TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 1

Friends Like These

 · Nonfiction

I.

“What a distinguished looking man!” my wife said, pointing to a photograph in my high school alumni magazine. Glancing over, I recognized a bearded man in his mid-sixties with a full head of gray-streaked hair looking back at me with an amused expression.

“That’s the teacher who got me kicked out for smoking dope,” I said.

“Well, he’s retiring this year, and it sounds like he’s had an illustrious career. Lots of testimonials from former students. Did you know he was a writer?”

I thought back to 1974, my senior year of prep school. I needed an advisor for my independent study in poetry. All of the English teachers had declined on the grounds of busy schedules when the chairman suggested that I ask Mr. Bryant, a math teacher who wrote short stories in his spare time. I knew him slightly from being assigned to his table at seated dinners and from one lacrosse season when he was recruited as an assistant coach at the last minute. He was considered one of the cooler teachers, both for his sarcastic sense of humor and for his appearance; beards and long hair were familiar sights on boarding school seniors in those days, but not teachers. The lacrosse team buzzed with speculation about whether he would conform to the head coach’s insistence on short haircuts and a signed commitment not to ingest alcohol or drugs during the season. We sensed that both of these regulations would require a sacrifice on Mr. Bryant’s part.

The chairman eventually decided that English studies ought to be overseen by English teachers, and agreed to advise me himself, but I was able to get to know Mr. Bryant under other circumstances. He struck me as worth knowing, for his literary bent as well as his hipness. Unlike most teachers, who advertised their extracurricular passions and found ways to work them into their classes, Mr. Bryant kept his avocation to himself. Or at least he did so during my years at the school. One of the retirement testimonials had been submitted by a former student ten years my junior. Now a successful novelist, he credited Mr. Bryant as his first mentor, the teacher who had made him want to become a writer.

Mr. Bryant lived with his wife in Sterling House, where I occasionally ran into him patrolling the halls, checking students in at curfew. My friend Bob Leavell lived in Sterling, and I was often in Bob’s room when Mr. Bryant knocked and poked his head inside. Seniors were bound by a more relaxed curfew than underclassmen, and could be checked into any of the houses after eleven p.m. Boarding school rules — where one could and couldn’t be at specific times and what one could and couldn’t do there — were second nature to my friends and me, and we were always aware of the approach of that eleven o’clock sign-in. We needed to be in someone’s room doing something constructive or at least not illegal. We might not stay put or continue behaving ourselves, but by allowing a housemaster to check us in for the night we made both his life and ours easier.

Our respect for curfew made our behavior on one December night all the more irresponsible. It was Bob’s eighteenth birthday, and several of us had hitchhiked into town to celebrate his first legal purchase of alcohol. We settled in at Chuck’s Pizza, which served beer by the pitcher. The owner knew us from his nightly pizza deliveries to campus, and when Bob produced his driver’s license, he went off smiling to get our order. We were all moderately experienced drinkers and dope-smokers. With the legal drinking age at eighteen, it was easy for students to enlist a senior or even a local adult hanging out outside a liquor store to buy beer. And it was even easier to procure marijuana. Students came to the school from all over the country, bringing new supplies of drugs with them at the beginning of each term. By the time our group stumbled laughing onto the sidewalk that evening, we had consumed a pitcher of beer each and looked forward to continuing the party over joints back at Bob’s room.

Usually groups of students getting drunk or high adopted a version of the designated driver rule. One person, while not necessarily restricted in consumption, was placed in charge of keeping track of the time, reminding everyone to use their Binaca and Visine, steering the group away from campus walkways or buildings where a teacher might appear, making sure that any passing out or throwing up was done outside and out of sight. We were so accustomed to the constant presence of teachers and the school night watchman that our escapades were always tempered by a feeling of paranoid vigilance. We could never simply relax into the pleasure of being wasted. I didn’t realize until years later that our paranoia came as much from the drug as from the circumstances in which it was taken.

I’m not sure why we let our guard down on this particular night. Perhaps because our college applications were done and nothing stood between us and the frivolities of our senior spring. Or perhaps, having navigated the school’s surveillance for nearly four years, we felt we could evade detection by instinct. Whatever the case, our designated watcher failed in his responsibilities. Was it me? I seem to remember our large group thinning out when we arrived back at campus, and one or two of the friends who joined us for a smoke in Bob’s room departed for their own dorms before eleven. Maybe our guard departed then, too, with a warning about the time and the cloud of pot smoke hovering below Bob’s ceiling. By the time eleven o’clock arrived, the three of us remaining were much too wrecked to know what time it was or who could be knocking on Bob’s door while pushing it open.

