Late 2’s; early 3’s. By the time it’s all over it’s close to 3:30 A.M. I know this because my phone records the time I call the police. Sam, a close friend, is sleeping over. We’re sophomores: both 14, both with late birthdays. We meet in Mrs. R’s health class and are required to do a group project together, so he comes over. Even at 14, Sam is a tall person in a short person’s body: he has a stocky, pudgy build, though he is the same height as I am. The first time he comes over, we both hover over my computer on Myspace, taking turns checking our messages and picture comments and messaging girls from other schools, strategizing and conferring and rephrasing. When it’s my turn and I have the primary seat, he licks my elbow and then denies doing it. A weird sense of humor, a risky one, but it works. Appropriately sophomoric. I learn that he, too, skateboards, and a friendship blooms. After a year or two, it’s clear to both of us that Sam and my neighborhood group of friends mesh better than he and I do—he comes to our block not to hang with me, but with them. Nevertheless, we remain friends. It’s an amicable distancing, an honorable discharge.
* * *
I remember that it is raining that Friday evening, and so logically it must be January or February, or even early March. I don’t remember if we plan it ahead of time, or if he can’t crash over at Carlos’s place, so he stays at mine. I stay out with him on the reclining couch; he takes the larger, conventional couch closer to the window and the computer. What is the point of a sleepover, if not proximity? Why sleep in two different rooms?
I awake to a sound at the front door. Knocking, someone is knocking. Five or six scenarios run through my head in a half-second or so. I stop 10 feet from the door and squint to make sure it is locked and dead-bolted. Approach cautiously. Hello?
A female’s voice: Hi, is this Chad’s house? (Is Chad really still a name? Wasn’t some law passed in 1999, no more Chads? Name change required? When I was five, a Korean family arrived next door from Los Angeles proper—they hadn’t been in the States longer than a year or so. John and Jonathan were the children’s American names, four and six years of age, respectively. Our school district demanded John change his name because John and Jonathan, apparently, were too similar. From that point on, he went by Lawrence.)
I can see her through the peephole, which, from the outside, is barely noticeable. She probably doesn’t know I can see her. There’s no Chad here, you have the wrong house, I tell her. The porch light is off and it’s raining, but even in the dark I can see her. Red hair, 20s, easily recognizable caved-in face of a tweaker. I’m looking at her, trying to see all I can see. I look over at Sam, confused. He has woken up and looks at me silently, also confused. Maybe we’re trying to communicate something to each other through our looks, but what is there to say, really, besides don’t open the fucking door? I stand by the peephole for a second. More knocking. A different name, this time. Male, still.
Is Matt there?
You have the wrong house.
More forceful this time, no longer a question. I can hear myself trying to swallow my own fear, trying to sound self-assured. My legs are beginning to shake; the adrenaline making its way through me and I feel the palpable dead-night cold of non-insulated housing being overpowered by my sweat. I can hear stirring from my mom’s room. She must be awake now.
This red-haired woman definitely doesn’t know I can see her. I watch her look back towards the leftmost of three arches in front of our apartment that, when we first moved in, held large, unkempt boxwood hedge that concealed the living room’s view of the street. The arch she’s looking towards is easily wide enough to conceal another person, maybe two, if the second is crouched and partly concealed by the planter as well. The corresponding right-most arch is also large enough to hide another person.
He’s not opening the door, she says, looking back.
Does she think I can’t hear her?
I back away from the door and grab my phone on the bookcase closest to my couch. I have a T-Mobile Sidekick—already outmoded at the time; I still remember the absurdity of the sword-clinking sound it made when I took it off rest mode to call the police. My mom is unmistakably awake now, telling me not to answer the door. Another knocking. A banging, this time, because surely this will compel me to open the door. A relief—I am idiotic in a way that only teenage boys are capable of, but not that idiotic. I imagine this is one of the men hiding behind the arch, instructing the red-haired lady.
I’m too scared to go near the door again, though I should have continued to look through the peephole. I hear the gate on the side of our apartment complex open and close; I imagine they’ve parked in the alley to more easily distance themselves from our apartment in a short amount of time.
