(This entry is a continuation of the Earl series about my relationship with an older man in my teens, and of the complications caused by a peer named Topher. It's a direct sequel to yesterday's Brass Watch. Despite references to orgies and despite some very adult situations, I'm afraid it lacks any explicit smut, again. Sorry.)
In the neighborhood where I grew up flourished two seminaries. From one, the more august of the two, the one that's still intact and and was known as the more academic, my childhood church (which was just a block away) drew slave labor for its programs in the form of seminarians anxious to teach Sunday school or draw up an extensive year-long Christian education curriculum for no more recompense than a smile and the experience.
The lesser institution dissolved some years ago and gave up its campus to the Southern Baptists. In its heyday in the nineteen-seventies, though, it was the more touchy-feely of the two campuses. More youth-oriented. The infamous clog dancing troupe to which I belonged in high school was an evening program there. The drama group in which I made my Richmond stage debut and had first met Topher was one of its programs. The school was responsible for dozens and dozens of graduates who marched out from its grassy campus into the world, armed with the ability to play all the hit songs from Godspell on the guitar using usually no more than three or four chords, a broad range of Sunday school crafts in their holster, and only the vaguest (but a truly well-meaning) grasp of what actually was in the Bible.
But they had a skating rink, and that more than made up for anything lacking in their academic system.
I'm vaguely aware that roller rinks still exist across this country, but they don't have nearly the glamor and cultural sway that they did in the seventies and early eighties. We're talking about the era that is responsible for Xanadu, after all. I started in fourth grade skating at the seminary rink, which occupied the basement of one of their larger buildings. I had my own pair of skates for a time, even, until my feet began shooting up through the adult sizes to an eventual size eleven and it wasn't worthwhile to try to keep up.
Everyone in the neighborhood of a certain age skated. Families came together on certain nights, bought pizza from the refreshment stand, and skated to disco music under the mirrorball. Every kid I knew was familiar with the names not only of the girls behind the skate rental counter, but the guy who ran the lights and music and even the fellow who sat in the back and cleaned and tuned the skates as they were turned in. We all knew not only how to skate in endless circles around the rink, but how to stop on a dime, skate backwards, turn a figure-eight, and dance along with Blondie and Donna Summer. I shudder to admit it, but once our clogging troupe even donned skates for one of our performances and boogied on stage to "Use It Up, Wear It Out."
Some memories one can never shake, no matter how hard one tries.
Anyway. The first place I ever saw Topher was on that seminary's campus, when we were alternating the lead in a musical there. And the last place I ever saw Topher was at the seminary's skating rink, one summer night.
For me it was the summer between the end of tenth grade and the start of my senior year. My parents had landed on the plan that had me skip eleventh grade, and I had to spend that summer taking an English credit to do it. The amount of travel and work I had to do over the course of a couple of months really cut into my usually leisurely summer schedule. Something had to give. I wasn't going to relinquish my nights of whoring at the park, or my weekends of fucking at Earl's place. My daytimes were usually spent shuffling between classes, dealing with my first stalker, and doing homework.
What I jettisoned turned out to be what little socialization I did with other kids. I didn't go to the pool much that summer. I didn't hang out with what few friends I had. And I rarely went skating.
But one night toward the end of summer I did. I have a vague memory of being guilted into it by my parents, who were convinced I was overworking because that's precisely what I wanted them to think. For whatever reasons, though, I went skating that night. I caught up with a few friends. I endured their snide remarks about skipping a grade and leaving them behind until I wasn't enjoying it any more, and then I figured I'd cut out a little early, stop by the park and whore until it closed, and then arrive home late at night and go straight to bed like any surly teenager with too much on his plate, thanks to his folks.
That was the plan, anyway. I slipped my skates back at the rental desk while my friends were out on the floor, and during one of the popular slow numbers in which all the popular guys would grab the popular girls for a mobile make-out session in the semi-darkness, slipped out the door and into the basement stairwell that led back up to the sidewalk.
And there was Topher, at the far end of the stairwell, smoking a cigarette. We didn't smoke in those days. Never mind that I'd seen him fucked by men more than twice his age for a couple of years by that point. I was absolutely shocked to the point of speechlessness at the sight of him guiltily stubbing out a butt on the concrete and pushing the ashes into a drain with his sneaker. "Hey," he said, when he saw who I was.
