Patrick explains to Charlie how he and Brad started seeing each other after fooling around at a party, and they continued to do so at Friday night parties, but Brad always got stoned or drunk beforehand. Eventually, Patrick and Brad had sex for the first time. Afterwards, Brad cried and refused to let Patrick hold him. Patrick helped him tidy himself up and then told him to pretend to be asleep. To keep it a secret, Patrick re-entered the party from a different room and asked everyone if they knew where Brad was. They found him passed out in Patrick’s room, and they called his parents because he seemed really sick. Brad’s parents sent him to rehab for the rest of the summer, since they didn’t want his drinking and smoking to make him to miss out on a football scholarship.
Brad’s tendency to get stoned or drunk before being intimate with Patrick seems like an attempt to safeguard himself in case someone finds out about them—so that he can just say he didn’t know what he was doing because of the drugs or alcohol. After they have sex, however, Brad seems overwhelmed, perhaps because the experience made him confront his sexual identity in a way he hadn’t yet. Brad’s parents’ alleged reason for sending him to rehab indicate that Brad’s athletic success is their primary concern. Given the hyper-masculine culture of football in particular, Brad struggles to make sense of his identity both as a football player and a gay man.
When Brad returns from rehab, he avoids Patrick until eventually they agree to see each other sober but in secret except for parties with Patrick’s friends, who understand and keep quiet about it. Charlie asks Patrick if having to keep the relationship a secret makes him sad, and Patrick says it doesn’t because at least Brad doesn’t need to be drunk or stoned to make love with him anymore.
Given that Patrick and Brad only see each other around Patrick’s friends, his friends seem to be much more open-minded and supportive than Brad’s. Whether during rehab or after, Brad seems to have come to terms with their relationship enough to be fully present during their intimate moments.
Charlie continues making progress on his extra reading assignments for Bill and earns a B on his report on Peter Pan. Charlie decides he wants to be a writer when he grows up. He starts writing for a fanzine called Punk Rocky (inspired by the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show) that his friend Mary Elizabeth runs. Charlie’s friends perform in the regular screenings of the film, and the audience participates in the performance, as well. Patrick plays Frank ‘N Furter and Sam plays Janet. Sam starts dating an older guy named Craig who plays Rocky in the show, and Charlie doesn’t think Craig appreciates Sam enough. He realizes that he is in love with Sam because she is the “prettiest and nicest person in the whole world” who is also “very smart and fun.”
With Bill’s extra assignments and encouragement, Charlie seems to develop a stronger sense of self, recognizing that his literary skills could turn into a viable future for him. Because of Bill’s positive feedback, Charlie feels motivated to start writing outside of school assignments and his anonymous letters, which is a new way of participating for him. Additionally, The Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings give Charlie another community to belong to. Because of Charlie’s feelings for Sam, the reader doesn’t know if Charlie’s concerns about Sam’s boyfriend are justified or just Charlie’s jealousy.
Charlie asks his sister why Sam might feel better about herself because an older boy likes her, and his sister tells him that Sam has “low self-esteem” and used to have a “reputation” as a sophomore. He then asks her about dancing with the abusive boyfriend at homecoming, and after he promises not to tell anyone including Bill, his sister tells him that they still date in secret and plan to get married after college. She tells Charlie not to worry because he hasn’t hit her again and won’t ever hit her again, but Charlie still worries about her.
Somewhat similar to Bill’s earlier statement about accepting certain kinds of love, Charlie’s sister also feels that people make relationship decisions because of how they feel about themselves, but she doesn’t seem to apply this logic to her own relationship. Though Charlie seems to enjoy when people confide in him, carrying the weight of others’ secrets, like his sister’s, takes an emotional toll.
Charlie’s brother calls home on rare occasions, and his parents worry about him. Charlie hopes that his brother is having the kind of college experience where he “meets a smart girl who wears a lot of sweaters and drinks cocoa” with whom he can discuss books. But, his brother has posters of cars, beer, and supermodels on his walls, he never makes his bed, and he mostly talks about the football team.
