Miss Vart meant well, and she was as kind as could be, considering she taught eighth grade and her last name rhymed with a synonym for flatulence. She taught us social studies, American History, the brand preapproved in grade schools and countermanded in college in which America is always the shining beacon on the hilltop, righteousness wins, and corporations aren’t out to rape the culture but improve it. Like many who see the world in terms of good and evil, right and wrong, with no acknowledgment of moral complexity or relativity, she believed in the nobility of the human spirit. We covered the American Civil War, and she showed us Glory at the end of the term. As Matthew Broderick led the 54th regiment toward the battlefield and the other union soldiers cheered their bravery, I saw her place a hand on her chest. As he dismounted to join his men before the final charge on Fort Wagner, she wept. This is one of two memories I have of her.

The other involves a project she assigned to us. We were to create a product and present an advertisement of that product to the class. I have no recollection of what our product was nor who was in my group. I remember, however, that Jason Kim was paired with Jason Mertz if only because there were three Jasons in that class and I wasn’t with them. I’m not sure what the project was supposed to teach us in eighth grade. Mad Men style marketing, perhaps? The way that capitalism worked? I’m sure that Miss Vart provided some explanation on the worksheet she’d handed out. Perhaps she’d written instructions on the board. When faced with a project I didn’t want to do, my eyes often glazed over and my mind focused just enough to get the gist and help me pass. And make no mistake about it, this was exactly that kind of project, which is likely why I can’t remember what I did. It was forgettable.

Jason Kim, in general, wasn’t the kind of kid anyone forgets. He was the type to draw notice. A class clown. An irreverent Korean kid who never seemed to take anything or anyone seriously. He carried with him an uncontainable verve that might get treated with Ritalin these days. He was always bouncing around, never still. The first quarter, we had Dr. Moss for Earth Science. And though I believe she may have left on sabbatical because of a pregnancy, a rumor began when she didn’t show up the second quarter that she couldn’t stand the kids anymore, that we—and specifically Jason Kim, who had always begun his insults toward her by calling her Mr. Moss—had driven her out. He was a wild card, unpredictable. So when he and Mertz approached the front of the room, we had no idea what we were in for. Turns out, Jason had taken the project seriously. He’d created more of presentation than most of us had. He had props. I believe he had a board documenting made-up statistics for his product in the background. He was beaming, ready to present, and he turned and face the class.

“Have you ever eaten a pretzel and thought, this pretzel’s not for me,” he began. “Well you’re in luck. With our new product, every color pretzels, you’ll never have that problem again!”

The class perked up and paid attention. This was something different, not the drab monotonous get a passing grade presentations the rest of us had prepared. He’d put thought into his, and he wanted to sell it. He was, of course, aware of the humor in what he did. He was never without it. To this end, he held up the props now.

“We’ve got white pretzels for white people!” And he held up a pretzel he’d painted white. “Black pretzels for black people!” And he held up a pretzel painted brown. “We’ve got yellow pretzels for yellow people, and red for the red!” For each he held up a painted pretzel. “And if you’re Jewish, don’t worry, we’ve got pretzels for you!”

Perhaps this was where he went too far, because he’d moved from benign racial categories into cultural/ethnic stereotype. He held up a regular soft pretzel with a Mr. Potato Head nose sticking out of the front. I looked around. Cheltenham was relatively diverse, even then. The class was in hysterics.  White kids were laughing. Black kids were laughing, Asian kids were laughing. Even the Jewish kids laughed. The only one not laughing was Miss Vart. She was apoplectic. Her eyes were big and wide and bulging and seemed just about ready to push the glasses off her face. Looking back as an adult, this could be seen as a fairly astute satire on corporate pandering. Look at any ad in a magazine or on TV, they’re reaching out to some demographic, though I don’t believe that’s what Jason Kim intended. Still, his presentation was getting at this honestly, cutting through the bullshit, digging beneath the surface. It was better than most of the stuff on Saturday Night Live at the time. Edgy. Offensive. But of course, we weren’t laughing because we understood this. At least, not at any deeper level. We were laughing because Jason sold it. Because his presentation had touched a nerve, poked at underlying tensions that have always existed and continue to exist that the curriculum refused to engage. Unlike the rest of us, he’d created a presentation he was proud of. The rhetoric of the school and its curriculum was assimilationist. We were all the same and shouldn’t acknowledge any differences, but we knew this wasn’t true, and Jason had captured that.

