Originally published in the 23rd edition of Susurrus
I took a moment to look around my bedroom, now filled with piles of boxes that were marked either “storage” or “school” in blue sharpie. I have too much stuff, I thought to myself. There were a lot of other things I could have been thinking about; the party after graduation, what happened after I left last night. I just had so much crap.
“It was his last night with everyone,” I heard Mom say from the living room. “He’s obviously going to drink.”
“You’d just think he’d make better choices,” I heard Dad say.
Dad was the only person in my sphere that was against me going to Berkeley. To him, my going there was like a personal attack as if I were running away. During our regular arguments he’d always bring up how I got into Cal Poly and how I should go there instead. He’d always talk about how close it was, how many people I’d know and the convenience of it all. In his head it was the superior school.
But those factors were also why I wanted to leave. “I don’t want to go to Cal Poly,” I told him during our most recent argument.
“Why the hell not?” Dad asked, yelling.
“I just want to try something new.”
Dad got up and walk towards the hall, but not without a short aside.
“I guess we’re just not good enough for you,” he said, quiet enough so I was sure to listen.
Mom had a different reaction. She smiled and said, “I’m gonna be a Berkeley Mom.”
As I started to unfold the last box, I felt my phone vibrating. It was a text from Cam, an old friend I’ve known since before kindergarten at Miguelito.
“Aye??” it read, “we still cool???”
I tapped the text box to reply. As the line flashed I drew a blank. I didn’t know what to say and I could only imagine what he saw on his end. Those silent ellipses flashing as if I were writing a heartfelt message back – if he was still looking at the screen. I closed it and put my phone away. I’ll reply later.
I finished constructing the box and stopped to lie down on the floor. Slowly I rubbed my head as the blood – which felt like all of the blood – pulsated from my temples to somewhere in my arms with the intensity of the outlet gates at Cachuma.
Last night a few friends and I decided to sneak into La Purisima Mission which is considered by many “paranormal experts” to be one of the most haunted places in California. Since the Schwarzenegger budget cuts the security presence has been limited at best. As a result, local kids made it a rite of passage to spend a night on the grounds. Cam took it a step further and brought beer. I don’t usually drink beer, but that night I drank it.
When the pounding in my head ceased. I got onto my knees and dragged the box to my bookcase. Once I filled it with my copies of Doctorow and Hemingway I taped it closed and tried to decide whether to mark it storage or school. On one hand, I might need to grab my copy of Ragtime in the near future. But what if I never needed it?
As I loaded the boxes into the car, the familiar rumbling of a rocket launch from Vandenberg broke the silence of the afternoon. I didn’t look up, the days when that was cool had passed long ago. Instead I continued loading the car while the rumble slowly faded back to silence.
When I finished, I leaned against the side door to wait for my family to see me off. My phone vibrated again. When I took it out the notification read, “Instagram: cam805 just posted a photo.”
I opened Instagram to look at the post. It was the two of us when we were kids. Cam was wearing his royal blue youth football jersey, something he would wear for most of his life, and I the yellow hoodie I used to wear all the time. “#tbt me & my day1 back in the day,” read the caption. “Good luck at Cal!”
No doubt similar pictures of Cam in a football uniform and me in civilian clothing were out there somewhere. But looking at this one was like looking at an ancient relic from days long ago, back when watching rocket launches was cool. Cam called those days at Miguelito “the good ole’ days” and maybe they were.
Back then when there was a rocket launch, the entire school would rush out of class to watch. Seeing those long lines of white steam exit the blue and enter the black was so bewitching to my 10-year-old self. It made me wonder when the blue ended and black began.
In those days after school, I’d walk with Cam to his grandfather, Mr. Ruiz’s house and wait for Mom to get off work. Mr. Ruiz had lived in Lompoc his entire life and he would always tell us stories about what the town was like before we were born. Like how back in the ‘60s all of the shops closed for the day to see Bobby Kennedy pass through for his campaign, or when the city finally had to build another high school – our crosstown rival Cabrillo. Whenever he’d tell us about these times it was always with some sort of regret that they had to pass.
