Thursday, September 4, 2014

Skydiving lessons from an acrophobic

I can still feel the blisters on the backs of my heels.  Roller skates, no matter how hard I tied them or which way I positioned my foot, always managed to feel incredibly uncomfortable.  But there I was, once a month, at the local roller rink.  I attended such affairs throughout my school years out of some sense of duty rather than my own personal interest. 
                This, I had decided early on, was what the regular kids did.  And I was going to be one, damn it.  Later, I'd find myself standing around the snack bars at school dances and wandering aimlessly solo behind the football bleachers.
                The first Friday of every month, Tanque Verde Elementary School organized a free outing to the Skate Country - the local roller rink (because apparently I grew up in the late '70s).  Skate Country had a simple constitution - no skating too fast, no intentionally knocking over other skaters, no foul language.  It was a large, rectangular building that in a past or future life could easily transform into a meat locker.  The exterior surroundings of the dodgy plaza in which it resided- - an environmental plant, a tractor rental shop - gave it an industrial, almost post-apocalyptic look.  Or it was something straight out of The Warriors. 
                There were special events - races, skating backwards, arcade.  I was pretty good at the arcade, but lousy at the other stuff.  The most awkward event for a sixth grader uncomfortable and unsure of his own physical appearance came about an hour into the evening.
                "Alright kids," the disaffected teen DJ would announce, "It's time for couple's skating!"
                This should be self-explanatory.  Kids paired off and skated slowly to then-current early 90's ballads.  Most of the songs were eerily inappropriate for sixth graders at the time, though by today's standards I imagine they're tame.  I quietly resigned myself to the small arcade conclave and killed aliens and predators and T-1000s until it was over.
                My favourite was an oversized console allowing four players to select an individual X-Men.  I was always Cyclops.  He had a laser.  Later in life, I'd learn what a lame character he actually was, always hung up and brooding about Jean Grey.  It is his uncontrollable grief (and the fact that James Marsden wanted to opt out of the film in favour of Superman Returns), that leads to his off-screen demise.   
                One night, probably because I was out of quarters, I exhaled heavily and skated clumsily toward a girl whose name I don't remember. 

Baby, I compare you to a kiss from a rose on a gray

I glided toward her as she leaned against the pink cement wall.

Ooh, the more I get of you, the stranger it feels, yeah

The skate dug a welt deeply in my right ankle and I couldn't raise my foot to hit the rubber stopper.

Now that your rose is in bloom
A light hits the gloom on the gray
(CD changes.  It's on random)
I believe I can fly

I settled on a bench nearby and rested until my foot felt capable of gliding back to the arcade, where girls never ventured.


                It is 2008 and I am lying in bed sleepless after a bad breakup.  She calls me and I listen to her play the guitar over the phone.  We are back together and it is nice for a while.


                It was around the same time Mr. Voutsas was teaching us history via Billy Joel and I was learning what a baby boomer was that I experienced a series of uncomfortable and humiliating missteps with the opposite gender.
                My best friend at the time was a young Mormon rebel - an oxymoron if ever there was one.  The seventh in a family of eleven children, Michael had been far more experienced than I.  There were stories about him being caught naked with the shop teacher's daughter.  The shop teacher had a nervous breakdown.  Only worsening his condition, his daughter turned her sexual preference 180 degrees soon after.

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning

                But apparently, Mike was trying to reform, or those stories were all lies, because he seemed to have a different agenda. 
                His cause was now an act of charity.  He decided, apropos of nothing, that I needed a girlfriend.  Being Mormon, however, certainly hindered his plans.   
                Wednesday nights, his parents' church held dances for the youth members.  I was to be his guest.  In order to be permitted into the church dance hall, I had to first meet with the pastor, answer some questions, and sign a guest card vowing chastity, let alone getting anywhere within a foot of my dance partner's body.
                Most of the girls were conventionally pretty, though like at any gathering, a few were hideous.  When you’re shooting for craps in the gene pool the way Mormons do, you’re bound to have a few misfires.
                At first, it seemed like fish in a barrel.  None of these girls, no matter how pretty, agreed to a dance.  Surely this was the place to be.  These girls were easy.  These girls were pleasant.  These girls laughed at my jokes and didn’t mind if I accidentally stepped on their feet a few times. 
                “So how long have you been a member of the church?”  one asked.
                “Oh, I’m not,” I said.  “I’m just here with that guy.  Mike.  He’s a friend.”
                “Oh, so what church do you belong to?”
                “I really don’t.  It’s been a while I…don’t really…church.”
                “Oh,” she said, disapprovingly.

                These girls, I realized, were trying to convert me to Mormonism.

When I was lonely and scared
I nearly fell for a TV preacher
In a hotel room in Tokyo
Oh, you truly saved me from that suicide
Because all the things, I die along with you

Remember the time
When I went to jump out of that apartment window
On the west side of town of ol' New York
Oh, you saved me from that suicide
Because of all my foolish pride

It is 2007 and I am at a wine and cheese.  Because of something I say, she chucks her wine glass at me with fury.  It shatters like a glass hand grenade against the steps of the reception.


