(This essay originally appeared in Whale Magazine. It was intended to be a series, but that didn’t come to fruition. This is the first essay in the series. Others were written and will appear here soon. – Ed.)
I could start this at my birth, but that isn’t where it really begins. So I’ll give you the short version of the early history, leaving out just enough so you can’t pretend later that you’re Freud and make an Oedipal complex where none exists, okay?
My parents got divorced when I was six, and it didn’t bother me. Honestly, there was no confusion about what was happening. It just didn’t make a whole lot of difference – my mother was going to live somewhere else, and I would see her on the weekends. No biggie. She cried, but we didn’t. It’s not that we didn’t care, it’s just that, for me at least, it was a change in living arrangements, and not really the end of anything. My mom ended up working at some English pub not far from where I was growing up, and my dad would drop me off there on Friday nights. These days, it might be considered odd, but back then no one really thought it was strange (and if they did, they never said anything to me about it). I really loved that place. I got to know all the strange and lovable characters there, and I learned a lot. I learned how to work, I learned how to throw darts, and I learned how it is that drunkards live. Not a bad education for a seven year old.
The rest of the next six years, well, I’m pretty sure they were standard issue years. You know what I mean, the kind of years where your dad marries some crazy woman who takes the house away – twice – and your brother decides to become a career alcoholic party animal who never gets his life together.
Yeah, I’d say it was a normal childhood.
But never mind all that. Fast forward to age thirteen, because this will explain so much more about where I’m coming from.
I was a weird kid. I said and did and felt things that others didn’t. I was dramatic, you could say, but not in some drama queen kind of way; I mean that everything seemed magnified to outsized proportions. Couple that with moving to a new school in eighth grade, in an affluent suburb, and you have all the makings for a good coming-of-age outcast story. Except this wasn’t such a great story to me. I was a long-haired rocker kid who wore to school Bon Jovi and Pink Floyd shirts to accompany a pair of ripped jeans, and I hated everyone within a mile of me.
Okay, “Enter Sara” is unfair. It makes you think she’s the centerpiece of the beginning of my story, but she isn’t. She’s a side character, but she’s also a catalyst. See, Sara was one of the semi-popular girls a grade below me, and somehow we ended up “dating” in December. I don’t know why we’d even call it that, because it was one of those childish two-day things where we talk on the phone a few times and that’s it. It was unmemorable, even. Literally. I don’t remember much about it. I do remember, however, that a couple of days after we broke up, one of her friends passed by me in the hallway as I was on my way to the bathroom. She had some choice words for me. Rather, a specific, single choice of word.
Well, then. Looking back, I probably was an asshole, but I couldn’t exactly say why this particular colorful noun was being hurled at me at this moment. No matter, as such insults in my direction were common for one reason or another. As I said, I was kind of an asshole.
In February, I found myself before the entire school, a microphone stand in front of me, and eleven other students sitting behind me. I was putting forward the only skill I had at the time: my vocabulary. A spelling bee was taking place, and I was kicking ass.
At least, I was until the following sentence came out of the proctor’s mouth: “We will now change out this word list for a higher difficulty list.” I paced a few steps away, then back. It was still my turn, but my heart was racing. I wasn’t about to let these rich-kid little pricks who couldn’t tell the difference between S.E. Hinton and their elbow beat me at something like words. Fuck that. But I was worried; higher difficulty meant I might lose my lead. From my literary grasp of vocabulary came such an elegant word to express my fears; I uttered it quietly, though I was still standing at the microphone, so it was heard by the whole auditorium.
A gale of laughter burst from the first six rows. And sitting in the first row, with eyes like heaven and laughing with adoration in her smiles was the very same girl who hurled a verbal bomb at me in the hallway only two months earlier. I was captivated by how beautiful she was just then, my head reeling from the difference between this creature I saw so rosily now and the venomous bitch I met in the hallway.
I was so entranced that I just smiled at her.
“Hey, it’s Sara. Do you have a minute?”
We were still friends in the couple of months following our uneventful breakup, including after the expletive-filled spelling bee, which I went on to win. The principal had even joked that I was being disqualified because of the no-no word I used. Sean, my friend who had been sitting towards the back of the auditorium, hadn’t even heard it; he thought I farted on stage.
“Yeah, sure. What’s up?”
