Before Pauline, I only had two close friends. Rudy Sylvester was this genius kid who originally came from Chicago. His grandmother was from Russia or something and Rudy could speak about ten languages. He was also a wizard in math. He could get straight A's without hardly studying, which used to drive me nuts. I had to work my ass off to get an A in any class and most of the time I got B's and C's. My teachers kept saying I was more intelligent than my grades showed, only I didn't apply myself to school work. They didn't know what the hell they were talking about. I applied myself all over the place. There are just some things I can't understand, like solid geometry. It's because my three-dimensional perception is really lousy for some reason. I took a test once and scored in the seventeenth percentile in three-dimensional perception. That means out of every hundred kids who took the test, eighty-three scored better. I just couldn't visualize how two-dimensional diagrams could be folded into three-dimensional objects. I can never be a pilot, which is a shame since I wouldn't mind being an airline pilot and flying passengers around the world. Or dating those gorgeous stewardesses. (I refuse to call them flight attendants because it makes them sound like grease monkeys or something.)
My other friend was Harold Ward. He was a goofy-looking kid who worked in a drug store after school and on weekends. He owned an old Chevy and we used to tool around town in it whenever we got bored. The three of us hung out together because we were all from poor families and the snobs in school looked down on us. They thought we were losers since our parents weren't sitting on piles of money like their parents were. They felt culturally deprived because we don't have a Starbucks in our town. I'm not joking. Most of them don't even drink coffee, for Chrissakes. I hate snobs worse than criminals. Don't get me started on that subject or I'll go on for months. I could write a whole book on the social cliques in our high school and how they behaved like lemmings. Maybe I will some day.
I'll give you one example, though. The homeroom monitor, Jerry Cunningham, began bugging me to buy the class yearbook. He couldn't get it through his thick head that I had absolutely no interest in it. For one thing I wasn't even in the damn thing myself. I didn't show up when the photos were taken. I had better things to do than play the stupid game of pretending I wanted to keep a memento of my crappy days at Roosevelt High School. Like I might pull out the old yearbook some day when I was forty and get all misty-eyed looking at the faces of my classmates. The truth is I wanted to forget all but two or three of them as soon as I graduated. The other thing is I couldn't spare the money. My family wasn't exactly rich, but I couldn't explain that to a pampered jerk like Cunningham. He was probably born with a silver spoon up his ass, judging from the expensive clothes he wore. He couldn't understand that some people had to save their money for food and other important stuff. I never went hungry, but it was only because I didn't waste money on idiotic junk like yearbooks.
Anyway, Cunningham kept bugging me about the yearbook until one day I blew up in his face.
"I don't want the goddamn thing!" I shouted. "I'm gonna fucking puke if you mention it one more time!"
I was shaking like crazy and the homeroom teacher tried to calm me down. I don't like to lose control of my nerves like that — it scares me, if you want to know the truth — but I couldn't take it anymore. Cunningham stood there looking at me like I was insane. The teacher finally made him go to his seat and then had this little talk with me. Her name was Miss Meckler and she was also my Spanish teacher. She was one of the few teachers I respected and I could tell she was worried about me. I apologized profusely and told her I was all right, but she still looked nervous.
"Really, I'm fine," I said.
"Are you sure you don't want to go home?"
"I can't. I have a math test today."
"Will you do me a favor?"
"Please watch your language in class from now on. Okay?"
That's what I liked about Miss Meckler. She was always so nice to me when I didn't deserve it. Any other teacher would have sent me to the principal's office for swearing. To be honest, I had a small crush on her. I realize it sounds stupid because she was pushing forty, but she was sort of attractive in a strange way. The single men teachers swarmed around her like hound dogs with their tongues hanging out. I had the feeling she didn't date any of them. Maybe I was wrong, but Miss Meckler seemed to know she was too classy for guys like Mr. Gessen, the gym teacher who was trying harder than anyone else to get her in the sack. I didn't like Mr. Gessen because he picked on the skinny kids in gym class. It wasn't their fault they were skinny or sickly looking. They were mostly from poor families and I figured they couldn't afford to eat too good. Mr. Gessen didn't care about why they were skinny, he was on a personal mission to make them feel lousy about it. He had a stocky build and I think he was in love with himself. When he worked out, he seemed absolutely sure everyone was watching him flex his goddamn rippling muscles or something. I hate jocks, in case you couldn't tell. Most of them are troglodytes who should live in caves.
