I Stopped Being Friends With Jimmy Santini
It was around the time my father took me to Pullman, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where the eponymous company invented the original sleeper car and also manufactured a long line of coaches and trolleys in the 19th century. At first, he was reluctant to make the one-and-a-half-hour drive. The factory burned down in the 1990s and the surrounding company town, a wanna-be collusion of life and work, had been converted into a near-consummate ghetto of hilly and gridded proportions. But the trip might be educational, he reasoned, so we went.
I had suggested that we take the trip for the same reasons that I attached myself, at that age, to all of my father’s interests: my father had just begun to date again.
He had a fatherless childhood, the inverse of my own. My father had pulled himself up into the world of businessmen from an education of public schools and public libraries. My mother died eight months after I was born and his mother died at 80 and his aunts were stuck raising me. My father and I never spoke about his feelings about my mother because he is not the kind of man who speaks about his feelings. He would remarry eventually, and now I can only imagine that he doesn’t think of her very often.
We had just pulled out of our building’s garage, making our way down the lakefront from the moneyed stretch on the north side where we lived, when he announced that a new “friend” would accompany us. Her name was Collette and she worked out at his health club. We collected her from the high-rise condominium where she lived, a tall, skinny, freckled woman with green eyes and molded elbows and sporadic grey hairs that shone in certain lights. I moped silently in the backseat while Collette asked questions about my life, questions I answered only at my father’s urging, questions that were good, not condescending, not her fault. We walked around the neighborhood, the ruins of the factory covered in tarp, the brown stains surrounding the once-supports, the proto-tract housing, the administration building with its towers and spires.
My father exhibited his extensive knowledge of history and architecture, turning to Collette every several seconds to lay on thick that she was his only audience. He did not beat her over the head with the encyclopedia, like he would have done with me, instead he provided the right amount of information to convey that he was an unusually learned and intelligent man, while seeming relaxed and receptive and all of the things that are appealing in the attractive sex.
Collette spoke nearly as much as he did—she knew a lot about architecture, particularly—and every once in a while she looked at me out of the corner of her eye, wondering whether to adjust the conversation for the interest of an eight-year-old. While my father followed her with his gaze, his little nods of attention, I felt increasingly sorry for myself: even then, I knew the subtext, who he was, the uses and abuses of his charm, but I had never felt such reason to treat my father’s seduction critically, to be mocked by the way he enjoyed talking to someone who could respond to his intellectual advances, as I felt I should be able to respond to his intellectual advances. I began to consider myself stupid, to consider my father stupid, but most overwhelmingly, I entered that childish wormhole that begins with the thought, the thing I have anticipated is ruined, before moving backwards through a series of self-absorbed and repetitive images—there I was excited to go to Pullman—there I was before I knew that the whole thing was going to be ruined—there I am, standing in the skin of that blissful and ignorant boy who waits patiently for future disappointment. It was self-pity, the exact sort of thing my father hated, and as we walked in the field by St. Lawrence and 112th Street, among the homes of the factory higher-ups, the trees, the cracked surface of the sidewalk, I began, suddenly, to cry, and my father looked at me in surprise, and Collette said she needed to use the bathroom and disappeared.
The field was bordered by a sidewalk. On a square of concrete nearby, three girls jumped rope. One looked over but looked away when I raised my wet face and looked back. My father stood still and stared at me with mingled reluctance and pity and disapproval, neglecting to yell or shake me as he would have done at home, just standing there—I thought as I cried—patiently, until five minutes passed and he went and read a plaque on a nearby monument. Every several seconds, he turned his head to make sure I had not disappeared.
Collette returned and we walked down a row of small and highly ornamented non-tract homes with front yards and trimmed hedges. Across the street was a playlot where black and Hispanic kids played. Neither Collette nor my father spoke to me. If she had tried to sympathize or empathize with me—whatever word best describes this deceptively self-centered act—I would have felt ostracized. When we dropped her at her high-rise, she knocked on the back-seat windowpane before revolving through the door of her building. I looked up to see her wave goodbye as she walked into her lobby, waving to me, and even through the mask of my sullenness, I was surprised enough to wave back.
