Texas

The Storyteller

I only heard the storyteller once. It was a summer when I was in high school, maybe 1997 or 1998. I was at a week-long music camp for choir students throughout the south Texas region, to prep for that year's All-State singing competition.[footnote]I never did any better than making All-Region. I have an average voice but no solo presence.[/footnote] The days were filled with rehearsals, and the evenings had different activities—a party, dinners—to pass the time. One night, we assembled in the main hall to hear the storyteller. It was clear after a few words that something unusual was going to happen. He wasn't doing theater, or preaching, or even really performing: he was telling a story, doing something we as people haven't done in this manner in millennia. He was narrating in the first person, but we knew he wasn't talking about himself. He was the vessel for something else coming through him.

The story he told was about being a young boy in middle America in the middle of the 20th century, tagging around with a couple of friends, when a new girl arrived in the neighborhood. The girl had a little dog, and either the dog or some small possession of the girl's became lost or taken by bullies—it's more than 20 years on now, and there's only so much straining I can do to unearth the few fragments that haven't been totally buried in my memory by age and forgetfulness. But it worked out that the boy and his two friends journeyed with the girl to help her reclaim what was hers. One friend had a baseball bat that he carried slung over his shoulder like an ax, another wore an old frayed length of rope for a belt that dragged behind him like a tail unless he picked it up and held it, and the main boy, our narrator, was noble but unsure of the world around him.

The boys helped rescue what was lost, but before long, the girl had to move away. On their last day together, she told them each how she felt, and when she got to the narrator, he said that she whispered to him: "I listen to Coastal Call." That's what it sounded like, anyway. He had no idea what this meant, but he was terrified it was a reference to something like a radio show or a popular entertainment, and he didn't want to seem uncouth or out of touch, so he smiled and nodded, and maybe gave a knowing laugh. She looked at him for a long time, then left.

A year or so later, the boys were watching television when they saw something special: a broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, which they'd never seen. It was about a girl who found new friends in a strange place who helped her rescue what needed rescuing. One of them had an ax he carried over his shoulder like a baseball bat, one of them had a tail that dragged behind him like a piece of rope unless he picked it up and held it, and one of them was noble but unsure of the world around him.

When it came time for that girl to leave Oz, she said her goodbyes. When she got to her first and truest friend, who was still noble but now more aware of the world, she said to him: "I'll miss you most of all."

At this point, the storyteller stopped, and his daughter (who had to be in college, if not older) came out and began to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." No instruments or backing tracks of any kind accompanied her as she stood there and sang, bathed in a red light. No one spoke, or moved. We were all weeping—hot, gentle, completely unblocked tears, the kind you can't access past a certain age. We were all still so young and uncertain ourselves, and to be presented with this tragedy, to walk through this story of fleeting affection, weighed on us so much.

Years later, after I'd graduated college, I emailed the camp and asked after the man. I couldn't remember his name, or anything about him. That's when I found out he was a local teacher, and that storytelling was something he was known for. He might have even entered competitions, or participated in guilds, or something. What continued to affect me about the experience, though—what still does—is the time and place and method with which it happened. There are no photos or videos of that event, nor could I find any of the storyteller online. I haven't talked to any of the people who attended that camp with me in almost 20 years. I'm not even sure I could remember who all was there. I've forgotten the storyteller's name again, too. But not the story.

Baseball

The storm was a trauma. Not just in the appropriate emotional sense of the way the word is often used today, but in the classic, pathological one: "a serious wound or shock to the body." People lost their homes and jobs and businesses. People drowned. People walked around for weeks afterward on edge, nervous and irritable, scared without realizing it. Entire blocks looked like war zones, sodden and moldy trash piled by the curb. Recycling pickup was suspended because the trucks were needed to haul debris; it's still a couple weeks away from starting up again. Tens of thousands of people are still displaced, living in hotels or apartments or with friends and family.

///

Baseball is just a game. That's all. It's a game. You run around outside for a few hours. It's for fun.

We like games, though, for the same reason we like good stories, or art, or the ability to travel. We are all constantly aware of the fleeting nature of our mortality: not that we will one day die, but that we will die and, in all likelihood, not be remembered. So we look down at these clumsy vessels and wonder how fast we can run, how high we can jump, how well we can take the thoughts and feelings that seem to exist for us alone and turn them into something that someone else can understand and, if only for a moment, embrace. We're trying to make a mark, even if we can never define it more clearly than that.

///

When the rain let up and we could all get out again, we all asked each other the same question: "Did you make it?" It was how conversations started with coworkers, cashiers, strangers on the elevator. You didn't need to explain what you meant. And they'd either nod and say yes, they did, or they'd shake their head and say no, we didn't. In those gray and fragile days, there was a sense of joining, of collective sheltering and support, that's only possible between survivors of something horrible and random. We'd come just a little closer than usual to realizing how quickly everything goes. It's why we latched onto things like "Houston strong" and charity campaigns. We were reaching out to each other, still trying to make those marks.

