Nine Inch Nails Week: Former Five

I haven’t done one of these in a bit, but this week called for one. At this rate, I’m starting to get close to running out of Fast & Furious movie titles to mock for these, though I’m hoping I don’t have more than three of these left in the next fourteen weeks, I don’t actually plan these out, so maybe so, maybe not.

I make a big deal out of being miserable in high school. And it is mostly true. I was pretty depressed a lot of the time. It seemed everyone else knew how to navigate that part of life, while I had no idea and was just floundering around with what it looked like I was supposed to do. By my senior year, I feel like I had about as much of a clue as everyone else, but the transition from middle school to high school had taught me that I was going to have trouble establishing myself as who I am if there were still a lot of people in my life who knew who I was, and I was tired of being haunted by the awkward child and awkward teenager I had been. I wanted to be the slightly less awkward teenager I had become and transition into being a slightly less awkward young adult. So, when I figured out that I was going to be going to college in a place where no one knew me at all, I was pretty excited. But I was not willing to cut all of my ties to the people who had been important to me. I was going to cut a lot of ties, and hopefully start pretty fresh in Ashland, but there were some people who didn’t deserve that, just because of what they had meant to me for one reason or another. One person was Fred, discussed in an earlier post in this series. Another person was Laura, who I’ve talked about in tangent, and remains the only person from high school I still talk to. The last person who I stayed in contact with was McKenzie.

I met McKenzie in kindergarten. We weren’t friends in kindergarten, but that’s how long I knew her. We didn’t really become friends until fifth grade. In fifth grade, we sat next to each other in class, in desks that were literally next to each other. The teacher had arranged the class in three columns of desks, and each column was two desks wide. So my desk and McKenzie’s desk were only millimeters apart. We knew each other well enough, having gone through five years of school together already at that point, but we didn’t hang out or anything. Boys and girls stopped hanging out with each other at some point around first grade, and in many cases didn’t really resume until all of the discomfort of puberty had passed. The only reason to hang out with the opposite sex was usually because you were dating, not as friends. These kind of rigid stereotypes are not my preference, but they existed and deserve to be acknowledged, but not condoned.

In any case, due to our seating arrangement, McKenzie and I were forced together. Since the seating made it simple to assign partners for projects, that happened a lot, and McKenzie and I got to know each other. We still didn’t hang out outside of school, but at school we were developing quite the friendship. A big part of why I liked her was that she laughed at my jokes. Even in fifth grade, I didn’t have the typical sense of humor. I was more about pointing out the silly oddities of the world rather than relying on the childish humor of bodily functions. There were still fart jokes, but not as many as other kids. I usually tried to make people laugh by highlighting the ridiculous, a method I still use. This wasn’t a popular form of humor then, so usually my jokes and quips fell a little flat. Sarcasm just doesn’t play well to fifth graders, at least not the ones I was around. But McKenzie liked my jokes, and sometimes that’s enough to start a friendship.

We did things that fifth graders did. Playing games like MASH (Mansion Apartment Shack House) and messing with folded paper fortunes (why were we as fifth graders so obsessed with figuring out our future?) and folded paper ninja stars. I was not a good student, so I frequently distracted myself by drawing on my folders or creating little stories out of things. McKenzie and I bonded the most over our shared colony of eraser people. We would take the erasers off of standard pencils and the caps of “erasable” pens, and then we would take four staples and make little arms and legs for them. Then we would draw a face on them. These little characters lived in both of our desks, in the tray on the side nearest the other desk where a good student was supposed to put actual writing implements. We had developed a small enclave of these little characters, given many of them names, and started coming up with stories for them. Larger erasers were also used, though these frequently became animals or monsters. The one constant threat to this peaceable kingdom of eraser people was the staple remover, which naturally looked like the jaws of some beast, and made sense since all of their limbs were made from staples anyway. Grand sagas were created for this tiny universe of misappropriated school supplies.

When sixth grade came around, things changed. We went from all being in the same class all day with the same teacher to having class periods with different teachers for different subjects. As a result, groups of us tended to have the same schedule for most of the day, and this was based mostly on scholastic ability. Since I was better at math than most, I wound up with the rest of the kids who always did their homework and had good grades and were generally considered “smart,” since this group was on an advanced track for math and languages (by eighth grade we would be taking high school courses). McKenzie was not in this group. She wasn’t dumb or anything, she was an above aerage student who didn’t make the cut for the “advanced” track. As a result, we saw each other very infrequently and the friendship that had bloomed the year before was neglected.

