It all started last winter when Sara’s family moved to Stockbridge.
I didn’t like her at all when I first saw her. It was at basketball practice when she trailed Coach Schmidt in through the gym doors with a basketball tucked under her arm.
“The New Girl.”
She was chewing on gum, had long ponytailed hair, and had come from “the city.” She carried a certain confident smirk on her face at all times. We all immediately resented her for it. Especially me. She was damn good too, fearless and technically skilled with the ball. She had a hook shot that she could sink from way outside the box.
It was at that first practice, when were playing man-to-man defense, and I was doing my best to guard her.
Late in the scrimmage, Carrie Westholme blew a routine layup. Sara and I both leapt up into the stale gym air to grab it.
Sara’s bony elbow connected with my nose. It was burning sensation, like when you’re bodyboarding at the beach and you catch a nose full of salt water. Blood dripped out onto the court, before I even knew what had happened. A circle of girls in headbands crouched around. I was spinning, but I saw Sara out of the corner of my eye.
“What the fuck?” I said, slamming my palms into her chest. She toppled backward as Coach Schmidt ran forward to break us up.
I was rushed to the school nurse’s office immediately.
Sara had come in to see me later on. I looked like shit. My nose was swollen and purple. I told her to leave, but she insisted on staying.
“I didn’t mean to knock you like that,” she said.
I didn’t respond. I refused to look at her. I toyed with my gown, and stared at a life-sized skeleton in sunglasses in the corner of the office.
Sara sat for close to an hour by my side until my mom got off work and picked me up. I never acknowledged her presence.
The next day she was waiting at my locker with a stack of books in her arms. She was taller than most of us at that age, and stuck out in the moving waves of high schoolers switching books at their lockers. I was still supposed to be mad. I wasn’t supposed to like her. But there was something about her that was exciting to me, and I didn’t know what. Her eyes had a frustrated intensity about them, like she’d never been challenged by anything in her life. She was the city brat responsible for the big bandage over my nose now. The cause for the muted snickers from all around me.
I moved toward her.
Sara apologized. I still wasn’t sure who she was at this point. While I assumed it was all for show - for the sake of not alienating herself within her new school environment - I was too stubborn to see that she was strikingly sincere.
The rest of that winter was a blur. Sara and I were soon inseparable.
We would carpool to and from school, usually going back to Sara’s house after practice to listen to her extensive cassette tape collection before her parents – who were both doctors and almost always gone – would get back from work. Her parents were strict, but largely absent. The kind who, because of their absence, always returned home with an unhealthy suspicion about what had been going on.
While Sara was a model student (she’d gotten into Brown early decision, her father’s alma-mater) and a star-athlete, there was reason for them to be suspicious. Sara smoked a lot. And I don’t mean cigarettes. The girl was crazy about weed. It never bothered me though. It was her thing, and I didn’t mind. Each day we’d get back from school, our hair still damp, in baggy tear-away pants and hoodies, and go outside and sit in the damp of a small treehouse which had been in the backyard when her family had moved in.
We would sit there, usually with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, which was Sara’s favorite – soon my favorite too – on her TalkBoy, as the sun was setting and our breath crystalized in front of us.
Sara always had the apple prepared ahead of time. She must have carved it up at night. She would smoke out of it, exhaling out the window of the treehouse. Every night she would offer, but I never smoked. And I would watch until her eyes were tinted red and she was high. I liked the way her eyes looked after she smoked, more relaxed, and less annoyed at everything. I enjoyed the way it made her smell, something like pine needles. I tried to imagine how the drug was affecting her thoughts as, at that point, I’d only smoked once and not enough to really feel it.
After awhile, we would always sneak back indoors before it got too late, make food, listen to music, and watch Nicktoons on TV.
Hanging with Sara during her nightly ritual, along with my stellar basketball season, had somehow turned it into the best winter of my life.
