Frankfurt, Germany, 1977
So he explored, circumnavigating the fence that enclosed the base, noting its holes and fissures, the places where you could lift the links and crawl under, the spot where the razor wire had been pulled aside so a kid or a communist could climb up and over. Aaron found the little guardhouse where a single MP checked his dependent ID and the Foodland across from the officers’ quarters that sold Marathon bars and grape soda and the adjacent Stars and Stripes bookstore that offered Superboy & the Legion of Superheroes and Creem magazine. On the other side of the motor pool he discovered fields of tall yellow grass, the heavily rutted paths that led through abandoned orchards of apple, pear, and plum. There were brambles in which hid rabbits the size of dogs and high, brittle reeds out of which he scared pheasants, their startled wings beating like infatuated hearts.
Bordered on one side by the 3rd Armored Division, by fields of sugar beets on the other, Old Edwards Housing Area contained rows of apartment blocks, parking lots, and playgrounds. It also contained families, friendships, entire childhoods, lives waylaid, in wait for their return to the States. Between the long, white buildings lay green lawns which Army wives, washing dishes, overlooked through kitchen windows, their husbands away on maneuvers. In the center were baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and a giant blacktop which became a festival of barbecues and fireworks on the Fourth of July. At the edge of the Kaserne — a German word he learned meant barracks — were rows of tanks and personnel carriers, quonset huts, and teenage soldiers carrying M-16s. Beyond the orchards was a valley at the bottom of which twisted a narrow canal whose gray-brown waters led to wide, empty fields and farms and, beyond that, the Autobahn, its Mercedes and BMWs accelerating magnificently toward the city.
Five days a week, in the pre-dawn darkness, Aaron woke to the sound of formations marching beneath his third floor window. I left my wife in New Orleans, they chanted, with thirteen kids and a can of beans. Sound off, one-two, sound off, three-four ...
After that summer of Doritos for breakfast while Mom, still jet-lagged, slept in, of skateboarding all day on the smooth tar of the unused tennis courts, and of riding his ten-speed for as many kilometers along the canal as his nerve allowed, came Junior High. It was seventh grade, and he was friendless as a sentry. He ate his lunch, a heated can of Dinty Moore beef stew which he bought from a vending machine, alone against the outer wall of the gym. All the white boys smoked Marlboros and talked about pussy. The black and Puerto Rican boys played disco on silver boom boxes and danced with actual girls. A group of jocks chased him home day after day, throwing clods of dirt at his legs and daring him to fight back. But Aaron was small, pink-skinned, red-haired, an officer’s son. He cried easily. He liked to draw. The music he listened to was wrong. The things he said were mocked. So he did his homework, got straight As, tried out for the part of the boy in the high school production of Music Man, which he didn’t get. At night he lay in the dark and trembled. He pictured the 9th grade girls, their tight jeans and satin blouses, the lipgloss which they applied over and over until their mouths shone like bottle glass. His penis strained painfully against his pajamas and, touching it, a whitish liquid oozed from its tip that had never been explained to him. He did not know yet that this was pleasure, so it only seemed as if he were ill.
Early in the mornings came the sound of combat boots in the hallway, the slam of the apartment door that meant Dad — a Major then — was gone, then the screaming hysterics of his sisters over which color eyeshadow to wear and the mediating tones of his mother. Days at school were dreaded like an execution and endured like a sentence. Afternoons were spent listening to the records he bought in the cut-out bin at the PX — Hotel California, A Night at the Opera — and going to movies at the Panzer Theater. He saw Close Encounters there, and Star Wars, fuel for fantasies that were so much more vivid than his real life. At night the whole family watched Dallas and Love Boat on the Armed Forces Network until that day, early January, when the television broke, offering only static. There was AFN Radio after that and, on rare, clear nights, stations from London on a short wave that had belonged to his grandfather. That winter was the darkest of his life, worse even than their year in Alaska. It was cold and gray, nightfall by 5pm, with a sky so low it felt like persecution. It rained.
It rained and rained and never stopped.
The following summer was worse because he became aware of his loneliness, because he tried to defeat it. He attended dances at the Dependent Youth Association at which no girls would even look at him. He approached the boys who hung out at the periphery of playgrounds, spitting and smoking, smelling the finger of whichever one of them had been to third base. His heart racing, he eyed the local girls. Blondes with dark red lips who wore white dresses and German army jackets, they waited at bus stops under patterned umbrellas, creatures from another universe.
No one received him. No one ever smiled back. They called him a fag.