Charlie hopes his brother is having the kind of college experience Charlie wants rather than what his brother likely wants. Charlie’s description of his brother illustrates how starkly different the two are. While Charlie is quiet, sensitive, introspective, and creative, his brother seems like the quintessential jock. Charlie’s wish for his brother suggests that he wishes his brother would become more sensitive and thoughtful, like him.
Charlie wishes he could be on a sports team, but, as he says, the sports he played made him too aggressive. Charlie’s dad was also a college athlete like his brother but had to leave college when Charlie’s mom became pregnant with his older brother. His dad tells stories about his “glory days,” and Charlie thinks about how handsome and rugged his dad looks in old photographs and how pretty his mom looks. He wonders what happened to make them the people they are now.
Though his family seems to value aggressive men, it seems that they also recognize that there are times when aggression can be harmful, as indicated by their pulling Charlie out of sports. It seems that Charlie’s dad now lives vicariously through the athletic success of his oldest son, since he had to sacrifice his own athletic career. Knowing that his parents became unexpectedly pregnant at a young age, Charlie realizes that adolescence and early adulthood are often when people have life-changing experiences, like his parents.
When Charlie’s brother finally calls home, he tells his parents that he can’t make it home for Thanksgiving, which upsets his mom. She takes Charlie clothes shopping and “worries out loud” the entire time, but Charlie explains that he understands his mom’s anxiety. The next day, Sam and Patrick compliment Charlie’s new clothes, saying his mom has good taste, which he tells her after school. This makes her happy, and she suggests that Charlie have them over for dinner sometime. Charlie writes that the last friend he had over for dinner was Michael, and they stayed up late walking around the neighborhood. His mom told him recently that Michael’s parents are now divorced, which, she said, is common for couples who lose a child.
While shopping with one’s mom is usually a time for bonding, Charlie’s mom spends the time worrying about everyone else rather than being present for that time with Charlie. His understanding of her worrying rather than anger or frustration at being ignored shows that Charlie is a deeply empathetic character. It also demonstrates that he nearly always puts others’ needs before his own. Because the last friend he had over for dinner was Michael, there is increased significance in bringing new friends home: it’s another step towards moving on after Michael’s death. Charlie’s mom’s remark about Michael’s parents’ divorce illustrates how families can fall apart after traumatic events.
Charlie thinks about spending holidays with his mom’s family. His grandfather tends to offend most of the family and make racist comments, and Charlie’s brother is the only one who can manage him. One time, Charlie’s grandfather told him and his brother about how difficult his life used to be as a laborer and how he once beat their mother and Aunt Helen for getting Cs on their report cards, demanding that it never happen again. On Thanksgiving, Charlie’s extended family watches a recording of Charlie’s brother playing football, and Charlie sees his grandfather crying. He realizes that, in demanding better from his daughters, he meant that he wanted to be the last one to work in a mill. Before leaving, Charlie kisses his grandfather goodbye, but his grandfather wipes off Charlie’s kiss. Charlie explains that his grandfather doesn’t like touching between men in the family.
Charlie’s grandfather, like many men, was socialized to think that violence was an acceptable way of showing his care for his family members. He hit his daughters as a means of motivating them to work towards a better life. Charlie once again recognizes abuse as such but also feels sympathy for the abuser. Only wanting to show his grandfather that he loves him, another of Charlie’s attempts to demonstrate care is poorly received. Because his grandfather subscribes to an aggressive and homophobic form of masculinity, tenderness between male family members makes him uncomfortable to the point of hostility.
As Christmas approaches, Charlie and his friends participate in a Secret Santa exchange. Charlie gets Patrick and makes him a mix tape with carefully selected music. As he collects the songs, he experiences an “amazing feeling” thinking about many other people who have listened to and gotten through “bad times” because of those songs. Charlie writes that he has continued his extra reading and writing assignments for Bill and he notices a trend in the books Bill gives him. Just like the songs on his tape for Patrick, all of the books Bill gives him are his favorites.
