Sunday, September 27, 2009
Mixed Media Monday
Last year at about this same time I found that an old friend of mine had died, so I wrote something for him. The fall always makes me remember my friend. This song always makes me remember him. He never had a a wife or children. Most of his family is gone. But I want someone to remember him, so I made this for him. Let me tell you about my friend.
Joel was the first bad boy I ever knew. When we were nine years old, we were assigned seats next to each other in the cafeteria, and two seemingly very different children became friends. He was a wild boy; I was a good little girl. He was smart but he hated worksheets, so he didn't do them; I worked hard to make all E's. He cussed; I was a teacher's pet. He passed around a homemade Playboy magazine in a pink folder and got suspended from the fourth grade; I practiced my dance routine to "Up, Up and Away" for the school talent show.
Maybe our odd-couple friendship was based on the fact that we both came from terribly dysfunctional families, a fact I didn't realize until we were in high school. Or maybe it was just that we shared a wicked sense of humor. Whatever it was, we talked. A lot. We talked at lunch and later, when boys started calling girls in the sixth grade, we'd talk for hours on the phone. I don't remember what we talked about, but he made me laugh, and, no matter how bad his reputation was, he was always sweet to me.
The first time he invited me to go to the fair with him in seventh grade, I realized he had a little bit of a crush on me. I wanted to go with him. I told him I would go, but I chickened out at the last minute. Girls like me just did not go places with bad boys like Joel. He didn't hold it against me, though. The next day at school he brought me a stuffed animal he'd won, and once a year, after that, he'd invite me to the fair, I'd turn him down, and the next day he'd bring me another stuffed animal. Until tenth grade. By then I'd started dating other boys and gotten all involved with prissy things like painting banners for football games and high school formals. Joel spent most of his time riding around smoking pot and trying to score harder stuff. When he transferred to another high school our senior year, I barely noticed.
After high school, I went to college. Joel didn't, and I never saw him again. My e-mail yesterday said that he'd died after a long battle with heroin addiction. In 1980 he was arrested for a simple assault charge and tried to hang himself in jail. The guards cut him down, but not until after he'd suffered brain damage. The next twenty years consisted of one halfway house after another and then finally a nursing home. And then he died.
It's surprising how much I remember about him after so long. I remember a small, skinny boy with shaggy dark blond hair, a grin, and a gleam in his eyes. I remember that he lent me his coat on cold days on the playground. I remember that, in sixth grade, we made a bet about who was taller and, when we were measured for graduation to junior high school, we were nearly the exact same size: 4' 11" tall. I weighed 68 pounds and Joel outweighed me at a whopping 74 pounds. I remember the raspy sound of his laugh when his voice changed. His eyes were green and his middle name was Alan. I remember his red suede Converse All-Stars, his flannel shirts, the shape of his eyebrows and that "Like A Rolling Stone" was his favorite song. I remember when we were studying Great Expectations in the ninth grade and he managed to wake up long enough to read the part of one of the thieves aloud with a ridiculous, hilarious Cockney accent. I remember Joel laughing.
A lot of people I've cared about have died. I feel worse about Joel than anyone else, except my father and a sixteen year old member of my cheerleading squad. Why do I remember Joel in such excruciating detail? I think it's because, even at the age of nine, our souls recognized each other, and we tried to take care of each other just a little bit. Joel didn't get to do what he was supposed to do in life. He didn't get something he needed to make him whole. Joel had goodness and joy in him. He just needed help bringing it out.
I wish he'd had a happier life. I wish he'd found hope. I wish I'd gone to the fair and eaten cotton candy and ridden the double ferris wheel with him just once.