Yearbook Collage

I keep skipping back and forth between beginning and end. Ends and beginnings, they’re more interesting than middles, aren’t they? The ecstasy of meeting, the pain of disintegration. I suppose I’m looking at how the seeds for the end were already there when the friendship began, and this is why I’m skipping back and forth. Because I looked up to Lex for so long, it was difficult for me to see or acknowledge his faults. A preternatural fear of weakness. I had thought at the time that he refused to engage my anxiety attacks and be there for me as I suffered depression and kept his distance owing to Rita. I’d assumed that getting laid was more important to him than helping his closest friend. In retrospect, I’m not sure that this was the case. In my suffering, I saw only myself, my own struggle. He’d had his own brush with a deeper depression when Nora left him. She was one year ahead of us in school. She’d gone to college. We were seniors. She’d met someone else, and Lex couldn’t cope. He took to bed. He stayed in bed. He stopped going to school. He wouldn’t play music with me. He hardly ate. I can’t remember how long it went on, a month? two?

Drew and I went over. Drew tried coaxing him out of bed. “Come on, man. What are you gonna do? Lay there the rest of your life?” Sonny did the same. “You don’t want to be a loser do you? You gotta get up.” I was the only one who came and sat with him and pretended nothing was wrong. I left him to his sadness while retaining our friendship. Right before he’d opted out, before he’d taken to bed, our band had made the talent show. Five had tried out, two had been selected. I thought we’d fucked the audition up, but the judges had liked us anyway. We’d played a complex song that involved a minute-long drum solo (think Ringo’s drumming during The Beatles medley “The End”) between a fairly simply verse-chorus-verse song (think Stone Roses or Happy Mondays at their funkiest) and a climactic guitar solo (think the sliding octaves of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock”). We’d done great the first third, the drum solo was thunderous, but I’d forgotten to turn off my wah-wah pedal before punching on the phaser, which made the guitar solo come out as noise. Lex’s drumming, one of the judges told me after we’d made it in, had been the deciding factor. Still, the vice principal had approached me. She told me if Lex didn’t return to school, we couldn’t play the show. The other option, she pointed out, was for me to replace him. She suggested I ask Tony Trinh, one of the other drummers. But I couldn’t do it. The show was important to me, but Lex more so. I told her we quit. I told Lex we were out and why. I told him what the vice principal offered. “I can’t do it without you,” I said. His mom pulled me aside as I was leaving. “Thank you,” she said. “That means a lot.”

So when he didn’t show up for me later with my anxiety attacks, I resented it. I didn’t realize that fundamental aspects of our personalities differed in this way. I expected reciprocation. But the precedent for him to not show up was there, the foundation. I should have expected this if I saw him clearly, if I didn’t let the affection I felt for him cloud my vision. He had to stay away for fear I’d drag him down with me. He had to keep moving forward. The band was once his ticket out, and I was integral to that. Now that the band didn’t exist. He needed a new plan. Still, if the spirit of competition we’d developed early on hadn’t become so intense as to sometimes border on antagonism, I might be writing a completely different story, corresponding from my parents’ basement right now. Jim had come to me to appeal to my reason, my sense of self-preservation. He’d provided rational arguments as to why I needed help, and all this failed. He should have saved his breath. Lex thinks you can’t do this was all he had to say to spark the rivalry that extended back to that first year of friendship. RBI Baseball and Tecmo Bowl. One-on-one at the basketball courts. This was how it started.

