A Fatal Whiff of Youth By Michael Mohr

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In the early 2000s I had a close friend named Tyrell; he and I were about as different from each other as you could possibly imagine.

For starters, Tyrell was black; I’m white. He grew up in Ventura, an hour and a half north of Los Angeles along the coast—where I was born—and I grew up in Ojai, a little mountain town nestled within the Topa Topa mountains 12 miles east of Ventura. He was tall and had a hard, sculpted torso. His dark eyes were constantly bloodshot from ripping bong hits in his white Mazda. He had short, nettled black hair. His father had split when he was ten; his older brother had been fourteen. A single mom had raised the two boys and a younger sister. They struggled. There was drugs; violence in the home; fighting; police. It was, to say the least, tumultuous.

I, on the other hand, came from money. Single child. Two married, happy, productive parents. Dad was a computer engineer; mom was a nursing instructor at a local college. That said: I was troubled. In 2002—a senior in a Catholic, college-prep high school in Ojai—I was expelled from school three weeks prior to graduation for my turgid reputation (angry, rebellious punk rocker who slept with many girls, shot up dope, and stole cars; the rumors were only half true) and for bringing a backpack full of pot and booze. It was within this globulous teen confusion that Tyrell and I connected.

Our introduction came through the mutual world of Ventura surfing. Growing up near the coast—driving Highway 101 and Pacific Coast Highway obsessively—surfing had become for most males between the ages of 13-25, The Thing. We waxed and unwaxed our shortboards. We watched surfing videos until the wee hours of the morning. We subscribed to and religiously read Surfer Magazine. We went on epic surfing adventures to places like Baja. For a while, me and some of my friends were even sponsored, enlisting in paid competitions.

I don’t remember the exact day or moment that we met. I think it was at one of our favorite pointbreaks, a place called Solimar, a football field length of narrow beach, million-dollar homes behind it, the green glimmering sea facing us and always beckoning us toward it like a mother with open arms. I was twenty. I can still see all the cars and trucks parked on the hard-packed dirt in front of the ragged boulders at the beach; can still smell the rancid, lovely stink of wafting pot, kids hitting from a glass pipe. I can smell the Sex Wax on fiberglass, that chemical reek. I can picture all the smiling hoodlum faces, the jerking chins, guys always saying, Sup, bro. Many wore baseball caps, either normally or backwards. White wife-beaters were not unusual. Lifted trucks with flowmasters to increase the noise. Some brought their girls with them; others, like me and my crew, just came us boys. We were on a mission. Destroy waves. Destruction of nature was our lazy, ambitious art.

And then I picture Tyrell, bloodshot eyes, arms dramatically outstretched, one hand holding a marble pipe, the other lighting the green packed bud, his dark skin, his black baseball cap that said, Billabong, the bill shielding his eyes, his cheeks now puffed, inhaling, like some wild shaman. His arms were taut and cut; he was shirtless and had most of a six-pack. I was not gay but I’d experimented a little, even back then, and I couldn’t deny the man’s natural beauty. He looked like natural perfection wrapped up in a time bomb; violence not yet stretching its wings.

That afternoon—it was some time, I think, in late January—with the air bitingly cold and the sun fresh and warm on our bodies, the green waves crashing hard fifty yards away, the parking lot half empty, he glanced over, blowing smoke out his mouth, saw me, smiled, and offered the pipe to me.

He jerked his chin. “Hit that shit, dog.” His voice, contrary to what I’d expected, was soft and warm, like heated honey sliding slowly down a tree. The voice seemed to contradict the body: He now appeared to me some sort of alien creature; a poem in physical form.

I nodded, took the pipe. Sunlight glanced off the thing into my eyes. I squinted. I watched the sea, pretending not to be nervous about the eyes I felt on me like nails being hammered into wood. I lifted the pipe to my lips and took a hit. The hit seared my throat, burning my lungs in a good way. I took it in, held it, blew out. I felt the eyes on me soften.

“What’s your name?” he said.

“Andrew, I said, suppressing a pot cough.

He hit the pipe again, arms in harsh angles like a gangster, then, his voice cracking from the toke, said, “I’m Tyrell.”

