When my family and I pulled up to my cousin’s new house in Redlands, California, he was waiting to greet us, leaning against a pickup with wheels the size of our rental car. He smiled that smile that had led him into the beds of countless women and got him out of trouble with as many cops. He looked happy to see us. He wore a tank top that put his tattoos in full show. Across his arms was a parade of swastikas, iron crosses, and skulls.
His tattoos weren’t a total surprise. He had a reputation, had been flirting with Nazi ideas his whole life. We’d heard from other family members that lately the flirting had moved more toward heavy petting. But no one thought he was serious, and anyway, in my family, blood trumped everything, we always said. So there we were, in his driveway, smiling right back at him.
My stepdad and stepsister are Jewish, and I occasionally sleep with men—though at the time I wasn’t out yet, even to myself. My cousin, on the other hand, was out—about his politics, his affiliations, his armor. About four years before he’d made his ties official, he showed me his first swastika tattoo. He’d carved it himself on the inside of his arm. It was all scar tissue, no ink.
“Welcome home,” he said to us, arms open. Redlands wasn’t home; my parents lived in Denver, my stepsister was in Eugene, and I was in college in Santa Cruz. We were here on one of our occasional pilgrimages to visit my mom’s family, and this was one of the stops. My mom had been raised in Redlands, but she had gotten out, gotten a scholarship to a small liberal arts school, ended up with a PhD, and made sure I got a decent education. Her sister, my cousin’s mother, had not been so lucky.
My cousin isn’t a small man. He’s part Samoan—an admittedly odd trait for a neo-Nazi—and a construction worker, so he’s built. I looked behind him. His house looked like it’d been plopped right in the middle of a dirt lot, without so much as a rock garden.
“I did most of the work myself,” he said. He couldn’t wait to show us. He’d bought the house with money made from the turn-of-the-millenium construction boom. It was damn impressive for a man barely twenty-one, just a year older than I was. “It’s mine,” he said to us, smiling. It was impressive. The only things I owned were a desktop computer and a shitty 1984 Honda Accord that always smelled like pancakes.
As we stepped out of the car, he went right up to my stepdad and stepsister and gave them big hugs. Then he gave my mom a big hug, and saved the biggest one for me. His hugs were the kind where every muscle in the body applies just the right amount of pressure: not the too-hard man hug, or the “I’m afraid of you because you’re a dude” man-pat on the back, but a real hug, the kind where you walk away feeling like you’ll be all right forever as long as that person stays near you for the rest of your life.
It’s a mindfuck, getting a hug like that from a Nazi.
We were blown away by how nice the house was inside. The kitchen opened up into the living room, with a single bedroom and bathroom down a hallway beyond. The house was small as McMansions go, but there was a ton of space for one person. It looked like there wasn’t a single piece of furniture in that house that had cost less than a grand. The refrigerator was one of those stainless steel ones that filtered your water and was big enough to hold half a dead cow. The couch was soft to the touch, spotless, comfy, the kind you can pet. A gorgeous display case stood in the window.
We were also, of course, blown away by the three-foot-tall swastika flag on the wall, right there in the living room. My stepdad, the only one in our family who ever says what’s on his mind, started to say something but stopped.
My cousin looked at him, waiting.
Then my stepdad said, “I don’t know about the decoration choices, but it’s nice in here.”
My stepsister and mother took a seat at the table.
“Oh, that,” said my cousin. Then he opened his refrigerator and looked inside. “I got Diet Dr. Pepper just for you. Still your favorite?”
“Thanks,” said my stepdad.
My mother said, “I’d love one too, if you have it, with ice.”
My cousin put a glass under the ice maker.
“It’s so good to see you,” my mom said.
“I always love seeing you guys,” he said, and he meant it.
Then he looked at my stepsister and me.
“Wanna come by tonight? Having some people over.”
My stepsister made an excuse, but I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” He poured himself a beer while I wandered over to the display case. He’d filled it with collector’s items, including old SS pins and World War II era guns and even some swastika-shaped throwing stars.
He saw me looking.
“Oh, dude,” he said, looking up from his beer. “I’ve gotta show you something you’re gonna fucking love.”
“You can’t show us?” said my stepdad.
“Ha!” my cousin laughed. “I don’t see why not.”
“Oh,” said my mom. “Just leave them.”
My stepdad sighed and said, “Excuuuuuse me,” like Steve Martin. My cousin led me out of the kitchen and down the hall and opened the door to his room. I peeked in. The posters in his room weren’t too bad. There was only one swastika, Rage Against the Machine was playing on his stereo, and all the other posters were so nondescript I can’t remember them. I stepped in and he shut the door behind him.
