Freshman Yearbook

It was summertime again, the summer between ninth and tenth grade, and I was at Lex’s house taking care of his family’s cats, Bubby, Yoshi, and Mister. His family was vacationing in South Carolina, and they’d offered to pay me fifty dollars to stop by once-a-day and open up a few cans of food for their pets. It was the easiest money I’d ever made, given that the only money I’d ever made was from washing my dad’s van or other sundry chores. I wasn’t old enough to get legitimate employment, so opportunities like this would have to suffice for now. I’d been offered a job mowing my grandmother’s lawn, and I’d done it a few times, but I wasn’t consistent enough. My parents would ask me to do it, and I’d keep putting it off and putting it off until eventually my dad did it. When Drew Schiff got old enough to get working papers and land a job at the Rydal Park retirement community, he’d tried to hand off his paper route to me, but The Montgomery County Record gave the position to an adult instead, a move that caused my mother consternation. “What kind of adult takes a paper route? That’s a child’s job.” But I wasn’t upset about it. I didn’t really want to work. I wanted freedom. Yes, I wanted money too. But freedom was more important, and caring for Lex’s cats while he swam on the beach and relaxed with his mother and father and sisters was my idea of both. It was both money and freedom. Whenever I arrived, I’d feed the cats straight off. They usually greeted me at the door and rubbed against my legs, so I couldn’t have ignored them if I wanted to. But getting the work out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible so that I could relax has long been my style. And once I popped the cans of food and plopped it down into their dishes, I’d go to the living room and sit on the sofa and watch TV, or I’d go to Lex’s room and play his guitar.

Whenever I went to Lex’s, I’d walk. I liked walking the route to his house. Usually I’d take Brookdale to Rice’s Mill, follow Hewitt to TW Park and cut through the back. There was a path that led down a flight of concrete stairs to Woodland Road, which I’d take to Maple where Lex lived. The way was mostly shaded, which helped in the summer. As I went, the houses got bigger, the properties larger. My family lived in a twin with a little patch of grass for a backyard and an even smaller patch in the front, but here, in this part of Wyncote, there was room for trees to grow, and they grew out over the street, so I walked from one patch of mottled sunshine to the next, lost in a daydream. This was why I liked walking, the way I’d get lost in daydreams, the way it focused my energy, released it. Sitting at home, by myself, I’d feel so much pent up loneliness, that I had to get it out. I had to go, so I’d get up and walk, and mostly I’d walk in this direction. I didn’t care what the weather was. Sunny was fine, but rain was fine too. And on this particular day, as I reached his front door and let myself in, the sky had grown hazy, overcast. The world was green-hued through the windows, which I’d made sure to close before I left the day before. I opened them again to let the breeze in, and the air smelled metallic, the wind picking up. I fed the cats and watched out the side as the first drops spattered the driveway next to his bedroom. The pavement turned dark, and the thunder and lightning started to boom and flash in the distance.

The house where the Hayes family lived wasn’t like the others in the neighborhood. For one thing, it was smaller, modestly-sized like my own, though it wasn’t a twin. It was made of gray stone and tucked in a corner behind the nursing home, which accounted for most of the property that it sat upon. The driveway that I was watching turn from a lighter to a darker black was in fact the nursing home’s. It led to the facility’s kitchen where the dumpsters were, and every once in a while, a random car would turn in and drive up. I was glad, at that moment, that I’d made in time to avoid a dowsing, and I sat in Lex’s room on Lex’s bed, strumming the imitation Gibson ES-335 he’d purchased shortly after I started to teach him to play. When I met him, Lex’s room had been on the second floor, tucked in the back of the house. But when Ava moved out, he took hers, which was downstairs, on the eastern side, facing out on the driveway and a neighboring house’s hedges. Lex’s parents rented. They didn’t own. It was one of the first comments he’d made when he met my family and came to my house. “You guys are all right,” he said. “You always have food and you own your own house.” I let the comment pass without registry, but my mom was listening. My mom was always listening.