Six months had passed since we’d met. We had become fast best friends, in that way men do in their tumultuous early twenties. He drove a little white Mazda, low to the ground, with a sound system which was so loud, and contained such throttling bass, that it rattled the entire car. He often played either rap (Dead Prez was a favorite) or contemporary melodic pop punk. He played guitar quite well himself and had started a band. He loved music. He mocked me for the way I acted and dressed. In his eyes I was too attached to “the punk rock thing.” How was I going to score with any girls, he wanted to know, when I dressed like a jackass?

Tyrell wore the usual Southern California uniform: Van’s shoes; surfer-brand shorts; wife-beater or surfer-brand T-shirt; baseball cap on normal or backwards. The idea was to look cool and loose and unafraid. As if you were just putting it all out there. He wanted to show off as much of his glorious body as possible. I couldn’t blame him for that. I, on the other hand, was different. No hat. Pants—usually tight, torn jeans. Ripped punk T-shirts. And, Tyrell’s worst enemy: A beat-up leather jacket.

We fought constantly and yet we were close. He’d drive all the way out to Ojai—half an hour—just to pick me up in his Mazda, and then turn around and take us to the beach. He loved to drive. He loved the feeling of control, of sharp contours on the road. He saw driving as a challenge. He saw existence as a challenge. Survival.

That evening—it was the tail end of summer—he pulled up outside. I was living essentially in “the ghetto,” an area called The Avenue in Ventura, a rough patch where Latino gangbangers shot guns off at night like fire crackers. The rent was dirt cheap. I lived with two punk friends. We were disasters. Nearly twenty one, I was not in college. I worked a dead-end job. One roommate worked the overnight shift at Target as a stocker. The other one was unemployed. We were aiming to dissolve our parents’ middleclass dreams for us. Why follow the path we hadn’t chosen ourselves?

I said goodnight to my roommates, who sat playing a videogame, sitting on our ratty orange thrift store couch, listening to a Dead Boys album spinning sluggishly on the silver turntable. They did not respond. I shut the door and walked down the sidewalk to the waiting Mazda, steam billowing from the exhaust. It was cool out; the last remaining wisps of summer still barely clinging to the air. We were going to some house party in Santa Barbara. A friend of his told him about it.

“What up,” he said, eyes averted, baseball cap on.

“Hey,” I said, plopping into the passenger seat.

The car smelled like a mix of farts, lemon Christmas tree scent, pot, cigarettes, spilled beer, bad body odor, Old Spice High Endurance, and just the faintest whiff of old chicken.

I heard music on low volume, some sort of melodic punk, the bass even this low making the consul slightly vibrate, like water in a glass shaking from an earthquake 100 miles away.

“Dude,” Tyrell said, gaping at me. He was chewing tobacco; he’d started doing that recently. He picked up the habit from his older brother, who’d started doing it after a three-month stretch in Ventura County Jail for drug possession. “Why do you wear that fucking jacket, bro?”

Clearing my throat I said, “What do you mean?”

He pretended to adjust his rearview mirror. “Bro. You look like a faggot.”

I ignored his homophobic epithet; it was still “normal” back in the early 00s. One of his favorite words, actually.

“Whatever, man,” I said, sounding too sensitive and too defensive. “You do you and I’ll do me.”

Tyrell grinned, then full-fledged howled with laughter. “Whatever man,” he mimicked brutally, making me sound like a nine-year-old girl. “Dude, could you sound any more pussy, or any more white?”

I glared at him. “I am white, Tyrell.”

He chuckled, averting his eyes, shaking his head. He just barely adjusted the black bill of his hat. “Whatever, bro.”

He flipped the volume knob and the music suddenly became very loud, encompassing everything, filling the tiny car with sonic insanity.

Thirty minutes later Tyrell got off 101 and headed east on West Haley, through downtown Santa Barbara towards the hills. Cars were everywhere. We rolled our windows down, letting the smoke from the pipe we hit roll out along with the pop punk still full volume. People ogled us, groups of teens and early twenties kids looking and pointing. The drive had been exhilarating, as always. No words. Just the music and the pot and the night air cutting into the open windows. That feeling of rugged young freedom, like our whole lives were unrolling lazily ahead of us. We had all the time in the world. We were unstoppable. Nothing could hurt us. Nothing could kill us. Darkness outside had been total minus an occasional street lamp off the highway and the Mazda’s low-lit head beams. The road unfurled, curving like a concrete snake, awaiting the mystery of time and place.

