Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.
—The Body Keeps Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk
Memory was a fickle little fucker. It either came and went in split-second lightning flashes, or lingered like an agonizing controlled burn. What Richie Tozier found himself experiencing between a line of powder and half empty bottle, was a scorched earth policy in the center of his chest. Its cause had always been unknown and that never seemed to matter. Substances dulled out all the symptoms anyways-- just enough to let him go on with the fucking day.
At some point Dan, his manager, told him he needed a therapist. This, of course, as Richie remembered, was not actual manager-client advice. It was more of a warning not to drop dead of a heart attack, liver failure, or anything else that would fuck with his curent and future revenue stream. No one wanted to be managed by someone who couldn’t actually manage their clients.
How Richie took the notion was a sort of don’t ask, don’t tell arrangement.
Richie kept his habits, his problems , locked away where no one could see, didn’t get arrested or cause any real problems, and got through his sets well enough to keep tours afloat and everyone paid. It went on for so long, years blurring together, until one day Richie forgot it wasn’t 2008 anymore. It was easy to lose decades like that.
He never liked looking back, only ahead. There was only ahead. Besides, everything fell together like a pile of cut-out letters and pictures. None of it went together, none of it made sense. It was bits of jagged paper and just as fragile.
Once, on a podcast, the annoyingly smug Tisch-grad “pop culture expert” host asked Richie about his childhood, where he grew up and that. Richie was good at making up charming anecdotes that were just funny enough to be believable, as no one could question him about it after. No one was really there to challenge his credibility. Richie eventually realized that these people didn’t actually care. They wanted to be entertained by The Trashmouth. So between stories about how shitty small towns were and vague near-death-experience anecdotes, no one was gonna come off the street and call him a liar. And hell, Richie didn’t even know what his own truth was to know if he
have been real stories, it wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility for Richie Tozier to have engaged in shenanigans and tomfoolery.
He read at some point that blocked memories were a sign of trauma.
He closed the web browser and reached for a klonopin.
The truth was, as Richie could see in his bathroom mirror, was that he was forty years old, his hairline and midsection left much to be desired, and there was Indian food in his fridge that he kept forgetting to throw out. The fact that he didn’t die ten years ago was a miracle in itself. Suicide wasn’t off the table if he was somehow doing this in another decade. He wasn’t necessarily suicidal , but the idea of still doing tours and being an aging comic and recycling material was beginning to lose its illustrious charm. And maybe if he played his cards right, Dan could get Duran Duran to play at a sorta tribute concert in his memory.
It was those charming little chains of thought that kept him amused in the witching hour. Good thing he didn’t write his own material. He wasn’t sure how death fantasies played out in the Midwest… maybe Detroit, but hey, that was Detroit for you.
Richie fell asleep to music because the silence of living in a secluded-rich-person-neighborhood gave him unspeakable anxiety. He missed Chicago for these reasons. Despite it being one of the country’s most violent cities, he felt calmer there in the chaos of it all. There was just as much death risk there in his storage unit of an apartment as there was in his Laurel Canyon home. He was constantly a socked-foot on the marble staircase away from breaking his neck. Not that he ever thought about it… much.
But now there was just the hollow whir of his ceiling fan and his nervous leg syndrome swishing in overpriced sheets. Some station on Sirius FM played a dated collection that would keep him asleep for a few hours, if he was lucky.
Kate Bush was singing behind a wall, her voice was muffled and far away.
The room he could see was just as cloudy, unfocused.
Flashes, just flashes. A hand on his hairless knee. The taste of root beer in his mouth.
A flutter in his stomach that felt too familiar to be a vodka-soaked conjuration.
He couldn’t fucking see anything.
There was suddenly the sensation of fingers pushing hair away from his face and skimming over his cheek that felt like pop rocks in his mouth.
If he had his glasses maybe he could see but they were gone somewhere.
The figure next to him was just a blob of dull-lit color and aching familiarity. There was medicinal hint in the air around him that couldn’t be placed; hand sanitizer?
A name was on his tongue but cotton was in the back of his throat, choking him.
Richie woke, sweat-soaked and nauseated. He forgot he knew how to run when he was bee-lining for the toilet to dump his entire soul’s content into the porcelain bowl.
He woke again on the bathroom floor several hours later. He didn’t dream again. No more fucking Silver Like artisan asshole vodka on an empty stomach.
When he woke again, it was with Dan standing over him prodding him in the stomach. He didn’t ask, just reminded Richie of their agreement that he wouldn’t die of alcohol poisoning.
Dan could be an asshole, but Richie wasn’t exactly a picnic. Still, he was able to cancel whatever the fuck Richie was supposed to do that day and the next. There was a carefully curated “unpunctual dickhead” persona that had been perfected for Richie over the years that allowed room for these types of days.
“Just fucking take a shower at least, will you?” Dan said, turning it on for Richie. “Don’t make me call the Betty Ford Center, you prick, ‘cus you know I will.”
Ah, the rehab threat.
Richie ignored the pop of his ankles as he stood from the tile.
“Then I’ll start telling everyone I’m gay.”
Code for: I’ll destroy both our careers.
Dan cuffed him in the back of the head, playfully, but there was something else.
“You gangly fuck, if you ain’t come out yet, it’s not happening any time soon.”
He wasn’t wrong.
After Dan left and Richie stood under the spray of the showerhead, he realized Dan might have been calling his bluff. But was Richie unstable enough to piss off his demographic of 18-30 year old heterosexual caucasian edgelords? He’d shelve that grenade for another day.
About forty-five minutes later, with a mouth full of a birthday cake flavored Pop Tart, Richie realized he had just come out of the closet to his fucking manager.
He puked again, but this time, he didn’t make it to the bathroom in time.
On the subject of gayness, Richie wasn’t really sure that he qualified. He didn’t talk to men that he wasn’t specifically working with. He saw what TV personality gays thought of his wardrobe. He lived in Los Angeles, it wasn’t like there was a shortage of back room celebrity parties he could find himself at, with some anonymous guy that wouldn’t mind signing an NDA.
Earlier on, Dan had tried to set him up with some B-list actresses to sorta round out his image as the silly but loveable boyfriend type. He felt sorry for the girls. Yeah, his star was rising, but he never liked the idea of them having to use him to get anywhere. They deserved better than him . He could have been insulted, but it wasn’t uncommon for not-that-handsome comedians in his field. The women had been beautiful and Dan wanted gratitude.
But Richie started seeing what people were saying, the rare times he glanced at gossip rags. The women could have done better than The Trashmouth. What were these elegant, albeit considerably younger women with blossoming careers doing with him ? It was impossible not to agree with the criticisms.