“It’s my friend, Meredith,” she replied. “She thinks you’re cute. I was wondering if it would be okay if she called you.”
I was red-faced, even over the phone. In my youth, I’d had lots of girlfriends, mostly short little ditties that lasted a few days, but I still was embarrassed by all the attention, which was far more plentiful than it is these days. My cheeks would bloom roses whenever someone said I was cute, even through hearsay, and even if no one was looking.
Or if I didn’t know who it was who held such an opinion.
“Um. Cool… but who’s Meredith?” I asked, and rather sheepishly my face flushed with more heat, because I felt bad for not knowing my secret admirer. Sara, however, was quick to remind me with a single word: “Asshole.”
“Ohhhh,” I said, recognizing the reference: the really cute girl who laughed and smiled at me swearing in front of the entire school. “She wants to call me? Doesn’t she think I’m an asshole?”
“She did,” Sara admitted, “but I guess now she thinks you’re cute. So? How about it?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?” After all, what could go wrong?
Meredith and I started talking on the phone two days before Valentine’s Day. The next day, I asked her to be my girlfriend. Kids can be impulsive, and even though we only talked for two days, I was smitten. We seemed to have quite a bit in common, liked some of the same music, and found the same things funny. It seemed like a natural fit. Thus we began “going steady” on February 13. Looking back, it seemed kind of unlucky.
Our first “date”, such as it was, started off with babysitting. She invited me over to where she was watching a neighbor’s kid, and I walked three miles from my house in Randolph to hers in Mendham. We spent the day together, and there was a lot of making out going on (while the kid was napping, of course). Then we walked around the neighborhood together, stopping frequently to make out some more (I sure was a big fan of making out), and eventually I walked her home, where I met her parents.
Her folks were nice enough, but it became clear to me that I wasn’t the boyfriend they had in mind for their daughter. They were pretty well off as a family; big house, professional jobs, lots of money. I lived in a small apartment with my dad, I had long hair and didn’t wear name brand clothes. I was from the wrong side of town, as they saw it. Though they were never rude or mean to me, I could see on their faces that they didn’t entirely approve. I gave her a kiss goodbye, and headed home.
We talked on the phone every day and every night, and sent tons of notes back and forth all day in school. She would leave them in my locker and I would leave replies in hers. If we passed each other in the hallway, there were quick kisses; we were the only couple in school so publicly affectionate, which probably embarrassed her, but I loved it. She was beautiful, and I was proud to be dating her.
My dad would sometimes take us out to do stuff. We did blue collar things she never did before, like bowling, and one night my dad and his girlfriend took us to Medieval Times. When our knight came by looking for a “fair lady” to receive a rose from him, I made sure she was picked. She was all smiles.
After a couple of months had passed, I was certain she was the one, as certain as any fourteen year old can be when he doesn’t know anything about love. I quietly asked her if she’d be my fiancée. Yeah, I was that lame. And if that weren’t hasty enough for two kids, we also decided our romance would be better off if we lived on our own. Meredith had a friend who lived in New York who could help get us started; I knew how to get there on the train, so we hatched a plan to run away together.
When the big day arrived, she packed her bookbag full of things she’d need, and I prepared a suitcase. After school, she cajoled the bus driver in to letting her on my bus. We got off at my stop, to catcalls and snickering from the students; well, fuck them, we’d never have to see them again. We got to my apartment, adrenaline pumping, ready to do the unthinkable. Sure, we hadn’t thought things through. We had barely enough money to even make it into the city, much less survive once we got there. But the plan was in motion, and nothing was going to derail it now. Even if we were having second thoughts, neither of us said anything to the other.
At about the time we should have been leaving – about fifteen minutes before my father was scheduled to arrive home from work – we decided to start making out instead of leaving. Hormones get in the way of everything. My suitcase (actually, my dad’s suitcase) was sitting on the floor by the door, and she protested that we should get going. She was right, but I was still so intoxicated by her that I couldn’t stop.
Imagine my horror when I heard the key in the lock, the squeaky turn of the doorknob, and the leaden footsteps hitting the floor, as he turned the corner. He looked at us and merely said, “oh, hi.” Our mouths agape, staring at him as he looked at us, looked at the suitcase on the floor, and the two 2’s were put together in his head, finally equaling 4.
“What the fuck is going on here?”
His query was met with silence.