Then we ended up on Alameda Padre Serra, way up in the hills, the road winding and twisting, heading north, the twinkling gold and red and green and blue lights of downtown now far, far below us. We were the kings of the world. We were up here; they were down there. It was as it should be.

Tyrell slowed and took a right on Arbolado Road. We crawled along, looking for the address. It took ten minutes to find parking. He cut the engine. The music died so suddenly, and the silence was so complete, and the darkness so total, that I felt like I was somehow back in the womb of my mother, pre-conscious.

We trudged up the hill towards the house. Already—a quarter mile away—we could hear the loud party noises. Screaming; yelling; buzzing chatter; Snoop Dog from The Chronic album. Just before we reached the steep driveway, Tyrell stopped and said, “Hold on.”

“What?”

He adjusted his hat bill. He did this when he was going to say something I didn’t like; when he was going to do one of his mini “lectures,” usually about How to Be Cool. How to “not be a kook.”

“Look. Andy. Just…” he paused, trying to find the right words. “Just be chill in there, alright? Don’t blackout. Don’t be too serious or weird. Don’t steal anything.”

Steal?? When have I stolen anything from anyone?”

“Shhhhhh,” he admonished. “Keep your voice down, bro!”

I rolled my eyes, folding my arms across my chest; my leather jacket crunched.

“You really gotta ditch that jacket, bro.”

“Leave me alone, Tyrell. Let’s just go in.”

“Pssshhhhh,” he said, annoyed. “Whatever. You look like a kook.”

We climbed the driveway, a steep incline. Cars were parked everywhere along the curb outside and in the driveway, even on the grass. The front door was wide open. The music blared: One, two, three and to the four; Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre is at tha door…ready to make an entrance so back on up (cause you know we’re bout to rip shit up…)

People our age and a little older were omnipresent. They all had red plastic cups. Beer sloshed around. The cool air reeked of pot and cigarettes. A loud buzz of constant talk and chatter filled the air under and around the music. The sound of people leaping into a pool behind the house could be heard, laughter, screaming girls.

An hour later Tyrell and I had separated. Who knew where he was. I was alone, leaning against a kitchen counter. People stood around the marble island laughing, telling bad jokes, and passing a bong. I watched, bored. I felt alone. I always felt alone. I thought of surfing, how the best moments were in winter when only the serious kids went out, when the water was brown and sloshy after a storm and it was freezing cold, and even your 3/2 millimeter wetsuit and booties hardly kept you warm. We used to pee inside of our suits to heat ourselves. And then those days in summer, when you’d been out for five, six hours, and most people had finally gotten out, and it was just you and a few close buddies, and the golden-red sun was descending below the horizon, inch by shifting inch, blurry and hazy in the distance and you watched it, cold and wet and alive, and you thought, This is what it means to be alive.

“Hey,” a female voice said, jarring me out of my reverie.

I came back into reality, into awareness. It was a girl. She was a few inches shorter than me. Long blond hair, she wore tight blue jeans and a bright pink low-cut top. Her eyes were so deep blue it seemed you could open them like a door and enter into the portal that was her soul.

“Hey,” I said, feeling the crimson creeping into my cheeks. I felt nervous and embarrassed, almost ashamed. I always felt awkward around pretty girls. Like I was so beneath them that the idea of talking with them was patently absurd.

She cleared her throat tenderly. “Who are you?”

“Me?” I laughed. My heart started thudding.

She smiled loosely, flipping a chunk of blond hair off her shoulder. “No, the other guy, the one behind you.”

I nearly looked behind; thank God my commonsense kicked in, even if late. “I’m Andrew. Andy,” I corrected. “I came with Tyrell?”

“Melissa,” she said. “Who’s Tyrell?”

I was glad she didn’t know Tyrell. Somehow that felt safer.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “You live around here?”

