Seven a.m., or who the hell knows when, I dragged myself out of bed on very little sleep. I’d spent the past several months preparing for this day and I was a little on edge. Anxious to get through the meaningless school day.
Last year, a bunch of fellow nerd/artist/show-choir types had put together an event they’d called the “Collage Concert”, featuring a variety of music and theater performances in the dilapidated Milton High School auditorium. It was a pretty ambitious endeavor for our dinky little school, and it had been quite a success. This year I’d taken the reigns along with a couple other students. We wanted to showcase a bigger variety of art; in addition to the myriad performances onstage, we were going to transform the cafeteria into a student art gallery, and there would be a makeshift café in an adjacent room with poetry readings. In addition to being co-director (or something) of the thing, I was going to read a poem, and then later on, perform the Indigo Girls’ “Kid Fears” with my buddy Tadd.
Yeah I was nervous, but performance butterflies were nothing new. I felt like we were totally prepared. I was excited. I’m pretty sure that was the main feeling that morning. I drove Roxy to school, my blue 1977 Camaro that I’d bought last summer for $600. It looked sharp but its underside was composed almost entirely of rust; within a month or two its suspension would just disintegrate. Worth every penny. The windows were down. It was a gorgeous day.
My mind wasn’t on schoolwork that day, nor was it at any point that semester except when absolutely unavoidable. It was abundantly clear to me by then that life begins after high school. High school was bullshit. I’d dropped out of Calculus in January because it was the hardest class I’d ever taken in my life and I fucking hated math. The tired refrain of “I’m never going to use this in real life!” hadn’t gone over well with my teacher, Mrs. Van Galder; I’ll never forget her screaming at me as I walked out of her office. I’m pretty sure I’d never been screamed at by a teacher until senior year.
For the most part, though, I’d kept my grades in line with the path that had been chosen for me: college. My bookworm status was still intact. So my teachers were lenient as I skipped a few of my classes getting in some final preparations for the event that night. After all, “extracurriculars” were very important for a college-bound student, too. The hours ticked away. I really did not feel like going to tennis practice to doggedly battle my friend Kevin for the second-to-last slot on the varsity team. And I thought Calculus was pointless.
I think it was between seventh and eighth hour when the first kid came up to me and said, “Did you hear?”
Most kids in Milton were “over” Nirvana by this point, either turned off by the relatively caustic In Utero or delving more deeply into the underground and disdainful of Kurt Cobain the corporate rock whore. Not me, though, and everyone in the damn school knew it somehow. Suddenly, this one detail of my reputation became my whole definition. I remember a lot of the faces in the blur of that last hour of school; a few were my friends’, their eyes showing concern and sadness, but for the most part it seemed like some sort of competition. Kids would walk up to me with a twisted glee in their eyes, hoping to be the one to break it to me, and then disappointed that they didn’t get to see me break. The first person I didn’t believe, but it quickly became an avalanche. As I was walking to the exit doors I was literally screaming at people to shut the fuck up.
I remember running into my friend Brian just before I left. He was the only other person I knew who was as obsessed with Nirvana as I was. He was going through the exact same nightmare as me.
“Are you gonna go to tennis practice?” he asked me.
“I don’t think I can,” I said.
“I guess I’m gonna go, I don’t know why,” he responded. He was keeping it together, somehow. I was not. I walked out to my car. That was the end of my tennis career.
I drove home, not knowing what on Earth I was supposed to do now. At that time in my life, when I didn’t know what to do with myself, I usually turned to basketball. We had a hoop affixed to the side of our barn, and a big concrete slab from which to shoot buckets. If you dropped by my dad’s house today, you’d see that the hoop is still there, along with Roxy’s corpse in the northerly shadow of the barn.
It really helped to clear my mind, usually, that ball going through that hoop, but not today.
Looking back I feel fucking awful for my dad, a couple years older than I am now. I remember when I got home I walked right past him without a word. Of course he’d heard. He was a fan, too. After a little bit he came outside to join me. What the hell do you say to your son at this moment? I feel helpless trying to put myself in his place. For a while we just threw balls at the barn in silence. I remember he told me about his memory of John Lennon dying, which seems like the appropriate thing to talk about. I don’t think I was even able to speak. I think I was already an unreachable little shit before this day, but I was definitely far away now. I wasn’t even sad yet; I was pissed. This was supposed to be like the best night of my young life. What the fuck, honestly, was the point, now?
There were tears in the café that evening during some of the poetry readings. I don’t even remember if I read a poem; I kind of doubt that I did. I don’t recall many specifics about the night; I barely remember being onstage myself, but I remember fading into the back of the room to watch Brian. The year before, he’d been up there with his band, but he was flying solo tonight. There weren’t a whole lot of people in attendance, but I think every single person felt something as Brian came out onstage, this palpable blend of fear and empathy for this dude. More than any of the performances, it was that moment that froze time for me. It was right there in the printed program, black ink on green construction paper: “About A Girl”.
That’s about all I remember.