It was hot as hell in the basement of my grandfather’s house. June is bad enough with the pressure of finals, regents exams, and the scramble for summer jobs, but goddammit, did it have to be so hot? The sky was a fiery blue on the relentlessly clear day—a sky that seemed both deep and endless and also opaque as a plaster wall smudged with thin white strips of clouds. The shadows under the trees were seemingly cool but undeservedly humid, the grass underneath them an itchy defense system…as if the shadows did not want to be burdened with three-dimensional weight.
The basement of my grandfather’s house was a sweatbox—the humidity was compounded by the lack of windows. There was one half-window in the room of the finished basement that used to be where my mother and I lived. We had since moved into the upstairs apartment of the three family home when the previous tenants moved out, and my grandfather decided to leave the landlording to those with harder hearts. The large, one window room, which used to be my bedroom, was furnished with a full-sized futon, a television attached to a hotbox, and a unique couch.
Not but a week before on Saturday, I had been on the corner with Liono having a grand time strutting about as the lords of the mailboxes when his sister, Maryanne, had come over. Maryanne, a year younger than me, had always been my friend and a peer, but never in a similar circle of friends. Liono did not like to hang out with his sister, and in order to keep the peace in their highly combustible relationship, they just stayed the fuck out of each other’s ways—though Liono has 8 fingernail scars on his back from one incident to prove that the strategy did not always work.
Regardless, here came Maryanne walking towards the summit of Castle Mailbox to speak with the Lords of the Realm.
“Want that couch, Brandon?”
The couch to which she referred to was the couch I always napped on in her bedroom in the upstairs apartment in Van’s house where they lived (next door to me, actually). It was a black number with a velvety, itchy kind of fabric and some in-laid designs.
“Sure,” I said, “I can put it in the chill room in the basement.”
“Wait a minute Maryanne…why you givin’ up the couch for?”
“Mommy said I could re-do my room and I want a desk, not a couch.”
“Aiight. Let’s move this couch, then.”
Liono had a look on his face that I didn’t understand because I don’t have a sister—let alone a little sister. It was a look of “you get away with everything” and “I have to help you” and “let’s move this couch, then” all rolled into one.
Getting the couch out of Maryanne’s bedroom and down the stairs was easy enough. I took one side and Liono took the other. Being the taller party, I took the front end and went backwards down the stairs, out the door, to the sidewalk, and to my grandfather’s garage. It was about nine o’clock at night and had only taken us about five minutes.
My grandfather’s garage is a handyman’s wonder world. Having come from the old country with nothing but the clothes on his back and no English to speak of, my mother’s father was something of a jack-of-all-trades. He had been, in his time, a solider (super briefly), a farmer, a mechanic, a photographer, a lithographer, a television repairman, a carpenter, an electrician, and a plumber—he, to this day, makes his daily bread in sewer and drainage, y’know, figuratively. The garage in his house held tools from every trade imaginable from every decade since he came to the states. The ceiling had two jars mounted to it, holding different sized fasteners, nails, screws, washers, nuts, bolts, mounts, butterflies, and other such hardware. The work bench had a vice, a press drill, and every hammer, screwdriver, pliers, wrench, ratchet, and any hand operated tool you could imagine. The garage had lawnmowers, air compressors, power hammers, drills, saws, lumber, paint, PVC pipes, copper tubing, faucets, flanges, johnny rings, ballcocks (which is the inner working of a toilet you pervert), sinks, and so forth and forever strewn about as organized and unruly as you can imagine such a space to be. They were held wild, in repurposed file cabinets and dressers, or home made shelving; they were every which way including loose. Only Papa Joe knew where it all was—if the mailbox was our kingdom, this was his creation.
Through this forest of hardware we had to bring the remarkably unmalleable couch. First we attempted to move some of the filing cabinets. They were full of metal Y pipes and connectors. This took some doing and the exertion of much dumb, brutish, teenaged strength. Then we had to move another, and again another. Then, couch in tow, we had reached the first door into the basement apartment; we had not yet cleared our turn and had the front end low and the top end high to account for the clothes dryer.
Glass and nails came raining down from the ceiling as one end of the couch smashed a ceiling jar. This plan was going splendidly. Moving forward we decided to clean the mess later and get the couch fully in the room that had once been my mother’s bedroom. It was now 10:30. If my grandfather hadn’t been in Israel at the time, he would have come downstairs and brought fire and brimstone upon us in his fury of having his order mussed and his stuff fussed.
