I take my seven-year-old great-nephew Julian to Walmart to buy an outdoor inflatable pool. He is driving everyone nuts and because I am the freshest arrival at my niece’s in somewhere, Florida, I have not earned my break from his tyranny yet.
My nephew, Julian has the testosterone level of a seventeen-year-old. His Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA-S) levels are through the roof. I can only say Dehydroepiandrosterone with an English accent as I had to GOOGLE Dehydroepiandrosterone for its definition, etymology and how the fuck do you say Dehydroepiandrosterone. I was immediately rerouted to Emma of Emma Saying, who is clearly English and has an English name—I know three Emmas and they’re all from England. Emma pronounces Dehydroepiandrosterone eight times in the span of twenty seconds. By the sixth, I’ve mastered Dehydroepiandrosterone.
Julian’s official diagnosis is he is suffering from precocious puberty. An oxymoron.
My sister and niece shove car keys, Walmart flyer and six credit cards into my hand and push me and Julian out the screen door. I am barely backing out of the driveway when I get a text from my sister: DON’T GIVE IN TO JULIAN BEGGING FOR SHIT!!!!! All caps, seven exclamation points as such. I know better than to paraphrase anything my sister says, let alone dare interpret her explicit anything. A month ago, I heard her screaming into her iPhone: “Why the fuck is there no BOLD option for texts!” Seconds later she was on the phone with Apple Customer Care demanding an app with extensive keyboard functions that will articulate precisely and emphatically her rage and subsequent directives.
Three right turns into our journey, Julian shouts from the back seat, “TiAna, can we get a real pool not a backyard blow-up like for poor people?”
“No,” I shout back, “We are poor.” He rolls his eyes and punches the air with two closed fists. The Stepford GPS is recalculating because I’ve made three rights that meant to be two lefts with a merge diagonally at the clever dead possum (another oxymoron) on the road.
When we finally arrive at Walmart, Julian jumps out of the car and races to an orphaned shopping cart left curbside, one wheel jutting up and out like a wandering eye. He charges through the parking lot hitting two car bumpers and a wheelchair, luckily vacant.
“Julian—don’t fuck with other people’s—” But he is off again, racing down the lot as shoppers and baby strollers dodge his warpath.
Once inside Walmart, I turn for a breath and he’s filled up the car with all sorts of things “my mom said you would buy for me.” I tell him he can get anything he wants so long as he has money to pay for it.
“I got money.”
“I got money.”
“I got a… I got… ” His eyes dart around. “I got four ones… and a fives.”
What’s a fives? The plural of five? The possessive of five?
“You got one fives or more than one fives?” I ask him.
“Two fives.” I pull out my iPhone calculator. He slaps the phone out of my hands.
“Ten,” he says. Fucken Apple. We’re not allowed to think anymore.
“I’ll pay half and you pay half,” I tell him. Already I am violating my sister’s explicit all-caps, seven-exclamations, and bold instructions. I will pay dearly for this gratuitous gifting. But what are aunts for if not to come in, be gregarious, generous, irreverent, fun and then make themselves scarce when the kids’ meds start to wear off?
“Pick one item,” I say, “Your favorite and let’s close this deal.”
He stares at the pile of items toppling over one another in the shopping cart. The anguish on his face is slightly less than the misery on mine.
“Come on, just pick one—first thought, best thought.”
His face puckers, eyes widen horrified and pleading, as though I’ve asked him which one of his parents gets to live because for economic reasons I have to shoot the other. In the head. He circles the cart, eyes visually scrolling each item, clasps his hands together, then apart, together, apart. He presses his face hard up against the metal bars of the cart, his nose protruding between the rods, sniffing audibly and reaching his arm up and over the edge of the cart, descending upon the pile like a crane; his fingers unfurl, dive between toys, claw a small plastic box, and lift it up from the molehill of the rejected.
“This one,” he says. I lean forward, read: Diecast Lamborghini Diablo GT Motor Max.
No kid should know this car, let alone own it, even if it stands only three-quarters of an inch tall and two wide. Seeds are planted.But I am tired, he has exhausted me and I understand now how parents just give in and buy their kids bad ideas and feed them sugar and let strangers watch them while mommy ducks into the local pub at high noon for a quick shot of numb. And it’s in the sale bin for $5.88.
