Content warning: Themes of racism
The first time I went to Kyle Rockefeller's house, I spent the majority of my visit in the bathroom, marveling at his toilet water.
He showed me around the place with the authority of a junior architect, gesturing to the porcelain tiling of the outdoor kitchen and reflecting on the rooftop spire that looked like an upside-down waffle cone. We moved leisurely. Save for Benson, the Rockefeller's mustachioed butler/chauffeur who'd driven us there after school let out, the house was empty. Always Kyle called it his "house." He was careful not to use the word "mansion," not to acknowledge one of the differences between us.
Let me tell you: Containing my excitement proved no easy task. It took everything in me not to lunge across his foosball table and twiddle the handles, or collapse in the movie room's state-of-the-art massage chair and convert my body into Jell-O. I told myself to play it cool, to act like I belonged.
Eventually, when we got to the bathroom, I cracked. Not when I saw the walk-in shower or the Jacuzzi in the corner, but when I noticed his toilet water, bright blue like a robin egg.
"Whoa!" I said. The silhouette of my reflection rippled over the water. "Look at your toilet. It's so blue!"
Leaning against the sink, Kyle uttered a noise that was somewhere between a scoff and a laugh. "It's no big deal, Tyrone. It's Scrubbing Bubbles."
But I was unconvinced. I flushed the toilet once, twice, watched the water eddy around the bowl, spiral down the drain, and return bright blue. It was like watching a magician cut his assistant in half—captivating but with no logical explanation. How could something so familiar be so different?
Kyle tried to break the illusion when he huffed and said, "It's coming from the cistern." His mistake was thinking I knew what a cistern was.
We stayed in the bathroom longer than we should've, listening to the roar of the plumbing. After the seventh flush, Kyle grabbed my arm and pried me from the toilet. We shambled to the doorway before his grip slackened.
"Hold on. Wait right here," he said, and shuffled down the hallway. When he got to the end he yanked open a door and entered. The light was off inside, and even though it was daytime the room was raw with shadows, making it impossible to distinguish anything. Minutes later he re-emerged, slamming the door behind him. He smelled vaguely of something pungent and earthy, like rosewood.
"Got it," he said, brandishing something I'd never seen before: a fifty-dollar bill. He held it up to my face and the likeness of Ulysses Grant stared back. Kyle said, "Pretty sweet, huh?"
I didn't ask where it came from or why he had it. What I asked was to hold it.
And when he held out his hand and dropped the money in mine, I knew it wasn't just the toilet water that separated us.
Later, after he made Benson drive us to the strip mall downtown and we spent that fifty dollars on yo-yos and trading cards and triple scoop ice cream, Kyle sat next to me on the porch, trying to walk the dog with his yo-yo. The sun was low on the horizon, staining our eyes with light, and he blamed it whenever his dog laid down and died. He almost had it when his wristwatch blared.
"It's six," he declared, yanking the yo-yo. It returned swiftly, dangled there on Kyle's pale middle finger like an extra appendage. "My parents will be home soon."
"Okay," I said, unbraiding the coils in my own yo-yo. Whereas Kyle's dog had been continually dying, mine hadn't even been given a chance at life yet.
He turned to me, squinting in the sunlight. "I'll go get Benson. He can take you home."
I stopped unbraiding. My stomach knotted instead. His tone said it all: Kyle wouldn't take no for an answer, wouldn't entertain the idea of having me stay for dinner and meet his family. Did I do something wrong?
"Okay," I said, but the bang of the door eclipsed it. When the door opened again, Benson appeared and ushered me to the Rolls-Royce in the driveway. As we were backing out into the street, I took another look at the house and saw Kyle standing by the window in his room on the second floor. I rolled the car window down and waved, but he stood there like a sentry, his expression unreadable through the thick pane of glass.
At every stoplight on the drive home, Benson not-so-subtly inspected me in the rearview mirror with his hands tense on the wheel. I'd caught him doing it on the ride to Kyle's house too, staring at my dreadlocks and my gap-toothed smile. I tried to ignore it and focus on giving directions—lefts and rights still gave me a bit of trouble.
When we got to the nicer part of town, the part without the potholes in the streets and the busted lampposts and the cars strewn across lawns like two-ton garden gnomes, I pointed to a house and told Benson to stop.
We slowed to a halt in front of a row of colonial houses, all two-story. The lawns here were deep green, well-manicured, weedless. The smell of barbecue wafted through the open window. A white man went to collect his mail. Benson craned his neck and looked at the neighborhood with what I hoped was approval, then told me to have a nice night. I thanked him, alighted from the Rolls-Royce, and waited until he was a pinprick in the distance to walk the remaining ten blocks to my house.
