TAKE A GUY.
Let’s say he is about my age: old enough to own a place and pay almost all his bills sometimes; young enough to understand that he is not getting any younger. Add a dose of fresh alienation—not enough to be unhealthy, of course, but enough to enable him to function in a world full of imbecility and indifference and all those unattainable happily-ever-afters awaiting him on the other side of his flatscreen TV. Take this guy and give him enough stability so that he has no excuses, but plenty of alibis. Most likely, he is utterly average in every regard, except for the fact that, unlike almost everyone he knows, he is aware of it. Finally, add the oncoming collision of the big Five-Oh (When? Someday, we don’t say) and there’s no choice but to buckle up and insert all applicable clichés, complacent epiphanies and the half-earned angst that are smirking impatiently, just offstage.
It’s time to pay tribute. Yes, at this point it would seem appropriate to tip the bottle and pour out some beer for our dead homeboy. But we don’t because we are not drinking beer. Also, he is not dead, and we are not in a music video or even a bad movie, and above all, we are too cynical, self-conscious, or married to imitate such affected gestures. Unless we were being ironic, but it’s too early in the evening for that type of commitment, so we’ll stick to doing what we do best: retelling stories that never happened exactly the way we insist on remembering them. (Plus, our class couldn’t even pull it together for a formal reunion. Been there, done that, we don’t say.) No harm done, a little bullshit and bourbon on the rocks never hurt anyone. Besides, I am increasingly aware that it is because these stories are so obviously embellished that we need them to be true. Add a few hours and more than a few drinks and once again, here we are: backs to the future, looking in the mirror for someone who should be standing alongside us.
This is not exactly what they mean by flashing back, and yet I’m trying to stay in the moment, knowing I can if I try hard enough. But first I need to make sense of that old saying, how does it go? If I knew now what I didn’t know then? No. If I knew then what I did know, now? I don’t know. I’m here, but now—and not for nothing—I’m recalling the mistake I did not make, over two decades ago.
Remember Love Boat? Not the TV show, but a blunt laced with PCP, also known as angel dust. The boat. This was the holy grail of illicit drugs, and considering the fact that all drugs were illicit, period, even a dumbass underclassman knew this was Filed Under Fucked Up. I didn’t know much but I knew that alcohol was off limits, marijuana was out of the question, and Love Boat was officially off the charts. This was the stuff that longhaired actor took an accidental hit of and then quickly found himself perched on a rooftop, trying to fly (or perhaps that was the surreptitious tab of acid in his fruit punch, same difference). We saw that movie in the ‘70s and it scared us even straighter. Nevertheless, every so often when we were shooting hoop after school, some older brothers would show up, commandeer the court and show us all the things we knew we could never do. Inexorably, one of them would see us seeing them, raise his eyebrow and say the dangerous words: “You lookin’?”
Most likely, the question never presumed a possible transaction, and was more an offhand (but not ironic, because nobody knew what irony was at that age) way of reminding us, at once, who they were, who we were, and most significantly, who we would never be. But some other kids were in on the action; they had to be. Why else would we constantly be on the receiving end of these perfunctory solicitations?
Eventually, we agreed that it could only be one group of unusual suspects: the freaks. Older students, the rock concert t-shirt wearing army of outcasts; the rebels who at one time had been athletes, or nerds, or drama dorks, and then popped through the pimple of post adolescent purgatory and found themselves born again as deadbeats. The ones, we belatedly recognized, who saw through the self-immolation of Izod shirts and feathered hair, the ones who shirked intramural activities and the safety of numbers, the ones who could no longer belong to any Key Club that might accept them as members. The ones who never even got hassled by the jocks because they simply were not worth the aggravation; a cafeteria-style ass kicking would not earn a striving sophomore any status. These were the guys, everyone knew, who dared to flick their middle fingers at student governance, decorum and the future: they were going nowhere and seemed to be in a real hurry to get there. These were the ones, we decided, who had the audacity, when the brothers asked if they were looking, to say yes.
