Really, sweetie?” asked my mother, puzzled by the selection of drab clothes resting over my forearm. “These are the clothes you want for summer?”
“Yup,” I replied, tossing a pile of tan slacks in front of the JCPenney cashier.
“Well,” she said, fingering a stack of soft cotton white T-shirts, “everything is just a bit . . . dull. Don’t you think?”
“Nope,” I answered flatly.
“Do you think Amber will like these outfits?” she cooed with a knowing grin.
“She’s not my girlfriend anymore,” I huffed.
“Oh no, honey. Why didn’t you tell your mother? What happened?”
“She broke up with me,” I huffed, grabbing the bag of clothes.
“Oh, sweetie . . .” my mother gushed, her consoling lecture fading behind me as I stomped ahead of her through the mall.
“Time heals all wounds,” she comforted me on the drive home. “It’s Amber’s loss, not yours.”
But in truth, Amber hadn’t dumped me. I’d dumped her. Well, not dumped so much as avoided. In the weeks following the Chris Wolfe incident, Amber had left a dozen strawberry-scented notes in my locker, each one asking where I’d been at lunch. I read her letters each day behind the gym, where I’d taken to eating my bologna sandwich alone by an enormous, humming air-conditioning unit.
“Are you mad at me, David?” she wrote in pastel bubbles, dotting the I in my name with a broken pink heart.
What I couldn’t tell Amber was that I’d learned an important lesson from Chris Wolfe: stay out of the way. If no one noticed me, then no one could demean my sense of fashion, question my ball-throwing expertise, or bash my head in with encyclopedias. So in the hopes of achieving relative anonymity, I shoved my paint-splattered sneakers and Hypercolor T-shirts to the back of my closet. For the last few weeks of eighth grade I would lie low by wearing flat-front khakis and denim button-downs, no matter how boring my mother thought they were. Feeling safe required disappearing, and disappearing meant being alone.
In the mornings I’d jump the fence and walk to campus the back way, through the empty athletics field. After school I’d linger by my locker for ten extra minutes to avoid kids chatting in the courtyard. I quickly learned how to camouflage, unlike some of my bookish, bespectacled, overweight peers, kids who actually had the audacity to participate in after-school clubs and eat their lunches out in the open. Once I disappeared, I wasn’t accosted the way they were. With all my careful planning and covert activity, I thought I was beating bullying. But really, bullying was beating me. It wasn’t the confrontation that was isolating me, but the threat of it.
By the end of the school year I’d grown a second brain that constantly monitored my behavior: checking every pronunciation for a lispy S, reminding me not to hum Paula Abdul too loudly, and taking note of my posture at all times to ensure I wasn’t resting on my hip. When I wasn’t monitoring myself, I was monitoring everyone else, especially boys—figuring out what mimicked social cues would keep me safe until 4 p.m., when I was home safe in my bedroom, voguing.
On the last day of school we gathered to hear our principal’s “have a nice summer” send-off. In the center of the auditorium I felt stifled, surrounded by five hundred people I’d been trying to avoid for two months. Three rows ahead sat Amber, who slowly turned her head until our eyes met. Across Amber’s back stretched the long, muscular arm of her new boyfriend, Chris Wolfe. Amber stared at me with a disappointed, vacant expression. Her eyes seemed to say, Look what you made me do, as if the pecking order of middle school had forced her to take Chris’s hand. I felt a little guilty about it, knowing I’d made her an eighth-grade widow of sorts. But mainly I felt betrayed. I was so angry at Amber that I even hated her hair, which hung limply in a messy braid that looked terrible.
Look at what you’ve done to yourself! I wanted to scream. He’ll never treat your hair as well as I did!
Fifteen minutes later the bell rang, signaling the end of my tenure as a middle-school student. As I left the auditorium, I noticed Chris and his friends. He smirked at me as one of his buddies whispered in his ear. And then I heard that word again, slipping quietly from between Chris’s lips. It was impossible to pretend that it was for anyone but me. I lowered my head and moved on, reminding myself that I was only a few days away from the isolated safety of my summer road trip with my dad. Soon I’d be far away from San Antonio. And the mall. And Chris Wolfe. Soon they would all be out of the picture. And no one would call me that name ever again.
* * *
“COCKSUCKER!” my dad screamed at the truck in his rearview mirror.
