Who wants to take that long-shot gamble?
The room that had been my bedroom for six and a half years, a better run than any of the others that have served in that capacity, had to be completely disassembled. When I say “the room,” I’m not talking about the walls, ceiling, or any part of the structure. That was not the room. What had to be disassembled was the build up that six and a half years of being my room had grown there. I had to extract the spirit of the room.
The place was 334 Conant Road, Weston, Massachusetts. It was well after 10pm on my last night as a resident of the house where I did most of my growing up. The following evening I would climb aboard a Lockheed L-1011 heading for Southern California, to live with the west coast extension of my family, which consisted of my mother, more recently my brother, Eric, and even more recently, a potential step-father named Frank, and all the potential step-brothers and a step-sister that he implied. Eric had moved out the year before when Mom and Frank had offered for us both to live with them. Eric, then a sophomore at Weston High School, proclaimed that he was moving to California, and that he was “never coming back”. I couldn’t blame him. Both he and I had been yearning to become SoCal residents since we started spending our summers there, in 1974. When Eric moved out, the temptation was strong to go with him. Being only 13 months apart, I couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t around. But Eric had two years of high school left to my one. So Eric went, and I came back to spend my last year at Weston High living practically by myself. At the time, my father and I were not exactly close, and he spent much of his time out with his new girlfriend, a woman named Elaine. (Ironically, Eric also turned out to be the first to return east. He would move back to Boston in 1986.)
I think my decision to remain that final year was a good one. It was definitely my most enjoyable year at high school. My circle of friends, which had not been sizable in the past, grew dramatically during ‘79 and ‘80. In addition to my core cast of buddies, Fred Lepine, Alex Barnett, Carl Grunbaum, Matt Shannon, there came quite a few others. And girls! Good gravy, there were girls! Fascinating young women who actually enjoyed the company of Art Room wierdos, like Fred and myself. This loose association became the embryonic form of what would we would ultimately, if unimaginatively, call “the Group.” (We legitimized the moniker by capitalizing it in text and speech–always in hushed, reverent tones.)
It seemed that my whole outlook on life was beginning to improve, and not just socially. The summer before, I had participated in the est Training, which was one of those trendy self improvement courses that were all the rage during the Seventies. My mother had put Eric and I through the course. At the the time of my graduation from the Training, I was not at all certain that I had gotten my mother’s money’s worth. I put it off to being an ignorant kid, and gave it little additional thought. That night, however, looking back over the past year, I wondered if some part of the value of the Training got under my skin. It did indeed seem like somehow I had come out of the experience changed, based on how my last year had gone. I simply seemed to have given up trying to be something I wasn’t and went on with the business of just being me.
Whatever had happened, I was happy. Things were looking up. Things were happening: I was going to California, like I always said I would. I looked around me, at the room which soon would no longer be mine. I studied the calypso green walls (I had picked the color, no one but myself to blame for that.), the movie posters, the artwork accumulated over four years of creative freedom in the Weston High Art Department, the gaudy Chinese paper lampshade that hung from the ceiling, the dilapidated black and white TV, which on many nights was my only company, and wondered what the days ahead held in store. My old clock radio sat on the bookshelf, blaring “Midnight Wind,” by John Stewart, one of the anthems of my senior year. Other songs of the day were “Train in Vain,” by the Clash, “Heartbreaker,” by Pat Benatar, “Brass In Pocket,” by the Pretenders, and a song called “The Beat,” by an intruguingly acerbic fellow named Elvis Costello.
Empty boxes were stacked up in the corner, by my desk, waiting for me. So I got to work, packing. I felt a tinge of sadness as I went. Strange, I thought. After so much anticipation, I should feel almost regretful about leaving.
As I worked, my mind automatically replayed the events of the last few hours, as well as the past several weeks.
That night, I had been at Fred’s parents’ house for a going away party in my honor. Most of the gang was there: Fred, my best friend, my partner in crime since we met in Junior High as fellow Jaws fans; Sarah Martin, Fred’s new girlfriend, one of the coolest individuals I had to date met. Ann Crafts, a mostly quiet girl who had yet to discover that she had something of value to offer the world; Denise Pearl, a girl I didn’t quite figure out until years later. She seemed to have stepped right out of some old English romance novel. She was pretty, and odd, in an intriguing kind of way. I got the impression that she liked me somewhat. I thought she was cool, but I was about to move away and felt an urgent need to, for the time being at least, sever all my ties to Weston. For that reason, I felt uncomfortable around her.
