I GET FLASHES some days of high school, especially freshman year, and though I have no real grasp of what happened, being fourteen and all, the memories, even the most incorrigibly banal, are always coupled with locker-room scenes of camaraderie between coaches and their star athletes leaving the rest of us out. It was an unstable atmosphere, a place where someone might whip you with a towel he’d been wearing like a crepe around his waist, or knife forward for no reason while you changed. As one year piled onto the next and the apparently life-and-death attachment to who’d won what game and what so-and-so’s stats were continued to grow, I found myself seeking out new friends.
Looking out over the cloudy sea of naked boys washing and changing, the most promising candidate – ignored like myself in the locker-room scrum though he was tall and athletic – was also the most perplexing. His name was David Marks, and while we never spoke, I’d seen him around for years, hurrying into his jeans after gym or wandering in a semi-detached way down Sixteenth Street towards home.
He was handsome with a longish dribble of stringy hair, but there was something indirect and already refracted about him. As if he were getting around by secret paths while the rest of us walked the main road from classroom to classroom. This was high school I told myself, a brave new world where anything could happen, and was so convinced I needed a friend, I set out trying to calibrate just how strange he really was. I approached a pale-faced kid named Lenny who had known David Marks well in middle school.
“Don’t bother,” he told me.
“The kid is crazy.”
“What, you can’t tell?” Lenny’s eyes were black and exhausted. We were around the corner from our Quaker school, Friends Seminary, on Rutherford and Sixteenth in downtown Manhattan, and I had to step over some dead birds.
“I guess I noticed he has trouble walking in a straight line.”
“I walked to the train at Union Square the other day. I was right behind him. He was zig-zagging all over the place.”
Lenny gave a tired little laugh. “That’s the least of his problems.”
“What do you mean?” Lenny looked around us in a sort of criminal fashion, then mimed someone smoking a joint.
“Yeah, his dad is some big dealer.”
“He sends him packages.”
“Got him hooked.”
“Can you really get hooked?”
“Then he got thrown in the slammer.”
“Yep. So now he doesn’t have his fix anymore.”
“Explains a lot, right?”
“But don’t ever ask him about his dad.”
“He goes nuts.”
Armed with this information, I took the long walk back to English. The classroom smelled like something hidden away fermenting, and all the kids had shiny fall clothes. There were several new girls this year, most of them named Sarah, with black or brown hair falling down their backs. My favorite of them wore hers a bit shorter, brushed back behind her ears. Once I’d asked her a question about homework and watched her eyes grow wide, wondering, I imagine, what sort of marginal figure I was to think she’d have a word for me.
There was a new teacher this year, with a Greek last name, and I liked to hear her talk. I’m not sure I understood everything she said, but it felt like some kind of communion, just listening. We were finishing Joseph Conrad’s story “The Secret Sharer” about a young sea captain’s first command on a commercial boat near Thailand. On his night watch, he spies a naked swimmer approaching and lowers the ship’s ladder. The swimmer is Leggatt, and he’s just escaped his own ship, Sephora, where he’s been locked up for killing an insolent crew member. The captain and Leggatt have similar backgrounds, both upper middle-class, and both went to a school called Conway. The captain feels an immediate sense of kinship with the naked man, hiding him in his quarters below deck.
The captain goes to extremes to keep Leggatt from being discovered, even stowing him in the bathroom during a boarding by the Sephora’s captain. As the days pass, the captain finds himself referring to Leggatt as his double or other self. When he manages to steer his ship close enough to land, and Leggatt finally swims off, the captain looks over the side to see the place where, “the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.”
I found some of the language confusing, especially the descriptions of water where it seemed to represent the unconscious, the Captain pulling Leggatt out of it in a way that mimicked birth. Was Leggatt real, then, or had the captain pulled him up out of his own mind?
For some reason when the teacher, the Greek woman, talked about it, the answer didn’t seem to matter. I could feel the wetness blowing in, the tall ships weaving through the fog, traversing the shallows blindly, until I was there in the Gulf of Siam under the scallop moon with my pipe and the nighttime smell of oxidizing rust. All was quiet until I felt a sudden tugging at the rope ladder. Pulling it up, I discovered, not Leggatt naked in the metal shadows, but David Marks.
