I want to be cool.
Ever since I first heard what cool was, ever since I had seen it epitomized in a fourth grade Trapper Keeper, ever since I had witnessed it striding across a gymnasium dance floor in stone washed jeans, ever since I had gawked at its reflection in parking lot tinted windows, smelled and felt it in overpriced clothing stores in overwhelming malls in overcrowded suburbs, I knew I wanted it.
And I’m still holding out hope that one day I will achieve its status. To be cool. What else is there?
The other day, when taking in my garbage cans from the curb, I tripped in front of middle school kids coming home from school. One of them snickered. And my world collapsed around me.
I blushed, smiled, coughed, pretended to do it on purpose, laughed, lowered my head, face flushed and quickly cowered away. I dragged the trash cans on their sides, ignoring the wheels on their bottom, and slid them down the driveway with the lackadaisical contempt of a teen, as if to say,
“My mom made me do this, guys. I didn’t want to. And I had to pause my video game and everything. Want to ride bikes sometime?”
The point is, I’m twenty-eight years old. Technically, I am an adult. Technically, I am old enough to be the parent of the twelve-year-old boy I had scurried away from. Technically, I am two feet taller than he is, about a hundred pounds heavier, could drive, vote, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, go to war, and be executed by the state…but technically, he held all the power.
Why? He had friends with him. And even at my age, after all of my life experience, my advanced degrees, I’m no older than I was when I first tried to fit in. None of us are. We still yearn for approval. We still pause at our indecision, and we still actively seek out the head nods of our peers. After all, if no one notices what we do, what’s the point of doing it?
I don’t think we ever leave the playground; it’s just the scenery that changes. Now our school bell has evolved into our alarm clock, yet still signals we have to go sit in a room with other people and do work we see as pointless while elders give us orders. Recess now takes place at the water cooler or at coffee machines, but our lunch still comes from brown paper bags and we still go home to talk about our day, what we’ve learned, who we got in a fight with, how we’re not understood, how we have too many projects, and how we yearn for the weekend.
We still take sick days, we make up excuses for why we’re late, we have mandatory trips, we judge others on their clothes, who they hang out with, their weight, their intelligence, we stare out the window and think about where we want to be, anywhere, instead of there, looking at the clock, wondering why time moves so slow on weekdays.
I remember thinking when I was younger that I couldn’t wait until I was an adult.
“You mean to tell me that all I have to do is go sit somewhere, and that I won’t have any homework? And that someone will pay me for it? AND I will get to drive a car…every day?!”
I couldn’t understand why my parents would look tired at the end of the day.
“Um, Dad? I’m dealing with seven different subject here, okay hoss? You have one. Also, I had to climb a rope this morning.”
But all the pain and suffering wouldn’t matter, as long as you looked cool doing it. The coolest kids in my grade school were the ones who looked like the daily grind didn’t get to them. They were the lifers; the ones who had accepted their sentence and were just riding out their time. I was the skittish newbie, the fresh fish, the kid who wailed at night and proclaimed his innocence. I was scared of what would happen next.
There’s a saying that, “A reputation is built over a lifetime; and lost in an instant.” The same is true with being cool at a young age. Sure, some had the instant bump in coolness; a victorious fight in the schoolyard, a good game on the court or field, a touching of a breast at a party…those kids were immediately indoctrinated like a mobster who had taken out a don.
But for most everyone else, coolness was a gradual acceptance into a particular clique. And one action, at least in the mind of a child, would summersault you from that clique into the horrid oblivion of those not chosen for touch football games, those whose baseball cards or Pogs would not be traded, or worse yet, those who played with the girls.
I had one of those moments. And sixteen years later, it still feels as if it happened yesterday.
* * *
We had just finished playing war. My friend’s parents were the ones tasked with driving that day. They had a gray Buick station wagon, the kind with the seats in the way back that flipped down and faced outwards to the car behind you. There were seven of us in there, I can still see their faces.
We talked about comic books, about the recent game of war, who had died, who had cheated when they knew they were dead…stuff like that. I was twelve. We had only dropped off one other boy, and there were the normal ruminations after he left that he had peed himself at some point on the field of battle. Then it was my turn to be dropped off. I was sitting in the back of the station wagon when my world ended.
To this day, I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a reflex, I’m sure, and maybe I just felt too comfortable since that day of make believe had gone so well, but when my friend’s dad swung open the back gate of the car, and everyone said their goodbyes, they quieted enough to hear my own farewell.
“Bye. See you later. Love you.”
It was the same farewell I’d give my parents in the morning when they dropped me off at school. In my warped, freckled head, I somehow reverted back to being dropped off by my parents and had just told five of my classmates that I loved them. There was not a deep enough hole to crawl into.
I remember there being a few seconds of silence as my friends collectively tried to comprehend what had just happened.
“Did Sean just tell us that he loved us? He is a guy. We are guys. This is not right. Something is amiss. We must attack.”
It wasn’t laughter at first. It was more than that. It was just screaming. The jubilation at what had just occurred was so great that words couldn’t form, just sound. I backed up in horror, tripping over my high top sneakers and landing on the pavement, dumbfounded. The father driving must have sensed the gravitas of the moment and swung the door closed before they could leap out and pummel me.
My friends pressed their faces on the glass, pointing, yelling, licking the windows, anything to express their joy. And as the car pulled off, I sat in the road listening to the shouts fade down the street.
“Bye, Sean! Love you! We LOVE you!”
When I got inside I went upstairs and packed a bag. I brought it down and laid it at the front door, completely calm, and informed my mom that we’d be moving and she should begin getting her affairs in order. She was confused at first and after I told her what happened (and burst into tears) she told me something that still sticks with me to this day.
“They’ll soon forget all about it. You’ll see.”
And they did…after about a month of being banished to the steps at recess to read by myself. But soon a football game emerged and they needed another player. I had caught a great pass and, just like that, I was back.
And as I dragged in the trash cans behind my house sixteen years later, the laugher of the neighborhood kids still echoing from the curb, I smiled at how naïve I was in my youth. And was so glad I didn’t tell them I loved them when I had left.
* * *