The police arrive in roughly two and a half minutes—credit where credit is due. Mom is up now; she has grabbed her walker and made her way into the living room. The policeman phones in somewhere, mutters something about being on the lookout, about doing a patrol. A small report is taken. Five minutes, all together, and he’s out. After the cop leaves, I start telling Sam what I saw. I neglect to mention, for whatever reason, her physical description. He interrupts me: Did she have red hair?
I overheard this biker at the skatepark, one of the older ruggeds, bragging about how he uses his girlfriend to break into people’s houses, he tells me.
The ruggeds are a group, mostly consisting of children below the age of 13, generally on bicycles or the occasional scooter. If they are enrolled in a public school, they rarely attend. They are known to be erratic and prone to quick, violent explosions. Every once in a while, an older rugged will appear, some family member of theirs with faded tattoos, Keystone Light, and a wifebeater.
What the fuck. Really?
Yeah, he’s always there. If you haven’t seen him, you know his type.
* * *
All these years later, I can’t remember, for the life of me, if Sam gave me a name. I can only imagine he didn’t because even at 14, I’d have called the cops back and told them what I’d learned, or short of that, I would have told my mom and she would have done the same.
We’re from Long Beach, Sam and I. So are both of our parents. Snoop Dogg’s town—a useful cultural reference I am grateful for. It is the 39 th largest city in the US, larger than many European capitals, comparable in size to the municipal areas of some of the more well-known ones. Larger than Miami, Cleveland, and New Orleans. 10 years, if not 11, have passed since that night with Sam. I’ve lived in four countries on three continents since then. In between those stints, I’ve come home. Not often, not for a long time, but during purgatory, I always return home, the prodigal son eternally returning. Brian Blanchfield writes in his essay collection Proxies, “It may be that prodigal return is my worst fear. I quite understand choosing death instead.” I am inclined to disagree. Returning implies having gone somewhere—not inconsequential, not for someone with two cerebral palsied parents. So often I saw them literally and metaphorically stuck in the mud; so little did they stray further than 50 miles from where they were born. Time home is, besides, codified at this point. An otherwise banal trip with childhood friends to our favorite restaurant forms a sort of mythos. Has some value other than itself, some external referent.
* * *
I’m back from living in Brazil now, paying penance for my time abroad with another period at home. During this purgatory, that night with Sam wanders back somewhere into the periphery of the sort of idle, daily memories that plead for attention when met with a lack of other stimuli. I cannot say why I keep returning to it, other than the insufficient and noncommittalsomething doesn’t add up. I can say that something remains unresolved, which implies some vaguely Freudian emotional depth I’m not particularly interested in interrogating, but to the extent that a resolution is a final, clarifying moment, there is no resolution. Perhaps I should resort to the same mathematical language that made my high school years such a struggle: I lack some essential variable.
Sam is telling the truth—he overheard a dude at our local skatepark bragging about his crimes. Not uncommon, not out of the ordinary. I knew a dude at the other skatepark, my preferred one, who, at 16, bought a brand-new Dodge Charger with his own drug money. Who moved weight from Arizona to California and back across state lines; who was looking to make as much money as possible before he turned 18, before the stakes got higher. Not at all uncommon. Most had a role. I rarely ran into trouble, but it did happen. I’d once been robbed at knife point on the way to the skatepark, forced to part ways with my $80 Microsoft Zune.
Roughly a year later, my friend Carlos will be robbed in much more dramatic fashion. After wading into the morally dark-grey waters of pushing serious weight, he will be held up at gunpoint and lose thousands of dollars worth of weed—not a small amount of money for a teenager. So will Big J—robbed at gunpoint in Garden Grove, his life savings in weed. I still owe him for the obnoxiously puffy ‘90s Orlando Magic jacket he gave me. Weather permitting, I still wear it to this day. Large on me, small on him. Perhaps not so small on him anymore. I hear, from another friend, that he has lost a bunch of weight, that calling him Big J is now a misnomer. It was the drugs.
This is not a dangerous place—this is not Wilmington, not pushing Northside. This is by no means the Long Beach that Vince Staples or Nate Dogg raps about. This is modest single-parent apartment suburbia. Still, trouble finds those who look for it.