Miss Vart asked to see them in the hall, and the class got real quiet, trying to listen. In the ensuing silence, we heard the muffled sounds of Miss Vart’s voice. Then Jason Mertz cry out, “He made me do it!” I think she might have even summoned Mr. Blyweiss, our English teacher, from across the hall to intervene while she returned to class and tried to explain to us why what Jason had done was wrong. I think he was eventually coerced into apologizing to the class, though it didn’t happen that day. When it did, he looked close to tears. I think he’d proceeded under the belief Miss Vart would like it. That she’d understand his sense of humor and applaud it. Of course, I understand today why, though this act might have a place in a Mel Brook’s movie, it wasn’t appropriate for a school classroom that would like us to believe racial tensions ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act back in 1964. But I couldn’t help admiring the way Jason had used his art—and yes, I’m calling his irreverently comedic class project art—to provoke a reaction in our authority figures. I hadn’t seen a teacher that mad since Buchwald chewed us out over the fire drill. I’d impersonated Buchwald for laughs and attention. But this wasn’t an imitation. Jason had arrived at and executed the idea all by himself (“Jason Mertz’s cry of “He made me do it” was true; he wasn’t involved at all). And though I wasn’t planning to do anything of the sort, I saw that he was ahead of me. I was creative, but not at this level. And just look at the attention he drew…


I stare at the list above, one of the back pages out of our eighth grade yearbook. Can You Imagine… I look at that list, a list of tics and traits, a list of amusing habits and flaws, and I recognize some of the students and some I don’t.

1. Cherita C. and Jorge T. being serious.

I can put faces to the names, but I never knew them. I don’t believe I said a word to either the entire time we were there. So many lives going on around us, so many narratives, similar to ours and different, so many yearnings and dreams that I was never aware of.

9. Faith H. not getting a solo.

She was my friend. We were good friends in junior high, friends throughout high school. She sat next to me in orchestra where we both played cello, but so far, I haven’t had occasion to mention either her or orchestra. She sang in the choir too. She had a strong voice.

17. Brian R. not being annoying.

Did they have to get his permission to print that? He played no role in my life in junior high but appears later in this story for a talent show audition.

24. Ian E. without his hands in his pockets.

This one cracks me up. He always did have his hands in his pockets, but the implication of hands in his pockets means more. Masturbatory insinuations. Did no one notice before going to press? Or was this allusion intended?

Then there’s 16. Elisa G. not within a foot of Lex H.

On the right hand page, facing this, are the superlatives. And while I’d won Best Hairstyle, the puffed-up Kramer cut serving me well, my friends had taken home Best Couple. Lex and Elisa. The gap in time between voting and handing out the book, however, had served to prove this wrong, for they’d broken up. By the time the final quarter approached, and we were exchanging signatures and “Have a nice summers,” they’d split. They’d burned out, become too intense. Together all the time had taken its toll. Her parents had noticed. Her teachers had noticed. And while Lex’s parents had encouraged the relationship, Elisa’s had seen this as a matter of concern. Their daughter was being consumed by love, and they couldn’t approve. Already they’d rearranged his schedule, and any classes that Lex and Elisa shared were switched. They were separated in school. Our French teacher thought it a good idea. There was too much distraction, she’d said. I remember Lex distraught, running through the shortcut at TW Park, tears in his eyes. “They’re gonna break us up…” As happened later, when he dropped out of school and laid in his room, I didn’t know what to do. So I sat with him. Put a hand on his shoulder. Provided comfort in silence. And yet, Lex was still moving forward, still getting past, getting over and moving on, putting these things behind him. I suppose I should have seen it back then. Within two months of them breaking up, he came to me.

“Would you mind if I asked Jennifer out?” he said.

I paused a moment and considered this before I answered.

“Jennifer in French class or Jennifer Big Tits?” I said.

