The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 19 My Cousin Billy

railroad track amidst trees against sky
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My cousin Billy and I palled around Artesia. He was an uncomplicated, kind, nonaggressive kid, so I always got my way, which was exactly how I liked it. Just for giggles, we frolicked in his aboveground swimming pool in bathing suits circa 1890 that had suspenders. I felt self-conscious, but Billy didn’t give a flip; he didn’t judge anybody or himself. I dunked him; he came up sputtering and smiling, which made me feel mean again. The only thing that kept my pissed-to-be-ignored aggression under control around Billy was my conscience. He wouldn’t tell on me, which meant that he was safe. I could be whoever I really was, including the ugly and angry parts. So I told him about the little kid across the street, the boy whose dad was imprisoned for embezzling (not Mr. Abbin, who shot those teenagers), and how he kept coming around the twins and me when I didn’t want him as another minion but preferred instead to solidify my clique. So, I’d brandished our army hatchet and said that I was going to eat his liver like chicken. I hated liver, so clearly I joked—that’s how I had it figured—but the kid told on me, and I got my last spanking from Dad. He didn’t use his leather belt anymore since Mom had started college and learned better. So spankings didn’t hurt like they used to, but I still cried out of fear, humiliation, and disappointment in myself that I’d incurred my father’s retribution. What I didn’t understand was why I was spanked for my words but granted grace when I accidentally broke those windows. Back then, I didn’t understand intent and why it mattered. The really sad part was that I had to make the same mistake many times before I figured it out for myself, as no one was interested in explaining it to me.

But Billy was safe, so I told him about the hatchet threat, and then I let him into my fantasy: I wanted to run away from home. Recall that I’d even begun writing a couple of novels about running away to a deserted island or being tossed into a juvenile prison. The twins and I fantasized about staging being hit by a car Marsden-style, faking brain damage, and then being institutionalized. I didn’t know at the time why I wanted to escape to an island, a prison, or an institution. In retrospect, a part of me wanted to punish my parents for failing to be attentive enough to me (some of which I made up in my own mind, I know today; they just lived their lives and assumed that during daylight hours, I’d do the same, which was more common in the 1960s). Running away seemed like a good compromise to suicide for making someone sorry that I was gone. Another part of me wanted to be as independent and tough as I was expected to be—or at least as I expected myself to be. I wanted to flee because, apparently, I was such a burden. I felt as if my mere presence at home disappointed my family because I was so dependent and flawed. It hurt, and I defended my pain with anger that was displaced onto grasshoppers and redheaded twins and amiable cousins. Why couldn’t I just be who I was? Why were so many things I liked contrary to family, school, or church rules? I was fortunate that there were no gangs in my neighborhood, because I was a good candidate for membership: eager to be tough and thirsty to belong.

Billy and I rode our bikes around Artesia, he on his cool chopper bike and me on his little sister’s girl bike with the white wicker basket with plastic yellow flowers. I wasn’t thrilled to be on that bike, I promise you, but I didn’t know anybody in Artesia, so whatever. We peddled past the refinery and then past the elementary school built completely underground to thwart Soviet nukes. Finally, at the train tracks, we set pennies on the rails and waited. I asked if Billy wanted to jump onto one of the empty boxcars and go somewhere else, anywhere else. Billy said, yeah, that sounded good to him. All my ideas sounded good to Billy, which was why he was a minion, too. So I was the leader of our gang of two running wild around the Artesia neighborhoods all summer.

Finally, the train rumbled past. My tripe and innards vibrated, the dust stung my legs, and my T-shirt was almost pulled off me. As the train receded, Billy and I found our flattened pennies in the greasy gravel between the tracks. We hadn’t hitched ourselves up onto a boxcar, so I felt like a hypocrite after I’d just tried to incite him. But the moment had already washed over Billy. Go. Stay. Whatever. Billy didn’t care. So I suggested that we go home and check out the puppies next door.

Billy said, “Nope,” their owners had already kicked them to death and moved back to Mexico. OK, then, we could collect the walnuts that fell out of the trees in his front yard. That sounded good to Billy, and a frosty A&W Root Beer float sounded even better. But we didn’t have any money, just those flattened pennies. No problem, Billy said. He had an “uncle” who bought root-beer floats just for visiting him. When we went to the uncle’s house, I eased into his saggy, sad couch and felt smug. Free root-beer floats! “Free” was one of my favorite words. Then that so-called uncle circled around behind the couch and nibbled the back of my neck. Now, I’d been kissed before, but never by a man and never like that, so I froze. He was done in a few seconds and slithered away. Billy and I got the heck outta there, and only today do I appreciate how lucky I was to have escaped with nothing more than a slimed neck. Since then, I’ve heard horror stories from clients who were sexually molested as children. Their stories are much worse than mine is, even worse than Murgatroyd. I never told anybody about our visit to Billy’s uncle because we had been warned never to go there. Even when the day is really hot and you’re really broke, don’t visit the local pedophile, not even for a free A&W root-beer float, that’s my advice.

Another impetus for the fantasy about running away was my failure to interest others. So I’d split to show my displeasure. I even researched it. Back then, research meant checking out a library book. For me, My Side of the Mountain was more of a how-to manual than a novel. Talking about it with Billy was as far as I got. I remember watching the movie with our maternal grandmother, and she turned to me in the theater and whispered, “You better not be getting any ideas.” She joked, but I was shocked; it was as if she’d read my mind. Running away and living in a tree was exactly the idea I’d had. I wasn’t yet aware of the heinous dangers facing young runaways, even those who might run into a forest and live in a tree, but something visceral told me that it wasn’t a good idea. I felt cowardly not following through on my fantasy, and I wouldn’t recognize my better judgment until years later. Fantasizing was one thing; translating it into behavior was another. Until then, I wished I had the guts to strike out on my own. But there was never a trigger event that prompted me to actually go. There was only the chronic gnawing of aloneness that I didn’t fully understand but concluded that I deserved because something was wrong with me. It took decades and becoming a psychologist to figure out that it was the religious guilt, combined with minimal verbal or emotional connection at home, little quality or quantity time spent with my parents, being openly despised by my big brother, obvious general neglect, more than my share of anxiety, and social awkwardness at school that made me feel isolated as a boy. It makes obvious sense today. But back then, my feelings and thoughts yowled to be known, and I yearned to be loved. I wondered why I was so different from the other members of my family, who were “perfect,” or at least approaching perfection in my young boy’s mind. So, I became more defensive and tried to look better on the outside, which was pretty much a lost cause in my preadolescence. Everything inside me clattered to break out but had to be squashed down. Sometimes it still came out and looked like childhood OCD.

The sunburned Bermuda grass in Billy’s front yard was so stiff it hurt my bare soles as I gathered walnuts. Grasshoppers scattered in front of me with each step. Later we set up the Hot Wheels track, and I was allowed to use the fastest car. Then we had a pancake-eating contest for dinner, and I won. I told Billy about Murgatroyd and hoped he’d nearly take a duke in his tighty-whities. But no, he just fell asleep, and I was alone again but with nowhere to run that time. Everything was fine with Billy. It kind of felt like a vacation from myself when I visited him. I could let the dark side out, because everything just wafted past him. Flatten pennies, run away, get a free root-beer float for visiting the town pedophile, or tell ghost stories. I could’ve said, “Let’s go break the grade-school windows,” and I suspect that would’ve been fine with him, too. Somehow, giving me permission and then making me responsible made me not want to do it anymore.



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