The day I lost my innocence came shortly after I became a man. My Bar Mitzvah was still fresh in my mind and I had deemed myself to be filled with righteousness. I was still naive then. I hadn’t even kissed a girl yet.
My fastidious nature earned me distinction amongst all my classmates at school. I had been shielded all along by my parents who prohibited hard candy when I was five, PG-13 movies when I was ten, and television before homework when I was thirteen. It was because of this – my conditioned response to academia – that my parents encouraged me to apply for private schooling.
To me, the whole ordeal was a distraction from my everyday life. I was short- sighted. The application process was not exciting but mandatory, nor did I realize the long-term implications of the decisions that would lie ahead. I knew I might follow my brother at one of the most prestigious and rigid boys’ schools in Massachusetts. I also knew I might receive a co-educational boarding experience at Phillips Andover Academy, a country-club atmosphere further from home. Or I would remain in public school. It didn’t matter too much to me then.
But for my parents who had already lost their innocence, my parents who knew to look ahead for me, my future was everything. And that was why I had to spend a weekend in the Berkshires, a mountainous and rural area of Western Massachusetts. It would be beautiful this time of year, they told me, with the snow and the deer. Maybe I would see deer like the ones by our home.
It was all so Mrs. Garrison – my best friend’s mother and a prominent figure in the Phillips Andover community – could get to know me better. Mrs. Garrison had offered to write a recommendation on my behalf for Phillips Andover; indeed, it was a strong relationship between our mothers that had sparked a whole friendship between our families. Her encounters with me were only fleeting, and she needed to spend more time with me so she could give a better account of my character. It was really just a formality, she said, but her family was going on vacation anyway. So we would spend a weekend at their vacation home in the Berkshires. But then, Mrs. Garrison was unable to attend at the last second due to a charity golf tournament she had signed up for and completely forgotten about. I imagined her pleading with Mr. Garrison to let me go with them anyway, begging him to write the letter for her, because a few days later we got a phone call with the change of plans: Mr. Garrison would be writing the letter for me, and he was looking forward to getting to know me better.
The Garrisons were family friends of ours. They, like us, lived in Dover, a town of superlatives. It was one of the wealthiest, the smallest, the most suburban and racially homogenous towns in Massachusetts. Our parents had met at some school or town function. They had a boy my age, Jack, whom I went to school with, and an older boy my brother’s age, Arthur, who was a standout scholar-athlete at Phillips Andover. Where our families had no overlap was with their third child, their eleven year-old daughter, Rachel. They all had blond hair and blue eyes except Rachel, so she was unique even within her own family. But she was striking nonetheless; you could tell she would grow up to be a pretty girl.
For me, this trip was more about playing with Jack than getting to know anybody. When my parents kissed me goodbye and packed my sleeping bag snugly in the trunk of Mr. Garrison’s car, my focus turned immediately to Jack who sat between Rachel and me in the backseat. Up in the front, Mr. Garrison would talk to Arthur about his upcoming lacrosse season for the whole three hour trip, occasionally pausing to ask questions to Jack or me; sometimes these questions bordered on the absurd, as I noticed that Mr. Garrison seemed uncomfortable with me. Rachel was sullenly listening to music and watching the snow-dusted trees pass by her window. Mrs. Garrison was, of course, playing golf, but she had hugged us all before we left, starting with Rachel and working her way up to Mr. Garrison, who smiled weakly after kissing her on the cheek.
They were all unlike my family. They were the typical, All-American family. Mine was one of the only Jewish families in Dover. They displayed Aryan features and athleticism, loved Nantucket and majestic Labrador retrievers. They were looser than my family, more talkative, less concerned. But Jack and I got along because we had a lot in common.
It was sports that we liked. We played on town soccer teams together. We were the fastest kids in our grade. We traded baseball cards. He favored those activities that inherently interacted with nature – biking, for example. He was a little rougher on the edges than me because of that. Scrapes and bruises were no big deal for him. I was a little softer, but we were too young to weigh these differences too heavily.
Toward the end of the car ride, we brushed through a labyrinth of pine trees up a narrow, ice-ridden pathway for what seemed like a long time. The car turned silent. Rachel had fallen asleep but the rest of us had ceased our conversations as if to watch Mr. Garrison in wonder as he navigated through the cold. Either that, or we were trying not to curse him as he tread ever so delicately on the glimmering surface beneath us. Snow was piled waist-high on either side of car because of the plows, leaving a slick trail of ice underneath.
