In 1977, 1978, I was friends with a guy named Mark K. Seems like I've always had a friend named Mark, or almost always--subject to brief periods where I did not, a few years here, a few years there. Weird.
...but we were friends and palled around like grade school boys do.
In 1979, something happened, though.
Now, I'd spent two semesters at another school, in a program for undereperforming kids. I was too smart and too undisciplined; the program taught kids like me how to buckle down and do the work. And an odd thing happened: when I returned to my former school, the one that's 1/4 mile from the bunker, I was no longer the unpopular kid everyone teased. Still not Big Man On Campus, but I had some friends (Mark K. included) and in general things were...not bad.
Went on a 6th grade trip, came back from that and the year was basically over and it was summer break.
I don't understand what happened, nor why; my memories of the time are not complete. I'm guessing I didn't see anything of Mark over summer vacation, and I have a feeling that at some point I was told he was grounded until school started; I don't really remember. I seem to recall that to be the case, but I just don't remember for sure.
What I do remember is knowing that I'd see Mark at the bus stop on the first day of junior high school, of 7th grade, and I was looking forward to it; only when I saw him that morning he was not acting friendly.
I was telling him about how Mom had forgotten to buy lunch stuff and ended up making me a lunch consisting of a sandwich and four Twinkies, and he interrupted me.
"Get away from me, man! I don't care about your Twinkies!"
I can hear him say it now, can see the look of amused scorn on his face.
I don't remember what happened after that, either, except that I must have moved away from him, my face radiating confusion, thinking, I thought we were friends....
That pretty well set the tone for the whole day, and in fact the whole year. Starting off school with no friends my age, none in my class, the people who I'd hung around with the prior year just freezing me out as if I were leprous.
Which is to say I had one friend my age with whom I shared no classes, despite the proximity of our last names in the alphabet, and the fact that everyone was pretty much taking the same classes in 7th grade.
Was it the trip to White Pines Ranch in northwestern Illinois? What happened there that caused this?
There was a lengthy period where the bunker didn't have a hot water heater, because the original one had rusted through and flooded the basement, and because economic malaise and stagflation and Dad had one daughter going to art school and was (I think) still paying for the first daughter's wedding, and this and that and the other thing, so to take a bath one had to boil two big pots of water and then add them to cold water in the tub. The result was that one could bathe in about three inches of decently hot water--but it was an enormous pain in the ass.
My parents never forced us kids to bathe more than once a week, and--I don't know--never seemed to care much about instilling good habits in me. I wasn't told to wash my face and brush my teeth every night, nor was I ever really monitored to make sure I was doing any of it. Dad would come home from work, have dinner and a couple martinis, and typically was asleep before 9. Mom would stay up late reading or doing the crossword puzzle or whatever. For a while--and right in the middle of this period of my life--she was on the sauce, too, so she paid even less attention to my habits. (Plus side: that time period was the last time she went off the wagon; she realized that she absolutely could not drink at all--and from then on never touched another drop.) My parents had had three other kids; you know what that's like: the first kid is monitored and parented and raised to within an inch of his life, but by the time you get to number four, you figure that as long as the kid has food to eat and clothes to wear and a decent place to sleep he's probably not going to turn out totally feral. Given how things were around here in the late 1970s, I'd bet that Dad thought Mom was monitoring me, and Mom thought Dad was keeping me in line, so neither one did.
The other problem is, I was going through a phase where I was very body-shy. The first couple nights of the week we were at the dude ranch, the boys were engaging in horseplay: a guy would stick a camera in a shower that was in use and click the shutter, setting off the flash. In the sober light of adulthood I can't believe they really got pictures of anything; it was more about provoking a reaction...but at the time my reaction to this was basically OH HELL NO and I avoided the showers.
I mean, at home, I would change clothes in the bathroom, even if I was just changing my shirt. I slept in my clothes (on the family room floor, in fact, due to a honey of a nightmare I'd had that left me unable to sleep in a darkened room) and changed in the bathroom in the morning. Understand: I kept clean. I wasn't filthy. I just did things differently than most people...which, of course, is a heinous crime to preadolescent children.
So, I'm guessing my peers saw how I handled my hygiene--which was not how they did it--and decided I was disgusting, and I'm guessing that at some point Mark was told by his other friends that he had the basic choice of being friends with them or being friends with me, but not both...and the choice had obviously been presented to him early in the summer of 1979.
Probably the fact that I didn't go swimming when everyone else did was also a factor. But having to strip to my skin and take a shower before putting on my bathing suit was just completely off the table thanks to my shyness.
In the end I suppose that the wholesale rejection I suffered in the autumn of 1979 must have been inevitable; there were just too many factors beyond my control and the outcome could not have been otherwise. But it was also a kind of "perfect storm", where half a dozen little things all combined to make things work out the way they did. It's peculiar, and painful to think about, but at the same time I don't know how things could possibly have been any different.
Funny thing, though--
I hung around with a couple of guys, who had gone to a different grade school, didn't know me, apparently didn't care about what other people said: Adam and Dennis. Dennis was blind and usually didn't bother to participate in PE class if he didn't feel like it. Adam--I never knew what Adam's deal was but he was good friends with Dennis and wouldn't dress out for PE either; and because my body shyness was so bad I flat-out refused to change into a gym uniform, so I would also sit on the sidelines, and that was how I met one friend I still have to this day.
* * *
Still, I have to wonder: why am I remembering this now, and with such clarity? It's come to mind before and it never bothered me, nor did I really think much about it; but this time it's struck a chord and I'm not sure why.
Ahh, maybe there doesn't have to be a reason.