A Demon's Rubicon (Part 3)
By Chris Brecheen
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|One seriously fucking kick-ass game.|
would not forever stay my immaculate protector. Life is like that. The inevitable moment where every child realizes their parents are all too human was still out there and I was not to escape our rendezvous.
Our culture has a phrase that I particularly can't abide by: "Lost innocence."
Innocence is not lost. You don't play soldiers with your friends on the last day of school (summer stretched out ahead of you like a boundless promise) set up intricate camouflaged forts, finally make a daring raid (after boredom sets in from building defenses), do a spectacular and dramatic death roll when you are gunned down by Matt Defronzo's unseen machine gun nest, and later discover that, like your keys, your innocence must have slipped out of your pocket somewhere along the banks of the creek.
Innocence is taken.
Perhaps by slender, feminine hands unaware of the effect they're having. Perhaps by gentle, liver-spotted hands that think that they are doing you a favor. Perhaps by the bone fingers of figure in a dark robe holding a scythe. And perhaps even by thick, calloused hands better suited to ripping potatoes from the ground. But regardless, innocence is yanked from tiny hands that try futilely to hold on.
"Mom," I asked at eight. "Is it really you? Do you drop the presents after I go to bed, and then eat the cookies yourself?"
Mom nodded soberly, her lips pressed together so tightly they were white.
Wait. What? I was right? I was just throwing spaghetti at the wall. Two hours before I had been talking about how much better trains would be if they could fly and Tyrannosaurus Rexes with wings. How could she do that to me? I was only eight. She was supposed to say, "Why that's the silliest thing I've ever heard!" until I was......at least ten. Worst of all, this revelation led to a total cascade failure of pleasant fictions. Within minutes the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy joined Santa behind the chemical shed of my imagination, soberly facing down the steely-eyed firing squad of harsh truth as they passed one of The Easter Bunny's cigarettes between them for one last long drag each.
"Well boys," The Tooth Fairy said, "It's been an honor."
They declined the blindfolds. They had more dignity than that.
There was a lot that wasn't awesome about my life when I was eight. My parents were in graduate school and couldn't afford much more than Iowa City's version of a ghetto. Our slumlord's unwillingness to fix the air conditioner was giving me heat rash. My second grade teacher Mrs. Blanchard thought I was a ringleader of troublemakers and that the solution was to keep me in a cardboard box called "The Timeout Box" permanently. Everyone who was not my mother wanted to get me on this new drug called Ritalin. And my step-dad kept taking my mom into her room and locking the door--it was like they didn't want me to know what was going on in there or something. Sometimes she would even cry out, but I couldn't get in there to stop him from hurting her.
These things pale in comparison to the day that Santa died. Innocence wasn't lost that day. It was torn from my hands as I screamed "Noooooooo!"like a character in a bad movie.
Sometimes innocence isn't taken by one set of hands but by uncountable invisible multitudes. Each takes only the tiniest bit--barely enough to notice--but the end result is the same. I never saw whose hands went to work between the Halloween of my tenth and eleventh birthday. It was just as if that innocence had evaporated. But in the span of one year, it was gone.
When I was ten I marched my cat costume through the Halloween parade. I held my head high, and may have even tilted my chin upward the tiniest bit, so I could gaze ever-so-slightly down my nose at all the non-cats out there. I stood triumphantly in the contest ring, not understanding that I would never win. I didn’t know that it was old and un-fancy costume--twenty dollars of material to make some ears and a tail. I didn't know it wasn't much more than last year's black clothes. I didn't know it didn’t fit quite right.
That night I ran with my friend Josh through the streets of his neighborhood, gathering a dragon's hoard of candy, which would be systematically consumed in fewer than half a dozen sittings (to the horror of my parents). We laughed, and sometimes even literally whooped, as we dashed from one house to the next, each interlude of street a gleeful new race to the next oasis of spoils. I had no idea I was wearing the ratty costume of "a poor kid."
The next year I knew.
We moved to Calabasas, an opulent neighborhood east of the San Fernando Valley. Of course Calabasasans (that's totally what they're called) always say that it’s the people in Thousand Oaks that are really stuck up, and Thousand Oakers like to point at Agoura Hills. I believe in Agoura Hills they feel they are down to earth and it is the people in Oak Park who are really snobs.