Anyway, it was a miracle Pauline wasn't in homeroom the day I blew my top. She was sick or something that morning. It would have been embarrassing if she had seen me flip out. I didn't want her to think I was a maniac because I really wasn't. I just had this low tolerance for bullshit, which was turning out to be a goddamn handicap in a world that runs on bullshit for fuel.
My favorite teacher was Hugh McAllister, who taught chemistry. Mr. McAllister was completely different than the other teachers and most of the students thought he was mental or something. For one thing he wore a suit and tie to class since he didn't have any choice. They were required by the teacher's dress code. But he also wore tennis shoes, which I think was his way of thumbing his nose at the dress code. He had some medical condition that made his face muscles sort of droop and he always looked depressed, even though he wasn't. I had been a chemistry nut since I was eleven and my old man bought me my first chemistry set for Christmas. By the time I got to high school I already knew the chemistry textbook backward and forward, but I didn't tell Mr. McAllister about getting such a big head start. I let him think I learned everything from his course. He really was a great teacher because he taught a lot more than chemistry in his class. He tried to get us to think for ourselves and to question accepted ideas, which was the most important lesson I ever learned in school. Mr. McAllister used to invite certain students to his house at night to discuss science and philosophy and so forth. He smoked a pipe and drank so many Pepsi colas I thought he might explode or something.
When I wasn't in school, I hung out at home most of the time, which drove my mother crazy. She claimed I would get cabin fever if I didn't go out and do something more often. Cabin fever, that was really hilarious. We didn't live in a cabin, but I knew what she meant. She was wrong, though. I really enjoyed staying at home when I was in the mood for it. My room felt comfortable and I had my own TV in there. It was only a 13-inch black and white set, but who cares? I mean, the programs aren't more intelligent or anything just because they're in color. And I got to watch what I wanted instead of the crap my parents liked. You wouldn't believe what they watched. News programs two or three times a night, for Chrissakes. They were practically addicted to current events. If they didn't get their nightly fix, they got all cranky and acted lost. Like they were afraid current events stopped happening or something just because they didn't watch them unfold on TV. My parents think I'm weird, but they should take a look in the mirror sometime.
The odd thing is my old man and I were buddies when I was a little kid. He used to say he thought the sun rose and set in my ass, which was kind of embarrassing the way he phrased it, but I understood what he meant and I felt close to him, too. One of my earliest memories is about the time our house caught fire when I was four. Me and my old man were alone in the kitchen and I told him I smelled something burning. He opened the door to the upstairs part of the house and smoked poured out. I got really scared when he ran up the stairs and disappeared into the smoke. We both managed to escape before the house burned to the ground. The next day the landlord was mad as hell and confronted my old man holding a big wrench in one hand. He was shouting like crazy and waving the wrench around like he intended to hit someone. My old man said he'd make him eat the goddamn wrench if he didn't put it down. It worked and I thought my dad was the bravest man in the world.
When I was seven, my old man took me along when he went to Sears just before Christmas. He told me to wait in the car and returned carrying this big box. I asked him if it was the electric train set I wanted for Christmas. "Don't be so nosy or Santa won't bring you anything," he grumbled. To be honest, I never believed in Santa Claus and I wondered why my parents didn't admit the gifts came from them. As young as I was, I thought it was silly for grown-ups to pretend some fat man in a red suit drove around with a bunch of reindeer delivering gifts. Did they think I was stupid enough to believe a story like that?
Anyway, something happened when I got older. I have never been able to figure out exactly what it was, but my old man and I started disliking each other intensely. Either he changed or I did or maybe we both changed. Whatever caused it, we just didn't see eye to eye anymore and there was a lot of bitterness between us. By the time I was a teenager my mother had to act like a sort of referee when the two of us got into hassles. My old man always had the last word, but my mother tried to stick up for me some of the time. My family began to remind me of the goddamn Mafia or something. We had shifting alliances, emotional extortion, threats of violence and even real violence once in awhile. Nobody actually murdered anyone, but other than that, it was very similar to this popular gangster soap opera on cable TV. Which I hated because it didn't have any redeeming social values that I could see. You know the show I mean.