Mr. Bryant stepped into the room holding his check-in clipboard with one hand while waving the smoke away with the other. There are certain comments that one remembers with undiminished clarity no matter how much time passes, and Mr. Bryant’s “Having a party, boys?” is one of these. Other than that, I only remember being too stoned and drunk to engage him in a dialogue about the situation, though not too far gone to realize its ramifications. As he muttered about the scene being so blatantly criminal that he had to turn us in, I had two visions, one of my application sitting in a basket in the admissions office at Princeton, my first-choice college, and another of Mr. Bryant glowering through pot smoke like God peering down disgustedly from heaven. Then the door closed and he went away, and I realized that right before he left I had begun to giggle.

After Mr. Bryant’s exit, the three of us tried to collect ourselves. The incident had gone a long way toward sobering us up, though I felt a maddening inability to concentrate on what to do next. We needed to appeal to him promptly in case he was required to report us that night to the assistant headmaster in charge of discipline. So after our dismayed exclamations of “Shit” and “What the fuck time is it?” and Bob’s wry “There goes Princeton” to me, we started planning our defense. Bob proposed that the eighteenth-birthday excuse ought to soften Mr. Bryant a little. Perhaps we could say that this was our first debauch and attribute our carelessness to inexperience with alcohol and pot. I suggested reminding him that by turning us in he would not only subject us to disciplinary action, but jeopardize our college prospects as well. Then Pete spoke up.

Pete Werner’s and my presence together in a room was improbable, and in the coming days I would be surprised by how many people who heard about our bust assumed that we were friends. We had been friends, inseparable ones, during freshman year, after discovering that we shared similar family backgrounds, senses of humor, and perspectives on life. We spent so much time together that our classmates referred to us as a single entity, Mike and Pete, like a married couple. Then early in our sophomore year our friendship fractured. The break was as unexpected and freakish as the shattered leg that ended the prep school friendship in A Separate Peace. As in that novel, none of our classmates anticipated that the fracture would never heal.

On a fall Sunday, Pete and I had just left a friend’s dorm room to head to the cafeteria for lunch. We were rushing down a narrow stairway, laughing and jostling, when Pete pushed me a bit too hard and I retaliated in anger. He shot me an exasperated look, and, after one final shove into the banister, stalked away. It was the kind of flare-up that was common among teenage male friends, especially two who spent as much time together as we did. I assumed that we would give each other a wide berth for the rest of the day, and that by evening we would find ourselves seated together laughing at dinner, or that the lure of some activity would force one of us to set pride aside and appear at the other’s door with an invitation.

We did see each other at dinners, but always separated by several friends and by our careful aloofness, lest one of us be seen as the initiator of détente. Since both of us felt wronged, neither approached the other with an apology. As this frostiness extended over days and then weeks, the rift assumed a new complexion, one defined by its unusual duration rather than the original conflict. No longer could it be healed by a few bantering words or an impulsive suggestion on a Saturday night. Our friends noticed immediately, of course, and our split dominated their conversation. Their friendships with us became more awkward as Pete and I avoided each other outside of classes. Or I avoided him — Pete seemed less disconcerted by the fight and kept socializing with our group as if he didn’t care if I was around or not.

It was his indifference that finally prompted me to take action. I felt our friendship slipping away and could tell that it was no longer going to recover on its own. About a month after the incident, I went to his room to try to coax a rapprochement. He seemed wary and not nearly as glad that I had taken the initiative as I hoped he’d be. As our conversation progressed with him denying that he still felt any animosity or even remembered the reason for the original dispute, I realized that it was no longer possible for us to ease back into each other’s company, even if he had wanted to as much as I did. Several times he shrugged and said, “We’re friends. I’m not mad,” but another comment he made led me to suspect that our break had not been accidental. As I was telling him how much I missed spending time with him, he said, “We’re very different.”