“Great choice!” I say. “Gimme your three bucks.” He looks at me blankly, then starts to growl.
“Are you growling at me?” He growls louder followed by two barks and a long sigh, then finales with a resigned whimper.
Of course he doesn’t have the money. What was I thinking? How stupid can I be? I believe everyone. Even gay men who swear “If only I weren’t, well, you know… gay, I’d be all over your shit.” I turn to Julian armed with lifetimes of woman scorned.
“I didn’t lie!”
“I didn’t lie!”
“I didn’t lie!”
“I didn’t lie.”
We catch our breath.
He tells me he forgot his money at home. Another lie. But the lie and lying means nothing. It does not change the anguish and desperation in his face, the need to be believed, trusted, regardless of whether you are doing what you cannot help but keep doing and the inconsolable defeat consequent of repeating what you cannot help but keep repeating knowing it has the opposite effect of what you yearn for most: to be believed, to be trusted. Self-sabotage: a man-made concept designed to kick you when you’re already down.
“We’ll come back tomorrow and get it.” But tomorrow is never to a seven-year-old.
“You pay for it now and I’ll pay you back, Tia.” And pay you back is never in our family.
“I don’t have enough money.”
He reaches for my pockets, asking “How much you got? How much you got?”
A twenty falls out. “Hey! That’s your mom’s for… tampons!” He pushes past me and rushes the cashier.
“Excuse me do you have three dollars—”
“Two ninety-four!” I correct him and slap both hands over my mouth. The woman behind the counter laughs and says “Aren’t you just the cutest little business tyke?” and gives him a lollipop which I intercept at lightning speed, “No sugar! He’ll go Gremlins.” I turn to Julian and grab his wrist, “We do not beg. That is NOT what we do!
“We’re poor, you said so, that’s what poor people do.”
“Proud poor!” I scream.
“Proud poor is opposites.”
“You mean an oxymoron?” I say, excited by the possibility of expanding our exchange to include Greek rhetoric.
“Yeah, a moron calling another moron a moron.”
“Well that certainly earns you a first-class trip to Italy to get a whole fleet of Lamborghinis!” He growls. I soften. “I think you mean redundant…”
“I mean what I mean!”
“It’s like a pot calling… black tea. Shit, wait, no that’s something else. No, no, an oxymoron is like… military intelligence… affordable health care… Cuban Jew.”
“Intelligent jibber-jabber!” he puppet-mouths with his fingers.
We pay for the inflatable pool, which by this time I’d completely forgotten was the purpose of this trek. Julian’s head slumps forward, chin digging into his chest.
“I hate the way I am. I don’t have a good brain. Mother nature made me this way. I can’t help it. I’m this way,” he says.
Oh, but that I could be this clear.
I wrap my arm around him, pull him toward me, squat next to him and say “I don’t have a good brain either. But I’ve been around people who have good brains and they smell like baboon anus and can’t swim in a puddle of spit. Come on, let’s go do something moron… ish.”
He looks down at the Lamborghini in his hand, turns it over as though inspecting the ingredients, and deciding he’s allergic to one or more additives is relieved by the choicelessness this brings him. He tosses it into the magazine rack by the checkout stand, nailing Trump’s bouffant.
I promise him we will come back tomorrow, that I will stay true to my word regardless of his behavior. I extend my arm out to shake his hand but he is off and running, grabbing someone else’s fully loaded shopping cart and racing out the sliding-glass double doors. I drag the large box containing the inflatable pool past six registers and out the store.
As I cross the parking lot, my phone buzzes once, twice, three, four panels of an incoming text all CAPS from my sister: CAN YOU STOP AT HOME DEPOT, WE’RE OUT OF KEROSENE FOR OUTDOOR TORCH LAMPS.
Kerosene. Is that a good idea?
The next day we get a call from the school principal asking us to pick up Julian immediately. He accidentally maimed the school hamster by hugging it to death. My sister and niece shove keys in my hand, GOOGLE-map the school address into my iPhone and send me off to day two of Repo Aunt. Alexis pushes me out the garage door, “Oh, car needs gas. Just keep receipt, I’ll reimburse…” her voice trails off as she slams the door behind me.