“God damn,” exclaimed Liono, sweating like a snowman in Bermuda as he lit a cigarette, “want one?”
I did not but I took one—not for peer pressure but for practice. One has to practice such a vice.
“Aiight, B, so what we gotta do next is get it around that corner into the room there, but that corner is narrow as fuck…”
“Caff, COUGH Caff”
“Hahaha. Any-fucking-way you ready? We gotta get this couch around this 90 degree fucking angle some fucking how…” he wiped a washcloth of sweat from his brow and sounded eerily like his father, adding, “damn.”
For the next two hours we attempted to push this couch into a space it had no godly reason to fit in. Our frustration only mounted even more as the amount of space we needed amounted to only an inch and a half or so. Thus we tried to get the couch through the cheaply wood-paneled walls and doorframes, hoping for some give, malleability, luck, or angelic interference. We got none. Time passed, sweat dripped, swears were sworn, and jokes were born. This was a moving clusterfuck.
Twelve-thirty stared us in our exhausted faces as Newport 100s burned like Olympic torches near their elongated filters. Like the bolt that struck the clock tower, we had a simultaneous strike of destiny and epiphany.
Like tired gladiators battling near death, we bravely searched my grandfather’s craftsman’s armory in search of weapons to slay the beast that was the wretched inch and a half of space on the couch. We searched for a saw. The saw we took, with teeth pointed in varied directions, was certainly a saw that made the job of hacking at a piece of furniture approximately seven-gazillion times more difficult. In the sawing we took shifts—not being lumberjacks we were unaccustomed to working with a saw, and being assholes, we were sawing through A DAMN COUCH.
Eventually, we prevailed, helped in no small part to our eventual abandonment of tact, our resorting to a sledgehammer and a small axe, and then finishing the deed by ruining a hacksaw and returning to the first saw. Whereas we had set out to take a small portion of space, perhaps a corner, we ended up cutting off an entire arm from the couch. We had become delirious warriors, far from our mount of territory where we were unquestioned lords. Strangers in strange lands with strange customs—we were of the mailbox, not the toolbox.
Anon, we had defeated the couch. It went in the room and we propped it against a piece of a sectional couch that was already there, and it fit. We saw our work and it was good. Liono then, producing a nickel bag of cheap pot and a dutch, rolled up a blunt, which we smoked and enjoyed.
“I know you don’t really smoke, B, but I’ll be damned if you don’t smoke this blunt after that fucking battle.”
“If it were Magneto, I’d do the same.”
Soaked in sweat and high as hell I went to bed that Saturday night having accomplished one of the outright dumbest things I had ever dumbed. Luckily it was dumb without consequence.
The week at school passed by quickly after that-I went to my classes, I went to play rehearsal (I was now playing Jason in the school’s production of Medea), I did my homework occasionally, and I phone called with Rachel. This week she would be coming over to my house. My mother was working that Saturday, my grandfather was in Israel, and her parents were going to be visiting her aunt on the other side of Rockaway. There was a heavy intimation of big things to come. Important things. Milestone things to come this weekend. It was our year and a half anniversary, in fact. Super exciting shit.
That Friday after school, I took a little extra time getting home. I had an errand to run at the drug store. I walked over to the Rite Aid a few blocks from the school—a Rite Aid that no adult I knew would possibly be in. I had learned my lesson from being busted cutting school at the end of my tenure at Abercrombie. I walked up and down the aisles. I picked up a notebook, some pens, the newest issue of Wizard, some paperclips, toilet paper, a bar of soap, and a red pack of Trojans. The latter being the only thing I had actually gone to the store for.
Being entirely new to the prophylactic acquisition game I knew only two things—buy Trojans because they don’t break, and don’t ever buy only condoms. Both of these things were actually false, and through various experiences in both my life and the lives of others I knew I would find out why in the coming years, but for now, for me, these two truths about condoms were axiomatic.
What I didn’t know? The red box of condoms was unlubricated, which basically amounts to them being super difficult to use; much like the saw I had been using six days earlier, actually.
Nervous as hell, I walked through the store, probably looking like a shoplifter. My eyes darted, I was constantly looking over my shoulder, and I was jumpy as I rounded the corners in the aisles. I didn’t make eye contact with the cashier—though she knew what I was doing and that I didn’t need any of those items save for one. I might as well have been wearing a trench coat and a fedora in a black and white alleyway. I left the store having spent $25 when certainly six would have sufficed.