I based my perception of every other family in my life on my own family. I assumed that everyone’s parents were responsible like mine were. I assumed they were there for their kids like mine were. If a friend’s parents were divorced, I never considered the rift this caused in the family might be ongoing, that might friends might have suffered fallout that still lingered. I knew that divorce meant their parents lived separate lives, but I assumed there was cordiality among them. True, only two of my friends parents had divorced, Bruce Herndon’s and Rick’s. And Rick’s dad was a complete dick. But I never put it together that Rick might have suffered because his dad was a dick, not until I was older. His dad was only around once a year, usually at Christmas, and one year, when we were still in elementary school, Drew Schiff and I waited in the snow in front of Rick’s house, to ambush his father coming out. As that age we didn’t understand that Rick seldom saw his father, that taking all Rick’s time when he visited was well within his rights. All we knew was when he came to town Rick disappeared, and we didn’t like it. So we made snowballs, and as Rick’s father got into his car and pulled out, we jumped from hiding and started to pent his rental. The snow wasn’t well-packed. We weren’t likely to cause any damage. The snowballs hit the doors and windows with faint pops. But as they did, his father threw it in park and leapt from the driver’s side.

Drew was smaller and quicker than me. He dashed off. Rick’s father caught me out in front of JB Machine Works and tossed me into a snowbank. He was smiling as he did. Playful, I thought. But I was wrong. He grabbed the back of my head and thrust it into the snow and started to mash. I couldn’t breathe. He let me up for air and put me right back down. I’m not sure how long it went on. My own father came out of our house across the street, not because he’d seen it, but because he had to walk the dog. “I almost ran over to help you, but then I saw it was Rick.” (Rick, our Rick, was Rick the third, his father was Jr. and there must have been a Sr. somewhere along the line). “I figured you were just playing around,” my dad said. This was what I had figured too. Not that we were playing around, but that his dad must have known what he was doing. I’d been raised in such a way that I didn’t think an adult would intentionally hurt a child unless the child had done something wrong. And then they’d only hurt it slightly. I’d been spanked as a kid and yelled at, but never beaten. I had assumed his father was meting out a punishment. I trusted him, as an adult, to be in control. But he wasn’t. It was only years later that I’d recognize this; years later when Rick returned from Texas with stories about the things he did when he lived with his dad. There was no supervision there. He drank and did drugs. He claimed to have gotten a blowjob on a mattress in the woods. We didn’t believe him about that. But it probably happened. Though he had every reason to lie and we didn’t think that any self-respecting girl would like Rick, there were plenty of girls who might have done it. This was again something I’d only learn later. Rick was supposed to stay with his father throughout high school. It was supposed to be a reversal of his junior high days where he’d spent the school year here and his summers there. But his dad would send him back. Two years and his dad sent him back. I’m not sure the man was cut out for fatherhood. I’m not sure a man who would hit on his dead son’s female friends at the bar after his son’s funeral, using his grief as a pickup line, is cut out for much. But again, I didn’t know it then. It was only as an adult that I realized the depth of his self-involvement, how shallow he was, how he’d never provided Rick with much guidance.

Lex’s family wasn’t like that at all. His parents were together, which I assumed meant a happy home. And they were happy, for the most part. His parents loved each other. They loved their children too. But they went about this in a more lackadaisical fashion. In junior high, Lex and I had signed up to play basketball with the Glenside Youth Athletic Club. The games were held at Cedarbrook or Glenside Weldon schools on weeknights in the gym, usually around seven o’clock. We were on different teams but they’d schedule one game after the next, so we often played on the same nights. One night, after we’d played a game at Cedarbrook together, Lex’s dad had promised to pick him up. My dad was there. He’d stayed for the game, and he offered to give Lex a lift. “That’s all right,” he said, “my dad should be here soon.” So we waited to make sure. My dad asked him again, but Lex insisted, “He’ll be here any minute.” He told us we should go. My dad pulled out and left, and the next day, I discovered that Lex’s dad had never shown up. He’d forgotten about it and Lex had walked home in the dark.