There's probably some metaphor about humanity to be found there....or something.
Pretty much once you moved east of Woodland Hills, it started to smell like money. My parents had come for the school system—having moved as fast as they could out of our Canoga Park apartment after my friend Jonathan gleefully recounted the tale of how we watched a man get beat up in the park. My mother could ignore the tiny little baggies I ran past in the alley behind our apartments, the syringes crunching under my sneakers while I played Commando Warriors, or the men who stood very close together and exchanged small brown bags for finger-thick rolls of cash in the park across the street where I played every day, but this was just too much.
"And there was this one hit where the blood went flying through the air and the guy totally screamed!" Jonathan recounted, eyes wide and gleaming.
"Mom," I asked, not at all sharing Jonathan's enthusiasm. "Do you think he died?" I couldn't eat that night, and I kept asking about the fate of the stranger who I'd watched get pummeled.
I wouldn't understand until much later how intimately connected this recount was with the fact that I spent the next weekend bored out of my mind while my parents looked at apartments in a new neighborhood. And so the Canoga Park chapter of my life closed, and we moved to Calabasas, but we were not made of Calabasas money. We lived in a run of condominiums, that (literally) looked up the hill upon multi-million dollar homes. We were…poor.
We weren't really poor, you understand. Actually, we were doing quite well. We had a personal computer back in the eighties, I had private trumpet lessons, and I never had to skip out on a field trip--no matter how spendy they became. I had grandparents that took me shopping for school clothes every year, and each Christmas I made out like a bandit.
What was actually happening is that I was learning one of the most fundamental lessons of socioeconomics right there in middle school. That it doesn't matter how much you make absolutely, but only relatively. If we were making that our Calabasas money in a trailer park in Kansas, we would have been the trailer with the swanky bling light strings, the three cars parked in the carport, the herb garden on the porch, and the vertical blinds.
However, one’s sense of poverty or wealth is entirely relative. In Calabasas, I was the one living on the other side of the tracks--or in our case a man-made, landscape-engineered brook that wound through the community. Though it was the nicest place we'd ever lived in, we had an entire bedroom we didn't need, and in almost any other place on Earth these condos would be outrageously swank, in Calabasas, we were the have-nots.
The other kids had far more money to spend on costumes or stay at home mothers eager to flex their crafting muscles and sew up intricate outfits for their kids. Their unique and detailed costumes could never be matched for 29.95 plus tax. I could tell my costume was a rag. I could see the difference. I decided I didn’t want to march in the parade. I watched the contest from a distance and witnessed a perfectly detailed home-made bottle of aspirin--her legs jutting from the bottom, arms from the side, and her head poking out of the neck complete with a perfectly rendered child proof cap affixed to her head with a puffy thing that looked exactly like the little ball of cotton.
That night, as I slogged through the neighborhood with my friend Brandon—a friend so tall and lanky that we looked like a comedy team when he stood next to me; 4'10 and already stocky—I wondered what the affluent people handing us full-sized candy bars off of tastefully arranged platters were thinking about my cheap costume. I begged Brandon to trick or treat in my condominium complex. I told him that it was because the doors were closer together and we could get ten times as much candy that way, but really I just wanted to get out from under the gaze of the people in their dazzling costumes who came to the carved oaken doors that we pounded on, and looked at me like I was some strange bug that was not indigenous to the region.
To this day I hate Halloween. I hate looking for a costume. I hate that sense that I don't belong. I hate the feeling that my costume is being judged.
My family moved away from Calabasas during my last year of middle school. I worked hard to hate them for uprooting me from an established clique at a time of social awkwardness, mostly because I didn't have a lot of other really good reasons to hate them, but I was at the age where I had to come up with something.
When it comes to unforgivable childhood trauma, you have to work with what you've got.