How Cam and I remained friends for so long I’ll never understand. We never had anything in common and even though I went to his games, it was because my parents were on the board for the youth league – I had no choice. While he was on the field I was reading in the bleachers completely uninterested and unaware of what was going on. But I guess he returned that same sentiment by being unaware of what went on in my life. He was playing and I was going through a crisis of self.
The Saturday after the first week of school was when all the players in the league would have their height and weight taken so they could be sorted into age divisions. Once sorted, the coaches would draft them into teams. This was apparently a big deal and it took all day and it was why I spent one day every year for nine years in the equipment room while Dad and another board member – usually Mr. Ruiz – weighed over 200 kids and argued with their parents. Cam would have practice right after he was weighed, so I spent the day inside staring at the shelves of old helmets and shoulder pads that were the abyss.
Then the older boys would come in and my attention would turn from the shelves to them stripping down to their underwear. Something made me feel like this wasn’t okay. So it was a struggle for me to look without being obvious.
“It’s fine, son,” Dad once said. “We’re all men in here.” I think he thought I felt uncomfortable seeing people naked, but what was saying that supposed to achieve?
I think Mr. Ruiz saw me and knew what was going on. One year he came up to me with a Magic Treehouse book and said, “The equipment hasn’t moved.” It was easier to not look after that.
I closed Instagram and went back to Cam’s text. “Aye?? we still cool??”
I tried to write a response, but I went back to look through his profile some more. I stopped to look at a post of Cam in his football uniform and his girlfriend, Stephanie, kissing from opposite sides of a low fence. The post was captioned, “HOME OF THE BRAVES BABY!” which was flanked by a blue heart emoji on both sides.
The night it was taken, Cam was still on a victory high after Lompoc beat Cabrillo. When the fourth quarter ended, he handed me his phone and told me to take the picture. It was very uncomfortable and it didn’t help that it took a few tries to get it right.
At the time Cam and Stephanie had been dating for about a year and a half. I thought she was nice, but I never thought anything more of her. As far as I was concerned, she was just another one of Cam’s pseudo-girlfriends he always seemed to have since we were 12. And by that time, Mom didn’t like that I was becoming a third wheel.
“You know the next time you guys go to the movies,” Mom would say, “you should invite someone yourself.”
Mom shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, “do you like anyone in class?”
I’d never been asked that question before. What did she mean by like? I thought some girls in my class were cool or funny, but did that mean I liked them?
Luckily, Dad saved me from this confusion. “He’s obviously not interested into girls yet,” he interjected. “Wait till he’s 14, he’ll be all over them.”
With that deadline in mind, I turned 13 and realized that the reason I didn’t like girls was because I liked guys. I didn’t live in a homophobic environment, it was just something we never talked about. As self-important as it may sound, I actually thought I was the only guy in the world who liked other guys. In what seemed like a simple solution, I decided that I wasn’t going to like guys or girls – spoiler: it didn’t work.
“God dammit! Son’f bitch!” yelled a familiar voice. I looked across the street and saw our neighbor, Mr. Wold, trying to push a piece of scrap metal off his foot. When it was off, he took hold of his foot and focused on the pain.
“Hey Mr. Wold,” I said with a smile, “what are you gonna do with all that?”
Mr. Wold slowly stood back up and answered in his southern drawl, “I’m buildin’ a rocket.”
“Gonna fly it,” he yelled back as he dragged the metal towards the side gate. Before disappearing behind the garage he added, “gittin’ out of here.”
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Air Force began developing their own Space Shuttle program at Vandenberg. Mr. Wold was a relic from the wave of young engineers and physicists who rushed to this little hamlet on Point Conception with their families and the hopes of becoming the new Cape Canaveral. Because of this sudden influx of people, the town experienced unprecedented growth. Mr. Ruiz called it “the space rush.”
“Where this house is right now,” Mr. Ruiz would say when he’d begin one of his space rush tales, “there used to be nothing but flower fields. When the scientists all came in, that’s when they built them.”