It wasn’t a malicious move on his father’s part. There were just little things like that that happened periodically, things that slipped their notice. It wasn’t that his parents didn’t love him. It was simply that they didn’t have their own lives in order. They had their own level of inattentiveness that wasn’t akin to Rick’s dad. Not on any level or scale. But it still affected Lex, and they sometimes might have forgotten some of the finer points of parenting, like you don’t let your early-teenage son walk home at night alone a route where most of the roads don’t have sidewalks. As a parent now, I understand. There are plenty of things your children need done that you don’t want to do. Some parents do them anyway (mine were of this variety), some parents don’t (Sonny Ford’s were this kind), and some vacillate between the two (Lex’s parents struck me as vacillators). They were emotional people who let their feelings guide them, which isn’t always the best way to go about parenting. I’d say I didn’t notice, not at the time, but something must have registered.

When Lex got hit in the face with his skateboard, I’d told my mom that his parents were in Atlantic City. She didn’t say anything critical of them. She just looked at me. “His sister’s home and she’s eighteen,” I said. So I must have known there was something unusual about leaving your thirteen-year-old son under the care of his eighteen-year-old sister while you went off to play the slots and see a show. It’s not that the accident would have been prevented by them being home, but they would have been closer, they could have rushed to his aid and been there at his side.

Before they’d gone on vacation, they’d stopped at my house to drop off instructions and give me the key. His father was a bearded, hulking man who drove a big hulking minivan and smoked cigars. The house smelled of him, though I don’t believe he smoked in the house, or if he did, he confined it to the kitchen. He had a deep voice, intelligent eyes, and thick, fleshy lips. Lex had inherited his father’s facial features with his mother’s slimmer physique and dark wavy hair. All the children in the family had. Lex had even grown his hair out during freshman year, though it grew out differently from mine. And while the other kids called me Kramer, they called him Mushroom Head, but like me, he bore it well and took it more as a compliment than an insult. Lex sat in the back with his sisters, the sliding door open, while his mother stood talking with mine and his father sat behind the wheel of their silver Chrysler minivan. They were in our driveway.

“We just had to get away,” his mother told mine. “So we borrowed the money from Lex.”

My mom didn’t comment on this, but she was listening. She was always listening.

Lex and I had tried out for the ninth grade baseball team at Cheltenham and both made it, but Lex had quit after a few games. He got a job instead as a bus boy in a restaurant in Elkins Park. And he made good money because he worked all the time. He claimed to have thrown out his back swinging a bat, and this was why he quit, though he seemed to have no problem carrying dishes back and forth between the tables and kitchen. But this was Lex. His excuses were always thin, but I accepted them. I didn’t find anything strange about him bankrolling his family’s trip. It’s only as an adult that I can’t distinguish what’s stranger: that his parents had let him pay in the first place or that his mother didn’t find anything amiss in admitting it to another parent.

Still, I liked his family. I thought his eldest sister Ada was cool. She had great taste in music, a great sense humor, and her advice on love and girls was interesting, even if I couldn’t test its accuracy with girlfriends of my own. Abby, the next eldest, was intense. She’d sit in her room listening to Tori Amos and writing tortured poetry, but I liked her too. His younger sister Adriel was the same age as my sister Lindsay, a child, so we didn’t interact much, but when she was there, she was quiet, thoughtful. She had the family’s intelligence in her. But most of all, I admired Lex’s father. He was well-read. He knew the arts, painting, music, film. He collected African sculpture. There were art books all over their house, and I perused them while I was there. It was through him, and second-hand through Lex, that I received an education I wouldn’t have received from my own parents. When I wrote lyrics and later poems and stories, I brought them to him for critique. Since our band rehearsed at Lex’s house, his father was the first to hear our new songs. We’d practice a bit and invite him in and ask what he thought. I liked that my parents were stable, but there were things they couldn’t offer, things I found in the Hayes household that broadened my perspective, and so I took the keys, and they drove off, and I had their house to myself for the week.