///

Pop sports culture talks often about "bandwagon fans," or "fair-weather fans." This is usually done in a smug and condescending way, to differentiate those who have recently participated in the excitement that can sweep a city during a championship run from those who have been loudly suffering years of losses. This is, as you can probably tell, a really sad and small-minded way to live. If you've ever seen someone online brag about seeing a band live before you'd heard of them, you are familiar with the general vibe.

It's also a fundamental misunderstanding of what can make games exciting for the people in town who only casually follow news about the local teams. Even non-fans have a general conception of what's going on. When the team does well, we all know about it. It becomes part of the small talk that fills moments between citizens in public spaces. When the team does exceptionally well, and begins to approach making history, that conversation doubles and trebles in volume and intensity. Longtime residents reminisce about games from their childhood. Recent transplants learn about local history. It becomes the subtext of every conversation, a feeling in the air, a noticeable change in attitudes. People share.

///

That's what all this has been about, in tragedy and triumph: coming together. Talking with your neighbors. Asking not just "Did you make it?" but "Did you see that?!" Forgetting for a moment the methods we use every day to keep ourselves within our walls, and taking a moment to look someone in the eye and know that you have a shared experience. You know what it means to lose, and you know how it feels to win. You did both together.

NBD

"If you're going to reckon with the past," I said, "you might as well reckon with all of it." I was talking to an old friend as we sat in the living room of a house that ten of us had rented for the weekend. It was a Friday night, and we were in Baird, Texas, population 1,500. The house was old and creaky, its style dating back decades, but it had room for several couples and their small children. I slept on one of the couches. Baird sits twenty miles outside of Abilene, population 117,000 and home to Abilene Christian University, from which my friends and I had graduated ten years earlier before stumbling out into the world. We were back for our class reunion, and as a group we’d rented the house as a way to spend as much time with each other as possible throughout the weekend. Maybe because it felt safer, too. Going back to a place you used to know, and that used to know you, is always unsettling: you can see your own ghost walking around. You find yourself making idle talk with people you used to see every day but to whom you haven’t spoken in a decade, and you realize at the start of every single one of these conversations that it will be impossible to convey to the other person the many ways in which you’ve changed since graduating. And you know that they’re having this realization, too, though that doesn't make things any easier, and you feel that every detail about your job sounds ridiculously boring. There’s a reason people drink at these things.

I was talking with my friend because I'd been on the fence about getting up early the next morning to attend a breakfast for alumni from my social club, ACU’s version of fraternities and sororities.[footnote]ACU does not participate in the national Greek system, instead offering “social clubs” for students that simulate the experience to a degree. It winds up being another way to make students feel different from their peers, and many of the activities social clubs perform, though accepted as tradition at ACU, make little to no sense elsewhere.[/footnote] I was reluctant to go to the breakfast because I’m not as comfortable with the fraternity mentality as I was when I was in school, but I ultimately decided that there wasn’t much point in driving the 350 miles from Houston to Abilene if I wasn’t going to attend each of the handful of events that would involve people I knew, or had known. So like I told my friend: I might as well be honest about where we all came from, even when it’s hard to do.

///

I don't tell most people that I went to ACU. Not that I feel I got a bad education: on the contrary, I had some fantastic professors and some wonderful classes, especially in my junior and senior years, when I was working through upper-level coursework that proved to be among the most challenging and rewarding of my time there. But whenever the subject comes up, I usually just say "I went to school in Abilene" and move on, adding that I moved to California upon graduation and then back to Texas a few years later. I turn the college into a point in a story, not a destination in its own right, and it's because I know I'll wind up shuffling my feet and wanting to apologize for the fact that I went there. I feel like doing this because I’m nervous and embarrassed by the way that people from my background traditionally have and currently often do treat members of marginalized communities — specifically gay men and women. There's a rampant, pointed homophobia in evangelical Christianity and on my old campus, and though I have shed those cruel and cloistered ideologies in the years since, I was as much a part of it in my time as anyone. I entered college fearing and disliking gay people, and I let the word "fag" cross my lips as an insult on a regular basis. So many of us did. When talking with other young men in my social club about one of our rival groups, we’d dismiss them with “They’re fags” and not blink. I hang my head now thinking about those moments. I was well into my junior year before I started the slow process of changing my beliefs. I spent a semester in Los Angeles that proved crucial, and I came back restless and frantic. I suddenly felt uncomfortable with myself, and with what I’d been doing, and I wanted to destroy it all.[footnote]I was young and somewhat in love and exhilarated by a future I could just barely touch, and I seemed to experience every feeling at maximum intensity. In other words, I was 21.[/footnote] I wrote a column in the school paper about the way homophobia was damaging people of faith inside and out, ending with a dramatic line in the sand that suggested I would refuse the label of “Christian” if it meant embodying a position of segregation and intolerance. I was angry and afraid, and though I believed the words, I was also borrowing some of them, including thoughts and phrases from an influential professor in California. It was the closest I could get to what I wanted to mean. I didn’t know what I felt, but I knew I didn’t like it.

