It is 2:15 in the afternoon, and I am sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool. My mom and dad are having a pool party and everybody is acting silly — wearing grass skirts, dancing, and laughing at everything. Earlier, I was sitting on the edge of the pool looking at my my reflection on the surface of the water. Mom put me there so I could watch the light dance off the surface while she went to get a drink. She knows watching the shimmering light makes me happy, but then I saw my reflection and leaned over to touch it and fell in. I watched with wonder and amazement as the light danced off the sides of the pool and darted across the floor. People splashed about while I calmly sank toward the bottom, hypnotized by the dancing, light. It is so peaceful down here. I am not afraid. I am sixteen months old. This is my first memory.
It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’m crying. I’m crying because my mom won’t wake up and my shoes don’t fit anymore. I’m crying because our housekeeper, Edna, is shouting at me to get dressed so I can walk myself to school. I’m crying because I’m afraid that I’ll get lost on my way to kindergarten again. I’m crying because my mom won’t wake up, and Edna keeps shouting and I don’t want to be late for school because today is show-and-tell, and I have a toy mouse on a string that I can make crawl up my arm that I want to show to everybody. I’m crying because my mom won’t wake up and my shoes don’t fit anymore, and Edna is shouting at me and calling me stupid, telling me that the reason my shoes don’t fit is because they’re on the wrong feet. I’m crying because I don’t understand how my shoes are on the wrong feet when these are the only feet I have.
It is 5:30 in the afternoon. I am lying on the street bleeding; frightened and crying. I am five years old. The sun shines harshly in my eyes as a stranger approaches, asking me what happened. The stranger is asking where I live. Asking who to call. Asking if I’m alright. I am bleeding because I just wiped out on my bicycle. Only it isn’t my bicycle, it belongs to my friend, Blake, who is over playing with me and my brother, Robert. After a while, playing turns into fighting, and Blake and my brother gang up on me and start hitting me with pillows. Blake and Robert are both a couple years older than me, and they always end up just beating me up because I’m little. I’m sick of getting hit with pillows, so I run up to the carport to get away from them and play by myself. In the carport I discover Blake’s bicycle leaning against the back wall. It’s a fancy one with a gears and a hand brake, and I really want to ride it, so I take it out on the road before they can come up and find me. I only learned how to ride a bike without training wheels a couple of weeks ago, so I don’t know anything about flat tires, or how it’s impossible to steer when the front tire doesn’t have any air in it. I wobble unsurely for a couple hundred feet or so, then crash face-first into the pavement. My skin scrapes and burns against the asphalt, my lips split open and bleed. And this strange woman keeps asking me questions I can’t possibly answer through all the sobbing. The sun shines harshly in my eyes.
It’s 10:15 in the morning. I am in second grade, and I am in the principal’s office. I am in trouble because yesterday I kicked a big rubber ball out from underneath a kid named Paul who had been sitting on it in the playground during recess. I was supposed to go to a doctor’s appointment, but I guess my mom couldn’t take me because she was too sleepy, so my Aunt Betty (she’s not really my aunt) came to take me instead. I saw Paul sitting on that red, rubber ball as Aunt Betty and I were headed towards the exit, but he was facing the other way, so he couldn’t see me coming. Out of nowhere I kicked the ball out from underneath him and laughed as I ran to Aunt Betty’s station wagon. I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but it doesn’t seem so funny now that I’m in the principal’s office. He’s been trying to get my mom on the phone all morning but he can’t reach her. I tell him she’s home, but she’s probably just too sleepy to pick up.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’m going to the grocery store with my grandad to give a quarter to the owner for a pay-back because I stole a pack of gum. It’s the store that my mom has been going to ever since my parents got married and my dad built her a house here in Belvedere. I know everyone who works in the store because they’re all part of a big family. My dad told me they’re Mormons. I don’t know what that means. For some reason all of the kids have names that start with the letter “D.” I keep my head down as I walk through the store because I’m embarrassed and afraid. Grandad is taking me to the back office to talk to the owner, and on the way we pass by the owner’s son, Dennis. He’s my favorite of all the D’s that work here. He’s the one who saw me take the gum, and I feel like crying as we walk past him on the way to the back office. After I stole the gum Dennis told his dad, and his dad called my house to tell my mom what I had done. Mom was upstairs sleeping, so my grandad answered the phone instead. Most days mom spends all afternoon sleeping on the sofa in the library and it’s impossible to wake her up. Grandad lives with us now, because Grandma died last year, so now he’s all alone. I love my grandad, so I am happy that he is the one taking me to the store, but I’m also sad, because I don’t want him to think I’m a bad boy. I don’t want to hear him to say, “I’m very disappointed in you,” like my dad always does. When we get to the back office I quietly say hello to Mr. Hansen, the owner, then reach out with a frightened hand and try to give him the now sweaty quarter. “I’m sorry I took the gum, sir,” I say in a tiny, quavering voice, “Here’s the money for your pay-back.” Mr. Hansen sighs and pats me on the head. “What you did was wrong, Tommy, and you need to know that there’s no such thing as a ‘pay-back.’” He thanks my grandad for bringing me down, then turns, and walks out the door. I am eight years old, and I am so confused.