“Don’t worry, boys. I’ve done this hundreds of times,” Mr. Garrison said, his eyes fixed firmly on Jack and me in his rearview mirror. I couldn’t help but notice how handsome he was. The thought didn’t enter my mind like that. No, the word ‘handsome’ wouldn’t have come into my head because I was only on the cusp of maturity and sexuality. But he reminded me of a superhero. He seemed young, full of vitality. His hair was brushed back and he was wearing a salmon-colored tight-fitting collar from a designer. He reminded me of someone I would see on television.
The bumpy trek led us to the house, just as Mr. Garrison promised.
“There she is,” he said calmly. I looked at the house in amazement. “Wow…”
Mr. Garrison chuckled. Jack nudged Rachel awake with his elbow and she
returned the favor with a sharp glare. They got out on the other side as I stared at the house. It was bigger than their house in Dover, but it was more isolated and somehow I found it more interesting. You could tell it was an old house that had been renovated. Though it had flair as a traditional home in the midst of nature, parts of the home looked new, like the abutting section that looked out over the lake. Thoreau would be tempted, I thought. Maybe this would be even more fun than I expected.
We gathered our belongings out from the trunk and went inside. It was just as palatial inside as it seemed from the outside. The shiny, wooden floors reflected sunlight from the rectangular-paned windows that overlooked the lake. The white walls were adorned by family photographs. A large framed photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Garrison with their dog hung right in front of me by the staircase. They were wearing gray turtlenecks, holding their dog in a funny position in what looked like the middle of an open field. I noticed their forced expressions. Their white teeth.
Jack led me to the opposite side of the house. We entered a wooden corridor that seemed much older than the rest of the house. There were actual logs – splintered logs – holding up this section of the home. It had a musty scent but I welcomed the change, breathing in deeply and exhaling with a short sigh. We walked up a thin, timber staircase into a loft with two beds that overlooked the living room below. Jack smiled at me from over his shoulder, set down his things by his bed and jabbed me in the arm.
“Let’s play some hockey,” he said, the gap between his front teeth apparent. Before I could say anything, I was following Jack back down the wooden staircase toward the entrance of the house. He took an unexpected turn by the coatroom down a hallway I had not initially noticed. The hall veered at the very end to the left, but only briefly, for there was a door there that led to the basement.
We hustled down the pine-colored steps, which rumbled beneath us. Jack flipped a light-switch at the bottom of the stairs that dimly lit the whole basement except the far end, which contained storage and in the corner, a fully made pink bed with a light bulb overhead. There was a little string connecting to the bulb to turn it on and off. The basement was grungy and unfinished, but there was a large, open space for us to play hockey. The far wall bore scattered white scratch marks from the pucks or balls that Jack had shot against it with his stick. He had drawn a hockey net onto the wall with chalk.
He propped a stick against my stomach while I gazed around the room. Jack threw his goalie mask on and started to put on his pads. I noticed the multitude of wooden doors and wondered where they led. They were surely part of the original house by the looks of their exteriors, and there was something very mysterious about that. I wanted to explore – maybe there was a hidden treasure. I would suggest it later, I thought to myself; in the meantime, I had other inquiries.
“Why is there a pink bed?” I asked, giggling.
Jack looked down at the floor.
“Rachel used to sleep there sometimes,” he said sheepishly. Realizing the awkward silence, he added, looking back up at me, “because of the renovation. It makes our hockey arena less cool.”
“Oh,” I replied slowly, “That’s too bad.” In retrospect, his embarrassment over the situation makes some sense, but it makes me wonder sometimes.
“Did you see the Bruins game last night?” Jack asked suddenly, his goalie mask hanging over his head so he could see me better.
“Yeah. Did you see the fight?”
I had seen the fight. I loved the fights.
I was cut off by Arthur who came barreling down the stairs. Without hesitation he started hitting Jack, who tried, to no avail, to throw some defensive jabs back.
“Yeah I saw the fight too! It was all like this!” Arthur yelled, while Jack giggled.
Soon Jack’s giggling turned into soft wincing and Arthur paused as Rachel shouted for us
to keep it down from the top of the stairs. Arthur smiled at us and left, threatening to pick up Rachel who shrieked and scampered at the sound of Arthur’s voice. Jack and I played alone for the next couple of hours talking about nothing but hockey, wondering if the Boston Bruins would ever win the Stanley Cup again.
We were called to dinner by Mr. Garrison against our wishes. He had ordered in pizza.
“There are pizza places out here?” I asked furtively.
Mr. Garrison gave his patent movie-star chuckle.
“There are pizza places everywhere, Nate.”
“There’s no pizza places on the moon,” Jack retorted. Mr. Garrison looked at Jack with a feigned expression of disappointment and then laughed.
“I should be more careful about what I say next time.”
So we ate pizza and talked and watched the snow spread gently over the lake.