It wasn’t until sophomore year of high school that we would rekindle it. I had spent freshmen year with the popular kids in the “advanced” track, but a couple of the electives I had chosen meant that I couldn’t be scheduled with them as much. I ended up in classes with the “better-than-average” students. It was a fortuitous turn of events. I never got along with the top kids in my class. I hated them because they were considered smart (though some of them were just hard working) and popular at the same time, while I was just considered “nerdy” (that was an insult once upon a time, until nerds started becoming more successful and slowly taking over the world). They hated me because I never did my homework but still always ruined the curve on quizzes and tests. I was an imposter to them. I wasn’t part of their popular friend groups, but there I was in all of their classes, and I was annoyingly bright without trying. So, ending up with a different group of classmates my sophomore year was a good turning point for me. I had received my mix tape from Kris the summer before, and I was starting to embrace my outcast self. Some of this new group of classmates embraced me for it, and this made all of the difference in my development.

One of those classmates was Lisa, who gave me my second important mix tape. Another was Laura, who is still one of my best friends and is the only person from that time in my life that I still talk to. Another was McKenzie. McKenzie was how I got accepted so easily by these kids, who had spent freshmen year developing friendships. She remembered me as clever and funny, and so I was in. There was also another girl named Lisa, but I was never close to her and she eventually left our little cadre. But the other four of us were fast friends. I talked on the phone with all three of these girls a lot, which my parents were both happy and not happy about. They were happy because a) I was being social and b) because I was being social with girls, but unhappy because I would tie up the only phone line we had for hours each night. There were no cell phones or messaging services then. Actually getting together was more problematic for a group of fourteen-year-olds. Laura and Lisa both lived close to the high school in Solvay, McKenzie and I both lived in Lyncourt. Since there was a bit of distance to negotiate when we wanted to hang out, it just became easier for me to hang out casually with McKenzie all of the time and Laura and Lisa when we could convince parents to chauffeur us around. So there were a lot of Saturday afternoons where McKenzie and I were up in my second-floor bedroom at my house or her basement bedroom at her house. Most of it was sitting around and listening to music (though there was that game of truth or dare we played where she got the right to do my makeup, and I looked less like a pretty pretty princess and more like a Barbie that a four-year-old took crayons to). She introduced me to Extreme (she loved the album III Sides to Every Story), Black Sabbath, Faith No More and Nine Inch Nails. I introduced her to Nirvana and Primus. While sitting around, we would mostly bitch about the popular kids we grew up with.

McKenzie and I were both outcasts because we didn’t fit the mold of the rest of the kids we grew up with. Boys in our area were expected to be confident and athletic, I was chubby, funny and smart. Girls were expected to be bright, thin and pretty. McKenzie was bright, but she was stocky and athletic. She played softball. That combined with her love of flannel shirts spawned a lot of jokes about her sexuality. I’m pretty sure she was in to guys, though I never asked because it didn’t matter to me. So both of us felt like outcasts, and really were in our small community. She would listen to me complain about a girl named Gretchen in our class. Gretchen was the girl I saw as my nemesis. Everyone thought of her as the smartest kid in our class, a title that I personally coveted. I knew I was smarter, but she was more popular so she got more notice. Her grades were better, too, since she was a good student. McKenzie would back up my venom, and tell me that I was as smart as I thought. She would also give me ammunition overheard in locker rooms to prove that Gretchen disliked me as much as I her. I would listen to her pile her ire on a girl named Jamie. Jamie had gotten the position on the softball team that McKenzie wanted, even though McKenzie was obviously the better player. I came up the idea of rooting for her by calling her “#12.” On Nirvana’s Incesticide album, track twelve was Hairspray Queen, and there is no way Jamie’s hair wasn’t drenched in a lot of it, especially considering those bangs. The joke was clever, but didn’t work when McKenzie found out her uniform number actually was 12.

