The One Who Left Early

What follows is mostly true. Except for the parts that aren’t.

I didn’t like Dayton, Ohio.

Being the world headquarters for NCR and having a heavy IBM presence, most suburbs were pretty transient; white-collar corporate transient more than flagrant vagrancy. Families came and went pretty regularly so you learned not to get too attached. Thankfully, I learned the subtle skill of emotional distance early in life from having moved every two years or so. I knew never to get too attached. To anything. Or anyone.

As a sophomore in high school I was shooting for a personal best at being the most malcontent person in the world. I was full of rebellion, anger and downright animosity towards most adults coupled with being a giant ball of sexual frustration and overall unhappiness, topped off with a nice malaise…I was certain I was the leading candidate for the world’s most miserable kid.

In other words, I was 16.

benderSure, I’d love to look back, gloss it up and play the “tortured misunderstood teen” angle, like I was John Bender from The Breakfast Club. I wasn’t. I was from a solid middle class upbringing with relatively healthy parents who weren’t assholes.

I’d love to say that I was a “tortured and misunderstood artist”. I wasn’t. I was mostly too stoned to be creative. I was just a guy who thought I knew everything but was infinitely more confused than worldly. I guess I was just like most 16-year-old boys (although I was most like Bender).

However, unlike most 16-year-old boys, or at least the idiots I hung out with, I didn’t obsess over sports or Sport Illustrated. I obsessed over music. Rock and Roll was my guidance counselor, my tutor, my lover, my confidante, my diary and my best friend.

Now if you’re a music dork, then you’ve probably had the Nick Hornby High Fidelity argument with at least one other person. “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?

Being a 16-year-old, music loving malcontent didn’t mean I was immune or unreceptive to positivity. I’m sure I craved it, although I certainly would have never acknowledged it and God knows I certainly didn’t invite it. But even among the cloudiest of days and the lowest of lows, I knew I was always open to letting something break through the clouds…and usually something did.

Who knows the how or the why. Maybe it’s just what was needed at that exact moment.

I can tell you that as much as I disliked Ohio, I disliked High School more. The only refuge I could find was in music so whatever song I would choose to listen to while getting ready in the morning would most certainly make or break the day. This was a critical song, to say the least. This was before wide access to walkman’s, and eons before smartphones, so song selection was paramount because switching a song to change mood was impossible. It’s the song that stayed with you all day. 

One particular morning, my morning selection was “Wire”, from U2’s The Unforgettable Fire.

Innocent and in a sense I am
Guilty of the crime that’s now in hand
Such a nice day to throw your life away
Such a nice day to let it go

As I was shuffling and grumbling my way to the bus stop, I was silently running the lyrics in my head. When the bus showed up, I got on, sat down and dug deeper into the lyrics, trying desperately to forget that I was on my way to school.

Cold in his eyes, I can’t believe it
Cold in his heart and soul
Heart and soul

Cold man, such a cold heart
Such a cold man, I watch you tear your self apart
So lay me down, my soul to keep
So lay me down, the longest sleep
Oh, the longest sleep

At the next stop, this sprightly little freshman girl got on and bounced down the bus aisle with a cheery freshness that was simply despicable behavior at 7:30am. As she bounced past me, she paused and said “Hi Keith” and percolated to the back of the bus.

In I come and out you go you get
Here we are again, now place your bets
Is this the time, the time to win or lose
Is this the time, the time to choose

Cold in his eyes, I can’t believe it
So deep inside a cold fire
Cold in his heart and soul

At first, I was irritated. I mean who the fuck is that happy at 7:30…on their way to school? I hated her. But that soon transitioned to astonishment. I didn’t really chat with anyone (I didn’t NOT chat, I’m just not the chatty type). It didn’t help that I fostered this quiet sort of brooding guy image so no one would dare talk to me. Anyway, I had never talked to her before and it didn’t seem plausible that she would know me socially because I wasn’t part of the “popular” clique. Christ, I wasn’t even part of the “peripherally popular clique”. I was floored.

All I knew of this girl who just said “Hi” to me was that she was a neighborhood girl who was a friend of a friends younger sister.

Any time you’re on the earth is kissing time
You can’t take me
That’s right
But you can keep me going

I also knew that her effervescence, and those two words, “Hi Keith” instantly changed my mood and absolutely changed the course of that day for me…once I accepted her absurdly cheery behavior.

At that moment, the clouds broke and that one little pleasantry made me smile.

I’d love to tell you about how I gathered up the courage to talk to her that day and how we became friends. And that over the course of a few months of hanging out, we fell in love. I want to tell you about how we would sneak out and smoke cigarettes at the little playground in between our homes where I would try to explain the intricacies of Led Zeppelin’s Presence and why that was their true masterpiece, not IV.

I’d love to tell you how hard she tried to care, but didn’t.

I’d love to tell you how, as our love grew, we would skip school to clumsily make love on our twin beds. I want to tell you how we followed each other to college and grew closer in spite of, or because of, all the temptations. I’d love to tell you how we moved to a big city when we graduated and finally got to make love on a queen size bed. I want to tell you how we struggled as a young couple.

I’d hate to tell you how we fought as we grew up and grew apart.

I’d love to tell you about how we randomly found our way back to each other, promising to never leave each. I’d want to share with you a shitty photo of us getting married at City Hall with the hot dog vendor serving as our witness. I’d love to be able to tell you how I held her hand as she said good-bye to her mother and then her father and how she sat with me patiently as I went on discovery after discovery. I’d love to tell you about the children we decided not to have and the dogs adopted instead. More than anything, I would love to look over this monitor and tell you she is sound asleep in her stupid Black Flag t-shirt and shredded boxers, spooning with one of our dogs.

I would love to be able to tell you ours was a storybook romance like the one that played out in my head after she walked by and said “Hi Keith”.

But I can’t.

Before I could muster the courage to say anything to her, she was gone. Literally, a couple of weeks later.

She didn’t die, but she may as well have. Her father worked for IBM and her family got transferred to some other God forsaken Mid-Western city.

Sure, with all this technology I could probably look her up; if I could recall her name (was it Leah? Mia? something -ia?). I only talk to one person from high school and she would have no idea and I’ve long since chucked my yearbooks.

The past is the past and it has its place. And that’s not in the present.

Besides, it’s a memory that makes me smile and who doesn’t need more of those?

Isn’t it funny how something as little and arbitrary as simply saying “Hi” can resonate so much, for so long? Is that really all it takes?

There is a lot to be said about doing nice things for people and how you benefit from it. If all it takes is simply saying “Hi”, you would think we would do more of it. You never know, you could catch someone at the exact moment they need that acknowledgement or recognition the most.

It’s not about “paying it forward”, “giving back” or “making the world a better place”, it’s just about showing kindness to one another. Whoever you say it to doesn’t need to acknowledge or accept it, but I suspect more will than won’t.

Or have we grown so afraid, so cynical and polarized that we have forgotten that being kind is much easier and more rewarding than being mean or dickish? Sure, we’re human’s, we get pissed off and cranky but that can’t be the way we always want to be…right?

You know, I doubt that girl would even remember that moment or how her tiny recognition of me made me feel. I doubt that girl even gave a second thought to her simple salutation.

I’d love to be able to tell her how she left such an indelible mark on me.

But I can’t. So, I’ll have to find another way.