We dressed in what our parents wanted for us and the social game was Open. All access to all areas. I knew Caleb as the bully who seemed worldly even back then (talking to the teachers during social studies when most kids tuned out). The family didn’t have much money, and he was already being singled out by that fact. His pushy behavior did not help win any hearts, either.
I remember trying to walk down to the bathroom in 4th grade and Caleb going out into the hall at the same time, yelling, “PINBALL!” and proceeding to smash me into both walls of lockers all the way down. When he’d crush me he made mashing sounds and we’d crack up, no matter how much it hurt. When I exited the bathroom, it was the same all the way back to class.
There were family dilemmas that served as breeding grounds for a nasty infection of anger, depression, and what have you. My mother was still ill and physically abusive with an alcoholic father in the mix. So you have a hard marriage there plus the impact it had on me and my little brother, me dealing, etc. Well, Caleb’s older brother was killed and so growing up with his own unfair circumstances.
Field days were always tons of fun because I was picked to be on Caleb’s winning tug-of-war team every time. Every year we had our class shirts on, finding our spot at that rope, digging and digging. Caleb would put the loop at the end right around him, and the boys at the back dug into the ground before it began. Whistle sounds. Our teacher would bend down, screaming at Caleb, “COME ON! PULL” and we’d conquer the final event. Yeah, I remember Caleb back then and I know he acknowledged me. Later on, I would discover that he had been watching a little closer than I ever knew.
Junior high was tricky, a blast, and then tricky again. I had missed the big presidential academic award in fifth grade by a few bad math points and so my mind had created a blockade between the scholars – strugglers – slackers. I figured, why struggle if I wasn’t going to make it into the classes I wanted? So for the rest of my school career, I coasted. Sounds stupid, I know. But that was the moment I decided to give up, way back when.
Suddenly, you couldn’t be friends with guys anymore. If you liked them, you should “go out” with them. The preppies were no longer uppity class fools to laugh at – they were preparing for college. People found out they weren’t who they had been, and team after team segregated into tight, specific cliques. After my favorite boys put their hemp and flannels away for Champion and other ridiculous wear, my heart broke a little. At this time it was clear that Caleb’s bad rep was about to be made permanent if something didn’t change.
Me and the girls made our moms swipe their credit cards. Caleb’s mom had sued over her son’s death and it was the equivalent to 3 golden eagles at the casino slot machine. A new home, a new life. To make this story much shorter, we turned the tables with the help of cold –and I mean cold- cash and a thorough understanding of The Game. The races were on and we both wanted desperately to play. However, there were consequences to thinking this way…
Not one conversation was real, for me. I made strategic moves and tallied points in my head. Caleb would be used for his money and be perfectly okay with this. If the student body was going to run, they needed people to run them. And the absolute worst was how our power corrupted us…I took the confusion and sadness out on the pawns as Caleb could also now turn around and deal the same nasty comments and harassment he had once had to take. During this height of our education we were in music theory and choir together. Both advanced students, we reached as high as we could. We entertained with our vocal tests, solo performances. It was a fun time. I consciously thought that this was our only real connection, until one day, he turned to me in class.
“You and I are the same. Sometimes when I’m going past your house, I wonder if you’re in there, thinking about something. I know that you do that a lot. I can see who you really are when you’re singing…you’re so much different…”
As times got harder, so did I. Lashing out and chasing off the ones closest to me, I put one dress away after another. I didn’t go to every dance. Then I didn’t go to every game, slowly but steadily, I morphed back into something of what I used to be, only empty and at a loss. Had I been empty before? I can’t remember. Why would I have gone chasing after them, had I not been?
But Caleb never gave up on me. When I wanted to fade away, he still saw me. And he actually congratulated me on what I counted as minus points, with, “What I do is pretty good, but what you do can’t be topped. I harass them, I can hurt them physically, sexually. But you, Autumn. You’re the best. I’ve seen you draw them in and destroy their minds. I’ve watched you turn, and I’m blown away.”
Well thank you, Caleb. Thank you for pointing out to me that I am a horrible demon deserving of death. That’s when we started to write each other in music class… that’s when it really started to get good. Or bad.
We compared plays. We drew out elaborate sketches of our past accomplishments. We classified certain damages, we came up with scores. Caleb was by now either adored or despised. I had a lot of scorned pawns declaring that I was the devil.
“She made my boyfriend leave me, then she turned my friends against me, then I tried to kill myself…” yadda yadda yadda. That shit wasn’t easy. Hiring hoes to show their skin. Acting like I gave a shit. Bailing out without leaving proof that I was ever there…
When he revealed to me his current operation, I was impressed. He was prepared to destroy a pretty girl. Bimbo, but still a human being. He knew exactly how she needed to be kissed. He told me everything, slowly, excitedly. That was before the most dangerous creature in the world took action.
