He was Hamboy1982. I was SmashingPumpkins2000. The first words he ever typed were:
Hamboy1982: I heard Billy Corgan played everything on Siamese Dream so that album can’t get the Grammy because they aren’t really a group.
He was from England; fifteen too. His Dad was a butcher. Hamboy was his nickname. We were both new to the chat room.
SmashingPumpkins2000: Billy is an artist with a vision. And they are totally a group. P.S. Billy never played drums.
At first we talked about music. He liked old soul and was obsessed with Detroit. He owned a zoot suit. He’d been working on his American accent for two years.
SmashingPumpkins2000: I hope it’s not taxi driver. Every time a guy tries to do DeNiro I crawl into my turtleneck.
Hamboy1982: I knew it.
SmashingPumpkins2000: knew what?
Hamboy1982: that you wear turtlenecks.
After a few days, it felt like we’d been talking for months. We skipped that part where you “get to know each other,” that mechanical-feeling bridge between meeting and knowing someone, where things usually go wrong. It helped that we weren’t face to face. We both hid in the washroom on photo day. His dream was to go the desert in the US. Sun Records in Memphis. Yes, Elvis had been only seventeen. He went in and pretended it was his mother’s birthday, sang “Happy Birthday” in order to get discovered. Things just don’t happen, Hamboy told me; you have to move fate.
I had a picture of the Joshua Tree Hotel tacked up on my wall. It was where the singer Gram Parsons had died. I told Hamboy that I wanted to go there and die too, in the same room, like a homage. I was not a demented fan; I was just a suicidal person who was historical. He suggested I do Monument Valley instead: more buzzards and roomier. It was where all John Wayne movies were shot. Red rocks and canyons. Endless space.
Hamboy1982: I read in a book that the Navajo language has 49 different words for all the different types of love.
After my mother went to bed, I’d log on to the internet and he’d be there, waiting. The time difference meant nothing to us. It was all music, all freedom, all the time. Those little characters that glowed on the screen were his voice.
SmashingPumpkins2000: how many cds do you have?
Hamboy1982: uncountable, my lady.
SmashingPumpkins2000: let’s both go count now.
Hamboy1982: you fell into a caselogic vortex.
SmashingPumpkins2000: impressive, cat man
Hamboy1982: your desert island cd?
SmashingPumpkins: the smashing pumpkins box set. It looks like a suitcase that Beetlejuice would carry. Swirls on it. Five cds inside.
Hamboy1982: you and billy
SmashingPumpkins2000: so what’s yours? crusoe song
Hamboy1982: see the icon with the note?
Hamboy1982: turn off the lights first
SmashingPumpkins2000: ok they r off
Hamboy1982: now close your eyes
It was Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” I had never heard that song before. Sam’s voice. For a minute it made the aching under my skin stop. I asked Hamboy what change Sam was hoping for.
Hamboy1982: what r u hoping 4?
He was so far away that it was easy to tell him what I’d hid from everyone.
SmashingPumpkins2000: I was emptying the dishwasher one night. by accident I scraped my finger on this knife. it felt
SmashingPumpkins2000: a few nights later my parents were having this big fight. I locked myself in the bathroom.
SmashingPumpkins2000: I didn’t really plan it. My hand just walked over to the drawer. My Mom cuts her own hair. She thinks $10 is too much for a haircut. She uses these razors for the back of her neck.
SmashingPumpkins2000: I thought I could stop but I couldn’t. I went from one arm to the next.
SmashingPumpkins2000: I think my leg is infected. The cut won’t close. It smells weird, like feta cheese.
I could hear my mother snoring through the wall. She knew nothing. She thought I was a drug addict because I lay in bed all night clutching my arms.
Hamboy1982: I wash my hands over 200 times a day. The skin is peeling off. The doctor said I have killed half of the nerve endings. They just never feel clean.
From Hamboy I learned three things. 1) I was not the only one who thought about dying every day. 2) White people stole all their best music from black people. 3) If I could make it to seventeen, statistically I would probably make it to thirty. After that, who the fuck cares.
Two months later he announced he would be visiting Toronto. We had imagined this many times. The day was soundtracked by Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”: morning record shopping at Rotate This, Chinese food at Dragon City, band at El Mocambo. We never said what would happen at night. We were both unspoken major virgins.
My mother dropped me off at the subway. It was raining. Instead of heading north to school I went south. Hamboy was visiting his uncle in the suburbs but had gotten a dorm bed for one night at a hostel downtown to meet me. When I got there, it was still dark. At the desk they made me show ID. They said he was in the main dorm, top bunk, near the window. Going upstairs, my heart kept blocking my throat. He’d said, “Imagine River Phoenix with red hands.” I’d said, “Picture Winona Ryder with a prescription.”
I climbed the ladder to the top bunk. He opened his eyes. I knew from many years of experience what he was thinking. I was not pretty. He was short and fat. I guess it didn’t matter. He opened the cover and I crawled in. His body was soft and warm. He smelled like crackers and sleep. He put his arms around me and pulled me in. No one who knew my strange thoughts and the terrible things I did to myself had ever held me. I kept my eyes closed so he would not see I was crying.
He pushed up my sleeve and touched the raised scars. I could hear the rain outside. We didn’t talk. But after a while we started to breathe in time to the rain, every breath, every drop, syncopated. I wanted to stay like that forever, but soon it began to feel weird. We both let go, I went down the ladder, and back outside. We never talked again.
Lauren Kirshner (www.lauren-kirshner.com) is a writer from Canada. Her novel, Where We Have to Go, was a finalist for the City of Toronto Book Award. Her arts writing, short fiction, and memoir have appeared in magazines and literary journals including ELLE CANADA, The Globe and Mail, Carousel, and Hazlitt. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Ryerson University and the founder of the acclaimed writing program Sister Writes (www.sisterwrites.com).
Illustration by Meghan Irwin.