“Jennifer Bi—”

He stopped and looked at me, cautious. I’d delivered this entirely straight-faced without a hint I was parroting the conversation we’d had a year before. Still, he caught on. I might have lacked confidence, but I was quick with a quip, sardonic. There was a bit of Holden Caulfield in me. If I’m looking for reasons Lex liked me, I’m pretty sure this was high on the list—when I wasn’t screwing with him, that is. Obviously he wouldn’t ask my permission for Jennifer in French. I’d answered this way because I didn’t want to answer. I was delaying having to give him one. Yes, I’d moved on. I’d found a new crush in Caitlin Gradea. But I hadn’t gotten over Jennifer Mills. I’d merely accepted that she didn’t want me. I was still trying to piece together why, what I’d done wrong, what I could have done differently. How Lex could put Elisa behind him so quickly was beyond me. I was almost sure, too, that he would have given the same answer I had if he hadn’t caught himself. “Julia Big Tits, but could we maybe not call her that.” This was the exact reason I threw it back at him. He was always better with pretend empathy than actual empathy.

I smiled. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess it’s okay.”

He even asked for Elisa’s permission, and she said yes, though I’m sure she liked it as much as I did. “I know we’re not dating anymore, and the wound is still fresh, but would you mind if I asked out this other totally hot girl?” Or so I imagined it went. It was strange to me that he’d set about securing our approval. I suppose he thought it noble. Permission absolved him of betrayal. But still, it bothered me. It didn’t feel right to say no. I had no claim. She’d never been my girlfriend, and yet it felt like he should have known to stay away and back off. If she said yes, what did it mean about me? Had I been too ugly, too inexperienced? What was wrong with me? Would it always be this way? Would Lex always get what I wanted, who I wanted?

When Lex’s eldest sister Ava  moved out, she took an apartment around the corner from my parents’ and lived with her friend Julie. We’d go visit and sit with them while they drank beer or smoked pot and listened to music, and one day, Julie asked, “So what about this guy? Hey you, Jay. You got a girlfriend?”

I blushed and admitted, “No, the girls don’t really go for me.”

It always felt like admitting to a failure.

Their friend Raina was slumped on the couch next to her.

“You’re young,” Julie said. “You need some time to grow into yourself. I think you’re gonna be hot when you grow up. What do you think, Rain?”

Raina looked at me and considered this for a moment. Then she arched her eyebrows, as though the truth of Julie’s words had dawned on her.

“Yeah,” she said. “If you’re still around in ten years, give me a call.”

I’d expected them to laugh, but neither did. It seemed they both understood that this was a delicate topic and weren’t just having fun with me. They might have been stoned or drunk or both. But it gave me hope. They were older, just a bit, maybe six years or so. But this imbued upon them a quality of wisdom the girls my age didn’t have. I only had to wait, but it didn’t help me now. Lex wanted the girl that I’d spent three years pining for, and I’d said yes. This didn’t mean Jennifer Mills would say yes. My assent wasn’t hers by any means, and I knew this. Yet, given my opinion of Lex, a yes seemed inevitable. Why wouldn’t she say yes? He was good-looking, charismatic. He would have asked her to dance without prompting. He would have given her a flower. And then I wondered, if I said no, would he even have heeded it? I’m almost certain he asked without expecting a no. As if he knew I’d assent regardless of whether I wanted to. After all, I didn’t want to seem immature, unschooled, like I didn’t know how these things went. I’d done that too often already.

I remembered back to the first quarter when we sat at the lunch table and Lex came in.

“Did you hear about Shane Leary?” he said.

Reed and I leaned in. Lex had spoken in a whisper.

“No, what is it? What happened?”

“His girlfriend gave him a blow job.”

I sat back, amazed. The summer before, John Harrison’s friend Trevor had gotten blow jobs from his girlfriend, but he was in eleventh grade. Shane was in eighth, his girlfriend seventh. I didn’t know her name, but she sat a few tables away with her clique. I could see her. I didn’t realize this could happen now. That people our age were doing it. How did one convince a girl to put it in her mouth? Guys do it to girls, Lex had explained, because it’s easier to get them off that way. Girls do it to guys out of gratitude, because they’ve done something nice. Of course, I believed him. Every word. He was fourteen and I was twelve. Why wouldn’t he know better than me? I took it as gospel.