I drive up to the lot behind the school cafeteria, the designated drive-by pick-up spot for wayward kids and sacred ground for weekend circle jerks. Julian jumps into the car, says “Oh thank God!” as though I were his kidney transplant. Then he yells, “Go! Now!!” and kicks a leg over the dashboard, lunging it downward, hitting the gas as a woman races toward us hoisting a knapsack above her head. Julian rolls up the window and locks the door. The woman bangs on the glass as the car jolts forward. I grab Julian’s ankle and throw his leg back over. The woman hobbles up to the window, panting, pointing at the knapsack, miming and mouthing something.
“Unlock the window!!” I yell.
“Roll!” he screams, “It’s roll down window, unlock door! Roll window. Unlock door. Door unlock. Window down roll.”
I hit every button on door and dashboard to no avail. Julian has somehow locked me out of my control panel. I wave the woman over to my side. She heads toward the front of the car, thinks better, steps back and circles around the tail end of the car. I open the door.
“So sorry, the lever’s not—”
“This is his,” she says and thrusts the bag through the crack between door and chassis. “He refuses to take it home.” She walks quickly toward the front of the car, stops, thinks better, steps back and circles around.
What’s with the refusing to take your knapsack?” I ask.
“I don’t want anything left over from that life!” Julian says.
“It’s not gonna get better!” He cuts me off before I try to talk him out of his agony and certitude. “It’s not gonna change because mother nature made me this way! I wish I were dead.” He flings his knapsack into the back seat, exhales deeply and closes his eyes. I sit quietly, frozen, unsure what I am without directions. As I slowly pull out from the lot, Julian suddenly snaps to, says “Today is yesterday’s tomorrow,” and gives me directions for the fastest route to Walmart.
“We’re not going to Walmart,” I tell him.
“Today is yesterday’s tomorrow!” he repeats.
“Your mother’s waiting for you.”
“My mother is not my mother. That woman needs to get a new son cuz I am not her son anymore. And my mother is not my mother and my father is not my father. And from now on I’m going to call not my mother Alexis. And I’m gonna call not my father Damon! And I’m dead.”
Is that an afterthought? “What will dead solve?” I ask.
“I’m tired of solving. I don’t wanna solve nothing no more.”
“Well dead doesn’t mean it’s over. Believe me, I’ve been trying to die or kill something… off for years. You’ll just come back as a grasshopper envious of humans with knapsacks. And dead will make your mom and everyone sad and feel like shit. You wanna leave us with that—feeling like shit? That’s what my father—your great abuelo—did, he took a colossal dump and left us to clean up his karmic feces.”
He kicks the glove compartment with his Docs. It springs open and Alexis’ bag of weed flies out. He grabs the bag and throws it out the window, shoves his head out and shouts at the passing cars, “Mom needs to get sad. EVERYONE NEEDS TO GET SAAAAAADDDD!”
“How did you get the window to work?” I ask. “Close… roll that shit up. Now!” He bangs on the lever several times with the bottom of his palm. The glass pane rises in stops and starts until fully closed. He sits back, jumps forward, sits back, springs toward me, gets in my face real close, so close my nose hairs recoil. He opens one eye wide, closes the other. His eyeball, magnified twenty times its size, stares straight at me, burning holes through my cranium and blasting out the back of my head.
“Can you please aim that somewhere else?”
He moves closer, his eye zooms five magnifications.
“You don’t even see me. You don’t see me. This is a dream. All of this is a dream!”
“But it’s not night and we’re not sleeping.”
“It’s a daydream!”
“You mean like a hallucination?”
“Yeah, you’re hallucination me! And I don’t have a family.”
“I’m your family.”
“You are my family because your blood is running through my veins.” He pinches the skin on his neck and pulls hard. “There, your blood is no longer in my veins.” He looks out the window. “I need to live somewhere else.”
“Where you gonna live?”
“You want to live in a cave?”
“Yes, in a cave and a bear is gonna come and eat me. It will only hurt for a minute. I’ll be dead before it hurts the most.”
“Can I bring you some food?”
“I’m dead, stupid.”
