*(originally published in the collection, Telling Lies And Disappointing People)
In high school I had a girlfriend who’s house was always empty. Katie’s mom was a social worker who pretty much lived at the office, and her dad was getting heavily involved with Community Theater—or theatre, as he said it, enunciating the continental spelling without irony or self-consciousness.
There was only the problem of Katie’s brother, Mike, who was the kind of guy that wore basketball shorts year round and referred to his arms as “bad boys”; as in “I gotta get some lotion on these bad boys before they start peeling”, or “I’d love to let you out of this full-nelson but you gotta talk to the boys”.
“It’s because he likes you,” Katie would say.
“Bullshit.” I would say.
Fortunately Mike went to college out of state and when he was home spent most of his time lifting weights and drinking beer at the neighbor’s house.
Mr. Roberts wore a beret and drove an ancient Fiat convertible with the top down, no matter what the weather conditions. He’d pull up to the house in the middle of a rainstorm in his beret, layered in tweed coats of which he had a seemingly endless supply. He’d calmly put the top up while whistling a show-tune, as if the sky wasn’t falling. He also wore a pair of horn-rim glasses that I’d always suspected were useless and only for decoration. As if a man in a beret and several tweed coats could handle any more decoration.
Aside from brazenly ignoring the weather when making sartorial choices, father and son couldn’t have been more different. I’d never seen two guys so thoroughly disappointed in each other.
From the TV room in the basement Katie and I could always hear her father walking across the porch over our heads and she’d scramble to put her shirt back on while I tackled the geometrical paradox of hiding a boner in a pair of swimming trunks. But aside from a bunch of cats mostly nobody bothered us and we’d wrestle for hours at a time, various infomercials humming in the background.
When Mr. Roberts did come home unexpectedly, when illicit teenage skin had been arranged into some kind of decorum, he’d frequently launch into one-sided conversations about the situation down at the theater. Which was always dire, as I imagine all situations at all community theaters always are. And he was upset about the state of the art world in general, of which he purported to know a great deal. These long-winded diatribes were boring and pretentious and had absolutely nothing to do with me. He was wasting the best moments of my life.
Towards the end of summer, after spending countless days at the river and becoming more creature than human, I was lying on a wicker sofa on Katie’s porch while she was inside doing whatever teenage girls do. The wicker sofa was short and uncomfortable and kind of gross, and would’ve been so even if it weren’t covered in cat hair. The end of the summer was nice because it meant that Mike had gone back to college in Denver, where I imagine he was at that exact moment drinking beers and lifting weights at some neighbor’s house.
I woke up from a nap choking on cat hair. It was stuck all over me because I was sweaty and wasn’t wearing a shirt. I didn’t notice Mr. Roberts until he was standing over me, his cape blotting out the sun.
“Are you all right?” he asked me.
“Yeah, I guess so.” I said, sitting up. The cat hair problem was obvious and I didn’t mention it.
He sat down on a wicker chair opposite me and looked at me like he wanted to say something. But, words failing him, he just took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, which must’ve been throbbing with many nameless pains. That fine, cultivated pain that could only be appreciated by superior intellects.
“So what are you thinking about?” Mr. Roberts asked me suddenly. Poetically, to say the least. “Out here on the porch in the full blossom of youth with the world all around calling out to you with hidden mystery and boundless possibility?” He actually said this kind of thing, in a loud stage voice, spreading his arms to embrace the mountains and the valleys. I didn’t know whether I felt sorry for him or envied him.
“Sometimes I think that this is pretty much as good as my life could possibly get, which is a pretty dark thought for a teenager.” I can’t remember if I said this out loud. “Happiness is misery because it portends future unhappiness. Why is the world so awful?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t say any of this.
“Have you ever done any acting, young man?” Mr. Roberts asked me for perhaps the twentieth time. “That’s too bad,” he said, without giving me a chance to respond. “We could use someone like you down at the theatre.” He threw his scarf over his shoulder and went inside. By this time I was totally desensitized to the sight of Mr. Roberts wearing a cape and scarf in the middle of August.
I noticed that he’d left his glasses on the table, so I put them on. As I suspected, they did nothing. I was looking at myself in the window when Mr. Roberts appeared on the other side of my reflection.
“I forgot my glasses,” he said.
I took them off and passed them through the open window.
Mr. Roberts wiped the lenses with his scarf, wearing a translucent smile, and when he walked away I had the feeling that something was almost over.