A Tale of Two Classmates

The first boy I ever liked was a boy named Todd. I was eight and at a new school, a hippie school called Mariposa, in the hills outside the little town of Ukiah, in Northern California. The school wasn’t new, I was new to it. My mom and I, and some others, had moved to Ukiah from Berkeley, so the adults could do the back-to-the-land thing. My class was a combined fourth and fifth grade, but I had started school early and was the youngest in the group. Todd was older by a year or more. He had a big cowlick over his forehead, a staccato laugh, long eyelashes, and I thought he was the ultimate.

Some of my memories of that time are random and vague, and I don’t know how they fit together, such as the time I found myself on a bus with Todd and his older sister. I’m guessing it was a Greyhound and we were on our way to other places to visit our respective fathers. Todd’s sister tried to set us up as a couple. She switched seats so I could sit next to him, after telling me that he and I could “go” together. I asked her what that meant exactly and she said we would sit together, maybe hold hands, and that sometime he could take me to Love-N-Spoonful, which was a candy store in town.

Todd didn’t like me that way, I’m sure. I was little and I wasn’t pretty, but he went along with sitting with me on the bus. What I don’t remember is something he told me about later, that I had picked a big booger out of my nose, held it out to him, and said, “Here.” Classy move. Did I think boys were into gross stuff and that that would impress him? Maybe. In any case, it didn’t work. That bus ride was the extent of our romance.

The next year though, we became great friends, possibly even a form of best friends. We hung out a lot after school, in the classrooms, and made forts out of cushions and the tumbling mats. We spent hours creating slapstick optical illusions that we performed for each other. My best one was creating the effect of going down an escalator, by standing on a bench placed behind a bookcase. The trick was to stand with your legs apart and slowly lower yourself down and forward by bending one knee, while casually gazing around. It was gold. Todd’s specialty was making like he was falling down a flight of stairs, again with the benches behind the bookcase. He’d trip at the top corner of the bookcase, disappear behind it with all kinds of yelling, and then reappear at the opposite, bottom corner with a somersault on the floor. Pure genius.

The other kid I’m remembering right now was a boy I’ll call Ben. Ben was nerdy and into Dungeons and Dragons, and he had his own talents. The year I was in the fourth grade our class produced a literary magazine, and we had to present our contributions while sitting in a circle. Ben wrote an amazing poem with several verses that began,

Where does the Fire Dragon sleep?

And who is the master of his keep?

Todd wrote a poem too, his was called “Cats”. It went like this:

Cats are stupid little stupids,

That scratch and bite.

That was the whole thing. Todd was popular, and his poem earned him cheers and applause.

When the teacher suggested we call our magazine “Where the Fire Dragon Sleeps” there was a general outcry. I’m sure no one objected to the poem, it was more that Ben wasn’t well liked. Kids can be real shitheads, and I was certainly no exception. In the end we chose “Marmaduke’s Masterpiece Magazine” for the title, after the class rat, a big white thing that lived in a cage in the corner.

Around the time Todd and I got to be friends, Ben and I became enemies. I’m sure it had a lot to do with me taunting him. Along with friendship and romance, there was a lot of antagonism among the kids, most of us got nailed by it and dished it out too. Lots of drama. More than once Ben and I got into playground tussles that ended up in some kind of stalemate, like, “You let go of my hair, and I’ll let go of your nose. On the count of three.” But all that evolved. I was friends with Trish, Ben’s older sister, who hated him half the time too, and Ben and I were eventually sort of frenemies.

Both Todd and Ben moved on to the middle school in town before I did, since Mariposa only went until grade seven. But later we all went to the same high school. We weren’t friends or frenemies anymore, by then the Mariposa days seemed like another lifetime, but there weren’t many degrees of separation between us either. If I remember right, Todd had flings with a couple of my friends, and then got heavily into drugs. The last I heard of him was some years later, from a high school friend living in San Francisco, that he was a heroin addict. My friend had seen him on the street a couple of times and said he looked like an old man.

What a horribly sad thing. If Todd ever got into recovery maybe he’s still alive, otherwise, 20 years later, I can’t imagine he is. Back when we were kids the seeds of addiction must have been there already, genetics that made him vulnerable, or other internal demons that could get out of control. Cat poem aside, Todd was really sweet, really smart, really funny. A really really good friend. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s at peace. I seem to have a thing about me where once I really love someone, that part of my heart never goes away. I may not visit that place for years, but if I do I find it alive and well, still there.

I never loved Ben in that same way, but I do value shared history. We connected on Facebook a few years ago and it was sweet to catch up. Ben is an exceedingly nice person who has been through alot, and is now married and raising a daughter. I had a chance to apologize for being such an asshole when we were kids, and tell him I remembered, among lots of other things, his Fire Dragon poem.

I went to Mariposa for four years, and I lived there for three, because my mom became a teacher there and everyone who worked at Mariposa lived together, commune-style. Four years is almost nothing in adult time, but in kid time it’s long and full of formative experiences. There’s one memory that particularly stands out, a night in spring when Ben and Trish’s parents were out of town, and Trish invited a handful of girls for a sleepover. I was 11 and Trish, two years older than Ben, must have been 14. We got up to all kinds of ridiculous things, and then, late in the night, we went outside and crossed the road. Trish and Ben lived in a rural spot and across the road from their house was a big sloping field full of lupines, a sea of lupines in bloom as high as your waist.

The sky was clear and the moon was out, and we played hide and seek in the field. All you had to do to be completely hidden from view was lie down, and we ran around delirious it was so fun. Todd wasn’t there that night, but he wasn’t far away, and I think he would have loved it too: the black sky, the bright white moon, your friends a bunch of shadowy shapes and the field of flowers a ghostly blue. Finally no one is fighting, just laughing, or trying not to laugh, while you’re crouched down on the damp, fragrant earth, and someone is nearby, looking for you.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of four books, including the forthcoming literary novel House of Rougeaux. Read more about her books, or order wherever books are sold.