The first house we lived in, you opened the front door and saw carpeted stairs. Narrow and steep. At the top was a square foot of soft pink carpet then my room to the left and Mom and Dad’s room to the right. There was a thin bookcase in between the two rooms, on that pink square foot. Our family library. The books Dad wanted to read but didn’t have time to were there: Dante. I’d sit there with the upstairs light on reading Inferno.
Every now and then I tried to do a trick I saw kid spies do on TV: I took a water glass and pressed one end of it to Mom and Dad’s door and the other to my aching ear. I wanted to see if they were talking about me, gossiping, lying. I’d recently discovered that people talk about each other behind their backs; they lie; pretend. I wanted to throw up and in a weird way I guess I still do. You can’t open that door and put back what slips out; now I knew and I knew it could happen to me. I could be wrong; I could believe them even when they lied. It wasn’t my enemies who would lie to me but instead everyone I loved.
When I first found out my face got weird. Mom and I were in the car and she told me something about Dad and said “This is just between us, he wouldn’t want you to know.”
Our priest had said if you think about doing a sin, that’s as bad as actually doing it.
My voice got weird. “Isn’t that a sin for me not to tell Dad?”
She said “Nooo. There’s a difference between a white lie and a real lie.”
I needed to know what that difference was but then we were home and I had to help her bring the ShopRite bags in and I tried to ask her later but couldn’t bring it up in front of Dad—he would’ve been suspicious and asked why I was asking about lying.
After that I always assumed everyone was lying to me—hence the glass and ear to Mom and Dad’s door. But I never heard anything which oddly made me feel rejected. I hated being a kid. Being where I was.
I kept trying to spy on them, though, and one time I was listening but heard the knob turn too late to do anything about it. The door opened away from me and I fell over into their room. My head smashed the glass to pieces. It didn’t hurt. Mom spent an hour picking the shards out of my hair which was still curly back then. Dad seemed concerned but also didn’t want to accidentally cut his fingers so he offered moral support from the other side of the bed.
I didn’t do the kid spy thing anymore but I still wanted to stay on that pink square foot. So I read. Dante: the pettiest and most beautifully profound writer; snippy; he literally put all his old friends in hell; he reunited with his lost love who, in his poem, loved him back now. The perfect vision of everything writing isn’t.
Except in Purgatorio when his best friend leaves him by a river where you have to forget everything. And except in Paradiso when Beatrice tells him not to look at her anymore and even the love that led him to write the poem, to enter it, disappears. Those parts are honest about what writing is.
Not that I thought that at the time. At the time I thought “Fuck. Holy shit.” (I’d heard it in a Scorsese movie one night after Dad fell asleep without turning off the TV. Maybe Casino?) It was perfect because I wasn’t even at the point in my life where I thought “Wow, this makes me want to write.”
Why would Dante make me want to write? I liked Dante; he’d already written what I wanted to read. There was no need for me to write anything and seeing this clearly was beautiful.
But I began to wonder what petty things Dante would write about my house, my family, the pink square of carpet, Mom, Dad, me. Dante was a master, I wasn’t a master, I was just a kid. Dante was snippy, he wanted revenge.
And I wanted something I couldn’t really admit to myself and maybe that’s why later on I wrote. Just to find out why I wanted to.
Revenge didn’t come first. What came first was the freedom: the complete knowledge that had nothing to do with reality. The first video game. The perfect escape. Teleportation. A way you could run away without the corny knapsack at the end of the stick, you didn’t need skills or supplies, just time and a productive disdain for the limits you saw every time you looked anywhere.
What came first was the idea of freedom, the feeling that telling a story was actually giving someone something. A book was a bunch of mini-Christmases. When I got older and I saw all these people using writing as a way of being who they never were in high school—where they suffered the wound that made them want to write to settle scores, as a way to expand themselves—I don’t know. I’ve never felt less like a writer than when something I wrote hurt someone I know, someone I loved.
The only reason someone writes a revenge piece is because they don’t want to move on. They want writing to keep them arrested however they are. It’s not revenge on whoever the piece is “about”—never.
If a story could actually wreak revenge that’d mean the subject of the story was still in the writer’s life and you can never write with hate in your heart about somebody you see as a real person. The fact that you’re writing the revenge piece means you’ve already lost—and that’s what you want revenge on: not the person but having lost them; not life but loss, time, whatever you wanted in the first place. A web of misdirection and anger and besotted vulgarity unspools.