Just say no? Remember, this was a world before computers and consoles and cell phones and even CD players. Not an innocent era, by any means, but a time when some of us read books because we couldn’t think of anything better to do. A time when growing pains were the physical kind and the one thing everyone agreed upon was that we couldn’t get older quickly enough. A time, most likely, that comprised the formative years so many adults feel an almost unbearable longing for, mostly because whatever it is they were feeling can’t ever be felt that way again. Sentimental? Shit, I still find myself craving the same things I hoped for then: a pretty girlfriend (remember going steady?), a decent report card (also known as a performance review), to be considered cool by the types of people who are considered cool, and mostly to be accountable, at last, and free to do whatever the hell I want when I grow up. Someday.
We didn’t know how much we did not know, but we knew what everyone else seemed to understand. Such as, the U.S.A. could kick some Soviet ass if it had to (ask Rocky IV), that God existed (and, assuredly, was a Capitalist God), that he who dies with the most toys wins, and we all knew exactly what we’d become after graduating from our first- or second-choice colleges: some of us would be practicing L.A. Law, some of us would be sporting Top Gun bomber jackets, some of us would get wealthy on Wall Street, and the rest of us would have the old-fashioned types of jobs that you could actually describe in one or two words. What we were not going to be was forgettable. We did not know where we were headed, but we were emboldened by an instinctual understanding that our parents’ wallets would insulate us from too much reality, or at least break our fall if any of us tripped climbing up that American ladder.
Not quite everything we believed turned out to be wrong, and life is usually kind enough to wait a while before it reveals some of the answers to questions you never knew needed to be asked. But even before graduation we were disabused of at least one illusion that took us down a notch or two: it wasn’t the freaks who dared not to just say no, it was us.
Not me, you understand. I was too chickenshit, or at least too Catholic, to dabble in the dust, and while I reckon there was a vague contentment underlying that decision, I am even more relieved, looking back. See, I went to college, and I saw the reefer (smoked it too), smelled the ‘shrooms (ate them too), saw the unsnorted remnants of white powder under the noses of blissed-out fraternity brothers (fortunately for all involved, I did not have the funds for that type of fun). And, obviously, the alcohol. None of us were ever the same after those first dozen or so hangovers: no matter what it dished out, we kept going back to the unwell, looking for something to…what, exactly? Provide pleasure? Instigate adventure? Derail inhibition? Seek fleeting solace from the cold, cruel world? Sure, all that crap, but something else as well. There is a reason the most expensive advertisements are still allowed to promote an activity that kills more kids each year than any boogeyman on amphetamines—or Nancy Reagan for that matter—could ever conceive in their darkest dreams. There is something that alcohol almost, but never quite, delivers, that keeps everyone in the game. Just like back in the day, there’s safety in numbers, and it would sure seem Un-American to cast aspersions on something so many people need to believe in.
Nevertheless, I saw a handful of buddies brought low, churned up and rehabbed before they turned twenty-one, and every year at least one friend or acquaintance finally finds something else to look forward to on Friday afternoons. What I’m saying is, I’m lucky. Because I never pushed my luck and ended up biting something that bit back and wouldn’t let go. But if I knew then what I know now, I may have unwittingly joined a few of the guys—who got better grades than I did—when they took trips across town in a borrowed car.
Get this: not only were some of the guys we knew in on the action (and for the record, as far as they knew the freaks never touched the stuff—more irony wasted, like everything else, on the young), their escapades were abetted by a teacher. Put another way, a teacher at our school was paying them to make drug runs. To an adult, today, this shouldn’t seem shocking; indeed, it is practically expected. But that is only because we are too well acquainted with irony, which merely proves that we no longer have the capacity to surprise ourselves, if we ever did.
In any event, it turns out that the mastermind of these Love Boat runs was quite possibly the least likely culprit and therefore (in hindsight?) the most obvious. Mr. X., as he was not known, since this is not his name, was at the time—and still, in my mind—ageless, simply an adult, although he could not have been much older than thirty. If this story were depicted in a movie, the car the kids borrowed would have been nice, perhaps ironically nice, instead of the unremarkable piece of shit it actually was. And, crucially, Mr. X. would be played by George Clooney, or a lesser star that still emanates the slick celluloid charisma no real people can ever obtain. In the movie, the teacher would have a tragic flaw: a college football injury that derailed his obvious path to the pros, or some type of self-loathing resulting from a dark secret that he finally confronts in the end. Or something similarly redemptory, and ridiculous. In truth, Mr. X. was a mess—not quite morbidly obese, but working on it with the inimitable dedication of a junk food enthusiast. To look at him, even then, it seemed exceedingly improbable that he was once a varsity wrestler (in another state, in another world) and an offensive tackle. Well, it was a little easier to imagine him as an offensive tackle. And he had the pictures to prove it. Nonetheless, those days behind him, he had really gone to the (hot) dogs, a second-rate high school jock who had peaked at age seventeen, then metastasized into a third-rate high school geometry teacher. At least, looking back, he’d had the educational upbringing (in another state, in another world) to have sufficiently mastered mathematics. Today, after TV and YouTube had their way with him, he would have been fatter sooner, and the best he could have hoped for was teaching P.E., although (again, ironically) the gym teachers are in better shape today than they were then. Hopefully they are dressing better as well.
