I wasn’t always a bad kid. Sure, I was a little anti-social and my penchant for wild bursts of Disco dancing made me a very lonely 3rd grader. But I wasn’t decapitating squirrels or bashing boys’ heads in on the jungle gym. I also wasn’t getting my head bashed in on the jungle gym because I knew how to elude bullying and name-calling. I’d learned a very important lesson as the slightly eccentric only child of a single parent growing up in San Antonio, Texas: stay out of the way. Being a wallflower was the way to go. If no one notices you, then no one can demean your sense of fashion, question your ball-throwing expertise or bash your head in on the jungle gym. There was a price to pay for being seen. It made you vulnerable to insult, to injury, and most importantly, to abandonment. Daring to venture into new, uncharted social waters would leave you beat-up or cash-broke or divorced. But regardless of the cost, you would end up alone.
My mother was a tiny, red-haired woman from Newfoundland, Canada named Geri. Her bizarre accent, Dolly Parton-figure and firecracker-orange hair made her stick out in San Antonio, Texas. Compared to the other local moms with their frosted perms and Southern drawls, my mom was like a busy, busty little leprechaun. Geri was youthful, good-natured and the life of most parties. She loved three things above all else: me, her girlfriends, and dancing. My mom would blast the stereo unbelievably loud in her little Chevette on the way to school. She’d twitch and squirm in her seat, jamming so hard to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” that I was worried she’d bite through her funky, Caucasian lower lip.
As much as I didn’t feel like other boys growing up in the heart of Texas, my mom didn’t seem like other moms. And we loved each other’s differences. While other 10 year-old boys were joining the Scouts, building forts and going deer hunting with their dads, I was collecting shiny pebbles and begging for a subscription to Architectural Digest for my birthday.
My mother encouraged any and every creative instinct I ever had. If I wanted to draw something, she’d buy me an art kit. If I wanted to be a musician, she’d buy me a saxophone. If I wanted an outfit exactly like one wore by Ricky Schroeder on an episode of “Silver Spoons,” she would find it and put it on lay-away. After months of coveting the highlighted bangs of the boys who skated in the ditch behind our apartment, my mom let me get a huge platinum streak in my hair. When I came out of the salon, she placed her hands over her mouth in excitement.
“David! You look so handsome. Just like a movie star.”
And she made me feel like one.
As fun as my mother was, she had to work very hard to support us. My parents had gotten divorced when I was 2 and my mother found herself suddenly single at 30 with a toddler and a Canadian high school education. We had financial help from my always present and mindful father, who made good money working on the road as a fiber optic technician. But my mother didn’t have the kind of education to gain a high-paying job. So she headed to the place that would soon become my second home, the mall. Some people say it takes a village to raise a child. I think all it takes is a Chick-Fil-A and a decent movie theater.
Saturday morning I would get up early and put on my carefully ironed slacks and mousse my perfectly parted hair. We’d arrive at the mall around 8:30 and go inside. We’d wave hi to all the store employees as they set up shop. An elderly black shoe-shiner would grin and yell, “Well, look at you, David. You look sharp, little man!”
Everyone knew us at the mall and it made me feel like royalty. My mother and I would ride up the three-story escalator and then walk around the Cowboy Company Boot Outlet, across the bridge over the penny-filled wishing pool, past the Orange Julius, and behind the roaring blue fountain in front of the Arby’s. We’d stop at the arcade and my mom would pop her key in the wall lock. The giant, mechanical gate would roll up loudly as my empire was unveiled. Before the mall opened, she would give me as many credits on as many machines as I wanted. Although I loved playing video games, my favorite machine was the music video jukebox. It controlled the music played throughout the arcade all day long. I would pull out a crumpled list of songs I’d heard on the radio and load up over four hours of tunes.
Then the mallrats would pour in. The mallrats were mostly heavy metal kids and punk weirdo’s with dirty hair and filthy denim vests. Although I knew I wasn’t one of them, I could appreciate that they were “the other” too. You wouldn’t ever find me in a bandana banging my twelve-year-old head to Pantera, but you also wouldn’t ever find them line dancing to Garth Brooks. At least we had that in common.