“You’re not a little kid anymore,” my father said as we drove home. He never mentioned the incident again.
Later that week, I saw Collette at Camden, the K-12 private school where I attended the third grade. Camden had been in the process of renovation since I began kindergarten. By the fall of 2000, crews had completed construction on the auditorium, the gymnasium, and the soccer field, so the school’s focus shifted to the facilities of its wealthiest students, the elementary schoolers. Throughout the semester, tarps flowed from the sides of our wing. We switched classrooms three times in the middle of the term.
My father was critical of Camden’s hippy-dippy aura, the lobotomized wealth of the parents in my grade, but he more-or-less agreed with its liberal philosophies, the progressive methods employed in the classrooms, which would one day appeal to magnet high schools, he believed, or even to selective colleges.
I spotted Collette while walking single-file from P.E. to homeroom. She talked to a man in a blue Oxford shirt and a construction helmet, pointing out a wall of windows at an interior courtyard. When Collette stopped speaking, she immediately crossed her arms, her bag hanging from the crook as her gaze slipped into a distant survey of my approaching class. The man in the helmet continued to speak. She didn’t seem to be listening, she didn’t notice my sullen countenance bobbing behind my peers, a caboose to their gauntlet train. Then again, I made myself small, unnoticeable, because I was worried about speaking to Collette. Of course, once we passed each other, I felt immediately desperate for her acknowledgement—I wanted to follow this woman, to tug on her jeans, to ask her to ask me about my life.
That night, my father ordered sushi for dinner. When I told him about my run-in with Collette, he called her immediately.
“Don’t,” I said, climbing on his lap and grabbing at the phone, my father’s nervous laughter a subconscious warning: my behavior was more irritating than funny, his laugh warned, and then he said, “Sit down and eat.” He pointed at my plate. I sat in front of it. My father put his pointer finger in his ear, dialed the phone and said, “Collette. Hi, how are you? Good. Good. So, quickly, because Jonathan is sitting here pouting.” He laughed. “No. No, he’s being fine. Hah. Yes. What. Well. I’m calling just. I’m calling just to see how things are, and because Jonathan tells me that you were at Camden today, which I found strange since I didn’t know you had any connections there.”
My father’s voice pitched into a question as he reached the end of his sentence. He forgot about his anger and smiled. I ate quickly and noisily—a performance intended to draw my dad away from the phone. Apparently, Camden asked Collette to consult on the flowers and bushes and trees they planned to plant in the cafeteria courtyard next semester. She was a landscape architect. I could hear the skein of her voice through the mouthpiece. “Jonathan,” my father said, moving the phone away from his ear, “Stop eating like that.”
He moved the phone back to his ear, laughed. Looking at the corner of the kitchen, laughing again, he said, “Yes. He does go there. No. He doesn’t like it. Just like us. The good guys. I mean. Uh-huh. Me. Now, Jonathan walks, but when I used to drop him off, I saw parents hanging around the carpool lanes. You know. The house-moms, the house-dads who take their kids to school and speak to each other around the entryway. Well. The moral of my story is that Camden parents seem to be even bigger spoiled brats than their kids.”
“I’m done,” I said, pushing my plate across the table.
“I spent so much time schmoozing to get Jonathan into that school. It’s a circus.”
Among the responsibilities of my great aunts was to take me to and from Camden. But the youngest, Eve, started using a walker a couple of years earlier, and Betty began suffering from arthritis soon after. Aunt Esther became deathly afraid of falling when I was eight, and my father decided that it would be educational if I walked to school alone, like he did when he was my age. I embraced my dad’s plan with the belief that it would bring us closer. Usually, I took Sheridan Road, then Lincoln Park West, past the statues, the slopes in the grass, the piss-stained tunnels with darkened murals. Other times, I took Broadway, then Clark, past the record store, the comic book shop, the bookstore, which would one day close in an order opposite the order of how frequently I browsed their selections. When Clark merged with Broadway, I began to sense the imperial imminence of school in my upper digestive system, so I usually took the parkside route. Sometimes, I gave a bearded homeless man change. I had no friends.
