Recently, I visited my hometown in suburban Pennsylvania. Here’s some of what I thought about.
Three Colors in Three Rooms in Three Houses
Birth – Seven
The carpet in the den is red; too red. It isn’t soft or thick, it isn’t anything. It feels like the floor when you lie on it, but gives you brush burns if you run and fall or wrestle there. There’s a wooden TV, meant to look like furniture. There’s a hideous purple couch. It could be a lake of red discovered in a clearing, still and impossible; you’d be shocked to come upon it. It’s not the red of celebration, like cherries or popsicles. If something fell on that carpet, you might pick it up and eat it still, but you’d think twice. It is, yes, a color of childhood in its brightness. But looking at it, one can’t avoid the question: Why would anyone do this? Not just put it there, but make a carpet like this at all?
The words “floor” and “blood” both huddle together two Os in their middles. The red carpet is a flood. Anyone that stands on it seems to float in that contrast.
And so my strongest memory of this first house I grew up in is not being so small that I could hide in the broom closet; nor is it seeing my sister fall down the stairs and break her arm and leg; it’s not the circus wallpaper that once, through a fever, sprang to life in its details with moving clowns and elephants; it’s not even my dogs galloping around the backyard with their lolling tongues. It is not anything anyone did or said.
It is that carpet.
All colors, all words and deeds seem natural against that unspeakable red.
Seven – Twelve
As a child, I slept in a yellow room. Yellow is the color of the will, of the Archangel Raphael, of healing, of mischief, of laughter. This was after the divorce, which I’d heard of by accident. My babysitter bought me a book called Benjamin Bunny Moves to a New House. That was how I found out we were moving. The babysitter was not fired.
My mother’s room was down the hall, and my sister’s bedroom was long and pink. Later, she would take over the yellow room and I’d move into the pink one.
She and her friends wrote all over the yellow walls with pen and marker. Drawings of boys they liked. Curse words tiny enough that my mother couldn’t see them. Song lyrics.
But while it was mine, the walls were clean and bright, like the sun. Yellow is the color of the wind, of flutes, of archery.
I shared the wall with a neighbor. At night, she would tap on the wall and I’d knock back. When my mother found out, she scolded me. “This is our own house,” she tried to explain. “If you do that, it’s not ours anymore.” I couldn’t make sense of what she said.
I hated church, like most children. One Sunday, I hid between the mattress and the box spring so I wouldn’t have to go. My brother- thirteen years older than me – was visiting from college. He sat on the bed and leafed through one of my comic books. I felt smothered, hot, like I would die. Yellow is the color of the kidneys and of breath. I could not breathe. I managed to shoot a hand out from between the two bed parts and heard my brother scream, the sound muffled by the material and springs.
That was the room I made a voodoo doll in after signing out a book on black magic from the elementary school library. Why was that book there? That was the room I lived in when I had my first strange supernatural experience. Later, in that house, I would start to understand what sex was, and start masturbating and start being confused. Yellow is the color of protection. It is the color you call on when you need help.
Twelve – Seventeen
My neighbor would come over after school each day and we’d fuck in my white room, which I’d half-covered with posters of bands. Nirvana, of course. But also Jesus Lizard, The Pixies, Fugazi, The Breeders, The Cows, Mercy Rule, Throwing Muses, Brainiac, Minor Threat, The Pain Teens, Sonic Youth, Pavement. Clean walls, noisy insides. He and I weren’t friends. I wouldn’t talk to him in the hallways.
Music and sex were everything. I couldn’t see beyond them. This was Pennsylvania.
When he didn’t come over or was on vacation, I’d stare out the window across the street at another neighbor, who mowed the lawn with his shirt off. The light in the room bounced off every strip of white paint not covered by a poster or a picture. This neighbor was sweaty. He had black hair and a wife and a loud, annoying son. My mother said this neighbor was gay.
When he wasn’t there, I’d think of Lee, who lived down the street. I’d masturbate and think of him coming over and rubbing his thick dick, which I’d never seen, on my face. I’d try to conjure him up by doing that.
When it wasn’t Lee, it was anyone else: My teachers; my classmates; my father’s friends; my sister’s friends; the construction workers who came to fix the house; my cousins; my friends; the men in the underwear ads on Sundays; the straight porn stars I snuck into my life on worn-out VHS tapes; my stepbrothers; people I passed by; customers at the record store I worked at; everyone, everyone. I had a list of all the men I masturbated thinking of. It was pages and pages of white printer paper, and eventually I lost it. It blended into the background.
I became such a different person there. When sex walks in, there’s no going back, no abandoning it or forgetting. Like learning to read, the symbols on the page can never be clueless again. Everything gains the weight and pleasure of meaning.
The room, because of the white walls and how it faced the sun, was effulgent and couldn’t rest. I masturbated in it not just once, but three, four, even a record nine times a day. It was never in the dark. It was always in the light.