Mrs. Lepine is, by every definition, a classic Italian Mother. During my high school years, she had become something of a surrogate mother, I spent so much time with Fred at his family’s house. She makes spaghetti and meatballs to die for. So, when the gang decided to throw me a party before my departure, and it was determined that it would be held at the Lepine’s, Fred’s mother asked me what I wanted for a main course. “Spaghetti and meatballs!” I declared, and she happily complied.
The party was relatively sedate, compared to others we’d had. We refrained from cutting loose too much since Mr. and Mrs. Lepine were right there. The food was, of course, excellent. The aforementioned spaghetti was served up with garlic bread, and all the standard accouterments. The evening was rife with memories. The conversation bounced back and forth, through the candlelit dining room, recalling moments of adolescent glory and triumph. We remembered the good times, the intense times, the moments of near death that every teenager loves to retell, embellishing slightly every time the story is told. There was laughter and happiness, but throughout was a feeling just under the surface that at once puzzled and moved me: that my friends were saddened by my leaving.
We talked about the trip to Nantucket, from which we had returned about a week prior. It was to be the last major excursion of the Group, and I had postponed my departure in order to go. We spent a week on the island, staying at the summer house of the parents of our friend Peter Murphy. The week was full of fun, food, and emotional highs and lows. It was a week of contrasts. Fred and Sarah were rapt in each other, while the other couple in the Group, Greg Gibson and Gretchen Harmon, were fighting. I went through something of an existential crisis during the trip. High school was over. I was moving away from everything I was familiar with. I hadn’t the foggiest notion as to what I wanted to do with my life. I had no plans for college. What was I going to do? I had these grandiose ideas of becoming a great filmmaker in California, the next George Lucas, the next Steven Spielberg. But I knew then, and it caused me despair, that I had no firm grip on any kind of plan to guide my life in the directions I wanted to take it.
I was also coming into a troubling new awareness about myself: in the midst of all these friends, I felt a painful sense of isolation. This was brought into sharp focus by the pairing off of Greg and Gretchen and, in particular, Fred and Sarah. Fred was my closest friend and I had developed something of an intermittent crush on Sarah over the past year–the time when Fred and Sarah were slowly becoming “an item.” Recently, however, I had also begun to feel a strong pull towards Gretchen, an attraction that did me as little good as the one I felt for Sarah, not to mention all the other crushes (the Sharons and the Sallys and the Leas) I entertained and done nothing about throughout high school. To make matters worse, all the other girls in the Group seemed, to me, to be all ga-ga over Fred. There was an increasing trend among the girls–Sarah, Ann, Kim, Sue, Denise, Gretchen–towards bickering and back-biting over who got the bulk of Fred’s attention. I never faulted Fred for this; it was hardly his fault. Sarah was, as far as I knew, his sole focus, but I think that he did get some kind of ego boost by all this competition thrust his way. Hell, I would have too, and I think that was part of my problem. In the middle of all this “she likes him who likes her who likes him” I felt myself at the bottom of our little social totem pole and I wanted a piece of the action.
This dynamic had been brewing for some time. It had gone from simmer to full boil a few weeks before the trip, at an end-of-school-year party at Gretchen’s house. Fred and Sarah weren’t quite “official” yet, and Gretchen had music on and everybody was dancing. The guys were smoking “White Fowl” cigars and wearing dress vests in an embarrassing, very post-Saturday Night Fever attempt at trendy fashion. As usual Fred became the focal point of the girls and he was enjoying the attention—while trying to be equitable at the same time. He took turns dancing with one, then another. But he danced more with Sarah than the others and some he didn’t dance with at all. Harsh language ensued. And while this jealous bickering went on all around, I was left to wonder “what about me?” I went out to the driveway and sat on the hood of Alex’s mom’s pale blue Impala. Alex came out and sat with me and we smoked a couple of cigars. I chewed on the plastic holder the cigar came with and sucked on the sickly sweet and smoky juice seeping from the thing.