Lex and Elisa were dating, but it wasn’t like later when he dated Nora or Marisa or Rita. He made space for me with Elisa. He was consumed by her, that was no different. But he seemed to find a balance between his friends and her. Then, too, I liked Elisa. Rita I hardly registered with. I was a kid who was still in college. I met her once, maybe twice. Marissa was the same, twice. I was too weird for Nora. She didn’t know what to make of me. I believe she said it: “You guys are crazy.” Though Lex could subdue crazy enough to charm. I hadn’t learned that yet. And the result for him was Elisa. Elisa was kind, a word I keep returning to. Perhaps this is because I’m not kind naturally, and we gravitate toward the virtues in which we’re deficient, especially when we hope to be better than we are. For me, kindness only comes with great effort. As it is, I try to make that effort, but I often feel I fail. It’s possible the bullied kid in me sees vindictiveness everywhere and prepares for it, and this is where my lack of kindness comes from. But it’s also why I fight. Competition is socially-accepted viciousness. Lex didn’t have kindness either. There was openness in him, and he could be kind, but like me, it wasn’t his natural mode. This might have been why we competed. We had something to prove. To whom? I don’t know. We were both tempered narcissists keeping the beast at bay and sometimes letting it win.

That first year, basketball was what we did. It seems like all we did. I didn’t play basketball before I met Lex. Not with any seriousness. My dad had nailed a makeshift backboard to our garage, but Drew had accidentally tore it down one day while trying to dunk, and my dad refused to restore it for safety reasons. There were a few half-deflated balls in my garage. I’m not even sure where they came from. We had a pump. I inflated a few. They were all worn down. No grip. But we took them and we went to the courts, which were right around the corner from my house. That year, one of the HBO movies on frequent rotation was White Men Can’t Jump. We watched that movie and quoted it. We shot from three point range, pretended to swindle each other while learning to shoot. We learned to post up on each other. Sonny Ford came down and we played HORSE. We played rough house. We’d pull in Drew Schiff and play two-on-two on a halfcourt. Drew was good at HORSE. He made half-court shots. I had to make them too. So I practiced. We imitated Woody Harrelson’s 3/4-court hook shot from the movie, holding one arm out for counterbalance. I made the shot once, maybe twice. When we finished, Lex and I went back to my house. I made powdered Liptons ice tea or Country Time Lemonade. We sat in the kitchen and drank cup after cup out of the 32-ounce Slurpee cups I’d collected from 7-Eleven.

And time passed…

I sloughed off my Jennifer Mills crush. And yet, I had to have a crush, so I started to look around. I settled on another. But she too was unattainable. The sequence. My pattern. Caitlin Gradea. She dated Lance DiStefano. She had dark brown hair and big brown eyes, olive skin. She was slender and sweet. I’m not sure what she was doing with Lance. He seemed like a thug. He’d been Wade Lessman’s right hand man in middle school. Caitlin and Lance were on-again off-again, and I wondered if I could wedge myself in during those off-again times. But I wasn’t assertive. I kept my silence. I saw her and smiled and said hello. But I didn’t let her know I liked her. In the cafeteria, Lex and Reed and I talked. We watched the girls around us and talked about them. We argued about sports. We discussed sitcoms. We sat two or three tables from the door I’d entered during that first dance, the inside column of two, away from the windows. There was a boombox kids could play music on. I remember it wasn’t well regulated. I remember Wreckx-n-Effect’s “Rump Shaker.” All I wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom and a boom-boom. How wildly appropriate for a room full of preteens with raging hormones. Did some of the kids really dance during lunchtime back then?

