We met on a playground. I, the ever-tenacious six-year old, was leader, chief, head honcho, and ruling monarch of a little thing I called the Vampire Club. It was a scam, of course. A poor kid in a rich school, I never intended on doing anything with the club. But for just ten smackaroos, any kid on the playground could join. Any kid except for Dan. He didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t have any friends, and I wanted nothing to do with him.
Fuck that guy.
No. We met in speech therapy. I resented the class because I didn’t have a speech impediment, just allergies. My nose was clogged so I sounded like a cheap Bugs Bunny impersonator. My mom shipped me off to second grade with a belly full of Benadryl every morning, and when I wasn’t sleeping my way through quizzes or unfocusing my vision to watch cobwebs float across the periphery, I was wiping my nose on an ever-crusty sleeve and slurring my words.
I didn’t need speech therapy.
I needed a doctor.
We met in the cafeteria. It was funnel cake day. This was before Michelle Obama championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, before people realized school lunches had something to do with skyrocketing childhood obesity rates. These were the godless glory days in which every child could be a little bourgois brat, sprawled across a sticky bench seat, covered in sugar and lard, demanding more sugar, more ketchup of the angry proles in hairnets who undoubtedly spat in our food and drank the moment they removed their black and greasy slip resistant Kmart shoes at the threshold of homes that probably looked more like mine and Dan’s than any of our peers’ homes.
I asked for extra powdered sugar.
Dan asked for no sugar.
We were archenemies.
“Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible. Thus he is master of his enemy’s fate,” Sun Tzu said in The Art of War. He could have been writing about me.
At six years old, I was the physical embodiment of Tzu’s sage wisdom. Combining guerilla warfare with sacred arts of shadow and wind, nary a teacher nor student might ever witness my crimes and believe.
My strategy against Dan was genius in its simplicity: I threw rocks at him. It’s ironic to think that fifteen years later, Dan would still be getting stoned by my hand — albeit in a different, more holistic way.
But in first grade, I’d yet to experience self-medication as both an artform and a lesson in rebirth. No, my playground days were dark times. Old Testament times. Times when I both thought of and committed to the act of throwing fistfuls of tiny rocks at the poverty-stricken thick-tongued skinny boy who reminded me of myself.
“Faggot!” I screamed as the missiles flew. It was my battle-cry, my bonzai, my sword of Lord and Gideon. Gravel crunched and rolled out from under my peeling white tennis shoes as I ran away, pattering down behind me like rain on a tin roof.
We were Others. Neither of us belonged.
Today, I can recognize that I resented Dan because he was so much like myself. We both came from crooked houses where the inhabitants, human as they were, gave us seemingly endless fodder for future years of therapy. His parents belonged to a Christian sect that may or may not have been a cult, and his older brother abused him. My parents were alcoholic Catholics, which meant that I had four layers of skin: the epidermis, the dermis, the guilt, and the hypodermis.
But at the time? Well, back then I was just a mean-spirited kid who had something to prove. Dan was an easy target. He had beady eyes, short bangs, a thin neck, and no self-esteem. So I called him a faggot, the meanest word I knew, though I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t even know what sex was. It would be two years until I learned the word vagina, and another three months after that before a girl corrected me and said, “It’s not fine China, it’s va-gina.”
A shame, really. I quite liked the idea of having a gilded porcelain pussy.
Faggot is a word I heard the sixth-graders in the back of the school bus holler out of their windows to the kids walking below. Their insults were often received by hip-high middle fingers, surreptitiously drawn gunslinger-fashion, on the condition that no parents were around to punish the offending child for making such an obscene gesture.
Yes, it was a mean word. It suited my purposes.
I wanted to be a mean girl.
At least, I thought I did. Maybe the truth is that I just wanted to feel better than somebody, anybody. There were times when I went to school after staying up all night listening to my parents fight. They were both heavy smokers, so I would sit on the top of our basement stairs and try to pick out the difference between my father slapping a new pack of cigarettes against the palm of his hand, or my mother hitting him in the face. I flinched at either noise, unsure of which was which.
There were always kids in the early days of elementary school who cried and wailed from the terror of separation anxiety. They wanted their families. They wanted to go home.
I never understood that. But what I did understand was this: The kids who wanted to go home were somehow better than me.
One afternoon, after I threw the rocks, I ran until I hit the fence that bordered our kickball field, where a waifish blonde stood alone and played with spiders.
“Did you know daddy-long-legs are the most poisonous spiders in the world? But their fangs ain’t strong enough to go through our skin,” she said, ripping off her living toy’s hair of a leg. “Wanna try?”
I shook my head and watched the mutilated spider scramble. It had five legs.
