Travis, your cousin, showed you how to masturbate.
You were both ten. No one was at home. It was February and rainy. Travis pulled the curtains closed in the TV room and sat next to you on the couch. He took out two XXL magazines from his book bag.
“Where’d you get those?” you said.
“He said I could have them.” Travis took one and flipped to the Eye Candy section. “Here,” he said and tossed you the second magazine. “Girls are at the back.”
Page 67: Tanesha Turner. Caramel skin. Long, black, wavy-at-the-tips, white-girl hair. 20 years old, 5’4″, 125 pounds, body firm with the perfect amount of pudgy. Her ass, round as a peach, devours a pink thong. She’s on a couch, a pillow wedged between her crotch, her hands cup her breasts.
Travis slid down his basketball shorts. You noticed he had hair growing down there already. His penis was darker and bigger than yours. He spat in his palm.
“What are you doing?” you said.
“Whatcha mean, Zeke?”
You looked at the magazine. You weren’t sure what to feel or do, so you read: The Video Vixen of the Year Interview.
XXL: What was it like being in Nellie’s “Hot in Herre” video?
You looked again at your cousin. He was massaging himself with his wet hand.
TT: It was amazing. I mean, to be in the scenes with Nellie—some y’all won’t see in the video—was real hot and steamy.
XXL: Is there footage of that?
TT: Nice try, but I won’t kiss and tell.
XXL: You got to give us a little something, Tanesha. How do you like—
TT: Slow. And gentle. I don’t like a man to hurry.
You spat on your hand then and slid down your shorts.
Middle school was easy. You and Travis went to Lindbergh in the heart of the East Side. Long Beach: where the ocean waves just tickle the shore. You won the school-wide reading contest in grade 6 and 7. You’d read everything you could: Harry Potter, The Hardy Boys, anything by Walter Dean Myers, you even finished some of the books on the high school reading list.
In the beginning of eighth grade, Travis brought a gun to school and got expelled. It was a Glock 9mm. Not loaded. No bullets in his book bag or in his possession. The girl sitting next to him—Regina Smith, the girl who wore a new weave every other week—saw it and screamed. Travis zipped his book bag closed and ran out of the class.
Your mom took you out of Lindbergh. “You’re going to St. Anthony’s,” she said.
You had just come inside from shooting hoops at the park. “What about Travis?” you said.
She stopped chopping the onions for the meatloaf. Her eyes were wet. “I don’t care if y’all cousins, you’re not getting caught up in all this gang nonsense,” she said.
“Ezekiel James,” she said, “the subject is closed.”
Travis told you later he wasn’t going to shoot anybody. A month after the incident, you went to see him after church on a Sunday. Your mom was in the living room with your Aunt Gale. She was crying. You remember her always crying back then like she was on the edge of something. You and Travis went to his room.
“Why’d you even have a gun anyway?” you said.
“I was just holding it for somebody,” Travis said.
“Where’d you get it?”
Travis didn’t say anything.
You told him about St. Anthony’s.
“Oh, yeah,” Travis said, “that’s cool. Wanna play Madden?”
By grade 11, your GPA was so high you were getting more college letters about academics than about basketball. Stanford, Harvard, Brown, Columbia, MIT. You were the St. Anthony Saint’s salutatorian. You built a voice-operated robot named BIRTH.A that won an award at the state competition.
By that time, your cousin Travis was in the Orange County juvenile penitentiary serving time for robbery and assault. You begged your Granny to go with you to visit him, but she said, “Ezekiel, what makes you think I want to see my grandson in there like that?”
When you did visit, you asked Travis what happened.
“Zeke,” he said, “it won’t even like that, man. You know how the police is.”
You nodded like you knew and played dominoes until the visit was over and Travis went back to his cell.
You were still a virgin until your senior year and one night at a house party this white girl named Melissa, who was the school soccer star, asked why you didn’t have a girlfriend.
“Maybe I do,” you said.
She squinted her white-girl blue eyes at you. “You’re lying. I can tell.”
You just grinned.
“Maybe you don’t even like girls.”
You were drunk—or getting there. “Maybe I don’t,” you said, and you’re not sure why you said it, or even what it meant, but you knew you could never really mean it. Not being from the East Side. Melissa came closer to you then and pressed her white-girl body up on you and you two kissed and you faked like you were into it, but really robots excited you more.