After dinner, Arthur, Jack and Rachel went to play board games. I tried to join them but Mr. Garrison, who had just left the dirty dishes in the sink, tapped me lightly on the shoulder.
“Sorry, Nate, but I heard from your mother that you are learning chess. Would you like to play a game with me before you play with them?”
I looked at Jack from across the room for help, but he was setting up a game with Arthur and Rachel. I saw the chess table beside us. It looked expensive. The marble gleamed at me, beckoning me to play. I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to. I looked up at Mr. Garrison.
“Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”
I smiled, albeit reluctantly.
He turned to set up the pieces, and I tried to look and see if Jack was having fun without belying enthusiasm for chess. I sat myself cautiously on one side of the square table upon a slab of rock. I wondered if the seats for the table were actually just found in the nearby wilderness or if they had some company carve the rocks. I decided the latter.
Mr. Garrison got out a couple of pieces of paper and some pencils, offering one of each to me so that I could keep track of the moves. I pretended that this methodical practice was familiar, though I had not reached the level where I wrote down moves yet. He also removed a clock from a hidden drawer in the table. I had not played with a clock before, but again I faked preparedness when Mr. Garrison urged me to make the first move. I wanted him to think well of me.
It did not take long for me to discover that Mr. Garrison was an experienced player. He made deft decisions, pausing to think only shortly as if he had memorized every possible situation, rarely mumbling a word or two to me, or more often, to himself. He would routinely consider the board, move a piece, punch the clock and record it all on his sheet of paper. Then he would fold his arms and stare at me, always sporting a friendly gaze. Occasionally he would study the piece of paper as well. I, on the other hand, was constantly thinking. My piece of paper did not mesmerize me, but Mr. Garrison did. It was like he knew something I didn’t. What was I supposed to understand with each of his moves? I guessed each time. The results were negative, but only for awhile.
I had nearly given up when I noticed that the board had opened up some opportunities for me to take some of his pieces. I had only been taking lessons for a few months with some middle-aged Russian man, but I was smart enough to know basic situations, and this looked like one of them. I took his rook.
“Good move,” he said. He had begun talking to me more and asking questions about what I liked to do rather than being preoccupied with the game. It was as if he had already convinced himself that he had won the game.
“Thanks,” I blushed. Our exchange went on much like that. He asked me if I had a girlfriend, motivating Jack to shout from the other side of the room that I didn’t like girls.
“Not yet,” I grinned, “but I’m working on it.”
“Ah, I see…” he said slowly, casually moving a piece and hitting the clock. I earned checkmate. He had let me win the game.
“Very impressive, Nate. You are a smart boy,” he said, standing up from the table and extending his hand. I shook it, felt the firmness of his shake and for the first time I noticed how tall he was. I barely reached his chest.
We walked over to the others who were finishing up their game. Mr. Garrison placed his hands on Rachel’s shoulders and bent over to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I’m off to bed, everyone. Nate, the dogs have the lay of the land on the main floor, and Arthur is sleeping in the loft on the other side of the house. You and Jack have the loft on this end. You’ll have everything you need right up there, video games, TV, even a fully stocked fridge. You won’t really want to leave there, to be honest.”
He was beaming, but the mental image of it only seems fake in retrospect.
“I’ll see you in the morning.”
He gave Arthur a light pat on the back and came around the other side of the sofa to give Jack a kiss goodnight. Jack squirmed away when Mr. Garrison bent over, embarrassed because I was watching. I think he was also a little jealous that his father seemed to think so highly of me.
When they finished their game (Arthur won), Jack and I went to the loft to go to sleep. I changed into pajamas and when I came back, Jack had a mischievous grin on his face as he sat facing me on the far bed. He was holding a magazine in his hand.
“What?” I asked, laughing a little myself.
“It’s a Hustler,” he was grinning again, his beaming freckles illuminating his pale face.
“You just found it?”
“No, dude, of course not. I keep it under my bed here. Arthur gave it to me last year.”
It looked like that was the truth. The tattered pages barely clung to the spine of the magazine; indeed, pages were ripped from wear or sticky from God-knows-what.
“Oh,” I responded stoically, “Cool.”
He gaped at me as I started tugging on the blanket of my bed.
“Well let’s look at it,” he said. I sighed and paced over to his bed hesitantly, seating myself on his left side. He scrolled through the magazine. I had never seen anything like it before. Pornography scared me. The graphic imagery of men and women made me curious, but the single images of women made me nauseous. I felt confused sometimes, disgusted other times, mildly aroused rarely, and sometimes all of these emotions at once.
“This one is my favorite,” he said, turning to a page focused on a vagina. The woman’s fingers were stretching it wide and she looked like she was moaning. I felt like throwing up. And then I felt confused. I thought I was supposed to like vaginas.
