Once I believed, a long time ago, that he and I were different. Others thought so too, as I’d discover over the years. Even after his death, friends and acquaintances might recall something he said, a peculiar mannerism that made me cringe, or an act of kindness or derision—their reminders forced recognition of how dissimilar we were. Memory prompts memory: such recollections begat long forgotten moments of other’s first impressions. Whenever I’d introduce him or he’d introduce me as “the spouse,” the way revelation flickered across the outsider’s face was something to see: acknowledgement mixed with surprise or amusement, a raised eyebrow, a secret smile that wore itself a hair too tight.
He was tall. For ninth months of the year he wore skin so pale, our joke was that he glowed in the dark. The bright white epidermis disappeared in summer when his skin took on a glowing hue, as if he’d been rinsed in amber. He had to burn himself to achieve this, something he did with a grudging acceptance. The tediousness of his transformation from snowy to swarthy—the peeling, the pricking pain—brought a dual discomfort to our relationship: while the butterfly shed his flaky cocoon, he would not be touched without unleashing a whelp of self-pity.
I was average, though he called me short. I had no issues with the sun, being a perfect mix of my mother, a high-yellow gal from the South, and my father, a man whose densely dark skin resembled the bark of a tree under the moon. The summer tipped my complexion to Daddy’s side of the spectrum, but I was immune to sun damage. Whatever burns I collected were the result of cooking accidents, or with the advent of puberty, the shaving depilatory my older brothers swore by to keep ingrown hairs in check. The thick gray paste that smelled like month-old eggs often left my face raw, but these were mundane abrasions after a childhood filled with scrapes, fractures and periodic beatings designed to make—and keep—me a good boy.
I don’t think his folks ever touched a hair on his chestnut head. He was an only child; being the sixth of ten children, I saw him as simultaneously exotic and lucky. Like an Army brat, he’d spent his childhood traveling from one midwestern town to the next, all to accommodate his father’s rise as a dog food salesman for Ralston-Purina. By the time high school rolled around, his folks had purchased a classic ranch out inMontgomery, a tony suburb of Cincinnati. It was worlds away from Corryville, where my family occupied two crammed floors over a storefront. It was a neighborhood where, if a white face appeared, the supposition was that they were either selling insurance, driving a patrol car or passing through on their way to one of the numerous hospitals built on its borders.
He was two years older than me. Well read (an English major!), he knew his geography and could argue politics. I never thought I’d catch up to his intelligence, or what I’d perceived as his larger experience of the world. My sense of direction was so bad, my brothers joked that I couldn’t find my way from the living room to the kitchen with a trail of breadcrumbs. I was smart about inconsequential things: movie trivia, Hollywood gossip culled from biographies borrowed from the library. Before we met I’d acquired an extensive knowledge of plays but he knew literature, had actually read Faulkner, Kafka, Donne. My only satisfaction was that he couldn’t spell worth a damn.
Now I believe that such differences were superfluous—it was our sole similarity that mattered. Even after we’d grown older, and in the brief years after we parted, neither of us managed to grow up. For some reason I’d survive this gnawing peccadillo. He wouldn’t be so lucky.