Category: BUCKEYE BOYS

Chapter Five

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Time: To Sir With Love – Lulu

Place: Lynfield, Ohio

If those first five years at Lynfield Junior-Senior High were hell, then certainly my sixth and final year had to be at least purgatory. Heaven it was not, since it was, after all, still Lynfield. Senior year was also when I’d first discovered love. It was not for any one person in particular, but for life itself. Now when I walked through the halls, I no longer tried to blend into the beigeness of the painted cinder blocks, nor prayed to be swallowed up by an oversized green asphalt floor tile. I would make no more apologizes to the student body for my existence. To all of them and the majority of the faculty we were still Kassouf and Kazmarek. To each other we’d become Sammy and Timmy. It sounds insipidly sweet now, but in those golden days it fit us to a T.

Theatre was our world. I landed some amazing parts and hammered home to Sammy the value of going after the best role rather than the biggest. We learned to share the glory and managed to keep our egos at bay, recognizing friendship was more valuable than the pursuit of any lead. And although the humanities were looked down upon by ninety-nine percent of our peers, we still pretended to be the cognoscenti of Lynfield. We carried ourselves like movie stars, elevated to a position of fame that didn’t allow us to mingle with the likes of the lowly jocks, cheerleaders and popular crowd.

The two of us were seldom apart, and those rare times were made up for when we overnighted at each other’s houses on Saturday nights. It was usually chez moi, since I had my own bedroom and he didn’t. Our mothers had instantly adopted us both, sharing joint custody. Sammy opened our refrigerator door as if it were his own, and Mrs. Kassouf knew which Lebanese delicacies were special favorites of ‘my Timmy’. He had become the brother I’d always longed my own might be.

I was still going with him to clean the library a few nights a week. In early fall the Drama Club had gone to see Carol Channing in the national tour of HELLO DOLLY! Sammy was mesmerized by her performance. I thought she was abominably bad, chewing the scenery every chance she got. He called it comedic genius. The library had a copy of the album and Sammy played it continuously until I thought I would puke. He’d pipe it through the huge speakers in the lecture room. Late one school night, as I was nodding off in a dark corner while he finished buffing the floors, the well-known strains of the orchestra’s intro to the title song came blaring in my direction. Out the lecture hall door danced Sammy.

Not content to merely lip-sync, full-voiced and throatier than Miss Channing, he performed the entire number before me. At first I nervously giggled, somewhat embarrassed watching such a private performance, typically only attempted in front of a mirror when no one else was home. At least that’s how it was always done by me. Without aid of make-up or red-feathered headpiece, he was mimicking the tacky diva’s rendition, matching her note for note.

His musical extravaganza was obviously well-rehearsed. I whooped in great peals of laughter as he maneuvered about in the dance segment with those big hands attached to awkwardly flailing arms. I could almost make out the chorus of dancing waiters behind him as he executed those high kicks for his big finish. How comfortable he was in his own skin. How brave he was, doing exactly what he felt like doing with no regard for what anyone might think of him. Or else, he was just so at ease and one with me, that he recognized we had, ever so gradually, become kindred spirits. When he drove me home that night, I smiled all the way-not because of his silly show, but at the gift his friendship had become.

The following Saturday night he slept at my house. As usual, we’d taken in a movie with our group of theatre friends. It was well past midnight and we were exhausted, yet way too energized to fall asleep. We lay in my dark bedroom-me uncomfortably on my single box spring and him sprawling across the mattress on the floor beside me. We often talked for hours into the night, the conversation continuing until one of us passed out mid-sentence. It was my favorite part of being best friends with Sammy Kassouf.

Turning on my side to face him while he lay on his back, after we’d run out of things to say about the movie and thoroughly dished all our friends, out of the blue I asked  “Tell me what your dreams are.”

“You know them all already. I want to go to college…”

“No. that’s a reality”, I interrupted. “Come September you’ll be at Otterbein.”

“Yeah, and you’ll be at Kent, I get it. So then what d’ya mean by dreams?

