So, Loni and I never really dated, but we did hang out in tenth grade. I told her stories about Joe and me, about how we stole cars and drove them off the cliff at Delta Quarry. And I told her how we raced stolen motorcycles through Golden Ring Mall. I cut Joe off and he ran into the Hummel kiosk, flipping himself into Santa’s Workshop, and the motorcycle into the fountain. I circled back to save him from a mall cop and some irate elves. He jumped on back of my motorcycle and we screamed out the main door leaving a confetti trail of fake snow and busted reindeer parts.
Loni and I sat together in English with Mr. Deluca. When class got boring I drew dicks and showed Loni. When Mr. Deluca caught us messing around, he volunteered us for improvisational dialogue. He sat us facing, toes and knees touching, holding hands and looking at each other.
“Now, just concentrate and let the conversation flow. Forget you’re in front of the class. Just talk to each other. Have a normal conversation.”
“Ha! If you think any conversation with this boy is normal…” Everyone laughed with Loni.
“Just pretend no one is here.” Mr. Deluca circled us like a Hollywood director. Loni and I just stared at each other. Neither could think of a thing to say. When we laughed from nervousness, everyone laughed.
“Forget where you are. Just talk.” He nodded, “Loni, you begin.”
We stared at each other until she giggled. Then I did, too. It was silly, but we did it. Then we stopped giggling and focused on each other. I blocked out the whole class circling us and Mr. Deluca grading us. We focused hard trying to be alone in the crowd. Gradually I couldn’t see anyone else, which was saying something since Chrystal was right behind Loni. I’d been obsessed with Chrystal’s breasts since fourth grade, when she grew them. And she’d been hiding them ever since, under layers of good girl fashion. But at that moment I was blocking everyone, even Chrystal. And it was working. Everything was quiet, almost peaceful. It seemed Loni felt it too, until she asked, “Why?”
The harshness of the word caught me. With no hard consonants it should sound softer. Instead it grated against the silence and fractured the shell we’d been building. “Why?” I asked looking around. “Why what?”
She repeated, “Why?” At first, I thought she was asking Mr. Deluca why he was making us stare at each other. But she was still looking at me. “Why?” Her expression was serious and I knew she was talking to me. She wasn’t smiling or giggling anymore. She even squinted a little, “Why?”
I scanned the room again, then back at her. “Why what?” I stopped smiling, too. In the back of my mind I knew what she meant. And just as easily as she exhaled “why,” I emitted a shell of armor. A gray haze quickly fogged me. My eyes went dead as I started slipping away. Loni sensed it and squeezed my hands to bring me back. But my stare had drifted to the Izod alligator on Chrystal’s yellow sweater.
“Mann,” she said, squeezing again. “Why did you do those things?”
“Huh?” I looked back at her. It took a moment to respond. I was a little shocked and a lot surprised. I didn’t know how to answer, didn’t even want to answer. And I couldn’t answer. It wasn’t that I was nervous of the class. I couldn’t have cared less about that. Fuck them. It wasn’t about what they might think of me. It was about Joe, about the fact that those “things” were illegal acts. She knew it. I knew it. Mr. Deluca probably knew it. And the whole fucking class suspected it. She wanted me to talk about that shit in front of a class full of witnesses. Are you crazy? I can’t do that. Where’s the honor in that? Fuck that. Fuck you, Loni. Fuck.
I stared at her, hoping she might forget what she asked or ask a different question, but she didn’t. She just waited for me to answer. I scanned the room. They wanted to know too. Even Chrystal was smiling. Stop smiling at me, Chrystal. It affects my ability to think. I looked at Mr. Deluca. He was sitting at his desk, waiting. I didn’t know whether I was a flower about to bloom, or an egg about to hatch, or a bomb about to explode. Mr. Deluca just smiled and waited. We all waited.
I considered how to answer without confessing, without specifics. But I couldn’t form a thought. All I could think about was Loni’s question: “Why did you do those things?” It kept repeating in my head: “Why?” And I couldn’t answer. I thought about the question while I stared into Loni’s eyes, and the only answer I could give was, “I don’t know.”