“So everyone’s mad at Fred,” I asked.
“Basically,” Alex replied. This was how we generally answered in the affirmative.
“So am I,” I said.
Alex shot me a glance. “Why? I mean he didn’t dance with me either—do you see me bent outa shape?” This was more of a Carl-style joke, but Carl’s randy brand of humor had been catching lately.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “No reason for me to be.”
“No,” he replied, “I get it. He’s already got Sarah’s attention—why corner the market on the rest of them?”
“It shouldn’t even matter to me. I’m leaving anyway.”
Alex was leaving too. He hadn’t done particularly well in school our last few years—and his rich parents were getting ready to send him off to a transitional prep school in New Hampshire for a year to knock him into shape for college.
“You and me both,” he said as he stood and snuffed out his White Fowl. “You know what I say? I say good riddance to ‘em all.” He slid off the hood of the car, straightened his vest and tucked in the tail of his shirt.
I didn’t agree with his pronouncement in the least. But I saw the logic of his rationalization. Alex had spent most of his life shielding himself behind a carefully constructed wall of contempt for anything and everyone that didn’t meet with his exacting standards for outcomes in his favor. A bit of a brat in other words. It worked for him entirely to use his chronic anger to distance himself from the Group before embarking on his own next act. I was never really sure, but most of the time I suspected that I was one of a very short list of people that Alex wasn’t perpetually mad at.
There was one Nantucket night in particular, when the soap-opera aspect of the Group’s collective social life became worthy of All My Children, and I didn’t feel like watching anymore. I put on my worn denim jacket, which was my fashion trademark, and left without telling anybody. At that point, I didn’t care. I only wanted to disappear into the deep Atlantic dark. There was a glorious fog covering the island that night; the streetlamps and headlights from the occasional car cast impressive shards of light through the trees and around the buildings. I walked the empty roads which I thought—poetically, anthropomorphically and cornily–echoed the solitude of my existence. I attempted, for perhaps the first time in my life, to put some names on my personal demons. There was my lack of direction, I knew that one well already: a vague, overriding what now? kind of feeling. It seemed that, all my life up to this time I had been waiting, waiting for something or someone to come along and make this stuff clear to me. It wasn’t happening, at least not yet. But the social pangs of the Group brought into urgent clarity a deep need for intimate female companionship. I wanted a girlfriend. I had wanted one for a long time: ever since I had discovered girls were different from boys. But since my hormone factory kicked in with the onset of adolescence, an apparent fear of the female of the species came along with it. I had no sisters, lived away from my mother most of my life, had until very recently no female friends. I simply did not know how to relate to them. This was a major stumbling block to me, who wanted more than almost anything to pop my proverbial cherry. But it wasn’t just sex. After all, though I had ideas, there was no way for me to know then what it would be like. What I really wanted was to experience a deep connection with another that was emotional as well as physical. I liked the other “available” girls well enough, but even if I was as strongly attracted to them as I was to Sarah or Gretchen, I wouldn’t have known what to do about it. I felt walls about me: invisible walls of my own making, through which I wanted to reach, but couldn’t or wouldn’t. It frustrated and confused me, although I realized while I walked through the fog of the small Nantucket neighborhood that some of this was a part of my own distancing from things here. I was placing a great deal of stock–virtually all my hopes–in this move to California; I was gambling desperately on finding the direction and fulfillment out there that I knew I lacked. The stakes, however, were the life and the friends I had right here. I didn’t know how I felt about that at all.
I stopped in the middle of a lonely stretch of road. To my left the outlines of graveyard headstones revealed themselves in varying shades of gray. On the other side a stand of trees broke the light from the streetlamp into a small cathedral of light shafts. It was beautiful and for a short moment I was happy to be standing there, looking at it. But I suddenly no longer felt the need to be out there by myself. I had come to the island to be with my friends. Some of them for perhaps the last time. I wanted to get back to the house. Besides, I desperately had to go to the bathroom, and I just wouldn’t have felt right about relieving myself in front of someone’s grave.
When I returned, everyone was asleep. I silently found my way to the bathroom, and then to my bed and went to sleep feeling better. I still had no answers, but I felt at least I had a sense of the questions.