Gay rights became an issue I returned to before graduation. During my senior year, I interviewed several gay students for a feature story that the paper's editor wrote about their lives and what they had to deal with on campus. I still remember the details of the stories they told me, about shame and torment, verbal and physical abuse.[footnote]The story was pulled by administration the night before it was set to run, in an act of cowardice and shame that still upsets me. But the university’s president is also the paper’s publisher, and as such, we had no recourse.[/footnote] I no longer believed that being gay was somehow wrong, and of course I still don't — this seems like a silly and obvious sentence to write in 2015, but it goes against everything I was brought up to think and that, by college, I’d believed for so long, and accepting it at that time meant taking another step away from my old life. Those steps always look small after you've taken many more, but in the moment, they're taken with trepidation. With each one, you shear away another layer of skin.

///

My club breakfast was scheduled for 6:00 that Saturday morning. The drive into Abilene was dark and wet — the storms from Friday night hadn’t finished blowing over — and the downtown neighborhood that housed the venue was deserted except for the men ambling two and three at a time into a meeting space that had been converted for the occasion with cheap folding tables and chairs. I saw a few men I hadn’t seen in years, many of them from my pledge class or from those just a year or two removed in either direction, and we sat together and ate bad eggs and thick biscuits. The atmosphere at these breakfasts is a little like that of a conference of sadistic zookeepers who have assembled to inflict mild distress on the animals. The boys of that fall’s pledge class were lined up in an adjoining room, standing in a silent row, eyes closed, each one pressing his nose to the back of the boy in front of him — in the spot below the nape of the neck, between the shoulder blades. “Nose to back!” would go the call during pledging, and we’d stand in a row, inhabiting an intimate space.

Homecoming weekend is a grueling one for students pledging a social club, and Friday night is usually a sleepless one: tradition holds that Friday night is when the pledges build a float for the following morning’s parade, and after the parade, the pledges attend a special weekend chapel service[footnote]ACU holds chapel services five days a week at 11:00 a.m.; student attendance is mandatory. On Homecoming weekend, an additional service is held Saturday morning at 11:00 for alumni, and pledges also attend this, as they are required to cheer for homecoming queen nominees belonging to sister clubs.[/footnote] and, later, the Homecoming football game. So the boys standing there had been awake for at least 24 hours. They looked to be on another plane of existence.

At one point, we alumni went around the room introducing ourselves with name, hometown, and pledge class title. One of our boyish traditions has each pledge class come up with an acronymic name for their group with twin meanings: one clean, one crass. For instance, you might name your class “ROC Class,” with the three-letter designation standing both for “Rely on Christ” and “Respect our cocks.” This is the kind of asinine but community-forming thing that repressed 19-year-olds do. Several younger men said that their pledge group was called "NBD Class." I didn’t know what they meant, but I didn’t think much of it, nor of the scattered laughs that came every time it was mentioned. I doubt I would’ve learned the meaning at all if I hadn’t happened to see the current club president that night at my own graduating class’s reunion dinner — he was a volunteer there in some capacity, handing out name tags. He explained that “NBD” meant, honorably, “No Big Deal,” while the alternate version was “Novas Bang Dudes.” A “nova” is what the pledges of our rival club are called, so the point here is that some of these young men, our “enemies,” are gay. That’s the entire joke, as it were.

Yet statistically, some of those boys are bound to be gay, and if not in this pledge class, then certainly in last year's or the one before. And the same goes for my club. Several men I knew in college, from my club and others, have come out since graduating. When I was in school, rumors swirled about my club’s “reputation” in the late 1980s, when membership dwindled to just a few students before the club was “rechartered” with an altered name and broader appeal. I could’ve asked the young club president: Do you really think there aren’t young gay men among you right now, in your club, in your dorm, in your college? Men who are living in nine kinds of agony because of where they go to school and what they are told they should or shouldn’t feel? You think you didn't pledge with gay men? Didn't eat with them, sing with them, watch the game with them? Haven’t hugged them and wept with them? Do you have any idea how cold and hard and regressive it is to keep falling back on the same stereotypes, homophobia, and attitudes of fear, shame, ostracism? Do you know the torment to which you subject these men who have done nothing wrong? Do you know what they already deal with? Do you know how many men from our club and others have come out? Are you bound by grace and mercy?

But I didn’t say any of that to him. And I didn’t even think it, either. Not then, when he told me what “NBD” stood for, not when I was with my friends later that night, not on my drive home across the state. Not for days and weeks. It slid away.

If it’s easy to become offended and upset by someone’s behavior, it’s that much harder to be aware of your own complicity in unconsciously modeling that behavior. This kid didn’t need to be scolded or shamed, but he did need to have some direct, gentle questions asked of him. Like those asked of me when I was his age, and like I didn’t do when I had the chance to help him. It would be so simple and (seemingly) righteous to rage against this young guy and his ideas and his jokes, but the words would taste like filth in my mouth, because every condemnation would be a lie: a smug way to pretend the fault is all his for saying these things, and not mine for not telling him about the error of my own ways. That the problem is all with them, and never with me. That my silent beliefs are morally superior to someone else's spoken ignorance. I could have shared so much with him from my own experience. To excoriate him without thinking about my place in that chain — without acknowledging that I’d stood in his place and made the same jokes just a few years earlier — would be dishonest and disrespectful to every man and woman I’d wronged. No one is the worst thing they’ve ever done, but only because we live with the opportunity to atone for those things. What are we if not made of such memories?