I shook myself out this reverie of waves and desolate beaches just in time to see the teacher write, in chalk, the word: Doppelgänger.
Someone raised a hand. “Ms. Moustakis?”
“What does that word mean?”
“Doppelgänger, right. It’s a compound word, a lot of German words are. Literally, it means something like ‘Double Walker’ or ‘Double Goer,’ But usually it’s meant to refer to an alter ego, a spirit double, a mirror image.”
I made my approach some days later, out on Sixteenth Street. David Marks seemed to be away somewhere dreaming when I called out for him to wait up. He watched me, eyebrows raised with the possibility of danger, as I introduced myself. Up close, I could see how skinny he was, almost frail. Otherwise, we were similar in appearance, both approaching six feet with wavy brown hair, blue jeans and old tennis shoes. He offered me a Kool menthol cigarette and announced that he’d, “Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter.”
“Did you just make that up?” I asked.
“So you write poetry?”
“Yeah, I do.”
We were walking and talking now, two teens discussing creative matters. “So, who do you like? I need to read more poetry.”
“Dylan Thomas. Dostoyevsky.”
“Oh yeah? Did he write poetry?”
The next day, I found a smileless David Marks hunching over to light one of his Kools in Stuyvesant Park. His eyes were black and brown, and he didn’t stir at all when I sat. In fact, he was so rigid and dark, I wondered if he wasn’t trying to cast some kind of spell. Abruptly, he suggested I try out for the school play with him. “What play is it?” I asked, watching tears stream from his eyes as he inhaled, the smoke white as stone in January.
“Look Homeward, Angel,” he said. “I’m going out for the lead.”
“Maybe I will,” I said finally.
“Not for the lead though.”
“No, of course.”
David Marks nodded his appreciation and offered me a cigarette. It was a new thing, to be able to leave school at lunch, between periods, and sit in Stuyvesant Park where the older kids went, even in the worst snow and rain, to smoke. They’d mingle under an overhang of elm trees where the drooling methadone patients from Beth Israel hospital also liked to congregate.
A few days later it was time for tryouts. I was relieved to find I was not a very good actor, and just as I’d hoped, got a bit part. David Marks, on the other hand, came alive as Eugene Gant. There was something of the conjurer to his performance, some sleight of hand. Without deliberately trying, he simply became this young man growing up in the South, all slender and sunken and reflexively youthful, sucking in the air around him and swallowing the atmosphere whole, still wanting more, the energy at the heart of the planet.
He got the lead; I got the part of a country doctor who delivers an unrealistic soliloquy about the nature of mortality, and soon the whole play was cast. Rehearsals took place in the old Quaker meeting house sagging into our school on its windward edge. The place had been built in 1860 and deserved to be a museum, all Palladian arches and teetering wood benches, but we were allowed to practice there, sent in every day after classes.
The first problem with David Marks, the first moment of proof that we were not all working in concert, was five days into rehearsals when he threw down his script and headed for the door. Then for some reason, on the way out, it occurred to him to dive under a row of benches and stay there instead. Was it some sort of actorly prank? Some prima donna maneuver?
We called to him to come back and keep going, not to give up because he’d flubbed a line, whatever the cause of the tantrum had been. We went on with rehearsals, the drama teacher volunteering her services to differing degrees of success until, not, as we’d hoped, David Marks responded by re-joining us. Rather, he peered over one of the many tall gray benches and addressed me.
“Can I still sleep over at your house tonight?”
I’d forgotten we’d made plans.
“Only if you come out from there and rehearse with us,” I yelled back.
Though this looked to be an almost biblical act of treachery to him, he climbed out and joined us, quickly finding the underpinnings of his character and filling the wooden room with echoes while outside the methadone people inhaled the cold.
The weeks went by and we shuffled through the spaces between classrooms, done up fancy with plaster beams and cinderblocks, from cube to cube until the next David Marks’ problem popped up. It turned out, for reasons known only to him, he’d sold some sophomores and juniors oregano, claiming it was marijuana.