We were somewhere in northern Alabama, only one day into our two-week road trip. But my dad’s temper had already reached a fever pitch.
“Look at this jerk on my ass,” he sneered, gripping the steering wheel so tightly that I could see the veins in his fingers throb. Our thirty-two- foot Winnebago rocked back and forth as my father pumped the brakes, thrusting my neck repeatedly against the high-riding seatbelt. “How you like that, you son of a bitch?”
Not at all, I wanted to answer.
The 18-wheeler behind us screeched around us and pulled ahead. As the driver swerved into our lane and began manically pumping his brakes, I noticed the truck’s mud flaps, which bore the silhouettes of two giant-breasted women with their legs wrapped around rifles. Leonard laid on his horn and raised his middle finger. “Fuck you!”
Mind you, the window was rolled up the entire time. So my dad was really just screaming at me. And that was the problem with my father’s fits of anger: they felt aimed at me even when I knew they weren’t. As we jerked around the highway, a pile of books spilled from the dashboard.
“Dammit!” he yelled as they fell into my lap. “Now I’ll lose my place!”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said, saving the page marks in as many of them as I could. “Wow. How many are you reading now?”
“Too goddamn many!” he barked, his bellowing drawl and massive belt buckle at odds with the titles in my hands: Einstein’s The World As I See It, The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. My dad was a voracious reader of philosophy, astronomy, and theology, equal parts classic and progressive, a mix I’d known was rare and singular ever since I was a little kid. My dad and I could chat for hours about solar systems, dog psychology, and the existence of God, all while listening to Hank Williams and eating Taco Bell. Talking to the secret philosopher in my dad made me feel like it was okay to ask questions that didn’t have finite answers. But in this moment, the secret philosopher was losing to the raving psycho. And as the 18-wheeler sped away from us, there was a finite answer: punch stuff.
“Asshole!” he sneered, pounding the steering wheel.
“Hey Dad!” I chirped merrily, snapping into damage-control mode. “Let’s see what’s on the radio.”
I casually turned on the stereo, trying to make a big show out of shrugging off the offending big-rig driver. As my dad settled down, so did the speedometer. I cracked the window to let in fresh air as the song on the radio crept into the foreground. I leaned forward and turned up the volume as a rush of funky keyboards, whipping snare drums, and sexy male vocals oozed from the speakers.
What’s your definition of dirty, baby?
What do you consider pornography?
“What is this crap?” growled my dad, quickly changing the channel. Rosanne Cash replaced the sexy little earworm, but not before it had lodged itself in my head.
The next day we stopped at a strip mall for supplies. While my dad went into Walmart for underwear and RV-safe toilet paper, I slipped into the music store. I approached a new-wave chick with big hoop earrings and flame-red hair in a Sam Goody apron.
“Welcome to Sam Goody. I’m Susan,” she droned with a faraway, bored expression. “What can I help you with?”
“Well, uh . . . I’m looking for a song.”
“Okaaaaay,” she groaned, smacking her bright-blue bubblegum, “which one?”
“Well, I don’t know what it’s called. I just heard it on the radio.”
“Sing it to me.”
I paused. And then, with all the swanky verve I could muster,
What’s your definition of dirty, baby?
What do you consider porn —
Before I could finish, she gripped my arm with pulverizing force. “Oh my God!” she beamed. “That’s George Michael! I LOVE HIM!”
Breathlessly, she dragged me to the front of the shop. There it was: a giant display of George Michael’s Faith album and assorted paraphernalia: twelve-inch singles, posters, T-shirts, and, towering above it all, a slightly larger-than- life cardboard cutout of George Michael. His distressed denim jeans were torn to shreds, his leather jacket fit like a glove, and his frosted hair defied gravity, tousled on his head like strands of spun gold.
As Susan rang me up, she couldn’t stop gushing about the album, describing song-by-song the experience of listening to the record. She bounced, screamed, and giggled, all the while clutching the CD in her hands.
“And you have to get this too!” she yelped, sliding a copy of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine across the counter. “There’s a tubular photo spread of him in here. He’s so cool!”
As we talked, I realized that Susan was the kind of girl whose hair I could brush for hours. As she handed me the receipt, I noticed my dad watching us from the front of the store. I cringed as he flashed me a pearly grin and a big thumbs-up. As I walked out, Susan waved good-bye, genuinely excited that she could bring George Michael into my world. Over his shoulder, my dad tipped his cap to her.