///

Six months later I sat in a hotel ballroom north of Houston and listened to stories about a dead friend.

He’d gone to ACU, and he was a member of my social club. He was two years behind me at school, and he was gay. I’d liked him quite a bit at school, and I even remember giving him the hard sell about pledging. He was musically talented, and I viewed his joining the club as a way to give us an asset in the musical-themed medley competition the clubs performed every spring.[footnote]Don’t ask.[/footnote] I got to know him a little when I was a junior and he was a freshman, and I spent more time with him when I was a senior and he was a sophomore, which was the year he pledged. He was kind and funny and sweet. I last saw him in 2006, two years after I graduated, when I returned to campus for my younger sister’s commencement. He and I exchanged a few Facebook messages and comments over the years, but that was it. I didn’t know he was sick until late last year, and I didn’t know the extent of his cancer until it was too late. Most of us didn’t. He was 30 when he passed. A few weeks later, a scattering of friends and family gathered to eat together, lift a cup in his honor, and share stories about their time with him.

I’ve been trying to remember if there was a time before I knew he was gay, or if I ever cared about it one way or the other, and I can’t recall. Because I met him in the fall of my junior year, so close to the beginning of my own change of heart, it’s likely it never entered my mind. Then again, while I was conducting research for that doomed newspaper story and interviewing gay students, it didn't occur to me to talk to him. Was it because I forgot, or because I didn't know? It's lost to the past. I got to know him better my senior year, but even thinking of those days, I can’t summon up a memory of thinking of him in terms of his sexual orientation. Either I always knew, or I’ve forgotten learning. But what stuns is that I became friends with him only a couple of years after I casually tossed around homophobic slurs, and even though those two years can contain lifetimes when you’re that young, I still have trouble reconciling that version of myself.

I was one of the few people in attendance that night from my graduating class. Most of the other alumni there were two years younger than me: a gap that would mean nothing if we met now, but one that still somehow segregates us all in our minds when we talk about each other and our college experience. They had bonded to each other the way I had with my own friends. I sat and listened to them talk about their jobs and families, and then listened as they told stories about the departed: his quirks, his passions, his joy. I didn’t have a story to share, so I sat and tried to honor those who did. They wept and held each other, and I watched them as they took turns going up to the podium at the front of the room to talk about their short time with this young man. Sometimes I couldn’t look at them. Bearing witness almost felt like too much.

It was past 10:00 that night when I left. I made my way to the parking garage and fell into place at the elevator bank behind a figure in a black suit. I thought for a moment I recognized him, and I realized I had a memory of seeing him walk into the hotel as I drove past the front doors and headed for the garage. He was a priest. He waved goodbye at someone already moving further into the garage’s ground floor, then hopped into the open, empty car.

“There’s plenty of room!” he said to me, smiling. His voice took on a joking tone: “Unless you’re gonna hurt me!”

This is the kind of idle joke you sometimes hear when you’re big, like I am. I shook my head and said, “No, I’m incredibly weak, so it wouldn’t work out well for either of us.” This was close enough to humor that he laughed.

“I’m glad the rain stopped,” he said. “The good news is I don’t have far to go. Thank you, Jesus!”

I laughed a little at the idea of a priest giving thanks for easy weather. He seemed harmless. He was young — I wouldn’t put him past 40 — and he had brown hair, cut modestly and held in place with light product. His voice was an agreeable baritone, and he carried a notebook in his hand.

We stepped out of the elevator into a vestibule on the roof, which led to a set of double-doors to the lot outside. I made more small talk as we walked about also being thankful for a break in the rain, since I had 40 miles between me and home. We both turned to the right outside the doors to head to our cars. I was walking beside him instead of ahead or behind, walking the way you do when you’re with someone you know, not a stranger. I started talking before I was really sure I would.

“I was here for a memorial service,” I said. “A friend of mine from college. He was 30.”

We kept walking as the priest caught up, repeating pieces of what I’d said. “You said a memorial service?”

“Yeah. To remember him. He was 30. Anyway, just, if you could, say a prayer tonight for him.” There seemed no place to start, so I came at it from every direction.

I hadn’t been aware of it, but we’d stopped walking. We were halfway down the row of cars next to the vestibule. I repeated my petition for prayer. The priest asked me about my friend and his life, and I told him some of what I knew. A car three spaces down started up and drove away, but after that it was quiet. The priest was backlit by the giant security light: I kept seeing his face and losing it again, blinded.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Daniel,” I told him.

“I’m Darren,” he said, holding out a hand.

I told him about my friend, and how young he’d been, and I discussed in generalities some of the suffering he’d endured. I asked if he could pray for some kind of peace for him, and for me. And at some point I started to weep. I couldn’t speak any more, and I looked away, out over the dark trees, waiting to be able to talk again. Here. It had to happen here. This weight on me, this sadness, rolling off my shoulders. How young he was. What he'd been put through. What we do. “I’m sorry,” I said, sounding like I’d had the breath knocked from me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t have articulated what I was sorry for, but it seemed like the only thing to say.