Actually, I had Jimmy Santini, like I said, and also the black kids I played with in playlots after school. In previous years, Jimmy and I passed our playdates playing video games, watching television, wrestling, and we even crossed our streams while we peed in the same toilet. Now, our friendship was supported solely by the friendship of my father and his mother, who had met, years earlier, at a networking event for recent business school graduates. They fell out, sired and bore a kid each, respectively, and by the time Jimmy and I were both accepted to Camden, Rebecca Santini and Ron Finkle had ascended to similar levels of professional success. It was a ripe time for the rekindling of a lapsed friendship, they must have thought, with professional jealousy nearly a thing of the past.
We were supposed to have a sleepover on Friday when Jimmy approached me in the cafeteria and asked if Mike Koglin could sleep over at my house, also. Sitting as I always sat—alone, by the windows, eating my lunch—I felt a familiar and dull pain in the upper part of my torso. I said I didn’t know. Mike Koglin had beat me up in the second grade. I took a moment to remember my humiliation and concluded that the only logical response I could possibly give Jimmy was a definitive No.
“My dad won’t let me have sleep-overs with more than one person,” I said.
“What a Puritan,” said Jimmy, who did better in school than I did, and then he leaned back in his chair and frowned. He asked if I was excluding, a word I never used because I could imagine my father mocking its essential Camden-ness. Jimmy continued, saying that my “excluding” meant he would be forced to sleep at Mike Koglin’s house. Apparently, Mike would never exclude me from a sleepover, although Mike had never invited me to a sleepover. I turned and looked out of the lunch room window, trying to find a mental space in which to navigate the easy manipulations kids brought to these situations.
Testing Jimmy, watching as he began to smile, I asked, “Could I sleep at Mike K.’s house?”
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “I really am. Mike’s sister is also having a sleepover. Mike’s mom is a serious Puritan. She doesn’t let both the boys and the girls sleep over at once. They also have family movie nights every Friday, which are fun, except Mr. Koglin pauses the movie every time Mike misses a plot point, and explains it to him.”
“You’re allowed to sleep there.”
“That’s because I’m a member of the family. Provisionally.”
Siobhan Koglin was a 17-year-old senior. It seemed ridiculous that her mother seriously believed Jimmy and I could be sexually threatening. Mike’s sister was five-foot-nine or ten, solidly post-pubescent, with an Early Decision application to American University in the process of deliberation, and after deferment, it would be successful. I turned away again, still panicked and reeling from images of Jimmy and Mike’s torturous designs, which I saw in Jimmy’s face. They would come into my home and beat me up, turn me into a victim in my own bed. I stared at the playground structure in the center of the courtyard, the orb of blue steel separated into rounded quadrangles. The bushes and the flowers did look a little paltry, I thought.
Then I snapped to attention and said, “But I told you my dad wouldn’t let more than one person sleep at my house at—”
“Jonathan. Listen. It would be better for us. Don’t you get that it would be better for us, if you let us sleep over? Don’t you want to do something better for us? Don’t you care about me?” Jimmy said, his falsely adult voice pitching into a whine, “We like your house. We like your aunts. We would rather stay at your house than Mike’s house.”
“Did Mike say that?”
Jimmy’s smile loosened slightly.
“Did Mike say he would rather stay at my house than his own house?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Did he say he liked my house more than his own house? If I ask him about it, will he say he likes my house more than his own?”
“Yes,” said Jimmy, more faintly, after pausing a moment.
I called my father from a payphone in the hallway, near the cafeteria, using a Sacagawea coin my Aunt Betty gave me. By some miracle, he was not in a meeting, nor did he sound particularly happy to hear my voice. I apologized for calling him at work, my tone strained and respectful and imitative. Then I asked about the sleepover.
“Is Mike your friend?” my father said, sighing. I had a sudden flash of how he sounded on the phone with Collette, whenever that was, a couple of weeks earlier, his obsequiousness, the eternal question posed by his kind mien.
“Why don’t you sleep there?
“I guess they said that they like our apartment, and they like hanging out with Aunt Eve and Aunt Betty and Aunt Esther—”
“They said they like your aunts.”
“I guess Mike’s sister is having a sleepover with a bunch of senior girls.”