The closest I ever got to writing back then was that I had a diary. A Harry Potter diary with a drawing of the Hogwarts Express on the cover and everything on the inside was as embarrassing as those outsides. This was a couple years after the glass accident.
One night I wrote that I had a crush on Bethany from my class; I wanted to play wallball with her. She had long red hair and freckles; she wasn’t Italian-American.
The next morning Mom made my favorite breakfast, chocolate chip pancakes. Then she did a telling grin and said “So you were talking in your sleep last night? You kept saying the name ‘Bethany’? And something about how you had a crush on her? How you wanted to play wallball? What’s all that about?” I was worried I actually had talked in my sleep and that some part of me was out of my control, bent on undoing everything, and that I’d always accidentally reveal my deepest darkest secrets to whoever slept next to me. Nothing would ever just be mine, I was stuck a fucking open book. I was worried.
But then I heard Dad laughing from the refrigerator and I understood what was going on: it wasn’t me I had to worry about. And what I felt wasn’t worry anymore but something worse. I shoved my plate to the floor and ran to my room and didn’t come out even after Mom and Dad offered an apology which was broken up by barely suppressed laughing fits. I screamed which only made them laugh harder and only made me realize that maybe it was stupid and funny and pointless after all and that I’d better bury the part of me that thought it’d be worthwhile to just come out and be mad.
I never ate chocolate again, I don’t have a diary, and nobody sleeps next to me.
But that’s not what I wanted to say, what I wanted to say was about writing really being freedom, reading really being freedom—and when it’s unselfish and uninformed by social jockeying, degradation, some sense of rueful entitlement, some punitive self-pity—when it’s real then there’s no difference between writing and reading: you make it up as you go along, on either end, and you know the other one’s there with you; everything makes sense. And when everything does make sense like that, you forget people lie or that you’ll never be able to hear through the door, whatever your door is.
Writing is almost never like this. Reading is almost never like this.
I loved that pink square foot. Accidentally fell asleep there a couple times. I left it against my will and the only important time I left it was an accident. I was six and wore Velcro sneakers still and I was trying to transition to laces. I kept my shoes by my bed, I wore them all around the house, and Mom was calling me by the front door, I think we were on our way to a store. I was holding us up because I couldn’t get the laces right; she kept calling my name so I ran out of my room onto the pink square foot so at least she could see I was making some progress. I bent down to tie the laces and the inevitable happened, like it always does, all at once. I summersaulted down the three dozen steps and cracked my head on the tile floor.
I remember Mom freaking out from far away even though she was right next to me. I don’t know why but I started laughing and said “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” I didn’t mean it.
Here’s what I didn’t know though: when you say sorry and you don’t mean it, they know. And when you say it like that, to make them shut up and imply they’ve hurt you, there’s no better way than “Sorry” to say “I hate you. You should be feeling this pain.”
Later in life in relationships I’ve said it to girlfriends and they’ve said it to me and maybe in the moment each of us thought we meant it but when you say it and you don’t mean it, when you’re a kid and the cynicism’s spontaneous, when you’re ironic on instinct because whatever it is hurts too much, then for the rest of your life you can only guess when you mean it, only guess when she does too: sorry. And you’ll never know, even and actually especially when you want to mean it. Or believe it coming from her.
The story I wrote that hurt someone hurt her. Not a girlfriend—not her or her or her or her but her: obviously. Mom. It was some version of what I just said, the complicated loyalty I had to her, the prying sneaky devotion, and my rage that my wanting to go along with her almost gravitationally tugged me into woundedness, she couldn’t stop that fall for me or the hundreds and hundreds of falls that would have to come after.
But literally it was about a boy exactly like me who was in elementary school and one day he convinces himself he can’t walk. He allows himself to be carried to the nurse’s office and the nurse calls his mom who teaches in the same school; she starts crying and takes him to the doctor’s office. When they get there the kid can walk again. His mom drives them home and runs inside and locks herself in the bathroom where she cries in a loud and angry way while he knocks on the door and tries to apologize. At first she was angry at herself because she thought the fact that her son was hurt in a way she couldn’t stop made her a bad mother—she was angry because she was scared—then she was angry at him because she thought the kid lied to her just to get a reaction, just to show her he could do this to her. Later the story explores how this whole thing affected the kid in predictable ways in his later life.
