The first time we met was back when we started junior high school. It was the end of the 80s. It was a time of tight jeans, big hair, and neon colors. Glam rock was at its peak and dance and pop music ruled the airwaves. The New Kids on the Block were the biggest band at the time; at least, that's what all the girls were screaming about, NKOTB stickers all over their trapper keepers and backpacks.
I had been transferred into this new class as a result of the placement exams we took the year before. Apparently, the Dept of Education thought I needed to be in a more challenging class, as if life wasn't hard enough for me all ready. I hated it. All my friends were in the other class, and I could only hang out with them before class and during recess. I was a quiet kid at the time; a bit of a loner really. It was kind of hard to relate to my new classmates. And the truth was, I wasn't really making an effort. It just seemed like the universe had found another way to torture me.
I kept mostly to myself those first few weeks, did my work in silence, and tried to blend in. Most of my new classmates had known each since the first grade. And while they made plans to hang out on the weekends or invite each other over for sleepovers and parties, I tried to ignore them. I didn't really talk to any of them. I blocked them out and stuck my nose in a book, reading to escape. I was earning a reputation as a nerd and loner, but I didn't care. I felt invisible, and I was fine with that. But the universe had other plans for me.
It began with a Physical Education class. Our PE/history teacher decided we would have a year long competition. The winners would be the team with the most points accumulated from winning various games and events. Our class was divided into four teams. Of course, I was the last one picked, since all the team captains picked their friends to be on their teams. I guess when you're the last one picked, it's not really being picked is it? It's just that the last team gets whoever is left over. That was the first time I remember him speaking to me.
He was our team captain. He was a tall, skinny, golden haired kid from a well off family with political connections. Naturally, this made him very popular. He carried himself with a lot of confidence, sometimes arrogant and brash without realizing it. I called him Thor. Thor loved to play sports. So, it was no surprise he was our team captain. The games for that day were track and field. Specifically, we would be doing sprints and relays.
There were six of us in the team. Thor assigned his four friends to the relay team, then assigned himself and me to do sprints. He figured we'd stand a better chance of winning that way. He knew what his friends were capable of, and by being in the sprints with me, he figured he'd be able to win some points even if I turned out to be a horrible athlete. After all, he didn't know anything about me. He asked me if I minded doing sprints. I told him I was fine with it. His friends didn't really know what to say to me.
The first thing we did was the qualifications heat in the sprints, when the top four went on to the second, final race. Thor came in first. I came in second place, which surprised Thor and everyone else. The truth was, I wasn't even trying. I knew I could run faster. When you're one of the youngest boys in a big family, you learn a few things. You learn that older siblings like to beat up on younger siblings. And if younger siblings mouth off to older siblings, then younger siblings better run as fast as their mouths if they don't want a beat down from older siblings. I enjoyed being a smart ass to my older siblings. So I learned to run really fast early on in life.
Our relay team came in second. When we raced the final sprint, I pulled ahead early on and won first place easily. Thor came in a distant second. He was huffing and puffing as he congratulated me. When the points were tallied that day, our team had won a sizable lead. We celebrated by jumping up and down and high fiving each other. Over the course of a half hour, I had become a part of a group. And it wasn't just any group. This was a popular group of boys. We weren't exactly friends, but the rest of the day, they made an effort to include me in their activities, which mostly revolved around hanging out with other popular kids. That bored the hell out of me, but I didn't want to be rude, so I just smiled and listened to them ramble on about the latest movie or radio hit song.
The next day at PE, we had dodge ball. I was pretty good at that, too. It was another skill I learned as a younger sibling. When the older angry sibling can't catch up to the younger fleeing sibling, the older sibling will toss things at the younger sibling. And I learned to dodge items being thrown at me by mad older siblings. I got a lot of practice, so I was pretty good at dodging that rubber ball, catching it and throwing it at the opposing team. We won again that day, and for the rest of the year, we kept on winning most of the time. Over the next few days, Thor made it a point to have me sit at his table during breakfast and lunch. He also wanted to hang out during recess. He was making a genuine effort to get to know me. I guess everybody loves a winner.
But I still hung out with my old friends during recess. Though, as the year went by, I was hanging out with Thor more and more. I was still the quiet one in the group. Thor was our leader, doing most of the talking and planning, and I went along, most of the time. I think he was curious about me, wanting to learn more about me. He wondered why I wasn't in any of the after school teams. He was in a number of after school leagues. He thought I was a pretty good athlete. I told him that I wasn't interested. That much was true. But I didn't want to tell him that I didn't want to join those teams because uniforms and fees cost money, and I wasn't goning to ask my mom for money. Besides, I had my brothers and friends in the neighborhood to play games with after school.
A lot of people couldn't understand what Thor saw in me, but the fact that I was becoming his friend drew a lot of interest. I had athletic talent, but didn't really hang out with the jocks or other popular circles. Rather, I hung out with a motley crew of misfits and delinquents from another class during recess. A lot of people were starting to get curious about me, which was annoying, especially since I just wanted to be left alone. Still, it was a little strange for people to see Thor and I hanging out, laughing. He was upper crust, privileged golden boy and I was a dark haired, quiet loner from no where. He was loud, boisterous, the life of the party, and I never went to parties. During class celebrations, I was a wallflower, silent, trying to stay out of sight while Thor was the center of attention. Still, Thor and I became quite close.
