#284: The Cars, "The Cars" (1978)

Rich’s mom used the wall next to the staircase like a human evolution diorama. At the bottom, there was Rich flat on his back in his crib, naked with his legs and arms akimbo. The first time I met Rich’s mom, she took it off the wall and showed it to me. She put her index finger above his supposedly erect penis and bragged about how he was so mature even then. Richard buried the right side of his face with his hand but kept one eye open to see how I reacted. This was the only time I ever saw him naked in the light.

The next photo was him dressed and painted as a vampire in the first or second grade. His face was bone white. The part of his mouth that he didn’t lick off was smeared with the blood of an imaginary villager. One night while we were tangled up in his bed, I asked whether he ever gave the villager a name. He shrugged.

Next to the vampire was two Little League baseball players. The one on the right was Rich. On the left was Henry, his then-best friend. Rich played third until his dad couldn’t afford to have him keep playing. Rich said or did something right after his last game to make sure Henry stopped being his friend.

Rich stood in front of his mom and dad. The department store Christmas tree loomed over them. His mom wore a bright red dress with a wreath-shaped brooch pinned above her right breast. Rich and his dad wore matching suits. Rich’s stomach threatened to cascade over his waistband. Rich’s mom and dad both had their hands on Rich’s shoulders. Their mouths contorted into thin smiles, teeth slightly visible. I knew from my own family that the most important time to lie was during the holidays.

From the top of the stairs, the junior high version of Rich scowled at the family below. The crimson clip-on tie dangled beneath the part of the collar that wasn’t enveloped by his second chin. “He fought like hell to hang this one,” Rich’s mom said. “I don’t know why.”

Rich never fully accounted for the gaps between each photo. I always started asking questions as we lay in Rich’s bed. The first or second time, Rich shut me up by making out with me; I backed off. After we were done kissing, we listened to the ceiling fan whir as it dried the sweat on our bodies until it became a new layer of skin. I pushed him away the third time he tried shutting me up, lay so stiff that Rich finally got the hint. He spoon fed me only as many answers as it would take to cure me back into his arms.

I knew the needle was helping him disappear layer by layer. I knew his body well enough where I could tell when his wrists and waist shrank. The parts of his body Rich would let me touch, I could feel his bones more through his skin. Once, my thumb stumbled onto a scab in the fold connecting his forearm to his upper arm. I decided to stop seeing him or talking to him for as long as I could until he was willing to tell me what I already knew.

After a week, I finally caved and went over to Rich’s house while his mom was working the night shift like she always did. The door crept opened after the second knock. I walked in and found Rich’s mom sitting on the couch. The photos from the evolution diorama were on the living room table. I ran upstairs to Rich’s room before Rich’s mom could say anything. I saw Rich’s bedroom for the first time when I turned on the lights. There weren’t any women pinned to the walls lusting after him. There weren’t any cars either. He treated the floor like a hamper. His comforter was plaid. It was peeled back on the side of the bed he preferred to roll out of. Rich’s mom never said a word as I ran out of her house.

Rich’s face was never stapled to telephone poles or taped to windows. A week later, a “For Rent” sign was staked in front of Rich’s house. I sometimes heard a tap or scrape against my window, hoped it was Rich wanting me to come outside. It was always just a bug or the wind.

—J. Bradley