I exploited his ideas and ruined his chances.
The next day and forever on he would comment on the knife that had been plunged into his back. “It hurts a little today, like a light sting. I better make sure to face you this whole hour in case you’re thinking of coming up behind me to twist it…” He made it clear, how he wished I could be trusted, if only by him.
Near the end, Caleb was caught. He had hit some kid with his car. Twice. He had been dealing. He had sexual harassment charges. He told me, “I can’t believe it when I think about it. You’re the worst of all, and you can’t get caught. If anyone deserves to leave it’s you.”
He was just making a point.
Everyone forgot the little roly-poly Caleb who wore snoopy shirts with holes in them. He was officially a Big Shot. But he had to leave the last day of our 11th year together.
He said to me, before the summer, “I told myself I would let you know, our last day. I remember you… I can still see you at Elsa Meyer, with a red ponytail down to your ass, playing with bubble blow. I’ve always thought you were one of the most beautiful girls in the entire school. You don’t have to believe me, but I loved you. I always have. It’s been amazing.” The bell rang, and he disappeared.
My senior year went on without him, and without The Game. I channeled my energy into portrait work as part of my new challenges. I can recall feeling sad that he missed out on my big blue ribbon day. He missed a lot of solo performances. His photo was missing in my yearbook and from my senior shirt. 11 years and nothing.
I’ve always wanted to make something good of myself, and go show Caleb. I’ve always expected to have that chapter in my life where I go and prove to him that I beat the curse. We’d be able to talk about the things in between, what each of us saw in the gap.
He had since been fighting so hard, to make it. That free ride to Michigan U never made it and I heard rumors about jail time. So he was selling vacuums for a while, with his own office and district manager, all of that shit. I know how that game goes. You take a lot of losses with those machines. And I guess there were girls he saw. He had been thrown from his car one night, through the windshield to have the car land on top of him. His heart was bruised, his head crushed, but he made a full recovery.
He had lost 60 lbs, mainly from the cocaine. He was driving mad as hell and playing the game at a rapid speed I couldn’t fathom. I only heard aftermath because our paths never crossed and for the reason that is life, neither one of us ever made that effort. It was safe, there in my future plans.
This past Monday, Caleb was found motionless and blue in his bed from a drug overdose.
I sat in the waiting room with his mother for a long time. A day later, they let me in to see him.
1 year later…
Dan had stopped by and taken us to the gas station so he could speak with a friend working there. As I was standing in line sipping my 10-shot slushee and gripping some kind of candy, I heard…that voice.
Behind me. Scared me to death.
“Hanging out with a fag, I see.”
I didn’t turn around. I took another sip.
Laughter. “You heard that, huh.”
“I heard it,” I said, looking ahead and speaking with a mouth full of slush.
More laughter. He walked up beside me and asked how I was.
“Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.” He watched me pay for my candy.
“Carrying a wallet in your pocket. Where’s your purse?”
What am I supposed to say?
“I don’t…carry a purse.” Eyes on the counter.
“You out of the closet, too?” he asked. Finally looking at him, I saw the scar on his face. I remembered seeing him half dead on his hospital bed last year. I caught him smile and wink to his mean joke before I had to look away.
My dad gave me my wallet. I don’t have a purse because I don’t carry things around with me. I don’t have a foundation compact or lipstick that I reapply throughout the day. I don’t have a lot of papers, condoms, spare tires or whatever else women carry around in their purses. I think I look stupid in pants, a tee-shirt, tennies and a purse.
Dan had heard the insult as a few things were crossing my mind. Caleb continued to shout nasty things at him and his friend. I was paralyzed. Unable to do…anything. How do you explain to the friend a few feet away that someone who shares a dark past with you has just brought back everything with their voice?
“You know him?” I asked, hoping to save time. Dan shook his head.
“You don’t wanna.” Caleb said. “I’m not a good guy.”
“Dan, this is Caleb. Remember that time you were walking down the dark hall and someone slammed you in the back? Your books went flying, he threw them farther and you thought he was going to kill you? This is your killer.”
Seeing him again was like being confronted by an enemy you thought you’d overcome and left for dead, only to find that he’s back.
I stopped talking. Dan hesitated to start the car.
“Are you okay?” He took me home.
“Don’t you want your candy?”
I threw my drink in the trash.
For a second, I wanted to pull you aside and be sworn back into our conquest. You caught me with no souls collected; your points oozed over the top.
But you haven’t won yet, Caleb.