And hell, it’s not like men ever wanted him either. Goofy, unkempt, and odd-in-the-face that he was. It was fine, Richie hadn’t been hurt by it. It was easy to ignore that painful twist in his gut with something strong either in his nose or down his gullet. And then, finally, he just stopped feeling it at all and stopped looking at everyone.
Dan, ever the genius, conjured up a Plan B with the writers for his sets.
“The Undatable Richie Tozier: Here’s All The Reasons Why I Will Die Alone. Please Laugh.”
The audiences from Toronto to Santa Fe had laughed at the self deprecation humor harder than any material before. The jokes rolled off the tongue so easily and it felt like a weird sort of self-flagellation Richie was imposing on himself.
I’m ugly and disgusting and a worthless sack of shit. Please laugh at me. Please validate this. Please agree with me. Please please please.
If Dan knew, really knew what Richie was and still made him say the words…
No. No, no no. It wasn’t worth visiting right now.
Jesus Christ, maybe he would just go ahead and off himself and be done with it.
“Richie, honey, you sound tired, are you eating okay?”
Mrs. Tozier didn’t become a worrier until Richie moved away. She didn’t trust West Coast cities and trusted her son even less in them.
“I literally just had a salad with that kale shit you like.”
She knew he was lying but pretended to believe him anyway.
He was a lot of things, but at least he called his mother once a week as promised. The alternative was her flying out to wherever he was to make sure he was okay.
“I just don’t want you dropping dead one day from malnutrition,” she said sounding, genuinely concerned.
“Don’t worry, there’s like a food truck or some new gentrified diner on every street corner.”
Mrs. Tozier hummed in a way that said, “I still don’t believe you, but I’ll leave it alone.”
“Will it make you happy if I start sending you pictures of everything I eat in a day?”
“Don’t be a smart ass, Richard.”
That made him smile. His face felt tired, the muscles unused.
“You just seem sad,” she said after a moment. “That’s all.”
Richie ran a hand through his unwashed hair. His mother was too damn perceptive. Was he so easy to read?
His silence was a damning confession.
“You can always come home for a bit,” she said, trying so hard to appeal herself to her son. “Just for a bit. Just for some rest.”
Rest. What the fuck did that word even mean?
Richie was still silent for a long moment before he relented a bit. “I’ll think about it.”
They both knew it meant,
“No, but I’m glad you care.”
Richie wasn’t avoiding home. He could have jumped at the opportunity to run back to his hometown when his net worth reached six figures to be the big-dicked king of his small Maine town. But something always kept him away. Something in the back of his mind that just said don’t. Don’t fucking dare.
He saw his parents enough, but it usually involved him flying them out to see him out of “convenience”. He’d clean up and put on the week-long act of the rich and successful and sorta cocky comedian that his parents had raised. He would take his mother shopping in fine shops and show his dad iconic record music stores that had been shut down and made into overpriced restaurants.
They weren’t getting to his side of the country so much lately. They were aging and his dad’s hip wasn’t as strong for long flights as it used to be. Still, the idea of going to Derry sent Richie with so much dread he swore it gave him ulcers.
His parents never asked, he never told.
Was it possible to be so far into the closet you could no longer see the door? Was it possible to be inside so long that the knob has rusted off and you can’t come out because you waited too long?
That would be a very long Google search.
That goddamn Kate Bush song was playing again. This time, from another room. Muffled and distant. The same as his dream. Almost exactly.
Richie sat on his sofa, slouched so far down his ass was nearly hanging off.
He didn’t realize he was crying until he couldn’t see anymore.
Though maybe it wasn’t crying , it was just tears. That were falling from his face. It didn’t feel like he was crying. He didn’t feel sad or upset. Though, truthfully, Richie wasn’t the most in touch with his feelings anyways. Did he even really know what he was feeling?
He missed… he missed…
He wanted to hear the song again.
Richie Tozier loved someone once. At least, he thought he did. And someone liked him . And it wasn’t a girl. It was a thousand years ago. It was like he shifted the sand at the bottom of the ocean only to find a black empty cavern. Something was just missing.
Love was a strong fucking word that knocked the wind out of him as soon as he remembered the punctuation. It was a feeling, a memory. It was a truth buried so deep inside, forgotten and discarded by time and nearly ruined with substance.
How could he forget loving someone?
Was it possible to love someone so much that he had been nearly killing himself for twenty years because of it?
Richie was grateful that he was such a useless fuck that couldn’t be bothered to throw anything away. Hoarding was acceptable when you had a huge attic to store everything you were never going to look at in fifteen years.
Still he knew there were a few boxes, unopened, that his parents had sent him when they decided to remodel Richie’s childhood room into a neutral guest room.
He had no idea what was inside them or if anything had survived the last decade.
There were three that were surprisingly easy to find, still with shipping labels on them and his dad’s meticulous taping that kept the boxes sealed tight.
He paid a couple of the landscaping guys $30 each to bring them down because no fucking way was he staying up in his attic to stroll through memory lane. And also he had very little muscle definition to do any heavy lifting.
The old Sharpie that hastily wrote his current address was his mother’s hand and it was something he hadn’t seen in forever. He felt guilty for some reason.
He found a knife and a bottle of bourbon and sat on the sofa with the first box between his legs for nearly twenty minutes before even popping the tape.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he berated himself, “this should not be so fucking hard.”
One swig and the tip of the knife punctured a corner with a small pop.
A note sat beneath the cardboard flaps when they were pulled open.
You said you weren’t going to take all
of your clothes because you would need
something to wear when you came back home.
Guess that didn’t end up happening.”
He didn’t know what was more depressing. The note, or the fact that his taste literally hadn’t changed since high school.
Hawaiian shirts, bowling shirts, novelty shirts, hard-to-find band shirts. It should have felt like the wardrobe of another person, another life. The more items he pulled out, he could almost swear he could smell his old room. Like it was trapped between the layers. But in an instant it was gone, untraceable.
Maybe he did need to take Dan’s advice and hire a stylist. To be colorful and aloof and silly as this collection suggested the wearer was, was fine when he was sixteen and didn’t care about anything. Now that he was goddamn-near geriatric, it was just sad.
Fuck. Richie dumped everything back into the box and made himself swear not to keep a few out to recycle into his closet. That wasn’t the purpose of this.
The second box was just some old toys and board games from way the fuck back. Some VHS movies sat neatly stacked on the bottom. Point Break, The Lost Boys, The Outsiders, A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Christ, Richie, be a fucking bigger gay cliche why don’t you.
There was a fifth tape, a standard JVC cover over it. On the label it read Summer ‘92 .
Richie set it aside, remembering that he had a media room with a VHS player. Thank god for being annoyingly rich and buying vintage equipment for no reason.
The third box was lighter. There was an empty backpack from 10th grade. There were two narrow Converse shoe boxes taped closed. One had a pile of CDs and cassette tapes. The standard stuff; Nirvana, REM, Green Day, The Stone Roses, The Cranberries.