“She’s a real beauty,” he whispered, patting me on the back.
“You love them redheads, huh? A chip off the old block.”
In the car I slipped the CD into my Discman, put on my headphones, and skipped to track 3-“ I Want Your Sex.”
SEX is natural—SEX is good
Not everybody does it
But everybody should
I had never heard the word sex so many times in four minutes. But that was only the beginning. Over the next forty-five minutes, Faith revealed itself to be an album filled with thrusting grunts, come-hither wails, and a dozen calls to intimacy; its protagonists were teachers, preachers, and uptown boys who were all desperately horny, each one pleading to be “warm and naked at my side.”
I listened to Faith five times in a row while flipping through Interview, the cosmopolitan culture magazine based in New York City. It was full of artists and filmmakers I’d never heard of. There were fashion spreads in which, ironically, the models wore hardly anything at all. The best section was in the back—the party pages, which were full of glamorous people posing with cocktails like sexy mannequins. I read about Calvin Klein’s daughter’s jungle-themed sweet sixteen on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. David Bowie and Iman were there, laughing with pink champagne. Grace Jones deejayed, wearing yellow contact lenses and a barbed-wire dress. A group of cigarette-smoking women with gaunt faces and blunt bangs were captioned as “gallerists.” I wasn’t sure who they were. But surely they were important; they were in the party pages!
I scanned the magazine, carefully angling a photo-essay of LA street hustlers modeling thongs away from my dad as he excitedly described a chapter of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
“See, scientists had thought that black holes were just empty space, but it’s quite the opposite . . .”
I couldn’t pay attention. Outside the window was a wasteland of strip malls and hill country. But in my lap was a secret world—ninety glossy pages full of artists, junkies, fashionistas, club kids, and . . . gay people. Looking at Interview while humming “Father Figure” to myself for the umpteenth time, I began to feel the crotch of my pants tighten.
“What Sagan’s theory of black holes does is, it reframes the way science . . .”
My dad was droning on about something I really wanted to be interested in, and normally would have been. But as I looked at a muscle-bound European model in wet jeans lying on a bare mattress, it became impossible to hold my focus. There was a supernova in my pants.
“Even light can’t escape a black hole because of the gravitational pull of—”
“Um, Dad?” I squeaked, “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
“Are you all right, DJ?”
“Yeah,” I said over my shoulder, rushing to the bathroom with Interview magazine over my crotch. In the minutes that followed, I discovered that spanking the monkey in a three-by-four- foot lavatory traveling seventy miles an hour was no small feat. But for the next forty-eight hours, in spite of the challenging environment, I was a trouper. I spent so much time in the loo over those next two days that my father eventually presented me with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
“Life on the road can be sedentary, son,” he said with great wisdom. “Sometimes you don’t know if you’re coming or going. This should help.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, allowing my father to believe I was plagued with intestinal distress. It seemed far less upsetting that the truth: that his son was masturbating ten times a day a few feet away while listening to George Michael and staring at Marky Mark in boxer briefs.
Four days and thirty orgasms later, my father worriedly mentioned taking me to a local emergency room for my “gastro issues.” It was time to accept that I was losing control. So I made a concerted effort to curb my chicken-choking by focusing on my summer reading assignment. George Orwell’s 1984 is a difficult read for anyone, especially a pubescent, gay fourteen-year-old passing through truck-stop parking lots where shirtless truckers give themselves sponge baths. But abstaining from reading Interview and switching out Faith for Paula Abdul’s far less provocative Forever Your Girl seemed to be working. I was going to show my penis who was boss.
But my dominance was short-lived. A week into our trip, I noticed the edge of a magazine under a stack of toilet-paper rolls beneath the bathroom sink. I pulled out the August 1987 issue of Penthouse magazine and was flabbergasted. This issue was different from the others I’d seen before at neighbor boys’ houses. As opposed to a centerfold of a lone woman, this issue contained a spread of a woman and a man getting nasty on the beach. She wore big ’80s sunglasses and a big ’80s hat, and had big ’80s areolas. They were the size of salad plates. The caption referred to her as Candy. Her male companion was swarthy and strapping. Lush locks of black hair hung into his dark, dusky eyes. The only thing covering any part of his muscular, caramel-skinned body was a tiny white G-string that was almost damp enough to see through.