Charlie’s choice to give Patrick a collection of songs again points to the importance of music in the novel to create shared experiences between characters. With just a small cassette, Charlie is showing Patrick emotional support and care. Just like his carefully selected songs, Charlie realizes that Bill is giving him carefully selected books, which is his way of showing Charlie support and care. The books help to shape Charlie’s identity because they influence his understanding of the world around him and his own experience.
Patrick loves the mix tape, and Charlie suspects Patrick knows that Charlie is his Secret Santa. For his first gift, Charlie just receives socks, and he thinks Mary Elizabeth must be his Secret Santa. He later receives a tie, white shirt, shoes, and a belt, along with instructions to wear everything to the Christmas party. For the rest of Patrick’s gifts, Charlie gives a magnetic poetry set, watercolor paints, a harmonica, and a book about Harvey Milk. After Patrick told him he was gay, Charlie did research on the gay community. Patrick loves all of his gifts.
Since socks seem like an impersonal gift, Charlie suspects one of the friends that he’s not as close to is his Secret Santa. Charlie’s selections for Patrick’s gift demonstrate the careful attention he pays to the people around him. The book in particular and the research Charlie did to find it illustrate Charlie’s investment in his relationship with Patrick and in making Patrick feel cared for.
At the party, Charlie meets Sam and Patrick’s parents, whom he likes a lot. He says they don’t make you feel awkward when you meet them and they let Sam and Patrick and their friends have their party undisturbed. Charlie says everyone knows he was Patrick’s Secret Santa, and he stands up to give his last gift to Patrick, a poem that he reads aloud to the group. After Charlie reads it, everyone sits quietly and looks at each other in a way that meant they knew “that they were there.” Patrick plays Charlie’s tape and they continue exchanging gifts until Patrick reveals himself as Charlie’s Secret Santa and gives Charlie a complete suit because “all the great writers” have suits. Everyone applauds when Charlie completes his outfit.
Like their children, Sam and Patrick’s parents seem to have a knack for making people feel welcome. Charlie’s choice to give Patrick a poem as his last gift is yet another way that characters in the novel give literature or music to each other as a way of building intimacy. The shared experience of hearing the poem makes them all look at each other and feel present together in that moment. Patrick acknowledges this feeling by playing Charlie’s mix tape so that they can share in the music, too. Patrick’s gift to Charlie acknowledges his identity as a budding writer, and their friends’ applause gives Charlie confidence in that identity.
Charlie presents everyone at the party with a carefully chosen gift, even though no one except Sam and Patrick got him a gift. The most special gift is a record with the song “Something” by the Beatles that he gives to Sam. It was a gift from his Aunt Helen. Sam hugs Charlie and tells him that she loves him, and Charlie writes that it was the third time since his Aunt Helen died that someone had told him that. Sam gives Charlie a typewriter and asks that he write about her. Later that evening, Sam kisses Charlie because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him. Charlie describes the kiss as something he “could never tell [his] friends about out loud.” Charlie includes a copy of the poem he read for Patrick at the end of the letter and says nobody knew who wrote it but someone heard it was a kid’s suicide note.
Charlie’s choice to give everyone in the group gifts (even though only Sam and Patrick gave him one) emphasizes his giving nature. Charlie has now given music to both Sam and Patrick as a way of communicating his sense of connection to them. By choosing to give Sam the record he received as a gift from his beloved aunt, Charlie passes on the love implicit in the gift. Sam reciprocates his love and seems to replace Aunt Helen as Charlie’s primary source of affection. By including a copy of the poem for Patrick, Charlie lets the reader in on the experience as well. The idea that the poem may have been someone’s suicide note prompts the reader to wonder why Charlie choose this poem specifically and if he could be asking his friends for help indirectly.
Sam and Patrick leave for Christmas, vacation and Charlie spends the day thinking about his memories of sledding. He walks to the sledding hill and watches young kids as they fly down the hill. Charlie thinks about how they will grow up someday and he wishes that sledding would always be enough. Christmas and his birthday are coming up, and Charlie is glad that they will be over soon because he goes to “a bad place” at this time of year, which started after his Aunt Helen died. He was held back a grade because it “got so bad.” He explains that sometimes, things just start to slip away, and he breathes heavily trying to refocus. Trying not to think about it, he writes about his plans for the next few days, which involve Christmas shopping and celebrating his birthday, December 24. Bill gave him The Catcher in the Rye to read over break, which was Bill’s favorite book.
