The God of High School
I don’t think I thought of Eli every single time I walked down lower Seventh Avenue, but I may have. His parents’ West Village brownstone had been a shrine to me in high school insofar as Eli, himself, had been a god. When passing it back then, I craned my neck at the upstairs window and said whatever magic words I believed would make him mine. I last saw Eli many years ago, on a weeknight, around 11:30, on a crowded uptown 1 train. Gradually, over the course of a few stops, I had become aware of someone sobbing at the other end of the car. Insane and homeless people often boarded at Franklin Street; maybe there was a shelter nearby. I attributed this sad new noise to such a person, because New York was full of them at the time.
By Houston Street I had the feeling that the sobbing person was neither homeless nor insane, but I wasn’t sure, as I was unable to get a good look. By Christopher Street, most of the standees left, and the car was sufficiently empty to snatch a peek at the hopeless soul. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I remembered that kind of weeping from childhood: It allows no sidelong glance; it drives comfort away. I wondered what kind of person could sob so, alone on the subway? I would rather have been boiled in oil than subject myself to the cruel stares of subway riders.
Almost everyone left the 1 for the 2 at Fourteenth Street, including the weeper. Since I was continuing on, and it was probably my last chance, I was emboldened to stare. Turning to look out the window, I scanned the platform for someone ruined, disfigured, foreign, strange. As my eyes finished their survey and the train pulled forward, a face appeared right in front of me on the other side of the window. It was the face of the boy I had loved, ceaselessly and unrequitedly, for the longest four years of my life. It was Eli, his cheeks stained and contorted. My train pulled into the tunnel.
* * *
Now I have to go back a bit farther: My first summer home in New York after four years of college. No surprise that it was dismally hot outside or that me and all my friends were living in roachy, appalling tenements in the vicinity of Avenue A. At the time, this was a real adventure and we loved it. I can remember dressing in shorts and tank tops and other clothes far too flimsy for the city as I had known it as a child and as I came to understand it again, later. But that summer I was bulletproof, flaunting my youth and my skin as I walked down Essex Street under a cloud of marijuana smoke.
My god our lives were repulsive, in retrospect. Stef worked till three every morning and she and I lived next door to a storefront that sold headstones. After business hours, junkies sold incredibly personal-seeming artifacts off of stained blankets; things like chipped coffee cups and pre- owned brassieres. Liz shared a one-bedroom apartment with a lesbian punk band who rehearsed in the room that wasn’t the bedroom. One of Christina’s roommates was a convicted rapist and another of them was a girl runaway from Virginia. But beers at the Polish bars were well under a dollar and no one, yet, knew about AIDS.
In the early months of that summer, I somehow got invited to a party at Eli’s parents’ house, the brownstone in the West Village. There’s a particular kind of revenge I sought against this boy who never loved me: I would arrive in a phalanx of mesmerizingly hip girls from the Lower East Side and, wearing lipstick and as little clothing as possible, I would suddenly reveal myself to be the mysterious and petal- strewn road not taken. Eli had not loved me back, back in high school. He had teased me, and nuzzled me, and, upon trying to kiss me had observed that I was “a freaking amateur.” I’m not sure if I ever even looked him in the eye. I was so sure I would fail at whatever it was that people did in the dark, with their eyes closed.
My girlfriends had balked at the idea of a party at someone’s parents’ house at our advanced stage of independence, but I had promised “cool” and I delivered. We arrived late and the place, the brownstone where I had suffered my first bad high and my brother had puked on the couch over New Year’s 1973, was as strange and impressive as it had ever been. Even better, our friend Josh turned up with his army of bad boys from Washington Square. There was loud music and rowdy boys and drink and drugs and animals and giant plants and interior balconies that dropped off vertiginously. Stef, Christina, Josh, Artie and I started slam dancing and eventually broke a fair amount of glass.