I wrote about all that and I felt safe doing that because Mom didn’t read. Anything. Even when they read my diary, apparently it was Dad who snuck into my room and read it and he told Mom later that night.
I got my stupid story published somewhere and other people published in that same somewhere liked it and for a second I was buoyant in the center of something circular. A well-intentioned bubble.
Somehow Dad read it. Maybe after googling my name. He shared the link and called me and said congratulations. “But why be secretive about it, Lorenzo?” He was proud but then, as we talked, seemed to realized that Mom might not like it. When she stopped calling me on the phone I knew for a fact she didn’t like the story.
For years after I moved out she called everyday. Not to tell me anything, just to say things like “I’m in the car” or “We just had dinner.” Everyday, and there were a lot of days when I just wouldn’t pick up. Then the next time we’d talk she’d say something like “Oh wow so I see you just got out of your three-day meeting” or “Hello, you’ve reached the voicemail of, Lorenzo” or “Oh sorry, do you have the wrong number?”
She was never actually mad. You could hear it, the not-being-mad.
Then after that story came out she didn’t call for a week and I got a text from Dad that said “Hey you should call Mom.”
I’d just gotten out of work. It was December and I was walking around the corny Christmas village in Bryant Park picking out gifts for my family. Tchotchkes up the wazoo. Mom would’ve loved it and would’ve gone for the most corporate stuff there. Max Brenner chocolates, Anthropologie soap boxes, maybe a pair of overpriced aquamarine earrings from a place that seemed “authentic.” She liked when things looked nice. I went for the straight kitsch: a custom-made cat clock, a wine holder that was an FDNY guy holding a baby in one hand and a bottle of wine on his back, a tiny porcelain Italian flag.
I was walking through the other stores and thinking what Mom would buy versus what I would buy and I was walking around the ice skating rink where they were blasting Sinatra Christmas songs and I was thinking of her and Dad had already said I should call her, so I did. It was snowing and I was able to sit down by where the ping-pong tables usually are.
She said “I just have one question for you: so when my cousin Lauradonna Casalla sends me a message on Facebook and says she’s so sorry that you wrote this story and she says ‘I remember when Lorenzo was a baby and he was reading Harry Potter and now he’s writing this and I just can’t understand how he could possibly be writing this’ — when my cousins and people in my family say those things to me because of something you wrote, how do you think that makes me feel? You’re really smart Lorenzo so I think you can probably figure this out. And I know you love to use your freaking imagination because you made up fucking everything in this story but in a way so people think it’s real so now just imagine this: you’re me; how would you feel? What would you say to your son?”
I didn’t say anything. All of this, to be honest, felt like an incoherent overreaction. She was contradicting herself—was she mad that I stole from real life? or that I made stuff up? She was mad about another bigger thing that for some reason she wasn’t admitting to me and maybe hadn’t even admitted to herself. And she thought I wanted revenge. Consciously I didn’t want revenge. Subconsciously? You tell me but I’m not paying you $300 or getting on your couch. I didn’t say anything.
“Whatever man,” she said. “I don’t even care. It’s just embarrassing because I’m the only one, the only one who always has your back, always. And I read all those other stories too and there’s a mother in all of them and I just feel like she’s always painted in a negative light and I don’t know what I did for you to feel this way or for you to put it out there for everybody the way you do. But you know what? I know who I am, I know I’m a damn good mother and I don’t need you or anybody else to tell me that. I know it inside myself. And I pray you have your own kids someday so you know what it’s like because that is the only way you’ll ever understand what this is.”
I didn’t say anything but I half-breathed/half-sighed in a way where she’d hear me.
“Whatever, I’m done. I’m done with this conversation.” She hung up and I walked around the Christmas village a few more times. I kept the new translation of Dante I’d bought Dad even though I knew he wouldn’t read it. I kept the corporate cookbook I’d bought Mom. I returned the goddamned artisanal salt shaker I’d bought for Lauradonna Casalla. I kept walking. I passed the Chipotle right next to the five-star restaurant and I passed the Chipotle on the other side of the park too. Everything around me was the opposite of pink, the opposite of carpet, the opposite of one square foot. The library menaced everybody with the front area empty and the lions wrapped in a gauze of snow.