“But that’s not the best part,” Lex continued. And he laughed. “While she was doing it, she stuck her finger up his butt!” And here Reed started to laugh too.

I smiled, “Wait,” I said. “Was she not supposed to?”

They both stopped laughing and looked at me. This maybe wasn’t the best question to ask if I was trying to convince people I wasn’t gay.

“No,” Lex said. “She wasn’t supposed to.” And they both started laughing again, though I’m pretty sure Reed was just as clueless as me.

Where was I supposed to come by this knowledge. It seemed like I was supposed to have it already. Whenever I asked a question like this other kids looked at me like I was stupid. Was it whispered down from older siblings? Their parents certainly didn’t talk about it, right? Who would talk about this kind of stuff with their mom and dad?

Drew Schiff and I, along with Rick, had once found a carton of porno magazines in the woods behind Bishop McDevitt High School, and we’d looked through them. This was the only way I knew where anything went. Otherwise I’d be hopelessly lost. It was better to feign knowledge, and Reed knew this. In all likelihood, this was what he was doing that day. And I should have faked it too. But I didn’t think I needed to with Lex. He knew I’d never had a girlfriend, never even kissed a girl, and all that year I’d been living vicariously through his experiences. He and Elisa were experimenting. He’d try something new with her, and I’d ask, “What’s that like?” and he’d tell me about it.

I’d drifted away from some of my other friends by then, and we’d become closer because of it. In the second quarter, Jacob DeGeorges had grabbed my hat in the hall before first bell. Until then, we’d still skated together, still been friends. He ran, and I chased him. He’d meant to do it playfully, but as I cornered him near a locker, he held it away and bent the brim back awkwardly. I got mad at this. I pushed him and knocked his head against the metal and grabbed it. He threw two punches at me, which I dodged, and I pushed him again. He grabbed me and I grabbed him, and we stood locked liked that a minute before letting go. He walked away and I walked away, and we never spoke again. When our friendship ended, so did skating. I didn’t have much enthusiasm for it anymore. Instead, Lex and I hung out and listened to music. He told me he’d smoked pot with Elisa. He’d gotten it from his sister. I was fascinated, though drugs scared me. Drew Schiff and Bruce Herndon had found a case of beer behind McDevitt, and the two of them drank it with Rick. I was around, but I didn’t partake. I wasn’t ready for it. They acted like fools. They splashed about in the creek and slurred their words. They said stupid things, things I wasn’t sure they meant. And for this reason, I never indulged in my teenage years. I was scared of losing control, scared if I got drunk I might say foolish things. Most of all, I was scared that if Wade was right and I was gay, I might admit to it under the influence. I still didn’t think I was, but I could have been wrong.

Even before Lex had taken an interest in Jennifer, back when he was with Elise, he’d encouraged me to take an interest in other girls. He wanted me to find a girlfriend. I shouldn’t get fixated on one, he suggested, when there are so many out there.

“What about Faith?” he asked.

Yes, what about Faith? She was pretty. She had a nice face, nice eyes, nice smile. We got along well. There was no reason not to like her. Except she might say yes. And I certainly couldn’t ask out a girl who might like me back. Not yet. It was too logical, rational. Weren’t there supposed to be hurdles? Weren’t you supposed to suffer before winning your love? Besides, I liked her as a friend. I’d never really thought of her in that way. I told him this.

“You should try,” he insisted.

But I couldn’t force myself to like someone, could I? That wasn’t how it worked. Still, it felt like a race in which I was falling behind. Especially since Shane Leary was getting blow jobs and I hadn’t even kissed a girl. I was beginning to feel worn down. At the first dance of the year, I’d spent most of the time hanging out with Reed, watching Caitlin Gradea with her friends across the room. She and Lance DiStefano had broken up, and this was my chance. I was working up the courage to ask her to dance, but by the time I finally did, seeking her out as the DJ played Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” I discovered she had already left. I danced with someone else instead. I was just tired of standing there alone with a stupid look on my face. I picked a girl I thought was cute but didn’t have a crush on and muttered, “Do you want to dance?” and she said yes. It was staggeringly simple. So when Caitlin Gradea approached me a few weeks later in the hall outside of orchestra and said, “I know someone who thinks you’re cute,” I decided it was time. I’d go out with whoever it was. It didn’t matter.