Apparently the editors at Penthouse didn’t think he deserved a name. But I did.
So I called him . . . Rolando.
I quickly became obsessed with every page of the photo spread, each image burning itself onto my brain like a molten-hot brand.
On page thirty-two Candy was awkwardly bent over a wheelbarrow. Rolando was taking her from behind, gripping her hips with his strong hands; his face was obscured by wet bangs that hung over his eyes. I looked at this image so many times that I started to question its minutiae.
Why there was a wheelbarrow on the beach? Was some beach worker transferring sand around with it? How could someone even operate a wheelbarrow in the sand?
On page thirty-four Candy was spread-eagled on a beach towel as Rolando mounted her missionary-style. Both of this dark stranger’s firm, flexed butt cheeks bore the delicate, sandy handprint of his lover in perfect symmetry, a Rorschach butterfly of ass-hands.
Page thirty-seven was my favorite. Candy squatted in front of Rolando in platform heels, her big rump taking up most of the lower part of the page. Just above her head you could see Rolando’s sweat-drenched torso, rock-hard abs, defined chest, and square jaw; and then, right above his perfectly shaped lips, the page ended.
Who was this man of mystery?
With no discernible face, he could be anyone: George Michael in reflective aviators and a crucifix earring, telling me “I want your sex” in the back of a London taxi; Ricky Schroder with gelled hair and tapered jeans, saying “I love you” as we rode a mini choo-choo train around his mansion; or Chris Wolfe with his sandy blond hair and Roman nose cornering me in the locker room, telling me he knew exactly how to make up for the encyclopedia incident. Rolando was my dream lover, everyone and no one.
With only a few days left in our two-week road trip, I knew I had to maximize my enjoyment of Rolando, my beautiful Latin (but possibly Italian or maybe even Greek) lover. And unless I wanted my father taking me to the ER for a colonoscopy, I needed to be crafty about it. So while my dad left the RV to work on phone lines, I stayed behind and filled my days with chronic masturbation. It was so epic that my fingers pruned. My forearm ached. My penis felt and looked like it had been resting under a heat lamp, red and throbby like E.T.’s magic finger lighting up to heal Elliott’s wound.
My dad and I spent the last day of our trip driving for ten straight hours. He was tired and hungry. I was sex-starved and angry. We were both sore, for different reasons. Four spins into George Michael’s Faith, he poked my arm.
“So, DJ . . . What’s the girl situation like?”
It was a question I didn’t want to hear and had been hoping to avoid.
“Um, well . . .” I carefully composed my answer, fumbling with my headphones as I paused the Discman. “Um . . . The girl situation is . . . pretty good. There are a lot of girls at my school. And they all . . . really, really like me.”
My dad’s grin widened. I imagined his eyes beaming with pride behind his sunglasses. “Girls really like me,” I exclaimed, getting a little cocky. My dad let out a little chuckle, and I knew it was working. “Yeah! All of them do,” I blurted, feeling really proud of myself now. “Actually, all my friends are girls!”
I looked at my father’s face and knew I’d said too much. His smile went slack as he aggressively readjusted his sunglasses. He cleared his throat and checked the rearview mirror for unwanted rear-enders, a preoccupation that was starting to seem increasingly symbolic. My father spotted a violator and began pumping his breaks. Profanity was screamed. Horns were honked. Birds were flipped. And then silence.
Sitting there beside him at a red light in some tiny town outside Dallas, I could sense my dad’s disappointment with my answer. I thought of Amber’s sad, sweet-smelling letters and Chris Wolfe’s spiteful glare. I remembered my mother’s face a few weeks earlier, looking confused and saddened by my stack of khakis and basic white tees. I thought of her repeatedly asking me, “Why are you so quiet lately?” and I wondered what it felt like to see her son fade away from her the way I was. Was it like watching light collapse inside the gravitational pull of a fissure in space?
Maybe, in spite of their credentials and bestselling books, Sagan and Hawking had no idea what they were talking about. Maybe black holes were just empty space.
“The girl situation is good,” I muttered to my father as he choked the steering wheel in his fists. “It’s . . . good.”
Excerpted from "Bad Kid: A Memoir" by David Crabb. Published by Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2015 by David Crabb. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.