“Yeah that’s awesome what else is there?” I said all at once, not pausing whatsoever, hoping for him to turn the page to something else, or even better – shut the magazine. He did just that.
“I dunno,” he said, bringing the battered folds together, “there’s a bunch of stuff. We can look at it tomorrow.”
I had trouble sleeping that night. I thought about the naked women and tried to have an erection. I wondered if I was gay.
That painful experience was abruptly but temporarily removed from my memory when Arthur jolted us awake in the morning.
“C’mon guys, let’s try out the slide! Get up, let’s go!”
He was wearing a bathing suit and had a towel over his shoulder. He was mostly poking Jack to try to get him up, but he would occasionally come over to do the same to me.
“It’s so cold though,” Jack said groggily.
“That’s what makes it fun. We can go in the hot tub afterward,” Arthur shot back. Jack’s face lit up and he curved his hips so that he was sitting upward to face Arthur.
“Oh that would be awesome! Where is Rachel?”
“Screw Rachel. She’s probably with Dad picking up groceries for dinner or the game later or something like that,” Arthur replied accusatorily without hesitation.
Jack got out of bed and rummaged through his backpack for a bathing suit.
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” I muttered.
“It’s okay, I brought a couple,” Jack said, offering one to me with one hand. “Thanks,” I groaned. I was still tired but mildly excited and anxious about testing out the “slide.”
After we got changed, we tiptoed out the backdoor because it was so cold outside.
Then I saw it: a slide had been built over the boathouse over the lake. There must have been a thirty-foot drop. This was the kind of activity Jack and Arthur loved to do; I on the other hand had a fear of heights. I shivered on the dock while Jack and Arthur rushed to the ladder that led up over the boathouse. I noticed how toned they each were, and how Jack was just a blossoming version of Arthur, who, it now occurred to me, strongly resembled his father. Arthur’s long, blond hair tossed violently as he pushed Jack aside when they got to the ladder. When he got up to the top, he yelled excitedly at us.
“The slide is iced over! Oh my god. It’s going to be so fast.”
I was too distracted by the frigidity of the air to be overly concerned with the slide. It intimidated me. I didn’t know if I would even ride on it. I focused on the hot tub in front of me on the deck, which Arthur had started to heat up before we got outside. I wanted to just sit down in it for awhile and think. Looking at these strong boys, so resolved and so free, I suddenly desperately wanted to get away.
My attention turned back to Arthur when I heard his rump collapse against the slide. He was riding down at an uncomfortably fast pace and yelping the whole way. This all ended with a resounding splash. Jack and I waited with trepidation for Arthur to reach the lake’s surface. After about ten seconds, Jack yelled over to me from the top of the boathouse.
“Where is he?”
He was running around frantically on the top of the boathouse. I too started jogging over to the lakeside.
“Where is he?!” Jack started yelling over and over again. My heart was pounding; the cold air started to prickle my skin and soon I was feeling surprisingly warm.
But just as Jack sat down on the slide so he could go get Arthur, a blob of yellow hair reached the lake’s surface.
“Haha! I got you guys!” Arthur grinned widely.
“That wasn’t funny, Arthurrrrrrr!” Jack screamed as he glided down the slide and into the water. He seemed to have quickly forgotten his fears.
“C’mon Nate…hop in!” Arthur yelled. When Jack reached the surface, he made wild gesticulations while raving about how fun it was. Like Arthur, he turned to me to encourage me to use the slide. We bickered about my participation for quite some time. I tried explaining to them my fear of heights, but they said that I was afraid of spiders, too, and how could I be afraid of everything? Finally, I resolved the matter by entering the hot tub. They quietly succumbed and each took a few more turns on the slide before joining me, dripping wet from the lake and hugging themselves tightly with their arms. I took in the scenery around us: a plethora of snow-covered pine trees encircled the lake with enormous moss-covered rocks at their side. There was another home on the opposite side of the lake.
“You missed out on a good slide,” Arthur said.
“Yeah,” Jack added, “that was a lot of fun.”
I splayed my arms out on the sides of the hot tub, letting my body absorb the heat as I enjoyed the stark contrast between the cold weather and the warmth of my body. I tilted my head skyward and closed my eyes.
“Sorry guys. This seemed pretty fun, too.”
We sat in silence for several minutes, then Arthur spoke to us with his familiar condescending tone.
“So have you guys nailed any girls yet? Or do you still beat it to the Hustler I gave you for your twelfth birthday?”
“Of course we have,” Jack argued defiantly, “I kissed Alyssa Torri at Evan’s party last weekend in spin-the-bottle.”