I think that I was probably one of his more honest friends. The others usually just went along with what he said. But with me, he had to work harder to convince me. Then there were times when I just didn't agree with him or did my own thing. That kind of intrigued him, and he knew that he would always get an honest answer from me. We didn't always agree on everything, but we respected each other's views.
We started our friendship based on a mutual goal of winning a competition. And underneath the surface, we were competing against each other ever since that first race. It was like we used each other as a measuring stick to see how much we've improved and how much more work we needed to do to get better, faster, stronger. It was mostly a friendly competition, and I think we thrived on pushing each other on further physically, exceeding our limits. In a way, it brought out the best in us; later on, it would also bring out the worst. But at the time, we enjoyed challenging each other to do our very best.
And it wasn't just a physical challenge I was dealing with that year. The beginning of the second semester brought a new transfer student in our class. By chance, she ended up sitting next to me. She was tall, blond, and a bit of tom boy. She was confident and pretty and athletic. She naturally attracted attention. She was also smart. I called her Morrigan. She had no problems fitting in and rising to the upper echelons of junior high school hierarchy. Our initial conversations consisted mostly of good mornings at the beginning of the class, then we'd hang with our separate circles. But group projects forced me out of my shell to interact more with her. She was a bit cocky and stubborn, and often times, she clashed a lot with anyone that held an opposing opinion, and that included me.
The first time she confronted me was over a science test. She was thrilled she got a 100% on the test. She thought she was the only one, and was happy to brag about it til the teacher told her that she wasn't the only one. Imagine my surprise when she suddenly came up to my desk and demanded to see my test. I was like, excuse me? She repeated her demands to see my test, because she heard that I got a 100%. I was a little annoyed at her bossy attitude, but I was enjoying the idea that she was upset that someone else did just as well as she did. So, I showed her my test. She grabbed it, narrowed her eyes as she scanned my answers. Humph, she said. Then handed me back my test and stomped back to her group of friends. I didn't know it then, but she had declared an academic war on me. I just wanted to do my best in school; she wanted to be the best.
The rest of the year, she wanted to compare test results. She glowed when she did better in math and grumbled when I beat her in science. English and Social Studies were a toss up. But over the course of group projects and test comparisons, we started to learn more about each other. She was from a big, rich family of college educated professionals. And she was ambitious. She couldn't understand my laid back, borderline antisocial attitude. She was prone to making declarations and I started making smart ass remarks just to irritate her. But instead, she reveled in our exchanges. Soon, we were engaged in a war of wits. And I had to admit that she intrigued me. By the end of the year, we started hanging out during class breaks or sitting next to each other during class. In time, we became friends. Our banter would sometimes turn to serious discussions, often debating different issues or ideas. We also shared a twisted sense of humor and often talked about things we'd never share with our other friends.
One day at lunch, Thor asked me about Morrigan, wondering why I was hanging out with her. I told him that she was a friend. Thor thought she was bossy and stubborn. I laughed and said that I agreed. But she was fun to hang out with. Thor said that she was tomboy. I laughed and agreed again, but I told him that she was a pretty tomboy though. Now it was Thor's turn to laugh. He teased me saying that I had a crush. I, of course, denied it. I had no idea what a crush was. Although, I did feel an attraction to Morrigan. The truth was, I found her engaging and enjoyed spending time with her. I just wasn't sure if it was a crush; and if it was, I wouldn't have admitted it. This was junior high school; I'd never hear the end of it! But I think Thor knew, and while he didn't understand it, he didn't mind teasing me about it when it was just the two of us hanging out.
I wasn't sure if Thor felt our friendship was being threatened by Morrigan. But they did bump heads a lot; I just figured it was personality clashes. They seemed alike in so many ways--smart, competitive, and bold upper class kids used to getting their own way. But underneath their confident persona, I glimpsed what drove them. There was a need to prove themselves worthy of their heritage, to be the best their families expected them to be.
I didn't have their privileged upbringing or pedigree, but I did have something more important. I had my individuality, and I liked it. I didn't feel the need to conform or fit in. I just did my work and went about my business. I didn't have the burden of a great family name to live up to; I didn't have to prove anything to anyone. But while I didn't think much about popularity, I had no idea that my friendships with Thor and Morrigan had elevated me to popular status. I had no clue that my quiet, loner vibe was somehow being translated by my peers as mysterious. On the surface, my peers thought that I was living a great life, hanging out with great friends.
I was totally oblivious to my new popular status, because I still felt miserable inside. I was still angry at the death of my father a few years before; I hated seeing my mother struggle. And I felt so oppressed with so many people trying to tell me what to do, what to think, what to feel. And I just felt helpless and restless. Life was still hard for me, and in a few years, it would get harder as I would come to know betrayal and more loss.