Time: Respect – Aretha Franklin
Place: Lynfield, Ohio
There is a picture in our yearbook from the Junior Prom, a standard pose that has been in practically every volume since my older brother’s days. Historically, the picture would show a young man in an ill-fitting tuxedo. He is ladling punch into the glass cup of an overly bouffanted girl in a recycled bridesmaid’s dress. Both are grinning painfully while staring into the lens. In our edition, Kassouf is mugging at the punchbowl, filled glass in hand, as I smile innocently and serve myself. It looks for all the world as though the two of us are each other’s dates. We’re in matching rented dinner jackets-his bow tie black and mine white. I refused to wear the exact same thing he did. The photo is captioned Getting some liquid refreshment for their ladies in waiting.
Somewhere between our fall French farce and the spring one-act play festival, it came to pass that the hatchet was buried, and my nemesis was granted favored acquaintance status. Not only did I no longer avoid him, but found myself hanging around with him after school even when it wasn’t necessary. He had access to two cars. He would take me anywhere to do whatever I chose, just to be around me. It was a weird sense of power I was able to wield and admittedly, he was mildly entertaining. The guy was putty in my hand, yet at times was moulding me.
Wherever we went, before he brought me home, we’d spend an hour or so talking in his basement rec room-the only place to go where his sisters and precociously insipid little brother would leave us alone. We’d talk about college and possible majors, putting up with parental torment, or simply life after graduation day next year. My dream was to escape Lynfield and become a high school English teacher. His was to graduate from college, proving to his father that not only was he as good as him, he was better. I loved to harp about what a one-horse burg we lived in. “But where will you go?”, he asked as though I were already abandoning him.
“Cincinnati maybe. Columbus. I don’t know. Anywhere but the greater Cleveland area. It sucks the life out of people.”
“You wouldn’t consider getting a teaching job at Lynfield-ya’ know, just to start out?”
“And work with Hester Prynne and Boring Betty in that disgusting English department?”
“You’re right. Betty is a real shit bomb!”, he yukked broadly.
“She’s about as stimulating as day-old douche water.”
“I love the way you insult people. So classy.”
“I hate that school and just about everybody in it.”
“Am I you friend?”, he begged somberly, his full lips pouting while forming his question.
“Kassouf, how could anyone but your poor mother like an ass-wipe like you?” We both laughed, but he went hysterical.
Enterprising Kassouf had a job cleaning the town library three nights a week after closing. Often I would go and keep him company. I’d empty waste baskets and clean the employee bathroom. It was my payment for the gas he used to drive me around. In no way would I allow myself to become beholden to him. It was bad enough I was already being nice. He was dating a girl who worked there on the evenings the library was open late. She was ultra-Catholic and attended an all girls high school. This young lady was as quiet and sedate as he was brash and rowdy. She wasn’t a beauty, but pretty in a college girl sort of way. It amazed me that Kassouf would want to date at all, yet more remarkable that a female could be attracted to such an overtly fey guy.
He invited her to the Junior Prom and became adamant that we should double date. I thought it was a dumb idea myself. Disdaining most school functions, the thought of socializing in fake formal attire with the people who’d made a habit of mocking me for the better part of five years, was akin to martyrdom without the hope of sainthood. Why put myself through that? But Kassouf vowed plenty of girls would love to go, and as long as she wasn’t obese or ugly, the two of us could show all the others up “and have a blast together” doing it. I’d recently made friends with a funny sophomore from study hall who’d begun hanging out with our theatre group. I asked her and she said yes. Kassouf was beside himself.
We had almost a full month before the grande promenade, so he planned a weekly series of dates for everyone to get to know one another. I couldn’t care less whether his holy girlfriend liked me or my giggly sophomore. My only prayer was that all parties cleaned up well enough for us to make a real impact on the sea of slobs I knew the regular student body was guaranteed to be. Each succeeding Saturday night he’d pick up the librarian first, swing by my house and then onto my effervescent teenybopper.
I felt foolish as hell sharing the backseat, as though Kassouf and his date were surrogate parents chauffeuring us around Lynfield after dark. The girls would chat non-stop, while he ignored them both, carrying on conversations with me via the rear view mirror. My favorite part of those evenings was when we’d drop the girls off and I could move back to my seat upfront. Critiquing each night, I made fun of the two ladies’ every word and move, causing him to roar with delight at each vicious affront. He would beg me to stop-threatening he’d piss himself. He was so easy to entertain it almost wasn’t fair.