“In high school?”
“What? Of course. They said they like our apartment.”
“Jimmy is a provisional member of—”
“Jonathan,” my father said, interrupting me. “I’m extremely busy, so I’m going to make this brief”—in case it wasn’t obvious, or in case I only needed reassurance about such a clear-cut social conundrum, Jimmy and Mike were taking advantage of me. Don’t you understand that? he asked. Will you promise never to forget this lesson? Those kids are making fun of you, and they’re also making fun of Aunt Eve, Aunt Betty and Aunt Esther, All three, individually.“You’re a smart boy. Aren’t you smarter than they are?” Then my father told me to tell Jimmy and ‘Mick’ that I would have nothing to do with them.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “OK.”
“OK, Jonathan,” my father replied. “I have a meeting after work so I won’t be home until late. OK? Goodbye now. I love you.”
I returned to the cafeteria to find the two boys sitting together at a table far from the windows. I said what my father told me to say, in his words, probably sounding too earnest for the lunch room, and neither Mike nor Jimmy knew how to handle this. They smirked at each other and laughed. Secretly I wanted to cut a kind of devil’s deal with them, with rules that I prescribed, more precisely, I wanted to beseech them with something simple: I would be nice to them, I wanted to say, but they had to be nice to me.
My walks home were better than my walks to school. My routine accrued a circuitousness only a few months after it began. I lied to my aunts and told them that school let out at 4:30, although it actually let out at 3. Sometimes, I walked around the North Pond and watched the ducks shift direction while they swam. Other times, I went to distant play-lots and played with boys who were outside of my family’s purview. I had an entirely different persona with these kids, most of whom were black, and cared for their younger siblings, and made me wish I had siblings. There were other kids, too, with babysitters or parents who sat on benches around the woodchips, and my mystery gave me a sense of dominance over them: I was a loner. I seemed like an orphan. I was the stuff of fantasies. I left my backpack with a babysitter or mom.
“Where’s your mother?” the adults sometimes asked.
“She’s dead,” I replied, gleefully, adding that my housemother allowed me to come to the park alone.
On the day that I fell out with Jimmy Santini, I remember a five-year-old child cried when I dislodged the head of his action figure, so I reattached it and handed the toy back to him. Most of the kids were younger than I was with younger siblings who were even younger than they were, and weaker than I was, a quality I exploited. I never instigated fights, to use the vernacular of Camden, but I did believe that violence could be just, as long as one used it only to attain power, and never to do anything subsequently but maintain power. Once I ascended high enough up the daily playlot social system, I liked to treat everyone with exemplary fair-mindedness, lead bands of little kids like scavengers, stop when people cried, determine what physical moves were acceptable and what demanded discipline, the nature of the discipline, the eye, the tooth: I could manipulate, in the playgrounds of the Near North Side. I could be a decider, after some really terrible days of school.
At 4:40, I collected my backpack and jogged all the way back to my apartment, exhilarated. Around 5, I barreled through the revolving doors of the lobby, greeted the doorman, then turned to my aunts where they sat on a leather bench. I said, “I ran.”
“You ran all the way from school?” Eve or Esther said. Betty nodded slightly and added, “Wow,” her ways always quiet and earnest.
Then they took me to the convenience store. My aunts discouraged me from scootering on the back of the shopping cart while they bought sport drinks, Kosher hot dogs, asked for details about the day, especially Eve or Esther. We rode the elevator up to my father’s apartment, where I ran around my bedroom while they cooked me food. When my father came home, I burst into the living room and splayed my body against the ground, smelling the starchy warmth of the rug before I stood and clung to his suit, or danced in his vicinity and asked questions. When I was younger, my father and I had a routine he was now begrudging to act out: he used to set down his briefcase, lift me, kiss my forehead, and put me down on the floor before he picked up his briefcase again. Now he walked through the door and said “Hi, Jonathan,” in a fugue of well-intentioned urgency, asking logistical questions of my aunts while he hurried his briefcase into the bedroom.
Sometimes, I listened through the threshold of my door while my father spoke to my aunts. He said that they coddled me too much. That they were turning me soft.