Of all his stories, his favorite ones came from the space rush. He’s tell us about the kids Cam’s parents played with and how the city commissioned Mrs. Ruiz to paint a mural to welcome the new residents. But whenever he’d tell us about when the Space Shuttle arrived, it was always with an air of hope.
“We knew that the shuttle was supposed to come,” he said, “but when we looked up into the sky and saw it on top of that big plane that was when it became real. They were gonna be launching shuttles every hour. Every day. We were gonna be Cape Canaveral. That was gonna be us.”
The next time there was a rocket launch at school, Cam and I started to say that they were taking supplies up to the Space Shuttle.
When my parents finally came outside, the goodbye process began. Whatever feelings Dad had about my leaving were gone. He gave his “I’m proud of you” speech before checking my oil one last time and giving me a hug where – I swear – I heard a whimper. Mom cried, too. She gave her “be safe” speech and hugged me again.
Mr. Wold’s scrap metal dragging briefly interrupted us. Dad looked across the street and watched through gritted teeth. Somehow he was able to say, “You need help with that, Hank?”
Mr. Wold stopped and looked up at Dad. “I don’t need no help!” he proclaimed before loudly dragging the rusty axel through the side gate. My parents looked over and just glared at Mr. Wold’s house.
“Seventeen years,” said Dad as he shook his head, “and he still hasn’t changed.”
“What’s he going to do with it?” said Mom with more annoyance than curiosity.
“He’s buildin’ a rocket,” I added in my best Mr. Wold voice.
Dad looked back at me, rolling his eyes and said, “He’s not building a rocket.”
“He might be,” I said playfully. “He did used to be an engineer. We don’t know.”
“We do know,” said Dad. “He’s been saying the same thing since I was a kid.”
“So what’s he doing with all that metal?” I asked.
“Recycling,” Dad answered just to get me to stop. He knew I was fucking with him. Even when his son was going off to college, he still found time to hate Mr. Wold. It was petty, and it was also the funniest thing in the world.
“Wasn’t Cam supposed to come by?” asked Mom, “Where is he?”
I said, “I don’t know.” Which made me think about his text.
“That’s sad,” Mom added, “Not seeing your best friend before you leave.”
“Don’t you want to see him?” asked Dad.
“I saw him last night,” I replied. “It’s fine.”
“Probably with Stephanie,” Dad said. “He’s always with her.”
“It’s good he found someone,” said Mom. “She really makes him happy.”
Mom loved the idea of Cam and Stephanie together and to an extent I guess I did, too. Regardless of how irritated I’d get when Cam went on his “I’m in deep” rants, I cared about his happiness. Mom did too, but I had my suspicions that she liked it – at least partially – because I didn’t date girls.
By the time I was in high school, I got creative with avoiding suspicions of my sexuality by abandoning my third wheel status. Cam and I were still friends, it just got really difficult to hang out with him and Stephanie outside school and not be asked, “Are you bringing anybody?
The two of us didn’t hang out until the summer before senior year when Cam had his first serious fight with Stephanie. He picked me up to go for a drive through the Santa Rita Hills, mostly to vent his frustrations.
“Are you two communicating at all?” I said, trying my best to find the root of the problem.
“Why do we need to communicate?” asked Cam, partly screaming. “We’re together all the fuckin’ time, if she has something to say, why doesn’t she say it?”
“Maybe you two need to cut your time together,” I said. “I don’t know, you know the situation better than I do.” I continued, “Once in a while you need to be a person as opposed to being part of a couple. That’s just me, though.”
“I don’t know, bro,” said Cam, “this girl’s doing something to me.”
I rolled my eyes as I said, “I’ve heard that for like two or three years, man. What is it that she’s doing?”
Cam sighed and said, “It’s just… why would I not want to be with her? I know what you’re saying but you’d understand if you finally found a girl.” Nothing was said until we got onto the 101 near Gaviota and Cam brought up the same subject. “Like you really need to find yourself a girl,” he said, “You’re cool and shit, you could get one.”
