The experience that’s had the greatest influence on my life occurred during the week I worked with Teo Sabano proofreading his eulogy, when I was a member of Ridley Park High’s Writing For the Community program. This would have been the winter of 1986, right after the Challenger explosion, our senior year. Every Saturday we WFCers crowded into Stacy Owenbee’s dad’s Astrovan and rode to Lucien E. Blackwell West Philadelphia Regional Library, which is now closed due to bankruptcy, like so many other institutions of our youth.
We’d move the toys and fold-out books from the children’s section and erect and unfold the cafeteria- and card-tables, upon which we would arrange pencils, erasers, grammar guides, and dictionaries. The patrons, who mainly came to experiment with the one Commodore PC or play blitz chess in the conference room, drank out of flasks even at that time of the morning. I tried to sit near Stacy but she was wearing the Jester’s Cap, which meant she was on Child Duty. To this day, I remember her on her knees there, setting up a little plastic worktable in the Kiddy Corner, looking out of place in her ripped jeans, Chucks, and denim jacket with the “Kill All Poseurs” decal. She hadn’t returned my calls since I snorted Mom’s pain pills and hooked up with Fiona Largent after the Christmas formal.
The patrons were mostly African Americans, Hispanics, or developmentally disabled adults from community facilities who brought crumpled resumes, church programs, or legal documents, tugging children like octopus arms. They appeared anxious and, I suspect now, bitter at having to rely on teenagers to assist them with basic literacy. Teo Sabano, however, simply appeared beside me in his wrinkled brown suit, like a hologram or a ghost. Out of breath, he leaned on the table and asked, “Young sir, do you mind if I sit to look for grammar and spelling review?”
Teo had a sallow face with a few days’ stubble, more like a beard than what I’d spent the marking period trying to grow. He was gaunt, with chapped lips and a shaved head, his skin dark and blotchy. There was a yellowed Yankees T-shirt underneath his unbuttoned blazer. He sat on the plastic seat, unclasped his abraded briefcase, and placed it on the table we all sat at in a long row, like the secretaries or businessmen our parents assured us we’d become.
“I need your assist with eulogy,” he explained, pulling a document from the briefcase. His voice was high-pitched. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Me and Blanca.”
The paper was written in block letters, half Spanish and half English. I’d gotten C’s my two years of Spanish so only recognized a few words. I saw “Familia” underlined a few times, “perderse” on many lines, and an acronym “SIDA” I didn’t recognize. I noticed the repetition of the proper name “Blanca,” which Senorita Hawkins had taught us meant “white” or “pure” and functioned idiomatically as “estar sin blanca,” or “bankrupt.”
I said I was sorry for his loss.
“Loss?” he asked.
I motioned towards the paper. “The deceased. Blanca?”
He coughed, propping his foot up on the table. He wore first-generation Jordans with distressed soles and no shoelaces. The cuffs of his baggy corduroy pants were frayed, rolled halfway up his sockless calf. “The deceased is both of us,” he said. “I will die also.” He pointed to a “B” tattooed on his ring finger. “The both of us, I never thought how beautiful the phrase.”
I didn’t understand, then, what his plans were, but I was struck by the nonchalance with which he accepted his stated fate. I cleared my throat.
“Well, let’s start with your audience,” I said. “To whom will you be addressing this?”
“Mi familia, back home. Nicaragua. It is bad there now, much fighting and disease.”
I recalled hearing something about Nicaragua on the evening news. Something about Sandinistas, the Iran-Contra scandal, Dad drinking whiskey and slurring that Reagan was a criminal, that the American Dream was dead. At the time, I thought he was just being an angry drunk, but looking around me now, his remarks seem oddly prescient. “Who is family?” I asked. “Mom, Dad, sister, brother….” I notched each off with my fingers.
He spread his arms wide. “All there are familia.”
“I understand,” I said, mirroring the large globe shape back at him. “And what do you want to tell them?”
“How I got SIDA, from Blanca. It was accident, not a good one. But without SIDA,” he added, “I would never love.”
I looked across the library. There were soft voices, the WFC hum I still remember all these years later. Stacy was on the floor, her piercings removed and blue hair covered by the Jester’s Cap. She and a young girl with braids were making dinosaur shapes with construction paper and those rubber scissors you couldn’t hurt yourself with. Stacy held what looked like a Triceratops and pretended to attack the girl, who giggled, eyes closed to avoid the paper horns. I remembered that Stacy’d won last year’s “Espanol Aqui!” Contest. I also remembered some advice my brother gave me when he left for college: that if you want to get a girl back, you need to start a project with her, a project where you’ll spend lots of time together alone.
