When we got to Dale’s house my parents let me out while they went to park the car. As I was trying to cross the driveway unnoticed a tall blonde girl spotted me and said, “What is HE doing here?” There were only a few kids outside and they ignored her and me. I went into the house to try and find a secluded perch.
Dale was somewhere in the party, moving around with an entourage. I didn’t try to talk to him, just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. There was no place to sit, no place I could disappear to. It seemed like the only kids from school who weren’t at Dale’s house were ones I’d want to talk to. I hadn’t eaten because of nerves and the belief that there’d be food at the party, and there was food in the kitchen, but the entire football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and golf teams were between me and it. That was a grand total of just nine guys—small school–but the kitchen was crowded and they were hungry and there was still no way I could grab a sandwich without losing a hand. Eventually they moved on to the den to graze on cheerleaders. I sat down next to a basket of tortilla chips and a fondue pot of cheese dip. A guy with a mullet and a wispy moustache sat down and slapped me on the back. “You like nachos?” he yelled, then pointed at me. “Hey, dude’s all right! Dude likes nachos!” And I thought, hey, if this is all it takes to fit in I could have done it years ago.
I couldn’t eat nachos forever–well, I could, but the athletic department was working its way back–so I drifted off to a spot on the stairs where I stayed until Dale’s stepmother, who was nice and always seemed to zero in on me with some idea for getting me “involved”, asked if I’d go upstairs and choose some music. In Dale’s room there was a setup with a turntable and speakers that leaned out the window toward the patio below. I played some of Rush’s 2112, “Burning Down The House”, then switched to “Mr. Roboto”, really digging being a DJ. During the long version of “The Safety Dance” I dug through Dale’s milk crate full of vinyl and found an old recording of “The Hokey Pokey”. I thought that would be fun in an ironic way and danced happily by myself until a guy with a mullet and a wispy moustache, not Nacho Man but a different one, told me to get out.
For a long time I sat at a picnic table in the backyard sipping Kool-Aid. While the evening darkened and the multi-colored party lights strung around the patio grew brighter I watched couples who’d been blocked from the bedrooms disappear behind the toolshed at the back of the yard.
A pretty girl who ignored me at school sat down and said hi to me.
“Have you seen Stevie Wonder’s new car?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Neither has he.”
She laughed and put out her hand then slapped the table between us.
“You’re a smart guy. Maybe you can help me. I took my mom’s boyfriend’s car out the other night, you know? Anyway I dented the the right front fender and my mom’s boyfriend is gonna kick my ass when he finds out. What should I do?”
I didn’t even know where to begin since “Why were you driving your mother’s boyfriend’s car when you haven’t even even got a learner’s permit?” seemed like a bad way to start. Besides, I thought, we all make mistakes, we all do things we wish we could take back. It wasn’t advice, but that didn’t matter. Horns were honking in the driveway and parents were coming out to point and snap their fingers. The party was ending.
That summer there was a growing schism in the church with my parents on one side, Dale’s father on the other, and most of their mutual friends uninterested in taking sides. The big gatherings where our parents got together and that had been, for most of our lives, the times when Dale and I would get together, stopped happening. And even when our parents did get together we were both getting too old to tag along.
Most Sundays Dale brought some new friends he’d made in his new neighborhood, or occasionally Keith, to church with him. I was never invited to join these groups. Neither of us played soccer anymore, he’d dropped out of the Scouts, and I’d lost interest in the church youth group. When we passed we rarely said more than “Hey” to each other. In the fall, even though we went to the same high school, it was a much bigger school, and we rarely saw each other, and moved in different circles, although his circles were so much bigger. I was still so awkward, an outsider, alone most of the time, although I’d gotten good at blending in, wearing jeans and an Oxford cloth shirt. Sometimes Dale would walk by me in the hall and not even see me. One night a month into our freshman year my parents went to Dale’s house and I went along. Dale was alone in his room and for several awkward minutes I was alone with him. Then for some reason I started to spill about my latest obsession, interstellar travel, and how much I wanted to get off this planet. I rambled about wormholes and warping space, and I thought I sounded like the biggest dork in the universe, but I couldn’t shut up which made it even worse. Dale didn’t say anything until I finished and flopped into the beanbag chair.
“If you find a way,” he said, “take me with you.” It was a simple, quiet request, and I thought, what problems does Dale have that he wants to escape? And I thought, how could we possibly have this in common? Neither of us said anything after that. It wasn’t awkward, just the airless silence of two people who have nothing to say.
Dale and I would never be alone again after that. My parents left the church and a lot of their friends. Dale and I, I thought, who had so little in common, were only friends because circumstances forced us together. When those dissolved so did the friendship, but after years of feeling I was being pushed away there was that moment when Dale admitted he didn’t want to let go. At school I found friends, friends who were more like me, friends I chose. And yet I realized that you never really replace friends you’ve lost; new ones will never quite fill the void the old ones left.
This story doesn’t have a clear ending. If I could go back, if I could do it over, would I give it one? Would I do something differently, would I do everything differently? Maybe this is the ending it needs, to fray in different directions that will trace out their own paths, like people leaving a party.