I would have treated him as fairly as I treated everyone else, on the playground, I thought, on the playground, where I was too tough a ruler to have ever been coddled, to even be seen.
One explanation for my father’s sudden bouts of anger was a side-effect of Tegretol, an epilepsy medication he took off-and-on since incurring his first tonic-clonic seizure at eighteen, during a pledging event at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The brothers of AEPi made him camp out for football tickets outside the orb-like dome of Foellinger auditorium, so my father was waiting with his pledge class, their brother overseers, on the grass between two stone paths cutting through the quadrangle. Suddenly, his head bucked back and a red pulse began to throb beneath his brain, his teeth bared, his arms curled inwards to reveal skinny biceps, as if to say, the person you have accepted into your club is not me, I’ve tricked you, I appear so frightening because social ineptness is exactly as scary as it looks.
On the day I fell out with Jimmy Santini, I returned home with my aunts and their groceries and was removing my shoes when the phone rang. “Are you gonna get it?” I yelled. The light was on in the bathroom, where Betty had gone to pee. In the living room, Aunt Esther rocked back and forth in the Eames chair, rubbing a spot on her head in a meditative and repetitive trance that lasted for ten minutes at a time. I never woke her. “Let sleeping dogs lay,” my father would say. “Hey buddy, calm down,” I yelled, knowing she couldn’t hear me, and then I walked into the kitchen and breathed through the telephone mouthpiece before I said, “Hello?”
“Hi,” the voice on the other end paused. “Is this Ron?”
“It’s his son, Jonathan.” I smiled.
“Jonathan. Perfect. How are you? It’s Mrs. Santini. Jimmy’s mom. I’m calling because I don’t know where Jimmy is. Belinda—Belinda is his baby-sitter—was supposed to come pick both of you up, but Belinda said she didn’t see either of you. She waited outside of the school for an hour. Is Jimmy with you? Do you know where he is?”
“No,” I said, and hung up on a whim, walking into my bedroom and feeling A-OK. Mrs. Santini sent Belinda to pick us up? God! Some people are so afraid of the world, I thought, not like us, Dad, right? Jimmy is such a spoiled brat, so no wonder he wants to be accepted provisionally into the Koglin family, instead of staying with his own family. Not tough, urban, bootstrap-pulling Jews like us. No lessons we need to learn. Right? Dad?
I ran my father’s potential responses through my mind, a brisk dialogue rendered realistic by fear: “You hung up on her?” “But you always hang up on telemarketers! You say so many things about Camden parents!” “But Jimmy’s mother is my friend! Why would you ever treat a friend like that? Do you know what it’s like to have friends?” “Yes, yes, I had Jimmy Santini!” “Do you know what it’s like to have a child, and to worry about that child?” “Yes, Dad, I do, Dad, I know exactly what that’s like!” “Then why would you hang up in a way that was so insane, like you’re sick, People don’t move the way you moved the phone back on the hook, the way you just suddenly moved the phone back on the hook.”
Oh God, I did something terrible and my father is going to beat me up, I thought, rigid on my bedspread until he bellowed my name and slammed the front door. I leaned toward the threshold to listen while my father dismissed Esther and Eve and Betty. The front door closed. His feet fell with the clomp of a larger-than-life body. Loudly, he cleared his throat. My best course of action, I decided, was to begin excusing myself immediately, so I ran toward the entrance of my bedroom the moment my father opened the door, and as soon as I saw his stomach at my eye-level, I turned around and lunged onto the bed, yelling,
“It’s not fair! It’s not fair! Don’t hurt me! Please! You said I should have no contact with Jimmy! You said I should say nothing to him! You said they were taking advantage of me! I said nothing to him! I wouldn’t even say anything to his mom!”
My father, who looked calmer than I expected, turned suddenly from olive-skinned to puce and said, “Jonathan! Shut up!”