I started to feel uneasy, just like when Jack pulled out the magazine the prior evening. It was not that I didn’t like girls. In fact, I had just started liking them. But I was shy around them and I felt awkward about my lack of experience in dealing with them. I tended to be their friend, not the boy they wanted to kiss. Arthur wasted no time in bringing Jack down.
“Ha, Alyssa Torri. You know I banged her older sister all the time for like a whole month. What a slut. Guess it runs in the family if her little sister is kissing guys like you.”
Jack laughed and splashed water on Arthur. I wondered how women came so easily to Arthur. I didn’t think he was trying to impress us – why would he have to? He was a handsome, athletic boy, much like his father, and I began to see how he could win girls over so easily. But why did he move from one girl to another all the time? When I asked during our conversation if he had a girlfriend, he merely replied, “Never.”
It was not much longer before Mr. Garrison came home. He opened the sliding door, and with one arm held up a brown, paper bag of groceries, his other arm draped around Rachel’s neck. She played with her necklace and looked at the rusting metal of the hot tub’s exterior while he spoke to us.
“There you guys are. Arthur, I trust you boys didn’t go on the slide while I was out.”
“Course not, Dad. Jack’s a pussy anyway, he wouldn’t go on even if he had the chance.”
Jack wanted to say something, but he was smart enough to know that he would incriminate himself by saying anything. He bit his lip and gave Arthur a dirty look. I laughed. So did Mr. Garrison, but then he coughed and turned serious.
“Well, uh, you know that’s not nice talk, Arthur. And Jack is a big boy now.”
Jack blushed the same crimson color that I saw the night before when Mr. Garrison tried to kiss him on the cheek. There was a pause. We all looked at each other.
“Well c’mon guys,” Mr. Garrison said, flipping his wrist upward so he could look at his watch, “It’s game-time soon. I got us some food. Let’s go in and watch the game and eat.”
We dried off and watched football all afternoon. Mr. Garrison asked us if we wanted to go hunting or snow-shoeing. Arthur said ‘no’ so we just stayed by the television. Mr. Garrison reclined in a chair and gripped a beer. Rachel had disappeared. She was keeping herself, somewhere.
Dinner that night was strange. Mr. Garrison had cooked a roast but the meal was sub-par, and everyone chewed slowly and forcefully amidst the silence. Mr. Garrison tried to overcome the lethargic mood by asking me questions, but my mind was elsewhere. I wondered where all the rooms led to in the basement. Maybe the Garrisons didn’t appreciate the mystery and opportunity that was before them in their very own home. Maybe they hadn’t explored these paths yet. Maybe they were afraid, or unconcerned. Probably unconcerned.
“No, Mr. Garrison, we just have a couple of cats. I mean three cats.”
“Ah, I see. Well that’s nice. Though dogs are beautiful animals…they really are…” his voice trailed off at the sight of Rachel, who sighed heavily and put her fork down.
“Yes, darling?” Mr. Garrison tilted his head. Rachel was shaking.
“I’m…I’m just not hungry,” she muttered, looking everywhere but at her father. “Well, would you like dessert?” he asked her, unfazed by his obvious lack of culinary skills. She smiled immediately and said ‘yes.’
Mr. Garrison went to the kitchen counter and whipped up the best-looking ice-cream sundae I had ever seen. I wanted one, but I did not ask. “Here you go sweetheart.”
“Any boys in your life?” Arthur asked, grinning.
“Just you two,” Rachel said in between frantic bites.
“What about me?” Mr. Garrison asked, pretending to be offended.
“I meant you three. And Nate, of course,” she corrected herself, looking at me. I blushed. Mr. Garrison kissed her on the cheek. She did not squirm away like Jack.
It was then that I decided Mr. Garrison was truly infallible.
I was not tired when Jack and I ascended the stairs to our beds that evening. We would be going home the next afternoon, and I felt like it all flew by too fast. We didn’t end up skiing or hunting or doing much related to nature, like I had previously expected. We had done some night fishing briefly after dinner, but that was all. Perhaps they thought I would be uncomfortable doing things I wasn’t used to doing. I’m not really sure. Maybe they were so used to being outdoors that they wanted to get away from it this time. But that seemed all too ironic.
Jack and I talked to each other in the darkness about everything that crossed our minds. I was grateful that we didn’t look at the Hustler. We talked a lot about girls, though. I told him who I thought the prettiest three girls were in our grade, and we agreed on the first two, though I suppose I have odd taste for choosing Becky Weiss as my number three because Jack seemed repulsed by that selection. He told me about how one time he walked in on his brother receiving a blowjob from a girl, and since only Arthur noticed him and gave a thumbs-up, he stayed and watched them have sex through the crack in the door. He said he knew everything about sex. He started describing it to me, but he eventually ran out of steam and decided to go to sleep.