He pulled up one of the cassette cases and opened the hard plastic to read the inside. Kate Bush.
Richie’s breath caught in his throat and he stared at the thing for a long time. This wasn’t his tape, he knows it wasn’t.
It was… it was his sister’s . But why did he have it? Why did his mom send it to him ?
Because I stole it from her.
It came flooding back in a hot rush. Sneaking into her room when she was at the outlet stores with her friends. Tucking it beneath his pillow. His sister screaming at him when she came home, accusing him of stealing it, and him screaming back that he wouldn’t listen to something so gay.
But why? He did take it, he knows he did. And he kept it.
The second of the boxes sent ice in his spine.
It was pictures. Dozens of them. None of them with notes on the back but he knew in an instant. Poorly composited and incredibly perfect snapshots of smiling faces. Young, happy, full of energy. It was… his friends .
It was years of memories compiled into a box. That’s all youth really was anymore anyways.
There was Bill, of course it was Bill, who was the most camera shy. Stan had his curly hair and perfectly sweet smile. Mike always had an arm thrown around whoever else was in frame. Ben never seemed to notice that a picture was being taken of him because he was almost always staring at Beverly. She was the coolest of them and probably still is, wherever she was these days.
He flipped through each one, smiling harder each time. They were messy, rowdy little shits. They were perfect.
There was the quarry, the clubhouse Ben had made for them. The lunch tables at school. He was even in a few of these. Sandwiched in group photos. Though it was hard to imagine that this was him . This kid was adorable, he could hear the sound of his own voice easily. Bad jokes jumping from memory like river salmon.
His hair was long, his glasses were huge, he was an awkward gangly shit. But this kid was happy, obviously he was. Or at least, in these brief moments in time, he was. With his friends. At those moments, all he had to be was thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen. Nothing else mattered.
Towards the bottom of the pile, there was another face. Of course .
It was his…
So many of these were just Eddie. Some featured a middle finger and a frown. Some were profiles, as if he didn’t notice that Richie had a camera next to him. He knew he took these. And he knew Eddie yelled at him after because, that’s right , he hated having his picture taken. But Richie couldn’t help himself.
The last one in the pile was one of them both. He and Eddie. They were seventeen, he knew the age immediately. The angle was a bit off because Riche was holding the polaroid camera in a very dated version of a selfie. Their arms were slung around each other. Richie grinning stupidly and Eddie was neatly tucked under Richie’s arm because he had grown nearly a foot the year before and Eddie still hadn’t.
Though words were indecipherable, Richie could hear a loud nasally voice yelling at him and he felt fond for it.
They lived two roads away from each other their whole lives in Derry. They all did. They were losers , that’s right. Didn’t fit in with anyone, except each other. He knows and can feel from the pictures that they were his best friends. But Eddie was different for some reason. Something about Eddie just felt different.
Eddie K-something. Kasper? Kasrack? KASPBRAK. That was his name. Eddie Kaspbrak.
Richie went to his kitchen and pulled out half of a turkey sub from the day before when he realized that it was nearly 4 o’clock in the afternoon and he still hadn’t really eaten anything. The island in his kitchen was large and he hopped up on it to sit. He was still holding the picture of him and Eddie. He held it up to the light of his kitchen, as if something else would be revealed to him.
He chewed on the sandwich in large bites so that it almost hurt to swallow. There was another feeling there, the sensation that was missing when Kate Bush played earlier. This time it was real. He could cry now. And it hurt .
He loved, once. He did.
The VHS player turned on easily, almost surprised that it was required at all. The tape slid in with familiar mechanics. 1992, he was sixteen years old.
First shot was his stupid face and a lot of voices. Richie never said he was an auteur.
Is it recording?
Yeah, I think so.
Well, why are you filming yourself?
‘Cus I’m just so sexy baby!
It cut to walking in the woods. Richie was filming. The rest were ahead. He kept pulling the camera up to film the fucking sky for some reason and humming.
The camera was shaky for a moment until finally it settled on Eddie, walking silently beside him until he realized Richie was filming him.
“Get that stupid thing out of my face, please.”
“Aw but you’re so cute, Spaghetti!! Cute cute cuuuuuute!”
Oh fuck me, this is just agonizing .
“I’m literally going to break it in half if you don’t cut it out, Richie.”
“Oh but baby, I’m going to make you a star, just you wait!”
Hearing his sixteen year old voice so brazenly flirt with another boy was almost too much to handle, but Richie kept going.
Thankfully it wasn’t just this. There was the time they tried to build a ramp for their bikes and Bill filmed Richie stupid enough to try and jump it. Everyone was laughing when Richie crashed and burned tremendously, and the camera was shaky and unfocused but Richie could hear a very distinct:
“ Richie, fuck! Are you okay, Richie? You stupid fucking idiot you almost DIED!!” That was obviously Eddie.
“Tell your mom only her sweet sweet TLC could make it better.”
That was definitely Richie.
Bev was behind the camera now, narrating and circling around Stan and Bill sitting at a table preparing to arm wrestle.
"We’re finally gonna figure out the strongest among us. I mean it’s obviously me, but I’m choosing to abstain.”
Richie found himself smiling at the snapshots of their lives and all the dumb ways they were able to entertain themselves with no internet access.
It always managed to go back to Eddie, though.
The last few seconds of the tape were of his sleeping face. They were in the club house hammock, somehow. Richie could feel the ghost of warmth of Eddie pressed against his side, his feet kicking him in the face “accidently”. There was never a reason why they needed to be in the hammock together -- but Richie remembered now, he never wanted to be in it if Eddie wasn’t also demanding space there as well. It was presented as a competition to own the space, but in reality it was just a constant begging to be near.
The frame was Eddie lying with one arm behind his head, laying on his arm as a pillow, the other was wrapped around Richie’s bare calf. He was asleep.
Richie had never been so close to another person. Not since then, he knew. Something about the innocence of just lying with his best friend made him feel sad. There was no performance to it, not like everything else in Richie’s life now. No pretense or act or shame . They were just boys.
See, you loved someone, once.
When the tape stopped, the screen went a blinding blue that filled Richie’s entire vision. He clicked a button that turned the TV off entirely. He was met with his reflection, as warped and daunting as it was.
Richie Tozier was scraped raw from the inside out.
He didn’t know whether to scream or take a nap for a few hours, book a flight somewhere, or walk into the ocean.
He was just tired.
By the following week, Richie was back on auto pilot. Nothing spectacular, just a few press gigs for a new special he scored with Netflix. Then after that, if the ratings were good, talks of a UK circuit.
