You Are Me

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As promised, here’s the original source of my tattoo and the name of this blog. It’s my favorite story of all time and I’ve never come close to duplicating it.

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Dear Robbie,

You were born a poet. Let me quote a few of your best lines:

I bet my birth mother is still crying.

I wish God would take the sadness off me.

If she kept me, I never would’ve known you.

I have a space in my heart that never closes.

As I sit here wrestling with words that invariably elude my grasp, I wish I could write like that. But what do I expect? You are seven and I am only forty-two.

Before you read any further, you should know that your mom doesn’t want me to write this. She doesn’t want me to write anything that might one day awaken any doubt in you. So I made a deal with her. I promised that if she feels the same way after I’ve finished, I’ll punt on the whole thing. That’s how intensely she feels about you, how fiercely protective she is of you. She doesn’t want me to write this letter because she loves you so much and I love you so much that I have to write it, even if I don’t show it to you until you have kids of your own.

Here are the words your mom fears: I didn’t want to adopt you.

I know that sounds like powerful stuff, but to me those words are as trifling as the ants that march across our kitchen floor before you put your thumb to them. They mean nothing because I can’t even remember feeling that way. I’ve searched my heart and can’t find any trace of not wanting you. It would be like not wanting air. Still, just as I can’t imagine not wanting you now, there was a time that I couldn’t imagine you. I didn’t know you were going to be you. I only knew you were not going to be me.

Your mom says I was hung up on this crazy little thing called genetics, which should never be mistaken for that crazy little thing called love. It all seems so bizarre, given that my family background includes everything from cancer and heart disease to criminal behavior. Your mom says that I was worried that you wouldn’t be perfect, that we would be inheriting somebody else’s problem, and that nurture would be revealed as nothing more than nature’s cheap consolation prize. Your mom says I can’t recollect any of these gory details because sometimes I can be a stubborn bastard.

That must be where you get it from.

Because, Rob, when all is said and done, you are me—only way better looking. You are me, if I looked like Brad Pitt and your mom looked like Sharon Stone. You’re more like me than Zachary, who inherited torn genes from me and Mom. You and I are both the eldest son, moderately shy and exceedingly anxious. We love Michael Jordan, movies, scallion pancakes, and the occasional doody joke. We’re natural-born outsiders who share the same thin skin.

And there’s something else that you and I have in common: I once had a space in my heart that wouldn’t close. I still remember the cause. When I was four years old, two very large men wearing very large hats came into our house and took my father away. He didn’t come back for eight years, and even when he returned, he couldn’t repair what had been ripped apart. My dad, like yours, was a sad schmuck, sad in that he never tried to change himself into a dad.

For me, everything changed the moment I saw you.

After four years of infertility and a bout with cancer thrown in for good luck (if I hadn’t had it, I never would have known you), I was finally ready to entertain alternatives to producing a mirror image. I tend to arrive at places in my heart long after your mom has moved in and decorated. Your mom always knew that she wanted to be a mom, while I was just beginning to understand what it meant to be a dad. You know the next part from your baby book that you keep under your pillow:

They met a wonderful young lady that was growing a baby boy in her belly. But she wasn’t able to give her baby all the good things the world had to offer, and she wanted that for him very, very much.

Seven months later, I found myself in the hospital scanning the blue “It’s a Boy!” stickers on the bassinets until I saw your birth mother’s last name neatly printed in black ink. And at that moment, the space in my heart was filled. It was either magic or God, I’ve forgotten what I believed in at the time. “You’re my son, you’re my son,” I quietly mouthed to you through the glass again and again, trying to convince myself that you were real. Then I went to your mom and we hugged and cried, while you kept sleeping, our little boy, Robbie James Carlat, unaware of how much joy you could bring to two people.

And the reason I can no longer recall not wanting to adopt you is simple: That feeling completely vanished on the day you were born. “I know, I know. It was love at first sight,” you like to say, sounding like a cartoon version of me anytime I bring up the subject of your birth. But it wasn’t like that between my dad and me. I don’t remember my father ever kissing me or, for that matter, me kissing him. The thought of saying “I love you” to each other, even when he came back from jail or as he lay dying, would have cracked both of us up. In fact, the closest my father ever came to a term of endearment was calling me “Kiddo” (which is the full extent of his paternal legacy and why I usually answer “Ditto, Kiddo” when you say “I love you”).

There’s a black-and-white photograph of my dad holding me up high above his head—I must have been six months old—and it’s the only time I can recall him looking genuinely happy to be with me. I used to think of that picture in the months after you were born when I danced you to sleep. I never dance, not even with your mom (“They’re all going to laugh at you!” from Carrie pretty much sums up why), but I loved dancing with you. While you sucked on your bottle, I savored the feeling of your tiny heartbeat against my own. Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home CD was on just loud enough so we wouldn’t wake up your mom, and I’d gently sing to you, “All we ever wanted, was just to come in from the cold, come in, come in, come in from the cold.”