Naturally, I hoped she meant her, that she was talking about herself, but that went against all good sense. She wouldn’t approach me as her own emissary. That never happened. Maybe Jennifer Mills had come around and wanted me now. That was my other dream. But the two of them, Caitlin and Jennifer, never spoke. Not that I’d ever seen. Which meant it was someone else, someone I didn’t know. I was making more friends this year. I had more confidence than ever. And this was in part thanks to Lex. He affirmed that I was interesting, funny, he encouraged me to speak, and so I tired to be interesting and funny with other people. I actually opened my mouth and talked to my classmates. I got to know them, and I knew a lot of girls now. So who could it be? The Dalton twins were cute. They were in my home economics class. They sat in the back singing songs from Disney movies at the end of the day. Maybe it was one of them? Whenever we went to Willow Grove Mall, which is where kids our age hung out, Elisa brought Lana Dalton along with us. This was part of her effort to make it a foursome, and I didn’t mind. Lana was cool, easy to talk to. She was more than pretty, quite beautiful in fact, though I hadn’t taken an interest in her beyond walking the mall, pairing off with her when Lex and Elisa wanted to be alone. If it was Lana Dalton, that wouldn’t be bad. But I’d have thought Elisa would tell me. “It’s someone in choir,” Caitlin had teased. And Lana was in choir. But the pieces didn’t fit.

If I’ve elided this year, it’s because I was happy, and happiness is hard to write. I was happy with Lex and Elisa and Lana at the mall. I was happy in my classes talking to other kids. I was happy when I passed a group of students and they called out, “How’s it going, Kramer!” I was happy in home economics cooking Rice Krispie treats and listening to the girls sing Disney songs. I was even happy when Caitlin introduced me to Susan Osmond, and I realized she was the girl who had a crush on me. She was cute. Round-faced, nice smile, dark hair. But I never would have thought of her if she hadn’t thought of me. She told me she liked me because I was tall. She was tall too, and I said okay when she asked me out. We set up a double date to the movies with Lex and Elisa and planned to see CB4 at the 309 Theater Friday night. Lex and Elisa were still together, and I needed their advice.

“What if she wants me to kiss her?” I asked Lex.

“Then you kiss her.”

“Take it as slow as you need to, Jay,” Elisa said. “You like her, right?”

“I think so,” I said.

“Look, it’s not that complicated,” Lex said. “You lean toward her, tilt your head to one side, she tilts to the other, and you let it happen.”

“How do I know what side to tilt my head to?”

“She likes you, Jay,” Elisa said. “She’s not gonna care. You’ll learn.”

We had seen Chris Rock in New Jack City and Saturday Night Live, and Lex and I listened to hip hop, so we had to see it, this movie CB4. The trailer looked hilarious. More and more I liked irreverence in art. It wasn’t just Jason Kim’s sketch in our social studies class. Metal was irreverent to some extent, but my love for that was fading. I’d started to listen to hip hop while skating. I bought Das EFX’s Dead Serious and loved their tongue-twisting style of delivery. Ice Cube’s The Predator and rocked “When Will They Shoot?” without remotely being aware of the irony of a white kid in the suburbs blasting such a racially-charged anthem. I listened to the lyrics without much idea of the issues involved. All I knew was my parents didn’t want me to listen to anything with a parental advisory sticker on it. This went back to my mom reading the lyric booklet when I brought home Slayer’s South of Heaven. “Bastard sons begat your cunting daughters?” she said. “What’s kind of music is this?” Which only made me want to listen to these records more. Lex had given me Cypress Hill’s debut, and though I didn’t understand that either, I liked the beats and rhymes. My favorite song was “Hand on the Pump.” And here was Chris Rock, being irreverent about that irreverence. He was making fun of how serious rappers took themselves, satirizing the way this irreverence was sold to suburban kids like me and Lex, and we lapped it up. We cracked up through the whole trailer, though again, we didn’t understand why at the time. We just had to see it, and neither Elisa nor Susan objected.