When the weather was nicer, we would hang out at the cemetery near my house. McKenzie shared my appreciation for the quiet and beauty of cemeteries, and we would walk around and make up stories about the different unique gravestones and mausoleums. There was also a “no-man’s land” wooded area in the back between the cemetery and the train tracks that we liked to hang out in. It was obvious that at night it was a place for older teenagers to go and drink or “make-out” (we were pretty innocent in our assessment of this), but during the day there was no one there. It was like our own version of Terebithia, complete with a little stream to cross to get into it (nothing as dangerous as in the book, no bridge required, just a long step, and the water was all of six to eight inches deep, just enough to make your socks damp and uncomfortable). McKenzie dubbed it “North of Eden,” since it was our own little paradise, it was on the north side of the cemetery and she was on a John Steinbeck kick at the time.

McKenzie and I were close enough that those who weren’t assuming that I wasn’t her preferred gender choice for a were assuming I was her boyfriend. We never dated, and even had other boyfriends and girlfriends over our time in high school, but the rumors persisted. We did sort of go to the junior prom together. McKenzie, Laura and I were all dating people who either weren’t juniors (Laura and I) or didn’t go to our school (McKenzie). The three of us pooled our money and all six of us had a limo for the night. We drove around Syracuse all night in that limo, finally dropping people off at five and six in the morning.

When I went off to college, McKenzie was one of the people I tried to stay in contact with. We emailed back and forth sometimes, but she didn’t have the access to a computer that I had, since she was going to school in Syracuse and still living at home. After my failed year of college, she was one of the first people I reconnected with. For the time between college and moving back to Ohio, I was either by myself, working, hanging out with Fred or hanging out with McKenzie. Since I worked nights during that time, I was frequently up at 2 or 3 am, even on my days off. Fred was going to school in Philadelphia, and Laura was going to college in Rochester. McKenzie was still local, so she and I would end up talking on AOL Instant Messenger for hours a night. When the weather was nicer, sometimes we would go for a drive and just talk about things. We were no longer full of wrath for classmates and rivals. Most of what we did was tell stories about what happened when we weren’t hanging out. We would just drive around (well, she would, I didn’t have a car). Mostly we would drive on Route 5, which goes completely across the middle of the state. One night we drove out to the casino in Rome, New York for no reason other than neither of us had been and we knew it would be open. A lot of times we just snuck into parks, an extension of our cemetery explorations of our youth. We walked around Chittenango Falls State Park after midnight once. The waterfall isn’t as visually impressive at night, but it’s loud enough that you could always tell where you were in relation to it. Green Lakes State Park was even more boring, but would have probably been cooler if there had been a moon to reflect off of the water. Erie Canal Park was really great, since there was a full moon the night we went. It’s also the closest that McKenzie and I ever got to being something more than friends.

We were wandering around the park in the moonlight on a chilly spring night. It was cold enough to need a jacket or a hoodie, but not cold enough to keep us out. We had gone off of the beaten path and were wandering climbing around on the old canal lock. It was both damp and cold, so it was a bit slippery. In a moment stolen from a romantic comedy, McKenzie slipped and I caught her around the waste, stabilizing her by getting very close. Our faces were very close when she finally looked up, and that was the moment in the movie when the two leads that everyone is rooting for finally kiss and live happily ever after. We did not kiss, but it took us a really long (it seemed like) time to not kiss. The rest of the car ride that night was a little quieter than usual, but by the time we went to Denny’s at 4am, we had moved on from the moment and were back to talking about other things. We didn’t talk for a few days after that. I think both of us were just trying to figure out if we had missed our chance, avoided our chance or merely dodged a bullet that could have ruined what we had. In the end, nothing more came of it, but it was a moment.

When I moved back to Ohio, I tried to stay in contact with McKenzie, but she got busy with school and I’m bad at keeping in touch with people. My mom did a better job of keeping me informed than I did of staying in touch, since she would see her at work (Mom’s work, not McKenzie’s) from time to time. I know she got married, and that she had some kids. I heard that one of her kids was autistic, and that she also had twins after that. I know for a long time she still lived in the house she grew up in, and her mom had moved out to the house across the street. I don’t know much beyond that, since my mom is retired and no longer runs into McKenzie.

Wherever she is, I hope the best for her. McKenzie and I were great friends, and I still count her as one of the most important people in my life. In the end, we were going in different directions and living in different places, so life got in the way of contact. Maybe I’ll see her at a class reunion or something someday. Maybe I won’t. But as long as she’s happy, nothing else really matters. Her impact was undeniable, and her friendship was invaluable, and I hope she remembers me like I remember her.


Mr. Tooduloo

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