I looked out the window across the Santa Barbara channel. The sun had settled just behind Santa Rosa Island, turning the sky into a murky shade of tangerine that sparkled off the water. The lights on the oil rigs beyond the island made them look like galleons sailing for a distant place in a distant time. The world was changing around us, and I didn’t want to have conversations like this anymore.
I looked towards Cam, but he kept his eyes on the road. “Cam,” I said with my voice trembling as if I were about to cry (but I didn’t feel it coming), “has it ever occurred to you that I may not want to find a girl?”
“Look,” Cam persisted, “maybe Lompoc girls aren’t your type. I get it, not a lot to choose from. You’ll find her though.”
“Cam, no. that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Half joking, Cam asked, “Are you gay or something?”
“Sure,” I said, but I immediately realized that wasn’t a clear enough answer. “Yeah,” I added. I looked back at him. Cam was silent for a few minutes before he started nodding.
“Okay,” he said, “cool.”
“Yeah,” said Cam, “You’re one of my day ones. You liking guys or girls, isn’t gonna change that.” I was taken aback by his apathy. He treated what I just told him like he found out I cheated on a test. He looked over at me and made an assuring smirk. “We’re still cool,” he said.
I hugged my parents one more time, promised to come back for the nearest holiday and then I was off. A couple blocks down, my phone started vibrating in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw that Cam was calling me before I put the phone on the center console and kept driving.
I tried not to think about why he was calling, but I did find a diversion when I saw that I was running on empty. It was the only time I felt relieved that I needed to get gas. Usually I’d go to Sunshine Market since it was the cheapest. But that was out of my way, I also didn’t want to run into Cam in case he was there. It was for the best; he’d ask why I didn’t answer his calls/texts and then it would turn into this big thing that neither of us wanted.
I went to Circle K in the strip mall near Cajun Kitchen instead. I hated going there. To call it a strip mall was being generous. After the recession, what should have had at least nine storefronts now only had three: the grocery store Albertson’s, Beauty Connection, and – oddly enough – Radio Shack. But Albertson’s was so expensive no one ever went there. The only people there were teenagers learning how to drive and what was left of the employees.
It wasn’t like the recession was the only thing that pushed Lompoc closer to the edge. When Cam and I were in middle school, Mr. Ruiz told us the Space Shuttle story. We must have heard it a thousand times by now, but it still felt fresh.
“You had to be there, man,” said Mr. Ruiz. “They should have launched the shuttle from Vandenberg right from the beginning. Come on! We have better weather than Florida.”
“What happened?” I asked one day, not knowing the consequences.
Suddenly, Mr. Ruiz lost that air of hope. “What?” he asked.
“What happened?” I said again, “You know, when they launched the shuttle.”
“Well,” Mr. Ruiz said, “Challenger happened.”
The shuttle in Vandenberg was supposed to launch in the summer of ’86. But after the Challenger disintegrated in mid-flight, the Air Force halted development of their program. It wasn’t until later when I understood what that meant. That growth from the ‘70s and ‘80s slowly turned into decline. Everyone who was part of the program – except Mr. Wold, apparently – left looking for greener pastures, maybe to Cape Canaveral.
While I waited for my tank to fill up, I went over to grab my phone. The screen read, “(2) missed calls from Cameron Ruiz” before Cam tried to call again. I put my arm down and gripped tighter, hoping it would go to voicemail quicker. When it stopped I held it up and read, “(3) missed calls from Cameron Ruiz.” I put the phone back in the car. Maybe he wants to say goodbye, I thought to myself, or maybe he wants to continue what happened last night; though I was pretty clear that we were done.
A month before graduation I was in a bookstore in Santa Barbara. There was no reason for me to be there. I just wanted to be there. As I browsed the aisles of shelves, I saw Stephanie. Her back was to me and I thought I’d go up and say hi. But when I went up to her, I ended up freaking her out and she dropped her books. “Shit!” I said, smiling in hilarity, “I’m so sorry.” It was hard for my dumb ass to hold back laughter as we both leaned down to pick them up. Then I stopped when I saw bruises on her arms which she quickly covered with her sleeves. We looked at each other and knew there was no way out of it. She didn’t want to say it, and I didn’t want to hear it but I knew what was going on right then and there.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” Stephanie said to me, her voice trembling. “Please don’t tell Cam. Promise.”