“You’ll fucking love this.”
He reached under his bed and pulled out a plastic tub full of weapons. There were shotguns, pistols, rifles, and semiautomatics, but the thing he loved the most, the thing he took out and showed me and made me touch, was a bow and arrow. It wasn’t just any bow and arrow, though. It was what I believe is called a compound bow—like a crossbow only without the trigger. It was bigger than anything else in the box, about half my height, made of black industrial strength steel, more modern and deadly-looking than any gun I’d ever seen.
A couple years before he showed me the bow and arrow, my cousin saved my life. I was already college-bound, a junior or senior in high school. He was doing his best to show me a good time, to take me someplace I wanted to go. He found a party with a bunch of students from the University of Redlands. He drove me there and bought me beer with his fake ID and walked me in. No one seemed unhappy to see us, though no one seemed happy, either. I talked to some people. They talked to me. It was just a party. But then, as we sat there, a gawky skinny white guy wearing tiny wire-rimmed glasses came out of his room with a pistol, shouting something about bitches. He fired it into the ceiling. It was the first time I’d ever heard a gun up close, indoors, in the same room as me. I covered my ears and my head, afraid the plaster and ceiling would come down on me, but the bullets made neat holes, and there was only noise. It was a multi-story house. I had no idea if anyone lived upstairs or was upstairs. Get out of here, I thought, but my feet wouldn’t move. “Get the fuck out, everyone,” the guy said, his eyes roaming around the room so everyone got the picture.
My cousin walked right up to me and touched me on the shoulder. It was just the right amount so as not to startle me, but it was enough to get my attention. “It’s time to go,” he said, without any fear in his voice. There wasn’t a tense muscle on him. The man fired more. It hurt my ears, but I walked out calmly, slowly, just like him, knowing my best chance here was to follow his lead. As soon as we got out the door, he said, “Run.” It was three quarters of a block to his truck. He threw his door open and I threw the passenger door open and we hurled ourselves up into the impossibly high cab. We started driving forward as soon as the first squad car appeared at the end of the street. There were so many cops in a line, all going the other way, away from us.
The day after he showed me the bow and arrow, after I went and visited other family members for a bit, my mom and stepdad drove me to my cousin’s house again to drop me off for his get-together. My mom gave me her cell phone—this was 1999, well before most people had cell phones—because both of us agreed it’d be a good idea, in case something happened.
My stepsister said she’d prefer not to go, but I couldn’t get out of it, not without hurting my cousin. Or at least that’s what I told myself. Besides, if I went, I’d be guaranteed as much booze as I wanted and a limitless supply of cigarettes. My stepdad had asked, politely, that my cousin remove the swastika flag. When we walked in, it was gone. An hour or so of polite conversation happened, and my parents made their exit, looking more confident that they weren’t leaving me in the hands of someone who’d kill me. We started drinking right away. As people showed up, my cousin stopped paying so much attention to me. I slunk to the wall and watched, only talking to people when they talked to me.
There were two camps: my cousin’s old friends, who dressed like him and spoke with the same southern California peak at the end of their sentences, and then his new Nazi friends, who had the same tattoos as he did but spoke in whispers and dressed in plainer clothes and had an angry confidence to them I’d only seen before among communists and fundamentalist Christians. Both crowds made each other uncomfortable. I drank as quickly as I could, hoping it would give me the guts to talk to someone, but mainly, I just stepped back and watched the two groups avoid each other. My cousin handed me a pill and I took it.
Next thing I knew, I was sipping cheap whiskey out of a bottle and standing alone next to the flag—it had somehow reappeared on the wall—when my cousin came barreling out of his room with his bow in his left hand and an arrow in his right.
By that point, we’d been drinking for hours. He put the arrow into the bow and pointed it at a black man standing in the doorway. His voice didn’t slur a bit.
“No niggers,” my cousin said. The man tried to say something, but he cut him off. “I said no fucking niggers.”
The man was dressed preppy. He wore a nice sweater, neat slacks.
Earlier, when no one had been looking, I’d felt the fabric on the flag. It was a high-quality cotton indoor flag, sturdy and bristly and thick, like airport carpet only a little softer.
The man in the doorway instinctively put his hands up and started backing away, slowly, without sudden movement. I’ve never seen anyone so scared, but I’d also never before seen anyone so angry. His hands and legs shook a little, but his focus was unmistakable. His eyes were wet. He was sweating, though that might have also been from the heat. His eyes twitched in anger, and then he caught himself and stopped it, looking at the weapon.
