I’m forty-seven now, but in my mind—not in the actual visual world, but in my mind—I’ve still got my Mohawk. It’s spiked with gel and gleaming hot pink as the day I played the Foxhole with my band.
I’m at the Whole Foods looking for whatever my brother Michael has put on the list to mean “quinoa (tri-color, washed).” I don’t know what quinoa is, but I figure it’s healthy and that he thinks Riley, my niece, should eat it. And I’m stressed because I can’t find it, so I reach up instinctively to touch my Mohawk, as if to ground myself, but I feel nothing.
In the actual visual world, I am bald. I do have a goatee, though. You’re allowed to be bald if you have a goatee.
I decide that quinoa probably isn’t produce. I’m getting cold standing by the vegetables, so I wander back toward the fish.
The other night at dinner Riley showed me a Tik Tok of Sid Vicious. It was heavily edited with a distorted effect on black-and-white photos of Sid laid over rap music. When I quipped that Sid Viscous would have hated Tik Tok, she laughed and said, “You’re so old.”
I pointed my fork at her. “Being old is punk.”
She snorted. “Punk rock is old.”
Then Michael came in and she slipped her phone back in her pocket, as if she’d never had it out during dinner. She’s good at evading his gaze, playing by the rules until the moment he stops watching. She doesn’t pretend in front of me, though. Maybe because I’m the fun uncle, and maybe because she knows I’d never tell, even when I should.
I moved into Michael’s place around six months ago, when my girlfriend decided that we were breaking up. Around the same time, his ex had moved to Texas with her new husband, and Michael had full custody of Riley. He said I could stay for a while and help out around the house, run some errands, which is why I’m at the Whole Foods, looking for quinoa in the exotic foods section solely because the name has a Q in it.
The grains are next to the exotic foods, and lo and behold, there’s an entire shelf of quinoa and couscous and “super grains,” all in different colors, flavors, locales, all shockingly expensive. Riley will hate this stuff. She only likes to eat hot Cheetos. But Michael tries so hard to be a good single parent, and if that means purchasing seven dollars’ worth of quinoa, so be it.
The Foxhole was not actually a venue, but rather a damp basement below the local Denny’s, where a kid in a different band worked. He had keys to the place and would turn it into a secret underground venue on the weekends after hours. He was integral in the East Bay punk scene, this ungovernable teen, but now I don’t even remember his name. My band, though, was called The Brain Rots. I played guitar. I still have that guitar in my bedroom, which is really the converted basement of Michael’s house. So far in my life, I’ve spent a lot of time in basements.
A few days ago Riley asked me why I never had kids.
“I want a cousin,” she whined.
I shrugged in response, told her I never found the right person. What I didn’t say: that I remembered being sixteen, drinking until I vomited into the gutter, taking pills and swinging from the rafters below a Denny’s while my parents thought I was at a friends’ house.
If I had a kid, and if that kid was like me, I didn’t know how I’d react. Most of the time I still feel like a kid myself.
I’m standing there debating between the different kinds of quinoa, wondering if I should pick one myself or call Michael to ask. He’s at home, probably sitting at the kitchen table trying to help Riley through her math homework, a class she is currently failing.
Last month, I went into her room to get my laptop she’d borrowed, thinking she had already left for her sleepover. I found her sitting on her shag rug, clutching a box cutter in one hand, the other hand pressed against her wrist. It was a small exploratory slit, but it bled more than you’d think, and some of it leaked onto the gray of the carpet in droplets. She cried so hard her mouth looked like a square. I got her gauze and band-aids that had Spiderman on them, the only ones I could find.
“Why?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just wanted to see what would happen. Please don’t tell my dad. Maybe this is just a phase?”
She looked so scared and forlorn, then, like the little kid she was, and I couldn’t say what I knew: that phases sometimes become etched grooves in a riverbed, and that years later, she might find herself flowing in those same grooves, even when she thought they were long gone.
Then my phone buzzes and it’s Michael calling me.
“Hey,” he says. “If you’re still there, can you pick up some ice cream, too?”
I wonder if the ice cream is because Riley’s finished her math homework with no errors, or if it’s because she’s had an especially hard day. I ask Michael about the quinoa, and he says to get whatever I think is best. I pick out the one with the colors I like: pink packaging that reminds me of my old Mohawk that gleamed.