The Ballad of Johnny Waxman by Fiona Helmsley

Sid & Nancy gif_thumb[2]The first time I ever saw a person cut themselves was in a cemetery. The cemetery was around the corner from a movie theater where our parents would drop us off at the beginning of the night, unaware that we weren’t going to see the film inside. Ringed with large shrubs that formed a fence around its perimeter, the cemetery provided cover from our parents, as well as the police, who were always on the look-out for packs of roaming kids. It became our nocturnal playground.

I was thirteen years old. His name was Johnny Waxman, and he was two years older. My mother worked in the school system, and knew all the little details of Johnny’s permanent record; she didn’t want me to hang around with him. Some of my friends’ parents’ didn’t want them to hang around with me. Parents always think kids’ problems are contagious. They might be right.

There was a concrete storage shed where the tools were kept that were used to maintain the cemetery grounds. The storage shed bisected a small hill, and you could access the shed’s roof by climbing up a slight incline. The door to the shed was usually kept locked, but one night, a friend and I came upon the door open, and she pushed me inside, pulling the door shut behind me. In the darkness, the shed was a mausoleum, the tools inside, coffins and sarcophagi. The dead would have their revenge for all of our nights spent running wild in their home, for all the cigarette butts and sacrilege we’d left behind on their graves. It took the combined strength of three boys to get the door open. One of them was Johnny Waxman. When I was released, I fell hysterically, and opportunistically, into his arms.

In the 7th grade, I was not much to look at, but I had a contingent of very attractive female friends. When things went sour in their relationships, their boyfriends would turn to me like a fixer. At this point in my life, I got more boyfriends from the good lighting of heartbreak than anything else.

Liz Toscana was Johnny’s girlfriend. They had been together about a month. She was short, olive-skinned, and wore her bangs on top of her head in a big Pepsi- Cola wave, fortified with a sticky glaze of hairspray. Johnny and Liz were well- matched in that she was the toughest girl in our group, and he was the toughest boy. No one dared to mess with Liz, as she had studied the martial art, taekwondo, for years, while Johnny had grown impulsive and intimidating at home. Liz called the shots in their relationship, and her domineering personality seemed to soothe Johnny. He was her puppy; he just wanted to put his head in her lap, and have her stroke his hair.

Guys like Johnny, sensitive, but not very smart guys, who rely on their brawn more than their brains to get by, have a propensity to glom onto girlfriends hard and fast, possibly because it’s the one relationship in their lives were they don’t have to be hard and fast. Guys like Johnny would get married at 15 years of age after a month of dating, and believe in their vows wholeheartedly, till death do us part.

Thirteen was the age that I first became interested in punk rock. My fifteen year old cousin had returned from a stay in a mental health facility with a slew of artifacts attesting to the interests of the other young people she’d met there; t-shirts and books, tapes by bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. All of my friends listened to hairbands like Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue. I was fascinated by punk music; just as I’d been by the patients I’d met visiting my cousin at the facility on visiting day. When the payphone on the unit rang, an anorectic boy in plaid pajama pants and a Vision Street Wear t-shirt had jumped up from a card game to answer it. “Tiger’s Whorehouse, by the Bay!” he’d bellowed into the receiver, sucking exaggeratedly on a pencil like it was a cigar. I’d looked over at my mother; she was fidgeting uncomfortably in her chair.

In this time before the internet, if you had an interest, you had to work for it, and I started going to the school library to find out whatever I could about punk music. I ripped out all the articles and pictures that I found, and pasted them into a scrapbook. On the cover of the book, I glued an ad I found for the Alex Cox’ movie Sid and Nancy, the tragic lovers, as portrayed by Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, holding hands and kissing in shadowed silhouette.

Johnny Waxman took Special Education classes. Behind their backs, the Special Ed students were jeered as “wandering retards,” because their classes required them to travel to different parts of the school building throughout the day. Johnny took advantage of this small bit of unsupervised freedom to travel to the 7th grade hallway, and stand outside the door of whatever classroom Liz was in, and look in at her, longingly. One afternoon, I was working on my scrapbook in the school library, when Johnny approached the table where I sitting.

“Who’s that?” he asked, looking at the picture in front of me. It was of a scrawny young man in leather pants with bondage rings attached at the waist. Holding a bass guitar in the photo, the man’s pale chest was a billboard of cuts and scratches.

“Sid Vicious,” I answered. I got a sense of pride from sharing with my friends my discovery of punk rock. I felt like it added a dangerous element to my identity. “He was the bassist for The Sex Pistols.”

“What happened to his chest?” Johnny asked.

“He did it himself,” I answered.

“What? That’s crazy! Why?”

“I don’t know, I suppose so that no one could deny what he was feeling. I read that he carved his girlfriend’s name into his chest. Her name was Nancy, and he was so in love with her, that he showed her, with his own blood.”

“Cheaper than roses or candy,” Johnny replied. “Sort of like a tattoo.”

