1994: How to be a Man
At the risk of sounding kind of Oedipal, Louis’s mom had always been a stunner and it was entirely intentional and with what I presume was great effort. I remember her with cucumbers on her eyes and mud masks on her face and asking Louis and I if we could see her crows-feet as we sat in front of the Nintendo.
She was the top real estate agent in our county and as a result, her face was plastered on benches and billboards all over the city. Unfortunately for Louis he had punk friends, myself included, who’d defile her image with lewd images drawn Sharpie marker.
Louis once told me his mom loved her job because she was pretty sure the way to fix shit is to cover it up with more shit. He said, “All day long she tells her clients to fix it with vinyl siding or a fresh coat of paint and some poor sucker will snap it right up, not realizing what complete shit is underneath the house they’re trying to unload.”
I had no idea how many coats of paint are on the walls in Louis’s house, but I know that the walls were a neutral shade of beige when we were fourteen years old and Louis’s mother’s boyfriend Perry moved in.
“We could go to your house and watch HBO,” I suggested to Louis.
We’d ridden our skateboards to 7-11 for Slurpees and got kicked out of three parking lots, dodged several shouting businessmen, one mother with a toddler in the park and on our last attempt, the cops.
“Nah. There isn’t shit on,” Louis said, and spit bright Slurpee blue spit on the curb. “Let’s go to yours.”
“Okay,” I agreed easily enough.
It had taken six more dumb excuses from Louis in the next three weeks for me to finally become suspicious. Louis’s house was our homebase. His mom bought good snacks, he had the ultimate cable package and she never noticed if her bottles of wine had been watered down—even if she did, she didn’t say anything about it. His mother was hardly ever home, he only went to his father’s for two weeks every summer, so staying at Louis’s was better than hanging out at just about anywhere during long, boring days.
The hum of my mother’s vacuum was making a long, hot irritable day worse and I closed our refrigerator door and turned to face Louis.
“Everything here is horseshit, we’re going to your house.”
“Nah. Let’s just go find Artie. He said he’d be up at the school later. Ramsey and Kyle were coming, too. Artie said they have weed.”
“That’s at like, nine o’clock tonight,” I said, and we were facing off now. I was taller than Louis at that point, by at least a couple of inches, but I never actually noticed, not until that minute. He was looking up at me, annoyed and red in the cheeks.
“What’s the deal at your house, anyway?” I asked.
“Nothing’s the deal,” he said, then swooped around me to open the fridge door again. He emerged with a piece of bologna rolled it into a cylinder before taking sticking the entire thing in his mouth. “Perry’s always home. He sucks.”
“Doesn’t he have a job?” I scoffed.
“No. His job is being a leach on my mom,” he said quite flip and then, quite grave, “I fucking hate him.”
“Your mom still into him?” I asked, because his mom had always been awesome, I couldn’t really imagine her being with a guy who wasn’t so awesome and truthfully, Louis was kind of spoiled.
It’d been just Lou and his mom since the second grade when his dad moved, and while she worked a lot, she adored Louis. She was always buying him the latest and greatest and when she was home she’d make us a shit ton of food and ask about school and friends, listening particularly to Louis even when he was just going on about nothing. She’d do it smiling and tugging on the ends of his hair and teasing him. I had a feeling Louis didn’t much like his mother’s attention being divided.
“I guess she is,” he said. “But who knows? I don’t think she’s around long enough to notice he’s a total dick. She wants him and I to go to a baseball game together.”
Louis turned and looked at me.
“A baseball game together,” he repeated and then laughed and I did too and then he said, “I think I hate my life, Adam.”
“It’s the dad thing,” I said, grabbing a glass from the cabinet. Louis’s mother openly lamented the fact that she was worried there was no man in the house to set an example for Louis. She said it all the time when he got a shitty attitude with her.
“If there was a man here, teaching you how to be a man, it wouldn’t be this way!” she’d call up the stairs. “I don’t have a dick, Lou! I can’t be a father!”
And that would make us laugh, or it used to, and generally resolve the tension in the house and at some point during the week, his dad would call him and Lou would be okay for awhile.
The next couple of weeks Louis got more pissy—when I saw him at all.
He’d sprained his ankle when he said he’d miscalculated a jump on his board and said he couldn’t go skate, so Art and I went at it alone for awhile, Lou was on painkillers for the ankle and said he’d slept mostly, and that was fine. The truth was I was getting sick of him being an asshole and it was relieving to have him gone for awhile.
It was August 24th, a Wednesday at around 11:17 p.m. I was laying on my bed, just out of the shower. I had a fan blowing directly on me despite the air conditioning. I was staring at the television on top of my dresser when Louis rapped on my window, no doubt mangling the hell out of the shrubs that sat below it.
I got up and slid it open, but I couldn’t really see him yet with the dark.
“You could’ve knocked,” I said with a laugh. “My mom would’ve just let you in, you tool.”
Louis easily hefted himself in and I did a double-take then turned on the light.
“What the hell—“ I started it all with a smile, because we were always banged and bruised up pretty good in those days, when we were still just learning about, well, everything. We didn’t know how to steadily execute and maneuver jumps on skateboards, our bikes on ramps or the twists and turns life, I guess.