“Oh, so you’re going to run away together? Going to live on your own? What, you’re going to ‘take her away from all this?’”
More stunned silence.
“What’s your phone number? I’m calling your parents. And you…” he said, pointing at me. “Sit down,” he ordered. We sat on the couch, in silence, stealing embarrassed looks at each other, just waiting for her parents to arrive and end things between us. They already didn’t enjoy the thought of us together, and this would only cement their disdain.
They finally came to pick her up. My father went out to meet them, and I watched from the kitchen window as they wagged fingers at her. We were both grounded for a month, and her own parents forbade her from spending time with me outside of school.
During the next few weeks, we still talked on the phone. She had gotten that privilege back when she let her folks draw their own conclusions about what had happened: that she had wanted to run away, and I only played along and got us caught on purpose. She was still grounded, but at least we had the phone.
At first, it seemed as though things were even better. We continued trading notes, having steamier phone conversations, and sharing mix tapes expressing our feelings for one another. But I became a little clingy, wanting more and more of her time and attention. I hadn’t realized the social beating she’d been taking, either; here she was, in seventh grade and engaged, sustaining the burden of rumors and cruelty which only seventh graders can dole out.
So it was that one final note would be delivered, during my favorite class (communications, sixth period). She handed it to me, looked in my eyes for a moment, and turned and walked away. I unfolded the lined paper, the familiar handwriting coming together in a much shorter note than usual.
I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry. – Meredith
I started crying, right there in class. I thought, in my silly fourteen year old mind, that this was true love, and how could true love not last forever? We were meant for each other! We were going to be together until the end of time! And when I saw her next, in the hallway, I told her the same. She shrugged my hands away from her and headed to her bus. Some things just weren’t meant to last.
In hindsight, it’s now apparent that it wasn’t anything like true love, or even love at all. That relationship still set the tone for my dealings with girls for the next few years; however, it also tempered my intensity. Meredith called me nearly a year later to wish me a happy birthday. It was late at night, and we talked for about ten minutes. I had made my peace, and it didn’t open any new doors back into her life.
However, she called me again, several months later. She had gotten into a big fight with her best friend and didn’t know who else to talk to. She wasn’t very popular (that was possibly my fault) and didn’t have a ton of friends, so I listened and comforted, and thus began a new friendship that would last several years. We talked nearly every day. She would tell me everything that was going on in her life, and I would dutifully listen and offer thoughts and advice. We never hung out in public, though. I think that would’ve been too much for her.
She eventually joined a band, playing bass guitar. She was good. I saw them a couple of times when they played at the local pool hall that I hung out at, but I didn’t talk to her there. My friend John was the singer, and I sort of knew the rest of the guys. The band was talented, though they never really made a name for themselves.
One day, after school, Meredith called me, pretty angry. “I’m so pissed at John.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well… we have a show this weekend, and we were in rehearsals, and John picked up a pair of percussion coconuts and said I should wear them to the show, to get more people in.”
“You think that’s funny?” she asked, clearly in disagreement.
“Wait,” I said. “That’s what you’re upset about?” I knew John and his sense of humor, and I was surprised that she wouldn’t expect something like that from him.
“You’re just a pig like everyone else.” Then she disconnected the call.
It was a couple of weeks before I heard from her again. I don’t know if she was trying to make amends, but she called me and tried to talk me into agreement with her. She wasn’t successful. During those weeks, I had time to reflect on our friendship, realizing that I was still in love with someone who was embarrassed by me. I deserved that – I certainly had been an embarrassment when we were a couple – but I didn’t feel as though I should continue to be a dutiful pet any longer.
So while I suffered her wrath over the phone, my anger built. I finally told her to stop talking.
“Excuse me?” The indignity was palpable.
“You heard me. I’m sick of being your little pet. I listen to you every day, I am always there for you, and nothing is ever enough. If you’re going to get pissed at me for laughing at a dumb joke, then maybe this isn’t a friendship worth having.”
“Now wait a min—“ she tried to protest.
“No. I’m done. Meredith…” and then I said something I thought I would never say to this girl I held on a pedestal for years. “Fuck you.”
And as I went to hang up the phone, I heard the last utterance I would ever hear from her. It was actually a familiar word, and there’s a touch of completion to the sentiment. Given how we started out, the ending is rather ironic.
She called me an asshole.