★ ‘Classmates’ by Mike Lee

soft cartel april 2018

At times, I have difficulty fully letting go of my past. For example, every several years I go on Internet searches and get on former classmate websites to check in on who I used to know.

The classmate websites are general knowledge, depending on who participates. Those who do are those I only recognize because I have a knack of recalling whoever sat in the third row of home room in fifth grade. Invariably, I don’t think I ever exchanged more than a few words with those people the entire time we were in school together.

They had their friends, and I had mine.

My friends were never on those sites. They, for their own personal reasons, are nonexistent by senior year of high school. In fact, they all seem to disappear by junior year. It’s as if they all vanished in a group after I moved from the area after my freshman year.

I only returned twice at a time where I could re-engage them. I chose not to, though at a Denny’s I spoke with a friend of a girl I had a crush on. She told me she was having her second baby.

We were seventeen, then. I never asked about anyone again.

*

When I was nineteen, my aunt sent me a news clipping of a classmate I was friends with since second grade. He killed himself.

In retrospect, I blame myself. A month after I moved to the new city, I wrote a long, extensive letter to a girl who had given me her address on the last day of school. Her name was Pam. She had light brown hair, wavy cut in bangs, had bad acne and wore multicolored jeans, with patches and tank tops. She smoked a lot of pot, and we got stoned at a KISS concert and made out. Pam said she liked me. So I wrote her a letter.

Before I had the chance to mail it, Mom found the letter. When she read it, she flew into a rage and grounded me for the rest of the summer. Scared me enough to not write again.

What was in the letter? A short story I wrote. I don’t remember the details but it involved the friends I had as characters. We were bad kids, or indifferent emotionally. I don’t know which were worse, or which group I fell into. I wasn’t that bad, at least I don’t remember.

But Mom freaked out about what I wrote. I won’t forget the red-faced rage, the expression of that curling smile which meant she was on the edge of psychosis and how her hands shook as she held the pages I wrote to Pam.

That shut me down for a while. School started, and a new life began. My one chance at maintaining a connection snipped off and lost.

It didn’t matter, anyway. Life got good. Dated girls. Made friends for a lifetime. The course of my life changed for the better, though it took a while for me to recognize it.

Out of curiosity I began looking for them. What struck me is they were all gone by senior year. It was not as if I was looking for a small number. This was a couple of dozen teenagers, from three different high schools—from the high school I attended, and the high school that my junior high was the feeder school for.

All gone, vanished, as if they never existed and were nothing but a fantasy gang I created from daydreams.

I thought I had gone crazy, but finally I found my freshman yearbook. They were there.

The Carver brothers, twins, disappeared by junior year. Dave Biggers wasn’t in the sophomore yearbook. Pam was the only one who made it to junior year. While staring at her black and white photo, she was still Pam, but no sign of her in senior year. I did an internet check to see what she was up to now. Couldn’t find a thing, though. Did find the other girl, the one with babies at seventeen. She was an accountant in another county. Despite everything, she made it. Was awfully proud of her.

Her name was Maria. She wrote me a poem, which I kept in my wallet for decades until it was stolen in an ATM in lower Manhattan several years ago.

Joey, Megan, Rose, Teena, Danny—the list was long and they all either left by the end of sophomore or junior year. They would not have transferred. They probably all dropped out, or disappeared into a void.

I knew Steve Casey was not going to be there. On the last day of school, I remember standing in the smoking area and spotted him at the awning by the curb.

Steve wore a gray suit and tie. Looking at him, I recalled he went as Elvis for Halloween. In retrospect, I found that ironic. The king goes to the counting house.

I walked over and he turned to shake my hand. “Hey man, I’m going to court today. I don’t know if you’ll see me again.”

I didn’t believe him. He was only fifteen, but yes, I never saw him after that.

*

Not too long ago I had a dream of the old gang hanging out in the woods behind the trailer park where I had lived. It was dark, and we started a fire, sitting around the comforting flames, getting fucked up.

I had my old Norelco tape deck, playing Black Sabbath Vol. 4. Joints were passed around. We drank Annie Green Springs and Georgia peach wine. Pam was ignoring me, angry for some reason.

Maria sat directly across from me, staring appraisingly, silent.

I was curious. “What’s up?”

She paused, closed her eyes.

Upon reopening, she said. “I see who you will be when you are older.”

Around her, the figures faded into nonexistence. Maria, however, remained.

The embers crackled as I awakened.

Mike Lee is a writer, editor, labor journalist and photographer living in New York City. His fiction is published in Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, Homestead Review, Alexandria Quarterly, The Airgonaut and others. He also writes for the photography website Focus on the Story. Website is www.mleephotoart.com.

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