It’s the middle of a hot, summer afternoon, and I am in a bedroom with Cammie Tyler in Lake Tahoe. I’m ten years old, and she’s eleven. We are here with our families for the summer, and for some reason I can’t stop thinking about her. I’ve known her all my life, but I never paid much attention to her until now. But this summer, something is different. I can’t get her off my mind. I like watching her swim. I like watching her play ping-pong. I like riding bikes with her down to the 7-11. I like making her laugh and trying to make her spit soda out of her nose. We play video games together for hours at the arcade and she usually beats me. That’s fine, I like it when she beats me. She has an older sister named Laura that my brother hangs out with, but I like hanging out with Cammie. She has curly blonde hair thats always kinda messy and she knows a lot of swear words. She’s afraid of bugs, so sometimes I scare her by telling her there’s one in her hair, or crawling in her ear — she screams so loud! Once she even punched me in the arm, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I pinch her just so she’ll swat me. Today Cammie agreed to come with me into the bedroom so we could see each-other without our clothes on. We’re both wearing our swimsuits, so there isn’t much to take off. We count to three, and at the same time pull our swimsuits off in a fit of nervous excitement. I have never seen a naked girl before. She has never seen a naked boy before. Cammie points down at me and squeals with laughter. I point down at her and cover my mouth to keep from giggling uncontrollably. We’re terrified that somebody is going to come in and find us, so we put our bathing suits back on as fast as we can, but we don’t stop looking at each-other for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t ever want this summer to end.
It’s 11:15 in the morning and I’m happy because I got to miss school today; I hate my 5th grade homeroom teacher, Ms Gardner. My brother, father and I are visiting my mom in a place called Saint Helena, somewhere out in the Napa Valley. Mom’s been here for two weeks and this is the first time we’ve been allowed to visit. I found a quarter in the coin return of the pay phone outside my mom’s room, but the lady who took us up said I can’t keep it. She said it’s there in case any of the patients need to call their families but don’t have any money. My mom looks happy and sad at the same time. My dad just seems sad. I notice that there’s a big jar of M&Ms on the nightstand of the other bed in the room. My mom tells us that that is where her roommate sleeps, and those are her M&Ms. My mom tells us that her roommate is a “chocoholic.” I don’t understand why her roommate can have chocolate if she’s a chocoholic but my mom can’t have alcohol.
It is 3:15 in the afternoon. I am standing on the rocky shore by the bike path with a kid named Miles. We are in the 6th grade together. A group of kids watches from above as I hold a knife on Miles, telling him to give me all his money. It is a pocket knife that looks like a switchblade, but you have to open it the regular way. I force Miles to take off his back pack, then I cut the straps off of it with my knife, demanding he give me all his money. Somehow, I have convinced myself that this is a game, and that I am just kidding. Miles does not know this, and is terrified. Moments ago I was riding my skateboard down the bike path on my way home, and now I am holding a knife on a classmate, telling myself this is all just a joke. A game. This is not a game. I have no idea what is happening. I don’t know what I am doing. I don’t know. I don’t know.
It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I am completely wasted! My friends Chris and Alfred are over and my parents are gone for the day. Yesterday was the last day of 6th grade, so now it is officially summer, and we are drinking beer! There’s tons of it in my parents’ refrigerator because they’re always having parties. I’m sure they wont miss it. Chris keeps running to the fridge, throwing beers off the balcony to us down in the swimming pool, then jumping off the balcony into the pool to join us. It’s a blast! We open the beers and drink them down in one mighty gulp, then throw the cans over the railing onto the side of the cliff. Who cares! But now Alfred is really wasted and runs inside to vomit on my bathroom floor. Why would he run inside to puke when the cliff is right there? When he finishes vomiting he passes out in a pool of his own filth. Chris and I think this is hilarious and decide to piss on him while he’s passed out. This is going to be a great summer!