“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s my job.” And he didn’t say this like a joke, or like he was rolling up his sleeves to go to work. He was kind. He said it to say, that’s why I’m here. This is what I do.

“I can see you all loved him,” Darren said. Then he told me that God loves me. I told him I knew that, and that I believed in that. I just needed peace. The tears slowed, and I wiped my eyes. We stood and didn’t say much. No one came, no cars drove by. The night was cool.

“Can I pray with you?” he asked me. I nodded, and Darren stepped closer. I think he put a hand on my arm while I stood there, but I don’t remember. He prayed for me, and for the friend I’d lost, and for all of us. I wanted to sit down, I wanted to walk away, I wanted to touch his face. Everything seemed too awful, and I felt so tired.

“What church are you with?” I asked him after. I didn’t know if this was a dumb question, but I couldn’t remember how many outfits were fitted with clerical collars. “I’m a Catholic priest,” Darren replied. I nodded.

“You know,” he said, “we just had Easter Sunday, but on the Sunday after that, we in the Catholic church celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. And on that day, we ask” — he counted on his fingers — ”we trust, and we show. Mercy.”

After a few minutes, clusters of people started showing up, heading for their cars: couples in formal wear, families in swimming gear. It was as if a breath had been released, and time, no longer stopped, had started moving again. I don’t remember everything we talked about. I thought during the prayer about getting his card or at least his contact information, but some part of me forgot. We said our goodbyes, and he wished me peace and rest as we parted. I got in my car and pulled out, passing him as he sat parked in his spot, his hand out over the wheel to wave farewell to me. That's the clearest image I have of him, more than the fragments of his face: an open palm, fingers out, almost reaching. I drove home in the rain.

A Boy and His Poodle

winnie-spr97 We got Winnie when I was 8. He came named, which annoyed me at the time: Shouldn't a kid get to name his own dog? We got him when our cousins' dog had puppies. Our cousins had named the other ones, too, though I don't know what became of those dogs or their names. Plus he was a boy, and "Winnie" was decidedly unmasculine. I think we kept Winnie's name because it was given by family, and we did kind of like the pun: Winnie the poodle. Most pets don't come with names that beg for a rimshot.

Winnie had the biggest head of all his brothers and sisters, which my parents hoped would mean he would turn out to be smart. And he was: he had a decent vocabulary and was happy and obedient. He was also epileptic. None of us knew dogs could even have epilepsy, and my only experience with it as a child had been a pretty disconcerting moment in "The Andromeda Strain," so I didn't know how it would affect my pet. We found out he was sick the first time he had a seizure: he would fall to his side and shake for a minute, his saliva foaming a little, and then he'd stop and breathe heavily, regaining his strength as he looked around the room like someone who couldn't quite remember the details of the bad dream he'd just escaped. The fits affected his continence, too, so we would usher him outside afterward. There's treatment but no cure for the ailment, so for the rest of his life he was given tablets and liquid medicine a couple times a day. These measures didn't eradicate the seizures, but they did reduce their frequency and potency.

Mom was the best with him when he had a fit. Winnie's involuntary shaking put him at risk of smacking his head on a piece of furniture as he thrashed around, but Mom would always calm him and guide him, keeping her hands lightly on his body as he trembled, waiting for his system to right itself. We all took turns giving him his medicine, but Mom did it more than anyone. She was always quickest, and she could always get him to eat that damn pill when he'd spit it out for the rest of us.

Winnie lived a long life for any dog, especially a poodle with epilepsy, but when I was in college, age and disease caught up with him. He was sleeping too much, walking too little. His hearing and weight declined. This is the way things go. One day, my father carried him to the vet's office and came home empty-handed.

Winnie was great. Playful and funny and obedient and smart, and endlessly tolerant of the children who were raised alongside him. He could stand on his hind legs for minutes, begging for kitchen scraps as we ate or cleaned dishes. His breath was awful. He slept plenty and chased his toys, and he could disembowel a stuffed animal in a terrifying amount of time. He came when you called and loved you every day.

He was just a good dog.

Hang In There Friends Forever, In Memory Far Away

An aerial view of my high school from 2000, the year I graduated. I always expect to see someone I know when I visit my hometown. This makes almost no logistical sense: San Antonio is home to 1.3 million people, making it the seventh-largest city in the country, and the odds of seeing someone you know while navigating a crowd that size are laughably small. But the feeling has nothing to do with reason. Whenever I go home, I feel more exposed than I do anywhere else, as if the years have peeled back and I am still, for all my struggles not to be, a confused and not very endearing 18-year-old. The thought that I will see someone I know is born more of fear than hope: fear that I will happen across someone I once knew and not have the time or capacity to explain to them who I am and what I do. The places I’ve been, the things I’ve learned. All the billion pieces of information people communicate to each other over the course of years as they develop friendships. I have none of that to share, and so any chance meeting with a figure from my past is inevitably a kind of puppet show. Going home is the worst kind of time travel: You’re back in the past, but unable to affect any change.