I stared uncomfortably at the moose bust that hung directly above me. I wondered if it was real, and if it was, if maybe it could look down on me with superpowers it got after going to heaven. Probably not, I decided. And then I wondered what happens to us when we die. Is there even a heaven? Are we judged? And then I wondered about the basement again.
By now, I had to pee and it had already been an hour since Jack had fallen asleep. Mr. Garrison was right that we could entertain ourselves in the loft, and we had, but he was wrong when he asserted we would never have to leave because the bathroom was downstairs. So I decided when I went downstairs to use the bathroom that maybe – if I could convince myself to not be afraid of the dark – I would explore the basement.
I removed myself silently from my bed, making sure that Jack was still asleep, and crept quietly down the stairs. I was cold and while hugging myself tightly, I realized a feeling of frightful solitude creeping up within me. The house was dark and empty and I immediately second-guessed my decision to tour it before departing the next day. After using the bathroom, I walked down the corridor that Jack had led me down before. I took a deep breath when I reached the door and closed my eyes.
I twisted the knob slowly and abruptly let go. I turned around to go back to bed. But then I thought about Arthur and Jack making fun of my fear of heights and spiders, my ineptitude with girls and my distaste for vaginas. I took the doorknob firmly and thrust myself into the darkness.
When I eased the door shut behind me, I realized that the lock on the inner side was broken but covered in tape, and I had masterfully closed it without making a noise. I paused to look for the light-switch. I fumbled around for an indeterminable amount of time, praying that I would find something. I did not want to go into the darkness. But I had come this far, and then I realized that there was another light-switch at the bottom of the staircase, the one Jack had turned on when we played hockey the day before. If I could just make it to the bottom, I would be alright. I descended further into the darkness.
I gripped the railing on my right and took a step, afraid I might miss one and fall. When my first foot landed I breathed a sigh of relief. I came down harder with my trail foot and the wooden board creaked below me ever so silently, sending waves of discomfort throughout my stomach. I studied the still solemnity of the blankness around me but nevertheless, I continued with more conviction, keeping my eyes closed in fear that something might happen to me on my way down the stairs, that something might jump out at me or that I would be hit suddenly or thrown into panic by some sudden noise. With each step I felt like my heart skipped a beat. I could feel my hairs raised on end in the intense coldness. And then, when I was about halfway down the stairs, I froze entirely at the sound of muffled noises coming from the corner of the basement.
They were soft, shrill cries, and they came infrequently. When I first heard a noise, I stopped in my tracks and felt an icy chill run through me. Something else was down here and I could not see it in the darkness. I waited, one hand gripped to the railing, the other pressed against the wall and my feet on separate stairs, taking deep breaths with my eyes closed and my mouth shut. I put my other foot down on the stair I had just stepped down on, and waited, listening, for several minutes. I sat in silence for seemingly endless periods of time before hearing the noise. I thought about leaving but wondered if the creaking noises I had made would only get louder, and how exposing my back to the basement would make me feel more vulnerable. I tried to convince myself that the noises were from a heater or some other device. It seemed plausible and I began to calm down. I opened my eyes and started to brace myself to move forward. Then, when I heard a soft grunt, it became readily apparent to me that these were human noises. Other people were down here.
My mind raced. I did not want to find out what was down there any more. I lost my ability to think rationally; instead, it felt like a wave was crashing into my mind, dizzying my sight into blurry blackness. I started sweating as I stood there, my cold, wet hands now both clenching the railing. As each noise came I would tremble a little more. Finally, I determined I had to leave.
The grunting became louder and I lost my composure. I needed to leave now before the person or people down there got a hold of me. But in my bold rush to leave my foot caught the bottom of the stair behind me, forcing me to come down hard on the stair I had been standing on. It made a loud, creaking noise, and all of a sudden, the room, and my mind – which had been crowded by seemingly loud, rushed thoughts – were filled with silence.
“Who is that?” a voice called out from the abyss. The sound made me open my mouth in horror. It was, unmistakably, the voice of Mr. Garrison. For a second, I thought that I could just explain myself, apologize, forget everything. It was not a stranger, and I had no business knowing what he was doing down here anyway. But what would he think of me? What if he got mad and…did something? I remained silent, closing my eyes and hoping everything would go away. I hoped he would fall asleep.
I stood there like that for what seemed like hours, listening to my heart dance rapidly in my stomach, then slow down to a calmer, rhythmic beat. I wanted to take a deep breath but I had to stay as quiet as possible, so I kept sucking in small breaths, exhaling slowly but softly. I opened my eyes, hoping that they would adjust to the darkness, but all I could make out was the rough outlines of shapes in the basement. If Mr. Garrison decided to come upstairs, he probably could have been within a few feet of me before I would be able to see any sort of figure. This thought crossed my mind, that I was defenseless and exposed. I felt naked. I felt violated.
