These Guys

I’m cooling my heels in lunch detention, the junior high equivalent of solitary confinement.  The room is drab and me and the other rejects are sitting at these desks that look like voting booths.  I know why I’m here: I’m here because of a pip squeak named Brendon Del Platano.  I’m here because I’m the big kid.  And, in a way, this is all because I wanted a trenchcoat.

The best gift for my 13th birthday would have been to be David Boreanaz from the TV show Angel.  I had a veritable man-crush on the guy, but it wasn’t his incisive cheekbones or perfectly coifed hair.  It was that long flowing coat of his.  In terms of sci-fi and fantasy, the longer your coat is, the more badass you are.  All the confident heroes from my favorite works donned their trenchcoats like capes: Angel, Neo from The Matrix, Mulder from X-Files.

I wanted the confidence they had, but I was an overweight, new-in-town kid with curly hair that looked like something a homeless clown would have.  So, I retreated to my room, where I listened to Smash Mouth and read comic books.  I loved my comics, especially the really pulpy, morally dubious ones.  All that good-guy-wronged stuff–that was for me.

Two weeks before my birthday, my mom and I drove to an outlet mall, where I promptly flocked to the London Fog store.  I tried one on and Mom looked skeptical as the oversized khaki material dropped to the floor around my feet.

“Pet, you look like a rectangle,” she said.  “You really want one of these?”

I didn’t hear her, so marveling I was at the mirror.  “This.  Is.  So.  Badass.”

I wouldn’t have even gotten to wear the coat to school, since we had to wear uniforms, which my friends and I fucking hated.  As a nonviolent protest, we invented a game to help us scuff up our ill-fitting polos.  We used a PowerAde bottle cap as the puck and our feet as sticks and called it “foot hockey.”

Brunch was only 15 minutes and once that cap dropped, nothing else mattered.  Rules were sparse and points were tallied randomly.  Kick the cap and don’t scuff up my Vans.  It allowed us to exorcise some of adolescent rage-angst without resorting to piercing things.

We weren’t the smartest (none of us made the cut into honors classes) and we weren’t the most popular (that distinction went to the boys who lazed about on the grass quad and, miraculously, accepted hugs from girls like it wasn’t an earth-shattering deal).  We were the outsiders and we liked it that way.  We were the kids who headbanged to Limp Bizkit, debated Star Wars minutiae over cans of Cactus Cooler, and had sleepovers which amounted to marathon gaming sessions.

And then Brendon Del Platano showed up.

Brendon was the first friend I made in Southern California.  He was small for 13 and his size gave him a weasel shape, which is maybe why he acted so much like a weasel.  We were pretty close for about a year but one day he stopped talking to me.  His return to our makeshift foot hockey rink surprised me.  So I talked him.  “Hey,” he said, “want to come hang out with me instead?”

If this were a Judy Bloom novel, I would’ve hesitantly said yes and then learned an important lesson by the end.  But it’s not.  I knew who my friends were.

“No, man, it’s cool.  I like these guys.”

Brendon looked shocked.  “These guys?!  These guys!  Really?  You know if you stick with these guys, you’ll never have a girlfriend, right?”

Even if Brendon and I didn’t know the right words, “these guys” was the most accurate way to describe us: we were the outsiders, we were the different ones, and we were among the first group compared to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris when they brought automatic weapons to Columbine High School.

On April 20th, 1999, I just wanted to see if Korn make it into the top 2 on Total Request Live.  But when I got home, the TV hurled images a high school massacre: students crawling over chain link fences; kids with bleached hair and No Fear sweatshirts balling their eyes out; and grainy security camera footage of someone walking through a hallway with a gun.

I couldn’t look away.  The shooters listened to shitty rap-rock, like me.  They spent a lot of time on their computers, like me.

And they wore black trench coats–just like one I had been begging for.

My friends and I knew things had changed.  Before Columbine, we were left well enough alone, save for the occasional yard duty who would smile and wave.  Now, foot hockey had a regular spectator in the form of Bill–a mustachioed, burly gentleman who had the calm-but-intimidating demeanor of an off duty cop.  After Columbine, we were banned from eating near the bike rack in back of the school.  No students were allowed to have lunch anywhere except the quad.

We tried to stick to a shadowy tree and continue our usual intense analytics of Pokemon biology.  But, before we were outsiders in a nerdy way–now, it felt like people thought we were an actual threat.