I should note here that it wasn’t aberrant that Stacy and I’d been broken up when I hooked up with Fiona. Stacy and I broke up every month, on average. It had gotten to the point where our friends just rolled their eyes when we told them we’d broken up. I asked another girl out once, claiming that I was single, and she’d sighed over the phone in our kitchen (our kitchen was arranged just like the model TV kitchen in those days, wood cabinet doors, a breakfast nook, a cook’s island) and retorted, “You’ll be back with Stacy soon.”
I was immature. I blamed Stacy for being depressed and frigid. It wasn’t until much later that I learned, we all learned, what Mr. Owenbee’d been up to in the house with the floral wallpaper and front garden, where we studied for the SAT’s and watched Saturday morning cartoons. I like to think that if I had known then, I would have treated her with more consideration. I told her that on the one occasion when we ran into each other after high school, before the “accident,” but she said she couldn’t forgive me, she was sick of forgiving people. Ultimately, according to her friend Wendy Schwarber at our 10th reunion, she claimed I was “emotionally bankrupt.”
“Excuse me,” I said to Teo. “Can I speak with a colleague of mine? My Spanish is…mal,” I said, shrugging.
“You are fine,” he said. He smiled briefly but then pursed his chapped lips again, inspecting his hands. The knuckles were bruised and sheened with phlegm, the fingernails grouted with crud.
I strode across the library. Mr. Owenbee held some of those library newspapers on long sticks and watched me. I sensed a mixture of distrust and jealousy, which at the time I figured was a normal expression for a man when looking at the guy dating his daughter, but now know there was much more involved. I pointed to Teo and made the ASL sign for “Spanish-Speaking” and bent down by Stacy, putting my hands up in the air like I’m not going to touch you.
“We’re busy,” she stated, not even looking at me. “Isn’t that right, Keisha?” The girl didn’t say anything, but pointed to the stars on her mittens and smiled.
“Such pretty stars,” Stacy said sweetly. “What, Kyle?” she asked me, not so sweetly.
“I have this Spanish dude, there.” As I explained Teo’s situation and she read the letter, sneaking looks at him, he just sat there like he had all the time in the world. “I need your help,” I said.
Keisha stretched over to Stacy’s far side, avoiding me, and whispered in her ear.
“Perderse,” Stacy said, “means to disappear.” She stood up, taking Keisha’s hand and leading her to the restroom. “And SIDA,” she whispered, “means AIDS.”
The next Friday Stacy and I cut school and took Regional Rail to meet Teo at a bodega near his apartment. There was a tall, thin girl with raised moles on her nose and chin he introduced as Blanca. She had painted-on eyebrows and long nails and smoked a Newport she constantly tapped. We sat on wobbly, broken benches around a plastic table in the wind, a steel cable connecting the table to a bolt by the door. (The etymology of “bankruptcy” derives from a 15th century Italian term for “broken bench.”) Teo wore the same suit and carried the same briefcase as Saturday, out of which he retrieved perforated printouts of the document we’d worked on then.
Stacy likewise retrieved forms from her Jansport backpack and splayed them out before him. These were petitions and applications for healthcare intervention, government trials, and Medicaid applications we’d found in the school library during study hall. Over the week, we had learned everything we could about AIDS. We’d spent more time in each other’s company, eating lunch together, researching in the library while other students served detention, and resuming our nightly telephone conversations that ended when Mr. Owenbee ordered her off the phone. I figured in a few more weeks I would get her back, but I didn’t think about what I would do or feel then. I just needed to get her back. It was just like what I had seen in movies, what I had seen Dad do after he and Mom fought.
“These are for medicine, Teo, you two can get help,” Stacy said.
“We are good,” he said. Blanca didn’t look good, glumly staring at the ground, but she smiled when he grazed her cheek with his hand. She had marks on her arms and scars on her wrist that she partially covered with a 76ers wristband. Teo continued, “Happiness…dwells in our hearts?” He turned his neck inquisitively. “It is dwells, yes, in church I heard it once…to be inside? All that we want is help with words.”
“I don’t need help with words,” Blanca said. Her voice was deep and phlegmy. “He thinks just cuz I dropped out of school I can’t write. He’s so simple.” He smiled and leaned over to kiss her but she leaned away, grabbing some Vaseline from her pocket and applying it to her lips.
I picked up the document. Teo had entitled it “The Story of Us.” I can’t remember the precise words now, but in essence it told a story of two people who’d been brought together by necessity, forced by their shared disease to cultivate love for one another.