“Carpenteria. You?”

“Ventura.”

There was a lengthy, almost bottomless silence, and then she said, “Want to kill this pint of Jameson with me?”

I nearly leapt with joy. My best friends were dead writers. I had a gaggle of surfer friends but they were just to kill time. I was too deep, too intense for most people. I spent a lot of time alone, or in my own vigorous imagination. I’d slept with a few girls over the years, of course. And I’d seriously dated one for a year in high school. We’d gone to junior prom together. It had ended badly. But suddenly my night lit up in bursting flame. A girl. Interested. In me.

I followed Melissa through the party, some in the living room dancing against flashing lights and pounding electronic music; chatter and buzz all over; the stink of pot and Marlboros; red cups galore. She opened French double doors in the rear of the house and we stepped into the backyard. There was the huge pool, people splashing around in the light blue water, one guy diving that moment fully clothed, a group of guys pointing and laughing uproariously.

She snatched my sweaty palm and pulled me with her. I watched her ass bounce against the tight jeans. Take it easy, bud, I told myself. Don’t blow this. What would Tyrell do? I asked myself. He’d say, Stay cool, kid. Don’t be a kook.

There was a little gazebo in the back corner of the yard. Some steps up. Wooden chairs. No one else around. We grabbed chairs and sat, right next to each other. She opened the pint—it hadn’t been touched yet—and took a swallow, nearly gagging and then wiping her lips with the top of her wrist. “Ugh. Brutal,” she said. She handed it to me.

Looking up at the starless sky—there was a brilliant half moon—I took a strong glug. The acrid liquid burned like sulfuric acid down my throat. It warmed my belly. It made me feel like I could slightly relax. She took the pint and drank again. We kept passing it back and forth. I began to feel happy, hot, instinctual. Her knee bumped lightly against mine.

“So,” she said, between drinks, out of the blue. “Are you in college?”

“That was random.”

She smiled. “Just realized we don’t know each other.”

Isn’t that just perfect? I thought, but didn’t say out loud.

“You’re right. And no—not in college. I work at the Pierpont Hotel.”

“That’s cool. I’m a junior at U.C. Santa Barbara. But honestly I’m thinking about skipping senior year and using my student loans to travel abroad.”

She drank and passed. I held the pint for a moment; the glass was warm in my palm. “Hey—why not, right? We’re young. Might as well take advantage.”

“Exactly,” she said, her palm resting on my knee, staying there. I felt my dick stir and rustle, wanting something.

I drank a thick glob of Jameson and wiped my mouth against the back of my hand. I set the pint down on the ground. I touched her hand; then held it. Her palm was warm and soft and sweaty like mine. I breathed that in for a moment and then leaned in and kissed her.

Our lips smacked and our mouths ate each other’s, the wet, needy tongues twining. I felt her cheeks with my hands, and then her neck, and finally her breasts. She didn’t stop me. In the great distance I heard pool water splashing; buzzing chatter as before; laugher and yelling; the music bumping still inside. None of it mattered. What mattered was this exact precise moment in time. Now. The kind of now only young people can truly experience, in the heat of lust.

“Let’s find an empty room,” I gasped into her ear, my breath warm and sullen, terrified of rejection.

“Okay,” she said, and I felt like I was levitating.

I kept kissing her neck, biting into her skin like a vampire. My hands were all over her. We breathed heavily. The sounds in the background rose and faded, rose and faded.

We stood. We were holding hands. She looked at me and I kissed her hard again. I faced her. “What made you approach me? In the kitchen?”

She shrugged. “You just seemed so…lonely. Desolate or something.”

My gut crashed inwardly, contracting like a sea anemone when poked.

And then a man’s deep voice said, “Liz?”

She jerked her head over to the voice. It was a big dude, maybe 6’1, broad-shouldered, tough-looking, maybe late twenties, perhaps thirty. He wore a wife-beater. Tattoos—not discernible in the darkness—were spattered all over his shoulders and arms. When he stepped forward a few inches a light above the pool glazed off his ink and I saw an “88” with an “SS” on it. I had heard of this. Eighty-eight represented HH—Heil Hitler. The guy was a white supremacist.