You could see my cousin’s muscles twitching through the tattoos, straining to keep the bow taut, waiting for the order from his brain to relax and release.
“What the fuck?” the black man said, his voice quivering. He spotted the flag, then me standing next to it, all blue-eyed and blonde-haired. The way his eyes were on me, I couldn’t pretend this wasn’t real. I was real. I was there. “Oh, no,” I wanted to clarify. “I’m not one of them.” Then he said, with a little more edge this time, “What the fuck?”
“No fucking niggers in my house ever again. Shit has changed.”
The man backed away a little farther, yelling to remind him they’d been friends for years and that the man would remember this forever and tell his family and my family and all their mutual friends, that they’d gone to school together, that they’d played sports together, had classes together, and they were Christians.
“Do you understand?”
Then everyone was yelling. They’d all turned on my cousin, even the Nazis, one of whom was screaming at him, “We talked about this, man. You are becoming a fucking liability.” Smart politics is smart politics, I guess, no matter how evil your beliefs. But there was nothing to be done, because all my cousin had to do was let go, all he had to do was let his muscles relax and the man would be dead. There was no way to stop him now, if he did it, if he decided to, or even if his hand slipped. And as people realized this, they stopped yelling, they stopped making any noise, and they started whispering to each other, like hunters afraid to startle their prey.
My cousin stared straight ahead at the man in the doorway, right into his eyes, the arrow pointed right at the man’s heart, breathing heavy enough it seemed everything else in that room was still but my cousin’s chest, which was moving up and down, up and down, and the man in the door was slowly, slowly moving backward, without taking his eyes off the bow and arrow for a second.
The man finally backed far enough out the door that he could jump to the side, blocking any shot with a wall. My cousin put the weapon down unfired and yelled after him, “Never come back. Do you understand?” The man jumped in his car and sped off, yelling something I don’t remember over the squeal of his tires. A woman who may or may not have been my cousin’s girlfriend came up to him. “Time for bed,” she said. She was pretty, drunk, Mexican. Everyone else crept out the door.
“I shoulda killed that motherfucker,” my cousin said, spitting on his brand new carpet. Then he screamed out the door, “I shoulda fucking killed you, you hear me?”
The woman put her arms around him, pulling his head into her breasts. “It’s okay, he’s gone.”
No one died, it’s okay, no one died, I thought.
Then I took that bottle of whiskey and I opened my throat and I let it take me away to somewhere I’ll never remember.
My I’m-not-a-Nazi credentials, aside from the bow and arrow incident with my cousin, are pretty stellar. I could list them, but I won’t.
What matters is that one time, right before the start of the twenty-first century, when I was an adult, I found myself standing next to a swastika flag calmly sipping whiskey out of a bottle, watching and doing nothing as my cousin nearly killed a man for being black. I don’t know how I could have, but I should’ve figured out a way to stop it while it was happening. Or maybe I should have had the foresight never to have been there in the first place. I should’ve confronted my cousin and told him I wanted nothing to do with him, while still safely in the presence of my parents. My parents—my stepdad, who at least had the presence of mind to ask my cousin to take down the flag before he would enter the house again.
But I wasn’t that man yet. I drank whiskey and smoked cigarettes and spoke to no one unless they spoke to me and watched everything happen, cell phone sitting idly in my pocket, just like it was a movie, exactly as part of me knew it would. I watched the story unfold because until it got too real, it was nothing more than a story to me. I didn’t know how real a story can be.
To this day, I have moments—not every day, but sometimes, maybe when I’m on a chair dusting my ceiling fan, or maybe when I’m outside hiking, marveling at how plants in California have big Dr. Seuss leaves, or maybe when I’m driving to teach a class, fiddling with the god-awful music on the radio, wishing I would remember to load my MP3s onto my phone—I’m twenty years old again, standing next to my cousin’s flag, a few yards from him and his taut bow and arrow. I’m paralyzed by fear but also paralyzed by the fact that I’d been told we have the same intense eyes, that I feel guilty my mother escaped and his did not, that I bleached and spiked my hair and got a labret piercing just like him, and that, most shamefully of all, I can’t stop caring for him. Then I remember the man standing in the doorway, looking at me. Through his eyes, I try to see myself: mouth agape, cowering, stumbling drunk, and Aryan—a symbol of fear, an entitled idiot. And in my paralysis, I’m a monster, a clown. A collaborator.
Original Rumpus art by Rachael Schafer