The older boys, to whom he’d sold the spice, had some others from our grade set up a parley at Lenny’s apartment. David Marks showed up. Perhaps it was an act of masochism. Perhaps in some box in his mind, he’d come to see himself as a successful entrepreneur. Keeping the family business alive. He was ambushed by the angry customers, gentle potheads, no doubt, who in the sudden absence of anything smokeable had lost all patience and turned away from the rambling old rituals of Quakerism.
Even after this bashing, David Marks seemed only doubtfully chastened. He persuaded me I had to read On the Road, from which he sometimes delivered lengthy recitations about how “all he did was die.” This seemed to happen especially frequently when he was “down in Denver.” After that, it was Crime and Punishment and that name Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. I’d hear him whispering it, just the name, as he skulked around the courtyard or the meeting house pews.
I read both books over Christmas break. Then I began to wonder. Had he wanted me to see some part of him in Dean Moriarty? Some mirror of our relationship in Dean’s with Sal? Was it some sort of test? As I found myself struggling with the multiple powerful abstractions of Dostoyevsky’s story, the death drive, the disease-like savagery of nihilism and power and rationality, I wondered was David Marks trying to indicate he was Raskolnikov?
We went to a Quaker retreat in upstate New York to learn about leadership. I knew the place well, Powell House, its crumble of winter-green trees and dusk-gray outbuildings. I’d been going there since I could walk. When a party of boys went off to play football in the snow, I made for the library. There, I’d always look for In Watermelon Sugar, because I liked the cover. Richard Brautigan seemed like a kindly man and reminded me of the comedian Gallagher who, oddly enough, was always smashing watermelons on stage. But what was Bruatigan doing there on the front cover of his own book, leaning back in shadow next to the beautiful hippie girl with such perfect shoulders and questing eyes? Looking off perhaps to the wild, alien mountains beyond iDEATH, the central house of the commune where his characters live and work, where each day brings a new color of sun and with it a new color of watermelon?
Why had he named the house iDEATH, I always wondered. Did if refer to some kind of ego death? A lowering of the potency of the line between self and other? Perhaps it was something like what happens with Leggatt and the captain in the Conrad story? When the captain recognizes the missing boundary between them, he says that if someone were to “catch sight of us, he would think he was seeing double, or imagine himself come upon a scene of weird witchcraft; the strange captain having a quiet confabulation by the wheel with his own gray ghost.”
I was lost in thought when some kids came running in, faces alight, hats and gloves fringed with snow, to tell me David Marks had attacked someone on the playing field. Apparently, he’d been smoking his Kools and watching the other kids skid around in the snow when he’d torn onto the field and tackled a mild-mannered kid from New Jersey. Jammed together in the white and ice, David Marks landed on top and reigned down blows for several moments before anyone recovered from their shock enough to drag him away.
All I remember is the snow, the sweep of it, and our footprints corroding the whiteness as we walked together. We sat down on some fallen logs, scraping the snow off first, and David Marks was soon engulfed in a hazy cloud of menthol.
“Why’d you do it?” I asked.
“I didn’t like his face.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. He just looked stupid.”
“But you can’t…”
“You get in a lot of fights, huh?”
“But I mean, I know how to fight.”
“My dad taught me.”
I found myself searching his face for some kind of tell, sensing we were in the presence of something real, something stronger than the two of us together, the stories boys told one another, something framing us there – my staring, his furrowing – in ways we couldn’t see or understand.
He went on to regale me with stories of his father. How he had fought off certain death many times in the forest. How he could put you in a stranglehold no one could escape from. How he had cured himself from tetanus by drinking vodka and gasoline. Not only had his father accomplished these feats, he was also a poet and an avid reader.
“What kind of stuff does he read?”
“You know. Dylan Thomas. Kerouac. Dostoyevsky.”
“Kinda like you.”
I didn’t know much about psychology, but I knew David Marks was not in a place of good mental health. You didn’t just attack other kids for no reason. Of course, my only basis for comparison were the other students, the jocks and the teachers who encouraged them. And they, in fact, did attack other kids for no reason. Either way, it was clear we were in sensitive areas here, and I should never have done what I did next. But in my clumsiness, emotional, social, and so on, I’d come to sense in this moment that I had the upper hand and decided to strike out. Some kind of exuberance had overcome me in feeling superior at last, and I wanted to turn the tables.