I promised her.
With my tank full I drove across the parking lot to avoid the light. The faster I was out, the better. Then Cam started calling me again. In a fury, I stopped the car and picked it up. I finally had a response to his text.
“Stop calling me!!!” I typed into the box, “Not only are you mentally unable to make this right, it’s impossible after what you did. I can’t have this kind of poison in my life anymore.” Right when I was about to send it, I deleted all of it and cried.
The night – and a few nights after – I found out about the abuse I couldn’t sleep. I tried to act normal, but whenever I saw one of Cam’s posts, a knot in my stomach would twist into existence.
The monologues, the long drives, the PDA it was all a farce just like all the instances Steph played her part when she’d wear Cam’s jersey and letterman’s jacket. “I’m just getting ready to be a football wife,” she’d joke to everyone before we’d all laughed like idiots.
I’d see Cam kiss her on the cheek and I just wanted to grab him and scream, “You fucking moron!” I wanted to do something. I just hated that I was too much of a coward to actually do it.
Then at the mission, after a few beers, I hit the limit. We were all sitting in a circle and Cam and Steph were doing their thing and he slapped her ass. My first instinct was to say something right there, but I knew that would have done more harm than good. So I asked Cam to talk with me in private. I couldn’t be in a room full of a bunch of enablers.
We walked for a while on the mission grounds, mostly because I wanted to find a place that was as far from everyone else as possible. When we came to the fountain between the old pear trees, I stopped. Whether it was the shitty beer or the spirits that supposedly haunt the grounds, or the fact that it was the bare minimum of decency, I had to say something.
“Hey man,” said Cam, “I just wanted to say that… I’m really gonna miss you when you’re gone.” I looked over at to him and said nothing. “I mean…” he continued, “You’re one of my day ones, and I know you’ll be around for holidays and shit but… it won’t be the same.”
What he said was heartfelt and sentimental, but I had to stay focused. No good would have come from me returning the sentimentally “Cam,” I said. “I know.”
It wasn’t the best way to start but the mood still disintegrated. “Excuse me?” said Cam.
“I know,” I said again, “I know about the bruises. I know where they come from. I know.”
Cam smirked but I knew he was furious. “Alright,” he said as he tried to laugh it off, “So you saw some bruises. What do you think you know?”
“Don’t do that,” I said, “Don’t bullshit me like that. I know they’re from you.”
The laughs stopped. “Who told you?” Cam asked.
“Does it matter?” I said, trying to keep my promise. “It’s still not okay for you to be hitting…”
“It’s getting late,” he interjected. “I think we’re going to call it a night.” Cam turned around to walk back to the chapel.
I rushed and blocked his path. “No!” I said. “We’re gonna talk about this.”
“Fine,” said Cam, “So you know. What the fuck are you gonna do about it?”
“If you don’t end this relationship,” I started, “I’ll tell her parents.”
I’ve never seen a person so angry, scared, sad, and whatever else there is at the same time. I looked down and saw that Cam was closing his hands into fists and I braced for impact. But instead he took a step back and smiled in a panic.
“That’s what you’re gonna do?” Cam said, “You’re gonna tell her parents?” I nodded. Cam stepped back again and threw his arms up and let them drop to his side, still smiling that panicked smile. “Cool,” he said, “You know, that’s fucking weak. Why not just tell the cops?”
“Cam…” I said, but he interrupted me.
“Shut the fuck up! You piece of shit!” he yelled. There was a nanosecond where I saw tears in his eyes. “You piece of shit!” he yelled again. Cam stopped and wiped the tears from his eyes. He fell slowly and sat on the floor. “You know how happy she makes me.” he said with his head down, “She’s the only person in the world that makes me feel this way and you want to take it away.”
“Do you realize what you’re doing can ruin your life?” I said.
“So you think threatening me is going to make it any better?”
“This isn’t about you!” I said back. I wasn’t going to fall for it. “What I’m doing is correct. Do you not see what you’re doing is wrong?”
