Palmer Avenue, 1989

I’ve decided to start sharing my private journal with you. This is an entry I have kept private for years. I never intended to share it. It is too personal. The names have been changed in order to avoid needless drama. But I’ve begun to panic thinking about dying and having so much of my past wither away under the manicured lawns of my local cemetery. I’d like to plant my journal in a garden somewhere and let it grow. I am no longer afraid of its thorns, snakes, or magic rabbit holes. These are my stories.

The breeze blocks were shaped like flowers when David’s dad invited us over to play Sega Genesis. We lived across the street in the same building as David and his divorced mother, Marcy, a chainsmoker who watched I Love Lucy reruns while her son ate stale frozen pizza from Vons. Me and my mom lived downstairs in a small one bedroom apartment with beige carpet. My mom was single. David and his mom lived right above us. David was overweight, flat-footed, and deeply disturbed by something he never shared. He would have panic attacks. He was on Prozac. He was the only child I knew on medication. My mom would tell me that David had a “nervous disorder.” David would come over and bring VHS videos like Rambo: First Blood and tell me he wanted to be a soldier. David was Gomer Pyle, 1987. We both lived in an apartment building with wood-paneled walls and thick gray carpet. David’s dad had brown carpet. He lived across the street.

I was David’s only friend. We grew up in the same building on Palmer Avenue; a geriatric suburb in the San Fernando Valley where old movie stars go to die; where you could walk to Forest Lawn and visit your dead grandmother. It’s where they say the original Gone With the Wind mansion exists. Palmer had mid-century modern apartments surrounded by concrete blocks, ivy brushes, aging poodles, and Mexican gangsters with pulled up socks. David’s dad lived across the street in an apartment that had a small kidney shaped swimming pool surrounded by white concrete breeze blocks and citrus trees. The blocks were shaped like flowers. I’m not sure what kind.

But he’d always invite us over to play Sega Genesis. Marcy didn’t mind getting rid of David for a few hours. David’s “nervous disorder” caused her to smoke more cigarettes. Her brand was Virginia Slims. I don’t know why I remember this. My mom was always writing (she also smoked Virginia Slims—so did my grandmother, I think). My mom figured I was playing video games with my friend.

This was like pay-per-view Mike Tyson or Hulkamania running wild all over the television; Sega Genesis was exotic, futuristic, and the coolest thing you could do at that point as a child. We’d sit in David’s dad’s bedroom, on his king-sized bed, mesmerized the 16-bit graphics on this TV. We’d giggle and fight over the controller. I remember wrestling with David on his dad’s bed and enjoying the feeling of touching someone in that way. It felt comforting to be squeezed and poked. I liked being put in a headlock. Play fighting was my drug. Nobody ever touched me at home. We’d wrestle as his dad walked around the room and asked us if we wanted eggs and bacon. The whole house smelled like eggs and burnt flesh. It smelled like a funeral home that served eggs to the grieving. This is what my aunt’s house smelled like when she was dying of cancer. He’d offer us eggs, over and over again. I never understood why. We asked for Doritos and Coke. He’d bring us ice-cold cans of Dr Pepper and potato chips to dip into plain white yogurt. It was a soggy mess. Our fingers were covered in yogurt and oil. Dr Pepper tasted like medicine. David’s dad would come back into the room in a beige bathrobe and brown leather slippers. Whenever it was my turn to play, he’d quietly ask David to join him in the living room. He tell me that if I beat the boss, or advanced to the next level, he’d let me borrow a Nintendo game. He knew I had a Nintendo. But he had a Sega Genesis and Shinobi! They’d disappear for nearly an hour, while I sat on the bed and played Shinobi. I remember my feet dangling over the stained brown carpet. I remember his dad having boxes filled with trading cards. I remember a rusted crucifix hanging on the wall next to a painting of Jesus. The phone next to the bed would always ring. David’s dad would answer it and tell his ex-wife that the boys didn’t want to come home. We didn’t. David would tell his mom that he was wanted to play more Sega Genesis. He didn’t. Whenever I’d go to the bathroom to pee, I’d notice his dad walking around the living room completely naked and smoking his tobacco pipe. It smelled like an old library filled with leatherbound dust and antique wood. I remember seeing his dad’s flaccid penis. It was the first time I’d seen someone naked. It didn’t bother me. I was six years old. My fingers were covered in salty bits of yogurt and potato chips. It was the summer of 1989, and all I wanted was a Sega Genesis.

