I had come to the conclusion that I didn't know a damn thing about myself. I was an optimist who never believed anything would turn out right. An extrovert who always wanted to be alone. I let people walk all over me, but I was selfish. I was a conglomeration of opposites, a ball of constant confusion struggling with right and wrong. I couldn't even understand it myself, but as I approached the age of twenty, the official number that would leave my childhood behind me, I was trying to sort it out.
Nineteen was a weird age. It was an age of growing up, but staying the same. It wasn't special or monumental like eighteen was, or like twenty-one was supposed to be. It was just an odd number, a stagnant age. I felt stuck and stunted.
In my heart, I always wanted to think the best of people, and I felt that if I started everything out on that note, people would feel the same way about me. I got through life up to that point being naïve and embracing it. I didn't think there was really any other way to live and be happy. I couldn't stand the thought of wondering what horrific unfolding was around every corner. I couldn't let myself believe that the human race was cruel. I just never wanted to live that way.
Even when I had living proof that the very cruelty I did not believe in was being bestowed upon me, I looked away from it. I insisted on being resilient. "Cameron!" I could always tell when my dad was nearing the end of his rope with me by the way he called my name. He would do it when he saw something that reminded him of my annoying presence. He was still mad at me for not going to college when I graduated from high school. But I had a feeling that he resented the fact that I was even born.
Five weeks before I was born, my older sister graduated from high school. She was eighteen years old, and my brother was sixteen. I suppose my parents thought they were home free. They thought they would be empty nesters. They were going to sell the house and do some traveling, but I came along and ruined everything. My mom always loved me, and I never doubted that, but the fact that my dad hated me always overshadowed that.
It went further than just birth order with my dad, though. Laura and Doug were everything a parent would want from their children. Laura became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. Doug became a psychologist. In high school, they were smart, athletic, and popular. Laura was always driven to win, while Doug was your all around good guy. My dad believed that a boy should be throwing a football and swinging a bat, both things I had no interest in.
"Cameron," he said, after taking a deep breath.
"When are you getting that car out of the garage?"
"Probably this weekend. I'll have time to work on it."
He shook his head. I was used to the disappointment on his face when he looked at me, and it didn't bother me as much as it had when I was younger.
"I'm warning you, Cam. This summer. College applications. Find a better job. Get rid of one of the cars. I'm serious."
"I know, Dad. I will."
My dad thought I could undo the last two years and go to college like I had just graduated. I was never against going to college -- I liked school. I was an A-B student and a member of the National Honor Society. I just didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do something I loved. I wanted to do something positive. But I had to make a living at it, too. I mentally crashed when I thought about it. I was expected to pay a hundred thousand dollars for school and hope that somehow, I'd made the right decision for the rest of my life. It was a lot of pressure.
I'd only ever been really good at two things: fixing cars and playing the drums. When I was twelve years old, my neighbor gave me his broken lawnmower to tinker with. I took that apart, fixed it, and put it back together. It was my first taste of success, and I liked it. Mechanical things were simple things to me. Every part had a purpose, and when everything was put together correctly, the object would work. I didn't have to guess -- I could just dissect, correct, and rebuild.
If cars were where I applied myself practically, drumming was my artistic outlet. I was five years old when I took up an interest in music. I enthusiastically took piano lessons and learned fast. I was about ten when I began drumming. My school band teacher encouraged me to do it, and I instantly loved it. It came very naturally to me, and I enjoyed it.
During my high school years, my dad constantly accused me of using drugs. I found that quite amusing since I'd never been high or drunk. It wasn't that I was exactly against it, and I wasn't going to tell someone else how to live their life. I just never felt like doing it. I never thought it would enhance me in any way and I never needed another addiction. I guess I was just lucky that drugs never appealed to me. If my parents had any idea how much money I spent on my car, they would've realized that there was nothing left for any other habits.
I worked at the Stop N Shop, an independent grocery store. We were busy even though we had big box competition on every corner. Mr. and Mrs. B opened the Stop N Shop in 1955 with the belief that customers are really looking for two things: quality and service. They must have been right because the Stop N Shop continued to be Wedgewood's favorite grocer, even though the Cheerios were a little bit more expensive. Before Mr. B passed away, he taught me everything I knew about customer service -- the first and most important rule being to know your customer. That was easy for me to do because I liked to know people.