“Flesh flowers.”

“That is fucking crazy,” Johnny said, with a laugh that sounded like eh eh eh.

I suppose I was a bit in love with him.

***

As is the fashion in junior high, when Liz decided she no longer wanted to be Johnny’s girlfriend, she didn’t tell him herself. Instead, she asked our friend Marie to relay the message for her, while she hid out in another part of the cemetery. I was with Johnny and three friends on top of the shed when Marie came. I had been told nothing of Liz’s plans to break up with Johnny in advance. It was probably a totally whimsical decision on her part. Maybe Johnny had worn the wrong color shirt that day. My girlfriends did this sort of thing all the time. Make up break up make up. I love you. I hate you. I love you.

Marie climbed onto the roof, and spoke quickly.

“Johnny, Liz wants me to tell you she doesn’t want to go out with you anymore.”

“Huh?” Johnny said. His body seemed to physically startle. He stumbled backwards, almost losing his footing near the roof’s ledge.

“It’s over, Johnny. She’s dumping you.”

Having said her piece, Marie turned, and climbed back down. From our vantage point on top of the shed, we could see her run/half skip towards the section of the cemetery with the Italian names on the gravestones. It had just started to get dark, and the vibe on the roof had turned ominous. Johnny began to pace back and forth, dangerously close to the roof’s ledge. We’d been passing around a glass bottle filled with a mix of gin and vodka, and Johnny grabbed it from the hands of a boy named Phil, took a big swig, then smashed it hard against the roof. Glass flew up into the air. Phil and two girls we had been drinking with huddled closely together to shield themselves. Johnny seemed to feed off their reaction. He pulled off his t-shirt, bent down and grabbed a handful of glass, and brought it up to his chest.

It was obvious Phil didn’t know what to do. Who was he to try to stop the older, tougher, Johnny Waxman? The girls and Phil hurriedly descended the roof, running off to report to everyone below what was happening. I stayed behind with Johnny. It was my moment, but it was also my place.

There was a flurry of voices and activity below us.

I picked up Johnny’s discarded t-shirt. He didn’t try to stop me as I brought it to his chest. Though the blood streaked across his stomach, I could see that the cuts had not been done very deeply. If you looked at the area on his chest with an open mind, you could make out the letters:

L-I-Z.

With the others gone, Johnny turned solemn.

“Can you read it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“When I get home, I’m going to go over it with a knife.”

I wadded up his t- shirt, and dipped it into the puddle of vodka and gin.

“If we could get some straws, we could drink this,” I said, trying to be funny, and to change the subject.

“So what happened with that guy afterward?” Johnny asked.

“Everyone took off. I think they are going to find Liz.”

“No, the guy in the picture. Vicious. What happened with him and his girlfriend?”

“Johnny, I don’t know if he cut himself because they broke up. He might have, or he may have cut her name in…. tribute. ”

“Are they still together?”

“It was a long time ago…”

“Are they still together?”

The voices below us were getting closer. It sounded like an army was advancing on the shed.

Someone said, “Let her go up alone.”

“No!” someone else responded. “He’s acting crazy! Who knows what he’ll do!”

“I think it’s kind of romantic,” said a girl’s voice.

Johnny peeked down over the ledge.

“How long do you think it will take for this to heal?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Probably not long if you don’t go over it with a knife.”

“She can’t do this to me. What do you think will heal faster, my chest or my heart?”

I saw the pouf of her hair first. The darkening night sky seemed to accentuate her red lipstick.

“Oh baby, you’re bleeding!” Liz said, rushing to Johnny.

She put her hands onto both of his shoulders, and examined his chest.

“Oh baby, I can’t believe you did this because of me.”

“Marie said we were done,” Johnny said.

“I never said…Oh, Johnny, oh….”

A lot of young people have this idea about what it’s like to be an adult: they think adults live, and feel, everything, big. They ape the grandiosity that they associate with adulthood by making every encounter, every situation, much more over the top than it ever needs to be. In this way, the vagaries of youth often have more common with Scarlet O’Hara, than Shirley Temple.

Liz turned and looked at me dismissively. Without saying a word, I knew I was supposed to go. She took Johnny’s shirt from my hands.

Back on the ground, everyone was a buzz, giddy for information.

“What’s going on up there?”

“Did he really cut himself?”

“Does he have to go to the hospital?”

 

“Are they back together?”

I gave them what they wanted, and more.

“E-L-I-Z-A-B-E-T-H,” I said. “I don’t know how he managed to fit all the letters. I think he may have to go to the hospital. Yes, they are back together. I think they are getting married.”

That night, on the roof of the shed, a new coping strategy was introduced to my circle of friends. From then on, for many of us, the number of failed relationships that we’d been in could be tallied by the cuts, and burns that could be found all over our bodies.

It became almost like a contest.

Who would be the king and queen of the fucked up teens?

Parent’s always think kids’ problems are contagious. They might be right.

But sometimes, they’re competitive.

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