Time passed…

We played more ball and caused benign mischief. Sonny and me. Lex and Drew and Rick. We formed a crew that year. Nights when he wasn’t with Elisa, Lex was with us, and we were always so bored we invented stupid games. We tired to get from one end of the block to the other after dark using only backyards. We start at Keswick Avenue and hop through the backyards on Paxson to reach Rices Mill Road. That was easiest. Doing the block between Brookdale and Glenside was difficult. There were too many dogs owners, which meant too many dogs. We weren’t stupid. Or maybe we were. We’d scope out the dogs beforehand. Cling to the fence and watch them. If they were chained and couldn’t reach us or we didn’t think they could kill us we tried to do it anyway. The furthest we made it was from Keswick to Easton to Harrison to Lismore one night. We congratulated ourselves. We thought it was quite a feat. Three full blocks, it was. The experience had been exhilarating. Other nights we’d sit in Renninger field and wait for cops to drive past. When they did, we’d yell, “Cops!” to try and get them to chase us. We had nothing better to do, and apparently, they didn’t either. They’d follow up as we ran. And when we disappeared behind the basketball courts, they’d put the spotlight on and shine it our way. They were likely as bored as us. I imagine them thinking, “Should I chase these kids? or drive around the block again?” Reed was there too, but when junior high ended, he moved away. He was there with us, but not always. Pulling away. He liked Elisa, and she’d chosen Lex. I don’t think she knew he liked her. Reed was quiet about crushes, like me. If she knew, she liked Lex anyway. He was more charismatic, confident.

And time passed and summer came…

That summer, we sat in Rick’s living room, mostly Drew and me with Rick wandering through. He’d come in once in a while and throw some change on the floor—whenever he bought a coke or a candybar from Giuliano’s deli with a bill, he’d toss the change on the floor—hit play on the CD player and head back out while Drew and I tried to beat Super Mario World. BMG Music Club had delivered Achtung Baby to Rick’s house during the spring. Rick was one of those people who signed up for BMG, forgot to return the card, received the CD of the month, and listened to it whatever it was. Sometimes he’d listen once or twice. Others he’d listen over and over. With Achtung Baby, he listened nonstop, which meant we all listened to it nonstop. Up until then, I’d hated U2. I wouldn’t say that every song sounded the same, but The Edge had always used that jangling echo that made each song sound similarly dull. I remembered Bono on TV at my grandmother’s house in the “With or Without You” video. My mother made some comment like she thought he was sexy, and I thought he looked like an idiot with his slick ’80s ponytail, leather vest, and guitar slung to the side. He wasn’t even paying, he just held it there. How could he even look at himself in the mirror? Yet, Achtung was something different. This music infused us, seeped in. Background became foreground. The riffs were harder. The sound wasn’t so earnest and saintly. To me, their ironic posturing with Achtung seemed less like posturing than their prior sanctimonious save the world attitude. Even as a naive adolescent, absolute earnestness had always struck me as being as false as full-blown irony. An ability to bounce back and forth between the two was what made a person or artwork interesting to me. Lex was this type of person too, a kindred spirit. And as a work of art, Achtung Baby achieved the right balance. When I’d listened to metal, under Elton Danvers’s influence, a band was either good or they sucked. If they sold out, they sucked forevermore. You could listen to early stuff, but all the stuff post-selling out was anathema. By introducing me to Bowie and The Stones, by starting to broaden my horizons, Lex hadn’t just incited me to branch out in taste. I had become willing to listen to and evaluate each piece of music, each song and album, on its merits as art. I hadn’t liked U2 until now. I still didn’t like their pre-Achtung output. But I liked this. Friends wandered in and out, and Drew and I sat playing Mario World, and U2 defined that season.

And the summer rolled on…

Lex and I played baseball together, Glenside Youth Athletic Club, the 12-14 age bracket, and we made the all-star team together. In the game, we turned a double-play. I was playing shortstop, Lex was first base. When the second baseman flipped it to me, I fired the ball at Lex’s glove. A few weeks later, we watched the Glenside 4th of July parade and decided to march. We weren’t part of it, not in any established way. We went into the street and inserted ourselves between floats and danced like Mummers. Minor stuff, but it mattered. It brought us closer together. The types of experiences boys have to solidify a friendship.