Up to that point I wouldn’t have called Pete calculating, but he did plot his life more carefully than any of his fellow freshmen, including me. Alone among us he spoke of the importance of keeping his grades up so that he would have a range of options when college application time arrived. As early as ninth-grade year, he was set on attending Stanford, an unusual choice given that most of our school’s graduates stayed on the East Coast for college. Pete also maintained casual friendships in a variety of the cliques at school, and seemed conscious of the social ramifications of each one. If I saw him eating lunch with one of the pale, skinny computer nerds, for example, I knew that he was trying to project an egalitarian image, but also that he would never risk social disgrace by spending Saturday evening with that student in the computer room. He mingled with members of the “freak” clique often enough to bask in their aura of delinquency, but not so often that their reputation as unambitious potheads rubbed off on him.

As for me, I had met Pete during my first week at the school, which at the time accepted students in seventh through twelfth grades. I was a new ninth-grader, and he was returning for his second year. The returning students were still reveling in their veteran status, and I could tell that Pete wasn’t sure which newcomers he should nurture as friends. One afternoon a group of us was playing touch football in the quad in front of the third-form dormitories when a car turned into campus off the main road. The driver started talking to one of our players through his window, and soon our whole group was gathered around the car. The college-age driver was offering to procure alcohol for us, and seemed to be assessing just how much risk he was getting himself in for. “How old are you guys?” he asked. We were fourteen and looked it. Figuring that he might be uneasy about corrupting children, but would never believe we were eighteen, I said, “I’m seventeen.” This seemed to satisfy him and arrangements were made for a delivery just off-campus the following Saturday night.

My lie earned Pete’s immediate respect, and he complimented me later on my quick thinking. From then on, our friendship blossomed, and by the end of that year when students filled out cards indicating their preference for tenth-grade roommates, everyone including me assumed that Pete and I would stick together. Yet he remained mysteriously noncommittal, as if the prospect of rooming together lay outside his definition of our relationship. In retrospect, I wondered if he was worried that our closeness would hinder his future social progress. If so, then the stairwell fight at the beginning of the next year offered him a perfect excuse to drop me.

We never did reconcile after the fight, and for the next three years we coexisted awkwardly. The school was too small and cliquish for either of us to find a new set of friends, so we went on sharing our old ones. It was this group that accompanied Bob on his birthday celebration. By then, Pete and I had spent so much time in each other’s wary company that a new, bizarrely formal relationship had developed between us. We never spent time alone together and rarely addressed each other in the group, but at least I no longer felt compelled to turn and walk away when I heard his voice inside a friend’s room I was coming to visit. I never got over my bewilderment at our “breakup,” and often when Pete and I were the last to leave a room or fell into step together behind our group on the path, I had to suppress the urge to turn to him and ask what had happened.

When the door to Bob’s room closed and Mr. Bryant’s footsteps receded down the hall, Pete must have been as aware as I was of the irony of our situation. As the three of us looked at one another through the smoke, he and I knew that the next few minutes would take our odd shell of a friendship in an unexpected direction. He was a varsity hockey player whose season had begun a few weeks before. Later that month, on the first day of Christmas vacation, he was to play in the school’s annual holiday game at Madison Square Garden, the high point of the sports year. I was particularly cognizant of this because I, too, played hockey and had been destined to play on the same varsity team, probably alongside Pete at defense. My long-term unhappiness at the school, caused in large part by the trauma of our split, had motivated me to skip hockey season and spend the winter term studying French in Paris. My parents had already paid my airfare and tuition, so I doubted that the punishment would affect my trip. For Pete, however, the bust would mean certain dismissal from the team.

I don’t remember how Bob and I agreed to cover for Pete. He may have reminded us of his hockey predicament without asking us to take the blame, or maybe we simply offered. It felt natural to help him, if a little weird to me given our history. So after concocting a story that Pete had stuck to his training regimen and merely watched us get drunk and stoned, Bob and I made our unsteady way down to Mr. Bryant’s office. We must have been a comical sight, slurring and swaying in the door — Bob and I laughed about it afterwards, and I’m sure Mr. Bryant raised a few chuckles in the faculty lounge the next day. I remember trying hard to make an impassioned plea, but the room was spinning and my speech seemed to alternate between great speed and volume and a creeping whisper. Far from helping our cause, our appearance probably reaffirmed Mr. Bryant’s sense that no matter how liberal his views, he would be negligent if he overlooked this episode, perhaps even at risk for dismissal if his superiors found out. He reiterated that he had to turn us in, and sounded as unhappy as we were that we had put him in this position.

