The Four Freedoms

November 8, 2013

His name was also Chris. I’d seen him around, passed him in the halls on my way to classes. At the time I didn’t know there was a "goth" subculture. He was just one of those kids who dressed all in black, although even among them he stood out. He had a naturally pale complexion marked by webs of blood vessels in his cheeks, blonde hair that rose up from his forehead, crested, and fell back almost to his shoulders, and blue eyes. Whenever someone is described as having piercing blue eyes I think of Chris, who also had a steady, unflinching gaze. He strutted around the school in black boots, baggy black pants, a black shirt, with his hands in the pockets of his long black coat, usually alone, sometimes with one or two others. The first time I talked to him was also the first time I gave blood. We sat next to each other on folding chairs in the gym waiting to be interrogated by the nurse. He went up first, then came back and sat next to me again, hunched over, tapping his thumbs together. The nurse called him back over to her table. Another nurse came over, and a doctor, all of them looking concerned. He came back and sat down next to me again while they consulted each other. "Yes, I’ve had sex," he said, not looking at me. "We were in love. What’s wrong with that?" Then he got up and left.

The next time was the next year, in gym class. He and I mostly stood off to the side, not sure what to do while the rest of the class played basketball. Even dressed in the same t-shirt and shorts I felt intimidated, even unequal to him. He stared at me and finally asked, "So, what’s your name?" I was so nervous I couldn’t stop laughing, but I got out, "Chris." He nodded. "That’s a damn fine name, Chris." I wanted to ask his name, but I was afraid. I never knew why he disappeared from my gym class after that and I was left to stand on the sidelines alone. The next year, my senior year, I had to take a semester of world history to fill a missing credit. The first day, before class started, I was sitting by the window reading Vonnegut’s Galapagos. Chris came and sat down next to me. "Can I see that?" I handed him the book. I’d gotten over my nervous laughter but still couldn’t speak. He bent the cover back, making me cringe, and started reading. "I thought this was gonna be crap but it’s pretty good. Here, take this." He reached into his pocket and pulled out Clive Barker’s Books Of Blood, Volume One. It wasn’t something I’d have picked up, but it proved more interesting than the Seven Years’ War. Over the weeks of the class we began to talk. He’d forgotten gym class and asked my name. When I told him he frowned. "There are too many of us in this school named Chris. Going down the hall and yelling ‘Hey Chris!’ is like going to a Cure concert and yelling ‘Hey, you in the black!’"

I was still intimidated by Chris, so mostly I listened. I listened to his stories about coming home late, after curfew, and finding a note from his father taped to the door: "You’re busted mister!" Where’d he sleep? He waved the question away and told me Information Society was a great band. He said they were "stout", a word he used to mean "excellent". He told me he wanted to form his own band, that he could play fifteen different instruments, that he’d even played onstage at the Cannery, where indie bands like Midnight Oil played when they came to Nashville. I learned that Chris’s girlfriend was in my Psychology class, the girl with straight black hair who wore mostly black, but also purple, to match her heavy eye makeup. He told me about having sex with her in a coffin. He told me about his run-ins with a mall security guard, Dunford. I’d heard about Dunford from other kids I knew: my friends Mike and Dave, who had mullets and wore ripped jeans, and my friend Wesley, whose wardrobe seemed to consist entirely of Anthrax, Slayer, and Motorhead t-shirts couldn’t go to the mall without being stopped by Dunford.

Chris came to class one day in a dark mood. The night before he’d been at the mall with a couple of friends and Dunford told him the night before he’d dragged Chris’s girlfriend, naked, out of the backseat of a car in the parking lot. Chris hadn’t been with his girlfriend, but he didn’t believe Dunford’s story either. My next class was English, where we kept journals, and I’d run down the hall to write down everything he’d said. I wasn’t sure how much I could believe, but I recorded it anyway. The next week Chris’s girlfriend was absent. When I saw Chris he told me they’d broken up, that she’d attempted suicide, that he couldn’t visit her in the hospital because his presence raised her blood pressure to dangerous levels. He became increasingly moody, calling himself pathetic, a loser, talentless. I said, "You can play fifteen different instruments." He muttered, "None of them well." Then the teacher came in and we had to take a pop quiz Napoleon’s march across Europe. A few days after that Chris was absent from class. First days, then a week, and I didn’t see him. I wanted to ask, but the goth kids were sectarian, never forming groups of more than three to four, and the different groups all seemed to loathe each other as much as they hated the rest of the world. I was afraid asking about Chris would open me up to abuse.

My parents had gotten into the habit of going to Cracker Barrel, or the Mexican place next door to it, every Thursday night. I went along because it beat staying at home. One night, after dinner, my father had just turned onto Harding Place, and there was Chris, walking in the opposite direction along the road over I-65. In the dark his head appeared to be floating. Traffic was heavy, and the closest place to stop would have been the gas station at the other end of the overpass. By the time we stopped it would be too far to call to him. I wasn’t even sure where he was going. To Franklin Pike, maybe. Is that where he lived? Did he have friends there? Or maybe he was taking a long walk to school, late at night. I didn’t say anything to my parents. I don’t know if they even saw him. But I imagined convincing them to turn back, to offer him a ride. They might have been put off by his clothing, and his earring, but I thought they’d be happy to help him out any way they could, especially my mother.

Once, when I was five and we’d taken a trip to the downtown public library my mother had started talking to a homeless couple, and spent two hours talking to library staff, then calling city officials, trying to get them some help. But I was also afraid of how Chris would see me. If he needed help it shouldn’t have mattered, but I wondered what he would think of me, smelling of chicken and dumplings, in my parents’ warm plush car. I wondered if we’d end up taking him home, and what he’d think of that, what he’d think of my room. For most of my life my room had been the epitome of Seventies tastefulness: avocado walls and green and yellow shag carpeting. This was ameliorated by a nautical theme. I had lamps shaped like sea captains at a ship’s wheel, and my grandparents had brought back a poster of a 19th century fishing village from a trip to Hawaii that hung over my bed. Then, when I was sixteen, my mother had the carpet replaced with a deep pile beige, and she took the opportunity to redecorate my room. I wanted my room to look like my friend Alan’s, who’d painted his walls gray and hung a Pink Floyd: The Wall poster over his bed, even though I was still having night terrors and Bob Geldof’s melting face was the worst thing I could wake up to. Instead my mother painted the walls powder blue and put up a cheery border of hot air balloons. The ancient fishing village was replaced with a poster of more hot air balloons. I like hot air balloons, and would love to someday go up in one, to have nothing between me and the world far below. But the new d├ęcor made me feel like I was six rather than sixteen. Chris had never criticized me, had never made me feel beneath him, but I envied the freedom of his life. And I was afraid to see my life through his eyes. But it didn’t matter. I would never see Chris again.

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