Still, the space you were coming in from was far colder than mine had ever been. It’s the original black hole, and all of our kissing and hugging are not enough. All of your incessant I love yous and I love the familys — words you repeated as if to convince yourself, the same way I did when I first set eyes on you — are not enough. All of the times that you asked me to pick you up, and I happily obliged because I knew a day would come when you would stop asking, are not enough. Every night when we read your baby book, which desperately tries to explain whose belly you grew in and how you got to us, is not enough.

Nothing is enough for there’s nothing that approaches the clear and direct poetry of “I hate myself because I’m adopted” or “I’m only happy when I’m hugging and kissing you. All the other times I just make believe.” If anything, you get the prize for coming closest to the pin with, “Being adopted is hard to understand.” And what do you win for saying the darndest things? A profound sadness. And let’s not forget its little brother, anger, which you direct at your little brother for no apparent reason other than that he serves as a constant reminder that you are the one who is not like the others.

The irony is that Zachy, the prototypical little bro, only wants to be you, while you’d do anything to be him.

I hope that one day God grants your wish and takes the sadness off you, because your mom and I know how truly blessed we are to have two beautiful sons — one chosen by us and one chosen for us. It’s like we wrote at the end of your baby book:

Mommy and Daddy waited a long time for a baby–a baby boy just like you. And though it might have been nice to have you grow in mommy’s belly … always remember that you grew in our hearts!

Perhaps the only thing we neglected to consider at the time was your heart. Which reminds me of sandcastles. A few summers ago, you and I built a beauty on Uncle Stephen’s beach, and you wanted to surround it with a moat, so we started to dig a hole with your big yellow bucket. We kept digging faster and faster until the hole got so deep that you jumped in. “Daddy, get the water,” you said, and I ran into the waves, filled the bucket, dragged it back, and dumped it into the hole. The sand quickly drank it up, so I kept going back and forth, trying to fill the hole with water, but it was like pouring the water down a drain, and after a while we finally said the hell with it and ran into the ocean.

You are the sand, little boy, and I will always be the water.

And that was where I intended to end this letter until you came padding into the room in your G.I. Joe pajamas. “What are you writing about?” you asked. And when I told you it was a story about you, you asked, “Is it going to be in a big magazine?”

And I said, “Yeah, how do you feel about that?”

And you said, “Scared.”

And I said, “How come?”

And you said, “Because I’m going to be in it alone.”

And I said, “No you won’t. I’ll be in it with you.”

And you said, “I love you daddy.”

And that’s when I had to stop writing.

I’ve Got You Under My Skin

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I just got my eighth tattoo and it’s far and away my favorite, which is what I generally say about the most recent addition of art on my body, but this one will be tough to beat.

The words, you may have noticed, are similar to the name of this blog, and come from a story that I wrote about Rob more than 20 years ago that first appeared in Esquire. Many of you have read it before and for those who haven’t, I’ll share it again tomorrow.

I read a brief excerpt from it at Rob’s funeral. In the past, whenever I came to that particular line­—You are the sand, little boy, and I will always be the water—well, it would just wreck me, but since I had been steadily crying with Caryn and Zach for the week that led up to the service, it just felt like another wave of the unbearable sadness that continues to wash over me.

But not today. Today I couldn’t be happier to have this new tat on my arm. I used to say how much Rob got under my skin and now he’s there forever! That’s really such a cheap joke because, as everyone knows by now, Rob resides deep in the heart of me, just like in the song.

Whenever I get a new tattoo, the first thing I do is send a photo of it to Rob and Zach for their approval, and maybe also to show them that I’m still a little bit cool. And that’s what I did as soon as I got home.

“So of course, you have to get first look,” I texted Zach with the picture you see here.

“I think it’s super awesome. Came out great,” he texted back. “Still badass even with kids shovel and pail.”

“Do you think Rob would like it?” I asked.

“I think he would like it a lot. Just cuz he appreciates cool stuff.”

“I think he’d like it too.”

Then I texted the photo to Caryn.

“Amazing…beautiful…makes me want to cry!!!” she wrote.

“Me too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Boy in the Cat Suit

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Rob and I used to play CD-ROM computer games together when he was a little boy back in the ’90s and our two favorites were Full Throttle and Dust.

Full Throttle was basically about Ben, the leader of a biker gang, who’s framed for a murder, and that’s all I really remember other than him getting into all types of trouble where he had to kick ass while encountering obstacle after obstacle that we helped him overcome.