It was nice to be able to get out and have some time to myself. My house was packed. There were three bedrooms. My younger sisters shared the front. My brother and I shared the back while my parents slept in the middle. I tended to be the dominant presence in my own room, but I could be interrupted at any time by my brother coming in, so I often found spaces outside the house to spend time on my own. When I was upset, I’d often go to the bird sanctuary. Just inside the entrance, there was a hill that led down to the creek, and from the creek, I’d gain access to the region under the bridge where I’d sit on a rock ledge and think, uninterrupted. I’d also use the library. I’d ensconce myself in a back corner with a book. Or I’d just walk around by myself. But now, for the week, I had Lex’s house. It was so quiet there. When I walked in the door, I closed my eyes and took in the silence. There was nowhere for me to be inside that was this quiet. I liked it. So I stayed there for an hour or two each day. I fed the cats and stayed. The only part I didn’t like was the smell of the cat food. It reeked. They didn’t always eat it all, and the leftover food clung to their dishes, drew flies. I’d rinse them out in the sink. Then I’d pop the cans and plop the food in their dishes and set them down, retreating. I liked to get out of the kitchen as quick as I could. Some days I’d nap on the couch. I liked to wake in the unfamiliar surroundings. It took a moment to recognize where I was, and I felt new. I rarely slept outside my house. Camping trips. Sleepovers. But I acted with respect toward their house too. If I took an art book out to look at, I treated it tenderly. I returned it to the place I’d taken it from, and when I left, I made sure to lock the door. I double-checked it, gripped the handle and pushed. It was a slight escape from life. It provided, for that week, space from my family. And yet, I also needed space from Lex and was glad he was gone. He’d sparked my resentment again, and again, over a girl. And again, he’d put me in a position where I couldn’t protest. Just as Elisa had chosen him over Reed, Natalie had chosen him over me.

Two things happened that summer that led to us meeting Natalie Calder. The first was that we started to play a lot of basketball with Brian Dougherty. Brian was a few years older than us. He could dunk a ball. When people came in from the city to challenge us to pickup games, he played on our side. It was hard to beat us, though city kids often thought they could, with a team made up of Brian, Sonny Ford, Drew Schiff, Lex and me. We had size and speed. Neither Brian nor Sonny were fast, of course, given their bulk. But they both had quick hands and could post up while Drew, Lex, and I dated about the perimeter and collapsed after shots to pick up the outlying rebounds. The second was that Drew Schiff had started dating Mary Hunt, who was friends with Brian’s younger sister, Nora Dougherty. When the Fourth of July rolled around, I can’t remember if it was Nora or Brian who invited us to the picnic in their parents’ backyard, but we went. They lived a few blocks from me, and I walked over alone. The McDevitt trail, a wooded path that went from the public library to the Catholic high school, led right behind the Dougherty’s property, and I took it as a shortcut. Lex would be late because he was working. And as I arrived, I noticed a cute blonde girl sitting in one of the foldout chairs that I hadn’t seen before.

She wasn’t part of the regular clique Nora and Mary went with. She struck me as different, more interesting, or perhaps that’s unfair. She struck me as more like me. More like the kind of girl I went for, though I’m not sure I can pinpoint why. Maybe how she dressed. While Marie and Nora and her friends wore department store clothes and GAP fashionables, Natalie rocked the thrift store chic that was popular at the time, especially among girls who listened to the kind of music I listened to. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam. Her tee-shirt was looser, ratty almost. Her jeans sagged at the hips. But she was cute. I couldn’t deny that. I thought that I’d already met every girl in the group. There was a plumper pretty girl named Laney who Sonny Ford was attracted to. A jock type named Marnie who Sonny would switch his affections to when Laney wasn’t interested. There was Nora, of course, who was pretty, but in a way that didn’t rouse my interest. And there was Carolyn, Nora’s next door neighbor who was quite attractive, but prim, proper. In a bookish way. She was their smart one, but didn’t strike me as having a unique intelligence. She evinced none of the quick wit, sarcastic tone or ironic detachment I expected from those whose intellects I admired. But she studied hard and got good grades. Her parents had that wholesome WASPish look, and they owned Greyhounds. Like all the other girls, she found me strange.

The things I said and did were foreign to the lot of them, which meant that they weren’t attracted to me either, and I was fine with that. I’d tag along when the group went out. Gatherings at Mary’s house. Watching a movie at Nora’s. But I always longed to be somewhere else, with someone else. They expected boys to be like Drew. He was quiet. He never made an outward show, never brought attention to himself by acting awkwardly. Whereas I, when we went bowling, had pulled the bottom of my shirt up through the top, which gave it a bikini look and I’d strutted around and made them all laugh. A few years before, I would have avoided this for fear it would look gay. But they did it on In Living Color, and I could claim that I was just imitating the show, which I was. People in other lanes were laughing as well. But after laughing, the girls blushed. They were embarrassed. They didn’t want to draw strangers’ notice for any reason while I wanted to make as many people laugh as possible, and I’d do anything I could to that end.