The theater, when we arrived, was packed. Of course it was, it was a Friday night. We’d had Lex’s dad buy the tickets, though I didn’t know why. We went in and found seats and waited for the lights to come down, but they didn’t. We sat looking around, wondering when the show would start, but before it did, an usher came down the aisle and stopped at our row. He pointed to us.

“You,” he said. He waved us out. “How’d you get in here?”

“You sold us tickets,” Lex said.

“You’re not supposed to be in here. This movie’s rated R.”

I saw now why Lex had asked his dad to buy the tickets.

“You’ll have to leave,” the usher said.

I looked at the faces in the audience as we marched up the aisle. I’d never felt more embarrassed. They were all judging us. Dumb ass kids, sneaking in.

Lex’s dad had left. We were given a chance to exchange our tickets, but the only movie that hadn’t started was Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, a live-action flick about a cat and dog who get lost on a family trip and find their way home over hundreds of miles It wasn’t exactly what we hoped for, but we begrudgingly made the switch. Amidst all of this, I’d forgotten my concerns over kissing Susan. It didn’t happen that night anyway. We went to the other movie, and we held hands, which was also new for me and enough for a first date. Then, Lex’s dad picked us up and dropped us off one-by-one with me first since I lived closest to the theater. I said goodnight.

I was a terrible boyfriend. This resulted from a combination of inexperience and disinterest. I thought I could make myself like her. Lex had suggested as much, and I did like her, just not as a girlfriend. I don’t think she liked me either, not in the way I would have liked, the way I wanted Jennifer Mills or Caitlin Gradea to like me. After all, who chooses a boyfriend based solely on height? It wasn’t the most romantic thing to say I like you because you’re tall. It didn’t exactly invigorate me with passion. We played at it. We passed notes in the hall. She seemed genuinely happy to see me when we met up at lunch. And I did too. I was trying to some extent to act like Lex and Elisa. But Susan and I weren’t them. On our next date, we decided to go to the Willow Grove Mall, and Lex came with us. Lex spent most of his time talking to her while I drifted off or walked ahead of them. Susan wanted to buy the tape of this song she’d heard, which turned out to be 4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up?” So we walked to one of the music stores and she bought the tape.

I’d dodged having to kiss her at the movies, but I knew I had to do it now. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I did. I wanted to have that experience. But I was scared. I still didn’t know which way to tilt. Next to the music store was a KB Toy Store. The situation may have been more joyous if it wasn’t so obviously manufactured. If it happened more naturalistically. If it weren’t forced. If Lex hadn’t headed into the store with Susan and then left us with the obvious expectation that I would fulfill my duties as a boyfriend. Expectation made it awkward. I made it awkward. I prevaricated. I should have just took her in my arms, amidst the GI Joes and Care Bears and Legos and kissed her there. Instead it was Susan who took my hand and asked me to look at her and leaned in toward me. It wasn’t her first kiss, it was mine, so it’s likely I did something wrong. Led without opening my mouth enough. Fell out of step. Yet, she’d opened her mouth wider than I’d opened my, and I felt the lower part of my face consumed. It was damp and confusing. It was like a race where the starting whistle had blown but my opponent had gotten a head start. No amount of preexisting advice or instruction could help. This was one of those things you had to learn by doing, to practice at. As we finished an walked out, she seemed happy but muttered something along the lines of “You’ll learn,” which caused me no end of embarrassment. What would I tell Lex? Had she really needed to say that? I knew it wasn’t great. I had that urge to tell her, you weren’t so great yourself. But I didn’t.

Still, I had a girlfriend. That was the important thing. But it wouldn’t last much longer. We had one more ill-fated attempt at a kiss, and that was it. I’d been kicked out of my eighth-period French class by Mrs. Gilmore. She claimed I’d been whistling and being disruptive. But I didn’t actually know how to whistle. When I told her this, she thought I was lying and told me to go to the hall anyway. Susan was in Spanish next door and could see me standing there through the window. She asked the Spanish teacher to use the restroom and came out into the hall. The kiss went a little better this time after we’d initially clacked teeth, but not enough. It was still awkward. There was still no chemistry between us. I wasn’t going to break up with her, so she took the initiative, and even though, I knew it should have ended and the split was amicable, I was embarrassed. I asked Lex not to tell anyone. When I arrived in the lunchroom the day she broke up with me, I spotted Lex sitting at a table with Jennifer Mills and a few other girls and went and sat down.

