Like many, I had trouble fitting in growing up. Half my family were Yankees, which can still be an issue in deep areas of the South. I was an only child, and the only grandchild on both sides of the family. I had an offbeat sense of humor that was bred from interacting solely with this older generation and from watching Monty Python movies. Neighbors were few and far between as my dad would not live in town. We were “social distancing” even back in the 80s. In retrospect I appreciate my geekiness, but “geek” was not a badge of honor during the Reagan years.
Solace from the early pangs of awkwardness came in the form of elementary school Halloween. The social hierarchy of those who were already deemed “cool” shifted slightly at the end of October because a great costume could afford you a bit of credit and respect from your pop culture loving peers. That’s why in first grade I dressed as Yoda. Second grade, Dracula. But in third grade things took a turn for the unexpected and any real connections with my classmates hit another obstacle.
Mom wasn’t a fan of the store-bought costumes from the previous years because they weren’t original. The vacuform masks usually came paired with a plastic smock with whatever character’s body printed on it. Nothing said strength and intimidation like an eight-year old with He-Man’s chiseled six pack. I loved them, but as I had no money or a ride to K-Mart, what is an eight-year old to do, but concede to his mother’s wishes?
She decided to dress me with props around the house which included a black and white striped shirt, my great grandmother’s white gloves, a black beret and she covered my face with last year’s white Dracula make-up.
“What am I again?”, I asked.
“A mime”, she said.
I spent the rest of the day explaining to my classmates that a mime was a performer who didn’t speak, an irony for me since I’ve come to depend on the spoken word. On the playground one heckler replied, “I think I hate mimes” and punched me straight in the gut.
Needless to say, making friends after this Halloween misstep was a bit difficult. Perhaps it was fortuitous that I changed schools when my mom began teaching at a private school where I could get a discounted tuition.
By the time I reentered public school in 9th grade, I was given another fresh start. I was attending school again in my hometown, and out of self-preservation I decided to keep my head down to fit in. By the end of 10th grade I had made friends with Matt. Matt was smart, lanky and had hair like a bright red Brillo pad. He shared my sense of offbeat humor, and his favorite movie was Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I finally felt as if I had made that friend, the person who I would recount stories with as old men on the porch while drinking our nutritional milkshakes. This friendship was built to last.
I remember seeing Matt one Halloween evening. He stood in front of me at attention with his hands by his sides. He was wearing a yellow sweatshirt, matching sweatpants, a helmet made of a colander with a pink pillow glued to it. His socks were tan, and his shoes were patent leather. The last accessory was the #2 he had spray painted on his chest using a stencil.
And in his thickest drawl Matt asked, “What am I supposed to be?”
“Man, you were the only person all day who got it. Do you know what it’s like when no one gets your costume?
“Yes,” I said. “Do you know what a mime is?”
In high school, Matt and a small group of other friends would hang out on the weekend. And what was special was the fact that we never got into real trouble. We were contended with hanging out, watching SNL, playing board games and generally goofing off. Our parents were relieved that we weren’t the kids who were drinking or doing drugs. And because we were all veritable wall flowers when it came to girls, there were no high school pregnancy scares.
Even after one particularly horrible first date experience during senior year, the first person I visited after was Matt.
“How’d it go?”
“Pretty good until the end. You know me.”
“Yeah. I think I scared her off. You know at my house, the thing I traditionally say to my parents before they go to bed?”
“Good night. I love you?’”
“Yeah, well I said it to Chandra. She was getting out of the car when muscle memory kicked in and I said ‘Chandra, goodnight. I love you,’ and then I immediately tried to recover and said, ‘Oh No! I don’t love you. I mean maybe one day I could love you!’ I don’t think there will be a second date.’”
After our twenties, the personas that Matt and I were presenting outwardly began to look different than that of the inseparable Matt and Sam that our mutual friends knew so well.
A few years ago, after leaving a protest in Huntsville which campaigned to remove a Confederate statue from the courthouse, I was feeling frustrated and motivated. I decided to plead via email with Matt to advocate for the removal of similar symbols in the public spaces where he lived. Going in, I knew there would be some pushback. I was keenly aware of the attitudes of our small town, but I was sure that I had enough exuberance and conviction to rub off on him and I honestly felt that it was such a small ask. To my surprise, the virtual back and forth went on for several days. But in the exchange, something miraculous happened. For so long I had been the one wearing a certain type of mask. I had grown used to hiding aspects of myself that I knew separated me from the people in my hometown simply to fit in, even from Matt, but I was now fully comfortable in my beliefs. I ended the thread with a didactic “high road” quote which was meant to put a pin in things, but unknowingly became the nail in the coffin. The vitriolic response from Matt was the equivalent of a gut punch to a mime. I suspect we both knew that this would be our friendship’s resignation, but it was one that had to happen. Whereas my disguise had slowly faded away as a result of having moved so often, this was the first time that I had to remove someone else’s to see them clearly.
The loss of our friendship happened more slowly than this one event. And a loss is sad even if we’re not speaking of physical death. You’ve heard it before; we just outgrew one another.
I certainly don’t write off our past because of how our friendship ended. It was too formative, too good at times.
One Halloween, probably the one after the horrible date with Chandra was one of our best. We were way past the age of trick-or-treating, but we still wanted to have some fun.
We rummaged through his dad’s gardening equipment in the garage and drawers in the house, put on matching coveralls, ski masks, sunglasses, and gloves. We sat as still as we could on the front lawn with a bowl of candy between us and a hand-made sign that read, “FREE CANDY, IF YOU DARE.”
A hand would go in the bowl and then we’d grab it.
We never had so much fun making kids cry. After about three hours we had had our fill and the joke had worn thin. Kids who had been really scared would run back and warn the approaching “Trick-or-Treaters” about the gangly scarecrows.
While lifting his ski mask, Matt asked, “Ready to call it a night?”
To which I replied, “Sure am.”
I’m not the kind of person who would want to rewrite the past or change it. It would change who we are now and the important lessons we’ve learned.
Knowing that circumstances would separate us in the end, I might not have been so quick to end that evening, an evening before our future selves had been revealed.
That same Halloween, after scaring several kids, Matt starts to lift his mask.
“Ready to call it a night?” Matt asked.
To which I would reply,
“No man. I’m having a good time right now. Let’s leave our masks on a little longer.”