Cam stopped crying and stood up. I looked at him and saw his puffy cheeks and red eyes, and I felt sorry for him. He took a deep breath and gathered himself.
“She told you, didn’t she?” he said.
I looked down. I didn’t matter that I broke my promise to her, what good would that have done? “Yeah,” I said.
Cam rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat. “She probably told you not to tell anyone,” said Cam. “Especially me.”
Cam turned away and shook his head. The silence was deathly. “So,” he said as he turned around and looked at me, “She trusted you.” Cam walked closer to me until I felt the heat from his breath on my nose. “Kinda like how you trusted me when you told me you were gay.”
“My parents already know,” I said as calmly as I could.
I cleared my throat in order to keep up this façade of strength, turned around and walked away.
“Aye??? we still cool???” Cam’s text read as I stared at it.
No, we’re not still cool. I came out to my family way before I came out to Cam. How fucking arrogant of him to think I’d tell him before my family. Did he actually think that texting me would make me forget that he kept my gayness in case he needed it for leverage? Or was he just really dumb? Cam was never my friend, just like how Mr. Wold was never building a rocket. It was all just a fantasy that fooled me into thinking I had a reason to ever come back here. Fuck this place.
I put the phone down and started the engine to finally leave. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw what looked like standing outside. I thought I was going insane even after I turned around. I got out of the car to get a better look and it was actually her. She wasn’t the cute girl Cam and I saw in Jack in the Box a year ago. She was a completely different person. Maybe that’s why I was confused.
“Hey,” Stephanie said. Even her voice sounded different.
“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m trying to leave,” she said. “Get the fuck out of here.”
Stephanie shrugged and said, “Anywhere.” She looked around for a long while and said, “You know I never got to thank you for what you did last night. You were gone so quick.”
“What happened after I left?”
“Cam pulled me aside, crying,” she said. “He said he loved me but we couldn’t be together because of how much he loved me.”
“What did you do?”
“I agreed and got a ride home,” said Stephanie. “Whatever you said worked ‘cause it scared the shit out of him.” I nodded. She looked away as a gust a wind blew by. She needed to get out of this place as much as I did – if not more. “Where you going?” she asked.
“For school?” Stephanie said. “That’s awesome.”
“You want to come with me?”
Her eyes went wide and we just looked at each other for a long time. The wind blew across the empty parking lot and she finally said, “Let’s go then.”
With that, we were on the road. When we passed the closed-down drive-in, crossed over the dry riverbed and saw the eucalyptus in the distance, we knew were actually leaving. The light next to the bell that marked the El Camino Real turned red and Stephanie jumped out of the car.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled out the window.
She ran across to the dry grass field and raised both middle fingers up towards the town. I watched her and my phone started vibrating. As suspected it was Cam calling. But before I had a chance to put it down, the ground started to shake. Another rocket, I thought. But it kept shaking, violently and ceaselessly. I saw the people in the cars around me get out and look towards the town in disbelief as more pulled to do the same.
I looked over and my jaw dropped. It was a rocket, but it wasn’t coming from base. It was coming right from where my neighborhood was. I jumped out of the car and stood next to Stephanie, whose arms dropped in disbelief.
He did it. That crazy motherfucker across the street actually did it. It took him more than 20 years but Mr. Wold was “gittin’ out of here.”
We, along with what must have been at least 30 people, watched and craned our heads as the rocket curved into the sky and over the Santa Ynez Mountains. It gained speed and a sonic boom echoed across the valley, knocking a few of us to our knees.
But all I could think about was what everyone in town was doing. I thought about my parents, how relieved they must be now that Mr. Wold was fucking gone and how annoyed they must be about the crater in place of his house. I thought about Mr. Ruiz and how he’ll tell this story years from now.
The Lompoc wind blew into my face as the shaking slowed down. My phone started vibrating in my hand.
And the rocket kept climbing, climbing, leaving a great, clean Corinthian column of smoke and steam behind as it exited the blue and entered the black.
Photos courtesty of foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com