I woke up in good spirits the next morning, but knew I would have some explaining to do. Kim High, one of the more outspoken girls in our gang, decided to speak for the Group.
“We were worried shitless about you,” she admonished.
I apologized. I did feel kind of crummy about leaving everyone in a lurch as to my whereabouts. But what was done was done, and soon the incident was forgotten in favor of another day’s antics, even by me.
The final night of our stay on the island, we had a cookout on the beach. It was the quintessence of New England summer life, the perfect finale to our trip, and my most vivid memory of that week. We had a boom box with us, and Fred had brought his Moody Blues tapes. It was a moonless night and Nantucket has no major cities. The stars were staggeringly brilliant. Across that cold tapestry, we hurled glow sticks and Moonlighter Frisbees to each other. We ran around, raucous and screaming, digging our feet into the cool island sand, expending our seemingly endless supply of adolescent energy.
As the evening wore down, and everyone was gathered around the fire, I wandered over to the water’s edge. The Moody Blues permeated the air. I let the small waves rippling in wash over my feet. It made me feel alive, connected to the world. I could see the lights from boats, out on the black ocean. I moved back to where the sand was dry just as one song on Fred’s tape faded out. I sat, looking out, hearing nothing but the gentle waves and the animated chatter of the Group behind me. I laid down on my back, and stared straight up into the heavens, unobscured by urban light pollution. The next song on the tape started, one of my favorites, called “New Horizons.”
I stared straight out and listened.
I’ve had dreams enough for one
and I’ve got love enough for three,
I have my hopes to comfort me,
I’ve got my new horizons out to see.
But I’m never going to lose your precious gift,
It will always be that way,
‘cause I know I’m going to find my peace of mind
As I watched the stars, and listened to the song which, already, had a good deal of significance to me, I had a very strange experience, one which I’m not sure I’ll ever quite duplicate. The stars filled my entire field of vision, and somehow I began to feel motion. I thought I could feel the Earth moving through space! It was as if I was standing on the pulpit of the planet, leading it through the void. The cutting edge of the Earth. Everything else disappeared, and there was just me and the cosmos. For a fleeting instant, I embraced the infinite. The experience was so intense that I shuddered. The feeling that I had just touched the outer wall of reality washed over me. Then, as quickly as the breaking surf rushes back to the ocean, it was gone.
Wow! I thought. And without drugs!
sat up as the song faded. The rest of the world returned to my awareness. The Atlantic Ocean still stretched out black and primordial before me. Over my shoulder my friends had no idea of what had just happened to me. To them, the world was unchanged, mundane, yet as carefree as ever. But something had altered my perceptions. Outlines seemed sharper. Colors brighter. I stood and rejoined the party, again turning over in my head the kind of turning point I faced.
As I walked toward the fire, my heels digging comfortably into the sand, I saw another dimension to my dilemma. I suddenly felt, with startling clarity, that I did not know who the hell I was. True, I thought I knew, but everything that I identified myself by was a product of my environment. I remembered the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which, ironically, was taught to me by my film teacher. Paraphrased, it said that any given object, when observed, is changed by the observation of it. I saw then how that was applying in my own life. I was being shaped by the perceptions of those around me. My own friends, as much as I loved them, and I suspected they loved me, may have been hindering me in the realization my full potential. Another piece of the puzzle fell into place regarding my need to go west. I had to go somewhere where nobody knew me. Where I could start over. Where I could take myself apart, and reinvent myself out of sight of the altering perceptions of others. Direction? Emotional fulfillment? Perhaps these were things I wasn’t to find, but create from whole cloth for myself. But how? I didn’t know. I needed to learn how to learn how to find myself, to create my life. For the first time in my life, I felt something like a dim glimmer of purpose.
I went back to my friends, filled myself with their company, and enjoyed myself greatly.
Mrs. Lepine served dessert. Chocolate cake. As the going away party wound down, I received a few parting gifts. Ann gave me a package of Toblerone chocolates.
“For the plane ride,” she said.
Denise wrote me a poem. I was stunned. It was an impressive work, all filled with Tolkienesque imagery, and containing a rather idealistic description of me. It was cool.
