That Kid On The StairsPosted: August 12, 2011
Thanks to sort of nearly flunking the seventh grade (also thanks immensely to my stepmother for stepping in upon realizing I was flunking), in the eighth grade I started at a new school, which is where I’d stay through high school. It would become the best experience of my life, which I know is weird considering it was high school, but it was, in fact, a major turning point–a time where I realized I might not be a total loser headed nowhere fast. It was also a place where I had the space and time to realize I could be a little “off” and actually enjoy myself as a human being.
Things were strange that year. I was shuttled back and forth between houses, living more often with my father as my mother’s anxiety grew and she became more erratic. My dad and my stepmother had tried a couple of times to change the custody arrangements, but things were never quite urgent enough for that until one day in October when my mother picked me up from someplace after school and simply never returned me to my dad’s the way they had agreed. Since I didn’t have any clothes with me besides what I was wearing, she bought me new things to wear even though she didn’t have the money, and smiled a lot, even though I asked several times if we shouldn’t call my dad and let him know where I was (that eventually happened, but in a timeframe that was probably unnerving and in a tone of voice that was, in my memory, a little sinister.).
There was a carpool that left from the town where my mom lived, so I took that on Monday morning and went to school. I was excited. I’d never been in a carpool before. I felt a little like I’d “arrived” (My stepmother’s house was three blocks from school, so that was boring on the travel front), all the while knowing that this wouldn’t last.
I was sitting in Social Studies when the assistant Headmaster appeared in his suit and tie and asked me to come to his office. My new favorite teacher didn’t smile at me as I wound my way through the desks and followed him out. My father was in his office, also in a suit. I don’t remember much, except the oriental rug on the floor and the spindly chairs that probably litter the offices of New England private schools. I remember my dad telling me to come home to my stepmother’s house after school (maybe she was going to pick me up). I remember asking if my mom knew. I remember how he snapped at me: “Don’t worry about Mum.” I left angry and very nervous about what was happening to my mom (she was getting the news from a sheriff’s officer).
The next thing I remember I was walking down a staircase and one of the kids from my new carpool was there. I had to tell someone I wouldn’t be going home that day, because my parents were not the types to keep track of those things (or I thought so anyway). So as I came down the stairs I called to him and told him about carpool and when he asked why, I told him. I blurted it out the way thirteen year-olds blurt out things that are far too big for them to understand. I even swore, which is a lot to hear from a near-total stranger who also blushes as deeply as I do.
I’d been in four schools in four years by that time, and moved about twenty miles from where I’d started, which was a lot, especially when most of your family still identified itself by street names and the church where all their major sacraments were performed. On that day, until that moment on the stairs, I didn’t have any friends. That kid–stunned and uncomfortable–sat with me on the stairs while I tried to get my mind around the fact that where I lived was finally settled. I would be safe from here on, the lying about my mother could stop. But what would happen to her? Thanks to the myth my mother had constructed for me–she had wanted twelve kids; she tried for ten years just to have me; I was her whole life–I was a little convinced she would die from this. She didn’t, as those of you who read the previous post know, but that evening didn’t go smoothly and I spent part of that Thanksgiving a few weeks later picking at some cold turkey with her in a hospital while she tried not to cry.
That kid on the stairs became my first friend. He is still, twenty-nine years later. He is also the most determined person I’ve ever known: first to have a job, buy a car, learn to drive…all the way up to a PhD and a loving family of his own and a career I can barely keep track of. For a while he could vault parking meters from a standing start–I’m not sure he still can, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I once stole a bottle of vodka out of his trunk at a beach party. He taught me to cook and gave me my first cup of coffee, frustrated that I didn’t have a vice once I’d given up drinking. That barely scratches the surface, but even that is more than you need to know.
On Wednesday, he’ll have surgery to remove something growing near his lungs and heart, something I only vaguely understand besides that it’s rare and scary. In the last few weeks, some other truly frustrating stuff has been going on that I have no interest in writing about. Stuff that I essentially just wrote about, except the verb tenses are different. Stuff that can still scare me and that I’m tired of, but I can get away from now without the help of a social worker. Stuff that, frankly, I understand better and have more sympathy for even when I’m panicked and seething and disoriented. Whenever I’ve seen or spoken to my friend this summer, we talk about my mother so we don’t have to talk about his tumor or treatment or fear, and I guess it begs the question: what topic did I relieve him of back in 1983? As our friends all wonder what they can do to be of help to him, I realize what I have to offer is my own trouble, a story that’s blessedly not his. In the year or so following our conversation on the stairs, our group of friends would grow, and then grow again, and then change some more, but the core of the thing didn’t change. Whoever became a part of that group was delightfully weird, fiercely loyal, and utterly devoid of the kind of pettiness that wears at friendship.
Depending on how you count it, there are seven to ten of us who still keep in touch in a meaningful way and we’re all struggling with how to help. It was easy when we were all sitting at the tables in Harvard Square, making a ruckus and being asked to leave, all angling for a ride somewhere. We’re not as loud now, and not as free to get up and wander off and do something else at a moment’s notice. It’s still easy now, though–easy to be friends. It’s just not so easy to be grownups. It seems we’re all managing, but sometimes just barely and with ample assistance from that same group of people who all tried to crowd into his beige Oldsmobile in 1986.
There are times when you say something that you immediately regret; words spill forth from your mouth that you wish you could take back because they warp the story. Language is funny that way. You can only say one thing at a time, and in order to get at the complexity of a thing, you have to sustain the energy to tell it from all the angles, and sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. We’re interrupted, or swamped by the emotion of one aspect of the story we’re trying to tell. For example, if someone were to say, “My f***ing father just got custody of me,” you might think that kid hated the man she spoke of unless she kept talking afterwards. Sometimes, though, you can’t keep talking, because that first line wears you out. You have to just let it go and hope to make it up some other way. It’s a big risk, one we’re not always willing to take, but one we often fall into whether we want to or not. Then again, maybe you’re lucky enough to look back almost thirty years later and see that moment for what it was: perhaps the most important eight words you’ve ever uttered. The ones that in some ways signaled the start of your life.