"Hey," I said back. I stopped. I wasn't exactly sure what social courtesies we owed the other. I was Earl's boy. Topher at that point was more Jim's, though Earl had found him and trained him in much the same way he'd trained me. Because he spent more time in Jim's room, the pair of them smoking weed and giggling at Looney Tunes reruns and broadcasts of The New Zoo Revue, I didn't really see him as a direct rival for Earl's attention. The two of them fucked, but not when I was around. How he viewed me, though, I knew might be a sticky point of contention.
He had ample reason to resent me. I was the favorite son, the priggish do-gooder when I wasn't on my back with my legs in the air. I didn't smoke, I didn't drink, I didn't do pot or hang out with a bad crowd. I was Abel to his Cain, and I was acutely fearful that when he looked at me, he saw a halo hanging over my head.
Then there was the fact that the two of us had never been alone together. There were dozens and dozens of kids and adults on the other side of the wall. We could both hear the thumping disco music through the shaded windows and the door. But that stairwell closed the two of us off from the rest of the world in a way neither of us had encountered before—not even when the two of us had been in our own awkward, private world when forced to fuck each other for the amusement of a crowd.
I moved. I'd made the decision to leave.
"I bet you're looking forward to school," he said finally, shuffling his feet.
I stopped. It sounded like a dig to me, but I didn't acknowledge it for what it was. "Maybe," I shrugged. "Aren't you?"
I didn't know which high school Topher attended, though I knew it wasn't mine. "I don't know," he said. "Don't know if I'm going back."
If I'd been shocked by the cigarette, this admission really nailed my feet to the ground. I wasn't going anywhere. By and large, we were all good kids, in that community. Some had more of a reputation for making trouble than others. There were a few I avoided, because they were dicks to me. One of us had thrown a drunken party when his parents were away for the weekend. But even he turned out in later life to be a responsible lawyer. The point was that we just didn't have any high school dropouts. Not in that community. Not even in my high school. They were a mythical breed, exotic and much-rumored, but never witnessed. I said something like, "What?"
Now he shrugged. "I hate that shit." He peered at me through narrow and slitted eyes. Topher's teens had not been kind to him. He had acne on his face—big blotches, not the minor kind of scream-inducing pimples I occasionally got. His hair was stringy and unwashed. Whether it was the weed or the cigarette smoke or just the way he preferred to shut out everything around him, he perpetually looked at the world through heavy lids that were so shuttered they almost closed. "School. Everybody telling you what to do and when to do it. You like that?" He thrust his hands in his pockets. "You probably do."
Another jibe. I ignored it for the moment. "What're you going to do? Get a job?"
"Nah." He was attempting to be nonchalant, adult in a way that a school-loving kid like me obviously was not. "I'd blow this town. Go somewhere exciting. Maybe Baltimore." It's a measure of what a sleepy little city we lived in that Baltimore seemed like a wild epicenter of excitement.
"Oh," I said. I didn't really have anything else to add.
He was warming to the topic, though. He'd obviously thought it through. "Jim said he could help me get a little money. No one else gives a shit if I go."
There wasn't any way I could really counter that. He wouldn't have believed me if I said that I didn't want him gone. I didn't—but we didn't have enough of a relationship for it to matter. "Earl. . . ."
He snorted. "Anyway. See ya, I guess."
It was a dismissal, and I didn't have anything more to say. Nor did I really want to stick around, any more. Topher made me uncomfortable. Being around him reminded me of a path my life could've taken. He was almost a nightmare version of myself—a dark half that hadn't taken good care, that had done all the wrong things, that had made all the wrong decisions. We'd started from the same point, playing the same role in a play, same bright future ahead of us. We'd both been Earl's boys. Despite all that, despite even our proximity in that stairwell, we seemed so far apart that no bridge could ever span the gap.
I turned, and put a foot on the first stair. "Hey," he said. I looked over my shoulder. "See you around. Or not. I'll figure it out." His voice wasn't cruel, or laden with blame or resentment. If anything, I remember it as a recognition of sorts. The recognition shared by equals, or at least by soldiers who'd witnessed the same atrocities, deep in the trenches.
My last view of Topher was from the top of the staircase, over the iron railing. He was nothing more than a freshly-lit cigarette's red tip, hiding in the shadows.