If I had been able to open the door and run out of the car, I would never have told him. At least not the way I did, barking it out like a cornered dog, and not then. I was only twelve. I would have waited. But the car had a childproof lock that could only be opened by a small key that my father kept on his keychain.
The car was a square-framed compact station wagon, a survivor of a line that was discontinued a year or so after my father bought his. Though a station wagon, it was much smaller than the Cadillac and Chrysler sedans my uncles drove, and missing their sleek curvature. Their cars were like hawks in flight, ours a box with an engine, the reincarnation in metal of a child’s wooden toy on wheels.
The car’s cherry-red body paint only underscored its quality of make-believe. Now and then my father would get us to wash the car, and for a moment while still wet it would shine. But inevitably the patches of water would evaporate, leaving behind the dull finish that was its ordinary day coat.
I hated going anywhere in the car. It felt like showing up for a party in a pair of old scuffed shoes. It stood out in the parking lot at school and church and now at the supermarket we were parked in, waiting for my mother to pick up some groceries.
“Skumata iki go. I bet you can’t say it,” my brother Charlie said. He was sitting in the middle as usual, flanked by me and Daniel, the youngest.
“Why would I want to say it? It doesn’t mean anything,” I said. It was one of his games, egging me on to repeat a phrase that apparently only he could reproduce.
“It’s Italian. I heard Grandpa talking to Uncle Leonard yesterday.”
“That doesn’t even sound Italian.” I replied.
“You’re just saying that because you can’t say it,” my brother said.
“Skumata iki go,” I said. “Satisfied?”
“Not even close.”
“So if it’s Italian, what does mean?” I asked.
“Why should I tell you?” he snapped. “You can’t even say it.”
“Skumata iki go” I said, drawing out each syllable carefully.
“You’re a joke,” he snorted.
“It was exactly how you said it,” I said.
“One more thing you can’t do.” He turned away from me and sat back, looking straight into the car’s rear-view window, just in case my father was looking at us. “Skumata iki go.” he crowed.
Daniel slouched further into himself. My father lit up another cigarette and faded into a swirl of sickly blue fluorescent smoke.
Maybe I really missed something, I thought. Maybe I misheard, maybe there was a tiny vowel wedged between ki and go that got lost, like the sixteenth notes I struggled with in my flute lessons that were just too fast for me to play.
I listened to him as he repeated the call, straining to imprint the sounds in my head, slicing the syllables into smaller bits that I could put together again. Maybe it wasn’t iki, I wondered. Maybe it was egi.
I tried again.
“Ha, now you know why Grandpa won’t ever teach you any Italian.” he said.
I wanted to punch him and make him shut up. I probably could have beaten him up, but I didn’t trust myself enough to let go. I had only thrown one punch in my entire life.
“Tell him to stop!” I shouted to my father.
Charlie kept hammering the word, the way he meted out punishment when I lost to him at cards. We didn’t play for pennies or privileges. We played for knuckles. Whoever lost would lay his hand, clenched in a fist and knuckles up, out on the table. The winner would hit the loser’s knuckles with the edge of the deck. The exact penalty was determined by the loser drawing a card from the deck beforehand. The rank would dictate the number of hits, the color the intensity. A spade or club meant soft, a heart or diamond, hard. Black was easy. Red, at least the way Charlie played, was blood.
“Skumata iki go, skumata iki go…” It was like the drone of a merry-go-round you can’t get off.
“Jesus Christ, you guys. You can’t even sit in the same car without fighting,” my father said.
My brother ignored him. “Just admit it. You can’t do it.”
I shouted back the phrase, but it came out even more distorted. Charlie caught the tremor in my voice and pounced on it and went back to chanting his phrase.
I could feel the tears welling up within me, and I knew I was going to cry. I hated myself for it—I had never cried at school, despite the taunts and bullying—but I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“Ah, for Chrissakes, what are you crying for? It’s just a word. You’re a grown boy. Only sissies cry. And you,” my father said, turning to Charlie, “that’s enough.”
Sissy. It wasn’t so different from the words that Jamie Marsh used in the playground to hurt me.
I wanted to get out of the car and run. It didn’t matter where, just as long as I was far away from my father. I clutched at the handle of the car door but it wouldn’t yield. I was stuck.
I hadn’t told him what was going on at school. He didn’t know the reason I’d gotten a “D” in gym was because I used to cut the class so I wouldn’t wind up alone in the locker room with Jamie and his friends. I never told him about the stomach cramps I’d sometimes get in the morning on my way to school.
I didn’t tell him because I was ashamed. Ashamed for his sake. It was my fault, I thought. I stood out just like the boxy red station wagon on this wide empty lot. I knew I was different but I didn’t see how it showed. It wasn’t something like the color or shape of a car.
But now I wasn’t ashamed. I was angry. I hated him for not protecting me at school. For not showing me how to protect myself. And now, most of all, for taking sides with the boy who spoiled school for me. And I wanted to hurt him the way I had been hurt.
I could feel my tears receding, like water from a breaker sliding back into the sea. “Well, maybe I am a sissy,” I answered back.
“Don’t be an idiot. Of course you’re not,” he said.
“How would you know?” I spit out. “Some of the kids at school say… they say I’m a faggot.” It was the first time I had ever said the word. It felt sour in my mouth.
“And you know that’s…” I struggled to say the word. “It’s hereditary.” And I added, just to be sure, “it passes from father to son.”
Charlie sidled up to Daniel. I sat looking at my father, waiting for him to say something. To say I’d be ok and he’d make things right.
Then my father said, “No, it’s not passed from father to son.”
He swivelled back in his seat and crushed out his cigarette. No one said anything until my mother came out of the store five minutes later.
My father and I never spoke of that day again. He never asked me about it.
The following year I started high school. It was a Catholic prep school miles away from home, a good school with nice kids and a proselytizing track coach that encouraged me to try out for cross-country. To my surprise I discovered I could run. My father never came to my meets, the way he did to Charlie’s baseball games. Daniel says it’s because I never invited him.
This was our pattern of avoidance for years. The clues to my life that I left behind, unintentionally for the most part, like the consent forms he signed for my track meets, were left unexplored. Our discourse was stripped down to “How you’ve been?” “Fine, you?” Maybe he feared that even the most innocuous gambit, the slightest warming to intimacy, would lead our conversation back to that evening in the car.
When my father died, Daniel and I went through his papers. He had saved whatever traces of our lives came into his hands—grade school report cards and school projects and prom pictures. Among these yellowed and brittle papers were a thin stack of small newspaper clippings. There with my name and time circled in red were the results of the cross-country meets I had run in.
Skumata iki go. Faggot. The one incantation meant nothing. The other gave me cramps and turned my school into a place of ambush; it was a charm that distracted from my true nature and turned me into a cautious, self-conscious boy who could no longer trust himself freely.
My brother Charlie’s spell was broken that night. I never played knuckles with him again, never tried to mimic the odd-sounding phrases of his made-up language. It was simple in the end. You can’t lose if you don’t play. Jamie’s hex took longer to break. I could have tried to ignore him, too. I could have told myself I didn’t care. But I wasn’t brave enough at the time to do it then, and the man who could have taught me how was too distant or just too unseeing to help.
For years I told no one of this story. In the beginning because I believed in the power of the curse and was ashamed that I had broken down in front of my father. Years later when I came out, I would remember this story again with shame, but one of a different hue, as I recalled how that night in the car I had used my sexuality—something good and beautiful that lay at the core of my being—in the same hateful way that Jamie had. As a weapon.
Image: Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers, 1899