My favorite job at the Stop N Shop was waxing the floors. It had to be done at night when the store was closed, and nobody else was there. The floor machine was almost as old as the store, and I had acquired the little bit of muscle tone that I had by fighting with it at three o'clock in the morning. I liked the job because it was freeing to put on a pair of headphones and walk slowly up and down the aisles doing something mindless for a few hours. I learned a lot about myself while waxing floors.
As far as getting rid of the car went, I suppose I was hanging on to that for sentimental reasons. I'd had three cars in my life. The first car was a rusty, white Volkswagen Beetle that I bought when I was fourteen years old. My neighbor down the road had it in his garage for years. One day I asked him if he wanted to sell it and I got it for a hundred bucks. He helped me push it to my house. My dad wasn't happy about the rust heap that sat in his driveway, so he let me move it into the garage. I had over a year to make it run and look like new, and the entire time I worked on it, I fell more in love with cars -- German ones in particular. Having the car taught me about work ethic, too. I would do nearly any job someone would give me so I could buy more parts.
I only drove the Beetle for two months before I got another car. My love of cars was always more in the idea of them and the chase of obtaining them than actually just having and driving them. The second car (the one my dad was complaining about) was the one I kept hanging on to. It was a silver three- eighteen BMW, and it belonged to Mrs. B's son. I always complimented Mr. B when he drove it, so when Mrs. B decided to sell it, she asked me if I would like to buy it and I did. I tuned up the car and drove it for the rest of high school, but it was shortly after that was finished that I first laid eyes on the E30 M-car.
The M3 is beyond words. A car guy never really quits car shopping. There is always something better, more sought after, and more desirable. There were always projects that I could see completed in my head -- the ones with the grandest results. Every BMW enthusiast ultimately wants an M car, and I was no different. When I realized an M was within my reach, I scooped it up quickly, selling the Beetle and whatever I owned that I could sell to purchase it. It was a disastrous car. Absolutely nothing on it worked, which is probably why I could afford it, but I worked on it like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel until it was a work of art.
So the three-eighteen sat in the garage needing a fuel pump and collecting dust and pissing off my dad, but I kept it for one main reason: it reminded me of Stephanie. I guess I didn't even really want to be reminded of her, but when I pictured her coyly circling that car, long legs tempting me, brain working overtime to play her games, I did feel slightly sentimental. I felt like giving up that car would've been giving away that chapter in my life, and I wasn't ready to do that. It never got any easier to think about her.
I never knew what Stephanie saw in me except that once she complimented my hair, a coif which came about because I couldn't tell anyone no. My mom had friends in a card club, and I was always getting loaned out to shovel driveways and mow lawns and change brakes. They were simple tasks that required little effort on my part, and they paid well in cookies and cheek squeezes. I never did mind a freshly baked cookie and occasionally a five-dollar bill. The worst of those situations I'd gotten myself into was being a hairstyle guinea pig. My mom's friend had a daughter, Penny, who went to beauty school and needed a haircut volunteer, and my mother offered me up. I think at the time, she had a grand idea that somehow through all of the falling hair and snapping scissors, Penny and I would fall madly in love, but it didn't happen. We just didn't see each other that way, I guess.
Penny loved to turn me into a One Direction wanna-be. I thought I was getting a simple hair-cut the first time, but I ended up with a bleached-blonde mop of messy hair that I dreaded seeing in the mirror. I looked like I'd been surfing all day even though I lived in a shit town outside of Buffalo and not a place where surfing was an actual sport. I looked ridiculous. And also, because I couldn't hurt her feelings, I kept going back to her after she graduated, so the torture continued.
Wedgewood, a medium-sized working-class community on the outskirts of Buffalo, has three types of neighborhoods. The neighborhood I grew up in fell into the middle of things. Brick and vinyl sided houses designed in the early eighties contained residents around the same age as my parents. The older neighborhoods in Wedgewood were charming, with rows of early twentieth century houses that had been kept up on. I liked to picture those homes when they were new -- back in the days when a Model-T might be rolling down the street and clothes hung on a line in the backyard. These were homes that had character, that memories were made in, and I liked the feeling it gave me to know that time had passed and the houses still stood.
The neighborhoods I was least familiar with were the upper-middle-class neighborhoods. The houses were large and new and cheaply built. They were in a race to see who could make the most significant footprint in their professionally manicured lawns. Stephanie lived in one of those neighborhoods because her dad was a criminal defense attorney.
