy, and Dad looked so right attending it. I looked over to the picnic table piled high with chips and desserts and the cooler full of cokes and lemonades. My mouth began to water. I hadn’t eaten anything since my birthday pancakes that morning. The kind Mom still made to this day with icing and sprinkles and candles.
Suddenly the doorbell rang. I zipped through the house to the front door, screaming “I’ll get it! I’ll get it!” I managed to open the door a split second before my mother could reach the knob. There before me stood the Crenshaws, Mr. and Mrs. Crenshaw, Nolen and his older brother in high school, Matthew. The Crenshaws lived two doors down from me to the right. Mr. Crenshaw and Mrs. Crenshaw were both teachers, the latter at our local elementary school and the former at the high school. Matthew Crenshaw was my idol when I was ten years old. He was sixteen. He was on the football team. He always referred to me as ‘Little Man’ and Nolen even told me that he shaved. He shaved! Nolen pinky swore that it was true.
“Happy Birthday, Tristen!” the little boy with short curly brown hair and the thickest eyelashes I ever remembered seeing congratulated.
“Yeah, happy birthday, Little Man,” Matthew echoed.
“Thanks!” I said excitedly as I pulled Nolen by the hand through the house and into the backyard. “Look! This is what my dad got me for my birthday.” I said holding up the wood-carved and hand-painted checkers and chess board my father had passed along to me from his dad. I was proud to have it and, some of my best, and last good memories with Dad was trying to beat him at a game of checkers.
“Can we play with it?” Nolen asked.
“Duh!” I exclaimed, “But only if I get to be red!”
We got out the pieces and set up the board. We had just started to play when my mom directed Mr. and Mrs. Crenshaw into the yard, mom profusely apologizing for our failing hydrangea bush. She was the classic over-apologizer.
“Nolen,” Mr. Crenshaw said, walking over to our game like an unneeded referee. “I brought the old pig skin from home. Why don’t you and Matt and Timmy toss it around?” he said indicating the football in his hand. Mr. Crenshaw could never remember my name.
“But Dad, we were just starting to-”
“C’mon, Nole,” he said, placing the ball in his hands.
Nolen looked from his dad to the black and white board to me then to Matthew, who expectantly threw up his hands to catch a pass. The ball flew from his hands and Matt caught it with a, “Way to go, little bro! You’re gonna take my place on the field one of these days.”
I looked at Mr. Crenshaw, whose eyes seemed full of something that I didn’t understand at that time. It was the same thing I saw in my own dad’s eyes when I learned a new chord progression on his old guitar.
“We can finish the game, later, Tristen! C’mon!” Nolen said, tugging at my t-shirt sleeve.
We never finished that game. Ever.
It was an extreme disadvantage that my mother knew so well my usual haunts and hideouts. She knocked on the door.
“Tristen. C’mon. I know you’re in there sulking like a broody poet at the transient nature of life and how today you’re a whole year closer to the brink of a questionable oblivion but there are burgers that need to be flipped.”
“Um, don’t come in here! I’m, uh, naked! I’m in the shower!” I said, turning on the shower head to make it seem realistic. Now I was wet and fully clothed. How intelligent am I? Seventeen years old, yeah right.
“Yeah, right, kiddo. This door isn’t even locked.”
Sure enough a moment later I heard the bathroom door open. After a second I opened the curtain just enough to peep my very wet head to look at her. She raised one eyebrow at me expectantly. I opened the curtain the rest of the way.
“I guess I need a new hiding place.”
She nodded and shoved me out the door, chuckling under her breath.
“Go on, Birthday Boy,” she said momishly.
Our backyard hadn’t changed much since I was ten years old. Our hydrangea bush was just as much of a failed venture as it ever was. Poor Mom was never much of a gardener, and the green thumb trait was not in my blood either. It was eerily strange how similar the scene was today to my ten-year-old memories. Almost as if today was the day that everything in life would come full-circle, and I would receive the full closure that every human ultimately longs for in life. But who knows, I’m probably reading too much into it.
The same blue cooler was filled with cokes and lemonades and the same picnic table, worse-for-wear though it was, held the same brands of chips that it did seven years ago. I looked over to the grill, which was perhaps the only thing that had changed. That was the funny thing, pardon the oxymoron, about Dad being dead. One of the last things he ever said to me before he died was that it was very important to him that the next time the barbecue was at our house, I manned the grill. He said it would mean a lot to him, seeing as I was the man of the house now and all that jazz. I might have been a little more explicit here about my father’s death, and how it tore my heart in two at the age of thirteen, and how things would never be the same, but I don’t feel like going all Disney on you here. Seriously, have you ever noticed how in every Disney movie, at least one of the kids parents is dead? Just call me Lindsay Lohan, I guess.