“He wrote that,” Blanca said, still looking across the street as she pursed her lips. “He’s so simple if he thinks it’s our story and I don’t even have a say.”
“I asked you, you said writing is stupid,” Teo responded, sweetly.
“It is,” Blanca said. She looked at us directly for the first time. “I don’t need to justify myself. I never justified the way I live and I won’t justify the way I die.”
Stacy shuffled the medical forms again, pushing them towards Blanca. “You don’t have to die, just look at these.”
“I just don’t care,” Blanca sighed. It was something I’d heard Stacy say many times.
“My apartment is three or four blocks,” Teo said, changing the subject, pointing towards the document header, where he’d written his address. “If you see my home you will understand more about me, about us. Please come and we finish today?”
“We need to go,” I said. I took Stacy’s hand and folded “The Story of Us” into my pocket. I explained that we needed to get back, mentioning train schedules, homework, dinner with my parents. The real reason was that Stacy’s dad worked late Fridays and I wanted to be alone with her. “We’ll just meet you tomorrow at the library, like before.”
“It is all cool,” Teo said, flashing his fake, conciliatory smile. “Cool as the opposite side of bed.”
“Pillow,” Blanca corrected him. “Opposite side of a pillow, T.”
“But the bed is cool too,” Stacy said. “It makes sense that way too, I guess.”
We walked back, still holding hands, Stacy’s eyes closed against the wind and her other small cold hand in her jacket. I glanced back at Teo and Blanca—with them both standing, you could see she was like two or three inches taller than him; she was pointing her finger at him and screaming something in Spanish. I’ll never forget the image of him with his hands apart, pleading, pretending, it looked like, that everything was going to be okay.
I never saw Teo again. Neither he nor Blanca were at the library Saturday, nor any Saturday after that. Without Teo and Blanca involved, I worried my momentum with Stacy was diminishing.
I told Stacy I missed seeing her. This was like two weeks after we’d seen or heard from Teo.
“Why do we need to see each other,” she asked, “if they’re gone?” We were at her locker between classes. I could see the adhesive scars where former pictures of us had been removed. She was wearing her white hoodie she’d written “Schlechtwelt” on with a black marker, “Schlechtwelt,” meaning “bad world,” she’d explained.
“We can still see each other. Why not?”
“You asked for my help and I helped. There’s nothing else.”
“Aren’t you curious about him, about them?”
She slammed her locker shut and turned away from me.
“Stace,” I said. I touched her shoulder but she pulled away. “Stace.”
The bell had rung and we were alone in the hallway.
Stacy remained there, fiddling with her padlock, bent into herself.
I sighed and said, “I’ll leave you alone then, you got what you want,” and it was only when I was at the end of the hallway near the Student Council banners—Fiona Largent won in a landslide that year, promising more computers with ARPANET access— that I heard her say “You have no idea what I want, you never did.”
I went to where I always went when Stacy and I argued, the nurse’s office. I told Nurse Larita my stomach hurt and lay down in a Resting Room. Nurse Larita was a tall black lady with dreads and an accent who always laughed when I said my stomach hurt and would wink and say “You rest for one hour and feel better?” She had Bob Marley records and a poster for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign on her bookshelf along with the bamboo plants. I curled in a fetal position, thinking that Stacy would be perfect if it weren’t for those two or three things that pissed me off so much: her moodiness, her mind games, her fear of physical intimacy.
I was like that a lot, always anxious that I was missing something better when I “settled” on one thing. For instance, when I watched our new cable TV, all I did was click through the thirty channels, anxious that by the time I finished the series, the content on the other channels would be changed and I would need to cycle through again to ensure I found the greatest program. It was like that with other things too—it was like the way people go bankrupt, not because they’re spendthrifts or stupid, but because they keep looking for the one real thing that will bring them peace. At least that was what happened in my case, which I really don’t see the point in elaborating on, except to say I lost my assets, like a lot of Wall Street types, in the Credit Crunch two months ago (I still remember the crowds of people outside Lehmann Brother’s, mystified).
When the bell rang, nurse Larita told me I had to leave, winking again and suggesting I have some rice or crackers to settle my stomach. I walked through a gym class running laps on the football field and skittered down the trail into Copper’s woods where we’d all get high, taking the route by Naimann’s creek until it came out by the courthouse and the Regional Rail station. I took the next SEPTA to the bodega where I’d met Teo before. When I arrived, I took out my copy of “The Story of Us” and checked Teo’s address, tentatively walking through narrow one-way streets with stripped duplexes and crack houses, pitbulls straining on chains. It was beginning to snow.