It came time for people to leave, so we went outside to say our good-byes. I had been playing with one of Fred’s toys, a severed hand, made of rubber. I took it out with me. In the quiet darkness of the Lepine driveway, we talked a few minutes longer. The girls were all saying how happy they were for me, and how good this move will be for me, and please hurry back. I did plan to return, but I knew then that I was about to become a permanent Californian, that after this nothing would be the same. Ann, Sarah and Denise were lined up before me, and I walked up to them. First I shook Ann’s hand. Then Sarah’s. I turned to Denise, and in the darkness she did not see that I still had the rubber hand behind my back. I held it out like it was my own. She took it and I let go. What the hell, one last high school prank, huh? It got a good laugh.
“Don’t be mean,” she said, then I gave her a hug.
The girls all piled into Ann’s dilapidated VW bug, and as they drove off, I remember thinking: you’ll never catch me driving one of those.
The packing took most of the night. By four or five all my clothes, every book, poster, strange model, every piece of artwork was boxed securely and ready to ship. My father would be sending it out after me. I had packed my suitcases to meet my needs for the next few days. I looked around. Had the spirit of the room been completely extracted? No. I would have had to peel the paint from the walls to do that. The clock radio remained where it was, as did the Chinese paper lampshade. I just couldn’t take down the lampshade. That lampshade could be seen through the window as you walked by the house along Bradyll Road. It belonged there.
I quietly stacked all the boxes in the living room then went back up the steep staircase to my room–the first door on the left. I paused outside the door. The early summer twilight was beginning to filter in through the windows. The next door down the short hallway used to be Eric’s. On an impulse, I went over and opened that door. The room had a musty smell of a year of almost complete disuse, aside from a brief stint as a darkroom when Fred and I had developed our yearbook photos. It was empty save for the big wooden dresser that had been Eric’s bureau. The walls were still the same bilious orange color that he had chosen at the same time that I picked the green for my room. It was hard to believe that he had been gone for a whole year. I had been on my own so long that it seemed wierd to me that I would soon be sharing a room with him again. I wondered what he would be like after twelve months on the West Coast.
I went back out into the hall, closing Eric’s door behind me. I returned to my own room to make sure I had not forgotten anything. Nope. I considered getting a few hours of shuteye. But it was already light. One day left. I told myself that I would sleep on the plane, knowing that I wouldn’t. I shut the door and went downstairs.
I sat myself down in the rocking chair in front of the stereo, a spot where I had spent so many hours that the rocker had worn tracks into the hardwood floorboards beneath it. All my records and tapes were already packed. I put the headphones over my ears, turned on the radio and listened to early morning rock and roll as I stared out the window, watching the hazy summer sunrise.
Over the headphones, songs of the day poured in. The local Top-40 station played “Funkytown,” by Lipps, Inc., followed by Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic,” from the Xanadu soundtrack. Benny Mardones’ soaring and passionate “Into The Night” came on. It was a song that struck me hard–a love song that I almost shuddered to admit that I liked.
If I could fly, I’d pick you up
And take you into the night
And show you a love like you’ve never seen.
The song did a couple of things to me: it made me think of the past year’s crushes–Lea, Gretchen and, mostly, Sarah. It enabled me to concieve of the possible feelings within me for a soaring love that could make one fly, even though I’d never really been there. But it mostly made me think of Sarah and her new connection with Fred. Fred was my best friend, and I felt that this was how he felt about about Sarah. But rather than making me jealous, I felt happy for him–for them–and profoundly envious.
“Into The Night” segued into Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake.”
Who wants to brave those blonde beauties
Lying in the sun,
With their long soft hair a-fallin’
Flyin’ as they run.
Oh, they smile so shy, and they flirt so well,
And they lay you down so fast,
That you look straight up and say
“Oh, Lord, am I really here at last?”
This refrain, with it’s tension building up to a crescendo in G as it swings back into the main chorus, served as a straightforward metaphor for my anticipation about this move. A prayer of escape to a golden place–Fire Lake was, in my own head, where I was going: the place where the sun set like fire over the waters.
It was a day of waiting. All the work had been done, all the good-byes said. There was nothing left to do but count the hours until take-off.