“The Brits love your kinda shit,” Dan was prattling on while Richie distracted himself with a Rubik’s cube from Dan’s desk. “We’re thinking a couple London shows, Newcastle, Manchester, then maybe finish up in Glasgow.”
Richie nodded along absent-mindedly.
“You listening, Tozier?”
Richie looked up, blinking slowly. “Do you think I need a therapist? Like for real?”
Dan rolled his eyes, already annoyed at the deviation from the script.
“I think you’ve got 40 years of fucked up shit going on,” he said almost too easily, “I think you’re a shrink’s wet dream.”
Normally this is when Richie would interject with some crass joke to change the subject and diffuse tension. But lately, he and his brain weren’t on speaking terms.
Dan adjusted his tie and leaned forward over his desk.
“Listen, dickhead. If this is about that shit the other day, you know I’m just fucking with you.”
Did Richie know that?
“But whatever the fuck kinda midlife crisis you have going on, me and the agency would love for it to wait til after Glasgow. If you could manage that.”
Code for: Lock it the fuck down.
Richie forced a stupid grin and saluted. “Of course, good sir! Penciling in a psychological breakdown for mid-March!”
Everyone hated the tacky British voice, but it seemed fitting for the occasion. If Richie was joking, everything was fine. No one had to pretend that he wasn’t.
Life had a way of just going on whether you want it to or not. There was no time to think about anything between meetings and appearances and hangovers. This is how Richie lost years. There was no difference between 2010 and 2014, except maybe the style of cell phone he owned. Richie had to just go with the flow or risk being left behind and forgotten.
He never considered himself particularly obedient , but he did parrott what was dictated easily enough that it felt like sleepwalking half the time. There was a time where Richie resented not having enough say in his material but quickly found that no one really cared. It wasn’t as if he was a completely untalented schmuck. He had candor that people liked, a cadence that made his anecdotal storytelling funny and relatable. It wasn’t the words that mattered. Anyone could say words. It was no different from acting.
At least, that’s what made doing the job bearable most of the time.
Richie was back in the swing of it by the time December came along. The Netflix special was being filmed at the Apollo Theater. He didn’t understand why his agency was freaking the fuck out about it— he’d filmed nearly a dozen sets before with Comedy Central and he had performed the Apollo twice already.
Maybe Dan had warned them that Richie was a walking time bomb and there was a 30% chance Richie would fuck up somehow and it would never make it to air and everyone would be out of work.
Did he want to go to London?
“You know, I’ve been called a ‘faggot’ more times than I could probably count. ‘Cus you know, just look at me right?”
The audience laughs.
“It was usually screamed in my face while I was being punched and kicked till I was pissing blood. Once I’m pretty sure I almost died from blunt force trauma. When I was a kid, you know, I was so scared that it was because of how I walked or talked or dressed. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I could do to fix it.”
“Turns out it was ‘cus I really liked dick. There was no fixing that shit.”
“For those of you wondering where the punchline is, it’s that I’m gay. I mean obviously I’m really bad at it, but I’ve partaken. And thank you to the sick fucks laughing at a childhood hate crime.”
They laugh again, Richie moves on.
“Are you out of your fucking mind,” Dan was pacing. His face was a shade of red that suggested an aneurism was on its way. “You drop that cute little bit during the Netflix filming? Really, Tozier?”
Richie was chugging a water bottle and finished with a small burp. They were in his dressing room. Oddly, Richie felt perfectly fine. Maybe better than fine.
“What the fuck’s your problem?” Richie said, “Audience liked it, who cares?”
Dan paused and came to sit next to him.
“My problem is now two raging fucking fires. Either you’re now a gay comic, fucking congrats. Or , you just told the most homophobic bit in like twenty years .”
This gave Richie pause. Fuck.
He wasn’t in the business of using slurs as jokes. He might have been a hack but he had some morals.
Some comics could toss in a word here and there and, yeah, there were some internet rumblings but no one was ever truly reprimanded. They’d issue a statement their publicist put together about how they were sorry if anyone was offended, but that’s comedy baby blah blah blah.
But making a joke of abuse and hate crimes? That’s a line most wouldn’t cross.
“Well fuck it,” Richie shrugged. “Guess I’m a gay comic now. Congrats to me.”
Dan was done with the conversation and so was Richie. As far as he could gather, he had a couple weeks before the special dropped. After that, who knows.
An ugy, aging comic comes out on stage to an audience that couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. That was the funniest joke Richie ever told.
March 3rd, the special dropped.
March 4th, Richie’s phone was exploding.
He hoped, at most, that no one had really paid attention that much.
Voicemails from his parents and sister were concerned and confused requests for Richie to please call them back when he could.
Magazines and journalists were on his dick like a bad rash asking for a quote or an explanation. Something.
His email inbox was flooded with the lot of them. Someone said that all publicity was good publicity but Jesus Christ.
Dan was right, unfortunately. Everyone wanted to know if Richie had stupidly come out as gay on stage, or if it was just some disgusting joke from the Trashmouth. People wanted clarification on how to treat him next. As a joke or a pariah.
It was times like these that he imagined that people would make use of a therapist.
At 8:17pm, a text came through from an unknown number.
Fucking great , he thought. Email was one thing but not a lot of people had his personal number.
Hey man! It’s Stanley Uris. I hope you don’t mind,
I got your number from your mom who is still
friends with my mom. I’m not sure you
remember me, I just wanted to say that
I saw your special the other night. If you wanted
to reconnect, if you want someone to talk to,
I’m still here for you, nothing has changed.
He stared at the message for a long time. He hadn’t thought about Stan in years , and yet it was him. Forever kind and thoughtful. He never really laughed at any of Richie’s jokes, but he still always there when it really mattered. Of course he would be here now. Even after Richie forcibly amputated himself from the group.
It was pure instinct that made Richie forego texting back, (he hated texting), and he pressed the call button. It rang twice before Stan answered with surprise.
“Yeah... fuck. ”
“I didn’t think I would actually hear from you, being famous and all now.”
“Well you know, life’s full of surprises I guess.”
There was silence on both ends. And then:
“Are you okay, Richie?”
Richie sat back on his bed. Everything was crumbling. Something about the way that Stanley asked it had a bludgeoning effect on Richie’s carefully erected walls that kept everything inside.
He chewed on the inside of his cheek until it was almost bloody.
“I don’t know, man. I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty much a fucking disaster.”
Richie forced a laugh as though it was the punchline.
They talked for a few hours until Richie realized that Stan was actually normal and probably had a real job and he needed exactly 8.5 hours of sleep.
Richie promised to keep in touch. It felt like he meant it.
Before he hung up, he asked Stan, “Dude, what the fuck happened? ”
Stan went quiet for a minute. “It was in your act, man.”