For the most part, I did a good job avoiding it by separating acquaintances into categories. There were the benign drug dealers, close to Ricky Bobby’s “friendly crack dealer” scheme in Talladega Nights. Though he occasionally sold drugs other than weed, Carlos undoubtedly fell into this category. There were dangerous ones, like the Arizona guy, who I was careful to maintain the aforementioned what’s-good-skatepark-knucklebump with. I had friends who were good friends and generally good people but prone to doing stupid shit, and other friends who were good friends but bad people. I think of Kendrick Lamar’s line “never was a stranger to the funk neither” in The Art of Peer Pressure—growing up around the funk felt like a constant dance of approximation, like one of those late ‘90s action movies where the protagonist had a bomb strapped to him and was forced to maintain a certain amount of manic activity lest the bomb go off. You always wanted to make sure you were within range; far enough from ground zero to avoid direct damage, but close enough so that the embers carried by the wind might pass over you before settling.
EXTRAPOLATIONS OF SCENARIO 1:
And so perhaps Sam’s story was linear—perhaps he heard Local Skatepark Man talking about breaking into people’s homes, Sam stores it in the back of his head, and that’s that. If so—how do they find my house? Chance? I don’t live close to the skatepark—not that close, anyway. Chances are astronomically low that he, with his girlfriend and a friend, stumble upon my mom’s apartment at 3:00 a.m. and decide it’ll do, and Sam, a skatepark-fistbump-acquaintance of his, happens to be there on the same night. There’s probably an equation I could do, but what’s the point? Low, astronomically low chances.
Sam was telling me the truth; but somewhere else along the thread of this story, another person betrayed me. It could have been a number of people: Adir, Cyrus, David, Josh G., Karl, at the very least, knew where I lived and frequented the skatepark. In the event that Scenario 2 is closest to the truth, it is also possible that multiple steps were involved—that unknown-variable-person X knew my house would be a viable target, and one of the aforementioned candidates above, unwittingly or otherwise, told X where I lived.
Who knew that, at the time, the apartment was occupied only by my cerebral-palsied mom and I? Who knew of the extent of her selflessness, so boundless that it often overflows into naivety? The number of people I skateboarded with and who knew where I lived was countable; probably somewhere upwards of 20 or 30. The number of people who had access to this information is much higher. The process is not hard to follow—during senior year, a girl, a stalker, will find out where I live. She asks someone from the same neighborhood where I live, and not thinking anything of it, he tells her. In the most benign case, this is how these things happen. I have no idea what she did with the information—if she acted upon it, I was none the wiser.
Scenario two, really, should be divided into multiple scenarios, then. Sam truth, friend betray, OR: Sam truth, friend-of-friend betray.
EXTRAPOLATIONS OF SCENARIO 2: SCENARIO 2A
Sam set me up. Sam arranged this with Local Skatepark Man and agreed to be at the house so the operation went as smoothly as possible, so, in the event that I tried to get violent or covertly call the police, Sam was there to be the Voice of Reason. If this is the case, why did he mention his connection to the man? Teenage folly? Why unnecessarily implicate himself in the issue? Why give me reason to suspect, after considerable reflection, that he may have been involved?
EXTRAPOLATION OF SCENARIO 2A:
Sam involved himself, but through sheer bad luck on his part, decided to sleep over the same night that Local Skatepark Man decided to attempt the break-in. The chances of this, too, are astronomically low, but not as low as Sam simply overhearing the conversation and happening to sleep over at my house.
My head tells me that it is likely Sam was involved in some way; my heart tells me otherwise. Sam was not always the best friend. When he was the only one on the block with a car, he would charge me petty amounts of gas money to drive just a mile or two away, but I never figured him capable of something like this. Capable of cheating on future girlfriends, yes, capable of a sort of fatalistic male bullishness, but not of being an accessory to an attempted robbery. Perhaps it was someone else, then. Someone who came over once to play video games, a friend of a friend, and saw an opportunity. Perhaps it was someone whose name I don’t even remember.