“John, I didn’t know you were…I mean…” Melissa stumbled. “How did you even know I was here?”

“Liz,” the guy said. “What are you doing, baby? Who is this punk with you?”

“I’m just—”

“Shut the fuck up, asshole,” John said. “I asked her. Not you.” He glared at me with such rage that my whole body started to go frizzy and numb. Anxiety began from the pit of my solar plexus and rushed throughout my circulatory system.

John took a few steps towards us. I scanned all around, even behind us. There was no escape. We were—no, I was—doomed. A small semi-circle of partiers, hearing the anger in the guy’s voice, approached. They weren’t going to help, I knew that. They wanted to watch. Groups, I thought. Like seeing a fatal car crash off Highway 101. We get a secret joy in it; it’s like a psychic boner. Maybe it’s because we’re alive still, and they aren’t. We cherish life; consciousness; survival. A funny thing life is: This meaningless, asinine consciousness we cling to like a baby to his milk bottle. So temporary; so fleeting; so ephemeral. The shock and violence of death is sexually arousing to most of us.

“Hey man,” I tried again, my arms out in front of me like a white flag. “We didn’t do anything. This is a mistake…”

“Yeah you did,” someone in the growing crowd said. “I saw you guys making out. Had your pincers all over her.”

“Yeah!” someone else added.

Then several men in the crowd started chanting, low at first, and then louder, “Fight; Fight; Fight; Fight; Fight; Fight; Fight; Fight; Fight…”

“Enough!” John yelled. He ran his palm along his shaved head. His arm muscles bulged. He had a slight gut but he was massive. Doc Martin steel-toed boots. Blue jeans with a leather belt. “C’mere, kid.”

“Listen. John. Please. Can we just talk this out? Can we just—”

John laughed. “Boy. You have three seconds to get your punk ass down here before I come up there and beat your ass.”

Nervous, breathing shallowly, my heart pounding in my chest, I came down the five wooden steps of the gazebo. I realized Melissa—Liz—was gone; poof, like magic.

I stood a few feet away from John. He was four, five inches taller than me. Hard blue eyes. Rage oozed from his whole vibrating body. His hands were balled.

“You made out with my girl?”

“I didn’t know she was your girl. I swear. I had no idea…”

“Bullshit!” he screamed, and it actually sounded leaden with jagged emotion. As if the terrifying Nazi might weep. I understood in that instant he really loved her. Or he told himself he did. Maybe he didn’t love anyone, including himself.

“I’m sorry, John.”

The fist came at me so fast and so unexpectedly that I didn’t even have time to worry. His hard closed knuckles caught me right in the jaw. I flew back, stumbled, caught myself, and then fell onto my ass. A few cheers from the crowd, which by now was huge. Maybe sixty, seventy people. A few watched me in pity. Some looked like they were having the time of their life. The music had stopped inside the house. There was silence now. As if the whole party had devolved down into this one act.

“Get up,” John said. There was anger edged in his voice like a man trying to prove to himself that he was no longer impotent.

I slowly ambled up, using my elbows and palms to rise. He came at me. He punched me again. This time in the head. I stumbled back. I collapsed. He backed off a ways, gave me some space. The voices of the crowd grew louder.

“Fuck im up, John!” someone yelled.

I stood once more. This was awful. A nightmare. Tricked by a duplicitous woman. Attacked by her racist freak boyfriend.

“Come on, faggot,” John said, gesturing for me to come at him.

“No more, man,” I said, timidly. I felt my lip already swelling, my eye swelling, my cheek, too. Blood trickled down my nose.

John laughed sadistically and then spat at the grass. A few in the group also laughed, or jeered. “C’mon, kid. Take your best shot.”

I figured I had no other option. I ran at him and swung. It was slow and off. He stepped to the side, easily dodging my weak punch, and he thumped my back, hard. My spine tingled and I went down again. Then he was on top of me, punching first my thighs and then my stomach and then my face. I closed my eyes and tried to contract my body into the fetal position. Back into Mother’s Womb. Alone. Down at the deepest depths of the ocean.

Then suddenly there was a scuffle and John was pulled off me. I laid there a moment, breathing hard.

