Every kid thinks that his or her hometown is boring. As you read this a pimply Manhattan teenager is complaining that there’s nothing to do. Mon ami in Paris is so disgusted with his drag-ass city that he’s tamped out his cigarette in the middle of his baguette. Down in Amarillo the kids are sick of whooping “Deep In the Heart of Texas” and firing their six-shooters into the air.
This immutable law of adolescence was no less true in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There was the mall, of course, and the movies. The older kids hung out at The Beacon Drive-In; some kids hit the skating rink in Roebuck. Some of us sat in front of turntables or Ataris or hung out with neighborhood kids.
Well into my teens I worked the neighborhood circuit: basketball at the twins’ house; football at Porter’s; epic games of kick-the-can deep in the woods; bottle rocket fights; swimming and fishing in the lake; climbing the skeleton of the abandoned trestle bridge spanning Mud Creek. And the whole time we all bitched about how incredibly bored we were, which translated means we were frustrated spending our days in a sausage factory rather than touching breasts.
Some local entrepreneur — probably the parent of a whiny teenager — picked up on all of this adolescent boredom and opened Spartanburg’s only teen nightclub: The Warehouse. True to its name the place was a renovated downtown warehouse, just a few blocks from Hal the Drummer’s rehearsal space. The Warehouse was configured like a nightclub — big dance floor, tables and chairs for hanging out, a wall of wooden phone booths with folding doors. What really made the joint attractive, though, was the big screen television room, where movies were shown and the ancient art of the dry hump was mastered. (Mon ami Pierre prefers the much more elegant frottage.)
As much as the idea of rubbing against a fuzzy sweater appealed to me, I wasn’t a Warehouse kind of kid. It was more of an in-crowd kind of place. The Untouchables, those beautiful girls with no interest in me, liked The Warehouse. The Izod and duck shoe crowd liked The Warehouse. On the outside I was still Nikes, Levis, and Goodie comb, but under the hood I was sure that I was something else. What I didn’t know — just not this place, this life. I didn’t want to pop my collar and tell lies on Monday about who I finger-banged at The Warehouse on Friday. I didn’t want to roller skate or cruise The Beacon or get drunk and watch street races out by the Dixie Gem Garage.
“Just not this place” was an unspoken impulse, and only in retrospect can I lay claim to it. But one morning while blow drying my hair (may it rest in peace) I spotted a safety-pin on the counter and without a thought shoved it through my earlobe. The pain was negligible, and though I didn’t look like the photo I’d recently clipped of a punk with his hair cut and died into a snooker table I looked…something. Not punk, not dangerous, but not Spartanburg.
“What the hell is that?” my father asked.
“Let me see your ear.” I pulled back my hair. “You take that goddamned thing out right now.”
“No, I like it.” Bravery came easy. My father was still laid up with a broken ankle.
“Take it out. You look like a faggot.”
I walked past him quietly and went to school. One little safety-pin, the difference between visibility and invisibility. I was buzzworthy.
Did it hurt?
That looks tuff.
Are you sure that isn’t the queer ear?
I even caught Agnes and Kim looking at me and giggling flirtatiously. They weren’t Untouchables, but they were affiliated.
At home my father tried a new tactic: “Son, you’ll never get a job with that thing in your ear.”
“I’ll take it out at interviews.”
“It will leave a permanent mark. I’m not talking about now, I’m talking about your future. Do you think anyone in the business world will hire a man with a hole in his ear? You’re limiting your options, son.”
“A lot of guys have their ears pierced. Besides, I don’t want to work for a company that won’t let me be myself.”
“You take that goddamned thing out of your ear. You look like a faggot.”
Having something jabbed through my ear made me momentarily interesting, like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey only with feathered hair. “Hey Billy Squier!” Kim would yell at me and Agnes would laugh. Eventually the newness wore off and things returned to normal. I replaced the safety-pin with a simple stud that I found somewhere, probably my sister’s jewelry box.
Kim and Agnes kept on with the Billy Squier references, though. I assumed that they were mocking my earring, implying that I though I was some kind of rock star. I grew to dislike them, to dread passing them in the halls, and then one day Kim approached me at my locker. “Agnes likes you,” she said.
“I’m serious. She thinks you’re cute.”
“Right. That’s why y’all are always making fun of me. All that Billy Squier shit.”
“Oh my God,” she laughed. “You think we’re making fun of you? You should be proud. You fill out your Levis like Billy Squier.”
Now, the effect of a girl saying something like that to a fifteen year old is immense. Blood rushes from the extremities to turn the face as red as possible. The central nervous system rallies for an immediate flight response, yet the zero to sixty erection the comment produced renders the subject unable to move — at least without a well positioned notebook. Because of these circulatory and neurochemical anomalies the brain ceases to function, leaving the mouth out on a ledge all by itself.