“I mean before the bear eats you.”
“No, I need to starve to death.”
“Not even squids in ink?” His eyes widen, his body lurches forward as his chest caves in. Squids. In. Ink. Julian’s crack. He growls, tilts his head back and there ensues brief and measured whispers in tongues, drawing strength from things unseen. He slowly lowers his head, looks straight out, breathes in deeply. Summoning. Resolute.
“No,” he mouths slowly. “No. Squids.” I am thinking of The Exorcist, of Father Karra’s resolve in that last scene before he flings himself head-first down seventy-five steps, taking demon and inferno with him. His words now reverberating, “The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you…” No. Squids.
“No. Squids,” Julian repeats. “And I’m not gonna drink anything. I’m thirsting to death.” Then for clarification, “I’m punishing myself. I,” he points to his chest, “am punishing myself. I am kidnapping my self. And I am good-punishing you because I am leaving, getting my self away from all of your selfs, so you won’t be poisoned.” This is disturbingly Catholic to me.
We approach the house. “TiAna,” he points to the house, “I don’t live there anymore. This is not my house.”
We pull up into the driveway, he jumps out of the car, races into the garage and drags a legless lawn chair into the middle of the front yard. Sits. “I’m stay-putting out here in the wild forever. I belong with the animals and angels but I can’t see them. They won’t kick the door. They won’t open me in. I’m just gonna sit here outside in the wild where I belong.” He lifts both arms, pressing the elbows against his ears and wiggling his fingers over the land as though summoning rain. “It’s nice out here. In the wild.” He pulls a blade of grass, then another, holds them side by side, framing land and sky. He looks between the blades, out over the lawn and says “Abuelo’s body is going to make the grass greener.” And then to no one in particular, “I don’t know why mother nature made me this way. She coulda made me different, Tia. She coulda… I’m just not right.”
I grab his knapsack and place his water bottle on the grass next to his feet in case his thirst strike takes a commercial break. I kiss him on the forehead and head toward the car to unload today’s winnings.
I think about the inflatable pool. I think about the Lamborghini. I think about sale bins, kamikaze possums and hamsters hugged to death. I think of my own roadkill. All the people I loved so hard I maimed, left them, us, gasping last breaths, dying by the side of the road.
I am halfway across the lawn when I hear, “You said you would buy me the car whether I was good or bad. You said… that’s what you said.”
Stops me dead, this. Breaks me apart. I deliberately did not want this agreement between us to be contingent on his behaving well, on his having to earn anything. Just once, I’d hoped to give Julian something for no particular reason, no noteworthy occasion. Not a birthday. Not a Christmas. Not a Three Kings. Not a C+ ‘cross-the-board. Not an anything. Earn him a something for being nothing more than an unspectacular kid doing unspectacular shit on a nothing-special day. An ordinary kid who loves something so immeasurably, so boundlessly, so hard he kills it.
Is there such a thing as gratuitous gifting?
I stare at my reflection in the porch window, the silhouette of me against the backdrop of tall grass. My pupils dilate deeper into depth of view. There emerges a small frame, arms wrapped around knees tucked into chest, neck erect, head tilted into a left shoulder. I see my niece and my sister out the back window digging holes for the torch lamps.
I turn, face Julian, stare out across the lawn. “I forgot to gas the car,” I say. He looks up at me, squints to shield his eyes from the sun. I take ten steps toward him, stop. “I forgot to gas the car,” I say again, my eyes fixed on his. He jerks up, tilts his head forward, pushes his baseball cap slightly up, fixes his eyes on mine, holds my stare. Moments pass, neither of us speaking. I part my lips, preparing my next and final round. As my tongue unfurls, Julian’s eyes widen.
“You forgot to gas the car,” he fires.
“Your mother and mima are expecting a full tank of gas,” I say.
“Moms will be pissed.”
“—if you turn the car in on an empty tank.” I smile.
Julian stands. I step closer, take his hand. We tiptoe backward, moonwalking across the lawn.
This could take some time, I think. Perhaps thirty minutes, it being rush hour and all. Thirty minutes. Enough time to gas the car and stop by Walmart. I turn the GPS off, trusting Julian will get me there using the fastest route possible.