This perhaps was what I liked least about them. The fact that they didn’t want to laugh. Didn’t seem to like it. Or if they liked it, they were embarrassed by it later. It struck me as puritanical, overly image-conscious. They couldn’t just let loose. But here was a girl who seemed like she didn’t care. How did I know? Did I simply imbue her with this quality because of the way she dressed? Was it just that I was more attracted to her, so I thought she was different? I didn’t do it myself, dress the part. Style to me wasn’t a way to be different, different was how you thought. A lot of kids, however, were doing it, dressing a certain way to show who they were. Foremost among these, to my mind, was Susan Osmond, my eighth-grade girlfriend, who’d taken to wearing thermal long-sleeved shirts with flannel vests overtop. She was bright, a lot of people liked her, but the parts of Elton Danvers that lingered in me saw a poser. She was artsy so she dressed artsy to let everyone know and I found this pretentious.

I’m not sure what came over me, but when I saw Natalie at the picnic, I felt right away that I could get her to like me, impress her, ask her out on a date. I’m not sure why. It was like some strange certainty overtook me. I had no logical reason to believe it. But this was my night. These were my friends. I grabbed a can of soda and walked over and sat across from her. “Hi,” I said. I told her my name. We started to talk. It wasn’t like me. I was reticent around girls. I’d sit to the side and wait to be addressed. Jump into the conversation when it lagged, make a quip, and then back away, let Lex take over. Here, I went straight into it. I had confidence, and I held her attention. I was amazing even myself. I was carried away by success. She was paying attention. She smiled at me. She seemed to hang on my every word. And this success had made me even more bold. What was happening? How was I doing it? It never dawned on me that maybe this was happening because Lex wasn’t there. That the feeling he overshadowed me wasn’t objective fact, but something I’d created out of deference because I looked up to him. It would take me years to learn this, far too long. I even thought, while at that picnic, I wish he was here to see this. Then too, I hadn’t psyched myself out, which is what I’d formed a habit of doing with girls. I wasn’t expecting a girl I liked to be here. I hadn’t arrived with the intention of meeting anybody. The picnic was something to do, a social event to endure so I didn’t have to sit at home alone. I didn’t have time to overthink it, anticipate each and every word I’d say to her, try and rehearse a script I’d never be able to follow. Of course, this is when I’m at my best. My first instincts are usually good. My neuroses have long been my Achilles’ heel. Which again, it would take me far too long to learn.

After an hour, I saw Lex walk through the gate, and like a fool, I smiled and waved him over. At first, he was quiet. He let me take the spotlight. But the air had changed with him there. My confidence dropped. What if I said the wrong thing? He was quiet, but I knew he’d judge me. Especially if I screwed this up. He saw she was obviously interested. But I’d started to think, what if I make a fool of myself? I forgot that Lex had sung Butterfly a cappella to Jennifer Mills. He had willingly embarrassed himself, abandoned pride, all for a chance to get the girl. But I wasn’t able to do it. I didn’t stop talking, but I held back. And in the silence that followed, Lex began to talk. She paid attention to him. Naturally. It was how things worked. Girls liked him. He went out with them. And I asked him about it. Still, I could let him eclipse me entirely. I had too much pride. I interjected. “Have either of you seen the trailer for Forrest Gump?” This was the summer’s big picture. Ads had been plastered everywhere. They showed the commercial on TV. I’d seen a making of on HBO. They’d used a green screen to send Tom Hanks back in time. His character met Kennedy, Nixon. A common man doing uncommon things. The music was epic, sweeping, oozing all the weepy sentimental nobility one would expect from a Hollywood blockbuster, an awards season prestige picture. I didn’t know much about film at this point, but I wanted to see it.

“Yeah, it looks good,” she said.

“Wanna go!” I blurted.

