Andy only ever talked of escape. The day he turned eighteen, he said, he would legally emancipate himself and escape from his mother and the claustrophobic two-bedroom apartment they shared. The day after he graduated from high school, he would escape from our small Ohio town and drive out to LA to begin his career as a Hollywood director. As soon as he made his first million, he would escape the States all together and move to Paris where people still appreciated art and smoked clove cigarettes in terrace cafes. During that preternaturally warm spring of 1995, when we were thirteen and newly awash in the invigorating hormonal stew of burgeoning adolescence, his main concern was escaping school.
He proposed the idea to me at lunch as we sat beneath our cafeteria’s asbestos-glazed ceiling, munching Little Debbie Zebra Cakes.
“We do it during recess,” he said. “We sneak into the bushes behind the basketball court. Then cross the parking lot and go downtown. It’s about a ten-minute walk, right? We hang out down there for a little while and then walk back. No one will ever know.”
I readily agreed to the plan. I never asked why we should do it. The why was obvious to me. Because it was exciting. Because it was against the rules. Those were reasons enough.
We decided to go for it the next day. Andy couldn’t wait any longer.
Recess began at 12:30 and ended at 1:00. As long as no one saw us leave or return, and we were back at school by 12:59, we’d be golden. I just had to keep an eye on my watch.
By 12:34 we were hustling down Water Street, giggling impishly, our voices squeaking like rusty bicycle wheels rolling downhill. When we hit West Main, we climbed an unwieldy fire escape and shimmied up a drainpipe to the roof of the natural foods store. There, we lounged against a chimney column and smoked two Virginia Slims that Andy had pilfered from his mom.
“I wish we could stay up here forever,” he said, staring at the cloudless sky. “Nothing can touch you. It’s like flying.”
I nodded and puffed.
We were back at school by 12:58.
Andy left that summer. I never learned the reason. The next time I saw him—in the parking lot of our hometown Kmart—we were thirty-two. I was pushing my infant daughter in a stroller. He was smoking behind a pick-up truck that looked like it had been at the bottom of a lake for a decade. We recognized each other immediately.
“Look at you, Dad,” he said. He cackled hoarsely. Dark scabs dotted his sunken cheeks and stubbly chin. His eyes were black and empty, abandoned wells.
“Never thought I’d see you back here,” I said.
“Oh, I’m not back,” he said. “Not really.”
27 June, 2021