“Escape Lynbrook immediately”, I began enumerating. “Get a job teaching English in a great school. Marry a girl like Patty or Barb. She’ll help me grade papers. I’ll get involved with the drama club-direct a play at least every spring. My wife will do costumes or maybe assistant direct.” My litany of dreams that before had played silently in my head, now tumbled out of my mouth and into our secret chamber for his ears only.

“Kids. I want a kid…well ….maybe. Do you? Can you imagine being somebody’s father?”

“Not really. No. I don’t see either of us with kids. But who knows what’ll happen ten years from now. Where either of us will be.”

“I hope we’ll be close by each other. Not like next door neighbors. But close enough to drive over to each other’s places, or meet for dinner or a movie. Right, Timmy? Don’t you think we’ll be best friends…like… always?”

I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how much he wanted to hear, or how much I was ready to offer. He was quiet for several minutes. I waited, listening for his breathing to see if he’d fallen asleep. Just when I was ready to drop-off myself, Sammy turned on his side facing me, our noses less than a foot apart.

“I want to be an actor. I want to make movies. I want to be like Dustin Hoffman.” He waited for my reaction.

“Is that all?”, I finally teased. “We’re from Lynfield, Ohio. Nobody remotely famous ever came from a place like this.”

“Clark Gable from Cadiz, Ohio. Tyrone Power from Cincinnati.”

“But that was then”, I negatively countered, throwing water to put out his fiery dream as he sat up on the mattress.

“Paul Newman AND Hal Holbrook are from Cleveland.”

Seeing he’d obviously done his homework, I reached for my cigarette pack, snapped on the bedside lamp, sensing we’d begun a second round for the night. We talked and smoked into dawn. Our confessional ended with my final quote: “I don’t much care what I end up doing. I just want to someday sit in that chair next to Johnny Carson’s desk.”

By the time the sun actually appeared in my window, we determined once we’d finished college, regardless of our degrees, we would go to New York, share an apartment, and study acting. No more talk of wives, or children, or good friends getting together for drinks every other weekend. We had formed a secret, solemn pact.

The school year continued as it had started-best buddies joined at the fucking hip. Sammy feared fall, with both of us nearly two hundred miles apart. I was confident it would only make things better.  We each had to work in order to get through college, which I viewed simply as a necessary formality. Only then would we be ready to begin our real lives in New York City. The forced separation was something I was privately almost looking forward to, though I wasn’t sure why.

The weekend before we left for college, he arranged for us to have a brief getaway. He’d borrowed a four-man pop-up camper and we headed a few hours south to a small lake where his father had taken him fishing years before. We invited two guys from our theatre group to come along. They were juniors that we would be leaving behind. We bought provisions for two nights. All of us sensed this would be a welcomed last hurrah.

It poured the first night, and we became prisoners of the cramped trailer until the following afternoon, when the deluge halted enough to light the Coleman stove and grill burgers. We hiked a bit, but it was chilly and dark, so we built a big fire. We passed that evening around the blaze, rehashing our three years of theatre stories, honoring the people who made us laugh and cursing those who made our lives miserable. We paid tribute to ourselves for the stamina we showed to endure it all.

Our last morning the sun broke out gloriously. Everyone headed to the tiny lake to skinny dip for a few hours before driving back. Sammy was the swimming teacher/lifeguard. Me-I couldn’t swim or even float-though I had no fear of water. We’d brought these huge black inner tubes, and while the three of them horsed around, dunking and splashing like nine-year olds, I floated a distance away to watch them. Without realizing it, I was filming this scene with my mind’s eye for a day like today, when I would need to tell our story. We none of us had a care in this world, though we were certain we held the keys to the mysteries of the universe in our pockets. Foolish, silly Buckeye Boys that we were.

Chapter four

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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.

Chapter three

Scan10002 Time:     Monday, Monday – The Mamas and Papas

Place:    Lynfield, Ohio

Kassouf and I started working for the recreation department the summer before our junior year. We both had turned sixteen the prior school term. He got a job as a swimming instructor and life guard at the town pool; it turned out he was actually good at something. I was assisting in a new summer children’s theatre program begun by a young English teacher who’d joined the Lynfield faculty and been our sophomore honors English teacher. Near the end of the school year I’d written a children’s play and would be directing it, along with helping teach theatre to a group of eight to twelve-year-olds. Even though we would spend the entire summer on the same payroll, and no more than three miles apart, thankfully our jobs kept us in two different worlds.