Then came the night that changed everything. We’d been sitting in the treehouse, and it was February and bitter cold, and Sara had just smoked and was sitting back with her arms behind her head. I was a few feet across from her, cross-legged, reading a story for my French homework; the medieval fable Aucassin and Nicolette. Sara noticed me shivering and looked like she was on the verge of saying something for a long time. I laughed and asked her what was up and she leaned forward and took my hand in hers. I was surprised and suddenly felt warm. My stomach was twisting. It felt like the time my teammates had dared me to sneak into the boy’s locker room after practice one time, when Coach Schmidt was on the phone in her office, and see how long I could last before running back out. After awhile I picked up my flashlight, flicked it on, and began reading portions of the text aloud.
“What’s it about?” asked Sara.
“These troubled lovers named Aucassin and Nicolette, in like medieval times, and all the obstacles they face to be together.”
Sara nodded and remained still.
“What are you doing?” I said finally, and immediately regretted it. I hoped that she hadn’t heard me. Whatever Sara was expressing, I didn’t want “it” to feel threatened and retreat. I figured she’d smoked herself silly.
“I don’t know. You look cold,” she said as she put her arm around me. We sat there for a long time, until I turned to face her. I tested my nose against her cheek, and she remained calm, her fingers running along my arm.
Neither of us initiated the kiss, it sort of just happened naturally. She set my glasses aside and looked at me. I was nervous and shaking, but felt good. I’d never done anything like this before. I had always been the “nerdy jock” type, and had only been kissed once at that point. And that was by Wiley Coates and it had been a school bus dare and bland and stupid and meaningless. Nothing even close to how good this felt, how right.
She slunk down, her back against the cool wooden flooring, and I moved on top of her as we continued kissing. I felt a wonderful surge of confidence. As if absorbing Sara’s own confidence through her mouth, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety of what this would all mean when she came down from the weed and realized what was going on with more clarity.
But, she never got a chance to. Sara’s mother, who’d gotten home early from the hospital, was already halfway into the treehouse when I scrambled off Sara and we all remained silent, her panicked eyes darting between me and the apple and the lighter, before Sara began to laugh.
“Well this is awkward,” Sara said, stifling an almost idiotic giggle. Her mother, who had begun crying, told me I needed to get out of their home. She said I wasn’t allowed to see Sara again.
By the weekend, Sara was back in Manhattan at a drug rehabilitation center. I spent the rest of winter and spring in a depressive state. I stopped paying attention in school and began having anxiety attacks. I missed Sara a “fuck-ton,” as she’d always said. Nothing made sense without her. I wanted her to hold me and kiss me again. Worst of all, I hadn’t heard from her in months.
I would circle her parents home on my bike at night, hoping maybe she’d have returned, but the upstairs window – Sara’s bedroom window – was always dark.
One night, I ditched my bike behind a tree down the street, and snuck into their front yard. I could see people in their front living room, the curtains wide, the glow of a TV out across the lawn. I pulled my hooded sweatshirt up over my head, and snuck along the bushes. I reached the side of the house, and pressed up against the cold panels of the house. I felt creepy and weird doing it, but I had to get a peek inside.
I stood up on my tip-toes, and peered in through the window. Sara’s parents sat on separate ends of the couch. Her mother had a magazine in her lap, and her father sat at the edge of his seat – staring in at a baseball game on the television. I squinted, straining to see. I grabbed hold of the window-sill and pulled myself up, just off the ground. It was the Red Sox versus the Cleveland Indians.
“This Marty Donovon guy is about to pitch a perfect game,” I heard her father say to Sara’s mother, who nodded. “Do you realize how rare that is?”
“That’s great honey,” she said, failing to glance up from her magazine.
I slipped backward, and toppled over, crunching back into the bush below the window. I scrambled out of the bush and up onto my feet. I heard several noises from inside.
“What was that?” her mother said, alarmed, from inside.
I took off, and as I darted out through the yard, toward the street, I turned briefly to see the silhouette of Sara’s parents in the window, looking out into the darkness of their neighborhood.
