Author’s note: these memories are extremely old. I’ve done my best to convey the emotional truth of this story, but I’m sure some of these details are not perfectly accurate. Names and other details have been changed.
In the summer of 1981, my friend Jenny, who lived next door, had a friend from Northern California visit for a couple of weeks.
Her name was Candice, and she went by Candi. She was my first — and biggest — childhood crush. That summer, the Stars On 45 medley was blowing up, and whenever it came on my transistor radio, I’d sing “sugar, ah, honey honey, you are my candy girl” from the deepest well of my little first crush having heart. Listen, do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell? Maybe she would be my candy girl, whatever that meant (holding hands, I was pretty sure). I could sing it right in front of her and she didn’t even know! Delightfully devilish, young Wil.
We were playing in the sprinklers in Jenny’s front yard, when her mom called them in for lunch before they went to the zoo. (The kids next door got to eat all the stuff I wanted: Frosted Flakes, Kool-Aid, Ding Dongs, Otter Pops, everything that was marketed to kids that I wasn’t allowed to have because something something sugar. Here’s some carob. It’s exactly like chocolate, except it’s waxy and flavorless and all kids hate it. Enjoy!) I went home to get something for myself and figure out the rest of my afternoon, until they got back.
So with blades of grass stuck to my feet and legs, my hair smashed down by sweat and water, and this fluttering in my stomach that was new to me, I ran out of the summer heat and into my house. The swamp cooler was doing its best to cool the house down, which left a lot to be desired, if I’m being honest. The kitchen was to my right. The living room was in front of me, and the hallway to our bedrooms and the bathroom was on my left. My dad was in the kitchen sitting at the table with his back to me. He was on the phone with the long cord, and didn’t notice me come in.
It only took a few seconds for me to figure out that he was talking to my uncle, who I thought was the coolest dude on the planet. I inhaled, preparing to ask my dad if I could say hi to him, when I heard that Dad was talking about me.
He was telling my uncle that I had my first crush. And he was making fun of me about it. Behind my back. He was laughing about how I didn’t think anyone knew. He said something about how I was picking my clothes out for the first time, choosing them carefully, brushing my hair, and singing this song over and over. To a normal parent, it would probably be adorable and sweet, but to my dad was a point of shameful weakness to be mocked. He was having a big laugh at my expense, and he was laughing with my favorite uncle.
I was humiliated, embarrassed, and deeply hurt. I felt betrayed. I was instantly aware of my bare chest, wet swimming trunks, skinny legs and arms. I was overwhelmed by shame. I was stupid. I’d been embarrassing myself all summer long in front of everyone, and like the idiot my dad knew I was, I didn’t think anyone knew.
I cried out, “It’s not true! That’s not true! I don’t! I don’t!”
My dad jerked his head around and looked across the kitchen at me. It’s been 43 years, but I can still see his face in my memory. He went from surprised, to annoyed, to laughing even harder.
“Okay, cut!” He said, like I was doing a scene, not expressing genuine feelings. This was one of his favorite ways to mock and belittle me when I was upset, and it had the desired effect every time.
I burst into tears.
“Cut! Cut! Print!” He put the phone between his shoulder and his ear and clapped his hands.
I cried harder. “Stop it! Don’t do that!”
“Oh, you are so sensitive! Don’t be so dramatic,” he said, sarcastically. Then, into the phone, “…nothing. It’s nothing.” He walked out of the kitchen and into the dining room, the long cord slowly stretching out behind him, a single knot tightening where it sagged.
After a moment, I ran to my bedroom, threw myself into my Star Wars bedspread, and cried like I’d been beaten up by a schoolyard bully. Which … well.
My dad never came in to talk to me, to check on me, to … you know, be a dad who loved his son. (I brought this up when I was in my twenties, hoping for some resolution to a deeply painful moment in my life. He said he didn’t remember. Then he said it didn’t happen. Then he dismissed me then as being too dramatic, so … at least he’s consistent?) So I stayed in my room with my door closed, and cried until I fell asleep.