David would come in and tell me that we could leave whenever I “died” in the video game. He smelled different. He looked thinner. His skin had lost its color. His fingers were moist and slimy. He looked like a street dog trying to escape the rain. His seemed scattered and distant. David’s dad didn’t say a word. David was eight or nine years old. At night, David’s mom would come over to our house and tell my mom stories I wasn’t allowed to hear. “Go back to your room,” they’d tell me, blowing cigarette smoke towards the open window. I hated that smell. One day, my mom told me I wasn’t allowed to go to David’s dad’s apartment. It was off limits. My mom never told me why. David was still allowed to go see his dad. I wasn’t. This made me angry. My mom, to this day, has never told me why I wasn’t allowed to go there. Later I found out why. But I never forgot about David; the smell of his skin, wrestling on his dad’s bed, the breeze blocks, the medicine-flavored soda, eggs, bacon, Sega Genesis, John Rambo—I think about David every single day.

When I was 20 or so, David found me on MySpace. It took some detective work, but he found me. He desperately wanted to see me. I invited him to my house near Palmer Avenue. We lived a few miles away from the apartment we once shared. David showed up in a green military jacket, with a shaved head, combat boots; he looked like an abused pit bull who had stopped being fed by his owner. I asked him if he wanted a Coke, he did not. He told me he had joined the Air Force and wanted to kill terrorists. He told me he lived with his mom. He hated her. He said his dad had passed away from skin cancer. “That’s how John Wayne died,” he told me. David didn’t hate his dad, and John Wayne didn’t die from skin cancer. I asked him if he still played video games, he did not. He never really did. We talked about MySpace wallpapers. We talked about baseball. We talked about guns. We talked about our parents. We talked about American History X, girls, and Rambo. We were boys. It was all an act. 

He told me about the Sega Genesis he now kept in a shoebox in his closet. The Sega Genesis, he told me, was how his dad would “play” with the children he knew he could control, like a video game. This was a longer conversation that I do not want to share. But David told me his mom knew about his dad’s bizarre behavior. She didn’t stop it. She didn’t want to believe it was molestation or rape. David’s dad was eccentric. He liked kids. He was Michael Jackson with a beer belly and tobacco pipe. He wasn’t a monster lurking around the corners of suburbia’s breeze blocks. He just didn’t like to wear clothes around the house. He was a hippie—a conscientious objector during Vietnam. David told me this frankly; his eyes were static and his jaw clenched tight. He began to sweat as he told the story. David was his dad’s favorite child to play with, he told me. I’d sit there, playing Sega Genesis, while David was being molested in the other room by his dad. When David told me the story—in graphic detail I don’t think I can ever put to paper—I began to have my own panic attack. I told him to go. I didn’t want to deal with those feelings. I told him that I needed to study or something—I lied, of course. I told him my mom was coming home. I kicked him out of my house. He looked like he was going to cry or go berserk, perhaps both. I looked through the yellowing blinds and watched him walk towards the sun. He looked like John Rambo as a neo-Nazi skinhead. That’s the last time I saw him.

I later furiously deleted MySpace. I deleted his number. I ghosted him. I wanted to forget about Palmer Avenue. I wanted David to disappear. “What if he kills himself?” I thought. Maybe he did. This was nearly two decades ago. I’ve been trying to find David ever since. I hired a private detective last year. It didn’t work. I often cry thinking about how I treated him. I made him feel like an unwanted dog. What if he killed himself? What if he killed someone else? I made him feel like John Rambo returning home from Vietnam and being told he wasn’t welcome. I told him to go back to where he came from. He did.

As I write this, all I want to do is tell David that I’m sorry. But I can’t. I want to give him a hug. But he’s a ghost. I don’t even remember his last name. I don’t remember his face. I forgot what he smelled like. But I remember Palmer Avenue the way John Rambo remembered Vietnam. David was one of the fallen. I survived. I didn’t deserve to. David probably blew his brains out thinking about those breeze blocks. Palmer Avenue was his Vietnam.

I still walk by the concrete blocks of Palmer Avenue and imagine what it was like to play Sega Genesis in that bedroom. I want to know why I wasn’t one of the kids his dad chose to molest. Maybe I was one of Palmer Avenue’s lucky ones—hooray. I never asked if I was or was not. I don’t think I was. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. But my mom still won’t tell me why I couldn’t go to the apartment with the breeze blocks that were shaped like abstract flowers. She doesn’t have to. The blocks are still the same ones from 1989. They keep away the sun, they say. I think they used to be called “Solar Blocks” in the ‘60s. What a scam. They gave David’s dad skin cancer. They didn’t protect anyone from anything.