Jonny was always smiling. He was flabby and had shiny black hair, long and parted in the middle. His nose was nice....long and sloped up into a point. He was a year or two younger than me and always with pretty girls I knew he wasn't having sex with.
I'd recently started hanging out on the other side of an adjoining housing development called Elechester with children of white union workers and even some kids who lived in private houses. Until then I'd remained closer to the nest of the heavily integrated federal housing project called Pomonok where I grew up. Johnny and these other new kids were zoned for different high schools and some went to Catholic school and I was very much an outsider having not grown up with them, living a good half mile away, and being Jewish. Our common ground was getting high at the park on 168th street and our individual and collective desires to avoid going home. I needed a respite from the gripping darkness that was my family dynamic. Fighting. Blaming. Walking on eggshells. Depression. Guilt trips. My shame over falling from the high graces of my family and my teachers. I had become more concerned with escaping my pain and with with being high than with anything else.
On a recent afternoon I'd walked up the block and saw a sweet old lady I knew walking toward me. Mrs. Meyer would always smile at me and ask how I was and say how tall I was getting and I would feel good to be me. On this day however, she crossed the street to walk on the other side and to avoid the seedy, long haired teen with a black leather and torn jeans. I felt as if I'd been sentenced to a harsh penalty for a crime I'd been falsely accused of. I was ashamed and angry and confused. It wouldn't be long before friends would stop talking to me and mothers of friends would forbid me from coming around.
My two best friends from childhood had recently shunned me after I'd violated an ultimatum and chose drug buddies over them. My bad choices had been compounding more quickly than we were growing up. And now I found solace in this built-in community of kids who didn't know I was a problem and who shared similar drugging prowess. We'd hang out in the park late into winter nights, passing the bottle and talking about nothing and making believe that there was no school tomorrow. No mothers waiting up worried. No hangovers imminent.
Johnny was the first person I ever saw drink so much that he couldn't get up, vomit all over his lap, take another swig from the bottle, and throw up again. He smiled all the while and I was impressed. He was nice to me and bought coke a few times and convinced me to front him some and he would pay me within a short time, as soon as he sold it. I was already in debt to this guy from Jamaica High School who had recently been arrested right there in the auditorium during assembly, but was back in school now using a different first name and selling more than ever. He had his Colombian family connections and crazy pitches about how this batch had been dropped from a helicopter and retrieved on the runway at Flushing airport, or that batch had been smuggled in the heads of cabbage patch dolls. He was a born salesman and I thought we were friends, but now I owed him money. It was highly inconvenient that Johnny began to avoid me. I would run down to the park and near his house looking for him and he seemed to have just disappeared. The rumor was that Johnny said nasty things about me and that he would never pay me. I was being pressured about the money I myself owed for merchandise, most of which I'd personally consumed. Johnny continued to duck me as I ducked my guy and I was digging an ever deeper hole. All the while I was messing up in school and had no one to turn to.
One afternoon, desperate to get some of my own debt paid off, I went to the park where someone told me Johnny had just left after saying he would never pay me and laughing about it. I went to the corner of 65th avenue, turned left and up the steep hill that always left me winded, three blocks and turned right. My breathing was very fast and I felt hot as I rehersed my plea. I would first collect my money and then call him any number of names, leave him remorseful and he'd fear and respect me from there forward. I'd go directly to pay some of my debt, get high and call the day a success.
I got to the the little Archie Bunker colonial, stepped slowly up the front stoop and rang the bell. I heard shuffling and through the screen door I saw the frowning face of Johnny's mother. After a few seconds of looking at one another I asked if Johnny was home. She hesitated then said his name. He popped out from right behind her where he was hiding and said, "What do you want?." I said that I needed the money he owed me and he denied that he did.
I said , "Mrs. Baily, your son is drug addict and a dealer and a liar and he's stealing from me." Johnny stepped right up to the screened door and growled at me. "You FUCK! I'll never give you your money'". I started to turn and walk away, already defeated and feeling horrible for what I'd done to his mother, but spun back around and punched right through the screen. He fell back into his mothers arms, mouth full of blood, screen door torn from the frame and dangling. They both looked at me in horror, all of us equally surprised by the attack. I sprung down the steps and strode long legged down the street swinging my arms and panting audibly. I broke into a trot then a run into Elechester and across to the far side where the woods were. The last few acres of undeveloped land in the neighborhood (long since flattened and covered with semi attatched homes and the new107th precinct) were a place I would retreat to when I felt there was nowhere else to go. I became aware of the pain in my hand as skin peeled away from my knuckles every time they brushed on my pant leg. I fell with my back to a tree and cried hard when an inspection of my hand bore evidence of the damage I'd inflicted and I wanted to go back. To make the past ten minutes go away and for Johnny's smile to be restored. For the scars which I still wear on my hand to have been a nightmare borne of aggressive fantasy. To be free of this compulsion to always be high. To be a likable, sweet and gifted boy once again. Or to die.
But I did not get what I wanted. I flopped around in the typhoon of my own addiction for years and seperated myself from those that cared but did not know how to help and when help presented itself, I scoffed. I grew accustomed to knowing that there were people in the world to whom I was trouble. Even evil.
Years later, when I was clean and beginning to figure out what it meant to get a life, I approached the emergency room entrance to the hospital to visit my mom who had had a seizure and I came face to face with Johnny. It took little effort to put out my hand and he didn't hesitate to take it and we shook like men do and then kept going. His smile was beautiful and his teeth looked great. He was in hospital attire and I assumed that he was an orderly or a technician and I was glad.
The moment he was out of sight I wished I had told him how sorry I was. How he didn't deserve to be hated and shamed and attacked and how I was wrong and how I wish I could have done It differently. I wished I'd have told him how I'd regretted my actions immediately and how it had stayed with me ever since. And I wished he'd have forgiven me so I could begin to forgive myself.
About a third of the way down on a long but narrowing list of people with whom I've been attempting to make things right lies the name Johnny Baily. I recently went looking for him and learned that he died. I'm not sure how he met his fate but way too young I think. And I'm sadder than I would have expected to be.
There are fuck ups I'll never live down. The hardest of which is knowing that I might leave behind a legacy of cruelty and dysfunction, if even for one person (tho there are others). Thinking back on that handshake outside the hospital I take solice in my hope that our civilized conduct bore an implied mutual forgiveness.
That is, maybe he forgave me.
And hopefully himself.
I'm working on the rest.