Even though I had a radio in my room, I seldom listened to music. Most of the current bands sound like they never left their garages if you ask me. Grunge is something you wash off in the shower, not something you try to imitate in music. Once in awhile I tuned into a Chicago station that played classical rock music from the 60s and 70s, but the signal faded out if it was raining or something.
Last year I stopped watching nature programs on TV. They always show lions murdering poor antelopes or killer whales gobbling baby seals. It makes me sick to my stomach. If that's nature, we're all in big trouble. My idea of hell is being born a predator and having to murder innocent animals to keep from starving to death. Lions might look regal and all, but they're in hell whether they know it or not. If God designed this gory arrangement, then he must have a very sick sense of humor.
I don't eat meat. My old man thinks I'm crazy to skip "all that good protein" and my mother bitches constantly about having to cook separate vegetarian dishes for me, but this is one point I won't budge on. Most vegetarians argue that meat is bad for your health. I don't care about that. The only good reason for a vegetarian diet is compassion for animals. Some of them eat each other, but we don't have to follow their bad example. We're supposed to have a goddamn conscience, aren't we? And please don't give me any crap about plants not deserving to die because they have feelings, too. Plants are a lower form of life that have to be eaten by animals. We can't eat dirt or rocks to stay alive. I would if I could, but that's not the way life was set up. I wasn't around when evolution made all the rules.
Usually Harold or Rudy dropped by my place a couple times a week to shoot the breeze. As if we didn't see each other every day in school. My parents aren't exactly crazy about them, if you want to know the truth. I'm not always crazy about them either, especially Harold. He can be a real asshole if you let him get away with it. When I told him about calling Pauline, he started giving me all this advice about getting her in the sack. Most of the time Harold can't find his own penis with both hands, but he thinks of himself as Don Juan in spite of the fact that he's never had a girlfriend in his life. He claims he got laid one summer when his parents took him fishing at a lake upstate, but I don't believe him for a second. He's a terminal virgin if I ever saw one. That's why I got so pissed off when he needled me about Pauline.
"What if I don't want to get her in the sack?"
"Don't give me that," he said, picking a pimple on his face. "You're so horny for that girl you can't see straight."
"You don't know how I feel, so how about shutting your pie hole?"
"I'm surprised she didn't call the cops and report you as a stalker."
"Knock it off, Harold. I mean it."
"You're just afraid she'll freak out if she finds out who you are."
He was sitting on my bed and I chucked a full can of soda at his head. It missed by a mile and bounced off the wall, spewing Dr. Pepper all over the place. I have a lousy aim when I'm mad.
Harold jumped up, wiping his shirt. "What the hell'd you do that for?"
"I was trying to give you a brain hemorrhage, but I forgot you don't have a brain."
"Very funny. I only wanted to help you avoid —"
"Do me a big favor," I interrupted. "Stop trying to help me."
"Jesus, you don't have to get so touchy. Every time I mention Pauline's name, you practically —"
"I've got more soda in the refrigerator."
To make Harold shut up about anything, you had to resort to cave man behavior. He wouldn't listen to reason. If you tried to reason with him, he just kept running his mouth until you felt like strangling him or something. Rudy had a girlfriend whose name was Thelma. She wasn't all that much to look at, but she was actually pretty nice. The problem was Rudy felt sort of ashamed of having a plain Jane girlfriend. He was no Brad Pitt himself, but he thought he could do better than Thelma. Most guys tend to think they can do better than whatever girlfriend they have, even if she's good looking. It's like the grass always looks greener on other girls for some reason. I don't understand it. If Thelma was my girlfriend, I wouldn't feel ashamed of her like Rudy does. But at least he didn't give me any flack about Pauline and I appreciated that. He probably felt the same as Harold, but he had the courtesy to keep his mouth shut about it. To be honest, I didn't really expect either one of them to understand why I loved Pauline. I wasn't even sure I understood it myself. When I thought about it too much, I had to admit it seemed kind of off the wall and hopeless. Sometimes being in love isn't everything it's cracked up to be.
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