Someone lifted me up from the crowd and carried me away. They leaned me against the wooden fence by the pool separating the property from the next house. I watched John face off with Tyrell. They were roughly the same size. Now this was a real contest.

“You this punk’s friend?” John said.

“That’s right, bro.”

They were circling each other on the grass like boxers, shoulders up, arms out, fists tight, like Irishmen.

“A fucking nigger?” John said.

The crowd went “Ohhhhhhhhhhh” in one loud, unison voice. No one cheered. Someone said, “That’s fucked up.”

“Fuck did you just call me?” Tyrell said, spitting on the grass.

“You heard me, porch-monkey.”

Suddenly Tyrell rushed John and they were tangled up, first standing, and then on the grass, rolling around like madmen. Tyrell got some punches in, but John did, too. No words anymore; just grunting and spitting and fighting. Sitting there against the fence I worried that Tyrell would get his ass kicked. What then?

They separated a few times, bouncing around. They ducked and dodged and moved like hardcore ballerinas. It was a sort of dance. I’d never seen Tyrell fight but I’d heard rumors. John faked a punch to Tyrell’s gut with his left and then, when Tyrell blocked it, John hurled an uppercut to Tyrell’s face. He made horrible, perfect contact. Tyrell flew back, stumbled. His face was bloody.

“Fuckin nigger,” John said again, wiping his mouth.

But then, right as John rushed Tyrell to finish the job, Tyrell at the last instant jumped to the side and slammed his balled fist into John’s neck. It hit him hard. John yelped and felt his neck with his hand. Before John had a chance to turn around Tyrell punched him again, this time in the back of the head. John stumbled. Tyrell was on him like a seizure.

Tyrell punched him again and again. John tried to wrestle free but he couldn’t; Tyrell had John from behind. Tyrell pushed John’s face into the grass and dirt. Tyrell just kept hitting the guy. At last he stopped. When Tyrell stood up, breathing heavy, his chest expanding and contracting, John didn’t move. You could see John’s chest slowly inflating.

Tyrell approached me. He pulled me up. Dusted me off. And himself. Looked at the silent crowd. Then we heard a siren cutting through the night.

Tyrell and I rushed, zigzagging through the house, no more music, everyone still as stone statues, out the front door (still open) and down the driveway. The sirens were now very close.

We ran to the Mazda. We got in. He started the engine. We sat there a moment. Rolled the windows down. We both looked beat to shit. The cold night air was delirious and good.

Tyrell looked at me. He shook his head. “That was fucked up. Racist Nazi motherfucker.”

“I know.”

“What did you do, bro?”

Amazingly, I laughed. “Made out with his girl.”

“Gotta death wish, White Boy?”

“I didn’t know she was taken. Especially by him.”

He put the car into “Drive.” “Lesson learned, kid.”

The car jerked as he drove down the road. We were silent. The SBPD squad cars were parked below the driveway, on the street, red and blue lights flashing. Tyrell slowed the car.

“What’re you doing?” I said.

“Hold on.”

They waited a minute. Two cops walked John out the front door, hands behind his back, cuffed, head down. When John was close enough, Tyrell leaned over me and yelled out the window, “Nazi piece of shit!!!”

When John looked up Tyrell slammed the gas. We took off down the windy road back into civilization. Soon we were back on U.S. Highway 101 south. Back to Ventura. I’d crash at his place. Tomorrow, everything would be different. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it’d be just another day.

Whatever happened, I knew something in that moment.

Tyrell was a true friend.

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Michael Mohr

Michael Mohr is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Concho River Review; Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, Writer Unboxed, Creative
Penn and MASH @@http://www.mashstories.com/index.html@p=16793.html@@.

Michael edited *White American Youth *, a memoir by Christian Picciolini, a former neo Nazi who changed his life (Hachette, Dec 26, 2017) as well as *Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism. *Christian’s MSNBC TV docu-series is airing now (Breaking Hate). Michael was recently on the cover of *Books & Buzz Magazine

*His writing/editing website is www.michaelmohrwriter.com. His latest published piece of writing was in LITRO LIT (UK), March, 2021.

Image by StarGladeVintage at Pixabay

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