The Kassoufs were fast becoming the Barrymores of Lynfield. Both his older sisters had landed all the choice roles in high school productions for many years running. Kassouf’s debut had come sophomore year with a five line walk-on role. He regularly over-acted in his everyday life, so what he had done on stage was indescribable. I had the unfortunate pleasure of witnessing it all-both nights and a matinée, while working as house manager for the production. After each performance he stood in line, more eye make-up than Liz Taylor in CLEOPATRA, his huge hand pre-extended, waiting to be praised along with the other actors. Those five lines were so horrifically awful, I almost found myself feeling bad for him. For months afterward the same lines played in my head, only the way I would have interpreted them.

Our fall production was going to be Moliere’s TARTUFFE. The entire five-act French farce is written in rhymed couplets. We all didn’t worry as much about how we would manage to learn those lines of poetry, but rather would the great unwashed, (the good people of Lynfield), be bright enough to follow the story. Having read the script several times before auditions, my heart was set on the role of Tartuffe. I loved how ingenious it was to be the focus of the play, yet not appear onstage until the beginning of Act Three. Kassouf was having difficulty just getting through it, but his criteria for choosing a role didn’t rely on reading as much as it did simply by counting the lines. The character with the most lines meant you were onstage the longest, therefore that was the part for him. He earmarked the role of Orgon to claim for himself. Good. There would be no competition between the two of us.

As I held my breath I read the casting notice, standing shoulder to shoulder with cast hopefuls and Kassouf towering on tiptoes behind us all. He was nearly ululating, his shrieks piercing painfully like a dentist’s drill off target. He was to play Orgon, the protagonist and dupe with something like three-hundred-eighty lines and I, Tartuffe, the religious hypocrite with about eighty lines less. My best friend at the time, a girl named Gemma, was assistant director. She spoke French fluently, had read the play in the original and knew more about farce than the entire cast combined. My only caveat was being thrown together with Kassouf both during and after school for the next six weeks of rehearsal. Gemma found him more offensive than I did. “He suffers from the three Vs”, she announced the night of auditions, after spending two hours listening to him read, “vapid, vulgar and vacuous”. That’s why I adored her so, even if I had to look up vapid in the dictionary.

At the first rehearsal he made his usual spectacle of himself, strutting about like some exotic long-legged, long-beaked waterfowl, greeting each cast member as though we were guests at some party he’d thrown on his own behalf. He tried striking up a friendship with me for the umpteenth time. “We should get together on weekends to help each other learn lines”, or some such nonsense he used as his justification. I told him I didn’t work on a role that way, searching for Gemma as an excuse to get away from his annoying persistence. Once we got deeper into our schedule, he became harder to avoid. I was able to keep our time together to be only when onstage for our scenes. I would socialize with absolutely anyone-the night janitor or a stray member of the school board if necessary, just to avoid Kassouf. Being so obdurate, he wasn’t bright enough to realize I was snubbing him.

Tech week officially began when they delivered the trunk-fulls of costumes, which we learned accounted for more than fifty per cent of the budget. The men’s were more resplendent than the women’s: long velvet waistcoats, bejeweled buckled satin britches, and elaborately styled curly wigs topped off with Three Musketeer style hats with colorful plumes. When dressed for the first time, Kassouf reminded me of an arab masquerading as Captain Hook. Now whether he could get though his volumes of poetry or not, visually he was a guaranteed walking sight gag. He only needed to move about and gesture with his flapping arms and jointless wrists and he embodied the perfect fool.

