I’m a high school drop out. ?This peculiar footnote in my biography is not one of which I’m proud nor particularly cognizant on any given day. It is merely a fact of my boyhood, akin, I suppose, to being tall or olive-hued come the end of a Petaluma, California summer, 20 years past. I say peculiar for the high-minded tone I affect in this column so that your narrator can make comic swan dives into the low-brow, but then such fancy pants sleight-of-hand probably isn’t uncommon among dropouts.? We’re an odd lot ??in fact, there are three in the newsroom as I write ??and we each have a story that involves some order of adolescent righteousness, the kind of personality tic that later drives scribes to truth and booze in equal measure. I prefer the latter when asked, so you?ll forgive the bombast and drudge that comes reflected through the glass.
The Petaluma River wasn’t really a river until a convivial Congressman got it called such back in the ?50s so federal dredging monies could keep tidal traffic and tourist trap riverboats afloat. The slough carved the town by east and west, a convenient accident of geography, which fomented a natural sense of ?us and them.? This kept us waist-deep in rancor for our cross-town rivals. This served both sides well when working up the bloodlust necessary to fuel a high school football game, but was an inconvenience on par with being from the wrong house of Verona in the realm of teenage romance. And for us west-side boys there was nothing more tantalizing, of course, than an east-side girl.
At 15, what we know of love is miniscule compared to the nuanced understanding that only accrues with age. I recall my experience of love at the time as something akin to blunt force trauma ??all reason is eclipsed, dizziness reigns and a sudden strabismus overtakes the eyes such that stars one sees are inevitably crossed. In the experience of my adolescence, love was the first brush with a sense of the eternal for the simple fact that I wanted it to last forever. As it turns out, it doesn’t, but it reincarnates into endlessly new and varied projections.
Consider the sandy-haired chatterbox with the slight overbite and penchant for clove cigarettes, which afforded her junior varsity sophistication and zested her lips with smoky sweetness. She wasn’t an outright beauty, but a girl whose face time promised to refine. In retrospect, I realize that every conception I?d developed of her was part of a collaborative fiction devised by my cronies and I, our first fumbled interpretations of the hieroglyphs of women. This exercise, as futile as it might have been, was cut short when a boy from our school, an upper classman rearing for a football scholarship and sprinkled with a beard that was prematurely his, interceded in a manner that is all too predictable.
By most accounts it was a race ??an impromptu display of mass and muscle realized with a pair of pickup trucks piloted by our guy and an east-side kid who seemed unable to wear a baseball cap any way but backward. The specifics are hazy, though at the time everyone seemed either an expert witness or an expert liar. The west-side kid, perhaps more accustomed to the predictable grid of number and letter streets on our side of town, could not manage the velocity he would attain on a mountain road, such that when he blindly crested one of several hills, he had little option but to plow into the car attempting to turn left. The girl inside died instantly.
Teenagers have a preternatural ability to fathom absurdity. Theirs is a peculiar vantage from which all rules seem arbitrary, including the immutable laws of nature, which sometimes seem little more than constellations of chaos. Why ridicule life with brevity? Why bother with sophomore year? The symmetry of these na ‘ve queries seemed reasonable as anything, though admittedly were ever only part of the equation.? Perhaps, I thought, I had learned enough that year.