“I already put some of the burgers and brats on the grill, so you just need to wait and flip them over, Tris,” Mom said, rushing through the house to the front door, where the doorbell had just rung.
I looked up from the grill where I was trying very hard not to produce blackened burgers and burnt-up brats when I heard voices behind me entering the backyard. “Oh, I’m so sorry about the hydrangeas. It hates the sun but it’s just dying in the shade here. I’ll have to call I gardener, I suppose, but until then you’ll just have to ignore it, won’t you?” Mom laughed. “No need to apologize, Clarissa. Chuck here wouldn’t know the difference between a hydrangea and a daffodil.” “Well thanks, Deanne. And my goodness, this can’t be Nolen, can it? You’ve grown up under my nose, haven’t you! When I saw you, I thought for sure your parents had brought Matthew along with them today,” my mother smiled. It never failed to amaze me how well she could fake adult, g-rated small talk like she did. When I heard Nolen’s name, I swallowed hard. Not out of fear, necessarily, but more out of disgust. If I’m being truthful, Nolen Crenshaw was one of things I was greatly hoping to avoid about this day. I decided to chance a glance at Santa Barbara High School’s football god himself. He stood about two or so inches taller than me at 6’5’’, though he was well-built to say the least. Sporting the same haircut he had when we were ten, his hair was a short, dark brown, mop of curls, and his dark brown eyes were framed by femininely-thick eyelashes. He was wearing a tight navy t-shirt with “Aeropostale” emblazoned on the front, and khaki cargo shorts. Thankfully, he didn’t notice me looking at him. Instead he walked over to the cooler, grabbed himself a lemonade, and took a seat next to the stereo on our porch which was offensively playing “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga. (My apologies to all of you little Fame Monsters out there.) The older two Crenshaw’s had grabbed drinks themselves and made themselves comfortable with Mom in some lawn chairs where they were discussing at some length the oil crisis. She got up for a moment and walked over to me. “Okay, you little emo kid you, get your girly-pants butt over there and talk to Nolen. You used to be best friends.” Clearly she didn’t understand, or had forgotten, the very delicate high school caste system. “But Mom-” “Don’t you ‘but Mom’ me. Go.” Mom had a way of making things very clear sometimes. A quality of hers I secretly envied. The trip across the yard to where Nolen sat, looking at his cell phone screen turned out to be one of those eighties movie moments where something that took five seconds in reality felt like it took a good three or four hours in your mind. I’d like very much to use a cop-out common to the angsty teenager who lost a friend to popularity here; I’d like to say that he just changed so much. But really, that’d be total b.s. I was the one who’d changed. I was the dark, moody, black sheep here. The fringe-kid. The Raven Manic Panic-using, ear-gauged, post-hardcore-listening punk in this situation. Not Nolen Crenshaw. I awkwardly sat down in the lawn chair next to him and smoothed my fringe, a nervous habit of mine. He looked up from his phone, almost nervously, and looked at me and then back down. What’s new? I try to be friendly to a prick like him and I just get ignored. And on my birthday? I decided that if I had to be here, I’d at least try to make this as uncomfortable on him as possible. “Hey,” I said. “So I heard that your darling big brother got kicked of UCLA’s team for, what was it that I heard? Oh right, using crack? Have I miss-heard the facts on that one, I mean that’s what everyone’s been saying.” To the casual observer, such as yourself, this may seem like a callous and downright bitchy thing to say to someone, but hey, you don’t know what a hell Nole and his buddies have put me through. Sure, he himself has never laid a hand on me, but his teammates aren’t so generous. And did my bestest checkers pal ever try to stop them? Did he ever try to stop that rumor that Finny and I were gay together and planned on running away to Massachusetts to get married and adopt an Asian baby like on Modern Families? Nope. Okay, I can’t lie, I felt a little more than bad-ass in a bad way after saying that. Especially after seeing for the first time since we were thirteen an emotion than seemed to be kinda deep and real in his eyes. Nolen looked away before saying, “Dude, your burgers’re burning!” I’m not sure why he agreed to help me, especially after what I had just said, but in the next moment, I found myself pouring a bottled water onto the grill while Nolen turned off the gas. “Thanks, man,” I said, surprisingly meaning it. “Whatever,” he remarked coldly, although not without what was supposed to be a secretive smirk. He went back over to his old spot, and I stayed at the grill, putting on fresh brats and burgers when I heard the doorbell ring again. The bathtub seemed like a better idea by the second, I had to admit.