Our punishment was innocuous. Bob and I stayed at school an extra day into Christmas vacation to help the maintenance crew clean dormitory bathrooms, and then were suspended for the first week of winter term. For me, this merely meant postponing my trip to France. My parents, who seemed unsure of how to treat my extra week at home as anything different from Christmas vacation, were mainly relieved to hear that the school saw no need to alert colleges about the incident. On the final day of my suspension I returned to school for a meeting with the headmaster, who delivered a cryptic lecture comparing my transgression to his exceeding the highway speed limit by a few miles an hour. Walking around campus before my taxi back to the bus station arrived, I gleaned that our classmates thought Bob and I had been made examples of — two clean-cut students caught partying in relative innocence when others were ingesting much more dangerous drugs in larger quantities. Apparently, our suspensions were intended to deter other straight arrows who might be contemplating a trip over to the dark side.

The students I spoke to that afternoon also mentioned how guilty Pete felt for playing hockey in Madison Square Garden on the same day that Bob and I were scrubbing toilets, and for the whole turn of events in Bob’s room that night. After I returned home from school, before I left for France, I received a letter from Pete. He had been transferred into my old dorm room — a much better room and dorm than his original one — and sounded doubly uneasy about escaping without punishment and occupying my space in my absence. His letter said nothing about our old rift, and one would never have known from reading it that the first phase of our relationship had ever happened.

I went to France and returned in time to graduate. Pete, Bob, and I were accepted into college, and on graduation day as we passed through the faculty receiving line, we exchanged wry smiles with Mr. Bryant, who seemed as glad as we were that there were no hard feelings and the incident had caused no lasting damage.

 

II.

Four years later, I had just graduated from college with an English degree and was deciding whether to apply to graduate school or find a job that would leave me time to explore my interest in writing. Hoping to delay my decision, I applied for and received a scholarship to attend a summer writers’ conference in Vermont. On my first day there, I glanced across a lecture hall and was greeted by the same smile that had emerged from a cloud of pot smoke in Sterling House and later bidden me goodbye at graduation. Mr. Bryant walked over and greeted me amiably, if self-consciously, both of us acknowledging the irony of meeting again.

We saw little of each other over the next two weeks, as the conference members observed a strict social hierarchy. The faculty was composed of well-known writers, many of whom were less interested in their students’ talents than in drinking and flirting with each other. The college-age scholarship recipients like myself earned their stipends by waiting tables in the cafeteria. Mr. Bryant belonged to a group that the conference called “contributors,” generally middle-aged writers who were either paying their own way or had won fellowships to participate. They attended for the chance to have their work critiqued by a prominent writer and, in many cases, to do some drinking and flirting of their own.

The conference party scene reminded me of Saturday nights at school — the drinking and pot smoking started at around dinner time, and anyone who found himself alone and sober after nine p.m. felt left out. My behavior on Bob’s birthday notwithstanding, I was by no means a hard partier. I had engaged in a moderate amount of social drinking in college, mainly in order to avoid being the sole sober person in a group or to quell my nervousness with girls. As for sex, my experience was limited to intermittent sleepovers with a girl with whom I had carried on a long-distance relationship in college. On most nights at the writers’ conference, after others had disappeared into their rooms or the woods for trysts and drinking sessions, I returned to my room to read.

On the last night, however, the waitstaff held its own farewell celebration before the main conference party, a dance in the converted barn. After dinner we met in the cafeteria, where the administrators had supplied us with beer and wine. Joints were passed freely around the room. I had grown comfortable enough with my peers to relax in their company, but anxiety about the main party caused me to drink and smoke more than I was accustomed to. By the time our group headed to the barn, I was feeling uncharacteristically uninhibited.

When I stepped into the barn, I saw Mr. Bryant across the dance floor, pressed up against a girl I recognized from one of the poetry workshops. She was roughly my age, and I remembered her telling me that she wished she’d known about the scholarship program before she agreed to pay full tuition. I felt odd seeing Mr. Bryant dancing — even after four years away from school, I still thought of him as a teacher. The sight of him gyrating to a rock ballad made me feel even more disoriented than the beer and pot I had consumed.