“Listen, you got any money? Like, any? Even just a couple of bucks?” Louis asked, his one eye was wide and wet, the other was puffy and red. Soon it’d be purple and black and completely swollen shut.
“What?” I asked, and my heart started to pound heavy. “What’re you doing, Lou?”
He went to my desk and I watched the way he held his hand, up close to his chest. It was swollen and bent awkwardly, gnarled looking, like an old man’s.
“Leaving,” he said. “I can’t stay here—listen, Adam. My mother get’s back from some conference tonight—her flight is in at like, midnight and I’ll be back in a couple days, you tell her, okay?” he asked but it was rushed as he shuffled things around on my desk, scooping up quarters.
“Where are you going? Louis, what. What?”
“I hit him back,” Lou said, kind of holding his hand up, then he laughed a second. “I hit him back and I think I broke my hand but I know I broke his face.”
Once I said it, I knew it to be true. Once I said it, it made all the sense in the world.
“The house is a fucking mess, we broke her lamp and a couple of her frames cracked,” Louis said, he just kept saying all these words like we were just having a chat over a couple of cheese sandwiches or something, except he kept shaking his good hand and shaking his head. “He tripped on something and I took off. I don’t even know—“
“He’s been hitting you?” I asked and right there, in my white and blue bedroom, it felt like the real world was seeping in through the open window. Maybe not the real world. Maybe the mean world.
“Listen, Adam, I got to get to my Dad’s.”
“In Connecticut?” I asked. “Did you call him?”
“No. I just wanna go. You got any money? I mean, any?”
“I’m gonna get my mom,” I said, because the mean world had just come to our house and this was just too much.
“No! Shit, no,” Louis said. “It doesn’t have to be this big deal, I’m just gonna go to my dad’s for awhile—“
“What about your mom?”
“He doesn’t hit her. I’d kill him—“
“Lou. Does she know?” I asked.
“No. And don’t tell her, Adam. She’ll kill herself or something. She’d blame herself.”
I thought to myself that maybe she just fucking should.
“Louis? You alright?” I asked him and he just stood there, his eye getting grosser and worse by the second, his hand up to his chest. I saw it again, how short and little Louis really looked. Especially when he started to cry.
“Fuck him!” he shouted suddenly and with that, put his good fist through my closet door, “Motherfuck!” he went on and kicked the black wire stand that held my c.d.’s, he stomped over them and sobbed these deep, growling sobs and shoved all the crap from on top of my desk.
I didn’t need to call my mom at all because her and my dad busted in during the middle of Louis’s tirade. At first, I think they thought we were having a fight, but the situation became clear really quick.
I thought my mom would about explode on Louis for the mess, but she put her arm around him and he cried. My mom stared at me, all of her mascara and eyeliner washed off for the night, so I could really see the alarm and question in her eyes.
“His mom’s boyfriend beat him up,” I said and Louis didn’t get pissed at me, he let my mom hug him.
When I turned around my dad was already down the hall, his jacket half on as he went for the door, and my mom let Louis go as she called for my dad to come back, to not get himself sent to jail.
I couldn’t imagine my father, in his dockers and loafers and Minivan, in jail. It was a surreal night and I learned then that you can never be too sure about fathers, what they’re made of.
“I’m calling the police,” my mom declared.
Louis sat on my floor, his back against the wall.
“Wait. Can I just please call my dad first?” he asked. “I just wanna talk to my dad.”
I handed him the cordless and my mom looked unsure, which was unsettling, because mothers never seem unsure, but she ushered me out just when I heard Louis say, “Hey. Dad?”
Things went how they go, but a few things stick out about that night.
Like when I sat silently with Louis in my room, the television on and how we didn’t say a word until my father showed up with Lou’s mom and he called us downstairs, at which point it was already a new day, bled right into the last.
Lou had been right, his mom freaked right out and cried. My mother gave her coffee and she cried into that, too, and then into the phone when my father put it in her hand and told her to call the police.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Louis?” she asked, holding on to his collar and then his shoulders.
“You liked him,” he said lamely.
“I don’t like anyone that hurts you,” she said and maybe it was one of those things no one but Louis would ever understand, why he kept that secret. “Me and you, Lou. That’s who matters. What do I always say, just me and you, Lou.”
The cops came to our house and took pictures of Louis’s face. For a few weeks afterward, they investigated his mom and whatnot, but that worked out. Perry went to jail but not for too long, I mean, not long enough. It was just your standard domestic violence bullshit, the kind you hear about every day. Just standard in that it was only life altering and eye opening and pivotal and another shove toward harsh cynicism and course changing and this cemented thing between Louis and I. But still, the same bullshit you hear every day.
I never mentioned the c.d.’s Lou ruined, but he knew.
After that, I had classified men in to two categories: pieces of shit and heroes. You were a Perry or you were a guy like my dad, not with outward posturing and strength, but of heroic character. I thought that’s all there was. But then, you grow up and you realize that people are muddy and unclear and complicated and it’s a lot harder to be great than it once seemed.