Matt intercepted the pass that I meant for Nolen and almost got to the hydrangeas which we had marked as the end zone before Nolen grabbed his legs and brought him down.
“Take that!” he said picking up the ball and jumping in the air. It wasn’t until much, much later in life that I realized that Matthew had let us win.
“Fumble!” I shouted, running over to the two brothers. Matt had just sat up on the grass when the doorbell rang again. I was too out of breath to try to beat Mom to the door this time, so I allowed her to answer it.
She came back in with the Larsons. Mr. and Mrs. Larson owned one of the many vegan restaurants in Santa Barbara, and always smelled like it. Trailing behind them was their two twin daughters, both five, Calliope and Cyrene. Both had blonde hair and yellow sundresses. They were perfect pictures of innocent loveliness and all that jazz. And trailing behind them was Phineas. Everyone called him Finny though because, no one could pronounce his actual name.
Mrs. Larson set down her vegan lasagna as she pointed Finny over toward where Matt, Nolen, and I were. He edged over towards us shyly. Finny was among the shyest kids I knew. He had white blond hair like his younger sisters and humongous green eyes like sour apple lollipops. He was wearing what was no doubt a homemade tie-dye shirt.
“Hey Finny!” I said, trying to be friendly. My parents had always taught me to be friendly.
He raised his hand in a wave first in my direction, then in Nolen’s and finally in Matthew’s. An awkward moment of silence ensued before Matt said, “Well, how’d you like to play some ball with us, Finny?” He waggled the football in the air as if Finny couldn’t see it otherwise.
Finny nodded quietly. Matt assigned him to play on a “team” with me against him and Nolen. I said it wasn’t fair, but felt immediately bad afterwards and glanced hesitantly at Finny to see if he had heard. He hadn’t, or at least hadn’t appeared to, so we began again. The kid was so bad at football, even for his ten years, that it pained me. And trust me, ten-year-olds have zero empathy. At least I could catch and throw and run. Finny couldn’t do any of those things, and we all knew it. After about ten minutes of it, I felt so bad for him that I put the ball I had just intercepted from Nolen in his hands.
“Run toward the hydrangea bush!” I said, pointing towards the wilted greenery, “Go!”
He almost made it too, but just about three feet from the bush Nolen did something that I’d only really analyze for the first time three years later. He extended his Nike-clad foot out far enough that an unsuspecting Finny, prepared for victory, would trip right over it. Nolen grabbed the ball, shouted, “Fumble!” and made a touchdown. Finny sat there for a moment, almost as though he didn’t know what just happened. Then he started crying, something I refrained from doing. Hey, Nolen never cried, did he? I looked from the little white-blond boy to the jubilant Matt and Nolen. Before I had to make a decision, or perhaps after I’d already made the wrong one, Mrs. Larson rushed over and picked up her son.
She carried him away, rubbing his head and wiping his tears, and I walked back over to the two brothers.
“Well, I guess it’s two on one again,” Matt said, making a surprise rush toward the hydrangea. With one last look toward Finny, I ran after Nolen for the tackle.
It would be an unfortunate lie to say that Jennifer and Greg Larson aged gracefully. Perhaps it was her refusal to wear make-up or their pact against hair products with animal proteins or their seldom usage of deodorant. In any case they looked more like grandparents in their organic-fiber clothes and vegan sandals than the parents of two thirteen-year-olds and a seventeen-year-old. Mrs. Larson’s talk about organic fertilizers for the hydrangea immediately stopped when she saw the Crenshaw’s enjoying drinks near the picnic table.
Things between the Larsons and the Crenshaws had always been a little less than friendly. They disagreed on many things including universal healthcare, global warming, and, most importantly, the need (or lack-thereof) of competitive sports in schools. Mr. Larson set down a dish of vegan tofu-noodle stir-fry on the picnic table next to the Crenshaw’s famous bacon-queso dip.
Calliope and Cyrene, or Cali and Cyra as they preferred to be called, followed behind their parents and sat next to each other with their backs up against our ancient oak tree. Simultaneously, they pulled out their cell phones and began to click away, only stopping to giggle with each other about the occasional something that so-and-so hot guy sent to her.