Dust was a little more interactive as it put you right inside the game as “the stranger” in a town called Diamondback (which, of course, I had to Google) and the deal was that we had to talk to the townspeople and figure out all kinds of elaborate puzzles and secrets. Rob would sit on my lap for hours as we navigated the gunslingers, gold prospectors and numerous hot babes in the saloon. In other words, they were the perfect two games for the average seven-year-old and his middle-aged dad.

So you can only imagine the great pride I felt some 20 years later when the pupil had become the teacher and Rob sat me down to show me how to use Reddit and Snapchat. Reddit was Rob’s go-to. He hated Facebook and Twitter (although he once hijacked my account which is another story for another day) and was on Snapchat early on using the handle Hashinberg18 to post photos of the marijuana plants he was growing when he lived in Binghamton.

We decided to start with Reddit and after downloading the app, he simply showed me all of the subreddits he followed. There are too many to name here, but some of his favorites that quickly became mine were Nature Is Fucking Lit, Kids Are Fucking Stupid, Black Magic Fuckery, Animals Being Bros, Hittable Faces, Oddly Satisfying, Shower Thoughts and Old School Cool. I spent hours going down each one of these peculiar rabbit holes that interested him and was always surprised and delighted to see how much I shared his tastes, to say nothing of possibly influencing them.

He then showed me the finer points of using Snapchat, but I never took to it. He was pretty much the only person I knew on it and he’d occasionally send me a snap, but then he’d have to text me that he did because otherwise I never thought to open the app. The only good thing about Snapchat was when Rob introduced me to Bitmoji, which are sort of personal emojis that you can customize to look like yourself. He helped me build mine and there’s a vague resemblance, but his was absolutely killer. From the glasses to the eye color to the body type to the facial expressions, his Bitmoji was his spitting image but what made it pure Rob was that his avatar always wore a cat suit.

He mostly sent them to me whenever we texted and it always cracked me up to see him in the cat suit reading a book or eating pancakes or saying sleep tight while riding on top of a sheep. There was just something about it that always made me think of him as a little boy in his pajamas sitting on my lap all those years ago, staying up way past his bedtime, playing our favorite games late into the night.

A Way to Hold Rob in All of His Complexity

ROB COMPLEXITYMy friend Anndee sent me an email last week and there was one line in it that has stayed with me ever since:

“Hope the writing continues to be a refuge, a catharsis and a way to hold Rob in all his complexity.”

I’ve been struggling to explain all of the contradictory thoughts and emotions that are wildly pinballing around in my brain and “a way to hold Rob in all his complexity” is by far the most eloquent expression of that feeling. Walt Whitman (which was also the name of the elementary school Rob attended) came close when he famously wrote that we contain multitudes, but my friend Anndee is a much better writer.

How can I reconcile eating soup dumplings with Rob in the afternoon and him taking his own life the next night? How can I be so furious at what the stupid idiot did while blaming what he did on lifelong depression and mental illness? How do you love someone with all of your heart even though he keeps breaking it over and over again? How do you save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? How do I hold on to Rob in all of his complexity now that he has simply let go?

I always had a problem with letting go of Rob. No matter what hardship he was going through, no matter what crazy shit he did or said, no matter what my head told my heart to do, I held on to him tight. Whether he liked it or not, I held on. Right up to the bitter end.

And I continue to hold on. I will hold on for the rest of my life to Rob in all of his complexity.

 

 

 

All the World Is Green

Rob in jailSt. Patrick’s Day was Rob’s favorite day of the year, and not just for the most obvious reason. For a Jewboy raised in Long Island, Rob often thought of himself as being Irish (albeit without the luck). He loved wearing Scally caps, was a big fan of Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys, and saw The Departed more times than Scorsese. Beginning sometime in his teenage years, Rob became an unrepentant hooligan.

Each year he and his friends would take the train into the city for the St. Paddy’s Day parade and they’d all get prodigiously wasted, doing the pub crawl thing and who knows what else. There was one time when his friends came to our house after the usual shenanigans and they had to carry Rob up the stairs to his bedroom because he was completely passed out. Cue Flogging Molly’s “Drunken Lullabies.”

But Rob being Rob went one step further in his quest to be an honorary leprechaun. I don’t recall exactly how old he was when he came home with a four-leaf clover tattooed between his thumb and forefinger on his left hand. He got the idea from Ryan O’Reily, his favorite character on Oz, and was always most proud of that good luck charm.

So on this St. Patrick’s Day, let’s raise a pint and make a toast:

“To Rob.”