///

I was standing in the Majestic Theatre, waiting for the lights to go down and a comedy show to begin, when I saw a man I’d gone to high school with sitting three rows behind me. It feels weird to even refer to him as a “man”; in my mind, we’re all past childhood but still not fully formed as adults. I knew who he was the instant I saw him. He’s one of those people who looks almost exactly the same at 30 as he did at 18: sharper angles, more solid-seeming, but mostly identical. I looked at him long enough to catch his eye. It had actually, finally happened: I’d stumbled across someone I used to know. He and I weren’t friends in high school, but we weren’t enemies. We just ran in different circles. He was smart, like I was, and cool, like I wasn’t. I’m sure we had some classes together, though I can’t be certain.

After the show, as my wife and I filed out, we passed his row. He was gracious enough to actually step up and talk to me: Had I gone to MacArthur? I said I had, and he (re-)introduced himself as I reminded him of my name. We introduced our wives and shared a few brief sentences as we walked up the aisle toward the exit. He’s an elementary school teacher now. I had no idea this was something he would ever do, but then, I had no idea about anything he wanted to do. He was just a guy I knew at school. He could have told me he’s an accountant or a construction worker. Anything would fit.

He told me his name, but I didn't need help remembering it. I remembered him better than I probably remember most people from high school. He briefly dated a girl I knew who was two years younger than us, a girl I knew through my church’s youth group and who was close friends with my sister. It’s possible he even came with her to a church-sanctioned event or two, but again, I can’t be certain. I don’t remember anything about them as a pairing except that it was one of those high school relationships that seem to come and go. I don’t even remember when or how it started or ended, and I never knew how serious it was.

The only reason I really remember a high school relationship that’s been dormant for 15 years is the girl died when I was a freshman in college. It’s very likely this man was at the funeral: she was so young, and my church was filled that day with so many faces I thought I’d left behind after high school, creating a cognitive dissonance that added to the afternoon's general confusion. A part of me isn't even sure they were a couple, and wonders if I might have invented the whole thing and added it to the narrative of my youth so long ago that I'll never know the truth. I don't know why. I don't know. I find myself tempted to say he was at the private viewing, too, the hot hollow night when we all gathered at the funeral home, children so recently sent out into the world only to come back before we’d had a chance to understand what we’d left. It’s possible he was there — they’d dated, after all — and that he took his turn to walk up and stare down at a girl whose body seemed like a weird mimicry of the one we’d remembered. He'd have shown up that night and seen her small body, her dark dress and light sweater; the way her neck was puffed and swollen because it had broken when the bus slammed into the side of her car as she hydroplaned on rain-slicked asphalt; the manner with which the mortician’s makeup had done the best it could to color gray skin with something like life. He might have been there, but I can’t be certain.

///

“It was good to see you, man,” he said politely as we reached the atrium, two couples breaking away and merging into their own parts of the river of people fighting for bathrooms and exits. “You, too,” I replied. These are the kinds of nice things you say when you find yourself suddenly talking with someone you haven’t seen in more than a decade and about whom you know essentially nothing. In the car, my wife asked if he and I had known each other, and I told her that we had and hadn’t. It’s possible he remembered my name and face the way I'd remembered his, or merely that he saw me and knew there was something familiar about me. (Since high school, I’ve grown a beard, let my hair grow, and changed the style of glasses I wear. Not a lot of change, but still, cosmetically different than what it once was.) I told her we weren’t friends, but we weren’t not friends. We were just two guys who knew of each other. “I don’t even think we’re friends on Facebook,” I said.

But we are. I logged on that night and went to his page. According to Facebook, we’ve been friends since 2007. That tracks: I joined the service in 2004, as I was graduating college and Facebook was expanding its reach to stomp out similar social network sites that were targeted at their own universities. I didn’t start to add more friends and acquaintances from high school for a few years, but in your mid-20s, you grow weirdly nostalgic for people who remind you of some of the worst and most confusing times you ever had. It’s how we process growing up and start to gain perspective, seeing our existences on a longer timeline than just the institutional memories of our alma maters.

He and I have actually been connected via Facebook for six years, though we’ve done nothing aside from accept the initial connection request. (I have no memory of who added whom.) I looked at some of his pictures and realized again that I had no idea who this man really was. I didn't know what he liked, or where he liked to go. I could not give a remotely accurate account of his personality or passions. He seems like a nice guy, but I don't know him. He is a bit player in my story, a character whose motivations were never clear and who exited the scene long ago. Yet I'm the same for him: some weird guy he might or might remember, connected to a girl he probably thinks of from time to time, like I do. We're foreign objects to each other, providing definition by how much we don't quite belong.

///

My high school doesn't exist anymore. Anyway, not the one I went to. Campus-wide construction projects were already under way by the end of my junior year. The fine arts building was renovated first, but greater change came after I graduated in 2000. The new campus is more tightly planned but also appears more sterile from the street. The country sprawl of the original campus, founded in 1950 as a high school for a broad rural area, has been replaced by a gleaming quad.[footnote]Compare the image above with this one from 2009, which shows the new campus. The track is a good way to orient yourself.[/footnote] A giant sycamore near what used to be the English building, and that was once the oldest sycamore in town, was removed for the new layout. My freshman English teacher, who'd often taken us outside to hold class under the tree, wept when it went.

