Dear Joel


Dear Joel,

Sorry for stinking.

You were seven years old at the time, which was December 19th, 1991. I remember because I had just turned 21. The day before, as a matter of fact. You were in the first grade at a school for emotionally disturbed children in New Jersey, where I worked, as an assistant to your teacher, Suzanne.

You had been having a hard enough year already. Your mother had died. She’d been murdered, Suzanne had told me, and — and this is beyond anything I can imagine — you saw it happen. You were living with your mom’s family, your grandmother and your uncles. But it was not an optimal situation. There were drug and alcohol problems in the household, apparently. You had been removed from your local mainstream school because you’d been having trouble controlling your anger. You’d been lashing out physically, and it had become a safety issue. Much of my job for the first couple of months you were in Suzanne’s class consisted of sitting with you on the linoleum floor, holding you in the official restraint position I’d been taught-your arms wrapped across your chest in an X, each of your legs pinned under one of my own-as you screamed and thrashed against me. You hit me and kicked me plenty of times. It never hurt too badly. You threw a chair at me once, which hurt a little more. But still, you were just seven.

And a really lovely kid besides. You were smart and warm and wiseacre funny and we spent a lot of calmer time talking. My father had died that year, too. And one of the reasons Suzanne assigned me to you directly, she said, was because you were better able to open up to me.

We were sitting at your desk once, working in your math workbook, when you got quiet and turned to me and asked me if I had pictures of my father at my house. I said yes, I did. Your family had recently put away all the pictures of your mother; seeing them had been making you too upset.

“I don’t even remember what she looks like,” you said, and you held your head in your hands and started to cry in a different way than how kids usually cry.

In many respects, that job at the school is the hardest I’ve ever worked. It wasn’t long hours, 8:30–2:30, something like that. But though I usually drank four or five cups of coffee in that time everyday, as soon as I got home, I’d fall into my bed and fall asleep for the rest of the afternoon. In hindsight, I guess I might have been suffering a touch of depression. As much as I liked you and the other kids in the class, as rewarding as I found the job, my life was not the way I wanted it to be. I was living with my mom and my sister, getting used to the house without my father in it. My mom had converted my old bedroom into an office, so I was sleeping downstairs, on a convertible couch we left open, in what had been a waiting room for my dad’s clients — he was a psychologist with a home-office private practice. The moss-green carpeting in there was left over from the ’70s and it made a squishy sound when you stepped on it. Most of my friends from high school were away at their colleges. I was taking night classes at Brookdale Community College and spending a lot of time alone.

I decided I had to get out of there. So I made sure I got good grades at Brookdale and sent my transcripts up to my original college’s deans’ office as soon as I’d earned enough make-up credits. I had already started the process of returning to Connecticut by mid-December, when people were arriving home for Christmas break, but I was none-the-less eager to socialize. The night of my 21st birthday, my friend Mark, who had turned 21 in August, took me out for my first legal drink in a bar. We went to Brannigan’s, an Irish pub down by Marine Park in Red Bank. It was a Thursday night, and we chose Brannigans because we figured it would be less crowded than the more-popular Globe Bar across the street, but there were still lots of beefy guys in goatees and overcoats — we were still in New Jersey in the early ‘90s.

My first legal drink turned into very many, of course. With various strangers and people I knew buying me birthday shots. Much of the night is a blur in my memory. The way it ended, though, is all too clear. Two guys I knew from high school, Darren and Mike, they’d graduated a couple years before Mark and I, they were drinking down at the far end of the bar. They never liked me and my friends much, I don’t think. Darren knew karate, we’d learned one night a few years before, when he’d choked my buddy Dave almost to death once during a fight at a party over a girl. (It was scary. Dave lost consciousness, all these blood vessels in his eyes burst. He looked like a Halloween mask for weeks.) And Mike, who had worked delivering pizzas for the same pizza place that I did, had warned me, on my first day on the job, not to accept offers of sex from any of my delivery customers. “Trust me,” he said, “Don’t go inside. There’s gonna be some big dude in there waiting to jump out and beat the shit out of you.” All right, I told him. I wasn’t expecting this to ever happen. He went on, “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve banged my share of customers — we all have. But you gotta be careful.” I never knew quite what to make of that. He was not the type of guy you would ever believe had had sex with pizza delivery customers. But, then, I don’t know.

Anyway, the night at Brannigan’s, when I had already been over-served to a point where my drinks were probably no longer legal, Darren and Mike called me over to say they wanted to buy me a shot. A “cement mixer,” Mike said. His smile was a sneer. And I should have been leery, but I was too drunk to care.

A warning: If anyone ever offers to buy you a cement mixer, do not accept. It is not a real shot. As it turns out, a cement mixer is a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and lime juice. The lime juice curdles the cream, turning it to a consistency not unlike that of wet cement. I vomited soon after gulping it down. Right on the bar, which made the bartender very angry. (Though it was as much his fault as anyone’s, for serving me such a not-funny “gag” drink in the first place.) He demanded that I leave, and Mark ended up in a shouting match with him that almost turned into a fist-fight, and we were both eventually removed from the premises by force. And, pathetically, I found myself officially “banned for life” from the establishment that had served me my first legal alcoholic drink.

I probably should have called in sick to work the next day. But I was still pretty drunk when I woke up, and didn’t realize how bad my hangover would get. Also, I wouldn’t have wanted to let Suzanne down, or you, or any of the other kids in the class.

By around 10:30 or so that morning, it was clear I’d made a mistake. The class was in its gym period, and I was lying with my face against the cool, rubberized floor. You were supposed to be playing kickball or Red Light/Green Light or something, but were instead leaning on me and talking to me-at me, mostly; I wasn’t doing a very good job of talking back. My head was ringing with pain, and my skin felt clammy underneath my clothes.

“What’s wrong?” you asked me.

“I don’t feel very good today,” I said, trying to breathe as slowly as I could.

You sniffed the air and said, “You stink!”

“Thanks,” I said.

“You smell like whiskey,” you said.

I had been feeling bad about the fact that I was planning to leave to go back up to college for the next semester. I don’t remember whether I’d told you yet or not. Right then, though, considering the various elements of your situation at home and at school, I had the thought that you might be better off without me. Not that that made me feel any less guilty. I knew I stunk.