Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My friend Steve

I think it was second semester when Steve walked in—late, of course—to computer class during our freshman year of high school. He was assigned to sit right next to me, and I decided fairly quickly that I pretty much hated him. He had a casual arrogance, an indifference to everything, the required shirt and tie as sloppy as possible yet mostly hidden behind an absurdly large winter coat that went to his knees. I could smell the smoke and sleep on him the second he sat down. I was annoyed. He seemed to me like a “bad kid” cliché.

Being forced to sit next to someone every day will either heighten the angst or relieve the tension, and in this case, it was the latter. We found the common ground of making fun of Mr. Mulligan, our large, red-faced computer teacher. Our seats were in the back corner, against the wall and shielded by a sea of computer monitors, and, combined with Mulligan’s laissez faire style, we could get away with most anything. One day Steve said, “Watch this …” showed me the tremendously mucus-y booger on his finger, and wiped it on the arm of the kid sitting on his other side. The kid flipped out, Steve just laughed and I thought, What kind of maniac am I sitting next to here? He was no cliché; surely there was no one like him.

If anyone single-handedly, for better and worse, brought me out of youthful naiveté and into reality, it was Steve. His reputation at school preceded him; everyone liked him, but most kept him at a distance. I tried to do the same, but I somehow found myself as part of his inner circle. In retrospect, I guess everyone else at the time seemed boring by comparison.

When you’re a freshman, a senior seems like a full-fledged adult, unapproachable. Seniors approached Steve, giving him a pound, telling him they’d catch up with him later. He walked around like he owned the place, convincing everyone he did. He would scoff at the notion of someone at school being tough, instantly dismissing them based solely on their presence at school and in spite of his own enrollment—“Yo, he goes to St. Joe’s. How tough can he be?” He had an unflappable, sometimes unfounded confidence that, as someone who second-guessed things constantly, I couldn’t help but admire.

Some days Steve just wouldn’t show up for school. But after missing a string of days, I asked him if he was sick or something and he said, as nonchalantly as a person could say such a thing, that his dad died. He didn’t give me time to awkwardly fumble for condolences before adamantly expressing how indifferent he was to this fact. I never brought it up again, but it provided some insight to help explain this charismatic but troubled person I now called a friend.

I would discover that Steve dealt in a lot of things, but what mattered to me was that we dealt in humor. Dumb, stupid humor. He’d yell down the hallway to ask if I still had diarrhea. I’d pull his chair out from under him. For any and all occasions, Steve would give the kind, aloof, foreign-born Spanish teacher a sack of nuts, just so he could say to her, “I hope you enjoy my nutsack.” We convinced the front desk to call several fake and inappropriately-named students to the office over the intercom. Nothing seemed out of bounds, and I thought, This must be what it’s like to have brothers. What was remarkable about Steve was that his well-cultivated “don’t eff with me” persona never interfered with hijinks among friends, which is to say he could dish it out and take it. One time I worried I went too far when, while at his house for the weekend, I snuck behind him and lit the shoelaces of his Timberlands on fire when he was playing a video game—the thought that I might have gone too far occurred to me when his feet were engulfed in flames—but he found it funnier than even I did. “You got me, Kenny. Dammit, you got me. I liked those boots, too.”

Most of the crew did not make it through sophomore year, and Steve was the first to go, following through on the notion that no one like him belonged at an all-boys Catholic school steeped in the traditions of respect and discipline. If it was unlikely that Steve and I would become friends in the first place, it was even more unlikely that we’d maintain and evolve that friendship after he left school. But that’s exactly what happened.

He moved to Toms River—his wonderful mom married a great man—and I spent many a weekend there. Our moms talked often; mine could see the charm and goodness in Steve as easily as I could, and his mom could trust me. We became closer than ever, and I felt immersed in the family. We once hid his step-dad’s lawn mower in Steve’s sister’s bedroom, which didn’t exactly go over well, if I recall. We moved his step-brother’s car to a nearby park when he was sleeping and convinced him the car was stolen; he was on the phone with the insurance company for 10 minutes before we told him. Others surely tired of all the nonsense, but we never did. My family rented a house in Lavallette one year, so Steve and I spent that whole week together. We talked for an hour on the phone leading up to the vacation, mapping out all the dumb stuff we would do, and laughed ourselves silly at the plan to rent one of those multi-seated bicycles and ride around Seaside. It was one of the few things we didn’t follow through on, but that was only because it proved too expensive.

I certainly wasn’t unaware of the things Steve was involved in—some of our most ingenious ideas were discussed over 40s in a smoke-filled room—but the extent escaped me. I visited him at an apartment in Seaside before heading back to college one summer day, and the atmosphere was far removed from a hilarious bike ride. I discovered a few days later the apartment was raided by police. A couple years later, Steve managed to call my mom from somewhere in Georgia, panicky but politely asking for money. My mom stood firm, but lovingly assured him he always had a place to stay if he made it up here.

He seemed to recover, and I was beyond happy to see him—all muscled out, the result of a healthier addiction—at one of his family’s famous barbeques. He met my wife. We talked about the good ol’ days, about all the dumb staff. We laughed and laughed.

I had just been thinking about him, randomly but not quite considering I think about him often, hoping that the next time I heard about him it wouldn’t be something I feared. In spite of that, I still cannot believe it.

Much of Steve’s persona was a mask that hid his insecurities, that shielded him from hurt and that ultimately enabled his addictions … not unlike a large winter coat that hid a disheveled state and housed a pack of Newports. His unshakable confidence could, on a dime, morph into frustrating stubbornness. There is no doubt that his weaknesses and ways caused untold grief, friction and fear for his family, something I personally, as a friend who embarked on a separate path, was never forced to confront. In that regard, my story of Steve is incomplete, and there is a sense of guilt in reliving the glory days when much tougher days followed, and I wasn’t there.

Still, I do wholeheartedly believe that Steve was at his truest self when he was laughing, that the wonderful aspects of him—there were so many—were revealed in these lighthearted moments. His fierce loyalty, his humor, his creativity, his brutal honesty, his uncanny street smarts, his love for life. This is how I’ll always remember him. When I think of Steve, he is laughing, taking in the joy that life, in spite of all its challenges, has to offer. I’m not saying that in a forced, nostalgic way—it is literally the only way I see him, my natural, default setting. It’s how I saw him most, by a landslide.

In so many facets of life, we couldn’t have been more different, but at the core of love and laughter, we were exactly the same. You got me, Steve. Dammit you got me. May you rest in peace.

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