The second time I went to Kyle's house was a lot like the first, only with less time spent in the bathroom. Like before, Kyle disappeared into the shadowy room and came back carrying $50 and the aroma of perfume. But this time he grabbed a piece of paper and drew a fat red line down the middle.
"We each get $25 to use on whatever we want," he told me as we stepped into the popcorn-scented movie room. "You can just guess on the prices. Then we'll send Benson to pick it up. Deal?"
"Deal," I said, because what else do you say when it's someone else's money being spent?
Within sixty seconds he'd finished his list of demands. Among them he wanted a basketball, a Hot Wheels car, and a Slurpee. After every item came the word "blue" scribbled in parentheses.
I took longer trying to think of things we could share. My list consisted of fruit snacks, pizza, and a board game. I wanted to write "no preference" behind each suggestion, but I didn't trust my spelling, so I wrote "any color" instead.
And sure enough, halfway through our viewing of Toy Story, Benson entered the room looking like Santa Claus with half the facial hair. He pulled our requests from an oversized shopping bag one after the other like a magician with never-ending handkerchiefs. To my surprise, everything he handed Kyle was blue.
"Anything else I can do?" Benson asked, his gaze trained on Kyle.
"Nope, I'm good." Kyle resumed the movie, leaned forward to see Woody better. "You can go."
"Thank you," I called as Benson was leaving, but my chair was on massage mode so the two words came out shaky and with three times as many syllables. I hoped he understood me.
A few minutes later, Kyle paused the movie again. He bent to grab his Slurpee, shook it so the ice inside sloshed. With a smile, he thrust it in my face and asked, "Hey, what do you think of this?"
I gave him what he wanted to hear. "It's so blue," I said, and he kicked his feet and squealed with delight.
Since my first visit, Kyle had taken to assigning euphemisms to colors. Whenever another boy at school made him mad, he said, "Ugh, he's so red," as though he were casting a hex. Whenever anything was so-so, he rolled his eyes and said, "So orange." And whenever he thought something was at once simple and extraordinary, say, a slushy, we were to refer to it as "blue."
"It's no big deal, Tyrone," he replied in an exaggerated imitation of himself. He deepened his voice, even though puberty was still years away. "It's just a Slurpee," he said, and laughed again.
The movie was in its climax when his wristwatch beeped. Though he later told me he'd seen Toy Story at least ten times, Kyle didn't bother to pause the film when he called for Benson to take me home. I told him to have a good night, but he might've been too busy cheering on Buzz Lightyear to hear me.
This time Benson didn't need my slipshod directions. He navigated us to the same neighborhood as before, with the same picket fences and novelty mailboxes, almost as easily as if he were driving to the Rockefellers'. He pulled up to the curb and told me to have a good night.
Before he sped off and left me to walk ten blocks southward, he told me I had a lovely home.
The third time I went to Kyle's house, two things were different.
First, Kyle hadn't invited me. Second, his mother was there.
At my own house, my parents were arguing, shouting, cursing, and weaponizing me. Back then, before things got really bad, they were always arguing. I guess I thought that because Kyle's home was always so empty, so quiet, I could wait there and ride the storm out until things died down.
So, at 6:05, I grabbed my bike out of the garage and pedaled past the potholed streets and broken lampposts to the one place I felt safe. I pedaled until my legs ached and my lungs burned and my clothes stuck to my skin like a wetsuit.
Perhaps it was because I'd never seen anyone else in the house besides Kyle and Benson that I'd pictured Kyle's parents all sorts of ways. In my imagination, they often took the form of monks, cloaked in drab brown robes and surrounded by wisps of incense. Other times, they were ancient, bony people with white hair sprouting from their ears and noses. Sometimes, in my wildest fantasies, they were just like my parents, wearing years' old clothing, barely scraping by.
In any case, when I parked my bike beside the mailbox and rang the doorbell, the blonde woman who greeted me was not what I was expecting.
She wore a white cocktail dress, and both her arms were bedazzled in jewelry. She looked young, younger than my mother, which made me wonder what she did to get this house. Red lipstick smothered her mouth. We both recoiled when she opened the door, then stood there waiting for the other person to speak.
The woman blinked fiercely, inching the door a little closer to my face with every movement of her long lashes.
"Is Kyle home?" I asked quickly.
Her voice, more shrill than I'd expected, pierced the silence. "Kyle!" Then louder, more urgent, "Kyle Martin Rockefeller, come down here this instant!"
Somewhere behind me a dog barked, a car whizzed by. Then came the sound of heavy footsteps on the staircase, one step at a time, and I knew something was wrong. Kyle always raced up and down the steps, trying to beat his personal record of making it past the staircase in two leaps.