Eventually, my mom came home with my infant sister. I had the puffy eyes, heavy chest, and weird mouth feeling of sleeping too hard in the middle of the day. But woke up when I heard the car pull into the driveway, and the screen open and close. I heard the keys drop into the bowl, followed almost immediately by the familiar, inscrutable thrumming of voices through the walls as my parents argued, just seconds after mom came into the house. They did this almost every day, and I hated it. It was upsetting. It felt unsafe. It felt chaotic. I never had friends over, because I didn’t want them to see my parents the way I did. The anger between them filled the air in our house with this faint, ever-present haze of resentment and power struggle. It was emotional smog. Some days, it was so thick I couldn’t breathe, other days it was barely visible. But it was always there, poisoning everything.
Lots of my friends had divorced parents, and when I saw parents on television behave like mine did, they usually got a divorce. Even though I secretly wished my parents would get divorced, that was scary, too.
Their voices got louder and more intense. One of them slammed a cabinet and my sister began to cry. I heard my dad’s familiar, mocking laugh and knew that my mom had slammed the door. I heard heavy footsteps and my sister’s crying get louder and closer as my mom carried her past my door and into my parent’s bedroom at the end of the hall. She slammed that door so hard it shook the bookcase in my room. It was really scary. Lots of my friends had divorced parents, and when I saw parents on television behave like mine did, they usually got a divorce. Even though I secretly wished my parents would get divorced, that was scary, too. I thought about picking a parent to live with, like my friends did. Most of them lived with their moms, which is what I would have done. She forced me to work and wouldn’t let me be a kid, but at least she wasn’t a bully to me like dad was. She was … I don’t know. She was a lot, but she wasn’t mean.
It’s totally normal for a 9 year-old kid to hope his parents will get divorced, so he doesn’t have to live in their angry chaos. It’s equally normal for parents to think that their screaming, door slamming, wall kicking, and tantrum-throwing is super okay and won’t have a negative effect on their children.
I pulled the covers around my head as tightly as I could, to muffle the sounds of crying that I wasn’t entirely sure was coming from my baby sister. Totally normal, not traumatic at all.
I didn’t come out of my bedroom until it was time for dinner around 5. We all sat at the kitchen table, my sister in her high chair, my brother across the table from me, my parents on either side of me. We had goulash, which was basically canned corn, ground beef, I think some noodles, and a whole lot of tomato-based sauce. I usually liked it, it was kind of like a sloppy Joe, but the last thing I wanted to do was eat. So I sat there and pushed it around with my fork while my parents silently seethed at each other. My brother and sister obliviously devoured their respective dinners.
My brother finished his dinner, put his dish in the sink, and went to watch TV. Dad finished, left his plate on the table, and joined my brother. Mom began to clear his dish and looked at me. “What’s wrong with your goulash?”
I sensed an impending interrogation and did my best to avoid it. “Nothing. I’m … just not very hungry.”
We looked at each other, both of us having been run over by the miserable fucking bulldozer that was my father. Please don’t make me talk about it, I thought.
“Okay, well, put it in the refrigerator and we’ll warm it up for you later.”
I exhaled a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
“Okay. Can I go outside?”
“Just come in when the streetlights come on.”
I got on my bike and rode it up the street. I felt angry. I felt hurt. I felt confused. I felt scared. But at least I wasn’t inside with them. With him.
I stood up and pushed the pedals as fast and as hard as I could. I wondered what it would be like if I just kept going and didn’t come back. I wondered about that a lot, when I was a kid. I got to the top of the street, jumped up the curb, rode down the sidewalk for a couple houses, jumped off the curb, and raced back down the street as fast as I could. Over and over, as hard as I could go, skidding to a stop as close to the end of the sidewalk as I could, leaving as much rubber behind as possible. Up the street, around the cul-de-sac, power skid, then back down the street, another power skid. I was good at riding my bike. Maybe if I got good enough at riding my bike, my dad would notice.
Jenny’s mom pulled her Ford Pinto Wagon into their driveway as I sped past them on my way down the street. My heart skipped a beat and I gripped the handlebars as professionally as I could, stood up as tall as possible, and pushed even harder on the pedals. I tensed my entire body until my bike and I were one, joined at a spiritual level to become a marble stallion that commanded the attention of all who were blessed by its presence.