“I’m sorry to hear about you and Susan,” Jennifer said.

I glanced at Lex and stood up. He followed me into the hall outside the lunchroom.

“I asked you to keep this quiet,” I hissed at him. “I don’t want everyone to know. Especially not Jennifer.”

I’d given up on her. But not really. I still held out hope. And having him tell her I was undesirable to Susan would only make me undesirable to her too.

“I’m sorry,” Lex said. “It’s not a big deal. It happens to everyone.”

But it hadn’t happened to him. Not yet. He and Elisa were strained. Her parents were bearing down on them hard, but they hadn’t yet broken up. I wanted to hit him. I wanted to push him away. Instead, I turned and went outside to the stairs, to the small circle of grass and trees where I’d fought Clyde the year before, the place where Lex had intervened and saved my ass. What was wrong with me? I couldn’t get a girl I liked and had to settle for one who liked me, and then I couldn’t keep her when that happened. I couldn’t kiss worth a damn. You certainly weren’t supposed to clack teeth like that. Was I doomed to be Lex’s awkward sidekick forever? Why would he tell Jennifer? Why would he go to that table and tell them exactly what I’d asked him not to? Were these the actions of a friend? And yet, I forgave him. I gave the silent treatment a few days and then forgave him. As I always would. As I forgive him now, after all these years for all the things he’s done without him ever having to ask. I forgave him Jennifer Mills. The fact he’d asked her out when he and Elisa were done. And who knows? He might have seen the end closing in and gone to the table that day with a reason to talk to her. He might have been setting his next girlfriend up, knowing he and Elisa wouldn’t last much longer. He needed a girlfriend to retain his sense of self, to provide him with stability. I wouldn’t realize this for many years, but he’d linked his identity so strongly with Elisa that he was lost without her. He needed someone else to latch onto, and Jennifer Mills was pretty and had a nice body, so he chose her. It was also why he failed to win her. He came on too strong. He declared himself, and she balked.

“But you just broke up with Elisa,” she’d said. Which was an understandable reservation. He’d moved on quickly. Instead of giving her flowers, he made a different dramatic gesture.

“You did what?”  I said.

“I called her on the phone and sang to her.”

“What did you sing?”

Butterfly by Lenny Kravitz.”

I knew the song. It was a good one. A good one for a girl.

But you can’t sing, I thought. He couldn’t even play the guitar for accompaniment. He must have done it a cappella. If I couldn’t imagine giving a girl a flower, singing her a song and doing so without a guitar strained the limits of credulity. Lex had some balls on him. He’d made himself vulnerable to her. He was making himself vulnerable to me by admitting as much. It was a ludicrous gesture. Part of me really wanted to make fun of him. He would have made fun of me in a similar spot. I didn’t doubt it. But I let it go. I respected him and the way he felt. For the time being, anyway. I filed it away to use against him later in case I needed something, in case he backed me into a corner. I hadn’t forgotten him going behind my back and telling a lunch table full of girls something that embarrassed me. I was stockpiling weapons as deterrents.

“How’d it go over?” I asked.

“I think she liked it,” he said.

Did his sister Ava approve it? Did he run it past her first? Was it romantic? I couldn’t help picturing Jennifer Mills working to stifle her laughter at the other end of the line. I was embarrassed on Lex’s behalf. If he’d run it past me, I would have advised against it. But he never would have run it past me. He didn’t think I’d know better, but I did. To play a song for a girl required a few things. I knew this from watching movies. First, you had to be there in person. You couldn’t do it over the phone. Second, you needed to play guitar. This was one advantage I had over Lex. I would also add it usually works out better if you know that she likes you in the first place. I didn’t want to celebrate openly, and I didn’t gloat, but he scared her off. His failure to win her affections or even get a date felt like a victory for me. The great Lex wasn’t all-knowing. He wasn’t a lady’s man. He was as confused as me.