The light bulb from the corner of the room turned on and we saw each other shrouded by misty, graying darkness, two somewhat familiar shapes. The light half- illuminated but granulated Mr. Garrison sitting upright and shirtless in a bed next to a blob under the covers beside him. I should have understood but I was confused about everything back then. He kept his left hand firmly there and looked deeply at me, a scowl on his face. I had never seen him look at me like this. I was only dimly lit, but enough so that Mr. Garrison knew it was me. I started shaking uncontrollably – I would have to confront him now.
“Nate? Is that you?” he said, twisting his head so he could get a better view. He was so obscure in the murky distance that he seemed like a creature, not a man.
I searched for things to say. I considered a last-ditch attempt at escaping, since he was not completely sure it was me. In the end, I replied timidly.
“Yes. Yes, it’s me, Nate.”
Mr. Garrison reached for the bulb above him and turned it off. My eyes did not adjust appropriately, and I felt myself beginning to tremble as my fear of the dark reasserted itself. I then heard the sound of covers as, presumably, he slipped out of bed. I wanted to run now but my feet were glued to the floor.
“What are you doing down here, Nate?” he said, a hint of worry in his voice. “I-I dunno. I got lost looking for the bathroom.”
“You know where the bathroom is, Nate,” he answered accusingly. Then I heard the creek of the bottom stair. He was coming up the stairs!
“Yeah I just wanted to…explore a little bit,” I said, trying to cover up for myself, hoping he would not hurt me or yell at me. I heard a creaking sound from right below me. He was only a few steps away now. I tried telling myself that this was not happening, that I had not intruded on him, that I had not seen anything.
“You know curiosity is not always good. It can be bad. Didn’t you learn about Adam and Eve? Or do Jews not believe in that?”
He was standing right in front of me now. I could see the outline of his rough exterior, his disappointed face looking down at me.
“Yes. Yes I did. I’m sorry Mr. Garrison.”
He took a deep breath and placed his hand on my shoulder. The contact made me jump.
“I didn’t mean that, Nate. Why don’t you go on back to bed now and I’ll talk to you about this in the morning,” he said, his hand gripping my shoulder blade so hard that I wanted to cry.
“Yes sir! Yes, Mr. Garrison. Goodnight.”
With that I scampered up the stairs, and for the second straight night, I did not sleep well.
For the second straight morning, I was also rudely awakened. This time, it was Mr. Garrison shaking me to consciousness and whispering my name, and when I saw him, my natural response was to open my mouth to scream, until I realized he was not trying to hurt me.
“Nate…Nate…wake up. I forgot eggs yesterday. Why don’t you come with me so I can get to know you a little better before we go home later today?”
The last thing I wanted to do was talk to Mr. Garrison after the previous evening’s fiasco, but I felt like I owed him something. The night before, I had begun to piece together possible reasons for Mr. Garrison’s odd behavior, but none of them appealed to me until later that morning when I sat down for breakfast. I assented anyway – because I had to – and got out of bed to get dressed.
I could not help but shiver as I crawled into the front seat of Mr. Garrison’s car, half-asleep. Part of me was worried he was going to drive me somewhere and leave me there, but I didn’t know why. He seemed different all of a sudden. Unshaven, more rugged, independent. He was less a superhero now, more a cowboy. He was more mysterious than the basement.
We sat in silence for the whole ride to the grocery store. He stole glances at me as if he was hoping to say something, and I was too afraid to initiate any sort of discourse with him as well. Somehow, I was relatively calm about this endeavor and I attributed that to my extreme fatigue. I looked out my window sorrowfully hoping to a spot a deer or something moving but all I got was snow and trees.
Our car was the only one in the parking lot when we pulled into the grocery store. Then Mr. Garrison uttered the first words of our voyage.
“Stay here, Nate. I’ll be right back.”
He got out of the car. I noted his flannel shirt. It was less stylish than the other clothing he had worn thus far.
While he was gone, I thought about the night before. I had thought about it before drifting off to sleep, but I could not solve the puzzle. What were the noises? It sounded like there was another person with Mr. Garrison. Was he…cheating? No – I would’ve seen someone. Or maybe they knew the secret entrances and exits of the mysterious basement. Maybe that someone knew the basement very well. And what was all that nonsense about Adam and Eve? I didn’t have time to dwell on it all for very long because Mr. Garrison had rushed back to the car with a pack of twelve eggs. The ride back was filled with conversation. He didn’t even hesitate when he started up the car.
