Transforming Reality

Photos by Petra Collins

I wrote this essay/short story thing for the current issue of Oyster magazine. It’s about my childhood crush. Check it out!

You were ten years old the day Joey Wilder got left behind. That was the first time you ever really noticed him. You’d seen him around before, shared countless classrooms and bus rides with him, but he’d always been just a blur in your peripheral vision. But on that day Joey suddenly snapped into focus, for you and for everybody, and it made you wonder how you could have possibly overlooked him for so long. That drawn-out beak of a nose, those mad blue eyes, that s-s-s-stutter. How could you have missed him?

This was back in the 5th grade. You were on a class field trip to the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. Somehow, despite the excessive chaperoning that goes on during those types of things, Joey Wilder got left behind. Your charter bus had made it almost all the way back to your small town in upstate New York, had driven for nearly two hours before anyone even noticed he was missing. And then came the cries from the back of the bus. Miss. Kelly started shouting about Where’s Joey? and Was he in the bathroom? and How on earth could he not be here? You remember thinking how implausible his absence seemed, given the insufferable amount of counts and recounts of heads that had gone on throughout the day. You gripped your knees in fear, convinced he’d been kidnapped–a fate both your mother and TV had assured you would be yours if you ever wandered off on your own for even a moment.

Hours later, back in New Jersey, when the woman from the Science Center marched Joey onto to the bus, shaking her head from side to side disapprovingly, you were amazed by how calm he was. He wasn’t scared or angry or anything. He just stood there all stoic-like while Miss. Kelly dropped to her knees and hugged him so hard it looked like he would snap, shouting about how oh-so-sorry she was. And Joey just looked right back at her, with a face of mild contempt, and asked her to p-p-please stop shouting because it was giving him a h-h-headache.

That’s when all the bullying started. Kids can be really mean, you knew that, but Joey had it really bad. After that day kids started ragging on him for being “forgettable”, and saying how if he died no one would even notice he was gone. They said if he was a color he’d be beige, and called him Mr. Invisible. (Which didn’t really make sense, you thought, since he got the most attention of almost anyone.) And it didn’t help Joey’s case that he was such a classic nerd. He had the thick glasses, pallid skin and flimsy frame indicative of a boy who’d spent the majority of his life locked in his bedroom. He looked like he could be wounded from sitting in a chair too long, he was so fragile. Your grandfather used to say that some people were built for thinking and some people were built for doing, and Joey was an example of the former.

Joey dressed in the sort of worn-through, ill fitting hand-me-downs that the town’s poor families pulled from the church donation bins on Sunday afternoons. You were there the time Joey’s mom came to pick him up early from school. She must have been two-fifty, two hundred and sixty pounds. She wore a stained, mens’ striped shirt over top of her red pajama pants, and she was barefoot. Everybody said she reason she hadn’t been wearing shoes was because she couldn’t afford them. After that they started making fun of Joey for being poor. And for having a fat mom. And then there was always the running joke of his stutter–an impediment that his frequent trips to the school speech therapist never seemed to wane. He had it pretty bad, you knew that. But if Joey cared at all he never showed it. His face always wore the same placid expression, shielded by some apparent intellectual armor. It was like the kid was fucking possessed.

It was in the 10th grade that you started having sex dreams about Joey. Years later, you would wonder how integral those dreams were in your fetishization of nerds from then on. Well, both nerds and people with mild handicaps: stutters, nervous tics, twitches, hearing impairments–you couldn’t get enough of that shit. In your dreams Joey was really rough with you. He’d fuck you in the school library, throw you up against bookshelves, pull you into the backseats of cars. He’d say things like “Get down on your knees and p-p-put it in your mouth.” You’d never actually had rough sex like that in real life, but you’d watched enough online porn to know what was potentially on the menu. The first couple dreams made you feel all creepy and weird. Sure, you’d thought about Joey a lot over the years–who hadn’t?–but you’d never thought about him in a, whatever… sex way. But after the fourth, fifth, sixth dream, it was like a switch flipped in your head. Joey became all you thought about, both when you fingered yourself and when you sometimes made boring love to Greg Eckford in his family’s poolhouse after school. You wouldn’t admit to yourself that you actually liked him. How could you? He was such a dweeb. You could never date him. It would be social suicide. But then why couldn’t you get him out of your stupid fucking head? You’d heard your mom say a hundred times how dreams can transform a person’s reality, but you’d always just assumed she was talking some mystical bullshit. But now you got it. Like a lie told so often it becomes almost real, you’d cum thinking about Joey so many times it was basically like you’d already fucked him.

The summer you turned sixteen you got a job as a lifeguard at your town reservoir. Lots of kids from your school swam there, even though it was essentially just a glorified swamp. People would find snakes in the water all the time and everything, but no one seemed to care. On weekends you and the other lifeguards taught swim lessons to local kids. Joey’s little brother Jake was in one of your classes, and Joey and his mom would watch from up on the beach. That was the first time you ever really saw Joey’s body. There was barely anything to him. He was like line drawing: no ass, knobby knees, lots of sharp angles. His ribs almost pierced through his chest and back, and his skin was so white he was basically glowing. He looked like something from another planet, which you were pretty sure was not a good thing, but still, it made you wet.

“But you don’t even know me,” is what he said to you the day you first tried to kiss him, up against the shed where they kept the life rafts. It was true, you didn’t really know him back then. It wasn’t until later that you learned about his love of horror fiction and how he could play the piano, about his eczema and his pet turtle Lovecraft, and how his dad died when he was two. But back then Joey was still a fever dream, a boy who jerked his head back at the speed of light to avoid your kiss. You’d never been rejected so hard. But he followed it up with a sideways smile–the sort of twisted face someone makes when he’s hiding something, or when he’s up to no good. You stared back at him, eyes wide, wondering about the subtext of that particular smile.