Originally posted September 15, 2014.
I wonder if I’d be able to pick his 16-year-old self out of a lineup today, never mind the grown-up version. I haven’t seen him in almost twenty years, and I only knew him for a short time.
My friend Molly had invited me to spend a June weekend with her mom and sister at a lakeside resort in Michigan. We had just finished our freshman year of high school, during which we’d bonded over our less-than-stellar performances on the tennis team and a shared enthusiasm for the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. When I’d had my appendix out and was in the hospital for a week, Molly made a box ‘o fun to keep me occupied. We had countless inside jokes. One of the first times I ever got drunk was with her, drinking beer and watching The Who’s Tommy until I was sick. I will forever associate the pinball wizard with the violent expulsion of Killian’s Red. Even at 14, Molly was warm and witty and beautiful. Whereas she’d already become a social butterfly, I was still a caterpillar quietly observing garden life.
That early summer weekend we rode to Michigan in her sister’s Jeep. Sarah was worldly and sarcastic and I sometimes had the distinct impression that we were the bane of her existence, but that day she seemed to be happy to have us along for the ride. On the drive she introduced us to the Beastie Boys’ older stuff, which I knew even then was a big deal. Professor, what’s another word for pirate treasure? Well, I think it’s booty. Booty, booty . . . Later that night we carved our initials in the loft wall of the A-frame next to the upper bunk. The next morning we went to a private beach just like the one that appeared a few years later in the movie Road to Perdition. When I saw the movie I was reminded of how I stood on a wooden staircase that led down to the beach as Molly and her mom swam below, taking in the improbably bright blue water and the soul-settling stillness.
We met Kevin and his entourage the next day around the ashy remains of the previous night’s fire, which was pretty much the only place to hang out at the resort other than the pool. Kevin wore baggy jeans and a white t-shirt under a Bulls jersey, kind of 90s gangsta style. He was white as white could be, with Irish freckles and red hair that was darkened by the gel slicking it back in place. His friends were two long-haired girls that were all straight lines and hard looks. They let us know immediately that they were from the South Side, clearly wanting to conjure images of danger and grit, but later revealed that they lived in the suburbs south of Chicago. As soon as Kevin started talking about his dad, who was a cop, I could tell that his wannabe tough-guy appearance belied an infectious exuberance and lightness of being.
Molly and I later made a list of the 20 things we learned and loved about Kevin that day. These are the top 5:
5. How he got kicked out of the Drivers Ed car for being a terrible driver
4. How he uses the expression “hot fire” to talk about hot girls, hot guys, and sizzling romances
3. The fact that he carries his hair pick with him at all times
2. His love of [R&B singer] Monica
1. His amazing rendition of “(Don’t take it Personal) Just One of Dem Days”
Kevin hung out with us the rest of the weekend (I’m not sure what his homegirls were up to). One night by the pool he and I talked late into the night, his head in my lap, smelling very fresh underneath the cologne, like baby powder. We talked about girls and guys and getting into trouble and staying out of trouble and the mystical Someday when we would be the sole drivers of our destinies. We didn’t dissect each others’ words but let them float untouched around us in the chlorine ether. I didn’t have to be anybody other than who I was right there, in that moment. Which is, I suppose, what happens when you connect with someone, and not all that different from how I had always felt around my cat. It wasn’t the boy-girl heart explosion that I would feel a few years later with my first love, but more like a buzzy heart hum.
When we said goodbye we exchanged phone numbers. We talked a few times on the phone, but it wasn’t the same as when we’d talked by the pool – he’d call when I had friends over making funny faces in the background, or I’d call when he was out and have to leave a message with his dad. We never saw each other in person again, and eventually we just stopped calling each other.
It’s tempting to freeze Kevin in time in 1994, because my hypotheses about Adult Kevin impart a kind of banal quality to his life. Did he become a South Side cop like his dad? Did he audition for American Idol in the early 2000s? Did he trade his baggy pants for skinny jeans or well-tailored suits? Is he a renter or a homeowner? Does he have a life mate? What does he think about Obamacare, or does he even care? Who’s on his ipod? Does he still sing upon request?
I want to believe that life has only burnished, not tarnished, his sparkle, which is why I can’t bring myself to Google him or find him on Facebook. I wonder if we would have anything in common today. Did we have anything in common back then, other than the impulse of a shy girl and an extroverted boy to make a fleeting connection? Maybe time and nostalgia has caused me to imbue our encounters with too much meaning. Would he even remember that weekend? I would love it if someday our paths crossed again by chance. If they do, I’ll ask if he knows me and hold my breath.