In middle school, I was much like I was in elementary school: extremely popular.
At least from my point of view.
The criteria I used to make this assessment was simple and easy to use.
I rarely got beaten up; I was more or less liked by my teachers; I had the latest 'fashions' and wore them with a certain flair which seemed to scream: "Life's too short to not dress like it's picture day."
And girls liked me.
I say girls liked me because, up until seventh grade, none of them had ever acted like they didn't, and that was good enough for me.
Until Kelly Medeiros changed everything.
Kelly was a stunning specimen of a girl. Blue eyes, dirty blonde hair, perfect teeth, awkward training bra posture, a penchant for Guess jeans (the ones with lots of leather patches) and a seemingly endless supply of chatter ranging from, "Anyone who doesn't think John Taylor is cuter that Simon Le Bon, is retarded" to "Thanks for letting me cut." This last phrase was directed in my general vicinity on numerous occasions while standing in line at the caf. It always made my day. I had a lot of time on my hands, as well as a steady supply of snacks in my pockets. I could wait.
Plus, I got to stare at her Guess jeans.
I won't say we were ever really friends. Being friends implies that I would have had to talk to her, and that was simply out of the question. As cool as I was, she was a girl. And at age 13, for whatever reason, I was subserviant. I guess I kind of liked it like that.
But Kelly did have a lot of friends. Her best friend was Chrissy. She was the perfect foil; The Rhoda to Kelly's Mary Tyler Moore. I couldn't stand Chrissy because Chrissy got to sit next to Kelly in all of her classes. She was part of the inner circle where I wanted to be. But Chrissy was really more like a personal assistant/bodyguard to the star; always picking up around her; sheilding her from paper football assaults; passing/handing notes as the situation warranted; carpooling in her Mom's Bronco back to her house in the Highlands. A regular Al Cowlings.
One day I hatched a plan. A plan that would change everything. A plan that was so simple, so honest, so perfect; she couldn't possibly say no.
I'd buy her a ring and ask her to be my girlfriend.
Now, at the time, all I knew about boy/girl relations came from television; sit-coms mostly. And sit-coms kept boy/girl relationships pretty simple: Boy meets girl; Boy falls in love with girl; boy buys girl ring; boy and girl embrace and stars appear above their heads; the end. Roll credits. Commercial. Next sit-com.
And so it happened that I was with my Mother at the Taunton Flea Market back in 1983 with Yes' 90125 cranking in my Walkman, when I saw and bought that fateful ring.
It was perfect. Simple, elegant, and thrifty; all the important points covered. I even paid for it myself with my allowance money. A whole week's salary.
All I needed now was to find the right clothes to make my move in. This would call for something to match my personality.
How about a black, second-hand tuxedo? Size: husky thirteen year old.
Don't ask me where It came from, I used to go to a lot of yard sales. I'm pretty sure it was originally bought for my magic show.
My Mother was delighted. Her son was an unusual boy indeed. He didn't care what anybody thought of his style. He had flair. He had moxie. He had his own tuxedo. And hopefully soon, he'd have a girl-pal to chum around with.
And so It was that Fred Johnson (as I called myself from '81-84) walked to school that fateful day in the Spring of '83. Secondhand tux, tails and all. The long walk to Morton Middle School at the bottom of President Avenue seemed like eternity as car after car drove slowly by, passenger and driver alike staring at an angle as if on safari. I was a real piece of work. A penguin on the loose in the Sahara. But I didn't care who stared. Let 'em gawk all they wanted.
I had work to do.
I took my seat in the row behind Kelly. Chrissy was on her left as always. I had made it through to music class; my favorite. Sure, I got some quizzical looks and plenty of questions on my choice of attire, but I kept quiet. I couldn't let on. Today was a special day. Soon to prove unforgettable.
I had the ring in a little box wrapped in tissue paper with a little card that simply said: "For Kelly. From Fred."
It was in my inside jacket pocket; barely.
I bent over to pick up my textbook and it happened.
It fell out of my inside pocket, and onto the ground. And everybody saw it.
Before I could jump on it like a loose ball in play, she had grabbed it. By she, I mean Chrissy. Not Chrissy. This gift was not supposed to be seen by anyone except for Kelly. That is until, as I had scripted in my head, she proudly put it on and showed it off to everybody in school. But now, my script was out the window.
"Look Kelly, Fred brought you a present! Fred likes you. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha."
Oh my god.
Shut up Rhoda!
Kelly turned as red as the teacher's ink on a failed pop quiz. She opened it up. She took one look at it. Actually, the whole class, including my teacher, took one look at it.
And she gave it right back to me.
She said, "My parents won't let me keep this. I'm not allowed to take gifts from boys. I'm sorry Fred. I like you, but not like that."
She was nice about it. It was candy coated, but she spared my feelings. Chrissy could learn a lot from Kelly.
I sat there shaking like a leaf, sweating right through my pleated tux shirt. What had happened? Where had I gone wrong? Why didn't she like me? I thought I had done everything right.
Everything except the most important thing of all; the timing. I had screwed up the god damned timing. And as my hero Steve Martin always said: "The most important element in comedy is...ti-ming, ti-ti-ti-ming...
He was right. It had come, it had passed, and I missed jumping on that box and preventing my foolproof plan from self-destruction by a two second margin.
And life went on, regardless; as it tends to do.
Since I was arrested last December for O.U.I, I've had a lot of time to think about timing. I'm one lucky sucker. I could have killed somebody that night. I could have killed myself. I barely remember driving. My neighbor told me she heard me peel out in the driveway. I own a Subaru Forester. You just don't peel out in a car like that. Something was going on in my head that night which made me surrender any and all rational thought. Something inside me said "I don't fucking care about anything anymore."
And that's something I haven't felt in seven weeks.
I know somebody was looking out for me that night. And I don't mean the cops.
If those cops hadn't stopped me that night after Christmas, I probably would be living a much different life. I definitely wouldn't have started this writing project. I'm sure I would have kept drugging. I may have even cheated, and snuck a few litres of Smirnoff down my throat. And I'm pretty sure I'd be out of my band. And for that matter, out of my freaking mind.
But I'm not. And I can calmly sit here at my computer and recall life changing events in my life which made me the strange man I am today.
Yes, a very strange man indeed.
Shortly before my Mother passed from this world and into the next, she told me something very important. She looked at me and she said: "You have made me the happiest, proudest person in the entire world. You are the joy and the triumph of my life. I only regret that I haven't lived long enough to see you live as a sober man."
Well Ma, I can't change the past. I can only live in the now. And right now things are looking super. I don't know what tomorrow will bring. I don't know what will happen three hours from now. But at this moment, I can feel secure in the fact that I've lived as a clean and sober man for fifty one days and counting. My personal best, if you will.
I also know that this kid is starting to become a man. A confident, secure man. He's starting to believe again that it's OK to do things that are out of the ordinary. That it's OK to wear a tuxedo to seventh grade music class; to give a girl he hardly knows a ring; and to live through it and learn a lesson.
And that lesson is that timing is everything, and every second counts.
So just make sure, before your present prematurely falls out of your inside pocket and onto the ground for everyone to see, that you check to see if it's still right where you left it.
Safe and sound.
In the pocket.
And speaking of timing, pitchers and catchers reported to duty in Florida yesterday. Sure makes it start to feel like spring don't you think?
I thought so.
Thanks for reading.