If you tell enough stories, anything could theoretically be true. He had been telling variations of stories about almost dying since people began asking. Childhood accidents that got out of hand.
was the closest he came to some semblance of the truth. He hadn’t even really thought about it before he said it. The words were just
, ready to be voiced. It didn’t feel like a joke anymore.
Richie didn’t tell his parents he was coming to Derry until he landed at Bangor Int’l Airport. He booked the flight only a few minutes after hanging up with Stan. The first flight out was at 5:40 the next morning.
He only remembered to text Dan that he wasn’t in Los Angeles anymore until he was loading his duffle in the backseat of the rental car.
I’m back home in Derry visiting my folks.
My phone will be off, don’t bother.
He found that Kate Bush song about running up hills to make deals with God on his phone and just drove.
Nothing about Derry had changed. It was still the same, stunted in time. Only Richie had changed. Though, he didn’t know if he ever fit here, if Derry had ever been a place for people like him. Too much, too loud, too different.
He barely remembered leaving, just that getting out and feeling like he could breathe for the first time once he crossed over the state line.
How could one place be the foundation of a happiness he hadn’t been able to replicate in twenty years, and his biggest source of unspeakable fear.
“Sweetie, you absolute devil, you should have told us you were coming in!”
Richie bent down to hug his mother, wrapping his arms around her small frame tightly. He really did miss this.
“We would have come and got you,” his dad said, shaking his hand before pulling him in for a hug too.
“No offense,” Richie said, adjusting himself, “you’re like 97 years old, I wasn’t gonna make you guys drive to Portland.”
“Nonsense,” Mr. Tozier clapped him on the back.
“And where is your coat! There’s still snow on the ground, Richard.”
She was right, as soon as Richie landed, he completely forgot that Maine would still be deep into winter until at least May, probably.
His dad laughed. “He goes to fancy LA for a bit and completely forgets which way is up.”
Mrs. Tozier was pulling him into the kitchen where it was warmer. “You can borrow one of your father’s while you’re here.”
“Seriously, I feel bad enough for just dropping in on you guys like this.”
Mrs. Tozier was already in the process of brewing a pot of coffee and waved her hand at him. Richie and his father sat at the kitchen table which seemed to have shrunk since the last time he sat in his exact spot.
“My sweet boy,”sShe took his hand as she sat next to him, placing a mug on the table. “You’re always welcome here.”
He studied her face. There was nothing but genuine love in her dark eyes. Maybe it was because Richie hadn’t slept in almost 30 hours, but he was too tired to pretend like all he truly needed in the moment was to hear that from his mother.
“When did you guys become such damn saps?”
Richie’s childhood bedroom that overlooked the backyard was now a tastefully decorated guest bedroom. His small twin bed, which carried him until he left Derry, had been replaced with a bigger queen size bed. Long gone were his tacked up posters of whatever summer blockbuster he had been obsessed with. Or some actor he just really really admired, okay? And the bikini models that stopped the damn questions about it.
He hadn’t looked at his phone since texting Dan and was too anxious to do it now. He set it on the nightstand, face down. Los Angeles just needed to stay in Los Angeles for a little while. He was so tired.
Richie woke to the smell of meatloaf and a darkening sky. He sat up on the bed, realizing he never took his shoes off, but also slightly delusional for a few moments. He flew to Derry, Maine. He’s in his parents’ house. He’s in his old room. He slept close to ten hours. He was fucking freezing.
Mrs. Tozier was setting the table when Richie came into the kitchen. He leaned against the fridge.
When she saw him, she smiled.
“Good, sweetie, I wasn’t sure if I should wake you, but you do need to eat.”
Richie grinned, “It smells great, mom, seriously.”
She smiled warmly.
He ate together with his parents and let them tell about his sister Martha, his nieces and nephews, who were proper kids now. Mrs. Tozier pulled photos off the fridge magnets to show him. Richie hadn’t seen the kids since they were infants, when he saw his sister in Boston because it intersected with a show he was doing.
His dad told him which stores had closed down, who died. The standard small town gossip.
“Richie,” Mrs Tozier said after a moment. “You know I haven’t seen you this quiet since you got your wisdom teeth removed.”
“And you still managed to prattle on and on,” Mr. Tozier added.
Richie shrugged. “I haven’t really had much to say lately, I guess.”
His parents looked at each other for a long moment.
“We watch your little shows,” Mrs. Tozier managed. “When they’re on. Don’t always get the jokes, but we always try and support what you’re doing.”
Fuck, here it comes.
“We were. well,” Mr. Tozier took a deep breath and cleared his throat, “a bit surprised at your newest one.”
Richie could feel his blood pressure spiking.
“Not that we didn’t enjoy it!” Mrs. Tozier quickly added.
Mr. Tozier agreed. “Oh no son, of course we did.”
“Just… you never talked about what happened back then. Not to us, at least.”
“And then you’re on the TV.”
Richie’s throat was closing up.
“I don’t even really know what happened,” Richie said quickly. “Tell you the truth, I didn’t even really know what I was saying until after I said it. I didn’t know everyone was gonna take it so seriously, Jesus. Besides, everyone laughed, so it’s fine. ”
“Richie, sweetie,” his mother took his hand and held it tightly. “Not everything has to be a joke.”
He couldn’t look at her, his eyes falling to his lap like a chastized child. “I know.”
Jesus, wasn’t he a fucking sight. A fucking mess of a grown man, sitting at his parents’ kitchen table. A sad gay melodrama. Richie was searching desperately for the punchline of it all.
“It was always okay with us, Richard.” Now it was his goddamn father rubbing his back. “We just wished things happened differently.”
Fucking Christ, why did they have to be so loving and supportive? Making everything so easy for Richie who could barely even speak. It couldn’t have ever been this easy. It had to have been so much harder when he was younger, otherwise he wouldn’t have been here like this now.
“I don't know what you want me to say,” Richie relented.
Mr. Tozier placed a steady hand on the back of Richie’s head, petting his head like he was seven years old again. “It’s not about what we want, son.”
“I’m sorry, you guys,” Richie said, looking at his mother and squeezing her hand back.
“No really,” he took a deep breath, “it feels like I was punishing you guys. Staying away for reasons I can’t even fucking remember. Being such a prick. You didn’t deserve it.”
“You’re here now, son,” Mr. Tozier said then. “That’s all that matters to us.”
Mrs. Tozier managed a sad smile. “And you know that we love you.”
It was all so disgustingly wholesome that Richie could barely stomach it for a second longer. But still, Richie couldn’t help but feel sad for them. His parents were in their late sixties. They were too old to be managing their grown son’s issues because he was too much of a sad sack of shit to deal with them himself.