“Wanna try? He don’t mind.” It climbed to the downside of her upturned palm, but before it could escape she picked it up by one of its remaining legs. It struggled and she smiled. She was missing her front teeth.
Pluck. Four legs. The weightless fifth disappeared when she blew it from her fingers like an eyelash. Make a wish. My stomach twisted.
“You’re hurting him.”
“He don’t feel pain, it’s okay. Hey, there’s lots on the fence if you want one, too.”
“I not going to hurt any,” I said as I cupped a fresh daddy-long-legs and let it crawl over the softness of my wrist. Even though I couldn’t really feel it, he tickled all the same.
The girl sighed. “No, no, no. These guys are poisonous. They don’t feel anything.” To demonstrate her point, she pulled off all but the last leg of her prisoner.
What do you call a person with one arm and no legs? Dead.
But the spider’s last leg flicked up, then down, then up again. The motion was weak, but it was motion all the same. My spider was working its way up my sleeve. I brushed it off, into the long grasses protected from gas-reeking weed whackers by the chain link fence.
A bell rang the O of a morse code distress signal and recess was over. The girl pulled off her spider’s last leg and threw its round, humming, broken body to the ground. She ran towards the school at a dead sprint. I followed slowly behind.
Things about daddy-long-legs:
They are not spiders.
They are not venomous.
Their legs do not grow back.
Things about Dan:
He was gay, though neither of us knew it at the time.
He wanted to be my friend.
He tried to hang himself before I ever learned the word vagina.
Things about me:
I feel guilty and guilty and guilty and
In time, Dan and I went from enemies, to frienemies, to friends, to best friends who lovingly regaled each other on our worst thoughts and best sins. Our common traits, which I once so resented, became the rock upon which our church of hedonism was built.
He got me my first job in high school, at a smoothie shop in Westmoreland Mall. We convinced our malleable bosses that there should always be two people on a shift, which meant that he and I could take turns getting paid to blow Adderall off of bulk cans of crushed pineapple, to pass out in a nest of aprons after shotgunning handles of gin, to smoke joints on top of a ladder and blow smoke into the hole I gouged out of a drop-down ceiling tile with a screwdriver. We drank bottles of cough syrup through a straw and went upstairs to Spencer’s for vibrators and across the hall to RadioShack for batteries. We shoplifted, skimmed cash from the register, drew targets on boxes of cups for knife-throwing, and lured attractive mall workers into the Hickory Farms storage closet.
We once spent an entire weekend repainting the store in garish blues and reds just because we could.
But despite spending most of our hours together at work, the moment that solidified our friendship took place in the high school art room. I was on the cold, tiled floor, foggy from Xanax and weed, and he was sitting on an industrial sink block above me. The smell of turpentine permeated the air. His long legs, wide as a forearm, hung over the side and I was nose-to-sole with his new Italian leather boots.
While our paychecks weren’t much, the cash we skimmed gave us a bit of fun money. Dan spent all of his money on clothes, and he had the best wardrobe out of anyone I knew. I kept my money in a hollowed-out book, nestled between Jane Eyre and a collection of Kipling poems, in case I ever needed to disappear. This was December 2011, only a month before I wound up in the psych ward for a suicide attempt.
I thought about disappearing a lot.
That day, I was working on a self-portrait. Acrylic on canvas, the idea was to paint my face on a piece of toast. You know, like Jesus. The background of the portrait was a shade of turquoise you’d find among the chrome of a retro diner, and I was painting the crust’s texture when Dan came out of the closet.
“So you were right,” he said.
“About what?” I wanted the toast to look like a well-done slice of homemade rye, but no matter what I tried, it kept coming out stale white Wonderbread.
“I told you so.”
He slid off of the sink and sat beside me on the floor. The dark circles under his eyes were worse than usual, but there was a glow in his ruddy face I’d never seen before.
“I got laid last night.”
“Alright. Was he any good?”
“I never came so hard in my life.”
In sync, he and I both looked up. Above us loomed our art teacher like an angry parent. She scowled, then grimaced, then walked away slowly. She muttered something. I can only assume it was about not being paid enough. We resumed our conversation.
“I can’t believe it took you this long to figure it out,” I said, leaning my shoulder against his shoulder. “I’ve been calling you gay for years.”
“You know me better than I know myself.”
I grinned, rubbed my eyes like a sleepy toddler, and returned to the crust of my pareidolia. I may have known Dan better than he knew himself, but at seventeen I was only just beginning to see the vaguest outlines of my own identity.
Gretchen Uhrinek is a Pittsburgh writer. Her work can be found in Lit.cat, The Yellow Chair Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and more. She is the winner of the Scott Turow Fiction Prize (2016) and the Ida B. Wells Prize in Creative Nonfiction (2017).