I re-read Teo’s remarks about Blanca, about how he had always been searching until the search, because of AIDS, ended. I was almost jealous of him then—what if I Stacy and I had AIDS, I wondered: could I just be with her and never think about other possibilities or fear of missing out? Teo accepted Blanca for who she was, he didn’t expect perfection, the way I did with Stacy, with so many people. Last month I had to give away my dog, Maverick, along with most of my appliances and technology. One of the things they don’t tell you about bankruptcy is when you lose things, you lose your identity. All I have now are memories.
I finally arrived outside Teo’s indicated address. The building was square, with eight dusty windows looking out from every studio apartment, as if shrieking for help (I thought of a horror movie Stacy and I’d seen, a child’s palms against the glass). I had my Sony Walkman dialed to 94.1 WYSP, which was playing that song that goes “If you can’t be/With the one you love/Honey, love the one you’re with.”
The door to the vestibule was held open by a brick fragment slathered with paint streaks. The yard’s plot was fenced in, the fence’s links torn, the lawn littered with food wrappers and glass shards. I trudged up the whitening walkway, kicking aside beer cans, and entered the vestibule. Teo’s name wasn’t on his mailbox or associated intercom button, but I had the number and pressed it, glancing, as I waited, at the carpet littered with those “Have You Seen Me?” mailers and crumpled take-out containers. There was an election flyer from Mayor Wilson Goode, who was still recovering from the bombing of the MOVE headquarters last year. I buzzed twice more and then entered the complex. There was a mold smell combined with weird food aromas from the other apartments, but the smell from outside Teo’s door was different.
It wasn’t surprising that his door was unlocked, but it was surprising to see Stacy there, sitting on a chicken crate and holding a picture frame, crying.
“Hey,” I said, closing the door and removing my headphones.
She looked over at me. There was snow melting in her hair and her hands were red and raw. She didn’t say anything but held the frame out towards me.
The apartment was one small square with a closet and a kitchenette. The closet was open and bare except for some clothes on the floor. There were stains on the stovetop and pill bottles on the counter on the other side of the sink, whose tap dripped brownish water. An open dorm fridge, unplugged from the outlet, contained books on the English language, on American history, and a fox-eared copy of Huck Finn. There was a statue of a Catholic saint, a woman saint, I don’t know her name, and a rosary wrapped around it. There were other things too: a baseball glove with the number eight written on its web, some blank VHS tapes, a Purple Rain record. I pulled up a folding beach chair next to Stacy and took the frame from her.
The picture featured a young boy with large ears and a dark complexion, standing in front of a brick adobe the size of my family’s kitchen. He wore a sort of potato sack, on which was painted the number eight and the name Yanquis in black ink. On the boy’s left hand was the same glove as the one on the fridge and in his right he held some kind of stick in a batter’s stance. He wore neither shoes nor hat.
“Think they’re in Nicaragua?” Stacy asked, her voice hoarse and weak.
“Could be,” I said. “They’re alive, they can’t be dead already.”
“Unless they want to be,” she said. “I wouldn’t blame them, we can’t know how they feel.”
“I think that’s why I came. Sort of expected to find… I don’t know.”
“Me too,” she sighed. “I think people are really, in the end, alone, and it’s all this pretending to be in love and pretending to find soul mates and expectation of getting married and having children and pretending…all this fucking pretending, is the problem.” She covered her wet hair with her hood and stood up, grabbing her Jansport bag.
I held my hand out. “Can I walk you home?”
“I don’t care,” she said.
I remember that day vividly. I realized Stacy and I were done for good, but something about that picture of Teo in his third-world Mickey Mantle uniform made me accept that. And I still recall, now, sitting on my own lawn chair in my empty living room, what it was like to be young, and healthy, and full of optimism for my future—for all our futures, wrecked now: Fiona Largent (living in her mom’s basement), Wendy Schwarber (working the fryer at Arby’s), Nurse Larita (playing bingo in a nursing home) the student council candidates (all bankrupt, greedy Wall Street fools, like me), Stacy (dead ten years now). Sometimes, I can trick myself into thinking the future is still out there, the way Teo always thought of it. I doubt he’s alive now, except in these lines. I wish I could write like I could back then, before we all grew up and everything that was promised us was destroyed. But there couldn’t be another way, I guess. I’m cool about it, cool as the other side of the bed, as Teo would say.
James McAdams has published fiction in decomP, Superstition Review, per contra, Literary Orphans, and B.O.A.A.T. Journal, among others. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he also teaches and edits the university’s literary journal, Amaranth. His work can be viewed at jamesmcadams.net.