Thousands of times I'd driven past the Blackwood Plaza, made a left turn onto Shadow Oaks, and a right onto Timber Lane. I lived in the fourth house on the right, with brown brick and brown siding, attached garage on the left, house on the right. My mom would dress up a plastic goose, which stood guard on our front step, even though most of the other geese in the neighborhood had gone into retirement years earlier. My dad proudly displayed his Buffalo Bills decorative flag on the front stoop, and my mom planted geraniums around a Japanese maple tree that sat near our living room window.
The inside of my house looked like the eighties, nineties, and two thousands all threw up in it. From the garage, you entered the kitchen, where my mom was always doing something. She baked pies and made stuffed cabbage and meatloaf and homemade macaroni and cheese. She served it up on her tried and true "America" Pfaltzgraff dinner plates. One year, my dad bought her new appliances for their wedding anniversary but didn't update the kitchen itself. We had seventeen different ice cube settings on the refrigerator door, but the backsplash was still brown ceramic tile.
Our living room and dining room were no different. My mom collected two things: Steiff bears and Wendell August Forge platters. They were hiding in our house everywhere. On the way to the bathroom, going out the front door, or posing strategically between football awards and military pictures. My dad wouldn't give up his recliner, so the orangey-brown nineties monstrosity sat beside a sage green contemporary couch. The plaid couch that matched the chair was retired to the basement two sets of furniture prior. In the corner, beside the fireplace, was the new fifty-inch flat screen TV that Doug bought my dad for one of his birthdays so he could watch sporting events in HD. Doug and Laura's senior pictures adorned the living room wall above the mantle -- mine was hanging in the stairway, only to be seen by guests who decided to use my bathroom.
Up a few steps from the living room were the bedrooms and down a few steps from the living room, a finished basement. The average family home. My brother, Doug, was like the eternal frat boy, but not in a bad way. It was like he believed in some secret code of brotherhood that I never read the book on. Generally categorized as handsome, tall, and classy, he stood a good six foot five and managed to stay lean even though his job required him to sit and listen to people cry all day. He was also blessed with perfectly shaped light brown hair, blue eyes, and if they gave out an award for the best smile, he could've won it. Sometimes I expected a cartoonish gleam to spring from his teeth when he smiled. He always called me "Bro," and it sounded so unnatural, but it was endearing and reminded me that he was on my side.
Doug's wife, Breezy, was pregnant with their third child. Breezy was a typical catch for Doug -- pretty, busty, and always put together. I wasn't sure what Breezy had that made Doug want to marry her, but I suspected it was just the fact that Doug seemed to live by some sort of successful person's formula and that at age twenty-eight, the successful person was to be married and start reproducing. He was just so perfect that it was easy to poke fun at him.
My parents thought he was a double agent for them. When they were convinced that there must be something wrong with me, Doug would smooth it over for a while. I told him things. Not really because I wanted to, but because he had a way of getting people to say things like any good psychologist should. Of course, I kept my biggest secrets deep -- so deep not even Doug could lure them out of me. He never knew about Stephanie, nor did he know the truth about Britney. Those were things so fucked up that I had a hard time admitting the truth to myself.
My sister, Laura, was the only person in my family that I resembled. My natural hair color was like hers, and we had the same brown eyes. Some people said I laughed just like her, but I'd never heard her laugh. She lived in Germany, and I hadn't seen her in a while. Sometimes I thought about how my relationship with her was almost nonexistent. When she called for our parents, she didn't exchange pleasantries with me. When she came to visit, I felt like a tumor on the family. The four of them were a unit that I just somehow attached to later. I couldn't share in the memories of basketball championships and cheerleading mishaps because I wasn't there. There were no memories of the five of us together.
Laura looked at me like she felt sorry for me. I could never quite figure out the look on her face when she saw me, but it made me feel even more estranged from them. As I got older, I learned to remove myself from the situation. I always had band practice or a shift at the store to go to when the four of them were together. I didn't want to intrude, and I didn't feel like being the fifth wheel any longer.
Even with the aversion that Laura seemed to have for me, she appeared to love me. Every time she left for the airport she hugged me and cried. Perhaps it wasn't me who she was going to miss, but it made me feel better to think that she would.