Mutual Understanding

Nineteen years old. We get fifteen minutes to talk through a ten-inch screen. You begin with Happy Thanksgiving! and I begin with WhythefuckamItalkingtoascreen? You evangelize jailhouse pizza, which I disregard after the words ramen noodle crust.

You missed my birthday and my first tattoo, I say, holding my forearm to the webcam. I don’t ask you about the details of your conviction. I don’t ask about meth, its process or allure. But I ask about a Jackson’s chameleon. I ask how much it costs, what critters to feed it, and where to get one.

Six years old. We catch lizards with our bare hands. We walk to an undeveloped desert patch in Suburbia, Las Vegas, one of its last bastions of nature. I shake and stomp on one side of a little lizard’s thin shrub shelter, scaring it toward your longer arms and quicker reflexes. We walk home with a lizard or two, and you give me the smaller one, the one that already shed its tail.

Reptiles regenerate their tails, you reassure me. Looking up at you, squinting at the sunlight, I ask questions about geckos, snakes, and scorpions—hoping one day I will know so much.

Nine years old. We share a bunk bed at the new house. You jump into the bottom bunk with chips and Mountain Dew, and I wake atop the wobbling metal frame. An ugly smell emanates from the closet, the same smell that makes you cough and makes Mom and Dad mad. I ask about it in the morning—twenty times, actually, because I sense you’re hiding something. So you feed my lizard to yours. There we are, standing on opposite sides of the bay window, each crying, and only one of us with laughter; between us, half of Lucky’s body wriggles away in vain from an unexpected end.

Thirteen years old.  We live in Minnesota now. By day we live dangerously: I practice my kick flip, you navigate a small town in which you have three girlfriends. At night we play your PlayStation 2 and talk about girls—usually, specifically, about which one is mad at you today. The day before I leave Faribault for Bemidji, you drive seventy on sinuous roads, teaching me how to live without rules.

Twenty-one years old. You called me the other day. The conversation starts like usual: Wassup, bro?!—loud and excited, like you just sat a three-year sentence.

I tell you I just escaped a mosh pit and turned down cocaine in Minneapolis. You are uncharacteristically quiet for a moment. You’re stunned I put myself into a situation where the words mosh pit and cocaine  would have to form on my tongue so nonchalantly, so seamlessly and in tandem.

Work is good. You have a home. You tell me about your girlfriend. I keep forgetting her name, though, so my mind wanders—to the county jail, to the Thanksgiving dinner table, to a lone desert shrub.

The shrub is thin, dry, and still, like the alert lizard prone at the base. We lock eyes—an unspoken understanding forms under the Nevada sun—and we catch one for old time’s sake.

This flash nonfiction piece was published as part of a small collection on CRE8.

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