St. Anthony’s prepared you for your preppy East Coast Ivy League life, but you were surprised at the rain and white people. They were both heavy and tiresome, but the rain felt real. Classes were easy. By your sophomore year, it was all a shitshow. You fucked guys and girls, sometimes at the same time. It didn’t matter. You fucked guys hard and girls soft. You took your time with the girls. You thought about how Tanesha Turner wanted it slow and gentle, so you were always soft with the girls.
Back home, Travis was finally getting out of juvy. He had his “Leaving Out” party, and your mom called and told you all about it. There was a cake. A few security guards and one of the administrators made an appearance. Travis had earned his GED and a barber certificate. Your mom posted a glossy photograph on Facebook of her and Travis, the painted seascape on the cement wall behind them inside the visiting center. Travis, head shaved with a beard, crisp, royal blue button-up shirt with the dark blue jump pants and the California Department of Corrections logo, stood next to your mom and smiled. The caption read: God Bless my nephew Travis. He’ll be home next week. Thank you, Jesus! Travis’s mother, your Aunt Gale, was on the streets again, turning tricks for dope.
You still played ball and fucked around with robots, but you majored in Law and Psychology. Your senior year you thought you were in love with a Mexican man named Javier. He was easy and gorgeous. He was into photography and bondage. He’d read Pablo Neruda poems to you in Spanish when you lay naked on his squeaky mattress in his Washington Heights apartment.
“I’ve never been with a black man before,” he said.
“My family,” he said, “too much Machismo. They’d never get us.”
You thought about Travis. If you couldn’t tell Travis, you might as well keep it a secret to everyone. You thought maybe it wasn’t even true. You actually did like girls. You told Javier about Travis. He shook his head and said it was so triste.
“He’ll stay out,” you said.
“Think about how tough it’s going to be for him. To try to find a job as a felon.”
“Not Travis,” you said. “He’s too confident. Too smart.”
“That might not be enough, cariño.”
You thought for a moment. You wanted to tell Javier to shut the fuck up and just keep reading Neruda, but you waited.
You dressed. Before you left, you said, “sometimes the things you do, don’t tell the world who you really are.”
Two years later, you’re breathing rarefied air at Stanford Law School. You try not to think about home because you feel like you left everyone there on the East Side even though they tell you how proud of you they are. If you slow down, you’ll sigh inside like a worn-out trumpet, so you don’t slow down.
You date a woman who’s ten years older than you: Naomi. She has a past that’s so similar to yours, you don’t need to talk about it. It’s liberating not to have to have a past. She’s already practicing law, working as a public defender.
Everything is physical between you and Naomi. Work, food, talking, fucking. You fuck her hard because there’s no other way she wants it. You barely talk after. You just breathe and try not to think.
“I’m so tired of seeing young brothas go to jail and not getting out, Zeke,” she said one day after work. You were two whiskeys in. She held a gin and tonic. “I need to be on the other side,” she said. “Get paid for actually winning something instead of getting paid to lose.” She even talked about going to Africa to see The Motherland and never coming back.
“You know that’s not you,” you said. “As fucked up as it is, America is our motherland.”
You stay focused. Keep your head down and do work. Do right. That’s what your mother taught you. Especially when no one’s looking, she said. That’s integrity. Do right all the time. Even if you’re the only East Sider in every stuffy Stanford law school classroom and your classmates look to you to answer questions about Affirmative Action and soul food and how to do the Wobble.
You think about Travis. You picture him, still in Long Beach. Still on the East Side. He’s probably still selling dope. Gang banging. Because what else would he be doing. He’s got a ten-month-old girl named Ariella. His baby-mama is Mexican. He always had a thing for tamales and Latinas. There was danger in it too, dating one of them Northside Longos motherfucker’s sisters or cousins. Travis could pull it off. He was smooth like that.
You study every day, getting ready to sit for the bar exam, but then your mother calls and says your Granny fell again.
“It’s bad this time, Zeke,” she says.
“What do you mean bad?”
Your mother is quiet for a few beats. “I’m going to find your Aunt Gale tomorrow. Take her up to see Mama.”