This was the most awkward I’d been all evening. But I had to take a shot. Especially since I could feel her attention shifting from me to Lex. I hadn’t thought it through. And this was the one thing I should have thought through. I was fourteen. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I guess I could ask my mom to drive. This was what kids my age did when they went out. Only my dad went to bed at nine, so he could get into work by five a.m. And my mom didn’t like to drive at night. And I was still skittish about telling her that I had a date, that I liked a girl. I was still worried about having to reveal and explain my failures when they happened. If only I were two years older and could drive. I got Natalie’s number at the picnic. It should have felt like success. Instead, it felt like failure. “So I’ll see you guys soon,” she said. And it hit me that she thought we were all going together. I’d fucked it up about as well as I could. And yet, maybe not. Lex’s dad could drive us. It was only a movie. We could all three go. I could ask Lex to back off, tone it down, let me get the attention. And then I’d ask her out again, alone. Maybe we’d hang at her house. Rent a movie. I hadn’t lost hope. I could still salvage this. She liked us both, I assumed. If Lex would just back off. We talked about it, and Lex seemed t0 agree. He ran it by his dad, and I called Natalie, and we set a date for the following Friday.

And there he was again, Lex’s dad, that big barrel of a man behind the steering wheel of that minivan. Had Lex arranged it? I wonder this in retrospect. They’d gone to pick up Natalie before me. Like I was a second thought. Lex had assured me this was my show, my date. But they’d had all that time in the car for Lex to entertain her, for him to talk and show off. Did he tell her he played guitar? Talk himself up? I hadn’t brought it up. I never tried using that to get girls. Why, I didn’t know. Perhaps it stained the purity of it. It struck me that mediocre musicians always said they joined a band to get laid while real musicians simply had to play. Their instruments were an appendage, songwriting a natural extension of self. Though I hadn’t written any songs. Nothing of note at least. Nothing I’d show a girl. I mean, it was always in the back of my mind. The idea that I could impress a girl with something I wrote. But she had to be worth it. I couldn’t just say, “Hey check this out,” play a few chords, make it up on the fly. The side door slid open. I hopped in the back and already it was awkward. She was sitting next to me with Lex in the far back seat. I ignored this. But I sensed it. Already they’d formed a connection. Already my confidence was gone. He was going to get her, it was a foregone conclusion. But I couldn’t just bow down. I’d organized this. I was going through with it. So I feigned ignorance. I held out hope that maybe she still liked me. She had, hadn’t she? Before he’d arrived on the scene?

The movie was magical to me. In the years since, I’ve discovered cinema. I’ve heard all her arguments about why it’s bad. I got you. I understand. It’s saccharine. Tawdry. Melodramatic. Sentimental. It’s popular entertainment. A populist film. It was brought you by the same man who gave us the Back to the Future saga, Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It starred the guy from Big and Bachelor Party. And I absorbed it, as a fourteen year old, in the spirit in which it was made, I was the audience it was intended for. I wanted to believe that life had an overarching narrative. That there was a point, a purpose. A little boy inside me still does, I suppose. I wanted to believe that this idiot savant who got a pity-fuck out of his emotionally-damaged childhood best friend had fathered a child with her that would be exceptional rather than face the reality that she was saddling him with a child from her wilder days, borne of a completely different father, before she died of AIDS simply because he was the best available option (i.e., the most steadfast, the wealthiest, kindest).

In other words, I closed my eyes to what was actually happening because I preferred the fantasy.

I glanced over a few times to make sure Lex wasn’t holding Natalie’s hand and she wasn’t, or at least, I think she wasn’t. And I watched them on the car ride home too. Only this time, she sat in the furthest back seat with him and not with me. They were sitting close together. Too close for my peace of mind.

“What do you want me to do? She likes me,” Lex said later. “I can’t help it.”