Even today, it’s difficult to determine which revelation is the most unsettling: that one of our boys was casually smoking Love Boat with older, cooler guys (it was enough that, as a junior, he could hang with the senior wrestlers, the ones who walked through the locker room like Greek gods with acne), that he could dabble without fear of addiction (he could hit it and quit it, precisely what the rest of us, with our after school special sensibilities, were terrified of being unable to do), or that the assistant wrestling coach, and teacher (!), was a more than recreational user. He was crazy, and brazen, enough to loan his car, and his funds, to a group of varsity lettermen so they could cross the bridge into D.C. and get the goods. Or maybe they snuck right across town, in broad daylight, to the basketball court, near a neighborhood that was verboten even before rap music, MTV and guns were invented.
You know how this story ends: nothing happened (wait for the movie). The star athletes went off to school on scholarships and our boy, we assumed, grew out of his bad habit or, with his willing accomplices removed from the scene of the crimes, had no one to instigate further misdeeds. At least that was the way it seemed, until he stopped coming to school. Mr. X.? Long gone; no idea where, not even worth Googling. Besides, unless he found Christ or Jenny Craig, the smart money says he’s currently kickin’ it in his oversized coffin. Full disclosure: it’s not his fault that I never understood parallelograms or gave a good shit about the Pythagorean Theorem (remember that? Me neither), but he certainly didn’t do much to stem my apathy.
In any event, everyone had plans before graduation; everyone had plans for after graduation as well, but that’s a different story altogether. Some of the guys were still pilfering liquor from their parents’ supply—that eternal fountain of youth; some guys (the smart ones, the lucky ones) were still trying to get laid for the first time before high school ended. Allegedly, some of them succeeded. Some people were busy doing whatever it was everyone did before you could live your entire life online. The rest of us, bored and boring, not knowing enough to be careful what we wished for, felt begrudgingly grateful to stand on the ostensible threshold of adulthood. We posed for pictures, we put on the caps and gowns, and eventually, inevitably, we strolled across that stage.
But one of us wasn’t there that day: our boy, who need not be named, and in the interest of fuller disclosure, was only on the periphery of my circle (mental note: that would need to be addressed in more detail for the movie), did not appear in any of the pictures. As it happened, he’d made the transition from underling to ringleader without too much difficulty, and dove headfirst down that rabbithole. Those of us who weren’t doing the things he shouldn’t have been doing were just as surprised as everyone else when he vanished overnight, like one of the Communist Dissidents we had read about. While we were mostly content to snatch the occasional beer from our parents’ stash, his folks had already put him on double-secret probation for acts we never knew about. And so one day, just like that, he was gone. We later learned he’d been sent to one of those discreet asylums that only upper-middle class parents and pop stars from the cover of People magazine can afford.
Nobody acknowledged it as we clowned around for the cameras, but his absence was unavoidable, a blemish on our collective accountability. Our friend wasn’t there, but he was with us, his story an uncomfortable reminder of how human we actually were. By not being there, he was ensuring that none of us, in the name of good dumb fun, became unwitting apprentices to the Sorcerer who preys on impressionable punks. That eternal trickster, offering a free line of credit (called Experience) that is recouped later by its alter ego (called Regret), always with interest accruing at the speed of stupid. Overflowing with post adolescent pride, we believed we had stared down this malign specter that, with one angel-scented spell, might have sent us careening into an early adulthood. Or, even worse, some of these lives none of us would ever have imagined ourselves growing into.