Somewhere along the way, I wound up reclining against the back wall of Eli’s boyhood bed and telling him the sloppy drunken truth about my four years of adolescent lovesickness. Here’s the short version:
In ninth grade, I fell in love with him at first sight and was so blinded by the enormity of his hipness that, when he tried to kiss me one afternoon on the back stairs, I ran as fast and far as possible. In retrospect, his assessment of me was perfect. I was the definition of an amateur: My sexuality was entirely driven by my girlish fantasy of love. In my journal every day I charted the temperature of our interactions in a code known only to me. Pluses and minuses and arrow-pierced hearts spelled out the extent to which I had experienced eye contact, been smiled at, exchanged wiseasseries, or remained rapt yet unseen. I cannot tell you how bad it had all felt at the time, except that you probably remember.
At the party, we made out for a while on his single bed. In fact, I think he took off my shirt. I managed to overlook the fact that the woman sulking in the loft above us was his actual girlfriend. I was having a drunken revel and a taste of revenge. He would return to her in the morning.
Guilt or no guilt, I still eventually had to excuse myself to pee. I also planned to check in on my pals, who had probably noticed my absence and would no doubt notice my flushed and breathless condition, as well. As I sat myself down on the toilet, the bathroom door jiggled insistently and then opened itself to admit not Stef (who I would have welcomed) but Eli. I realized he was very drunk. Okay, I thought, I’m cool. Then he tried to sit on my lap and kiss me some more as I sat on the toilet with my jeans around my ankles. Some wrestling ensued. Despite my physical and verbal insistence, Eli wouldn’t leave the bathroom. In fact, he wound up peeing in the sink and showering me with refracted urine, which was, ultimately, more than even my still-teenaged heart could excuse.
Once out of the bathroom, I rounded up the girls and whoever else was ready and we returned to our roach motel apartments laughing and full of fight. The girls were too drunk to know how humiliated I felt, and how disappointed. And though I thought of him often, that was the last time I spoke to Eli; that night when he pissed on me and when I was looking my best.
* * *
I’ve briefly described my passionate devotion to Eli during our high school years. I guess many people have painful obsessions at that age but I can only say, mine was worse. That I can not even walk by his house without thinking of him, ten, fifteen, twenty years later should tell you something. In my mind, at this very moment, I can hear the peculiarly Midwestern falling inflection he gave to the expression “My God,” at age fifteen. It was my father’s voice only hipper. I could draw his hands for you today as readily as I could point out the color of that T-shirt only he could wear. It showed his collarbones, which were pronounced like my own.
I suppose he was a version of myself to me, and that partially explains my fascination. It’s been twenty-five years, now, since we met in the library in the first week of ninth grade (he was reading Catch-22 and I was hiding)and I’m sure I still think about him once a week–just for a flash, as long as it takes to hear a sound or smell a smell. Particularly a smell like patchouli oil, for example, or a sound like the opening chords of Hendrix playing “Little Wing.”
In memory, our teenage relationship is always quite clear to me. We liked each other, we got along, but I was not nearly his equal. I was as afraid of Eli in ninth grade as I would have been of a grown man with body hair and an ex-wife. By the end of tenth grade, all my girlfriends had diaphragms and I still had not even really kissed a guy. In fact, I was waiting for a commuter bus in the Port Authority bus terminal on my sixteenth birthday, and a scruffy runaway with a guitar struck up a conversation with me. When I told him it was my sixteenth birthday, he responded, “And never been kissed?” Having somehow missed the song lyric, I believed my inexperience was so transparent that this dimwit could see it on me like the mark of Cain. I ran from him as fast as I could.
So, in fantasies based only on thoughtless greetings in the hallways, Eli occupied my thoughts for the better part of 1200 nights. Even accounting for the odd visitor from another school, home-from-college older brother, newly discovered rock or movie star, I’d not go beneath a thousand on that estimate. When I look back, I see my loneliness and my secret virginity and I want to cry for all the wasted longing. But in those thousand nights, I was also hard at work becoming myself today, and today I’m neither a passive fool nor a love slave, even if that’s the most I can claim.