You know what that means. You tell your mother you’ll be home tomorrow.
Travis gets you at LAX.
You pop palms. One. Two. Three. Lock thumbs. Hands rise high, spread like bird’s wings. Fingers wave and fall.
“Cuzzo,” he says.
You haven’t talked in a while, but you don’t have to talk like that. More is said during the pauses anyway. At the hospital, Travis doesn’t even look at his mother. You know he judges her in a way you’ll never understand. You make nice with Aunt Gale, because, you think, maybe this time she’ll get clean.
Granny doesn’t make it through the night. Travis punches his fist through a glass door window at the hospital. He was yelling at a doctor, telling him it was his fault his grandmama died. You hold Travis back, even when he says, “Man, don’t touch me like that. You don’t know me.”
At the funeral Travis tells the story about when you and him got in trouble. “Back when we was younger,” he says, “me and Zeke was up at King’s Park, and I bet Zeke I could hit this beehive hanging up high in the tree with a rock. Back then we wasn’t nothing but elbows and ashy kneecaps.” He looks at you then. You’re sitting between your Mom and his. You look up at him and try to hold it all together. “You remember that, Zeke?” He says.
You nod yes. The beehive. The memory comes rushing back.
It was no more than ten feet high and looked like a tense scrotum. You sealed the bet with a firm shake. On the first try, Travis slung the rock, like he was Doc Gooden, and it bopped the middle of the beehive. You watched him strut around yelling and bragging until the bees swarmed. You both thwacked at them. Travis’s wrist and arm swelled and you ran together through the woods and back along the path and out of the park and kept running after the bees were gone.
“On the way to Granny’s, we found a twenty-dollar bill,” Travis says, “and tried to buy out the corner store.”
“We came in, like, two hours late with Cheetos smeared everywhere. My belly ached so bad, but Granny was there in the living room waiting. She had her big white Bible opened on the table.”
Everyone gets giddy then. Says either uh-oh or lets the word Lord fall out of their mouth like a slinky. Not the big white Bible. That was Granny’s Granny’s Bible. The letters on the cover shine gold and when it’s opened, the pages, thin and silky, feel weightless compared to the heaviness of when it’s closed. It’s bookmarked with bills, letters, envelopes of cash money, church service bulletins and announcements, pictures, and each of her children’s and grandchildren’s birth certificates. Everyone who knows your Granny, knows that Bible. She was singing to herself when you and Travis came strolling in. She asked where you two were, and you and Travis lied and kept lying and then she told you to sit on the couch and she told you the story of the serpent and how God knows when you’re lying. How God knows everybody’s heart.
“Granny had that way with everyone in the world she met,” Travis says. “It’s like God was always right there in her ear, telling us exactly what we needed to hear. At just the right time too, you feel me?” You hear Amen and Hallelujah and Praise Jesus.
As Travis steps down, you hug each other and say, “love you, man,” almost in unison.
The whole neighborhood shows up at the “Going Home” party.
“This ain’t no pity party,” your Mom tells everyone. “This is a celebration. Mama is going to be with God.”
You eat and drink. And drink. Late night, on the porch, you see Regina Smith.
“So you a lawyer now, huh, Zeke?” she says.
It’s dark. You can’t see her very well, but you can feel her smiling. “Will be soon,” you say.
“You got you a girlfriend, Mr. Standford man?”
She says it like that—Standford, not Stanford—but you don’t correct her, because, you think, who gives a fuck anyway. “Maybe,” you say.
Later, you go to her house. She’s got kids. They’re asleep somewhere down the hallway. You think about Naomi, but you tell yourself she’d understand. This isn’t about cheating. You’re not a cheater. It’s about you. You need to hold on to something before you let it go. You know you won’t have too many more nights on the East Side. You have to say goodbye. Once you start making money, you’ll buy your Mom a house in the valley like she’s always wanted. The East Side will become the place where you grew up. The place you’ll tell people that made you.
Regina plays Jodeci and gets naked faster than Naomi and Javier and even white-girl Melissa who wanted to do it all the time. Regina’s got a scar on her stomach that you assume is from a C-section. You slide in her easily and take your time swimming in her thighs. You do it once and then again. She brings you lemonade and a plate of leftovers. You fall asleep to candlelight and the smell of alcohol on Regina’s breath.