As these mall-rats came in with their mullets and Dokken shirts to play Centipede and Donkey Kong, I could sense their slow-building rage at my music selections on the video jukebox- Taylor Dayne, Rick Astley, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam... This was my music, a brand of song completely free of guitar, piano or any live percussion. In fact there was no organic instrumentation in this music whatsoever. These were the kinds of songs prominent in mid-80’s movie montages, the kind of music that played while a ragtag group of inner-city youths in fingerless gloves and off-the-shoulder tank tops completely renovated a roller-skating rink in under 3 minutes.
These kids were going to save the public school dance program! And they were going to do it while break-dancing to Stacy Q!
In the arcade I felt alive, exuberant and invincible. The din of the competing video game theme songs and sword-thwacking sound effects wasn’t grating to me; it was soothing. The barrage of flashing lights and seizure-inducing screen graphics wasn’t irritating; it was beautiful. I never made one friend in that arcade, yet it was the opposite of being alone. All those lights and sounds made for good, albeit aggressive, company. I could stay in there for hours while shuffling my feet to the frenetic, bouncing beat of Janet Jackson or Bananarama. I had endless lives and endless credits. My mother was the queen of it all. And I was its prince.
One Saturday afternoon I’d been playing Joust for about two hours. I started to get glares from a pack of retainered girls in matching Swatch watches. The three of them looked hatefully at me while slurping Wendy’s Frosties. I could almost feel them literally and figuratively thinking, “Just die!”
These girls and most of the other kids in the arcade were at least 15 or 16 years old. I was only twelve. Maybe I should have been intimidated. But what were they going to do? My mom ran this place. So I would never die.
Out of my peripheral vision I noticed a zit-covered, ginger-haired 15-year-old in a Guns and Roses cap approaching. He walked up to me mid-reverie to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” I was prepared to point out the striking resemblance between the manager and myself if he gave me any trouble over giving up the controls. He leaned against the machine and craned his head in front of the screen.
“So... you fuckin’ LIKE this music?”
I didn’t know what to say. How did he know I’d requested these songs? Was I shimmying again? My dad had warned me about my shimmying, an unconscious reaction to the stellar compositions of bands like Culture Club and Swing Out Sister. It wasn’t my fault. My feet were happy.
He leaned further in, blocking the view of my ostrich-riding warrior.
“What are you? A weirdo?”
He slid his cap off and eyed me up and down, making an expression that was a combination of amusement and nausea. What was so wrong with me? My baby blue Polo shirt was clean and unwrinkled. My slacks were perfectly creased along the front of each leg. My sneakers were a bit dirty, but the laces were tied. And my hair was—not to brag—perfect. My lightly-bleached bangs were falling to slightly obscure the outside of my left eye, just as I’d requested during my last hair appointment at Fantastic Sam’s.
“I know what you are. You’re a faggot.”
I froze. No one had ever called me that before. I’d heard it in classrooms and hallways at school, but it was never aimed at me. So I never paid it any attention. Those people were surely talking about someone else. Weren’t they?
“You’re a faggot. You don’t even like pussy. Do you?”
He puckered his lips into a wrinkled kissy-mouth and made a series of wet, slurping sounds as Joust alerted me that I had died.
Everything in me wanted to defend myself, because I wasn’t a faggot. A faggot was a guy who lisped and giggled and walked everywhere with a limp wrist; the kind of guys I’d heard my father and mother’s boyfriends call “fairies” or “queers” or “homos.” A faggot was a grown man who acted like a lady and loved flowers and dancing. Faggots were on the news at night; older men with tiny mustaches who lived in California and got really sick from some kind of “gay cancer.”
I wasn’t a “faggot.” I was a twelve-year-old boy who had never touched or kissed a man at any point in my life. Maybe I’d thought about it, but I didn’t do anything about it. And if I didn’t do gay things how could I be a gay person?
I turned and headed to the office as the kid yelled one last thing to the back of my head.
“And your hair makes you look like a fuckin’ gaywad!’
Kids throughout the arcade laughed as I rushed into the back to be with my mom. I shut the bottom part of the little stable half-door and sat down in a folding metal chair next to Paige, a 19-year-old, punk rock chick with a blonde buzz-cut who worked with my mom. I was trying not to cry, but I could feel the tears coming. My mom could tell something was up.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
I shifted my shoulder away from her hand as she tried to comfort me. I didn’t want those kids looking into the office and thinking I was a mama’s boy.
“Nothing. I just want some Goldfish.”