It’s 8:45 AM and my hands are shaking uncontrollably. My hands are shaking uncontrollably because my brother is trying to kill me. My brother is trying to kill me because I just smashed his computer with a baseball bat. I smashed his computer with a baseball bat because he threw a pot of hot coffee on me. He threw a pot of hot coffee on me because he thought I stole his tennis shorts. He thought I stole his tennis shorts because our housekeeper put them in the wrong drawer and he didn’t bother to actually look for them. He didn’t bother to look for them because whenever something goes wrong in this house, I’m the one to blame. I’m the one to blame because that’s just the way it is. I’ve locked myself in the second floor powder room and my brother is on the other side of the door pounding furiously to get in. He can’t get in because the door is two-inch thick solid wood that opens inward, and there is a row of drawers at the end of the vanity that I’ve pulled open that block the door, making it impossible to open. I know for certain that if my brother gets in he will kill me. My hands are shaking uncontrollably.
It’s nearing 10:00. Almost bed time. It is raining outside and the wind is blowing so hard it is shaking the windows all throughout the house. I am in the kitchen with my father. My brother is in our room working on some sort of D&D quest or battle or something. He plays almost every day with a group of misfit friends that I can’t stand, and when he’s not playing he is planning battles, or creating orcs and wizards, or whatever the hell it is that they do. He is obsessed. Mom has already gone to bed, so it is just me and my dad alone in the kitchen. I have been trying to get up the nerve to talk to him for weeks, but the time never seemed right. We are all alone and he is getting ready to go to bed, so I decide that it is now or never. “Dad,” I say — my voice weak and shaking, my mouth so dry I can barely get the words out, “Mom is drinking again. She begged me not to tell you. She promised that she was going to quit, but she hasn’t , and it’s only getting worse.” There. I said it. My whole body is trembling and I feel like I might throw up. The look on my father’s face is the most pained look of anguish and sorrow that I have ever seen. He stares out the window, watching the rain pound against the glass in violent sheets for what seems like hours, then turns to me and says, “What did you do to make her drink?”
It’s 7:30 PM. Dinnertime. I’m in 7th grade and my dad is dying. His kidneys started failing a couple of years ago and now he’s on dialysis. He is an only child and all his living relatives are dead, so there’s no chance for him to get a kidney transplant. My brother and I aren’t eligible because we’re adopted. Dad has had a lot of complications with his treatment over the past year. He’s lost a ton of weight, he’s aged 100 years, and his arteries keep wearing out and collapsing, so he has to go in for surgery to get them repaired from time to time. Tonight we’re having pizza. Same as last night. And the night before. For some reason the dialysis makes my dad sick and he can’t keep his food down very well. Every so often he stumbles upon a food that agrees with him and that’s all he eats for weeks on end. This month it’s pizza. If you’ve got to have a sick father, things could be worse than having pizza every night. My best friend, Alfred, is over for dinner and a sleepover. My brother is spending the night at a friend’s house. Alfred and I are sitting at the kitchen counter watching television and goofing off. My mom and dad are sitting together at the small kitchen table next to us, pretending to have a normal, pleasant meal together. Mom is slurring her speech and tottering from side to side. Dad is silently chewing and trying to enjoy the show on the television. Suddenly, he leaps up from the table, lunges towards the kitchen sink, and vomits violently as Alfred and I continue to chew our food. I look down at my plate, plug my ears, and hum loudly so as not to hear my father’s retching. I glance over and see Alfred mimicking my father’s retching, laughing with an open mouthful of partially chewed pizza. Mom sips her drink and pretends none of this is happening. Everything is fine. This will all be fine.
It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and I am getting stitches in my chin. I am thirteen, and this is the first time I’ve ever had stitches. My mom brought me along today to see my dad while he’s getting his dialysis treatment. There are two big tubes pumping blood in and out of his arm, filtering it in a big machine. There are a dozen or so of these machines in this room. Dad looks so tired. He smiles weakly as we walk towards him in the crowded ward. I smile back and give him a half-hearted wave, but I am starting to feel woozy. I ask the nurse that is bringing us in where the bathroom is. I think I’m going to be sick. I wake up on the floor moments later surrounded by concerned looking nurses and medical personnel. They are asking me a series of questions that I don’t quite understand. They are asking me my name. They are asking me where I live. They are asking me if I know where I am. They tell me I split my chin open and I need stitches. I ask them what I split my chin on. They tell me I fainted and split it open on the floor. I’m so confused. Was there something sharp on the floor? No, it was just the floor. Did I hit something on the way down? Nope, just the floor. I look up at my dad with confusion in my eyes. He looks back at me with a helpless smile. There is so much blood in this room.