I aimed toward the edge of the nearest driveway, so I could take a little jump off the curb. A small flourish to let the audience know I appreciated them. Push, push, push. Pump those legs, Wil. Maximum speed! Get ready to lift those handlebars and soar.
Now, a lot of you expect me to wipe out here. I get that. It’s a perfect time for a sad trombone.
But I didn’t. I nailed it. I pulled off the sweetest jump, got to the end of the street, triumphantly slammed on my back and font brakes, a laid down an epic skid that I’m pretty sure is still there to this day. The kids who live there now whisper stories about it, so I’ll print the legend.
I turned my bike around as slowly and cinematically as I could, ready to receive my audience.
Only they were still in the car, the doors just beginning to open. They’d missed it all. There’s your sad trombone.
Just like that, all my energy was gone. My arms and legs felt heavy and slow. I sat back onto my bike and pedaled toward my house.
Jenny and Candi were waiting for me at the end of her driveway. They were both smiling and blushing. Whoa! Maybe they did see me!
My brakes made an embarrassing squeak when I stopped next to them. I tried to lean my bike to one side, very carefully leaving one foot casually resting on one pedal, like I’d seen on TV. What I managed to do was slide off the seat, spin the pedals around in a backwards loop, smash myself in the shin with one of them, and drop my bike underneath me.
“Are you okay?” Jenny asked.
“Yeah. I’m just riding my bike,” I said, awkwardly, trying not to wince.
“I’m getting pretty good at doing skids,” I offered.
Jenny suppressed a smile and Candi licked her lips.
“Uh … how was the zoo?” I asked.
“Good,” Jenny said, holding back most of a giggle. Was she making fun of me? Why was she laughing?
She elbowed Candi, who I noticed had her hands behind her back.
“We saw the elephant exhibit,” Candi said. They shared a conspiratorial glance.
“Go!” Jenny whispered, urgently.
“Okay!” Candi whispered back.
She took her hands from behind her back and shoved a gray plastic elephant into my hands.
“They have this machine that lets you make models, so I got you an elephant one.”
It came out like, “TheyhavethismachinethatletsyoumakemodelssoIgotyouanelephantone.”
It was damp and warm in my hands as I looked at it. I turned it over and glanced up at her. She was looking back at me, expectantly.
I didn’t know what to do. I felt a little out of breath all of a sudden.
“…. do you like it?” she asked, cautiously.
That’s what she said. But what I heard was, “do you like me?”
“YES!” I practically hollered.
They both jumped a little bit, then giggled. I felt my face get hot.
“I mean, yes. Thank you. It’s great.”
Jenny’s mom called out from the porch, “girls, come in and wash your hands to get the zoo off of them. Then you can go back out and play.”
They hesitated. Candi and I looked at each other for, like, way too long. I just saw these huge brown eyes and I really wanted to hug her. I didn’t want to kiss her. That was gross. But a hug would be pretty great. The Archies started to hum a chorus in my head.
But what if my dad saw? What if Jenny’s mom saw and laughed at me? What if Jenny’s mom told my parents? What if Candi didn’t like me that way? What if what if what if (welcome to the rest of your life, Wil).
“Let’s go, girls,” her mom said. “They’ll be right back, Wil.”
“We gotta go,” Jenny said, like we were standing on a train platform in 1943. “But we’ll be right back.”
I dropped my bike on the ground and ran across my lawn. When I got to the edge of the garage, I hid the elephant under my shirt and looked around the corner. I could see my mom in the kitchen window. It looked like she was washing dishes. I waited for her to turn away, and ran quickly and quietly up the driveway, avoiding her attention as I slipped into the house and sneaked down the hallway to my bedroom.
The laugh. That cruel, contemptuous laugh that I can still hear today, though I haven’t seen him or heard his voice in nearly eight years, and hope I never do for the rest of my life.
I closed the door behind me and looked for the perfect place to put Candi’s Elephant. Next to my bed was the most obvious place, but it felt weird (too intimate, is how I’d have described it, if I’d known what that meant).
My bookcase was pretty full, and all the space on top of my dresser was taken up with the rebel base on Hoth. That left my desk, a recent addition to my bedroom set that was handed down from one of my cousins. I had real homework, now, in 4th grade.