Honestly though, I think they saved me a lot of grief. The real stratification was about to start. Calabasas is the kind of community that to this day could be the setting of The Outsiders (and I wasn't a particularly good greaser). Many hard lessons were coming down that pipe, and my awareness of my crummy costume was only the first of them. I was only just starting to notice how many mom smiles froze solid or went saccharine when I mentioned that I lived "in the condos down on Park Grenada"--usually right before that friend and I stopped hanging out. I remember girls, so excited I had asked them out that their voices trembled, telling me they would call me right back with an answer. Hours later the phone would finally ring and a completely austere voice would inform me of a newfound sense that things would never work. On the hills of Calabasas was the kind of wealth most only see in movies. The “stay-away-from-my-daughter” kind of wealth, or the“they-aren’t-like-us” kind of wealth.
My parents whisked me away before the worst of it, but I had a bad taste before I left. A taste I would never forget.
I remember the exact moment my mother became a human being. Before that she was simply Mom--a celestial being free of humanity who existed only for me. When she slapped me at the top of the stairs, a little too close to the edge, and my young body went tumbling down with staccato thuds, it was not because of any mistake she had made. Moms couldn’t make mistakes.
But my awareness of my mother’s fallibility crashed upon me suddenly. I’ve read about so many who look back and realize they weren’t sure when they stopped seeing their parents this way--they weren’t sure when or how it had happened. But I can remember the exact moment.
The game was called Dark Castle, and it was the cutting edge of 1986 Macintosh technology.
In a world of Nintendo’s barely-better-than-Atari amorphous blobs that shot other amorphous blobs with little squares or triangles, Dark Castle was as good as it got. Duncan looked like a person. You could tell the difference between the rats and the bats. And the Dark Knight really did look bored as he flicked empty chalices at you (until you got to his level, he pulled out his sword, and the shit got real). There were no blips and blops as sound effects. When Duncan threw rocks at the rats, they squeaked, and he distinctly said “Yeah!” when he picked up an elixir, or a bag of rocks. Far from the electronic pings of midi files, the squish noise when the got hit with a rock sounded like a stick of butter falling onto linoleum.
I wanted Dark Castle. I wanted it bad.
I struck a deal with my mom. Well, technically, my mom struck a deal with me. “Get your math grade to a B," she said, "and I’ll buy you that game."
“Promise?” I asked.
"I promise," she said.
Math and I have always had a rocky relationship (even long before, and long after Mrs. Franklin became giddy at my failure). When we finally parted ways at thirty-five, after an oral report on fractals for my Math For Liberal Arts class, we agreed that we were better as friends. Distant friends. No need to call...really.
Math sent me a friend request on Facebook, but I ignored it.
My mom was not above using rank bribery on a thirteen year old to motivate him. While I enjoyed the stacks of books we were given to read in my English class and could be pressed to do my Humanities homework with only typical teen-age resistance (and I even found science interesting enough to stay pretty engaged), math homework was a particular kind of torture. Each night was an excruciating battle royale between the will of a teen-ager with crippling A.D.D. and a passionately anti-Ritalin mother.
Despite her best efforts, thirteen year olds are increasingly difficult for working parents to truly dominate. I couldn't really be grounded if they weren't home to know that I was watching TV or at Eugene and Eric's house. So nothing really managed to get through to me about the importance of math. I failed out of the high math class within one semester, and I was well on my way to failing out of the regular math too. If I didn’t pull out of my tailspin I would be, in my mother’s words “sitting in high school remedial math with the guys who take shop.”
Shop sounded kind of cool, actually—power tools made fun noises, and they could probably teach me how to wear leather and lurk behind the D building in a way that girls would be unable to resist. But no power tool could make a realistic sounding “yeah” when it picked up an elixir the way Duncan could. I came home each night thinking of Dark Castle as I did my math homework. I even showed my work, despite the fact that I could just see what the answer was, and this was obviously oppression of the highest order. For ten weeks, I honestly tried.
It was, perhaps, my worst report card ever. Well at least until my freshman year of high school when I actually started failing classes. But until that moment, I had never gotten a D.
Social studies, science, and history had all fallen due to my allergy to homework. I had been able to cruise through elementary school without really doing homework, and in middle school my bad habit chickens were coming home to do their cliche roosting. Social studies=C. Science=D. I was even getting a C in English--a subject I never got less than an A in before or since. But shining like a beacon in the middle of the report card was my B- in math.
I had done it. I had earned my game.
