Variations on a Theme

By David Olimpio

In my backyard, Dan made a rat-tail out of his pool towel and whipped it in the air, like Indiana Jones. Dan was my best friend and he always knew how to do things like that: He knew how to turn a towel into a rat-tail whip. He knew how to turn a ten-foot fence into a balancing beam. He knew how to turn a tree growing beside my house into a ladder, the roof into a launching pad. He knew how to get his BMX bike to fly from makeshift wooden ramps and concrete ledges. 

Dan knew how to make the suburbs as dangerous as possible. I think we each had a sense that the most dangerous things in the suburbs sometimes took place behind our own closed doors. That the safe places weren’t necessarily safe places at all.

We started off snapping our towels, just seeing who could make the loudest whipping noise. There beside the pool, we made up names for the different sounds we played: the Low, Hollow Pops and the Firecracker Snaps. Variations on a theme. They deserved a nomenclature and so we gave them one.

The first hit on skin was accidental. I was trying to get a certain kind of cracking sound—maybe it was Variation #3—and I got careless and whipped Dan on the arm.

“Sorry!” I said.

“No, that was awesome!” he said, and back-handed a brilliant, cracking whip-snap onto my bare stomach.

I felt an explosion of sting where the towel connected with my skin. It was a red alarm and it was a fire burn. It was the rash of sweat and the collapse of breath. I could hear and see an eternity of tiny things: Crystal water drops on blades of grass. The rumble of an asp crawling on the deck. I felt a rush of calm. I felt the pleasant clarity and focus of an addiction. 

I looked down at my stomach and watched the pink welt form and it seemed true and real. And yet, at the same time, insignificant. And so I laughed. We both did.

And with the warm, wet concrete underneath our pruned feet, the August sun on our exposed, SPF-free skin, a battle of rat-tail towel whips commenced between two boys who were ten if we were any age at all. No armor except for swim trunks. Just the growing number of red welts on our bodies, which we showed off to one-another, like medals. Proof of our toughness. For the things we each had learned to be tough against.

Not so much a fight as a training. Not so much a training as a game. Not so much a game as the most important thing we’d ever done, which was how all games were, then. 

And during one of the rounds, as I was parrying and whipping at the same time, I flicked my towel too high and accidentally landed a snap across Dan’s cheek. 

He remained still for a moment. Then he lifted his head and I could see that he was good.

And I wanted to show him that I would take anything he would take. That he wasn’t alone. That I was next to him no matter what. So I said, “Now do it to me: hit me in the face.”

It is always this way:  When your father leaves, each time (Variation #23). When your baby-sitter rapes you next to your O-scale train set. (Variation #105).  When your brother shoots himself in his bathtub and your dad calls you from there, out of his mind with grief (Variation #81). When your mother opens her eyes one final time and you aren’t there by her side to see it (Variation #62). When the only son or daughter you’ve ever had, the biggest most powerful hope you’ve ever known, only the size of a kumquat on a sound-wave screen, stops being after 15-weeks (Variation #47). The slow, familiar stab of loss. These things which are small against the backdrop of the world, but which are important and eternal to us and so we bring them to the people who have always been there. We bring them so they can experience them too, even when it hurts. We tell each other about them because they deserve nomenclatures.

Now do it to me.

The sudden, inevitable sting of loss. The strange calm that follows.

Now do it to me.

The people who brace and buttress us. Whom we follow, and who follow us, no matter what stupid shit we say or do.

Now do it to me.

The most important games we’ve ever played. The most important things we’ve ever done.


Published 3/7/15 by Awst Press

Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:

Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting

Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent

Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own

Gene Kwak: Dirty Work

RE Katz: The Shift

P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City