So I sat at my desk, and put it right on the edge, under my springy lamp. I clicked it on to create a spotlight. I smiled. Candi got this for me when she was at the zoo. She spent her own money on it.
I heard heavy footsteps coming down the hall toward the bathroom.
“Cut! Cut! Print!”
“Oh, you are so sensitive! Don’t be so dramatic.”
“…nothing. It’s nothing.”
The laugh. That cruel, contemptuous laugh that I can still hear today, though I haven’t seen him or heard his voice in nearly eight years, and hope I never do for the rest of my life.
I grabbed Candi’s elephant and shoved it into the top drawer. I buried it under some papers, to be sure nobody else would find it.
I listened for him to walk back to the other side of the house, then crept down the hallway until I could see my mom in the kitchen. I made sure she couldn’t see me and sneaked back out of the house, and around the corner of the garage. I ran across the lawn (I wanted to skip so much, but even I knew that wasn’t cool) and met them on Jenny’s porch. We played Pay Day until the street lights came on.
I never hugged Candi, or held her hand, or even told her that I liked her. She was only visiting for another week, and whenever I felt the impulse to express my innocent affection for her, the specter of my dad got up in my face and ensured I kept it all to myself.
I think she knew. How could she not? And I think she liked me, too. I have the elephant to prove it.
About Seven Years Later.
I was almost sixteen, right before I had my driver’s license. We’d moved from Sunland to La Crescenta, and I was working on Star Trek. My mom and I were in my bedroom, going through my clothes. I had to do a photo shoot for Tiger Beat or Teen Face or Nonthreatening Boys Magazine or whatever, and she insisted on choosing all of my clothes for me. “So your fans can see your best self,” she said, reaffirming for me that my best self was not good enough until she signed off on it.
I wanted to wear an Oingo Boingo T-shirt, and in her manipulative way, she pulled every button-down shirt I owned to try on “just to be sure”. She exhausted me, and I wore whatever she wanted me to wear. I did get to wear that Boingo shirt a few years later, though; a small, pyrrhic victory.
On her way out of my bedroom, she looked at my desk. Next to my Macintosh II with 13 inch 256 color monitor and massive 35MB SCSI hard drive, was Candi’s elephant.
My mom zeroed in on it like the Terminator. “What’s that? I’ve never seen that before.”
Why was she so suspicious of everything about me? Why did I constantly have to explain myself to her? Why was she so fucking needy all the time? She was just exhausting.
“It’s an elephant.”
“I can see that. Where did it come from?”
“You haven’t been to the Zoo in years.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“So how did you get it?”
This little spark of defiance that was always kind of floating around in the air currents of my mind suddenly hit some dry brush and blazed into an inferno. This was mine. Candi gave it to me. I’d kept this secret for over half my life, just for myself, because I knew they’d fuck it up if they found out. After Stand By Me, I’d felt more and more like a thing in my home. I was Debbie’s Thing, and everyone else in the house was part of her family. My sister still let me be her big brother. But to the rest of my family, I was a thing. I was a thing my dad hated, my brother resented, that my mother jealously guarded like a rare and valuable porcelain doll. And that still wasn’t enough for her. All of my successes and accomplishments in the entertainment industry, all that stuff that I worked so hard for, she reliably found a way to insert herself into it and claim it as her own. Well, this plastic elephant was mine. And it was going to stay mine.
“I traded it for sex and drugs, mom. It’s full of drugs. Call the National Enquirer. I’ll be on the cover.” I picked up Candi’s elephant and struck a big, cheesy, Barker’s Beauties pose with it. “Quick, get the camera before I change my mind.”
“Well you don’t have to be such a pill about it,” she snapped. “I’m just asking. Is it so terrible for a mother to be interested in her son?”
No, mom. It would actually be wonderful if you were interested in your son. Maybe you could talk to dad about that, try something new together.
From across the house, the phone rang. Holy shit. I was literally saved by the bell.
“Debbie!” My dad hollered, “The phone!”
“Nothing is more important than family,” she admonished me on her way out of my bedroom.
I sat down at my desk and gently held Candi’s elephant in my hands. I remembered what it was like before I was a thing.