I stashed the condoms in the bottom of my book-bag, underneath all my other affects held within. I went home and went about my normal routine: homework, television, mailbox, Rachel phone call, not-watching-porno, television, Mario Kart 64, sleep.
In the morning my mother was already gone when I rose from my bed. 9:15, the green LED on the cable box said. I cooked some eggs, burned them a little, made a mess of the kitchen, put up a pot of coffee for myself, took a shower, and dressed in my fanciest ripped jeans and a vintage “I’m Bart Simpson who the hell are you?” shirt. I straightened up around the house—or did what I considered to be straightening up around the house—and watched some Saturday morning cartoons (back when such things existed and were still reasonably watchable).
Around twelve, my doorbell rang. I ran to the kitchen and hit the door buzzer—yes, the door had a buzzer. Her parents’ car scooted away as she entered the house. With anxiety and nerves aflutter, I watched Rachel come up the stairs. Being that it was intensely hot on this day, she was wearing a tank top, and for a teenage boy, any amount of skin was a thrill.
The entire event was incredibly awkward. Despite all of the talks we had been having about our first time being natural and spontaneous, the trappings of being a teenager in a long distance high school relationship required everything to be planned meticulously. In the spirit of planned spontaneity, she brought Titanic for us to watch again. The watching of that movie again didn’t last long as the anxiety of the plan and the repeated watching of the movie led us to start leading on our bases a little bit. This led us to go down to the spontaneously planned venue of the basement.
The basement was stifling. Looking at the old bedroom with one window and the sawed couch and futon, there were only two things that could have made for a better venue for the awesomely romantic moment that was to come: a cassette of Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions and lighting a candle after covering the window from the blazing blight of daylight. With all the elements in place, sweaty clothing was shed, kisses were kissed, and naked was achieved.
As spontaneity required, the box of red Trojans had been stashed in a box, in a box, under the futon—and furthermore, they were will in the box. Health class truly leaves you unprepared for the first application of a condom. There is a great deal of confusion…
Oh shit! Did I rip the condom opening the wrapper? Which end is up? How does it roll? What is that little nipple at the end? What the fuck? My dick isn’t shaped like that? Fuck. I put the wrong side on first. I hope a stray sperm doesn’t get on it. Ahhhhh. Am I really about to get laid? Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck Whatthefuck. OK. Oww. It’s on.
“Are you ready?”
“Umm yeah. I’m naked on a bed. I’m ready.”
“Oh, yeah. The umm condom is um on.”
“Ok. Um cool, let’s um, y’know…”
“Uhh, what’re you doing?”
“Huh? I’m…y’know trying to to to to…”
“It’s the wrong one.”
“You know, there’s more than one.”
“The wrong hole.”
“Lower, Brandon. Oww means lower!”
Suffice it to say that the whole thing went on like this for a while. “I love you’s” were traded throughout the experience, which of course was peppered with grunts of pleasure and pain and awkward movements. There was one leg cramp per participant. There were “oohs” and “ahhs” and “owws” and “ughs”. Positions were, remarkably, changed twice, and luckily, there was nary a drop of blood. The great thing, I’d discover later, is that unlubricated condoms allow you to last much longer on account of their nature, completely muting the effects of slow, first time sex, and, unfortunately for Rachel, causes incredible friction for the girl. I’ve come to the conclusion that unlubricated condoms are used entirely for muling cocaine.
Eventually, the deed was done and finished—on my timetable of course—and as we lay on the futon, sweaty and listening to Led Zeppelin, me riding the moment and her…probably feeling like she fell on a fence post…we were silent.
“You aren’t going to break up with me now are you?”
“No, of course not!”
“Because that would be scummy of you.”
“It doesn’t make sense, really. Not now that I know you put out.”
“Shut up, you jerk. Am I pretty?”
I took out a cigarette from my pants and lit it—not because I craved one but because, well fuck it, I just had sex and I had cigarettes. Things were starting to go my way—laid and cigarettes—I was cool as hell. It was hot as hell in the basement though. We went back upstairs and, hilariously enough, Titanic was still on. We watched it for some reason—she could never see that movie enough and I might as well have never seen it again—we shared a look at the sex scene.
If the summer was going to be littered with experiences like this, everything was going to be all right. I just needed to get though regents and get myself a job. I could probably get through at least 50% of my goals for the rest of June having traded virginities with Rachel. Of course, the question in my head was, when did we get to do it again? And would it have to be so meticulously planned everytime?
A new set of goals had just been dropped on my to do list….indefinitely…