A Contradiction of Sandpipers
My cousin Emmett pounded on the bathroom door. He was two years older than me and knocked like a man, with the side of his fist: thud, thud, thud.
“Conrad!” he yelled. “It’s time to go.”
I’d come to Littlefield, Maine, at the beginning of middle school, after my mother died and my dad drove his car into a tanning salon. He’d blown a 0.12 and made the local news, and since then I’d lived with my aunt. When I first moved in, I had expected Emmett to resent me for a million reasons—here I was, occupying his house, sapping his parents’ attention, barging into his grade despite being two years younger. But right away he’d seen the benefits. He asked me for feedback on his drawings and stories, and I helped him pass his tougher classes, which conveniently were my strongest: chemistry, bio—basically anything in a lab.
As I opened the door, he was already walking away. “Your dad is here,” he said. “I’ll be in the car.”
I tried to hurry, but I also needed to look my best. Sammy and I had somehow gone the whole summer without discussing this day—the day we’d return to school, student and teacher, knowing what we’d done. “You’re sexy,” he once said to me, and it made my heart beat so fast that I had to sit on the edge of his bed while he laid a cold washcloth over my neck. Would he still feel that way when he saw me squeezed into one of those stupid writing desks with my three-subject notebook and my five-color pen? I studied my face in the mirror, disappointed to find only my usual self: handsome enough but goofy looking, like a sidekick. My tawny eyes were too small to be pretty, my Jewish curls always too long or too short. I dyed those curls blond for one week in middle school, and my civics teacher told me I looked like Art Garfunkel. Although I hated to admit it, I saw my father in the mirror, too. When I was little, my mother would say, “You have your dad’s nose,” and my father would grab his face, panicked. “Give it back!” he’d cry.
I found my dad in the kitchen working on a bowl of Froot Loops. He’d shaved his beard and looked so much like my grandfather he might as well as have been wearing a Halloween mask. His skin hung loose on his face.
“Why are you here?” I asked, searching the cabinets for a granola bar.
He didn’t look up. “They do let us out, occasionally.”
After his fall, he’d booked into a twelve-week alcohol rehab facility near Forest Lake. He needed to finish the program before he could make it onto the transplant list, but the doctors didn’t believe he’d live that long. Even after the car crash, my father maintained that he did not, in fact, have a drinking problem. I wondered without asking whether he’d used my first day of school as an excuse to escape for the morning.
The cereal had stained his milk a radioactive shade of green. “I don’t know how you eat that stuff,” I said.
He stirred the milk. “You should see the color of my pee.”
“Pass.” I headed for the door.
He reached for my arm, and I saw the gauntness of his waxen limbs. He’d lost at least forty pounds from his heaviest, at least ten since his fall. He drowned in his denim shirt like a child playing dress-up. His wrists, delicate like bird bones, were visible past the fabric of his sleeves, and I could see his veins, blue and bloated, beneath the vitreous skin of his hands.
“I thought you’d have visited by now,” he said.
I’d spent the summer with Sammy working on my science-fair project—an experiment on memory-impaired rats—or curled up in his bed, testing actions and reactions of a different sort. But even when I wasn’t with Sammy, I was too busy thinking about him to do much else. Sometimes, as a dare to myself, I’d pretend that I would be the first to lose interest. Sorry, Sammy, but I can’t be tied down. Sure, I loved him, but the summer was over. I was a senior, two years ahead of schedule, and soon I’d be applying to college. At this rate, by the time the year ended I’d be forty, with a job and a dog and a fixed-interest mortgage. By the time the year ended, Sammy would be too young for me. He’d be a good story, nothing more. “You won’t believe what I did when I was sixteen,” I’d tell my dog.
My father was watching me through jaundiced eyes.
“I’ve been busy with friends,” I said. “One of us still has them.”
He laughed, holding up his hands to signal surrender. “Hey, it’s no skin off my back if you turn out mean.”
Standing this close to his face, I could smell the dimethyl sulfide in his breath mixing badly with the modified starch of his breakfast. This was portal hypertension—the pressure building in his veins, the stink of his diseased body. The same thiols in a skunk’s spray were gathering in my dad’s lungs, bubbling to the surface like swamp gas. There’s a name for this odor—this sulfurous, rotten-egg smell. They call it the breath of the dead.
I left without saying goodbye and ran out the door to find Emmett waiting in his beat-up station wagon. He’d spent the previous afternoon polishing the hatchback as if it were some vintage muscle car, and the tan paint glistened under the sun like wet skin. He revved the engine, and the feeble sound was still loud enough to chase the sandpipers out of the bird feeder.