It’s 10:30 in the morning and I’m on a plane to New York City with my mom. I am 13 years old, and I am about to start my first year at boarding school in Lakeville, CT. In the lower left pocket of my Army surplus field coat I have my pet rat, Cinnamon who occasionally peeks her head out. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to have a pet rat on an airplane, so I hide her in my pocket as we go through security, just to be safe. Our flight attendant has seen Cinnamon a couple of times already while bringing my mom drinks, and she doesn’t seem to mind, but I keep her in my pocket anyway. Occasionally I give her a Cheez-It. I’m excited to go to away to school (mostly to get away from my brother), but I’m really nervous as well. I won’t know anyone there, and I’ve never been to Connecticut before, so I’m afraid. That’s why I brought Cinnamon, so I’ll already have a friend when I get there. The flight attendant keeps bringing my mom drinks, I keep feeding my pet rat Cheez-Its, and occasionally we hit a pocket of turbulence so bad that the overhead compartments open and people start to pray. I close my eyes and finally begin to relax.
It is 5:30 in the afternoon. I am in my dorm room at my new boarding school in Pebble Beach. A kid named Keith breathlessly charges into my room and asks, “Dude, do you have any blow?” “No,” I lie, “Sorry, man, I really wish I did.” Keith thinks I might have some blow because he is the school’s resident drug dealer and he believes that I broke into his room while he was out one night and stole a big manilla envelope full of individually wrapped bindles of coke. I have no idea why he suspects me, but he is right. I did steal it. And I’m taking the rest of it home with me back to Marin. I have just finished packing up the last of my things, and my mom is outside waiting for me in her Buick station wagon. I gently punch Keith on the shoulder and shoot him a sideways grin as I walk out the door. “Take it easy,” I tell him as I saunter across the grassy dividing strip towards my mom’s car and prepare myself for the long, unpleasant drive back home. I am 16 years old, I have been here less than a year, and I have been expelled.
It is very, very late. Maybe after 2:00 A.M., and I am in a juvenile detention facility in San Rafael, CA. I am here because I punched a cop. I punched a cop because I was out at a party with my buddies, Dave and Miles, and I got too wasted to drive. I am here because I passed out in the passenger seat of my mom’s convertible Ford Mustang that I’d been driving us in, and Dave got pulled over while driving us home. I am here because the cop couldn’t wake me up in the front seat after Dave failed the field sobriety test, so he pulled me out of the car to try and rouse me. I am here because, apparently, when I am passed out and someone tries to wake me, I throw punches. I am here because, when you are 17 years old, piss drunk, and punch a cop in the face when he tries to wake you up, they send you to a juvenile detention facility.
I am here.
It is just before dusk; the sun sinks slowly towards Mt. Tamalpais across the San Francisco bay. I am in the back yard of my parent’s house with my mom, my brother, and the minister from our local church. The minister is holding a box containing my father’s remains. I kid my brother that it looks like a shoebox, and ask him if he thinks dad will be a pair of Adidas or Nikes in the afterlife? My brother does not think this is funny, and shoots me a look of absolute seething hatred. My mother doesn’t notice any of this, she is busy ignoring us, and the minister, and the entire situation by distractedly pulling dried flower buds off the surrounding foliage. We are scattering my father’s remains in the back yard because my parents built this house together, and my mom thinks this would be a good place to spread him. The minister recites something from the Bible as he removes a handful of ashes and strews them about the terraced hillside above the deck where we are having the service. Only they aren’t really ashes— dad’s remains look more like crushed seashells and coarse sand. In the movies, people’s ashes always look so fine and, well, ash-like, not this gritty, crumbled mess that my father has become. The words that the minister is saying mean nothing to me. I suspect they don’t mean anything to any of us. We aren’t religious — we only go to church for the occasional Christmas or Easter, and that’s mostly because my mom donated a ton of money to have the church's organ restored so she could be a big-shot in the community. What do these words have to do with us? Our situation? Our place in the universe? What comfort can they possibly provide? And what do they have to do with my father? How do they account for his life? His pain? His unwarranted suffering? What do these words have to do with this man who, through some twisted, cosmic joke, ended up getting sick, dying and being scattered by a complete stranger at sunset, surrounded by a family made up of complete strangers to themselves and to one another?
I am seventeen years old, and I have the rest of my life to think about these questions.