“I’m not buying you that game,” my mother said when I showed her my report card, handing it to her at the dining room table, unsure whether I should be ashamed or triumphant. “Look at this--it's terrible!”
“You said you’d buy it if I got my math grade up.” I said. “I got it up.”
“The rest went down.”
"P.E. didn't!" I argued. Thirteen year olds have a poor grasp of when it's a good idea to be semantic.
“You have to keep things at a B level, Chris. One C is okay, but D’s are unacceptable and this is barely a C average.”
“A C average was never part of the deal!” I said.
“I shouldn't have had to say it was,” she said. "It was assumed."
“You can’t do that,” I said, lip quivering. “You promised!”
And then she said it. The words that shattered my world: “I don’t care what I promised.”
We see our parents as perfect, flawless, incapable of error. They stroll about--when they’re not on Earth attending to us--with the gods. Mother was not one of the roles this woman fulfilled as part of a diverse adult life--it was all she was. Even as testosterone hits my bloodstreams and I begin to rebel, I had the strangest sense that I was committing sacrilege--that I was some sort of fallen angels at war with perfection; not because she was flawed, but because I was. That a mother could be mercurial, fallible, maybe even capricious (like humans tend to be) is something that hadn’t really dawned on me. But with those words, light broke over the eastern sky.
My mother had broken her word.
I pouted. Glory but I pouted. I pouted the week away and went into the weekend. It was a thing of legend. A.D.D. has always made it hard for me to hold grudges. I get distracted about them just like I do about everything else. But not that week. That weekend I was Hercules of attitude. That weekend I remembered to brood like I never had before. I could not be broken by my favorite meals or my favorite shows or an offer to go to see a movie. I scowled. I glared. I tromped. And by Sunday night, my mother had had enough of me.
“Fine, I’ll get you your damned game,” she said. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” I said, ignoring the protocols of a guilt trip.
It was her turn to smolder and brood as we drove down the hill to the computer store in the village, but I didn’t care. She went in after checking the name of the game with me, and I waited in the car, humming. She threw the game at me when she came back to the car. “I hope you’re happy.”
I looked at the game in its shiny box. A laminated cover with an outside shot of the Dark Castle on it. My lips lifted at the edge. Duncan could learn to throw fireballs instead of rocks if he could get to Merlin. My finger traced the edges of the cardboard and I read the back of the box over and over again.
“You really just care about that game, don’t you?” She spat. "Not anything else. Not your grades. Not school. Not your future. Just that stupid game."
“I earned it.” I said.
“No you really didn’t.” she said.
"Yes I really did," I said, frustration building.
“Your grades were terrible," she said. "You don't deserve it."
I said something after that that was uncharacteristic for a 13 year old. It was wise in its own way, and years later mother and I both agreed that it communicated more than I’d ever intended at the time. “I do deserve it. Ground me off of the computer for my grades,” I yelled across the car at her. “But you keep your promise! You promised, Mom!”
A tear had slipped out from my the corner of my left eye. I had never been so righteously angry in my life. I'm not even sure I knew what that meant. "You promised," I repeated.
My mom looked like she’d been struck. Twenty years later I wonder if she didn’t realize that the illusion had been shattered. Or maybe for the first time she saw me as a person as well. Not as a child, a responsibility, a burden--no matter how welcome--but as a small human being with feelings that could be hurt and trust that could be betrayed.
“Okay,” she said. “You’re grounded.”
I nodded, sniffing up the snot from my nose. Fair was fair. “Can I play it on Saturdays?” I asked. (This was often a grounding exception in our household.)
“Saturdays,” she said. “But that’s it until you have a C average.”
I turned back to the sleek, laminated box and smiled. Saturday was six days away, but I could wait. I was sure I’d sneak some time in before then, anyway. Kent didn't get home until six on Tuesday, and mom never got home before seven or eight. I ran my fingers over the glossy cover. It was about as close a thing to a victory as a 13 year-old has.
And yet I paid a heavy price. I would never see my mom in that celestial light again. After that she was a wonderful woman: a fighter, an activist, a wife, a mother, a full time bank vice-president who worked a second shift, a better parent than I gave her credit for at the time. But after that day...always human.
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