The intimacy of the dance made me particularly uncomfortable. Like most faculty wives, Mrs. Bryant had been a quiet but regular presence at her husband’s side at school, assisting him in his housemastering duties in Sterling House and accompanying him at sports events and formal seated meals. She had not come to the conference, and Mr. Bryant had made no mention of her in his greeting on opening day, but I felt certain that they were still together. Even if they weren’t and even if he hadn’t been a teacher at my school, the girl whose hair he was nuzzling struck me as much too young for him. The married men and women who attended the conference alone and treated the two weeks as a sexual holiday were viewed by the waitstaff as midlife clichés — we watched them pairing up at dinner and exiting each other’s dorm rooms the next morning. While this behavior shocked me at first, I attributed my reaction to unworldliness — one of the qualities that I was hoping to discard by coming to the conference. Yet seeing Mr. Bryant lean heavily into a girl my age on the dance floor didn’t make me feel unworldly so much as disgusted.

After spending the first half hour of the dance on the perimeter of the room, I was coaxed to the floor by a group of equally self-conscious and equally drunk waiters who sought confidence in numbers. Suddenly I found myself dancing next to Mr. Bryant’s partner as a song ended. The girl smiled and followed me to the bar set up at the edge of the floor. She pointed to Mr. Bryant mingling in a group across the room and joked, “Aren’t you worried about what your teacher will think?” When I replied that he had already busted me once, she laughed and said he had told her all about our history. She added that he had spent the whole two weeks wondering if I felt inhibited having a former high school teacher present in such a permissive environment.

The girl’s name was Lisa, and she told me that Mr. Bryant had been pursuing her for the entire two weeks. She laughed when I asked whether he was still married. He had confessed to this right away, explaining that he needed more love than the average man. Lisa had found him intelligent and entertaining, but had no interest in having sex with him. When she had reiterated this during their slow dance earlier, he had excused himself to try his luck elsewhere. She asked for my version of the pot-smoking incident and quizzed me on what it had been like to attend such an exclusive school. We talked and drank until the party wound down and then walked uncertainly across the campus to my room.

It was me that Lisa ended up having sex with that night — to this day my only one-night stand. I was too drunk to remember who did the initiating or whether I embarrassed myself. I only recall fragments: her looking through my books and reading the draft of a poem that had been annotated by one of the conference’s famous writers; a feeling of softness when my skin first met hers. Then it was morning and I was hurrying to wait on tables at the final breakfast when a carful of people and luggage sped past, Lisa leaning out the window calling goodbye.

I never saw Mr. Bryant again, nor thought of him until my wife pointed out his photograph in the alumni magazine. I wondered if he was still married and still pursuing his quest for supplemental love, if he had kept in touch with Lisa and heard that she had slept with me, and if there was an aptness in that, a kind of harmless balancing of the books wherein I paid him back for turning me in that night at school. But I decided that I had no retaliatory feeling for him — I had screwed up that night and left him no choice but to hold me responsible. It was his infidelity to his wife that I held against him, and Lisa’s choice of me over him gave me a small amount of satisfaction on that score.

But the sight of Mr. Bryant’s picture brought back one last prep school memory. I had returned from Paris in April, in time to enjoy my final term. Reuniting with my friends meant resuming daily contact with Pete, though by this point our stilted coexistence felt more tiresome than painful. I had abandoned any hope of rescuing our friendship, and reminded myself that we would soon be attending college on opposite coasts, starting new friendships, and finally leaving our troubled history behind. I was also preoccupied by a new relationship, having met a girl at school just before the incident on Bob’s birthday and courted her in ardent letters throughout my term abroad.

After completing the faculty receiving line on graduation day, I sought out this girl, and we took a circuitous last walk around campus, ending up back at my dormitory, where my brother was loading boxes into his car. As we stood in the crowded foyer, I was full of emotion, both for her and for the finality of leaving school, and declared my love to her before saying goodbye. Then I went upstairs to help my family pack up my room. A half hour later, making a last check for possessions in the basement, I came upon the girl kissing Pete amid cobwebs and broken furniture.

A few years ago, before my twenty-fifth prep school reunion, a classmate solicited pictures and reminiscences for a commemorative book. As is my custom with such requests, I let it sit on my desk until the deadline had passed, but studied the book eagerly when it arrived. I was not surprised that all the ambitions that Pete had declared during our late-night conversations freshman year had been realized. He had attended Stanford and now lived with his family in Montana. His photograph showed that he had aged gracefully, and possessed the same irreverent smile that had first attracted me to him and that often caused teachers to scold him even before he spoke. Now I only saw calculation behind that smile. In the space where contributors were asked to sum up their entries, Pete had written, “I hold no grudges.” I had to laugh.

 

for Bob Leavell
(1956–1990)

 


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