Your cell phone rings and you ignore it, but it rings again and again until you finally look. It’s Travis.
“What, man?” you say. “You know what time it is?”
“Yo, Zeke, I need your help. You ain’t at the house?”
“Where you at? I’m a come get you.”
“I’m at Regina’s.”
He laughs. “Damn, son,” he says, “I know what you’ve been up to.”
“Man,” you say, “it’s not even like—”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes. Meet me on the street.”
“Okay,” you say and immediately regret it. You weigh it all. No, you tell yourself, Travis wouldn’t put me in the middle of something illegal. Something that would get me caught up. You know what can happen at 3 a.m. on the East Side. You and Travis have never had that discussion, but you know he knows there’s a line drawn between worlds. You know he knows even though you’re kin, you’re really just a visitor. Have always been, like you were somehow chosen.
You leave without Regina waking.
The SoCal night air is breezy. A little chilly.
Travis pulls up in a black BMW. It’s not his car or the car he picked you up in at LAX. “Get in,” he says, “let’s go.”
You get in.
He drives for a bit.
There’s no one else on the street.
“Trav,” you say, “what’s up, man?”
“You all right, Cuzzo,” he says. “I just need you to drive my car. You going to follow me to my house. Don’t worry, man.”
You nod, but think a million things.
Another five minutes and you’re there. At the AM/PM on Pacific Coast Highway. Travis pulls in at tank number 5. 87 is $2.65 a gallon. He pulls the gas lever in the driver seat floorboard. “I’m a fill up.” He hands you his car keys. “I’m parked there,” he gestures behind. “All you gonna do is follow me home.”
You nod and take the keys.
Travis gets out and walks to the pump.
You think to ask if he’s all right, but you don’t. You’re drained. You smell like sex. You feel sweaty in your stained suit. You have a flight tomorrow evening back to Stanford. You told your Mom you would’ve stayed longer, but you know Granny would want you to pass that bar exam and get on with it. Just stay focused, Granny always said. Keep your head down and just stay focused. You get in Travis’s car and turn the ignition, crack the windows.
Travis is there in front of you, pumping gas. You can’t see his face, but his body looks stiff, stressed. The morning-night neon of the AM/PM logo stares at a glowing Popeyes across the street. You take out your phone and text Naomi: Be back tomorrow night. You know she’s sleeping, but she’ll be up soon. She’s an early riser. You’ll text her your flight details later. You figure you’ll go for drinks and order in—
It happens so fast.
You fumble the phone. It falls in your lap. You duck low, across the middle console.
Tires screech and peel out. It might be one car. Might be two.
You take inventory. You’re breathing, not bleeding.
Slowly, you rise. Look.
The gas pump is still connected to the black BMW.
Travis is on the ground.
You think twice about getting out, but do it anyway. It’s Travis.
You run to him.
His blood there on the pavement looks like it might swallow his body.
“Travis,” you hear yourself say, “Travis, get up!”
You hear yourself because you are outside of yourself. It’s like you’re watching every moment from somewhere above. You remember reading about this in Psychology. You wrote a paper about it, didn’t you? You’ve written a paper about just about everything.
Travis doesn’t move. He’s on his back. His chest is riddled with entry wounds. His chest is smoking, but he can’t be dead.
“Cuzzo,” you hear yourself say louder. “Get up.”
You hear sirens swarming from every direction.
“Trav,” you say, “police coming, man.”
You look inside the gas station. The clerk is on the phone, peeking through the window. His mouth is moving like he’s screaming.
“Travis!” you hear yourself yell. You’ve never yelled anything louder.
You can smell the Popeyes fried chicken just a few hundred feet away, but you’ve always preferred Louisiana up the street by the park with the beehive.
That beehive: the rocks, the line in the dirt, the thwack when the feldspar hit the tree and the bees swarmed and you ran and Travis ran.
The East Side!
That’s where it all began. You look at Travis. This is where it will end. You know you have to run for your life now, not his.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Stoneboat.
Bradford Philen writes and teaches in the Philippines, where he lives with his wife, kids, and dog Bear. His third book of fiction is forthcoming in 2020 and his full list of publications can be found at https://bradfordphilen.com.