So his explorations expanded. He travelled by train — the Strassenbahn — into the city, penetrated its center, skirted the river that Frankfurt had been built around a thousand years before, where the Anglos and Saxons originally met. He walked through its museums and entered its churches. In the cathedral downtown he listened to the organist play fugues and fantasias, the swirling, eddying notes like a fog around him. He shopped in the human-smelling, unairconditioned department stores — the crowded Kaufhof and the elegant Peek & Cloppenburg, where he used his birthday money to buy a suede jacket he later ruined in a downpour. He stopped for bratwurst and brochen at the local Schnell Imbuss, the hot mustard searing his sinuses, and bought Gummi bears and orange Fantas at the Trinkhalle. Tucked in his knapsack, his sketchpad accompanied him everywhere, and he drew what he saw, capturing landscapes and skylines, cobblestoned streets and the Frankfurter Turm, a tower that rose like a spike from the city’s edge. He also drew what he imagined — spaceships and sci-fi aliens, superheroes and exaggerated Playboy centerfolds. In his explorations he encountered grafitti that bewildered but fascinated him, words and phrases hinting at underground worlds. Sex Pistols, the walls shouted, the Ramones, Iggy Pop is God, and finally HIPPIES MUST DIE!
Yes, he thought. Fuck yes.
When school started again, he didn’t care anymore. Fuck the hippies, yes. Fuck the white kids too. Fuck the blacks and Puerto Ricans. Fuck the American girls at the dances and the German ones at the bus stops. Fuck his teachers and his sisters and his parents and fuck everyone. He got a job at the Commissary bagging groceries. With his money he bought a Walkman, and the little orange headphones became permanently affixed to his ears. At school, he sat in the library and read novels by Philip K. Dick. He ate a lunch that he packed himself on a windowsill overlooking the nearby German houses. He listened to Blondie and Elvis Costello and made sketches of other kids, giving them away to anyone who praised them.
Then, one morning, he met a boy named Tommy. Half-Korean, half-white, his skin was green and his limbs were long and graceful as a dancer’s. At school, he was one of the cool kids, a star athlete who didn’t give a shit, a hard rocker in a Rush t-shirt. His dark, narrow eyes moved slowly back and forth, giving the world a sidelong gaze. He held his Marlboro between his finger and thumb, sitting wide-legged on a plank that rested between two cinderblocks. “You’re the dude who can draw, right?” he said. Then he asked, “Want a smoke?” He had led Aaron down a path and had pressed his way into a small clearing in a wooded patch between the barracks and base housing. Tangled, overgrown branches sheltered them from a light rain. It was 8:30AM, a day in early October.
Aaron had tried them before, had stolen puffs from the long butts his father left in the ashtray, but Tommy’s question, and the way he asked it, presumed something different. In their parentless world, the offer of a cigarette was a compliment of the highest degree.
“Sure.” Aaron accepted one from the red and white pack.
“Need a light?” Tommy handed him his Zippo.
Aaron put the filter end between his lips and, fumbling, opened the silver lighter with both hands.
“No,” Tommy said, taking it back. “It’s like this.” He struck the Zippo against his jeans in a downward motion, opening the top, then swiftly brought it back the other way to turn the flint wheel and ignite the flame.
“Thanks.” Aaron puffed on the cigarette and his mouth filled with smoke. He let it out in a burst.
“You didn’t inhale.”
“You didn’t inhale,” Tommy said. “You just brought it into your mouth. You have to inhale otherwise there’s no point.”
That afternoon Aaron stole a pack from one of the cartons Dad kept on top of the refrigerator. He put Ziggy Stardust on the stereo and lit up. His parents were at work. His sisters were still at school, Amelia in play rehersals and Serena chairing the dance committee. He pulled the smoke into his mouth and breathed in, abruptly, the way Tommy had taught him. He coughed then, felt his lungs burn and his cheeks turn red. After a moment he inhaled again and coughed less this time but felt woozy. Points of light performed in front of his eyes and he worried for a moment he’d get one of his migraines. He forced himself to finish two cigarettes this way then emptied the ashtray and opened the balcony door to clear the air.
The next morning he met Tommy again on the way to school. They turned onto the secret path and ducked under the brambles that led to their hiding spot. Aaron reached into his inside pocket of his ruined jacket and revealed the pack of Marlboros he had stolen from his father.
Tommy smiled. “Right on,” he said.
The two boys sat together on cinderblocks, holding their cigarettes, inhaling like men. Other boys joined them then. Pushing through the bushes into the clearing came Jimmy Metzger and his brother Jay, Steve Foster, Robby McAnders, and Mike Hardy. Even a girl arrived. It was Rhonda DuPre, a 9th-grader in disco jeans that hugged her ass and a belted orange ski jacket that made her tits look huge.
Aaron held out his pack.
“Thanks, man,” they said, each accepting one and passing Tommy’s Zippo from hand to hand, lighting them all on a single, uninterrupted flame.