Somewhere around that time, around 15, I learned the word omniscience in one book or another. I pronounced it wrong, probably—just like all of the other words I learned from books as a teenager. Omni-science. What does one do with omniscience? Big secrets, universe questions, things like that? I would aim for far less—no metas, no omnis. Specific questions about specific moments.
For better of worse, betrayal does lend itself easily to metanarrative. In Coetzee’s Disgrace, it is Petrus’s complicity that leads to Lucy’s house being sacked. Perhaps Sam isn’t my Brutus; perhaps he is my Petrus instead. Isn’t complicity its own type of diluted malevolence? I want the concrete. I ask not with a mania to discover, but to know. To make the nonsensical its inverse.
There are a number of other scenarios that make little sense and, for this reason exactly, are plausible. Perhaps Sam sets it up and then feels bad, and so sleeps over in an attempt to mitigate any potential damage caused. Perhaps this. Perhaps Sam has wronged this man at the skatepark, and someone has mistakenly told him that Sam’s house is mine. Perhaps X. Perhaps Y.
If someone did set me up, did they know that my mother was disabled? Furthermore, has this factored into their moral equation, or in the pragmatic equation of the perpetrators in question? In both calculations, particularly the former: Does my mom being disabled make it a more or less grievous moral transgression? This is what sends my mom into the same acute Nervousness that Mary Karr describes when writing about her mom in The Liars’ Club. Feeling like she has been taken advantage of because of her disability pushes her down a mental ravine, and to climb up that ravine, she must withdraw from a bank account whose resources are finite and cannot be replenished.
EVIDENCE IN SUPPORT OF MORE GRIEVOUS TRANSGRESSION:
She can’t walk, you fuck.
EVIDENCE IN SUPPORT OF LESS GRIEVOUS TRANSGRESSION:
Far less chance something goes wrong, far less chance physical violence occurs. Mom not going to try anything, would-be thieves more relaxed, everybody more relaxed. Operation more likely to go smoothly for all parties. A Hedonist’s reasoning— absence of physical pain therefore highest net pleasure therefore more agreeable arrangement.
When we were young, we played the same kind of pranks on each other that Karr describes in her book. Vindictive, crude, cruel. All is forgotten and forgiven, except pranks that were successful only because the neighborhood children knew my mom could not catch them. This was the only time where I felt a line had been crossed. This is not to say my hands are clean: I remember ding-dong-ditching a friend Jae-Sun’s apartment one morning and returning to do so later that day, even after he asked us to stop because it scared his non-English-speaking grandmother who had raised him alone. Of all my childhood transgressions, this is the one I remember the most. After my friends upset my mom, they weren’t my friends anymore, not really, though we spent years more in forced proximity to each other. I would see Jae-Sun here and there years later, and though he was kind, I could tell our bond was irrevocably broken. I don’t blame him in the slightest. How can he forget if I have not forgotten?
* * *
We still talk, Sam and I do, every once in a while. I see him, along with other childhood friends, during a month that I’m back in California, between Edinburgh and Lisbon. Where does guilt situate itself? Somewhere between the nose and the lips, or higher up, near the brow? I see it nowhere on his face.
I see it in others. Not long ago, I ran into Jonathan at the gym, the older Korean friend who, a few years back during one of my periods home, hit me up for $50 so he could buy methamphetamines—he told me he needed it for an emergency dental appointment. We talked occasionally, but hadn’t seen each other in years. Even after he paid me back, even after he had gone out of his way to pay me back at his own insistence, even after getting sober and apologizing profusely, I could see the shame etched in his face. He was not happy to see me at the gym because I reminded him of a former self, and I realized my mistake as soon as we locked eyes and I started to approach him, but it was too late to backpedal. Everyone I know who has gotten sober through the 12-step plan has paid a price for it, either in religious fervor or resigned self-loathing. Still, a fair price to pay.
Maybe Jonathan has the right idea; maybe backpedaling is the original sin. Not omni-science, then. Not everything, just some things. A science of the particular. It’s not about betrayal, not even about assessing a friendship in retrospective. Trips home become ritualized, and otherwise mundane activities come to mean more than themselves. Knowing, too, comes to mean more than itself.