My birthday came and went.  I didn’t get the coat, nor did I want it anymore.

The May 31st issue of Time ran the cover story: “How To Spot a Troubled Kid.”  One of the main features was a centerfold-style chart which explained how disturbed your kid was, based on their web browser history.  At the bottom of this list was hate group websites, which Klebold and Harris were known to frequent.  But the second to worst?  Porn sites.

I watched porn,  which means, according to one of America’s major news outlets, I was only one way step away from being a “troubled kid.”

We were still allowed to play foot hockey during brunch and even started to open up our circle, allowing a few 7th graders to join in.  After a while, Bill, the yard duty, moved on and we hoped it was a sign that things were returning to normal.

Out of the corner of my eye one day I noticed a small figure.  Brendon.  He looked remarkably less weasel-ish than before.  For some reason, I felt bad for the guy.

“Hey, man, you want to play?” I asked.

“That gay-ass game?” said Brendon.  But after a second: “Yeah, all right.”

We dropped the cap.  Game on.  This little 7th grader, Tyler, had some skills punted the cap right past Brendon and into the goal.

“You’re a fucking dick!” yelled Brendon, loud enough to make us stop playing.  “This gay-ass 7th grader stepped on my hand!”

“I did not!”  said Tyler.  “And if anyone’s the gay-ass it’s you!”

Brendon, small and fast, suddenly grabbed Tyler.  Shoving, name calling, a lot of flailing.  Brendon grasped the back of Tyler’s neck and flung him.  The kid’s face connected with a metal pole.  Brendon strutted away.

Tyler told his teacher.  Word got passed up to administration.  I was summoned to the main office and sat across from a scowling assistant principal.

“What happened?” she asks.

“Bredon threw Tyler into a pole,” I say.

“Just Brendon?  No one else?”  She seems skeptical.

“Yeah, we were just playing foot hockey.  It’s a game.”

“Fighting is not a game!” she says with barking intensity.  “Brendon told us it was a brawl.  That ‘foot hockey’ game is violent!”

Before I can protest, she hands me the lunch detention notice, tells me that my parents should expect a call.

So here I am: in lunch detention.  I look around but don’t see Brendon anywhere.  I hope he got suspended.

When lunch detention is over, I have two minutes to slam back a Cactus Cooler and I see Brendon, who is smiling this big douchey smile.  The kind that makes you know he’s going to grow up to be a failed DJ.

I ask him: “They gave me lunch detention for what you did, you know?  What’d you get?”

His smile gets even bigger: “Nothing.  They just wanted to talk to me.”

I knew why I was put in lunch detention for a crime I didn’t commit — I was an outsider and now they had another angry alienated teen to deal with.  I wanted so badly to fight this Brendon kid.  I wanted to pummel his unblemished face until his lips looked like two fat slugs.  I wanted to feel his larynx crush in my hands.  I wanted to wear his teeth on a necklace.

But I thought of Klebold and Harris.  I couldn’t be like them.  I couldn’t be a “troubled kid.”

I did the very un-badass thing and walked away.

I went home and furiously typed three single-spaced pages.  I wrote the only thing I knew: a pulp fiction story, like the ones in my comics.

It was about this guy who goes to work one day, but forgets something.  Upon arriving home, he finds his wife fucking the gardener.  He flies into a rage and promptly caves in the gardener’s face.  It was everything I wanted to do to Brendon but couldn’t.

One person read this story and although she’d been watching all the same Columbine stuff I had–all the news reports about disturbed teens and warning signs and how it was all the parent’s fault–she still had the best reaction.

“I love the details, pet.  It makes me feel like I’m right there,” my mom said, because she is fucking amazing.  She reminded me of why I liked being different in the first place.

I saw Brendon throughout high school–he was always bouncing among social groups.  He grew his hair long and started listening to techno.  The next week, he’d be wearing Dickie shorts and black socks.  Then, a trucker cap and snap-button shirts.  Cheesy as it may sound, I don’t think he ever found a place that actually accepted him.

A few years into high school, someone stabbed Brendon with a pencil.  By this point, Brendon had such a low reputation that people actually circulated a petition to get the kid who stabbed Brendon un-expelled.

I’d like to say that that I had learned that being outcast is an adolescent universality–like acne and creative excuses for all the tissues in the trash; that I had become more sensitive to the plight of kids who didn’t fit in; that I forgave Brendon and let it all go.

But, really, I signed it twice.


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