Letter to the Spot We Were

Brenden Layte

 

This started with me seeing a photo: us broken, hungover, and probably a little strung-out, framed by our doorjambs, sleeping as mirror images of each other. That strip of wall between our doors the only thing breaking up the illusion that our feet are touching. The wall had a Globe insert celebrating the Patriots’ second Super Bowl victory, a flyer for a photography exhibit at the MFA, and a fist hole. I still have the insert and the flyer in a box. I patched up the fist hole when we left.

We spent two years here, and two more years together before that. Then we went our separate ways. Me to Bangkok, then home to gather my wits. You to Philly, then Seoul, now Ho Chi Minh. I’ve been back in Boston for a while now. I got a job. Got laid off. Got another job. Now another. I got married, bought a condo, got divorced, went to grad school, got a girlfriend. I think I’m happy. I’m fortunate at least.

I’m not good at staying in touch with people. There are so many that I love who haven’t heard from me enough these last few years. Few more so than you. I think I’m getting better. I’m trying.

I was by the Common, nostalgic and looking through Facebook when I came across that photo. Now I’m here, inside our old building in Chinatown, looking at our old door. I snuck in and I want to knock, but don’t. I try to have a little more decency than I used to. If this door opened, right behind it would be our old closet, full of traffic cones and rugs stolen from the canopy in front of the Ritz Carlton at Millennium Place. The hotel, now twenty years old, a pioneer in making this neighborhood more palatable to the people they wanted here all along.

Instead of knocking, I turn around and open the door to the trash room across the hall and throw a scrap of paper that’s been in my pocket for a few days down the chute. I hear our beer bottles clanging down and my eyes water.

I walk outside and lean against the brick wall across the street. Really, I lean against the years of grime and spray paint between me and the brick. I notice that all the people going into the building are white, professional, in their 30s or 40s. Their clothes are expensive. Either that or all these people are really great at thrift stores.

I ask a man how long he’s lived here and how he likes the neighborhood. He’s wearing wingtips and jeans. I have a similar pair of shoes that I wear once in a while. I get a quick “couple years,” and a “fine.”

I pull my phone from my pocket and type in the address. Rent for a one bedroom in our old building is more than it was for the two bedroom we had. The average two bedroom has doubled. Things have changed. Were we the beginning of the problem? Or were we naïve in thinking this wasn’t already well underway? We wouldn’t be the first kids ignorant enough to navel-gaze themselves into thinking they were “pioneering” a new neighborhood.

The alley next to the building looks the same: graffiti, trashcans, potholes full of tobacco brown water. I used a coffee can to make a pinhole camera and take a photo of it once. Lara helped me develop it in the darkroom at school. The photo got scratched, so I threw it away.

One night you came home, your face bloodied. You said you were jumped in this alley and fought the people off. Really, you were wasted and fell over. Your story was dumb, but it makes me smile to think about. Toughness and bravado as camouflage for the person who gives more of a shit about the world than anyone I’ve ever known.

At the end of the alleyway, Apollo Grill is something else now. I don’t know where to get “cold tea” after last call anymore. That fact burns more than it should. Remember that time I got in a fight leaving there? Leibo and I got mouthy with some kids and one of them pushed me. Al yelled the name of his hip-hop website and threw the first punch. He’d just dropped a mixtape, so promoting it must have been on his mind. A few minutes in, I got pepper sprayed by a waiter trying to break things up and I stumbled home, screaming as I barged into our apartment. You and Dy were cuddled up watching a movie together. I think it was that Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner. I remember thinking it was something Dy probably rolled her eyes at. I lost a Discman and a Detachment Kit CD in the melee. You paused the movie and tried to take care of me.

You also took care of me the night George W. Bush won his second term. You told me it was okay and rubbed my back as I threw up noodles into our bathtub. I rested my head on the moldy world map shower curtain that you insisted we have. Remember, it was my 21st birthday? Hell of a coming-of-age.

I’m not sure if we were good, but I know that, in our best moments, we were what humans strive to be: loving, thoughtful, inquisitive, hungry. Even our worst moments (and there were plenty) came from fear rather than rage. I like to think so at least.

The pho restaurant on the corner is gone. We’d get takeout from there every Friday before we went out. That was, for long stretches, the only meal we’d reliably eat together even as our lives orbited each other’s. You wrote a poem saying that the restaurant would be gone soon. It lasted a little longer than you thought, but you were mostly right. The takeout spot where we’d get 3 a.m. scallion pancakes is gone, too.

People argue that things are better now. In many ways that’s true. By most standards, I am, too. I have a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my health. I wonder, though. Change is often regarded as an unmitigated good, but what about the parts of ourselves that we lose and can’t find again? What about the people who aren’t part of the plan anymore?

The Dunkin Donuts on the other corner is still here, but I’ve spent 33 of my almost 36 years in Massachusetts and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Dunks die.

As I turn the corner, the smell on the street is the same: burned oil, car exhaust, and dirt mixing with wet slushy air. Truong Thanh liquor store is open. I used a fake ID there that you gave me until I turned 21. It said I was 6’1” with brown eyes and hair. From Michigan. I’m 5’9”. I’d never been to Michigan. My eyes are green.