And the summer rolled on…

In hindsight, the season assumes a magical aspect, a romantic quality. Three straight months of freedom. As an adult, I yearn for those days of freedom. An elongated break from the grind where I could do anything I pleased, be anyone I wanted. And yet, even this isn’t the truth, at least for me. The summer was often filled with boredom, and there weren’t any girls in our group, which made the boredom more intense. It made me impatient when August came to return to school where I could watch them, see them, interact with them. Whenever Lex wasn’t around or I wasn’t in Rick’s living room trying to beat Mario World and listening to Achtung Baby, I was skating with Jacob DeGeorges or John Harrison. I skated mostly with John in Abington with his friends Tonio and Trevor. We talked of forming our own skate company. We talked of filming ourselves skating to try to get sponsorship. We made a video, but as soon as the camera was on, I had trouble landing tricks. “My girlfriend says my dick tastes like peanut butter,” Trevor announced one day. I remember this because he was the first person I knew who’d had fellatio performed on him. It was amazing. Kids just a few grades above us were doing that. Maybe someday someone would do it to me. But not yet, I couldn’t imagine it happening yet. We went on skating. I went home at night exhausted and woke the next morning and went back to it. I injured my knee trying ollie a gap. I couldn’t walk for a week, but I healed. And once I did, I returned to skating, but my heart wasn’t in it.

…And the summer waned.

As I’ve been writing, people have asked how I remember all this. I don’t know. I haven’t been keeping tabs over the years, waiting to write this. I’d never planned to write about any of this. There are no journals from that time that recount my day-to-day activities. I simply recall events as I reach for them. I’m trying to put them in sequence based on who was involved, using what little archival material I have, mainly the yearbook and my report cards. I’ve always had a decent memory, which proved an asset in school. It meant I was able to summon information I’d been exposed to without much effort. Then, as I write this, I discover details I didn’t know had remained with me. Buchwald’s hands on the chalkboard, the faces of the boys hissing espionage floating up to the back door of Mrs. Holland’s room, Lex’s head wound winking and leaking blood at me as he blinked. These are all things that arrived back in my mind as I was in the act of typing. I start to remember and suddenly I’m there. One mode of thinking is that each time we access a memory, we’re rewriting that memory, so that when you remember again, you’re not recalling the first version but your latest memory, the rewrite, the dilution. Maybe it’s because I’m not accessing these memories often that they have a greater purity. I haven’t been working from an outline. Each section section seems to me the logical extension of the section before, even as I skip around in chronology. Also, I’m drafting here, on my site. Catch me on a Friday night after a beer or two and you’ll be privy to text I take down the next morning, sobriety making me think twice about how vulnerable I’ve made myself.

The initial idea, as I’ve stated before, was to invite participation. But I question how honest I can be, knowing that this will be read by the people involved. Am I rounding off the rougher edges? Is it even remotely possible to not make myself the hero in my own story? Part of me wishes I could write this and not give a shit what anyone thinks. It’s a popular pose among writers that we write for ourselves, but no one works in a vacuum. No one proceeds without the idea that their words will be read. Otherwise it’s a journal. I mentioned at the outset that I wasn’t going to tell Lex I was writing this. But if he’s picked up on it, if he’s following along, I can imagine him sitting there saying, “That’s not what happened. That’s not what I said at all.” But then, he has his version and I have mine. The same events seen through different eyes. Memoir, nonfiction. These are terms I’ve never been comfortable with, not because of memory’s fallibility or because I’ve set out to blur the record or fabricate. It’s simply that the mere act of picking and choosing which details to include or leave out creates a fiction of life. Memoir isn’t life but a representation of life, a reflection.