I remembered all this and more with startling clarity until, recently, I was reunited with my journals from high school. I hadn’t looked at them in years. Appalled at the sheer mass of my recorded self-loathing, and suspecting that most of the five or so volumes would be hapless mooning over Eli, I almost put them away unopened. They bugged me, though, and eventually I compromised by making myself a deal. I would open one and only one book, at random.
Not surprisingly, I came across a forgotten event: A school trip upstate in tenth grade, beyond the suburbs, out of harm’s way. It was a rainy weekend at someone’s parents’ volunteered farmhouse and there were about thirty of us cooped up there, smoking pot, playing “Killer” and “Spit” and feeling as though we were in a Noel Coward play. The Phys. Ed teacher, who resembled Charles Manson without the tattoo, supervised. A silent boy named Chris had a crush on me and pursued it by repeatedly offering me peppermint Life Savers. I avidly befriended Eli’s younger sister, who had just arrived at school that fall.
As Saturday afternoon got soggier and avoiding Chris stopped seeming like fun, I went inside to read by the fire. Shortly, Eli appeared nearby and asked me to come upstairs with him, perhaps to smoke more pot. I needed no excuse, I went, and found myself almost immediately halfway underneath him on a bunkbed. It was nothing less than the moment I had been waiting for. Instead of kissing back, however, or even just succumbing, belle-like, I sat up and said, “Hold on a minute.” At least this is what I wrote down in my journal.
Eli tried to arouse my sympathy–he said how much he liked to make love and how long it had been since he’d done so but I held back, wanting to be told that I alone was lovely. Then he asked me to tell him “about the men in my life.” As it had previously at the bus station, the terrible transparency of my innocence humiliated me.
“You really want to know?” I asked him and he nodded. I drew a big goose egg in the air, which he looked at uncomprehendingly and then, at last, understood.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “you’ll teach a few men a thing or two before you’re done.”
And then we sat on the bed and talked about normal stuff–the lasagna they were serving for dinner, and an argument I had had with the gym teacher about the credibility of Leon Russell’s version of “Youngblood.” Later, back at school, my old pattern of distant suffering continued as before while I erased all memory of the chance I’d passed up so decisively.
When I encountered this passage in my old notebook I was astounded. How could I have forgotten that I had rejected Eli, and that he still comforted me? The entire character of my adolescence, to which I referred daily in the intervening years as lost, helpless, boy-wracked, and inconsolable, was a myth. Eli had valued me and I had prevailed.
* * *
Though the last time I saw Eli was that night on the subway, it was not the last I heard of him. From one friend or another I learned that he was married, still living in New York, and that he was writing a novel. These sounded like good things. Then, one afternoon in Los Angeles, I ran into his older sister at a party. Amanda was married to a wealthy producer, lived in the country somewhere, had two beautiful children, horses, dogs. . . . Despite the old West Village scene, there had also been something blueblood about the whole family. They skied in the Alps.
I made polite conversation with Amanda, but it didn’t take me long to get down to my real interest and ask her how her brother was. Even after the golden shower, and especially after the subway cri de coeur, I still carried the flame. “Well,” she said, “He’s dying of AIDS.”
I don’t know if I began to cry right away. Probably not, it was a party. Time and again I tried to write Eli a letter but found that I knew both too little and too much. The story Amanda told was that he had had a tainted blood transfusion. Naturally this was possible, but seemed the least likely source of transmission for the young satyr I had known. But why should I worry at causes? Would it make things any less tragic?
* * *
Now I no longer go to that friend’s parties and I’m not in touch with anyone from high school. For all I know, Eli is dead. For all I know, he’s alive and well. For all I know, his sister only meant he’d tested positive. I never sent the letters I tried to write.
As I’ve said, I loved Eli. Not the way you love family, or even pets. Not the way you love lovers, either. Another way, that never gets much credit or does much good. There’s no plausible context in which to say good-bye to him, except on paper alone in my room: Good-bye Eli, you beautiful adolescent, wasted teenager, friend, example, thorn. I don’t know what you leave behind. I can’t offer you comfort or even sympathy but I do remember you, all the time. I hope that you aren’t dead and I hope that you aren’t alone, but most of all I hope that you remember me.