Pho Pasteur is still here, too. There’s a second one in Quincy now. A lot of the people who used to live here reclaimed a space for themselves down there. A couple doors down, white people in Canada Goose jackets line up outside the bubble tea place.

I walk through the supermarket we used to go to. It mostly feels the same, but there aren’t any dragon fruits or rambutan or lychee. Just apples and oranges and bananas and other fruits that are used to teach kids colors and the alphabet.

Outside of the other exit of the supermarket, on Washington Street, do you remember that time we stood and watched the destruction of that cavernous old Chinese store with the aisles that were too narrow? I think it was the Spring of ’05. Maybe ’06. We smoked and drank 40s, watching the wrecking ball swing. It was kind of sad, but we were enthralled until we saw the looks on the faces of long-term residents. They knew something we didn’t yet.

You once wrote about developers forcing the woman who owned the store to start packing up and then joking to you that you should “Come back next week; everything will be cheaper.” Neighborhoods and livelihoods boiled down to line items. Maybe you knew more that I gave you credit for.

Something called the Kensington is there now. The Archstone Boston Common and its luxury condos across the street came next, and I guess that if you pay enough money you can get a place high enough up to see its namesake. The Glass Slipper is on Crack Alley now. I can’t remember if you gave Lagrange Street that name or just heard it from someone and made it your own. The glass-walled parking garage next door is full of Land Rovers and Audis.

Jacob Wirth’s is closed. A group of us used to go to the sing-along there every Friday. We’d go home and get high periodically throughout the night, the two of us taking turns shepherding people back. I still went every now and then with Anshul or Charlie or Dy when she was around. A combination of a fire, water damage, and divorce proceedings did it in. An unceremonious end to an institution.

I walk down the street and into the Tam. “What can I get ya?” asks the bartender. I order a Harpoon. They probably took the $2 AmberBocks off the tap a long time ago. I don’t get in here much, so I don’t know. The faces are different, and the laminated penny countertop is gone, but the smell and feel is the same. I got wasted and stole a penny one night. I thought it was lucky. I wasn’t the only one. We’d sometimes meet here between classes for a beer, share what we were working on, and philosophize for a bit.

“You guys closed for a minute,” I say to the bartender.

“Yeah, new owners.” I’m early and he’s cutting limes for Friday night.

“I don’t make it over here much these days, but I used to spend a lot of time here. Glad you’re still around.”

“Somebody’s gotta be.”

A Sox game is on TV. Your brother called baseball “watching grass grow,” but you became a fan here, celebrating with me and watching me tearfully call my family in ‘04.

I was in here with Matt a while back, reminiscing, which is what people call being sentimental when they drink. He mentioned that time the three of us stayed up all night and waited outside the door currently to my right for first call. Laughter and shame is an odd mix. I couldn’t handle them now, but those days helped make me who I am.

And that’s the part that’s hard. It’s good to grow and change. But in doing so, we often forget what makes us who we are. We forget about the people who held us together when we needed it the most. I don’t know what people and places should strive for when making “progress,” but it’s definitely something more than new apartments and nice shoes.

I’ve been back in Boston for 10 years now, following rent prices further and further south until I found something I could hold onto for a bit. I’m not too far from where we’d meet at Dy’s and walk past that church that burned down to sit by the pond. I moved to that part of the city because the three-deckers reminded me of Worcester. What happened here is happening back home, too.

Every time I go there, something important to me, even if it was just for a moment, is gone. The toy store my grandmother used to take me to. The dive that I first went to as a child helping my father deliver bar nuts. The three-decker where I threw paratrooper toys from the third floor and raced down. There’s no money in three-deckers and warehouse practice spaces, but there definitely is in condos and lofts with exposed brick.

There’s another photo right after the one of us passed out and we’re at the pond with Charles. I saw him the other day. He reminded me that when you were a kid you wrote a story called “Shoes’s Hat” about a pair of shoes aptly named Shoes that was looking for his hat. When I got home, I read that poetry collection you wrote. A lot of it is really good. I wish I’d asked to read more of your stuff back then. I don’t know if it’s lingering shame or awkwardness, but it seems weird to ask now.

As I finish my beer and step outside, the sun hits my eyes just a little too hard. I squint at the ground and walk up the sidewalk, remembering our similarly-squinted “see you laters.” You’d probably tell me to be real for the next few hours and I’d always try my best.

I cross the street and I’m at that wall in the Common where you’d smoke cigarettes and so would I if I were drunk enough. I’m still here. I guess part of you is, too. Parts of a lot of people are. I haven’t smoked a sober cigarette in years, but it’s Friday, so I have tobacco for later. You can’t smoke in the parks anymore, but I roll one up, light it, and take a drag. The path to the gazebo is closed for a crew doing tree trimming. I smoke my cigarette and watch the branches fall to the ground.

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Brenden Layte is an editor of educational materials and linguist who lives in Jamaica Plain, MA, with his girlfriend and a cat that was recently described as “terrifying” by a vet tech. His work has appeared in places like Ellipsis Zine, Entropy, Drunk Monkeys, and Cognoscenti. He tweets things at @b_layted.