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.