I was Kwai Change Kane in ninth grade: Shao-lin priest, kung fu master – a really cool guy. I trudged the crowded hallways of DeLaura Junior High as if they were Western deserts, book pack on back, slumped over from the sins of my imagined past. At lunchtime I slouched against the patio’s brick walls, a model of composure to the non-enlightened youths popping their gum, eyeing me. I was ready to impart pearls of wisdom to any cute girls who distracted my meditation. I would open their eyes, offer something necessary for their souls’ development.
Once, a cute girl asked me what I was thinking about. I remained motionless for the requisite time, squinted at the horizon. “Everything . . . and nothing.”
Master Kane pondered the simple technology of an eraser attached to the end of his pencil while Mr. Kresczy lifted a big foot onto his desk chair, tossed chalk to himself, and waited for Master Kane to admit he didn’t do his homework. Algebra? What use had Master Kane for algebra? Let them snicker, the uninitiated masses. Differential equations belonged to earthly knowledge, knowledge of no account compared to wisdom, true wisdom, spiritual wisdom
Wisdom of which, I eventually admitted, I had none.
Later that year I tried to be black. I tortured my hair into an afro. I wore platform shoes, polyester bell-bottoms, and silky shirts bearing funky designs. I slapped five, rapped and jived with Wesley Williams, Sidney Pryor, and two or three other black students unlucky enough to attend my chalk-white school. I pulled a gray beanie onto my head like Marvin Gaye, watched basketball games high in the bleachers, huddled with the brothers. We snickered at the soulless white boys struggling on the court. I talked smooth to the sisters, the two who weren’t sisters of my friends.
“Boy you crazy!” the one named Latandra told me.
“Why you all the time acting black, like you one of us, cause you ain’t,” the other said, bugging her eyes at me.
I stiffened my shoulders, held out my hands, and pursed my mouth in a collective gesture that said, Be cool.
What I couldn’t say was, “Damn, sister, that hurts.”
I was no one the year before, in eighth grade, but I’d met this girl named Sara, who sat beside me in biology. On the first day of class she asked me, “Why do you suppose it’s the man who ejaculates and not the woman?” She looked down at the desk, frowning, lifted a nail gnawed raw to her mouth.
I confessed I’d never thought about it.
“Why can’t, say, the woman just ejaculate within herself? Why can’t something about the man being inside her make her ejaculate, or change the chemicals inside or something. Why does anyone have to ejaculate?” I had no answer to this question, or to any other that Sara would put to me that year. If I did venture a response, Sara would question my answer in a way that left me wondering what I knew and what I didn’t.
For most of eighth grade I walked Sara home after school, guiding my bike beside her across the huge athletic field that always seemed freshly mowed. The first football players to dress out from the high school jogged past us toward the stadium, cradling their helmets. Sara would ignore the breeze blowing her hair around her face. She seldom looked at me, as if her questions were too serious for her to consider the human being she was speaking to. In her averted eyes I read a reflection of my own shyness and insecurity. At heart I felt we were much alike.
“Did you know that women can stand pain better than men?” she once asked. What prompted this question? I looked around for clues. Football?
At my house I would pop a huge bowl of popcorn and sit alone watching an hour of the Three Stooges, but at Sara’s, two or three times a week, I would move aside the stuffed animals on her bed while she pulled a book from her overloaded shelves. She owned The Big Book of Birds, the How and Why series, Everyday Things Explained. I recalled some of these books from grade school, but I was surprised at how little I’d retained. Knowledge seemed to come alive in those hours with Sara and her books.
I remember a mythology book in particular, Sara pointing to a photo of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. “This is a love story,” Sara explained. “Cupid shoots Apollo with an arrow so that he falls in love with Daphne. She’s not really interested in him. She turns into a tree so he’ll leave her alone. See how Daphne’s hair and fingers are becoming branches and leaves, and how her toes are digging into the soil?”
What I saw was the look on poor Apollo’s face as he reaches for her, suddenly aware of what he’s losing.
“So what does Apollo do after that?”
“He pulls some leaves off her branches and makes a wreath,” Sara said.
This was a love story?
Sara looked up and asked the one question I might have answered, though I could not say the words. This was near the end of the year, after I’d listened to a thousand unanswerable questions.
“Why do you suppose they call it falling in love? Why falling?”
Because that’s the way it feels.
By the tenth grade I had at least descended into the parameters of my own race. I became a surfer. I grew my hair long and bleached it with peroxide. I shimmied my toes into rubber slippers, poked my legs into baggies that ballooned over my thighs, and wore T-shirts that broadcast wetsuit logos. I related cryptic secondhand surf reports to my new buddies. “Primo, man! Two and three, glassy, offshore and tubin’!” The latest issue of Surfer magazine grew sweaty in my palms as I walked the halls, jutting out my narrow chest as if it had swelled from surfing sessions at dawn.