This wasn’t later in the car after we dropped her off. I had been dropped off first. She went home in the car alone with him. This was later after I’d called and he wasn’t home and he hadn’t told me where he’d be. This was later after I’d had to wheedle it out of Abby that he’d been at Natalie’s house. And he only admitted it because I knew. Because he couldn’t dodge it. Still, I couldn’t argue against his point. She liked him. He was right. It couldn’t be helped. I was the one who’d invited him in. The one who always deferred. It was my fault. And yet, it didn’t feel like it should have been my fault. It felt like Lex had taken advantage, but I couldn’t argue this without coming off as crazy, overemotional. Lex was always doing this. Manipulating situations to his advantage. Disregarding his friend’s feeling, but since he never did so openly, I couldn’t accuse him. What was I to say? “You should have picked me up first”? “We should have dropped her off together”? Neither one would have mattered. By the time he picked her up, I was already out of the running. It hadn’t happened the night we went to the movies. It happened the instant he’d shown up at the picnic. I’d become his sidekick. The only time I’d ever taken the lead with him was when we played music. And there, at least, I maintained it. He was talented at guitar. He’d learned quickly. He was better than both Jacob DeGeorges and Tony P. His fingers were nimble. His rhythm impeccable. I’d never play with anyone who complimented my style like he did. But even with lessons, he hadn’t caught up to me. He couldn’t play the most complicated parts like I could. The summer we started playing together, after eighth grade, Smashing Pumpkins had released Siamese Dream. My favorite song was “Mayonnaise,” and Lex had purchased the songbook. The first time we’d really tried playing a song together, the first time beyond me showing him something and him repeated, we sat in my room, crouched over the tablature, him picking out the notes of the rhythm part beautifully while I played the opening solo. The fact that his fingers didn’t stumble, that he didn’t hit a false note, established the kind of trust in him I’d never had with Jacob or Tony. It was obvious Lex understood music, that he felt it, in a way they hadn’t. I didn’t have to look at him the whole time and guide him through changes. He knew the song as well as I. And when we did make eye contact, it was just to nod in acknowledgment that what we were doing sounded good, like the song on the album.

But I didn’t care about this right then. Our chemistry as musicians was developing. The music mattered, and I never would have given it up over a girl. Besides, he and Natalie didn’t last long. I’m not sure why. He didn’t offer much of explanation. But I resented him and was glad he was gone, glad he’d bankrolled his family vacation. I’d shunned him a while, a week maybe. I avoided taking his calls and seeing him. But eventually I broke down and started to talk to him again. I needed some space. Seeing him reminded me once again of how inept I was at talking to girls, but I never could avoid him for long. I always missed him. And here I was, in his room playing his guitar. I had never wanted to be him, not for a moment, but at times, I wanted to have his way with girls. I wonder why it seemed so hard for me and easy for him.

Was it simple proximity? Did having two older sisters to interact with give him his grace while I was handicapped by having two that were much younger? Then, too, I was born when my mother was eighteen. The first three years of my life were spent almost entirely with her. I held her in high regard. Did I transfer that esteem in each case to the women I set my sights on? Did holding them up that like that make them too intimidating for me to talk to at the most basic levels? I didn’t know. Back then, it was all just confusion. My mom and dad had a great relationship. They presented a working model of how I believed men and women should interact. They cared for each other deeply, and I wanted to share that with someone. But maybe high school wasn’t the time. Maybe I was asking too much. Maybe the intimacy I longed for was misplaced, and I should have gone about my search more casually. But that just wasn’t me. I developed strong attachments, not just to girls but to friends. Lex had been the same with Elisa. They’d been so in love, and when it ended, it wasn’t just painful for Lex, but for me too. I missed her. The two of them swore they’d remain friends but hadn’t, which meant she wasn’t friends with me any longer either. Over the past year, our freshman year, we had maybe said hi in the hall. But that was it. Still I knew where to find her. And once the storm had passed outside, I packed up Lex’s guitar and left.

Elisa now hung out with a new group of kids, mostly from Wyncote and Elkins Park, at the Jenkintown Train Station. I’d seen them there. I took lots of long walks back then and spotted them. They sat on the benches during the day, messing around, and I made a point to pass often with hopes she’d see me and call me over. A few times she’d waved and said hi, but I never got invited in. I suppose I could have tried and invited myself, gone to sit with them, but it wasn’t my style. I didn’t want to seem needy, like a hanger-on. To try and hang out without an invite would make me seem pathetic. Maybe not to them, but to myself. Perhaps it was just as pathetic to walk past every few days, hoping she’d see me and wave me over and let me hang out, but this was a truth I could hide from myself. And on days when I didn’t see the group, I was disappointed, even more lonely than I’d otherwise been before. I wondered where they were. I assumed they were out somewhere, doing something more enjoyable than whatever I had planned, which was usually reading a book, or playing my guitar, or sitting around at Sonny Ford’s house with Rick and Drew, staring at the TV. With Lex gone, even if I didn’t want to see him, the loneliness was worse, if only because I never felt that Drew or Rick or Sonny understood me, and our conversations were always surface-level.