The evening of final dress rehearsal, before we got into makeup, our director called the cast onstage to block the curtain call. I would be totally lying if I didn’t admit I had wondered about the order of bows myself. Kassouf just assumed he would take the final bow and it would not have come as a surprise to me. The first out were the minor characters in groups of three or pairs. The saucy wench maid got her own call, then it was back to pairs. We got down to him, the woman playing his wife and myself. Our teacher decided he wanted the two of them to enter together with joined hands for their bow. Then I was to come out, strike a pious pose, and join the line between them for a final bow-and hopefully several more before final curtain. Kassouf was visibly raging so violently inside that, for the very first time since I’d known him, he was struck silent. It was all joyous for me on so very many levels.

He fussed at the makeup table, tossing tubes of grease paint, banging jars and just plain acting ridiculous, grumbling under his breath to anyone around…except me. Now I was being snubbed by him, but he did it so heavy handedly that he came off sadly juvenile. As a result, at this point everyone was avoiding him. Later, backstage, waiting to begin our final rehearsal, I nervously paced while muttering still troublesome lines under my breath. In the near darkness I watched his huge black hat and plume bobbing in my direction. “Kazmarek” he hoarsely whispered, “Kazmarek, it’s not fair that you got the final curtain call. Everyone else agrees with me”. I told him that might be true, but our director obviously thought differently. He made some crack about me having an ‘in’ with our teacher, being a favorite-his brownie. He even insinuated that was the reason I got the role in the first place, coupled with my assistant-director friend Gemma. Out of pure frustration and self-defense I whispered back “Kassouf, if your part is so goddamn important, then why didn’t Moliere name the play ORGON?”

He was winding up inner tension, puffing and ranting like the self-centered brat we all knew him to be, hoping to engage me in his ridiculous fight. I refused to join in.  It frustrated him that he couldn’t scream full volume like normal. He worked himself into such a pique that in the midst of his rage he suddenly grabbed his magnificent nose, threw his head back and proclaimed “You’ve gotten me so mad you gave me a nose bleed!” “Oh Kassouf”, I roared full voice, “you’re not acting this part, your really ARE a buffoon”. Dress rehearsal was delayed while they stopped his nose bleed and re-did his makeup. I watched it all, feeling as though I had won an important round. I had pissed him off big time and made his nose bleed without throwing a punch. At each performance for curtain call, as he would drop his wife’s hand to make room for me between them, I would nod to him with a deferential smirk before taking that soft, warm hand in mine for our bows.

Chapter two

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Time:          People – Barbra Streisand

Place:         Lynfield, Ohio

The summer before freshman year I had magically grown two inches taller while my nose nearly doubled. A once sweet sort of button knob now fought the rest of my face for dominance, competing with newly added smoke-grey eyeglasses. Although I was just entering high school, I had already graduated into geekdom cum laude. I was a mess, but I was not alone. Scanning our homeroom, now housed in the newer high school wing, quasi-familiar faces showed all sorts of similar morphings. Loads and loads of bad-skinned guys and girls carrying about them the telltale aroma of freshly applied Clearasil were sprinkled throughout the classroom. All the girls now toted a pair of breasts, real or snow cone fake and tightly brassiered. The desks were nearly filled and Kassouf had not yet made his appearance. Maybe he’d died over the summer, I guiltily hoped.

But no, his breathless appearance just after the final tardy bell proved my suspicions were false. His excuse was he couldn’t work the combination on his new locker. The presence of jacket, notebook, sneakers with gym uniform and smelly lunch bag, all of which he clumsily juggled on his way to the seat in front of me, proved he hadn’t been lying. It only affirmed he was this year even a bigger jerk.

And his nose-oh his nose had beaten mine hands down! True to his Lebanese genetics it had totally overtaken his entirety. He’d become a middle eastern Ichabod Crane. He broadcast to no one in particular his apology for a bizarre haircut, as though any of us in homeroom cared. His father had purchased electric clippers to save money and he’d been the guinea pig. The perimeter around his head was buzzed to the skull. Dark skin and coarse black hair saved him from total baldness. What was left on top poked in all directions, every bit as undisciplined as he was.

Just above the top of his monstrous proboscis was one massive black caterpillar eyebrow which accentuated a too narrow forehead. A group of brutish bad boys, whose existence on the planet was only to taunt others, would days later dub him ‘Cro-Magnon Man’. His visage was alarmingly comparable to the picture of his namesake in our General Science text. I could not have wished better for him. To be given a nickname at Lynfield was deadly. How pleased I was to have come this far still retaining my last name as an appellation, like most of the other guys.