“No I don’t,” I said. Take that.
“Honey, you don’t have any secrets in those jeans,” she said. (Quick note to parents: The next time you want to complain about your kid’s baggy jeans consider the alternative. At least no one can tell at a glance whether he is Jewish.)
I grant you that this is not the best foundation for a high school romance, but I was flattered and Agnes was cute. I had someone to kiss between classes and hold after lunch, someone to slip me notes and doodle on my notebooks. Someone to waste hours with on the telephone or to meet at the mall. Spartanburg suddenly was much less boring.
About a month into our romance Kim invited Agnes and me over to her house. Her boyfriend was there, too, and her mother offered a pleasant “Y’all have fun” as we walked past her toward Kim’s bedroom.
“Okay, y’all get the floor on that side of my bed and we get the floor on this side.” She turned on the radio and shut off the lights. I laid down beside Agnes and kissed her.
“This is awkward,” she said.
“Why? We’ve kissed lots of times.”
“Not like this. I’ve never done this.”
“We’re not doing anything.”
On the other side of the bed was giggling, moaning, snaps and clasps.
“Let’s just kiss,” I said. Her smile flashed in the dim light of the stereo. So we kissed. She relaxed and I tried earnestly to keep my hands on the outside of her fuzzy sweater. And then in the single most cliché coincidence in the history of awkward make out moments Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” oozed from the radio.
There exists a Holy Trinity of Marvins: Early “How Sweet It Is” Innocent Marvin; socially aware “What’s Going on” Mid-Marvin; and Late Marvin, who wanted to get it on. All three Marvins are brilliant, but when you’re fifteen and horny Late Marvin is the man you want at the party. Agnes seemed to think so, too. She held me tighter, kissed me more urgently, didn’t reach for my hand when it slid under her sweater.
She broke up with me after that night; well, she didn’t — she sent Kim to break the news. For you anthropology students out there make a note: this is how high school romances ended prior to the invention of the Facebook “relationship” status. Agnes wouldn’t even talk to me, which simply caused an ever more maddening death spiral. Finally after a few days I managed to corner her.
“Why did you dump me?”
“I have to go to class.”
“I’m not letting you go until you talk to me.”
She wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes teared up. “I’m sorry. I just don’t love you.”
“Is it another guy?” She began to cry. “Who is it? I’ll kick his ass.” You can take the guy out of the black tee-shirt but you can’t take the black tee-shirt out of the guy.
“You don’t know him. He goes to Spartan High.”‘
“What’s his name?”
“Your ex-boyfriend? That pussy in the Izod you were avoiding at The Warehouse?”
She was sobbing now. “I’m sorry. I’m just not over him.”
That weekend I went to The Warehouse in full Guy In Black Tee Shirt Who Jams gear: field jacket, concert tee, Levis, Nikes. In my pocket was the knife I’d traded for over the summer at science camp. I bought myself a Coke and sat alone at a table. Hal the Drummer’s cousin Gary spotted me, invited himself to sit.
“Hey man, where’s Agnes?”
“We broke up.”
“No shit? She was cool. Big titties. Why’d you dump her?”
“I didn’t. She dumped me.”
“Still in love with her ex-boyfriend.”
“Damn. What are you doing here then?”
“I’m looking for the motherfucker.”
Gary laughed. “Oh, and then what? Are you going to challenge him to a fight?”
I whipped out the blade and jabbed it into the table. “I’m going to stick the motherfucker.”
Gary jumped up, draped himself around the table. “Put that thing away, you crazy motherfucker. You’re going to get arrested.”
Thankfully Scott didn’t show that night, as like any fifteen year old with a knife I would have been too terrified to use it. I imagine all I wanted was a bit of self-esteem back, and acting out an S.E. Hinton novel seemed like as good of an idea as any. If you’re going to go Rumble Fish you have to go Rusty James, not Steve.
I bought Billy Squier’s In the Dark album after that. It was really the only choice of break-up record for that scenario. Listening to my nickname-sake was bound to keep the wound open, the cover art was appropriately depressing, and the lyrics were roughly what fifteen year-olds consider profound:
Life isn’t easy from the singular side
Down in the hole some emotions are hard to hide.
It’s your decision it’s a chance that you take
It’s on your head it’s a habit that’s hard to break.
Do you need a friend would you tell no lies
Would you take me in are you lonely in the dark?
When the song ended I picked up the needle and played it again and again, with only the dim light of the stereo disturbing the dark.
Related “Why It Matters” pieces:
More action-packed break ups: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/44-wont-you-help-me-girl-just-as-soon-as-you-can/