When Richie Tozier left Derry, he went to live with an aunt in Chicago. It was always just assumed that he went after graduation and that’s how comedy started for him. He never gave it much thought; never backwards, only ahead. Richie stood on the stairs, looking at pictures of he and his sister through the years. There was her senior photo, in the red and silver of Derry High School. His wasn’t on the wall. He didn’t graduate from Derry.
Richie left before senior year and got his GED in Chicago.
Dan left him about 7 voicemails out of 15 missed calls and a chain of angry text messages.
That was a bridge he’d burn tomorrow. Richie had slept for most of the day, but knew he could go for another ten hours. It didn’t occur to him that he hadn’t had a real drink since Los Angeles. In the back of his mind he knew where his dad’s stashes were. But after that cathartic as fuck moment they’d all had, he couldn’t just go raid their alcohol.
He would pop by the grocery store tomorrow like an adult.
It felt like being dead, or on the brink of. Everything hurt so he knew he wasn’t.
There’s voices, unfamiliar.
“I heard he was with some boy.”
There’s acid in the tone.
“So much blood, paramedics almost didn’t wanna touch him. Pretty sure they had to get new uniforms to make sure they didn’t catch anything.”
“Do these little homos feel any shame?”
He pretended to sleep, they didn’t know. It was nurses. There were beeps of monitors.
He wondered if he started to crash, if they would revive him.
There was so much black. Like trying to see through a blind fold.
Then there was Eddie. Richie could feel him.
Then there was: “Don’t touch me.”
Then it was cold and empty. Like Richie was.
Richie woke with a jolt. His heart was going to burst open. This had to fucking stop. All of this late stage stress was bound to actually give him a heart attack at some point. Through the darkness of the house, the four-foot walk to the bathroom was still familiar.
There were no involuntary reactions this time — no puking nor crying. Nothing at all. Richie rinsed his face with cold water and leaned on his forearms over the sink. It kept ringing in his head like a bell.
Don’t touch me.
Three stupid small words, said in fear, in disgust. From the voice of a scared boy who probably didn’t even mean it. Whatever their desired intention however, it worked.
Richie hadn’t touched him again. Or anyone else.
TO: STAN URIS
11:47pm: do you still talk to Eddie?
Dan was glad enough that Richie hadn’t fucked off to the middle of nowhere and killed himself that he relented in the ass chewing that Richie had been avoiding.
He doubted that things were as big of a mess as Dan was making it out to be, but in Hollywood everything was a potential disaster. As far as Richie could gather from half listening to his manager, the media was more confused than anything. The idea of being closeted in Hollywood wasn’t a novel idea, nor was it particularly uncommon. But coming outs were more carefully designed than what Richie had done. A tasteful spread in a reputable magazine, usually in relation to either a career revival or an accompanying project. All to control the narrative.
Richie had no narrative.
He had nothing to gain, really. More to lose, than anything. Acting and theater was one thing, comedy was a whole other seedy beast. He knew the crowds, he knew the audience that had been built for him. He knew the circles of straight male comics.
Richie didn’t know if he wanted to be a gay comedian . If he was ready to be a mascot and do the press rounds to talk about his coming out over and over and make it a thing.
Because at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. Gay, bisexual, straight, whatever. It was all just words and empty notions that just meant it was a different gender of people to be rejected by than the one people initially thought.
There was no one to come home to.
TO: RICHIE TOZIER
8:13am: It’s been a little while, but yeah! I’ll attach his contact.
The contact information for one Eddie Kaspbrak included a number, an email, and home address. Presently, he lived in Manhattan, New York. It said nothing of who Eddie was now, what his life had become. Just evidence of two things:
He was alive. He got out of Derry.
Richie reached for his back pocket and pulled out the slightly bent photograph of the two of them. Richie carried it with him all the time now, even on stage that night. He was nothing to Eddie now and, really, Eddie should have been nothing to Richie as well.
But, once, they were everything to each other.
Richie had been in the back of his Lyft for 35 minutes, though not far from LAX, when he got an incoming text from another unknown number.
Hey Richie! It’s Bill! (Denbrough?)
Stan told me you two had been talking a bit,
thought I’d try reaching out too.
Judging by the area code, I see you’re
in LA like me! I’d love to meet up sometime,
if you’d like. Stay safe, man.
Richie smiled, though mentally berating himself for not knowing that one of his best friends had been living in the same fifty mile radius as him. And probably for years.
He didn’t really want to deal with anyone for a while, but he found himself desperately missing Bill. Where Stan was cautious and kind, Bill was headstrong and so sure of himself. Maybe these were the times when people needed friends. He hadn’t had one that legitimately gave a shit in longer than he could remember.
The LA Times called it a “shocking revelation.”
Online news sites called him “brave.”
A number of other comedians, who Richie thought he was on good terms with, said something to the effect of: “The stage isn’t the place for politics.”
Conspiracy theories began to circulate (credit for the dedication in just a few days time), that it was all an act for ratings.
Counter theories, that involved digging up hazy footage of Richie’s earlier sets, suggested that Richie had been hinting at his sexuality way back then. This was coupled with the fact that he had been allegedly single since 2006. He found himself impressed with this one. Granted a bit of a harsh way to summarize one’s life.
Some of his more serious fans insisted that “ it was just a joke, it didn’t mean anything. There’s nothing about him that gives off gay vibes. Stop forcing it on everyone.”
Richie was in a rabbit hole of masochism when his doorbell rang. The unfamiliar sound confused him for a moment before he realized that he had given Bill his address.
“Jesus, you look exactly the same,” Bill said with a smile. One hand held onto a six pack of beer. In the other was a pizza box.
Richie was instantly reminded of the first time his parents let them order pizza for a sleepover for Bill’s 11th birthday.
He took the pizza from Bill and held the door open for him to enter. “You don’t fuckin stutter anymore either.”
Bill laughed and Richie was so happy.
Richie led them into the living room where an old samurai film played silently on the TV mounted on the wall.
“So uh,” Bill said, “you seemed to have done pretty well for yourself.”
Richie shrugged. “All things considered, you know.”
“Guess being a trashmouth really paid off.”
“You could fuckin’ say.”
Quiet filled the room with the muted electric hum of the television suddenly very loud.
Bill took a place next to Richie and flipped the lid of the pizza box. Sausage and ham, Richie’s favorite.
“You know when we were kids,” he said tearing off a slice, “we couldn’t get you to shut up.”
Richie snorted. “You know my mom said the same thing when I flew to see them.”
“You went back to Derry?”
“Oh, you also don’t make crazy choices while in the middle of an emotional breakdown?”
It was only minutes before Richie and Bill were eating and talking like nothing had changed. As if it wasn’t the first time in twenty years that they were even speaking to each other. There were five other people missing though. In a strange way, one that Richie had never really given any thought before now, he had been missing his friends his whole life.