Jumping up and down, considering only how to avoid my dad physically, I ran along the wall and tried to dive off the end of the bed and out of the room. He caught me by the front of my shirt and pinned me down. On my back, I curled up so my knees were protecting my torso and flurried kicks as he spoke from the low parts of his throat. “Oh, you want to play like that, huh?” he said, bending over so his chest held my legs still while he held my face with his left hand and hit me two or three times with his right. My feet went limp and my legs slid open while my father collapsed on top of me, his face hanging over mine as though he were davening—I was the floor—my wailing was announced to the world with a single tone of nascent aggression: would Aunt Esther hear me? Would Aunt Betty hear me? How will sound travel between me and the people in the world below? Was this smell, so textured and inhuman, my father’s breath?
“Stop,” he said weakly. Then he stood and left the room.
My father did not want to see my face because he needed to consider how the thing he did could be turned into something necessary and decisive. He wasn’t emotional, he believed, or impulsive, and he did not need to show me sympathy until I asked for it. It was like he said to himself: “Don’t undermine my authority in front of the children.”
Meanwhile, I lay on the sheets, twisting my torso and legs in the covers, moving spastically as though to convey some sort of illness. “I can’t breathe,” I sobbed, once or twice. Then I pressed my face into the bed. On the right side, the skin stung slightly but my father hadn’t followed through. Esther would comfort me if she were here. My mother would comfort me if she were here. I spent several moments centering my thoughts on the black of my closed lids.
Then I stood knowing that I needed to make a gesture of reconciliation before he did, knowing that this was our method of exchange: my father gives sympathy and specific rules, I give submission. My father seems to give more than I do, my father makes me aware of this. He wants no obstacles to prevent him from punishing freely for future indiscretions, he wants to cite nuances. He wants the freedom to teach lessons, to move freely and easily among didactic possibilities. If something is a learning experience, it can’t be a horror, my father believes, in an honest defense of his ego, he teacher, I student, and then, if I expressed dissent toward his power, he would say, “Jonathan, I don’t want to fight with you. Why do you want to fight with me?”
Because you are a worthy opponent, I would say, if I were older.
Walking down the hallway, yelling “Dad!” knowing that he was in his bedroom, sitting on his bed, where he would pretend not to hear me until I stood in the threshold. “Dad?” I repeated, more softly, obsequiously.
Sitting as he did bolt upright on the edge of the bed, standing as I did in the threshold, a position from which I watched my father face the windows and neglect to turn. I needed to go sit by his side on the bed, where I would defend myself by telling a lie. “Dad,” I said, sitting down next to him. “You know why I said the things I said to Mrs. Santini. I said those things because Jimmy said those things about Aunt Eve and Aunt Esther and Aunt Betty. That little lie about liking them. That’s why I said what I said. I was trying to defend our family.”
Each and every time he yelled, my father lost his voice. I knew this. I always asked if he had been crying. He asked me to give him a hug. He was equally bad at hugging and slapping, his hugs rough and his slaps gentle. He liked to say, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and then give an example of a bad deed he punished by the simple act of relating it to me—when Aunt Eve began to wear adult diapers, he told me about it—he liked to tell me things he had—quote— “No business telling me.”
That night, my father told me that Jimmy’s parents separated in September. He said that Mr. Santini had a young girlfriend. He said Mr. Santini would likely file for divorce. And Mrs. Santini is frightened because she used to keep a better watch on Jimmy than she does now. He said, Mrs. Santini feels ashamed to have the thought that he then related to me: that there is something so disgustingly opportunistic about the way Jimmy has taken advantage of her guilt, since the separation, as though he is her abusive boyfriend.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” my father said.
His paternal gaze remained fixed on my face as he spoke: “If there is one lesson that can be gleaned from this whole experience, it’s that break-ups are worse for middle-aged women than they are for anyone. Middle-aged women need more affection and support during break-ups than anyone.”
I nodded, although I had no idea what he was talking about.
My father tousled my hair and procured a sheaf of tax forms from the drawer beneath the bedside table. He suggested we pass quality time sitting across from one another while we each do our own homework. I, a good sport, agreed.
Daniel Felsenthal‘s essays and criticism have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, Hyperallergic, The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly and 3:AM Magazine, among other publications. His fiction is also forthcoming in Madcap Review. Originally from Chicago, Daniel lives with his boyfriend in New York City, where he tutors and works as an Assistant Editor of NOON.