And as soon as the words came out they were wrong, didn’t feel right, didn’t sound right. They weren’t what I needed to say. I needed to say, “Why not?” I wanted to say, “Why not?” I meant to say, “Why not?” I meant to put Loni on the spot, answer her question with a question, shift the burden to her. I wanted to say that I was normal, that what I was doing was normal, and what they were doing was what needed explanation. And, I wanted to say that I was a rebel, or something cool like that, but all I could say was, “I don’t know.”
Loni dropped her eyes. “That’s such a lame answer,” she replied, “I don’t know.” She looked up again, ready to fight. “I don’t know? That’s what you tell teachers when they ask you why you didn’t do your homework. I don’t know.” Loni went off. “What I want to know is why you robbed houses and stole stuff. And your answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ Why did you steal cars and motorcycles and do drugs and loot and vandalize stores and get into so many fights? Why Mann? ‘I don’t know?’”
I couldn’t believe what she was saying in front of the whole class. I got scared and confused, then I got angry and wanted her to shut the hell up. Just shut up. But part of me couldn’t say that either. Part of me was enjoying it. Part of me wanted everyone to know. I glanced around the room while she was going off. Everyone was listening. No one was freaking out or looking disgusted. I looked at Mr. Deluca. He looked as comfortable as ever, just watching and listening. I looked at Chrystal. Man, she has great tits. I looked back at Loni. She had stopped talking and was looking at me, waiting for a reply. Everyone was looking at me, waiting. Loni squeezed my hands and smiled, then she winked. That small gesture created a breeze that pushed all fear and anger from my head, and I could see clearly. Loni just wanted another story. They all just wanted a story.
I checked their faces, even Mr. Deluca. They all just wanted a story, my story, to know what it was like to be me. They didn’t want “I don’t know,” they wanted to know. I glanced at Chrystal, then at the clock over Mr. Deluca’s head. I had done things they would never dare, and they wanted to know. As I watched the seconds tick on the clock, my breathing eased and my dry mouth moistened enough to say, “I do know.”
“Because I wanted to. I did all that stuff… because I wanted to.” I looked around the room. “It’s simple, I wanted to. Maybe I was bored and curious, maybe I wasn’t raised properly—whatever—the truth is I did it because I wanted to. Why not? I like being bad. I like breaking the law.” I looked at Chrystal, “Being good isn’t so bad either,” I shrugged. “It’s the middle I can’t stand. The middle makes me sick.” I glanced around the room again. Something had changed. I wasn’t scared anymore that they knew. I looked at Mr. Deluca. “The idea of being average…makes me numb. To be an average student, getting average grades, with average friends, all that shit makes me numb… And numb is not what I want.” I paused. I felt the urge to say more, but I’d already said so much. Ah, Fuck it. “Actually, that’s not true.” I smiled at Loni. I couldn’t bullshit her anyway, so I might as well own it, and in front of everyone. “I do want to be numb, sometimes.” I was certain they knew I was referring to drugs. “But that’s different.” I glanced at Chrystal again.
“Why?” Loni asked.
“Well,” I looked back at her, “that numbness, it has a kind of friction, you know, almost like being caressed. It doesn’t dull your senses, it just sort of dulls the noise, like the background noise. I don’t know, it’s like Pink Floyd to me. When all that noise is gone…, there’s a tingle.”
“What’s the noise?”
“I don’t know…, parents, teachers, society, maybe. I don’t know…, just all the shit that makes you be something you’re not. You know? It’s someone who squeezes you into a mold, tries to make you the same, average.” My thoughts and words seemed to flow. “I want extremes, good and bad. I want deep, intelligent conversation and I want crazy, wild sex. I want something deeper.” I looked at Chrystal again. Not only did she have the best rack in class, but she was the smartest chick, too, and the most wholesome, and I had captured her attention. I knew she and I would never hook up, but we connected. We had known each other since first grade, even couples-skated in fifth, but even that—with clammy palms and butterflies—couldn’t compare to how it felt at this moment. She understood, maybe she even accepted, if not today, then maybe eventually. And when I realized that, something clicked inside. It felt almost like a switch turning on, or a shell cracking open.