Fred came over and we spent one last afternoon sitting in his old Chevy wagon, in my back driveway, as we had nearly every day for the last few years. It was the end of an era, and both of us felt it acutely. We reminisced. We drank Coke and ate Doritos, the mainstay of our diet, we listened to music, and did a little brainstorming. It was in that car that we came up with our best story ideas, all of them weird or offbeat, mostly horror or science fiction. I felt like we had the perfect creative partnership. Our minds fed off of the other’s ideas to produce even better ideas. Once we got going, it was hard to stop, like a berserker spiral, and it got to the point sometimes when I knew what his next idea was going to be before he had a chance to say it.
The previous Fall, we started on an idea that we thought might make a good story for a Super-8 movie. as we developed it, it quickly expanded into something which we knew could never be captured in celluloid as narrow as my little fingernail. We gave it a name: Realm of the Crystals. In a single afternoon we outlined a story that could only be either a feature film, or a full-length novel. In the days and weeks to follow, we expanded it even further, and we realized that this story was but the first part of a series that encompassed the entire scope of time, and created a mythology that was uniquely our own. We did drawings and paintings inspired by our story and characters. The more we worked on it, the more alive it became to both of us. We told the story to people who would listen breathlessly to our narration. It continued to grow, even when we weren’t thinking about it.
As we sat in Fred’s car, we were in agreement that Realm was too important not to pursue. We knew that it had to be worked on and developed further, whether we were separated by distance or not. I did, as I said, have plans to return. We had been planning another Super-8 production, a horror-splatter project called Satan’s Shadow. My tentative plan had me returning in the Fall, to shoot it, and at that time we would also discuss what we wanted to do with Realm. I would work the summer in order to pay for my return, as well as production expenses. The script had been written, and the parts were cast. We hoped that this one wouldn’t turn out like our previous attempts at filmmaking. We laughed as we recalled our first two escapades. Treads, a Jaws spoof, about a killer school bus, that features one of the most pitiful miniature depictions of a burning bus ever put on film. It was the first time I had ever participated in a making a movie. The final result stunk, but fortunately, was entertaining by virtue of its badness. It did, however, become something of a classic at Weston High’s film department. As bad as it was, I never had so much fun as I had making it. It was then that I felt I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Our second project was more ambitious, and so, never got past the filming of the first two scenes: Superguy, obviously another spoof, was a giant in-joke. Had it been completed it would have been utterly incomprehensible to anyone who did not attend Weston High. It was mercifully shelved.
The day marched inexorably onward, it was almost time for me to head out to Logan, and Fred had to go to pick up Sarah for their date. I got out of the Big Blue Bomber, aka the Fredmobile, and we shook hands. I felt at once a little empty inside–like a space cleared in preparation for something new–and crazily alive: something was really happening to me. This is the end, went the old Doors song.
“Talk to you soon?” I said.
“Indeed,” he replied. “Have a safe flight.”
“Say good-bye to Sarah for me. And thank your mother for the excellent food.”
“I will. Good-bye, friend.”
“Let’s not say au-revoir,” I said, shamelessly pilfering from Martin Mull. “Let’s just say hors deurve.”
Fred grinned, and he pulled out onto the street. I watched his car for the final time, as it vanished amid the hills and bends of Conant Road.
Early evening came and it was time to go, and after a brief supper my father and I climbed into his boxy yellow van, and headed out of Weston, towards the Mass Turnpike. As we drove, I watched the trees, the maples, and oaks, that lined the heavily wooded streets of my hometown, knowing that it wouldn’t be home anymore.
I caught my last glimpse of the Boston skyline, just as we headed down into the perpetually jammed Callahan Tunnel, that went under the harbor and led out to the airport.
We didn’t talk much.
After my bag was checked we walked towards the gate and stopped at the airport book and newspaper shop. It was something of a tradition of ours for him to buy me a book each time I flew out to the Coast. My final selection was The Dead Zone, by Stephen King, just out in paperback.
With my book and carry-on in hand, we got to the gate as they were boarding. I took out my boarding pass and turned to my father.
“Well,” he said. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. I’ll call you when I know more about when I’m coming back.”
“Okay,” he replied, and he turned to go.
I watched him vanish into the crowd. And that was it.
I showed my boarding pass to the attendant at the gate, and I started down the long tunnel that would lead me to a new and unknown destiny.