I have to confess that my wife hasn’t been reading along. She’s busy. She doesn’t read everything I write. We don’t have that type of relationship. She’s told me outright that she’s not sure she wants to revisit this time in her life. I didn’t know her then, of course. She was at school in Bucks County. But it seems this is happening to people as they read along. You start to think not of my life but your own. I’m triggering memories for you by writing mine. Still, I tell my wife these stories. After a day of writing, I’ll tell her what I wrote over dinner. And the screwed up thing is that I’ve started referring to Lex as Lex when I talk to her, when in real life that isn’t his name at all. I stop and think when I do this, have I somehow rewired my brain? Am I giving in to a fiction? How can I trust my memories if I’m calling him Lex, if I’m starting to buy into my subterfuge? Truth is Lex isn’t Zack. He isn’t my best friend growing up in the same way a portrait painted of a person isn’t the person but a portrait. The same way a photograph isn’t the person but a photo. To a large extent, even our friends and family, the people we profess to know best, are our creations. We imbue them with the qualities we need them to have. Parse out the ones that serve no purpose to us. We never know them in their entirety. Then again, even the “I” here isn’t me, but a representation of me. The narrative meaning is imposed in hindsight, even if I’m doing my best to be as honest as possible. This isn’t an autobiographical novel. Not enough narrative, too much reflection (which likely results in the most accurate thoughts, the narrative and dialogue being an approximation at best). I’ve thought of it as memoir. But I don’t like the rules of memoir where to knowingly fabricate is a sin worthy of censure but to unknowingly fabricate, as we do all the time, is completely acceptable. Most crimes are still crimes even if the perpetrator is unaware they’re committing one. There are moments, too, when I wonder, should I be writing about this? Does it serve a purpose? Is there any real point other than my own indulgence? What if it reflects poorly on me? How will I stand in the reader’s eyes? This is when I resort to tricks, framing devices that soften the blow, accusing myself of narcissism or cruelty before the reader can, as if getting a jump on them and incriminating myself will excuse it. And still, I trudge on. Now that I’ve begun I’ve entered the obsessive fixation with which I greet all my work, a focus on the past that’s borderline harmful for me.

That summer, I saw Lex and Elisa frequently. He was always with her, but at that point, I didn’t expect anything else. If I’d had a girlfriend, it would have been the same. Or so I thought. I certainly wouldn’t have been in Rick’s living room paying Mario World. Lex, however, also made more of an effort to include me then than he would later on. We sometimes hung out in Elisa’s basement, listening to music, the three of us, and Reed too. I never had a crush on Elisa the way Reed did, and if I had, I would have abandoned it when Lex and Elisa got together. This isn’t a criticism of Reed. The heart wants what it wants. It’s more a reflection on how I’m built. What outcome would I wish for, as a friend, if this were the case? Would I wish that she’d break up with him and be with me? The strain of that conflict, the inner turmoil, would have proven too much for me. To care for my friend and desire the girl he loved, there were regimented walls in my head to protect against it. It was better to set my sights on another girl. And yet, as I write this summer, another memory surfaces. We were at the Glenside pool. Lex and I, Elisa and her friend Gilda. There was always another girl, a fourth to even out the numbers. Elisa was good at invited someone along to keep me from feeling a third wheel. We were roughhousing in the pool, tussling playfully, and for a moment, facing Elisa, she slipped and fell against me. I caught her and helped her set her feet and stand again. It was just a moment, but as she fell, a pulse passed through me. My heart raced, and as I set her on her feet, I wanted to have her do it again, to fall against me, to take her in my arms. Instead, I retreated. I moved to the edge of the pool. There were so many reasons right then to leave. She was Lex’s girlfriend. Reed had a crush on her. I liked her a lot. She’d been kind to me, and her kindness, mixed with her beauty and that moment of playful intimacy, had frightened me. I wasn’t even sure it registered with her. But it didn’t matter. For the longest time my feelings of attraction merged with feelings of longing and feelings of friendship toward women, and I couldn’t make sense of or reconcile them until later. It’s true that as I swam to the edge of the pool and emerged to dry myself off that I wanted her, just for a moment, and the emotion blindsided me. I’d like to say it was something more than an instant of lust, but it wasn’t. I was Lex’s friend. I was her friend too. And the feeling frightened me, mostly because in that particularly instant friendship meant nothing to me. I would have sold him to the devil to be in his place, and this terrified me. I didn’t want that at all, though Lex would have no such compunction later on.

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