* * *
My mother once told me that a flock of sandpipers is known as a contradiction. A contradiction of sandpipers. She had always been a bird person. She worked part-time at a youth reform camp in far-northern Maine, just outside our hometown of Winterville, leading hiking and bird-watching tours for the crazy, messed-up boys who dealt drugs or did drugs or called in bomb threats to their schools. When I was little, I hated thinking of her being around those kids. Another youth camp was along the bus route to my elementary school, this one to help little gay boys turn straight. Confronted by the sight of it every morning and every afternoon, I hardened myself against the possibility of change in people. It was self-preservation—I knew I was just like them. If I couldn’t change, how would my mother’s troubled boys? They were dangerous, plain and simple, and trying to help them would only cause her pain.
* * *
At school, Emmett disappeared to find his theater club friends, but I went straight to Mr. Foster’s homeroom, as though going there early would make time move faster. I wanted desperately to see Sammy, but I would have to wait until I could steal a few minutes before first-period English. I told myself to be patient, but our secret was a firework inside me, already lit.
I squirmed in my seat within seconds of sitting down. When I first moved to Littlefield, we only went to homeroom to get our report cards, but after the Virginia Tech massacre we spent half an hour there each morning. We’d sit in a circle and talk about the Issue of the Day. Usually it was something benign—the dangers of sex, the dangers of soda—but we knew the deal: our teachers were keeping tabs, monitoring our mental health for signs of violence. We conspired against this system like criminals trying to pass a polygraph. Relax, we’d tell each other. Say a little, but not a lot. It’s normal to be sad; it’s abnormal to be very sad. Feel, but do not feel strongly. This was the language of a sound mind: the elimination of adverbs.
The small details of that room have stayed with me: an enormous snake plant in the northwest corner, just under the window and the light of the sun; on the ceiling, a brown water stain in the shape of Australia. Littlefield was bursting with money from summer tourism, but all of the rich families sent their children to private school and then made it a kind of hobby to vote down the public school budget. As a result, LHS looked from the outside like an abandoned warehouse. My biology textbook that year was twice my age and had its own water stain bleeding through the inside cover. Someone had circled it with a Sharpie and provided a label: MR. HASKELL’S SEMEN.
Mr. Foster sat behind his desk, tapping his armrest with the eraser end of a no. 2 pencil. He was one of those thick, ruddy time-warp teachers. You could put him in any classroom in the twentieth century and he’d fit in fine: thin hair, the perfectly round belly of the perpetually seated. A fifty-pound mustache.
RJ slid into the desk next to mine. He was my closest friend—my only friend if you disqualified Emmett for being family. Like all of my classmates, RJ was older than me, and you could see this difference in the way he carried himself. He was not classically good-looking, but I always liked looking at him: his face had a strong, narrow shape and an evenness of expression that I found reassuring. He was difficult to surprise.
RJ’s family had moved to Littlefield from France—he was the only black kid in our school. Sophomore year, he was joined briefly by an Ethiopian boy who could swear in eight languages. I heard the boy’s father was some sort of prince, or war criminal, or spy. Whatever he was, he moved his son to private school before the end of the first semester. RJ’s family had money, too. His dad worked in pharmaceuticals for a company that manufactured the stupidest drugs: one that made your eyelashes thicker, one that made your knees smoother and sometimes, as a side effect, triggered spontaneous orgasms. But I remember RJ’s father arguing with his mother, a retired catalog model, about the value of a public school education.
“You spend your whole life in public,” his dad said. “Better to start early. Private school is for assholes.”
RJ’s mom shook a carton of orange juice. “Have you seen their textbooks?”
We’d met in eighth grade after being paired together in Home Economics. We baked brownies and wrote a children’s book together for our final project. It was a little domestic partnership, and I was so, so in love with him. But RJ thought about nothing but girls.
“Who’s hotter,” he once asked, “Bryce or Amanda?”
I shrugged, my brow furrowed. “It’s too hard to say.”
He nodded gravely. I’d spoken a deep truth.
For the first year of our friendship he was clueless about my sexuality. He forced me to join the baseball team, taught me to spit the juice of my shredded bubble gum in a long, masculine stream. At the end of freshman year, we were hooked on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. One night when we came to the scene where Frank-N-Furter fucks Brad on a canopied bed, RJ nudged me and pointed at the screen. “That’s you, right?”
I froze. I had an erection, and it made lying seem impossible. “That’s not me. That’s Tim Curry.”
RJ snorted. “No crap it is. I mean, you’d do it with a guy.”
“I’m not doing it with anyone. Ever.” I stared straight ahead.
“I don’t care,” RJ said. “My sister said you were gay and that I should talk to you about it because gay people need lots of support.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jake Wolff