 

The Phone Rang

IMG_1514.JPG copyWhen the phone call finally came at 4:18 AM on Thursday, February 6, I was fast asleep, which is unusual for me because I had been waiting for the call for more than 10 years and I’m also the world’s lightest sleeper. I woke up at about 7 and saw that I had a voice mail message from an L.A. number. It’s funny how I don’t even listen to voice mail anymore, I just read the transcription, and as I scanned a few key words—investigator, Robbie James Carlat, born January 18, 1991, reference case number—I knew.

I knew this day was coming. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know that it would be the day after we had lunch together, I didn’t know it would be like this, but I knew. I had known for a very long time.

Whenever I saw Caryn’s name come up on my phone, my heart would beat out of my chest, fearing the worst. It was the same when she saw that I was calling. And certainly we’d had more than our share of shitty phone calls through the years. In recent times, I would text Caryn before calling to ease her mind that there was nothing bad going on with Rob, to let her know in advance that I just wanted to say hi.

I went downstairs to grab a cup of coffee before I returned the call. I was strangely calm and I’m not sure exactly why. The fog of shock hadn’t yet sunk in, it was more a mixture of heartbreak and resignation.

“He’s either dead or in jail,” I said to Maura, who was immediately panic stricken. And thus the nightmare began.

I’m going to condense a bunch of information here and not get into graphic details. I have a terrible memory, so many things are already fuzzy and some stuff is better left unsaid. I called the Coroner’s Office and gave them the case number (2019-01035) and then I called the Long Beach Police Department and gave them an incident report number (19-7028). This, in essence, is what they told me:

Rob died on Wednesday night at approximately 11 o’clock. There were two other people with him in his apartment. According to these witnesses, they started off the evening playing video games and drinking heavily. There may have also been drugs involved. Then there was the part about a gun.

I’m still not sure who the gun belonged to (I’ve been waiting for a police report to arrive in the mail), but there was a gun. Unloaded. In the kitchen. Apparently Rob picked it up, put a bullet in the chamber and in some crazy version of Russian Roulette, pulled the trigger.

After I hung up with the detective, Maura held me tight and we ugly cried for what felt like forever. And then came the hard part—the two most difficult phone calls I’ve ever had to make.

Rob Was

53660825_315511252495750_2467779433939861504_nI still have a lot of trouble saying the words “Rob was…” so I asked his best friend Sarah to help me out.

Rob was definitely impulsive at times, but I like to say he was spontaneous because spontaneity refers more to doing fun, wild things on the fly without a care in the world.

Rob was sarcastic, extremely sarcastic! Half the time I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not, and he had this dark sense of humor that not many people understood or found funny (like all of the dead baby jokes he would tell).

Rob was intelligent with a wealth of random knowledge. At any moment, Robbie could educate me on the most random things, and I’d always look at him wide-eyed and sideways like, WTF? How do you know this!?

Rob was passionate and protective–about everyone and everything he cared about. If someone looked at me or one of our friends the wrong way, you bet your ass Rob was ready to rumble! Rob always formed his own opinions on people. For instance, if people would talk shit about someone, that would intrigue Rob and made him interested in getting to know that person for himself. That’s pretty much how Rob and I became friends. Our group was mainly outcasts and misfits and Rob was the glue that held us all together. He never wanted someone to feel like the one who didn’t belong and he’d go out of his way to make someone feel welcome and wanted.
 
Rob was definitely self-destructive, but at the same time, I know he didn’t like how self-destructive he was. He’d get down on himself and feel ashamed because he knew at the end of the day what he was doing was only hurting himself.

Rob was the center of attention at all times and it wasn’t even on purpose. He just had this way of working the room. And he had SUCH a way with the ladies! He was so confident! I often times was jealous of his confidence because he could and would do anything without holding back. He’d go after any girl, not afraid of the possible rejection and it was crazy because it worked the majority of the time! He was such a ladies man.

Rob was really just so much fun. He would make a game out of everything–mainly drinking games–but still he always made sure we were having a good time. We would play the Watching Cops drinking game or Go to Oyster Bay Beach and Sit on the Dock drinking game. Sitting at the bar, he’d take the coasters and hollow out the middle and play ring toss on the bottles and if we made it, the other person would pay for the shot.

Rob was a genuinely good person and friend. He was always doing for others even if it was at the expense of his own feelings. He was the most genuine friend I will ever know.

Rob was selfless. He had so much sadness in him that he never wanted to see others feel the same way he was feeling.

Rob was me and I was him. We really completed each other and just knowing that we were always there for each other was incredibly special. I’d always say how much he drove me crazy, but no matter what, I couldn’t and wouldn’t trade it for anything. He knew that too. He honestly valued and loved us as much as he did because he knew how much he put us through and appreciated that no matter what, we stood by his side and loved him through it all.

Rob was Rob. There’s no better way to describe him.