We both went into the end of the year without girlfriends, which meant we hung out more frequently. The yearbooks were printed and handed out and we exchanged them. I had friends to exchange them with, people who wouldn’t just write generic things. I wasn’t popular, but I was well-known, down to earth, easy to talk to, funny. In the past few years, I’d escaped being an outcast. I’d had a girlfriend. Life was looking up. I read the messages as we passed our yearbooks around. Especially those from people I liked, people I wanted to be around. Lana Dalton’s sister Rebecca had signed the cover:

Jay, I’m the 1st person to write on the front!!! I’ll miss you but maybe if you and Lex go somewhere with Elisa & me we could do something! We have to do something! You’re the craziest guy I know. Yet one of the sweetest.

I got a lot messages from girls along these lines. Sentiments like ‘sweet’ and ‘cool.’ I took them at face value rather than reading them as more elaborate forms of “Have a nice summer!” which is what they were.

Elisa had handed me a card with Pooh and Eyore on the cover:

Hey Huge Hair, How’s it going. It’s been a cool year with you as my pal, and that’s what these cards I’m giving to people are for, but you’re one of my favorite buds. Well I hope you have a great neeto year. Love you always, Elisa

I took these words and gestures as genuine declarations of friendship. I hadn’t considered how tenuous relationships established during the school year can be. I hadn’t taken into account that the distance of summer would change things. Perhaps I could have been more assertive, asked for numbers, tried to make plans with the people I liked most. If Lex and Elisa weren’t together anymore, she wouldn’t be in my life. The girls she brought along when we hung out wouldn’t either. So much of my social life had hinged on their relationship, but I’d failed to recognize that. I thought high school was going to be amazing, that this would continue. I couldn’t wait.

During commencement, the choir sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and I felt sentimental in the way I get when I recognize something has passed, something I can’t get back, something that happens once and then never again in my life. My mother dressed me like a Mormon, but most mothers had dressed their sons like Mormons for commencement. Black slacks. White shirt. Skinny Macy’s tie. I went around hugging people and gushing about how I couldn’t wait to see them next year. But not everyone would be there. Reed was moving away. He’d attend high school elsewhere. I was losing a friend. But I couldn’t wait for summer either. I was optimistic. Baseball had started, and the Phillies were playing well and some nights we’d gather at Sonny Ford’s house to watch them. The summer wasn’t much different from the one before except in one respect.

Lex and I were sitting in my room one day playing RBI Baseball on Nintendo. Like most of the things we did, he might have won a bit more often, but the games were always competitive, and he didn’t beat me by much. We were busting on each other’s moms as we played, an established method of distraction, a way to rile the competition and get his mind off the game.

During a break between games, after I’d gone downstairs and returned with large cups of Lipton’s instant iced tea clacking with ice, Lex sat on the bed and pointed to my guitars. I had two leaning against the nook between my brother’s dresser and my bookcase. “Learn anything new?” he asked.

I’d been working on some Bowie tunes. I’d learned “Rock and Roll Suicide,” and I’d picked up some Nirvana by ear. I couldn’t play by ear naturally. It wasn’t a case where I’d hear a tune and pick up my guitar and play. But it usually didn’t take much noodling to figure out the chord progressions to most rock songs. I told him what I’d learned and picked up my guitar and showed him.

“Think you could teach me?” he asked.

I smiled and nodded, “Sure!”

In the next few years, things were going to change. A time of confusion and growth lay ahead. At the very least, the rush of optimism I felt at the end of junior high faded once I realized the friends I thought I’d made weren’t friends but acquaintances. I handed him my electric guitar and picked up the acoustic. I showed him finger exercises to get his hands loose. He practiced. His fingers moved over the frets gracefully. It didn’t take him long to learn. We couldn’t know it then, but this was one of the best things that ever happened to either one of us.

Junior High Graduation



on July 5, 2016, 3:47 pm

Jason, I can’t say it enough but thank you. This has truly been a trip down memory lane and whether good memories or bad, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your work. Most characters I know, some I had to ask about, and others I kinda don’t want to know as I have been drawn in based on your written description amd fear of I knew who the character really was it might lose something. Beautiful work.



on July 14, 2016, 2:30 pm

Great posture !


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