The Ketchup Stain

Fontana High School; 10th grade

Dede’s rage was flaming as high as her hair the moment her friend pointed out the ketchup stain along the back of her white t-shirt. I witnessed the whole conversation take place outside while Denise and I dug into our burgers. By now, Dede had had it…and the look on her face as she swung open the door proved it.

For the longest time, Dede and Denise would exchange dirty looks as each passed the other throughout the day. As her best friend, I never mistook the facial exchange as something threatening. When it would happen, we would stop mid-conversation, laugh nervously and move on without a mention…but that moment in the restaurant everything was about to change.

The chaos began while Dede waited for her order. Denise’s eyeballs quickly began to wander towards her direction. As the seconds ticked by, I could see the rage between them growing. When the pick-up order bell rang, Dede came out swinging. On her way out, with food in hand, she grabbed a fist full of Denise’s french fries and threw them in her face.

That’s when Denise picked up the ketchup bottle.

With no time left to react, she squeezed the contents in Dede’s direction.

“You fucking bitch!” was all I heard as she swung open the door, aiming right towards our table.

The next thing I knew both girls had each other by the hair…pulling and socking one another to the ground. I had no idea what to do. I stood there frozen as two tables, three tables, four tables went down. With no end in sight, I tried to help Denise by grabbing her shoulder and pulling her away…which left me planted in a pile of uneaten food. By then, the owners came, broke up the fight and all that was left were the dreams of an empty stomach.

The Colt and Baby Giraffe

Sacred Heart Catholic Church; 1990

When I stepped onto the parish hall that evening after the retreat on February 11, 1990, I didn’t know a prerequisite for sustaining a long-lasting relationship with the Lord would require sleeping with men. Throughout my teenage years I’d vacillate between church teaching and the growing feeling inside.  

Steve, our youth coordinator was the first to greet everyone at the door. Steve was safe. He was squeaky clean. I would imagine his smile had its own soundtrack — nothing like a choir of angels — just the sound you’d hear when something is already so clean it makes a squeaking noise.

“I’m happy you decided to come back tonight Eddie.” His attention warmed the naive parts of me that were just starting to welcome in the devil. All I wanted to do was stand and admire him. Steve’s loving focus sent me back to a place that was becoming all too familiar. A place, that by the age of sixteen, would lead me to the confessional booth way too many times.

John had an intimidatingly spiritual presence about him; it was all-encompassing and without boundaries. He wielded it with no idea of his power. He was tall, well built without trying, and his young adult skin was as virginal as he was.   

All the mother’s wanted him for their soon to be in season daughters. Young, eighteen-year-old girls who would be ripe for the picking. The same young girls who readied their clipboards and pens as they checked off the boxes which lead them to till death do us part.

I, on the other hand, was an awkward and lanky sixteen-year-old boy who resembled more of a budding baby giraffe rather than a young, tight-skinned masculine colt. Although my calf stage had long since passed, I stalled and held onto it for no other reason than that it was all I knew.            

The Loneliness Cold

St. Joseph Catholic Church; 1981

As I stared blankly out the living room window that afternoon in 1981, I had no idea what I was going to do.  

“What am I supposed to say?” I thought to myself accusingly.

I was on my third glass of water as I nervously tried to hydrate my body one gulp at a time.  The anticipation and waiting of the evening’s event kept me obsessing about the same question all day.  

My concentration was broken when dad shouted, “Let’s go!”  

I swallowed my last thoughts of anxiety and ran out the door.

***

“Everyone line up outside the hallway – single file.“

As we entered the side corridor. thin wisps of frigid air circled around me and found its way among the families in the pews.  It was the same cold I always felt throughout the building. The dark orange carpet below did nothing to warm up the experience waiting at the other end of the altar.  

I shared a brief history with the newly renovated church.  It was the place of my baptism and for the first eight years of life — like home.  Which is why it should have felt different…instead it felt very lonely.

While the first group of kids lined up along the wall I was still obsessing, “what am I going to say?” As a distraction, I looked up and saw the deeply recessed stained glass windows that blocked out the sun.  The dark paneled walls that held them up created ample space between me and the outside world.

As we were called to line up, I felt the iciness of the air even more…my body’s warmth no match for the cold around me.  It was a mild Spring day but inside I felt the quiet, isolating fear of winter.

“When it’s your turn, your row will get up and make its way to the right side of the church.”

With only one person in line ahead of me, I noticed the effects of all the water I nervously drank before my first confession.  The release waiting for me at the edge of my bladder. “You’re next,” whispered the lady with sandy blond hair and pare shaped body.  “After her, you’ll walk to the end of the hallway and enter the confessional…father will be waiting.”

I could feel the edge of my bladder becoming weaker and weaker after each word.  

“Once you’re inside, you can either kneel behind the curtain or sit face to face…it’s up to you.”

Then with a sudden break, I could feel the first trickles of heat covering the right side of my hip.  The warmth I had searched for when entering the church — the warmth I so desperately wanted but couldn’t find – had found me as it was leaving my body.

I looked helplessly at the lady in front of me.  While she emitted the last bit of direction, I released all the built-up anxiety and nerves from the last few hours.  

I wanted to run across the altar.  Across all the waiting families and into the room reserved for crying babies.  Once there I’d find the restroom, the one place — at the time — I felt I belonged.  But instead, I stood there. I stood there trying to stop the flow that cascaded down to my knees and spread throughout the floor around me.  Although my insides had warmed the outside of my body, I stood there frozen in sheer panic.

With a sudden jerk to my shoulder, the lady with sandy blonde hair and pare shaped body directed me towards the confessional.  

“Did she know?” I whispered to myself.  “Could she smell it?”

“Father’s going to know I peed my pants…he’s going to smell it.”  

