It wasn’t a request. For Dale it was simply a statement of fact, made while we were sitting in his bedroom. Actually he was half lying on his bed and I was sunk into the beanbag chair next to the stereo. He was throwing a party to mark the end of our eighth grade year, the end of junior high, the end of our time at MacMurray school, and he’d decided I was coming. I wasn’t so sure. The one thing I was sure of that Dale and I had been growing apart for years even though Dale had been one of my oldest friends. Our parents went to the same church, our mothers were close friends, and our birthdays were only a few months apart, so of course we bonded. We grew up together. At Dale’s tenth birthday party, the same one where I broke my front tooth but that’s another story, I tried nachos for the first time, although back then our idea of “nachos” was a corn chip with a slice of pasteurized processed cheese and a little bit of onion. Dale and I went to summer camp together. When we weren’t at camp we spent a lot of days walking to the video game arcade. That was when Dale lived near enough that we could walk to each others’ houses, which only lasted a couple of years. His family moved at least three times, but when he lived farther away we still saw each other at least three times a week. Our parents got together most Friday or Saturday nights. There was also church and its youth group, and we joined the Scouts together. We played on the same soccer team for three years. He was team captain and lead goal scorer and I was, well, there. Even though Dale loved horror films and I hated them—they’ve since grown on me—so we watched horror films. And Dale convinced me to sneak out late at night, which wasn’t hard because I wasn’t going to get a lot of sleep after watching The Beast Within, and we ran around the neighborhood filling mailboxes with shaving cream. And I’ve never forgotten the day we were home alone and decided to kill time making prank calls, asking people if their refrigerators were running. Then Dale dialed a random number and asked to speak to Jim. “This is Jim,” the guy on the other end of the line replied. Dale started laughing and looked at me and mouthed Oh shit. “Hang up!” I hissed. Dale said, “Hey Jim, it’s Dale, how’s it going?”
“Aw, come on, you know, it’s me. How’ve you been?”
Jim paused and then carefully said, “Well, all right, I guess, how about you?”
And the conversation went on for about fifteen minutes with Dale reminiscing about how they went fishing and their trip to Chattanooga and Jim trying to remember whether he’d ever been to Chattanooga.
During the summer between fifth and sixth grade Dale’s mother had to go into the hospital. Cancer, which she’d been dealing with for years, had come back and was much worse. Dale came and stayed with us. At first I was excited about this; to me it was like an extended sleepover. I didn’t think about what Dale was going through, and it frustrated me that he wanted to spend hours on the phone with Keith, another friend of his who lived next door to him. Keith was an athlete and a football fan, like Dale. It didn’t occur to me that, given the emotional stress of his mother’s illness, Dale would rather be at home.
When she got worse he did go home. When she died he and I didn’t talk about it, not until his next birthday when I was one of a half dozen guys he invited for a sleepover. We had pizza and watched movies and played games, then, late, things got quiet and one of the other kids asked Dale if he missed his mother. He talked quietly about how hard it had been, how the last time he talked to her she was unconscious, that the last thing he’d said was “I love you.”
I didn’t say anything but just listened, deeply aware that Dale, a few months younger than me, was years older.
As we went into sixth, seventh, and eighth grade we saw less of each other. Dale dropped out of the Scouts and his father moved the family to another part of town. There was also a growing schism in the church and his father was on one side while my parents were on the other. There were still occasional get-togethers but it had all changed. Dale and I went to the same school but we were in separate classes and moved in different circles. Most days he wore the usual cool kids’ uniform of a pale blue or white Oxford shirt and jeans. Most days I wore plaid shirts and corduroy slacks, the usual uniform of a kid who wants his ass kicked. When Dale and I were together we had less to talk about. Mostly he tried to convince me I should get my hair feathered and listen to Journey, and I was more interested in reruns of Star Trek.
When he invited me to his farewell to junior high party—not that it had a name or a theme because it was too cool to be anything but a party—I assumed it was out of pity, or maybe just habit for him. None of my other friends from school were invited but a lot of kids I didn’t like were. So I came up with a brilliant plan for getting out of it: I wouldn’t tell my parents about the party, which might have worked if Dale’s stepmother hadn’t asked my parents to help chaperone, and my parents of course thought, hey, what fourteen year-old shy geek wouldn’t want to go to a party full of jocks and cool kids with his parents?