The summer I graduated was also when my family moved to a new house. I didn't want to deal with the hassle of unpacking and repacking my belongings six weeks before going to college, so I spent half that summer living out of boxes in a bedroom that became a guest room after I left. When I went home to visit afterward, I'd sleep on a twin bed next to an old desk and a filing cabinet that weren't mine, and the high school down the street didn't look anything like what I remembered. The city had conspired to physically remove the things I'd remember most about it, which only adds to the vertigo of going home: in addition to feeling exposed, I'm left with nowhere to hide.

The Old Girl

car%28600x800%29.jpgMy automotive history has been a spotty one. There was Coche Verde, a 1997 Chevy Silverado extended cab that I had for about a year when I was a senior in high school and freshman in college. Then there was the Cranberry Cruiser, a Dodge Stratus I had for about a year when I was a senior in college and then living out in Los Angeles. But in the spring of 2005, I got this 2001 Kia Sephia. I never came up with a proper name for her; I merely referred to her with the general female pronoun as many men have done with their vessels over the years. Somewhere along the line, calling her "the old girl" became the default, and then her official title.

She cost $6,000. (Though I wound up paying more, since I had to finance for a long time and had no money down and got her when I was not making much money.) I bombed all over Los Angeles, Ventura, and Orange Counties in her. I put a bumper sticker on her that I regretted less than 18 months later. I punished her with a 90-mile round-trip commute when I was living in Glendale and working in Thousand Oaks, then took it easier on her when I was living in Sherman Oaks and working in Mid-Wilshire. I took her on dates. (I did, despite my own worst efforts, get a few.) I took her to Comic-Con and Disneyland. I drove her all over the network of L.A. freeways, moving through the heart of the city like a cell through vessels. I knew just how far I could push her, and how far she could go.

The axle always made a little popping noise when I stopped. When I bought her, the sales manager acted generous when he told me he'd give me free floor mats; I took delivery of the car to find that he'd given me tan ones that clashed with the gray interior. She got good mileage, but pickup slowed to a crawl if the AC fan was on any higher than the lowest possible setting. I often drove to and from work with the windows down.

She was in more than her fair share of scrapes, too. Most frightening was the hit and run, in which I was heading north along Highland to the 101, only to be hit on my front right side when a driver pulled out to turn (on his red light) and then sped off before I could get his tags. She accrued a number of other dings over the years whose origins I can no longer remember. The front-facing license plate fell off last fall when a car bumped her while she was parked at the Fannin South lot, where I'd left her while I rode the train to work. By then, I didn't want to put more miles on her than she could afford: I'd gotten her with something like 44,000, but by last fall, it was up to 120,000.

She got me to Texas, though. When I moved from L.A. to Houston in the fall of 2009, I shipped my belongings ahead of me and drove with a friend in the old girl. This was a good plan in theory: I was able to toss a bunch of old furniture and junk I didn't need and just ship or pack the essentials. Yet I erred on the side of keeping too many things, and as a result, the old girl was painfully loaded down for the 1,500-mile journey. Her RPMs hovered past 4,000 for the entirety of the two-day trip. Accelerating up to highway speeds took considerable effort and planning; lane changes and exits required calculations of inertia I thought I'd left behind in 11th-grade physics. The Check Engine light clicked on not long after I arrived in my new home, and though I poured some more money into her for repairs over the next year, the light ultimately stayed on. I came to think of it as a sign that she was at least still alive and kicking, well enough to know something was off.

But she never quit. All the aches and pains, all the repairs and leaks; the night my stereo was stolen, and the next day, when my roommate and I put in a new one. The new brakes, the groaning transmission; the way the tint on the rear window was permanently warped and bubbled, training me to look not for specific cars or people behind me but to distinguish threats by patches of color and light. She hung in there. I had her for just shy of six years, longer than I've had any other car to date. I'm excited about the new car in my life, and grateful for the opportunity to have it, just as I'm thankful I had her for so long. She was a big part of my life for a long time, and she'll forever be tied to the memories I made in my early 20s. What more could a man want?

For Your Consideration

sxsw_moon.jpgI've submitted a panel idea for next year's South by Southwest Film Festival. I want to talk about what it's like to be a critic in the digital age, and how it's tough to maintain balance when you're beset by men and women willing to shill for a studio instead of honestly talk about a film. I go into slightly greater detail over at Pajiba, and I'll likely promote this on multiple social networks in the coming weeks, but if you vote for me, I'd really appreciate it. You do have to register (small hassle, I know), but it only takes a moment, and you'd really be helping me out. Click here to vote.

It Seemed Like A Good Idea, Etc.