The prom was held in the grand ballroom of an old, downtown Cleveland hotel which still maintained elegance in a charming Ohio way. Our girls were as attractive as any of the others there. It would seem difficult to pull-off sophistication, especially when forced to wear your hair fashioned like an upside down cone of cotton candy. Kassouf and I looked handsome enough for two boy-men pretending to be worldly chic. I know that was the role I was portraying, smoking cigarettes like every film noir hero I’d ever seen. We got back to Lynfield well after midnight, both girls saddled with a strict curfew. Kassouf and I stopped at his house, talking and laughing nearly till dawn. I fell asleep in his basement with an afghan draped over my exhausted body, still in my rented attire.
There is this program called Buckeye Boys State, sponsored by the Ohio American Legion, a workshop to teach the fundamentals of state government. Each year a representative from every high school is chosen to participate. It takes place over nine days the summer before a boy’s senior year. The young men are housed in dormitories at a large state university. Participants campaign and elect state officials, culminating in writing and passing bills in their mock statehouse.
Kassouf’s dad was a high muck-amuck in the local Legion Post, so naturally his son was a shoe-in to represent our school. Boys State came near the end of summer. I was happy for him, because it was a glimmer of hope that he might gain favor in his father’s critical eyes. Selfishly I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do with him gone for so long and so far away. We had a welcomed boys’ night out to celebrate his departure, just us two. It couldn’t be our now usual ‘into the wee hours’ kind, because his entire family was taking the Rambler station wagon and leaving at the crack of dawn to drive the hundred-miles plus. True to his tradition, he announced if he wasn’t elected to a seat, he would return to Lynfield a failure.
The ten days dragged on. I convinced my family to go out to eat one evening, and we took in a movie another. Not because they wanted to do either, nor did they sympathize with my boredom, but only because it was stifling hot. No one had air conditioning in Lynfield, Ohio. I did receive a postcard halfway through the workshop with a picture of the dormitory complex he was staying in. The only bit of news on it was that his roommate was “a farmer and a turd”. I can truthfully admit that it was not envy that upset me upon receiving it. I was experiencing an extremely negative reaction to Kassouf’s absence.
The phone rang in the early afternoon on the day he returned. “How was it? Did you win a seat? Did you meet any cool people?”, I rapid-fired into the receiver.
“I missed you soooo much!”, he whined in his bigger than life way. He was having a big family dinner, and would be over as soon as he could break free from them. We’d go somewhere to catch up.
After supper at home, I showered and dressed, changing shirts once or twice, for no other reason than to kill time. My parents were sitting out on the car port with the next door neighbors, as people did in Lynfield to escape their unbearably hot living rooms. The yellow-orange citronella candles were already lit, not because it was dark, but because the mosquitos were pestering in the early twilight. I joined the adults, hearing them discuss absolutely nothing of any importance. While I waited, I listened for the distinctive clanking of his mother’s car that he would be driving tonight.
I heard the engine finally, in between peels of laughter after the punchline of a tired, old joke the neighbor lady was telling. He parked in front of our house, while silently, sitting in my lawn chair, I watched as he stepped out and closed the car door. He was wearing his pale yellow Izod Lacoste shirt. The adults were still engrossed in conversation, but I no longer heard a word they said. I studied each long stride as he bounded up our driveway, remarking to myself how dark he was with a summer’s worth of lifeguard tan. His white teeth shone big through his smile.
Suddenly, in the center of my chest, I felt this uncomfortable fullness-not pain, but a sensation that physically frightened me. For a second I worried it might be some sort of cardiac episode, causing me to stand quickly, take a deep breath and to swallow hard, hoping that would help make it pass. My mother turned from her conversation, “Oh look, it’s Kassouf!”, she sang out.
“Sammy”, I called, stepping towards him. He wrapped both his huge arms around me and hugged me to him. Without thinking, I did the same.
“It’s so good to be back home.”, he whispered into my ear, as softly as he was able to. But I didn’t care who heard a thing he had to say. I’d no earthly idea why, but all I did know, was that I couldn’t imagine being apart for so long ever again.