As I walked through the small hallway, I could feel the sponginess of my saturated tube socks press up against the soles of my shoes.  

Squish – squish, squish – squish.   

The Grubb Twins

Redwood Elementary; 1985

I collected and played with action figures.  He-Man action figures. While all the other boys and girls my age were sneaking into the bathroom, discovering the next phase in life, I stalled, regressed and chased the 4th-grade boys who played with the latest toys. We’d all meet at lunch by the big tree aligned with bushes which served as a backdrop for all the dramas we created.

Of all the kids I played with that year, I remember the Grubb twins. I remember them not because of their ability to be in two places at once, or their academic achievements. The Grubb twins possessed the original He-Man action figure. The hard to find, search all over town, don’t supply but demand He-Man action figure. This made them the official leaders of the group.

The Grubb twins had interesting features: they were identical, rough and tumble boys, down to the dirt in the insides of their shoes. They had oval faces with perfect bowl cuts and matching bangs. While one’s face was a little more symmetrical than the other I could always tell who was who: by their teeth.

David’s teeth were positioned in a way where when he spoke, his tongue would close at the edge of his front molars and act as a dam. Although he didn’t have a speech impediment, the collection of saliva in his cheeks and eventual overflow onto the faces of a captivated crowd made it sound as if he did.

Daniel on the other hand was a bit more refined…and he did have a speech impediment. But what I remember most about Daniel was his soul. While David was gruff and tumble, Daniel was lite and airy. He was submissive compared to David’s tough exterior. When I spoke with Daniel, our souls connected…we shared a collaborative connection. So when I needed to sway the vote, I’d always hit up Daniel first in order to get what I wanted.

On one occasion, David brought the coveted action doll to school. He showed it to us during first recess and said, “bring out your henchmen for lunch…we’re going to play.” We were all amazed. The figure came with a sword, battle-ax, and shield…and when all three props were placed on the action figure it was like a shot of heroin to the body. The anticipation of holding it would get me through the two hour period before lunch.

By lunchtime, while still in the cafeteria, David made the announcement:

“I have a better idea, we’re going play He-Man and Stellator inthtead of the action figures,”

“I’m He – Man and Daniel’s Stellator.”

The rest of us were left to choose who we wanted to play.

“Where’s He – Man?”, I asked disappointingly.

“Heths inthide my pocket but leths play real life instead.”

I needed to sway the vote.

As we went round and round, pretending to knife each other with our swords; picking each other up and throwing each other to the ground I double teamed with Daniel. My plan was that if we rouged each other up hard enough, we’d rethink the idea of play fighting.

After all, I didn’t wait half the day only to be told no.

Stelletor and I were making good headway, tearing everybody up until He-Man went into a manic state:

“eeeeeeee-yaaaaaaaah!’ screeched David at the top of his lungs. He raised his fists and clenched his teeth.

As for me, I was in the middle of a death grip when I noticed what all the excitement was about. He-Man had a fixed target. Me. I readied myself for battle as any normal henchman would: I bent my knees, crouched down just a little and waited for the enemy to attack…and attack he did.

David’s fist had tunneled its way towards my stomach.  He sucker punched me right in the gut; a direct hit right above my navel. Each second after was sheer panic.  Panic from the hit; panic from the instant pain; panic from having the wind knocked out of me.

Panic. From. The panic.

All I could do was fall to the ground with my arms wrapped around my stomach.  All I could think of was how to find my next breath.

“…just try and breathe”, I told myself.

“…just try and breathe.”

***

Thirty years later, I felt the same way after the break up with John.  My mind was frozen, my emotions were out of control and I couldn’t breathe.

It would take therapy and a support group to help me start breathing again.

That Pink, Wavy, Elongated Tongue

Beech House: 1982

Eyes open automatically. 2:30 in the morning. 

That tongue; that pink…wavy…elongated tongue.

At any moment, as I pushed my head deeper into the hood blanket, I knew that tongue would creep its way between the sliver of the open curtain that hung steadily over the living room window.  To everyone else, the patterned providers of security guaranteed privacy from the outside world. But at night…when everybody finally gave in to the darkness outside and after the deafening silence of rebirth had settled in, that pink, wavy, elongated tongue would eventually reveal the man behind it.

It all began one evening when mom yelled across the room “Es satanas!” as she feverishly crocheted yet another completed square onto the growing quilt.

“What are you doing?”, my brother complained after I snapped his concentration from what was playing out on television.

“I’m trying to keep the porch light out” I grumbled, “it keeps shining in my eyes; I can’t sleep.”

Mom continued her rant, “Mira que fueo el Diablo!” as she knitted together her words of fear and spread them throughout the room.

The truth was, I had seen the devil that night. He had long platform boots that resembled a dragon straight out of hell.

That night, and every other night after, no matter how hard I tried, a sliver from the curtain would eventually find its way back to the default position. A long, thinly shaped triangle would slip in and out of sight and allow the porch light in. The anxiety and fear of what was behind those draped vertical folds only heightened after I had gone to bed and a wayward draft would create a succession of waves that set the stage for what I fought so hard to avoid.

Sometimes, in the height of summer, the linen fabric shades would appear as overgrown tendrils of murky moss that quietly held the heavy, recycled air emitted from the swamp cooler.  As the dank smell of mold rose from the ground like dry ice. No matter what the season, as the night wore on and the tension built, the late night concert was sure to begin.

At any moment those tendrils would open up and reveal an active world of ongoing performances that ranged from slick 80s hair bands to dark shadows conspiring to find a way into the safety of my bed.  My imagination (my runaway imagination) had already joined the shower of beaming light the moment I woke up.

I was nine years old, it was 2:30 in the morning and I was trying my hardest to avoid Gene Simmons’ signature tongue waiting for me on the other side of the window.