The first time my father brought the woman who would soon become our stepmother along to our weekly Thursday night dinner I was up all night hugging my mother’s toilet bowl, my aching head swaying above the water, then writhing each time the contents of my stomach scurried out of me, as if my body, now free of my feeble will, was performing a rhythmic incantation to exorcize the demons. Agony as bad as anything I’ve ever experienced since. The demons were, I think, a bad mussel, one I’d pried open and eaten despite my brother Kelsey’s warning that “if those fuckers dint open theyselves up, then you know they ain’t fightin’ to live, and you can’t tell me no reason to think you gone get anythin’ good from chewin’ on a life ended up in failure.”
This was how Kelsey spoke when I was 16-years old. A 20-year-old high school dropout who still lived with his “moms,” known—how could I make this up?—as Special K to most who knew him, he styled himself a hip hop philosopher. He was the only white kid in a crew that performed at bars with three-dollar covers and a couple of downtown coffee shops where the kids from the suburbs went to feel dangerous. They called themselves Glory Hole. When I asked him what that was supposed to mean he gave me a what’s up nod and said, “you know you gotta peep that shit.” It was pretty strange stuff. Their minor hit was called “All That Dysentery,” a worn to the rims play on the term dis. Whenever he was on stage he wore the same oddly tall, cylindrical fur hat. He called it the Chinchilla Bitch Killa.
Growing up, he’d been my idol. I dressed myself in gigantic garments like his, all denim and flannel, and I’d figured out how to take long slow strides to imitate his gangster-lean gait. For a week when I was 14, until he found me out, I’d tagged chinch on bus benches and semaphore poles. He treated me pretty well, putting Boogie Down Productions tapes in my walkman when my friends were listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff, and on the nights when he was too broke to go out he’d talk to me like a peer about music and graffiti. Once he made me listen to Digital Underground’s “Nuttin’ Nis Funky” seven times in a row so that I could explain to him, out loud, why Fuze was the most underrated DJ in the world. I don’t remember the full extent of the argument, but part of it depended on his ability to “tear shit up for seven minutes with the same broke-ass trumpet sample.”
It was shortly before Dad introduced us to Charlene that disillusionment began to creep in. It wasn’t that Kelsey changed. That was just it—he seemed to have a mountain’s inertia. I began to think he was pathetic, that he was in a rut, that he was a rut. I remember I brought it up with my dad once and he said, “Kelsey’s just always had trouble getting on the trapeze without the harness.” Those two had a lot more in common than they ever admitted to each other.
Late in the night when I was in the bathroom feeling like my whole body was a blister ready to pop, my brother came in and sat on the edge of the tub and rubbed my back.
After a particularly violent round of dry heaves he said, “Damn. I can’t believe Dad got himself all fucked up over a butter face.”
I spat bile-tinged saliva into the bowl. “The fuck’s a butter face.”
He paused a little too long, a little too proud he’d get to carry it off.
“Her body’s slammin’. But her face…” He shook his head.
I chuckled, then laughed, then heaved the little moisture left in me into the toilet, panted, laughed again, heaved throat-cracking nothing, caught my breath and then chuckled a little bit more. The joke wasn’t all that funny, of course, but something about the look on his face, the little frown he had when he shook his head was beautiful.
My head was pounding and I was angry that he’d made me heave, but my laughter had relieved some pressure, and I knew that he had done it on purpose. That he knew what he was doing.