                The phone rings in 1998.
                "Kenny?"  The voice is slightly menacing.
                "Who is this?"
                "Stay away from Kelly McClane motherfucker or you're going to die."
                Legend has it that, in high school, Kelly lost her virginity the way a future American icon would:  On the high school football field. I never spoke to her after the phone call.

                Ninth grade was the only year I ever utilized my school locker.  I did so not out of want, but out of legal necessity.  In April of 1999, shortly before the summer vacation began, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stepped into a high school in Columbine, Colorado and never walked out.

And nobody’s gonna go to school today
She’s gonna make them stay at home

                The ensuing panic that followed played out much like I imagine the Satanic Panic of the 1980s did.  Parents feared their children.  "Lockdown" procedures were practiced - drills that felt to me like the duck and cover nuclear ads from the Cold War.  Us kids spent most of the lockdown drills grilling our teachers. 
                "If we're all against the wall like this, can't the shooter just hit us all in a line, teacher?" someone would invariably ask.
                "I know. I know," the teacher unfailingly shook her head. 
                But after the initial horror and shock of the day had set in, to ninth graders, the scenario mostly played out like a Bruce Willis movie.  The three young boys used the school map in their scheduling planner to mark up the scenario.  It was innocent enough.  Foolish, warped minds of ‘90s era kids.  They grew up the same way I did, playing Wolfenstien 3D and watching Terminator 2 fourteen times a week.  By the end of the day, they were in police custody and expelled.  It was Kenny Marsh (another Kenny, and the only of the Emily Gray Three with a past criminal history), Eddie Cusak and a third name that I've long since forgotten.  For the sake of argument, let's call him the fat one.  He wasn't small.

And school's out early and soon we'll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die

                So, when the next school year began, backpacks were no longer allowed on campus.  I recall at my Ninth grade graduation assembly, security was further heightened.  Mr. Keegan stopped me at the gate and wanted to check the only thing I brought, a paperback James Ellroy novel, to see if I'd hollowed out the pages to fit - what?  The tiniest gun in the world?  Even an un-brandished jackknife wouldn't fit between cover to cover.
                My unfamiliarity with the innerworkings of a locker often led to tardy slips.  Tardy slips soon added up to detentions.
                I had collected almost enough to keep me from going to Freshman prom.  I didn't have a date, and the last time I attended school dances was two years previous when I was forced to out of my duties as a student councilman.  I spent my time between working the snack bar leaning against the blue mats in the gymnasium, scribbling words in a notebook.  But this was Prom, damnitt.  Or at least Freshman prom.  This was a rite of passage.  Or it was a meaningless precursor to a rite of passage.  And by gum I was going to ask a girl to go.  I just had to remind myself not to say anything like "By gum."

                Chelsea Kavener had "nipples like pepperonis," I was told by Alex Garcia.  It always stuck with me because, to this day, I was surprised such a bland meathead could grasp a simile,  let alone use one that felt dead-on accurate.
                There had always been stories about Chelsea.  Stories in the minds of young boys you imagine are always embellished or just made up.  Whitney Carver got Chlamydia right out of high school.  Amanda Bleeker went insane after her longtime boyfriend abandoned her.  Leslie Johnson lives in the Park Mall and prefers a rather uncouth sex act.
                You hear these stories, and you don’t care about their veracity.  They are local legends, like Eddie and Kenny and the fat one’s plans for Emily Gray.  “Did you hear they had explosives?” 
                “I heard Eddie had a list of us.” 
                “I heard it’s because we called the fat one ‘fat’.” 
                “Guys, we came so close.”

So close.  But we were miles away.
                Jane had sex on the golf course at 49ers and had to hide in the man-made lake when security rolled by.  Chelsea was loose and-
                “Chelsea, will you go to the prom with me?” I asked in photography class one day with the all the charm and abruptness of Barney Gumble.
                I bought her a corsage after parental insistence.  She didn’t allow me to pin it on.  Shortly after arriving, the latest 2000 hits blared on speakers.  I was in student counsel again, hanging against the blue mats.
                Chelsea was not in student counsel.  Chelsea was freaking with football players.  Freaking, for the uninitiated, was what we called twerking back then.  It is a style of dance that essentially involves acting out sex acts while fully clothed.

Shake ya ass
But watch ya self
Shake ya ass
Show me what you workin with

                Some of the girls who knew me grabbed my arms out of pity and encouraged me to join my date.  Chelsea looked me over as she seemingly rode some guy. 
                “Another time, another time,” she said.
                At the end of the evening, Chelsea and I shared a slow dance.  She laughed, half-snorted, and held me close.  “Thanks Kenny, you’re a great date.”           