Flag football was important. The intramural games were divided into two leagues, championship and recreational, the level of skill on display pretty apparent in the names. Within the champ and rec league divisions, teams were further ranked by number, from Team 1 (the best) on down. The Team 1 flag football games were chances to watch two gangs battle, to see and be seen, to flirt with possibility. We experienced none of this. As pledges, our job was to support the players with a variety of cheers, usually the ones marked with the kind of blatant innuendo that takes firmest root in private schools populated by the sexually repressed and morally confused. E.g., when our team was on offense and close to the goal line, our 19-year-old voices would send up a cry of "Penetration! Penetration! We wanna score!" This was our duty, and we took it seriously.

There were trade-offs, though, at least for the less physically resilient of us. Whenever our team scored, we were to drop into a line and execute a number of push-ups to match the score, which meant that on the first touchdown we did seven, on the second we did fourteen, and so on. As a result, I found myself utterly emotionally divided at every game: I rooted for our success and dominance, yet I dreaded touchdowns because they meant exercising in front of female spectators, about as close to a living nightmare as I've ever come. The best games for me were defensive grudge-matches in which we established a lead early on and then rode it out in a ground war.

The girls did all this, too, or at any rate their pledges were present to support the female teams playing on the adjacent field. The purpose of their presence beyond anything symbolic was never really clear. They came, they cheered, they marched off, displaying a military precision but none of the terrible joy my friends and I seemed to channel. One night the girls' pledges brought their notebooks with them to the field. This particular group of girls used plain three-ring binders as totems of their status as pledges; we used wooden blocks on which our names had been scrawled in permanent marker. The girls' notebooks were their treasure, the thing they kept with them at all times and had been instructed to guard like children. At one point, the notebooks were left in a giant pile while the girls cheered on their team, which is when our own leader gave us orders.

"I want those notebooks," he said, grinning the grin of a young man commanding even younger ones to do something stupid for no reason other than the fun of it. "Go get 'em." We charged the pile of plastic binders with a total lack of planning, immediately drawing the girls' attention and sending them running toward us as they grabbed at our sweaty arms and dirt-crusted shirts to reclaim what was theirs. Some of us fell; one of us went down on his knees, arms out to his sides, hoping or begging to be crucified or merely smothered.

I took a single notebook and ran east, away from the field into a neighborhood of cheap houses mostly occupied by students, then cut north into an alley that would lead back to school. I was less than a minute into my journey when I heard her panting behind me. "Stop," she said between gasps for air. "Stop, please. I need that. Give that back, I need it." She'd have shouted if she'd had the energy.

I glanced quickly back at her but didn't stop moving. She seemed exhausted, running between garbage bins through an alley barely lit by the moon. She seemed to be staggering with rhythm than actually running, though whether her slowness came from fatigue, injury, or an inherent lack of athletic ability is something I never learned. I thought in that moment how happy I was to have someone chasing me who wasn't very strong. It was one thing to struggle through group exercises beneath the uninterested stares of this girl's superiors; it would be quite another for her to catch and assault me on foot. I often lied in the presence of women about my physical abilities. I'd taken a general strength-training course a year earlier that was co-educational, and one of the regular tasks had been to pair off and perform as many sit-ups as possible in a given time, after which we would recite our total as the instructor moved down the list and recorded our achievements in his log. I always embellished my total, sometimes by as many as 20 sit-ups, never wanting to appear that I couldn't do something that a woman a fraction my size could accomplish. My partner never challenged me, either, merely gave me a knowing look every time it happened. I wound up dropping the class two weeks before the end of the semester, afraid I wouldn't meet the performance requirements for a passing grade.

I turned my head back to the path and kept running, pushing myself to go as fast as my heavy frame could carry me. I heard her start to fall back even as she continued to plead with me to show some mercy. I knew what she meant, too: Losing the thing you're supposed to protect is a grievous offense, usually punishable by further physical labor. I would not have wanted to be in her situation.

I lost her, or she gave up. Either way, I arrived back at my dorm and hid the book among my things. My roommate and I kept it for a few days, exploring the trivia and history within but mostly marveling at how useless and ultimately boring it was. I'm sure I returned it to her, though I can't remember how or when. I know I didn't keep it. I saw her around campus for two more years, but we never really talked.

Smart, Thuggish, Movie-Mad, Trivia-Crazed: Or, How I Spent My Week At The South By Southwest Film Festival

sxsw_2010.jpg I recently got home from my second South by Southwest Film Festival. The fest also includes components for music and interactive, but since I am not in a band and don't design apps, I stick with movies. It was a busy, crazy, fun week, and I saw a decent selection of films, some better than others. I'll have reviews of some at Pajiba and The Hollywood Reporter in the coming days and weeks, but for now, here's a round-up of the posts I did for THR. I'm much happier with my THR coverage this year than I was last year, mainly because last year I had to file my copy to a territorial and obtuse reporter who rewrote my blog posts to fit his pedantic, first-person-plural, generally awful tone. But he's since moved on, and the staffer I worked with this year was encouraging and fun and respectful of the fact that my stuff sounds like me, and shouldn't be changed to sound like someone else.

Kick-Ass Tucker and Dale vs. Evil The People vs. George Lucas Predators Cyrus (includes, as a bonus, an awkward interview) MacGruber Reflections on SXSW