“So, Nate, why were you going into our basement last night all by yourself?” Well that’s quite simple, I thought to myself. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
“I was curious about all the doors, where they go. I forgot to ask Jack about them, and I was running out of time to find out.”
“So it’s nothing to do with Jack saying anything to you then?”
Why would Jack say anything to me? I wondered then, and I still wonder now, although I think I get it. I’m still not quite positive, though.
“Nope. But I wish I asked him about it, during the day.”
“And what did you see or hear when you came downstairs last night? I’m curious…”
I coughed and thought to myself. I would just tell him the truth. I didn’t know what else to do.
“I didn’t really see anything. Just you when you turned on the light. And some soft noises, perhaps you were snoring, sorry if I woke you up – ” I was running on and on before he interrupted.
“Noises?” He raised his eyebrows, looking straight ahead at the road.
“Yes, you know, like I said…probably just snoring or something.”
He turned his head and looked at me closely.
“I see.” And then silence. I thought I was off the hook, but I could tell he was struggling to say something to me; either that or he knew what he wanted to say, but not how to say it.
“Nate. You’re a very smart boy. Can you tell me why bad things happen to good people?”
The question caught me off guard. By now, I thought Mr. Garrison was quite bizarre. What kind of question was that? I had no idea. I thought maybe it was because God couldn’t be everywhere, but I didn’t know how religious Mr. Garrison was, and he had already condescended to me and my Jewishness the night before, and so I thought that any answer I could come up with might offend him.
“Is this the kind of question they will ask me at my interview for Andover?” I asked. He looked at me incredulously.
“Don’t joke around, Nate, this is a serious question. It is the kind of question that anyone can ask, but no one can answer.”
I straightened my back in my seat and wondered why he would ask me a question if no one could answer it.
“Oh, well, sorry. I’m not really sure. Do you know?”
He shook his head.
“No, Nate, I don’t know, but I wish I did,” he said rather calmly, biting his lip at the end. And that was the end of our dialogue, for that car ride, at least.
When we got back, Mr. Garrison drifted off silently to wake his children while I sat alone by the kitchen and watched television. I greeted Jack and Arthur when they sauntered in, and said hello to Rachel when she shuffled in later. I could not help but notice how fatigued everyone looked, especially Rachel, who had long lines underneath her eyes.
We sat quietly at the table while Mr. Garrison cooked eggs. He didn’t look at anyone while he was cooking, except for fleeting moments when I noticed him watching me over the sizzling pans. I clasped my hands in my lap and tried to stare into space for a while. I thought silently to myself about whether or not Mr. Garrison carried on deeply philosophical conversations with Jack and Arthur. Then, for no reason at all, I looked at Rachel sitting next to me at the head of the table.
Our eyes locked instantaneously; her glare had pierced me to the point of shock. She had been looking at me all this time. Instead of looking away – like I usually would when I was embarrassed like this – I delved further into her expression for only an instant. There was a sadness in her eyes that persisted throughout this silent exchange, this quiet discourse where she did everything but utter the words, “Help me.”
It was then that I knew. I did not quite understand what it was that I knew, or how I could be so uncertain about what I perceived to be knowledge, but I knew that it happened. I knew it but I couldn’t believe it all at once, and for that, I would plague myself through silence.
Mr. Garrison coughed – perhaps he had noticed Rachel’s unspoken inquiry – and asked us how we all liked our eggs. I refused to look at her again for the rest of the meal and I tried to stay quiet despite Arthur’s attempts to turn the once somber atmosphere into a raucous one. I smiled at all their jokes and answered all of their questions politely, and for a brief amount of time, Mr. Garrison had stopped studying me.
We packed our bags immediately after breakfast. For a second, I thought Mr. Garrison might hold me back to talk to me again, but no, he had seemed to return to his usual self. I tried to comprehend all the recent events and though I understood that somehow I had changed, I couldn’t figure out exactly how, or at what precise moment I had become a fallen man. Either that, or I had decided to try and forget that any thing had changed at all.
“This weekend was awesome. Did you have fun?” Jack asked as he grabbed his backpack.
“It was awesome, man. I hope we do it again,” I lied.
We packed ourselves into the car in the same way we had on the way to the Berkshires. Arthur sat up front and babbled with Mr. Garrison about his upcoming hockey practices. Jack and I talked nonsensically in the backseat, and Rachel, on the other side of us, would keep herself from the world, isolated with her headphones on watching the trees whirl by endlessly. But there was no mistaking the one difference with this ride and the last one. Mr. Garrison periodically observed me through his rearview mirror, pinning me down, transfixing me with fear; yes, too many years later as I still try to forget, I am unable to rub the peculiarity of that sight from my memory.