He pushed past his mom. A VR headset sat atop his floppy brown hair. He looked askance at me, as though wondering if he'd left the virtual world.
I sighed in relief, took a step forward on their porch. Kyle intercepted me. He pushed forward, wrapped an arm around my shoulder, and guided me back to the lawn.
"I'm so happy you're home," I said. "I could really use—"
"Um," he stammered, looking over his shoulder where his mom stood in the doorway, arms crossed. "Now's not really a good time, Tyrone."
"Please," I said, surprising myself by how whiny I sounded. "My parents are having a huge fight. I didn't know where else to go."
Kyle looked again at his mother, gulped. "I'm sorry, dude. I can't. They're home. It's past six."
His words felt like there was a python around my throat, cutting off my air. My eyes burned like my lungs had on the ride here. I wanted to say so much, but said nothing at all for fear of disintegrating.
Kyle made a face. "Hey, are you crying?"
And I was, but I told him, "No. I think I just have something in my eye." And my voice sabotaged me. I went to the mailbox to retrieve my bike. I thought Kyle might follow me, say something else, but he returned to the porch.
His mother spoke loud enough for me to hear. "Is that him?" I heard her hiss. "Is that the boy who's been stealing my money?"
And as I got on my bike and left, I wished I'd moved faster. I wished I'd had a bell or a horn or baseball cards shoved in the spokes of my bike's wheels, something distracting, something that made noise, something that would have prevented me from hearing Kyle say, quietly but clearly, "Yes, Mother, that's him."
The last time I went to Kyle Rockefeller's house, my parents had split up. At school I'd only told our teacher, Mrs. Williams, what happened, how after I came home on the day I saw Kyle's mom, the police were in our yard, getting ready to conduct an Amber Alert to find me, and how during that time my father had taken his beat-up Volkswagen and sped off. My mother had assumed he was riding around the city to search for me too, until he didn't return the next day.
It didn't matter that I only told Mrs. Williams. By the end of that week, the whole class knew. It's a strong possibility Kyle only invited me over again because of what happened that day.
We were silent on the ride over. Kyle, the natural chatterbox, asked Benson to turn off the Kidz Bop, and we cruised down the streets looking out opposite windows. Earlier at school he'd told me about a yacht race taking place at the bay behind his house. "A regatta," he'd called it, with the same practiced tone he'd used when he said "cistern" so long ago.
When we pulled up to the house, Kyle led me to the backyard, past the outdoor kitchen, and through a wooden gate. I'd never been this far before, never seen beyond the stove's porcelain tiling. The grass was high and ticklish, scratching my legs and arms. We passed ladybugs and bees until we came to a grassy bluff that overlooked a wide, angular bay. In the water were at least fifteen different yachts, each as big as a whale.
Kyle took a seat and patted the grass next to him. I sat.
We watched the people move like ants, heard their voices riding the wave of the wind. They sounded happy.
Kyle cleared his throat. "I'm glad you came."
I grabbed a handful of grass, plucked it, and opened my fist. We watched it dance in the breeze and fall down to the bay.
"Sorry about your parents."
"Yeah," I said, because what else do you say when it's your parents and not someone else's?
He played with his shirtsleeve, rubbed the fabric between his fingers aimlessly. "My mom says I can't invite you over anymore," he said.
"I know," I said.
"But we can still talk at school and stuff. We could still be friends."
"Okay," I lied.
"I'd like it if we could," Kyle said.
An air horn sounded, announcing the start of the regatta. We watched as the yachts all cut straight lines through the water, making the bay look choppy and uneven. Two yachts immediately took the lead, vying with each other for dominance. Water sprayed underneath their hulls. Very slowly one yacht started to inch ahead, and it stayed that way until they finally rounded a jagged corner and we couldn't see them anymore. It was only a few feet, but that already made a world of difference. The other yachts trailed behind, battling for third place.
Kyle pointed to the yacht in the rear, the only one in the race painted metallic black. The boat was still close to the starting line, coasting leisurely across the water as though it were in no hurry at all. "Hey, look at that one. Look how badly it's losing."
But I didn't want to acknowledge it, didn't want to admit that, in a way, I could relate to it. "Look at the water," I said instead, and remembered Kyle's toilet when I first came to his house. Only a few months before but already it felt like years, centuries. Small waves rippled and crested through the bay. Above us seagulls wheeled and squawked.
"It's so blue," I said, and waited for Kyle to laugh, to tell me that things would be okay, that it was no big deal.
He said nothing.
We stared ahead at different things. The heat seared my skin and the grass itched my legs, but I said nothing. Out ahead, eighty or ninety yards, the blue water shimmered under the sun. Or, at least, I think it did. I might've just had something in my eye.