“What’s he like, Bill?” Richie said, popping open his second beer. “Now, I mean.”
Bill looked down for a second. “Eddie?”
He asked, but he knew who Richie meant.
Richie swallowed thickly as he nodded.
“He’s… Eddie , you know?” Bill shrugged. “In a way it’s like he never changed. Still talks way too fast. Still kind of neurotic. I think he does some sort of like, risk assessment stuff.”
“Christ, of course he does.”
A warmth began to glow inside Richie’s chest.
“But he wasn’t the same after you left. I mean none of us really were, but him especially.”
Richie looked up and saw Bill’s sad eyes. “How do you mean?”
Bill thought a moment; Richie could see him chewing over words.
“It was all of us, the losers club,” Bill said finally. “But sometimes it was just… you and Eddie . We were all friends, but there was something else with you two. Then you were gone and it was just Eddie. He had us, but…”
“He didn’t have you.”
Richie felt his heart sink like a stone in a well. His skin felt too tight, stretched over like he could burst from his bones at any moment. He didn’t know what to do with any of this.
“Did you know?” Richie asked suddenly, before he could think about it. “About us? Whatever the fuck we were?”
Bill looked away for a moment before nodding slowly, as if he was expecting Richie to have asked eventually.
“I think we all knew a bit. You two used to fight like crazy. Then one day, I guess it wasn’t really fighting anymore. Just excuses to have each other’s attention. There was a lot you thought we couldn’t see.”
Richie groaned, scrubbing his face with his hands. He asked, but why did it have to be so embarassing? Why did he have to be so… loserly.
“That’s so gross, man.”
Bill was grinning, “It was pretty cute when you think about it.”
“Oh trust me, I am. Been trying to figure this shit out for weeks now.”
“Figure what out?”
Richie took a swig of the lukewarm beer he’d been nursing.
“I’ve got these fuckin’, what do you call them? Like black spots in my mind. I couldn’t remember anything about you guys like two months ago. Now it’s all just a fuckin mess.”
Bill hummed in agreement. “That would make sense.”
“Elaborate, man, c’mon.”
“We wrote you a bunch when you moved. Tried calling when we could. Asked your parents to pass on messages. But you never came back to visit or anything. Never called back. It was like you disappeared. Then years went on and we just… we had to let you go.”
Richie didn’t know what he was meant to say, what explanation he could muster that would undo it all. Only ahead, never backwards.
“I just turned it all off,” he said eventually, the only thing to say.
“So did Eddie,” Bill whispered. “He thought it was his fault, that you left. He thought you hated him. It was too much for him.”
Richie wanted to scream.
Bill stayed for a few hours before leaving. He was due on a movie set in the morning. They didn’t really talk more about the unpleasantness that was repressed trauma. Richie wanted to know about the others, wanted to know that they were okay—happy, successful. That life hadn’t handed them such a shitty deal either.
Rather, they all had their shit (that’s why they were ever friends to begin with), but that they were, at the very least, some semblance of stable. Normal.
He couldn’t help the guilt, though. It was impossibly familiar. That he’d ruined something that once was beautiful. Blown a gaping hole in their circle and set them all cast astray.
There were so many questions that Richie had — the biggest one.
The “what the fuck happened to ME” question.
Maybe Bill was dancing around it.
Maybe Richie didn’t truly want to know. What was he meant to do with the answer? What would it change?
Maybe some things were left in the dark. Some pains weren’t worth re-feeling.
“Listen, we postponed the UK dates for a while,” Dan said when he finally managed to get Richie on the phone. “But The Atlantic got in touch. They wanna do a piece on you, man.”
Richie was sipping the last of a black iced coffee. “What do you mean?”
“I mean a proper sit down with a legit writer. Photos, the whole deal. This could be really good for you, Tozier.”
“You think so? What am I even supposed to say?”
“Whatever you want.”
Richie never had a haircut that cost more than $15. He was never particularly fond of people touching his head. There was never more than a cursory thought given to his appearance, really, ever. He was as close to perfectly and unremarkably average as one could ever get.
But Dan made a compelling argument that his mother would want to frame the photographs and does he really want to look like that?
For the first time since maybe fourth grade, Richie’s standard unkempt mop of black hair was shorn into something more neat and presentable. Expensive product was brushed through, and it smelled like cologne.
“I look like a fuckin' youth pastor,” he told the young stylist who brushed the back of his neck for any stray hairs.
The stylist, a polite man with black nails, unclipped the cape from around Richie’s neck. “You look handsome. ”
Richie tried to ignore the thump in his chest at receiving the compliment. He scrunched his face for a moment, waiting for the snide grin, the sarcasm.
But there wasn’t any of it. The man smiled at him, both impressed at his finished product and Richie’s own disbelief.
“I grew up in a small town in Maine in the ‘80s, if that doesn’t paint a bleak enough picture for you. I imagine there are worse places. Like maybe Wyoming. I had to go and fall in love with my best friend and it was the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me. It never felt like ‘being gay’ was ever really an option. But I could be funny. It was like sleight-of-hand magic. Make you laugh about this thing, so you wouldn’t see the other. There are no better actors in the world than gay kids from small towns, and yes I’m including Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro. Quote me on that.”
The UK shows sold out so quickly, Richie agreed to add a couple of more dates. He felt ready, he felt okay. For the first time, he would be writing his own material. Of course he was nervous, the only time he felt more nervous was the first time he knew he would be booed off a stage.
The print issue of The Atlantic debuted in April.
Richie no longer had ulcer pains.
He tried running a bit to see if he could round out his total Richard Tozier Remodel , but gave up after two blocks when his lungs began to burn and he was dry heaving into a bush.
“When we grow up, where do you wanna go?”
“Your mom’s loving embrace?”
“I’m serious, Richie.”
“I don’t know. Some place big. And with like, more than one stop light.”
“Anything is better than Derry. You think we’ll go together?”
“Don’t be stupid. There’s no point in moving anywhere if you aren’t there too. I might as well stay here.”
“You would stay in Derry for me?”
“Someone has to keep your mom company, Spaghetti.”
“Yeah yeah, love you too.”
“Good evening, Mr. Tozier, there’s a man in the lobby here to see you. His name is Edward Kaspbrak.”
Richie dropped the phone.
His feet carried him to the elevator before he could even think about it. If he thought about it, it would be ruined. The bubble would burst. Eddie wasn’t in the hotel lobby. He knew this, but he needed to see. He needed to know that it wasn’t real. That Eddie hadn’t come here. That he wasn’t…
… standing at the front desk, nervously tapping the counter.
He turned around before Richie could even say anything.
“Shit man, you’re still short.” The words bubbled out in a fashion of pure stupidity.
Eddie’s eyes went from saucers to scrunched. “Hey, fuck you, man, I’m average height.”