Kassouf had outgrown me in height as well, now standing an inch or two taller. We were both still skinny. Studying his shoulders as I could sitting behind him, they appeared considerably wider, though there was still no musculature to hold them up. He carried a bigness that wasn’t there before and that scrawny me lacked. His mouth ran every bit as much as always and it took only milliseconds to recall why I wanted no part of him. He seemed not as incessant, but his interest in striking up a friendship revived the uneasiness he could so easily incite in me. Through his gift of persistence he parlayed my class schedule during the PA announcements and was thrilled that this year we would be together in both English and Latin class.

I had chosen Latin because I planned to study literature in college. That is, if I made it through four more years at Lynfield without taking my own life. What was this doofus doing wasting his time and now polluting my chance of possibly enjoying at least one hour every day in this shitty school system?

“Let’s see if we can sit together in class. I’ll save you a seat, or you save one for me if you get there first. Kazmarek…it’s gonna’ be a PANIC!”. He roared this over his shoulder for all to hear over the dismissal bell, bounding out the door while balancing his locker-full of cargo.

Thankfully our Latin teacher was so old school that she had made an assigned seating plan prior to our arrival. I was saved sitting anywhere near him. This didn’t stymie boorish Mr. Kassouf, however. He’d just shout across the rows that separated the two of us, carrying on as if we were shopping together in some vast open air market. It wasn’t long before he was berated by our matronly instructor, suffering the high school equivalent of standing in the corner. He was sent out into the hall for the last ten minutes of class on the very first day. I was dumbstruck by his ludicrous behavior. He’d digressed from junior high to kindergarten. Was he really that ignorant, I wondered and what was this fascination with me?

Freshman English proved not to be as fortuitous. It was a small section of twenty or so crammed into an even tinier classroom. We could sit anywhere we chose to. I’d come in just under the bell and could either sit directly in front of Hester Prynne’s desk (a pet name given to our teacher years before our arrival at Lynfield) or in the desk to Kassouf’s right. “Where you been I been saving you a seat?”, he called in one singular booming breath. I was humiliated before I sat down, worrying Hester might assume the two of us were joined at the hip.

He carried on much the same as he had in Latin, only here more offensively in the tighter space. He made inane comments, most of which were either somehow tied to bodily functions or simply uncouth like him. He guffawed openly after every utterance and smiled my way each time looking for a similar response from me. Initially I chose to ignore him. That not working, succeeding wisecracks I met with a look of disdain. Hester began leering in our direction, assuming her freezing stare might stifle this idiot. Her eyes petrified me; I prayed she didn’t connect me with this boorish lout simply because of my unfortunate proximity.

Just before the bell Kassouf made one final utterance, this time insulting our English teacher’s appearance by commenting on her outfit. Admittedly, his observation was quite valid. Still, it was uncalled for and mean-spirited, especially on our first day in colorless Hester Prynne’s classroom. No sooner had his insult exploded from his lips, when the bell rang. Over its din she angrily announced “Kassouf…..Kazmarek! Don’t move until I tell you to”. It was the first time I heard our names conjoined and it caused my blood to instantly congeal.

“You two clowns are not to sit anywhere near each other. Do you understand me?” It was the best news I’d heard all day. I assured her it couldn’t please me more to comply with her request. He grunted some ignorant  response he hoped meant he was sorry. She excused us and I flew to the door to physically distance myself as far away from him as possible. He came charging behind me shouting “Kazmarek! Wait up!”. I realized he’d become an annoyance much akin to a dog turd wedged in the space between your heel and instep. I stopped in my tracks, purposely not turning around, giving him my frozen back to talk to.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. She’s such a bitch!”, he added to his apology.

Without turning I coldly delivered, “Do….not…ever…speak to me in any class…ever again. Do you understand me?”.

“Oh, come on…..”

“I am dead serious. Kassouf, YOU are a perfectly round asshole”. I walked on hurriedly to my next class, without turning back.

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..