The truth was I missed her. When I’d dated Susan Osmond and worried about kissing her, Lex had wondered what the big deal was. He’d told me to get over myself and go for it, while Elisa had understood how I felt. It was her way. She was bright and artistic in the same way Lex was, but she was more empathic, and I liked her for that. I’d lost that. Lex was blunt, gruff. He was sensitive to a point, but a bit more self-serving, made evident by the fact he’d hooked up with Natalie. Of course, sometimes I needed that kick in the ass. I needed someone to tell me to get over myself and take a chance. I don’t suppose I ever would have dated or kissed Susan if he hadn’t pushed me into it. And though that hadn’t changed my life, I could at least say I’d kissed a girl now, so I didn’t seem so hopelessly lost or inexperienced when the subject came up. Still, I was searching. I hadn’t kissed a girl I wanted to kiss. I mean, really wanted to kiss. A girl I’d set my sights on. A girl I felt real affection for. I wanted to be in love and have someone love me. But I didn’t know where to find it. For now, I’d settle for friendship, and so I walked past, hoping she’d see, hoping she’d draw me in.

I rarely chose the same route to the station. I figured if I came from different directions it made it look like I had somewhere to be, something important to do. If I passed through, I could say I was on my way somewhere, and if Elisa stopped me, I knew the layout of Jenkintown and Wyncote well enough that I could make something up. I could come up Glenside Avenue and cut through the park. I could swing out toward Jenkintown Road and cut back down West. When I came from Lex’s house, I walked up Greenwood. The rain had stopped by now, and this was the route I took. I turned off Maple onto Fernbrook and took that to Greenwood and made a right. I set a leisurely pace. The storm had burned off the humidity and cooled the air. I figured they wouldn’t be there today because of the rain, but since I was out this way, I might as well check. If they weren’t there, I walk back later and check again. That was always the advantage when they weren’t there, I could walk by again. Whenever I went and got spotted and said hello, I’d have to wait a few days, so I wouldn’t seem desperate, so it wouldn’t be so obvious what I’d planned.

I was coming to the intersection of Greenwood and Glenside and was just about to cross into the station parking lot when I saw a figure approaching. From a distance, I could see that this was a girl my age. She was walking slowly, and as I got close, I could see she was wet from the storm. She must have been caught outside. I grew nervous, as I did whenever I approached a girl my age. What would I do? Should I say hello and make eye contact? Should I nod and say What’s up? Should I just look straight and keep on walking? No, that was rude. There had to be some acknowledgment. So which of the other two options would I choose?

I was close enough now to see who it was, ready to pass. It was Lana Dalton. I knew that she went there too. She and Elisa were close. But I hadn’t come looking for her. I watched her approach. I’d always thought she was pretty, but something was different that day. She was soaked. Her hair lay flat against her face, and she looked at me, her eyes tender, full of a strange vulnerability. She looked weary, tired. And it wasn’t just the storm. There was something in her expression that made me want to reach out and touch her, to brush the hair back from her face, and hold her. I wanted to wrap her in my arms. My heart went weak, still. For just a moment, I found it hard to breathe. She was wearing a Tori Amos Under the Pink shirt. I noticed that. I made note of it, all the details etched in memory. She seemed to shiver through the heat, and at the moment, I’d never wanted anyone so badly in my life. Forget nodding and saying hey or even hello. I barely whispered, “Hi.” And she said it back. And with that, I was hers. She wouldn’t know it, of course, because I couldn’t tell her. But this was different from either Caitlin Gradea or Jennifer Mills. I’m not sure why these things happen or how they happen, even now at distance of twenty years. There might be a million reasons, a confluence of time and space, the right person at the right time catching the glint of sun perfectly. I can’t explain it, but at that moment, I had fallen in love.


Jonathan Wolf

on July 28, 2016, 4:32 pm

I’ll never forget the piles of dishes….
Cleaned once a month.


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