Richie pretended not to see the concierge roll her eyes and go back to typing at her computer.
He didn’t know Eddie, not really. Not anymore. Whatever they were, was gone. This person in front of him was effectively a stranger to him now. But everything about him, from his “ready to launch into a full-scale rant about the importance of brushing our teeth four times a day” stance, to his neatly combed hair, and dimples that added a brush of boyishness, was perfectly familiar to Richie. Granted, the small gold wedding band on his finger took Richie a moment to reckon with.
Every pump of blood in his own heart was screaming EddieEddieEddie .
“So were you just never going to call me,” Eddie snapped Richie out of thought, “or what the fuck?”
“How the hell did you even find me?”
“Don’t change the subject, and Bill told me. Said you were going to France or whatever.”
“London, but yeah.”
If Richie remembered anything about how he and Eddie were together, there was a very real possibility that if they didn’t find privacy soon, cops would be called for a disturbance of the peace.
Going back to Richie’s room was almost entirely out of the question — mostly because of the hygienic state of it. But it also didn’t feel right.
The rooftop of his hotel kept neat arrangements of tables and lounge chairs that overlooked Queens. It was mostly quiet, for now, with only a few other people engaged in their own conversations. Richie found a secluded enough place. This act, of leading Eddie someplace secret and alone, was too familiar.
“Stan told me you asked for my number,” Eddie said. “But you never called.”
Richie felt found out.
Eddie was frowning. This was different than just picking a fight because…he looked hurt. Left out. Richie had always picked him first.
“Listen, what was I supposed to say? ‘Hello, remember me? Pretty sure the last time we saw each other was when my jaw was wired shut and you didn’t like holding my hand anymore, but how’s the last couple decades been for you?’”
“Hey fuck you, man.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Richie didn’t want Eddie to be angry with him. He never let himself imagine a reality where he ever would see him again. Now he feels ill-prepared, thrown off the deep end before he could learn how to swim.
“I don’t know what to fucking say,” he admitted at least. “I wanted to call. Christ knows I wanted to just know you again.”
Eddie’s face softened into something Richie couldn’t place. A breeze swept over the rooftop and sent chills in Richie’s spine as he continued, unabashed, but maybe too casual.
“I’m pretty sure I spent so many years missing you, that my brain registered it as a psychological pain. It’s like I forgot , but I never really did, I don’t think.”
Even in the dark, he could see the bright pink of Eddie’s blush. He remembered the feeling of thinking it was pretty. It was easy enough to recall the memory of it, but to be in the presence of a man he thought was beautiful, was nearly deafening.
Richie shook his head. “No, fuck. I’m sorry, you don’t need this shit.”
Eddie brought his hands to his temple to rub the imaginary headache away. No, he hadn’t changed.
“For the record,” he began with a sigh, “I never thought you were that funny. Not as kids, but especially as a professional comedian. If that’s what people call comedy these days.”
This admission felt as sobering as a slap. “Uh, thank you?”
“No,” Eddie adjusted in his seat. “Shut up. You weren’t funny , but I came to see you, sometimes, when you did a show in New York.”
Richie wondered if Eddie could hear how loud his heart was pounding.
“Like I just knew that if I was near you , you would fucking remember that I existed.”
“And then one day I’m in the third throw. You make a joke about the worst night of my life. And you never called me.”
Everything was said so quickly, with so little hesitation from either of them, that the sudden quiet between them made Richie feel completely spent. The rhythm of this back and forth, tit-for-tat, was a dance they had learned the steps of as children. Only now it didn’t feel like a game, a complex series of jokes to disguise what they really wanted to say. They were no longer eleven, fourteen, seventeen and burdened with mastering complex arrangements of double meanings and telepathy.
They were just old now, done over by life a few too many times. Just out of step with one another now.
He didn’t know Eddie anymore. And it felt too bad.
He didn’t know how to explain that he spent the latter half of his life barely clinging to his own reality, let alone cognisant enough to look for ghosts in his audiences.
Richie took the spare moment to look at his old friend. He didn’t have a real explanation for why he didn’t call him. He didn’t know what they could be to each other any more. Would all the trouble have been worth it to find each other again, just to realize they didn’t even really like each other as adults? The world was so small as a child and you only have the boundaries of a few streets and the common denominator of being losers together.
“What did you mean,” Richie said. “When you said it was the worst night of your life?”
Eddie’s eyes grew a bit wide, like it was a Freudian slip he didn’t actually mean.
“It’s just…” He sought out the words, “I was there Rich, when it happened.”
The words came from Eddie weak and delicate. Like the admission alone would be a bludgeon to Richie.
“We weren’t even doing anything,” he continued. “But it didn’t matter to those assholes.”
Eddie was worrying his bottom lip. “Yeah. Everyone kept saying you were sick and shit just got too real way too fucking fast.”
Don’t touch me.
Richie wondered in the back of his mind if Eddie was gifted with memory loss. A strange way of looking at it. But what was the alternative? Live with it? Know it? Let it replay over and over and over again like a bad horror film? A kind of torture. There was a part of him that wanted to ask, but another that knew it was pointless. The knowing wouldn’t fix it.
He didn’t know Eddie anymore, but he remembered bits of what Eddie had to deal with in his own past. There was a brief memory of a mother, of fake illnesses, of the paralyzing anxiety of becoming ill. What did that make Eddie now?
“Aren’t we just a couple of standard-grade fuck ups,” Richie said, gifting them both with the alleviation of tension.
Eddie tried to stifle the corner of his mouth from forming a grin. “Speak for your fucking self.”
Richie leaned back in his chair and stared up at the high moon overhead. A question hung in the air still. The one they were both avoiding.
Do they just drift away again like passing ships in the night?
It was a call Eddie made when he shuffled his watch from under the sleeve of his jacket.
“Guess it’s late, huh.”
Richie forced himself to agree. “Yeah, uh, early flight tomorrow.”
Eddie nodded quickly. “Right, right, France.”
“London, but yeah.”
The awkwardness of the moment was an agony. They were seven, ten, and fifteen.
“I should go,” Eddie said quietly, almost a bit tired.
Richie offered his hand out for a shake. “It was good to see you again, man, seriously.”
Eddie took it quickly. The cold of the wedding band was searing in Richie’s palm. They stood there for a moment, maybe a long one, before Richie let it go.
There were no better actors in the world than gay kids from small towns.
“Tell your mom I said hi.”
This earned Richie a genuine laugh, an eye roll, and a “ Fuck you, Richie” that he had missed so much.
Eddie left the rooftop patio and Richie watched him go, shoulders slumped, the hand they shook with in a balled fist. He didn’t look back, only ahead.
Richie pressed the same hand against his front pocket. A plastic cassette tape sat there, hidden in the dark.