Separated from Patrick and Sam, Charlie sinks back into his habit of ruminating on the past and longing for a time when things were easier. Writing about his mental health after his aunt’s death suggest that her death was extremely difficult for him. Telling this reader about “his bad place” implies that Charlie needs to tell someone about his recurring mental health issues. Having plans, a schedule, and something to read seem to give him a sense of control when his mind begins spiraling out.
On Christmas, Charlie is feeling more anxious, but he doesn’t want to tell his mom about it. Wishing Michael and Aunt Helen were around, he admits he doesn't like his birthday, which was the day before. On his birthday, Charlie went shopping with his mom and sister and struggled to find a gift for his dad, which made him realize that he doesn’t know his dad, and he got visibly upset. His mom calmed him, and eventually, he found a copy of the last episode of M*A*S*H to give to his dad. His mom listened patiently as he told her about the night they all watched it together, and she remarked that he’s a good storyteller. Charlie told his him mom that he loves her, and she said it back, which made him feel better for a while.
Charlie’s desire to talk to Michael and Aunt Helen about his anxiety indicates that those were the only people he felt comfortable confiding in, more so than his immediate family. Charlie’s realization that he doesn't really know his father further illustrates his rather distant relationships with his family members. He attempts to close some of that distance with thoughtful gifts and storytelling, managing to have a bonding moment of open affection with his mom. Feeling connected to his family helps ease his anxiety, if only temporarily.
At dinner on Christmas Eve, Charlie and his mom and sister wait for his dad to return home after picking up his brother. Charlie’s mom notices that he looks sad and asks him if it’s about Aunt Helen. He says he feels this way every year on his birthday, but his mom helps him calm down. His family has dinner together and they give him birthday gifts: music from his sister and dad, a signed football poster from his brother, and books from his mom that used to be her favorites. Reading his mom’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye and thinking about his upcoming driver’s test makes him feel better.
Charlie’s mom grows increasingly attuned to Charlie’s distress, though Charlie apparently still feels more comfortable being fully honest about his mental state in his letters than in his conversations with his mother. Like Charlie gave his friends music and books to show them he cares, his family members (with the exception of his brother) gifted music and books to him to demonstrate that they’ve paid attention to his interests. Having his mother’s favorite books creates a stronger bond between them because of their shared appreciation for stories.
The next morning, his family opens presents and his dad really likes his copy of M*A*S*H, which makes Charlie happy. On the way to their dad’s family’s Christmas party, Charlie’s brother tells them about his girlfriend, a cheerleader and philosophy major. Charlie’s sister criticizes her brother for emphasizing her looks so much, and he tells her that she’s being a “bitchy dyke.” Charlie’s mom’s response is to tell him not to use that language in front of Charlie. Charlie’s siblings get into a fight, which ends in Charlie’s brother telling his sister that Kelly “believes in women’s rights so much that she would never let a guy hit her,” and he can’t say the same about his sister. Charlie’s dad slams on the breaks and stares at the two of them. They apologize to each other, and Charlie’s mom demands an end to the fighting. Charlie drives the rest of the way.
Charlie’s satisfaction with making his dad happy again shows Charlie’s pervasive desire to make others happy. Charlie’s brother describes his girlfriend for his dad as if the measure of his success as a man is having a pretty girlfriend. Charlie’s mom’s response to her oldest son’s language suggests that it’s only inappropriate because Charlie is in the car, and not because it’s a sexist and homophobic slur directed at her daughter. Charlie’s dad draws the line when Charlie’s brother blames his sister for her abuse, suggesting that while verbal abuse is acceptable, taunting her about physical abuse is off limits.
