Chapter one

Time:      Sherry – The Four Seasons

Place:     Lynfield, Ohio

It was alphabetical fate that brought us together. He was K-A-S and I was K-A-Z: Kassouf and Kazmarek. He sat in the desk directly in front of mine in homeroom that first day of seventh grade and nearly every year after until we graduated.  There were two elementary schools in town that combined forces to form the Lynfield Junior-Senior High School. I was nervous enough just leaving behind the quiet safety of the school which had been more home to me than our family house and here we were, thrown together with a group of strangers we were expected to merge and become one with. It was not even 8:00 a.m. and already my stomach was in knots and I wished I were on the 3:30 bus headed out of here. It was noisy, near chaotic, the room vibrating as though it might take off at any second and the teacher in charge was oblivious. Our cramped classroom smelled of formica desktops and freshly waxed old linoleum in contrast with over-perfuming and a general lack of deodorant wafting in all directions. This kid Kassouf was yakking mindlessly to all the faces around me that I didn’t know plus anyone else who had the misfortune to be ensnared.

I prayed he’d leave me alone, but eventually he ran out of people to bother so swiveling around, he pushed his face to within millimeters of my own. “I had onions with my eggs this morning. Do I have bad breath?”. And without hesitation he exhaled a putrid exhaust from his gaping wide trap. I was beyond dumbfounded. Swiftly pulling back so as not to gag,  slowly and deliberately I asked “Are you for real?” He closed his huge mouth into a broad, goofy smile and giggled girlishly, shrugging his shoulders and turning to face forward once the teacher attempted at last to gain control. This was to serve as our introduction in lieu of exchanging first names, like manners and common sense traditionally dictated. I decided at that very moment in time that I would hate this asshole.

He was Sammy Kassouf, son of Lebanese-American parents, but for our first three years he remained only ‘Kassouf’. He and his two older stair-step sisters who were in the high school were exotic looking when compared with the typical Lynfield student. Most of us were second or third generation Poles, Hungarians, Slavs, Germans or Italians who homogenized as a group. Unlike us, Sammy was swarthy with coarse, unruly black hair and enormous brown eyes, overly expressive most times. Whenever his mouth moved, his awkwardly huge hands would flail about his face in accompaniment as though he had no control over them. When not punctuating his every syllable they dangled lifelessly at his sides, hanging gorilla-like past his knees, paralyzed. His throaty voice was much too big for his inferior frame and no matter what he did, he performed-making the everyday and mundane sheer spectacle. Even his walk was something I would cautiously study and make mental notes not to emulate.

Some of the girls found him funny and within our first week he had assembled a small retinue. The guys were not as accepting, because one thing this Kassouf was not was remotely athletic. That seemed the secret password into the boy’s club and similarly, the very reason I would not be admitted either. It was the only thing we shared in common that I could see, yet hardly enough to strike up a friendship over. We were un-alike in nearly every other way. I was initially reserved, though certainly not shy. I avoided doing anything to ruffle feathers or call attention to myself, masking a suspect sexual ambiguity I sensed even in those early pubescent days. It was mandatory self-preservation to fly well under the radar so as not to be detected. Whatever my diagnosis, I understood it had to be kept hidden to make it through the torture it looked as though school was going to be.

How strange during those first two junior high years that in the course of our seven period day, only that first half hour were we forced together. There wasn’t a class we shared, not even study hall or gym and for that I was exceedingly grateful. Many weeks he persisted in engaging me in daily conversation, asking about my class schedule, the neighborhood I lived in, what I was doing after school or had I been invited to so-and-so’s party on the weekend. My answers were as brief as I could make them, doling out personal information sparingly like a prisoner under the Geneva Convention. My demeanor bordered on rudeness with a total lack of humanity, yet still he persisted. It took months for him to assimilate that I, Timmy Kazmarek, not only did not wish to become his friend, I had no intention of recognizing his existence in my world. That is how frightened I was of his blatant sissy behaviour, fearing that striking up the tiniest of alliances could signal to others that the two of us might possibly be birds of a feather.

A great irony was my own desperation to make friends to anchor myself in this new universe in which I was floundering. Groups were forming in all directions around me. The most obvious were the jocks. Football season was just beginning and already winter basketball wannabees were shooting imaginary baskets through invisible hoops in the cafeteria and springtime dreams of track and softball were being shared in the hallways during three-minute class changes. The band members were rehearsing halftime marches. The girls had hair to tease-up to gravity defying heights while troweling on turquoise eyeshadow and mascara. That left only the hoods, math geeks, the severely pimpled and the other hormonally challenged. I was none of these, unable to be categorized-a boy man without a niche.

Compared to most junior high males,  Kassouf and I were a bit shorter with remarkably inferior builds. Already many of our peers had broad shoulders and the beginnings of physiques. We both were lanky with torsos like many of those willowy flat-chested girls, devoid even of breast buds. Neither of us showed the slightest signs of muscle in our arms. He wore short-sleeved shirts and it was the sight of his scrawny twigs sticking out every morning in front of me that determined from then on I should only wear long sleeves, even in hot weather. The two of us could easily have been mistaken for tall elementary school kids. I, for certain, would have welcomed being back in that warm bosom of my boyhood.

Kassouf would waddle out the door on our way to first period, clucking like the lead hen in the barnyard, surrounded by cackling chicks. The sight of him clutching his books to his chest, (as only girls were allowed to carry them), was embarrassing, yet he was oblivious to his blunder. I wondered why no one had cautioned him otherwise. I had studied the method from day one, copying the claw-like overhand grasp the other guys practiced, keeping an armload of books close at their thighs. It was awkward but manageable and safe. And as if his carrying style wasn’t already suspect enough, he had covered his notebook and many textbooks in a collage of Sophia Loren pictures cut out from his sisters’ fan magazines. He would gush on and on about her, continually remarking about her “big tits”. This overt fascination with her breasts he so implausibly delivered, that some of the jocks teased he secretly longed for a luscious pair of his very own. When they mocked him he laughed louder and even harder than they did, loving the attention he welcomed at any cost. For some reason unknown to me, I bore a bit of that pain he should have been sensing himself.

Using these uncomfortable two years as best I could, I paid attention in class, mindlessly respected authority and followed the rules, (even the patently ridiculous ones).  Most importantly I studied the movements of absolutely everyone. To me the girls behaved more plausibly, except when it came to attempting to attract boys. Then their foolish behavior could often trump that of their prey. Most guys acted like morons from the moment they entered the building and continued well after they left to go home. These boys and not womankind, were the mystery to me and I grew more uncomfortable in their midst as the months dragged on. There seemed nothing about them I should ever want to emulate, yet it was mandatory to somehow blend in or be miserable twenty-six weeks a year for the  next six years.

In order to  survive I had chosen to ally myself with a few band members, quieter guys with similar undeveloped bodies and matching personalities. We would eat lunch together and not stick out too much. Again, it was not out of shyness, but rather the cowardice that overtook me whenever I felt so very out-of-place. Our little group spent time with some of the lesser attractive girls. We gravitated to one another out of necessity, remaining as anonymous as we possibly could. We hoped not to piss-off any boisterous jocks, obnoxious thugs or the mean girls-those who loomed in every direction and who posed a threat to us inferiors. I was chosen the group’s superior because I was sensitive to be always respectful and not lord over anyone or take advantage in any way. And whenever my acute peripheral vision saw Kassouf coming my way, I cautiously danced in the other direction..

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