But only once did I set my alarm for 5 a.m. and ride my bike to the beach, shivering and groggy, my surfboard an unwieldy mass beneath my arm. I paddled out and sat atop the board, alone in the ocean. No waves. No other surfers. It was the beginning of the end of my surfing days.
For the rest of that year I ate lunch alone by the observatory behind the school, looking out on the tennis courts and the vast athletic field beyond. I cursed the sorry stars that had confined me to this hell-hole by the sea, the scourge of sunny weather and supposed lack of want, this cauldron of cultural poverty that was Satellite Beach, Florida, 32937. I knew from Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story that at that very moment, black kids in New York City were skipping school, playing three-on-three, and getting high in tenement living rooms. As the saying goes, they were poor but happy.
I wasn’t happy.
“The reason birds are able to fly,” Sara had told me, “is that their bones are hollow.” She traced the outline of a hawk. “Everything about them is light – their bones, their feathers, their beaks and talons. Humans are too heavy.” She lifted my arm awkwardly.
“What are you doing?” I said, laughing.
“See, your arm is heavy. Even the skin.” She pinched my forearm, making me wince.
When I took her wrist, her arm felt feather light, the hairs and skin soft and airy as I moved my hand up toward her shoulder. An irrepressible sensation arose in me, an unfamiliar mixture of longing and protectiveness. I would have died for this girl. I would have given my soul to kiss her thin, chapped lips.
But a kiss was something special.
Later I lay on my bed and imagined pulling Sara’s limp body from a raging ocean, giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Her eyes would open in dawning consciousness and gratitude. I imagined sacrificing myself to save her from bullies and perverts, from drunken drivers. Sara would visit me in the hospital where I law in a body cast. She’d bend over me, tears streaking her face, her wispy hair tickling my cheek. My heart would burn inside my mangled body. Or else I’d envision caressing her again and somehow turning her into a sex goddess. As if my touch could bring her to life. Finally she would show me the attention I craved. In my mind I would cut and paste her face onto the bodies of various Charlie’s Angels, but the symmetry was always off, bring me back to earth.
I honestly couldn’t imagine Sara without clothes.
One particularly vivid daydream had Sara dying of an incurable disease. I was holding her hand, her one true love to the end. When she died I was left to suffer alone, to spurn the advance of countless girls – my sad aloofness was irresistible – who could never replace her. This fantasy scared me. I didn’t want Sara to die. I wanted to escape the ferocity of my own feelings, that vast, frightening region I supposed others tread as easily as football players trotting off to practice.
Without my surfer persona I was caught between roles, one dying, one yet to be adopted. I alternated corduroys with baggies, Ron Jon T-shirts with Polo shirts. When someone asked about the waves I’d say, “They’re okay.” I sat to the side at football games, wrapped in a sweatshirt, watching the cheerleaders on the track, their boyfriends scrambling on the field behind them. At halftime the band leaned and swayed to the jaunty refrains of “The Horse.” Countless afternoons I’d heard those happy riffs drifting from the school parking lot while I sat on my porch two miles away. The melody had seemed to mock me then, rising and falling, falling and rising, never finishing. Now, with the players on the sidelines, the band could complete the piece.
I replayed an image that had remained at the top of my memory charts for 47 weeks running: Sara stopped on the sidewalk outside her house, poking her glasses onto her nose and looking down, always looking down.
Brace yourself, I thought, here it comes. Or is it only now that I brace myself, editing backward through time?
“There’s this guy. He’s in my English class. You know, Darren Wood?”
“Mm,” I said, “He’s on the football team?”
“Yeah.” Silence. “Well, I thought you should know.”
“Mm,” I said, “Yeah.”
I stopped coming by Sara’s house after that. When I saw her, Sara often had Darren Wood’s arm around her. Once I looked up from my locker to see her watching me from the stairs, her hand on the railing, students moving around her like water around a pole, bodies drifting between us like a tide. Sara seemed beautiful then. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed before.
At night I walked along the beach in the dark, sadness forming a lump in my throat, wondering why it is that we can’t have what we want, and why we want it even more because it is unattainable.
Thanks to Sara, I was becoming a philosopher.
I vowed that I would never let my imagination get carried away like that again. I would not feel the pain that went on week after week. My body seemed to grow more earthbound. Lifting my feet became an effort. I watched Sara and Darren for two years through the eyes of my various transformations – soul brother, Shao-lin priest, surfer – amazed and heartbroken by her loyalty, his good fortune.
Fortune, nothing. His courage, my lack of it.
So in the summer after tenth grade, when one of my mother’s friends drove over with a daughter who was a year ahead of me, I led the girl into my room to show her some of my books. While our mothers talked in the kitchen, their animated voices coming through the open door, this girl put her hand down my shorts. She almost burst out laughing, her eyes bright with transgression.
In the weeks ahead, I stopped by her house every Monday after school while our mothers played golf at the club. I lay on her bed and waited for her to return naked from the shower, laughing, staring into my eyes.
I was no Apollo, but I think I understand the fall.
This story appeared in Tampa Review, vol. 26, 2003.