Ice is back
With a brand new edition

                It is 2005.  I am a smooth talker and a snappy dresser.  I am in a suit pieced together from classy, yet novelty, articles I picked up from Value Village over the years.  Probably somebody died in this sports coat.  It is a mustard yellow number with leather patches on the elbows.
                She is cute, almost spritely.  So far, the conversation has been going well.  Her letting out boozy giggles, me shrugging and smiling like it ain’t no thang.  Until she notices the patches on my arm.
                “Oh. My God, I’ve never actually seen a jacket like that.”
                I smile, smoothly leaning closer to her, as if my joke was conspiratorial in nature.  "You've never been to college."
                Immediately, she storms off.  She says something to her friends.  They all look at me, aghast.  Surely she understood I was making reference to the old, 60’s radical professor look.  Like Donald Sutherland in Animal House.  Surely I wasn’t implying that she was a moron.
                “What the hell?” I say.  “All I said was that she hadn’t been to college.”
                “She hasn’t,” says Kyle. 

From Wikipedia:  Eventually, Knight showed up at Van Winkle's hotel suite on the fifteenth floor of the Bel Age Hotel, accompanied by a member of the Oakland Raiders. According to Van Winkle, Knight took him out on the balcony by himself, and implied that he would throw him off the balcony unless he signed the publishing rights to the song over to Knight; Knight used Van Winkle's money to help fund Death Row Records.

                It is 2002 and we are sitting in the high school newspaper room listening to Elvis Costello, sharing earbuds.  I do not know at this time, she loved me.
                I had been in high school for four years, had attended prom stag, and was growing frustrated.  That summer, I had inexplicably become friends with Eddie, the would-be school shooter.  At the time, I had a thing for his sister.  Years later, I am told she had a freakishly long tongue.  This is something I could have gone without knowing.
                “So Hedges,” he was the first person to call me by my last name.  “You want to go where the girls are?”
                “Well, yeah.  I figure, I got one more summer here.  I may as well make it count.”
                “I’ll take you to the girls.”
                Eddie drives.  We talk.  He still has a grudge for the way the school over-reacted.  He has become more of a cliché.  He spoke in a broken, uneducated way, laced with fits of frustration and anger that subsided at random.  In the 50s, he would have had a pack of cigarettes placed securely in the rolled-up short sleeve of a white undershirt.  In the 80s, he would have been played by Judd Nelson.  
                He pulls into a plaza and parks.
                “What are we doing here?”
                “You wanted to go where the girls are.”
                We enter Skate Country – two seventeen year old boys on the prowl.  Well, one on the prowl, the other scanning the room for potential amber alerts.  If I was going to be here, at the very least I could try and help some poor abductee.
                “Excuse me,” Eddie says to a skinny girl who couldn’t have been over fourteen.  “Would you skate with this guy?”
                He put his arm around me and smiled.  To add further insult, the 14-year-old laughed at me.
                I skated away, over to the arcade, where I felt at home.

                It is 2009 and I am driving past the old arcade off 22nd.  I smile.  All arcade cost a nickel. Tucson had what felt like wormholes to different eras.  All the hit games were in the front room, but in the back corner, tucked away like the adult section of a video store, were the ones no one liked.  I stayed in the back room for hours, mashing the buttons on the Robocop console.  I was always in the back room. 
                The arcade is gone now, converted into an archery store.  The last I heard of it was during a graduation party for one of my younger friends.
                An Eddie – not the Eddie, but the type – told me about Robin’s Archery. 
                “My friend locks up there and at night we go into the back room and smoke out and just chill.  It’s fuckin’ awesome.  You should come.”
                I declined.  That wasn’t my back room anymore. 
                 I studied local history avidly – the monsters and the mobsters and the heroes that once inhabited this barren desert, but had I taken an inventory of the emotional? 
                In the 60s, Charles Smidt stalked the streets of Tucson, picking up young girls walking home and offering rides.  He killed his first victim, then several more to earn the nickname “The Pied Piper of Tucson.”  And I thought of Eddie.
                In 1997, I’m sweet on Melissa. She and friend accompany me to Sabino Canyon – a tourist’s hike around the rock formations and small bodies of water at the base of Mount Lemmon.  We come to a steep cliff that leads to a pool of dark water down below.  They had all jumped off what must have been a fifteen foot drop into icy coolness and were calling me to do the same.
                There are reasons I don’t skydive; logical ones.  The shoot could fail, or be improperly packed.  There are a number of things that could send me into an uncontrolled, 1,500 foot drop.  There are reasons I don’t skydive, but women are different.
                I jump in. 
                Six years later, I get on an airplane and move to the city, where things like this don’t happen.

And now and then, if we must start again
Well we were not sure, that I love you

I don't want to lose you - oh no, no, no
Lose you or abuse you - oh no, no, no, sweet doll
But if you have to go, away
If you have to go...
Now and then, I miss you
Oh now and then, I...
I know it's true to me...
- John Lennon's lost song

Quotes from Seal, R. Kelly, Billy Joel, John Lennon, The Boomtown Rats, Mystikal


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