Back home, over dinners, my mother would comment that “you’ve hardly touched your chicken,” and ask “whatever happened to that friend Sara of yours?” “I really liked her?” she would say. And each time I would recite the same story that we had gotten into a fight.
Yet, each time I would see my parents during that time, the routine would refresh; the frantic search of their face, of their tone of voice over the phone, for any hint that “they knew.” My mother was on the school Parents Board, and because we all know that parents talk, I was anxiously awaiting the day when the truth finally reached my parents ears.
I was almost relieved when they finally found out.
Like Sara’s parents, they also blamed it on the weed. They didn’t believe me when I told them I never smoked with Sara. They wouldn’t ever let me take a drug test to prove myself, either.
Even when I got into UMass on a basketball scholarship, it wasn’t the joyous occasion I had always imagined. The fucking elephant remained in the corner of every room when my parents were around, swinging its goddamn trunk around and knocking over shelves and glassware and my mother’s religious themed teapot collection. Figuratively, of course.
I didn’t know what to do to make any of it better.
“Don’t lie to me,” my mother would say, attacking her dishes with a sponge. “You were smoking that junk too, and it warped your mind.”
Every Sunday after church, my mother would try and talk me into attending NA meetings and I would refuse and continue to beg her to stop. My life was shit. All I wanted was to see Sara again, to be with her, to feel excited again, like I had that evening in the treehouse. If I couldn’t have her, well then I was almost sure I wanted to die.
The whole school seemed to find out too. Everyone acted different around me. Students who I’d been invisible to just a month previously, would now hold extended smiles and nods as if I were some courageous martyr. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, people would shake their heads or scowl. I even caught that fuck-nut Kevin Markle carving “DYKE” onto my locker with a protractor while his buddies stood in a semi-circle, pointing and laughing. Though even with all this attention, I’d never felt more alone.
Close to graduation, I overheard two kids in the hallway mention that Sara’s father had nearly disowned her when she turned down Brown and had tried to go to Hampshire instead; i.e., a school way closer to ME. Her father had apparently told her that the “weed had destroyed her ambition,” but I felt strangely calmed and exhilarated by this news. I went home and locked myself I my room and stared at my ceiling fan while Loveless played on repeat from my boombox.
I heard a knock on my door, and when I opened it my father stood lanky and sheepish. He cautiously smiled at me and handed over the postcard. “Don’t tell your mom,” was all he said before turning back down the hall.
I spent the night reading it over and over. On the postcard, Sara had written a portion of Aucassin and Nicolette. I cried and fell asleep with my damp cheek on it.
I woke up in the middle of the night and went down the hall to pee. In the bathroom mirror, my face was smudged with her writing. Her return address in New York was imprinted on my cheek. I rinsed my face and toweled myself clean, but when I got back into my bedroom I couldn’t return to sleep. Still in my pajamas, I tied up my shoes, and pulled on a sweatshirt.
I snuck downstairs, tip-toeing along the chilled kitchen tiles, keeping an eye on the cracked open door that led into my parents bedroom. Along the cabinets, I carefully reached for my mother’s ring of keys. I closed my hand around them, making sure that they didn’t “clink” and then slipped out into the garage. I sat in the car for a half-hour, psyching myself up. The green numbers on the dashboard read: 5:15 and I knew my mother would be up soon.
At last I hit the garage door opener, cranked the ignition, and shot backwards out of the garage and into the street. My mother ran out into the yard, frantically keeping her nightgown closed around her body. She was screaming and waving and I saw her fall to her knees in the grass through my rearview mirror.
I began to cry, as a feeling of terrified elation rushed through me. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I removed my Loveless cassette from my pocket and popped it into the car stereo system and headed south towards New York City as the sun began to peak over the trees lining the highway.
All I knew was that I was going to see Sara again, real soon, and I didn’t care what happened beyond that.
Postcard: Found at the Melrose Trading Post in Los Angeles, CA in October 2011.