I started to eat handfuls of the crackers, as if the mass of them in my mouth would help soak up the tears in my eyes. It seemed to work. This was the first time I realized how hard it was to cry while you’re eating.
“Mom. I wanna go home.”
“Well, honey. I don’t get off for another five hours. Don’t you want to stay and play some games?”
My mom reached into her saggy blue uniform vest and pulled out a handful of tokens. They looked so pretty in her hand. So shiny. So golden. So tempting. I could listen to so many Kylie Minogue songs with those tokens. But I didn’t want to be out on the floor with those kids. Not anymore.
“Mom, I just feel sick. I want to go home and sleep.”
“But David, it’s hours until...”
Paige interrupted her. “I can drop him off. I get outta here in 30 minutes, right Geri?”
My mom looked at me and could tell how badly I didn’t want to be there.
“Okay, but... Are you sure you’re okay, sweetie?”
“YES!” I yelled. “Just let me go home.”
My mom kissed my forehead and half-an-hour later I was on my way home in a dirty, brown Camaro. Paige was about 6 feet tall, thin as a rail, and white as a sheet. She was the ghost of a girl, but underneath it all you could tell she was really beautiful, like a softer, younger Bridgette Nielsen costumed for a Blade Runner sequel. At a red light she lit a cigarette and began to retouch her mascara in the rear view mirror.
“So who was an asshole to you?”
“Well someone pissed you off.”
“Just some jerk.”
“There you go!”
She flipped up her middle finger and grinned a broad, bright smile at me.
I couldn’t help but giggle and covered my mouth with my hands. I hadn’t quite grasped profanity yet and the idea of it sent me into a fit of laughter. Paige’s smile dropped away.
“David! I’m serious. The next time someone says shit to you, tell ‘em to fuck off. Okay?”
Paige really meant business. She lit herself a new cigarette off the one that was almost out and commanded me to respond.
“Say, ‘Fuck off!’”
“You want me to say that?”
“Oh lighten up, David. I ain’t gonna tell your mom. Just say it... Now!”
I gathered every bit of devil-may-care attitude in me and after a long, thoughtful pause screamed at the top of my lungs “FUCK OFF!”
Paige flinched in the driver’s seat.
“Jesus Christ, kid. You can say it with the attitude without all that volume. Fuck.”
“Don’t apologize,” she rolled her eyes. “I just MADE you say it. Shit, kid.”
Paige shot me an icy glare and it was perfectly clear. If I apologized again, I’d be walking home. I looked out the passenger window at strip malls and passing pick-up trucks and contained my laughter. I’d done it! I cussed!
“You wanna drag?”
I turned and Paige was holding out a Marlboro Light 100 to me. I slowly reached for it.
“What are you stupid?” she said, withdrawing her hand and stamping out the butt in the ashtray. “I’m fuckin’ with you. Why would I let you smoke? Your mother would kill me.”
Ten minutes later we pulled up to my apartment complex. As I stepped out from the car, I felt a surging sense of pride in my newfound comfort with profanity. I couldn’t wait to see that jerk in the arcade again. Because I was going to give him a piece of my mind. I felt older somehow. I wasn’t totally an adult yet, but this got me one step closer.
I shut the door behind me and ran my hands down the front of my slacks, which had gotten wrinkled in the long, sweaty ride in Paige’s A/C-less Camaro. I started to walk away when Paige beckoned me back towards the car. I leaned into the passenger window.
“You know that two dudes kissing is wrong, right? Like, you know that shit’s gross and against God, don’t you?”
Blankly and proceeded by a long, deer-in-headlights pause I answered.
“Okay. Good. See ya next weekend, Davey.”
Paige pulled away and left me standing in a cloud of exhaust at the big, wooden entrance sign to my apartment complex. I wandered through Spanish Oaks confused, trying to figure out why people kept confronting me with this question. What was it about me? What was I doing wrong? How was I acting and what was I saying to make people think I was a homo? I knew I had feelings for boys but they were just friendship feelings. When I saw Ricky Schroeder on Silver Spoons I just wished we could hang out together and share clothes. When Mackenzie Astin came over to the girls’ house on “Facts of Life,” it made me wish he lived in my house and we could talk as we fell asleep. When Kirk Cameron made a funny joke on “Growing Pains,” it wasn’t that it made me want to kiss him. I just wanted to hug him. Hard. Really, really hard.
What was wrong with me?