They were inordinately pretty, skinny girls for their age, something that no doubt was a result of their sugarless and meatless childhoods. Their hair was as white-blonde as ever and still natural. The only way to differentiate between the two girls was the purple-framed glasses which Cyra wore. Even though they were Justin Bieber-obsessed, J-14-reading girls, they were my best friend’s sisters, so I had no choice but to like them in some odd way, as one would like one’s foster sisters perhaps.
Finny, too, was an inordinately pretty, skinny girl. I kid, I kid, but really, there was a reason why people believed the gay rumor, and let’s just say the blame’s not on me so much. He was an exact inch taller than me (we measured last week), but like half of my weight. He was a lanky kid, Finny. His hair had darkened to a shade of dirty blond, with a fringe covering his right eye and the rest reaching down past his chin in DIY razor-cut layers. His eyes, however were as green as ever. He was wearing the Anberlin t-shirt I knew to be his favorite and grey skinnies to match. He saw me and ran over.
“Trist, man. Here’s the plan. When those burgers are done, bring one out to me-I’ll be waiting in your bathroom. Be sure to grab me a coke and some chips too. The sour cream-and-onion kind,” he whispered into my ear. The Larson’s was a household of strict veganism and no sugar. Finny had been a secret junk-eating, meat-masticating teenage boy since high school and his parents hadn’t found out yet. Thank God.
“Chill out man,” I grinned, “I got you covered.”
My best friend heaved a heavy sigh of relief and pulled me into an over-dramatic embrace. It was moments like these, I thought, that were the reason why Finny was the star of Santa Barbara High School’s drama department.
“You know where I’ll be when it’s ready,” he winked and began walking back into my house.
“Okay, man.” I called after him.
I had to laugh to myself when he was safely inside. Finny and I had been best friends since we were thirteen. It was weird how he was the only guy I knew who even began to understand what a kid in seventh grade goes through when his dad dies of cancer. He definitely wasn’t the first kid to feel bad for me. Trust me, there was plenty of that. He was just the first kid to be interested in my life after the funeral. Now sure, we talked, I mean, we were neighbors after all, but we never really talked. Not as friends at least. If I’m remembering correctly, his first real words to me were, “Hey, Tristen. Sorry about your dad and all. I can get my mom to bring over some vegan lasagna or something. Anyways, have you ever listened to My Chemical Romance? Well, I always listen to them when I’m down so, yeah.”
It was the most he had ever spoken to me in my life. I looked down at the CD he had put in my hands with the skeletal, punkily-clad band major and black scrawled lettering of the band name. I took it home and listened to “Welcome to the Black Parade” over and over again that night. And I cried. For the first time since my dad had passed, I really broke down and sobbed. For the first time since I was little, I allowed myself to cry. Because one day, I'll leave you, a phantom to lead you in the summer to join the Black Parade. Without having been there that night, it’d be hard to tell just why Finny and I are best friends. This is really the closest I can come to an explanation:
Two years ago to this day, on my fifteenth birthday, Finny was spending the night at my house. I knew that four years of heartbreak and pain would begin the following day. High school. I sure had an optimistic outlook, huh? Ironically, the My Chem. song I’d come to know word-for-word played out on the radio when Finny said, “I never got to give you your birthday present, you know, Tristen.”
“What is it?” I asked, hanging upside down off of my bed.
“Well, you mentioned you wanted it one day. Plus, I didn’t know what else to get you so…”
Finny pulled a tub filled with goopy black liquid from behind his back. Manic Panic. Color: Raven. We were going to be in high school tomorrow. On and on we carry through the fears, disappointed faces of your peers. Take a look at me ‘cause I could not care at all.
“How long does it say to rinse it out for?” I called into Finny from the shower.
“Uh, you should be good!”
I dried it, put my clothes back on, and went into the bedroom. I stood in front of my bedroom mirror. My hair, once a generic Crayola brown, gleamed black. I looked at myself and grinned. Then I looked back at Finny, and he grinned. In the next moment, for whatever reasons we had or didn’t have, we laughed. We laughed until we were both sprawled out on the floor, side-by-side. Even today, when I sit in my bathtub, I consider that night to be the end of grieving for my father. We hear the call to carry on, we'll carry on. And though you're dead and gone, believe me your memory will carry on, we'll carry on.
I looked back to the grill to find its contents once again burning. Before I could move, Nolen rushed over with the fire extinguisher.