Throughout our weeks of lopsidedly discussing Crime and Punishment, it had grown clear that David Marks had never read the book. The fact that he went on recklessly discussing structure and detail with me when he’d only read what it said on the back of the book finally got to be too much. I was aware of a strange mixture of anger and adrenaline as I quizzed him on the book.
“So why does he kill the pawnbroker?”
“Oh, yeah, well he… um. I guess he…”
“Or what about Razumikhin? What’s his deal?”
“And why is Lebezyatnikov always spouting those crazy theories?”
I went on until it was clear to him that I knew he hadn’t read it. But in prodding him so closely to the truth, without realizing it, I opened myself up to a subtle counter-offensive. The snow around us flickered with a sour milk tint off his dull skin as he told me he’d heard some of the Sarahs in our grade talking. One of them, who combed her black hair back over her ears, thought I was cute.
“Are you sure?”
It was a statement too far beyond the pale for me to truly believe.
“Yeah. I was over at Khalil’s and she was there. You know because, she and Eleanor went to Little Red together.”
“Yeah. And they were talking about who was cute, you know, and your name came up.”
I let the words slide off me but failed to notice his sloping shoulders, the shape of the lie enfolding me.
Through the rest of the weekend I tried to negotiate a context, perhaps in some dusty old room, perhaps under the enormous winter sky, in which to talk to Sarah. Hands in pockets, striking a hopefully dignified pose, I wandered the sterile chambers. I’d never asked a girl out before, and the longer I waited, the more impossible it became.
It was only when I got home Sunday night that, through some fuzzy bloom of logic, I decided to grab the phone and call her around 10 PM. Her mother’s voice was crisp, anxious, but she delivered the receiver to her daughter.
It went poorly. I asked if she could go out Friday. She said, “No, I’m babysitting.”
“What about Saturday then?”
“I have to rearrange my sock drawer.”
“But I’m flattered, really,” she said sleepily.
All the while I was hearing not two voices, but three. Hers, and two of my own. The one speaking sounded utterly absurd, and the other one was making that fact very clear for me. I was still holding the receiver, still hearing her voice, but I knew David Marks had made it up. This was him making a fool of me for asking him about Crime and Punishment.
Afterwards, lying in bed, I thought of all kinds of slick and charming things I could have said to Sarah and hated myself more.
The following Monday, waiting for history class to begin, I told David Marks quite dramatically that I knew what he’d done and didn’t find it funny at all. My words bounced off of him. He cleared his throat and played with the peach fuzz over his lip, trying to hide his amusement, looking more and more like some sort of winking fortune-teller.
“How would you like it?” I pressed on. “If I’d done it to you?”
“I wouldn’t care.”
“Yes, you would. You’d probably try to beat me up, right?”
“You and your father.”
“With his vodka and his gasoline.”
After half a minute or so of silence, one in which he seemed to be lost, David Marks threw a half-eaten banana across the room. It hit a girl named Vanessa. She sat there in soft confusion, eyes spreading around the room like nerves, until they came to rest on David Marks. He just stared straight ahead at the long, chalk-grained blackboard.
“Did you just…?” She began.
David Marks stayed there without a single vibration, all motion suppressed, just a tiny confidence man’s grin embroidered on his cheek. Vanessa picked the banana off her shirt and raised it aloft like an artifact to show the history teacher. There was something seraphic and floral, motherly I suppose, about the teacher that went away entirely in that moment.
Fixing David Marks with a stare that seemed to pull him down and along the floor, she said, “Get out. Immediately.”
I watched his back, whitened with a reflective t-shirt, it was so bright, as he left. Across the room, Sarah flashed me a cruel, almost beast-like look, as if some change had come over her. Once or twice, during the rest of class, I caught strobes of animal red in her eyes as well as Vanessa’s and even the teacher’s, as if David Mark’s throwing the banana had brought us to the threshold of some unintended jungle.
No one was particularly surprised when David Marks was expelled some weeks later. For the decisive stroke in his final act, he threw a lit match at a kid in front of Ms. Moustakis, then got caught cheating on a Spanish test a few hours later.