At his grandma’s house, Charlie looks at old photographs and thinks about his family’s past. His grandmother’s first husband died in Korea and her second husband was abusive and beat her and her children (Charlie’s dad and Charlie’s Aunt Rebecca) for seven years until Charlie’s great uncle found out about it. Charlie’s great uncle and his friends beat up the husband so badly that he died in the hospital. They never got in trouble for it, and Charlie’s dad explained that in their neighborhood, people sorted out some things without the police. Charlie’s Aunt Rebecca also had abusive relationships as an adult, but by that time the neighborhood had changed, and no one was around to defend her. Charlie wonders how her three children will turn out, and he thinks his dad feels bad for leaving his grandma and Aunt Rebecca.
Charlie’s family clearly has a pattern of abuse on both sides and a complicated view of violence. To end violence against Charlie’s grandma, dad, and aunt, Charlie’s great uncle and his friends used even more severe violence, killing a man. It appears to be an inherited trait in Charlie’s family that the women learn to expect either abuse or protection from abuse from the men in their lives. Because Charlie’s dad didn’t provide that protection for his sister, he failed at his responsibility according to those unspoken rules. These expectations seem to emphasize avoiding or punishing abuse rather than teaching the next generation not to be violent.
On the ride home, Charlie’s family visits Aunt Helen’s grave and Charlie thinks about her experiences. He writes that she was molested as a child and when she told her father, Charlie’s grandfather, he didn’t believe her, so the abuse continued. Aunt Helen had drinking and drug problems as an adult and a string of abusive relationships. Charlie explains that she was an unhappy person for most of her life. Eventually, she tried turning her life around and moved in with Charlie’s family. On Charlie’s 7th birthday, she died in a car accident while driving to get Charlie’s gift. He remembers being at the hospital telling a doctor that Aunt Helen was the only one who hugged him. Charlie’s feels responsible for his aunt’s death, and as he thinks about her, his mental health declines.
Charlie’s grandfather’s behavior demonstrates that while he may have wanted his children to be more financially successful than he was, he failed to provide basic protection against continued assault. Charlie’s aunts’ experiences of childhood abuse had deeply damaging effects that manifested in continued problems as adults. For many of the people in Charlie’s life, key events in childhood largely impacted their adult lives. Knowing that his aunt died eight years ago, Charlie has been carrying the emotional weight of her death and his perceived guilt for a long time, and the reader can see how this childhood trauma is continuing to impact Charlie’s development.
He reads The Catcher in the Rye three times to keep his mind occupied and makes a mix tape to celebrate his first time driving alone. For his first trip, Charlie drives to the cemetery to visit Aunt Helen, where he leaves a mix tape for her and tells her about his life. He promises her to only cry for important things from now on. Charlie’s mental health continues to worsen, and he explains that he doesn’t want to keep thinking the way he has been, wanting to “sleep for a thousand years. Or just not exist.” He says he’s feeling so bad that he might need to go to the doctor again.
Given how often Charlie mentions her and that his first independent drive is to visit her grave, it’s clear that Aunt Helen is an ever-present figure in Charlie’s mind. After visiting her grave, his letter indicates stronger signs of serious depression and his desire to “not exist” suggests suicidal thoughts. The reader is prompted to remember that Michael supposedly committed suicide because, like Charlie, he didn’t have anyone to talk to about his problems.
While at a New Year’s Eve party with his friends, Charlie takes LSD and then stands outside alone thinking about how everyone else has somebody except for him. He shovels the driveway at four in the morning, and his mind races through disconnected thoughts, memories, and hallucinations. Eventually, he thinks about how all the books he’s read have been read by other people and the music he likes has also been heard by other people and that makes him feel connected. At the same time, because everyone else is with a partner, Charlie feels lonely and writes that he finally understands the end of the poem he read for Patrick, even though he “never wanted to.”
Experimenting more with drugs, the effects of the LSD seem to increase Charlie’s frenzied mind rather than distract or calm it. Even at a party with all of his friends, he still feels isolated, though, for a brief moment, remembering the unifying powers of music and books gives him a sense of connection with people he’s never met. By declaring that he finally understands the end of the poem, Charlie is saying that he identifies with the author of what might have been a suicide note, indicating to the reader just how rock-bottom Charlie feels.