Lee G. came to check out SCAD, or at least to visit. I was thrilled to see him, as if reuniting with my long lost conjoined twin. How that separation may have occurred is a bit of a mystery — maybe a gigantic baloney slicer accident.
I couldn’t wait to show him my new world, so the first night he was there we jumped into his Toyota and headed over to the Chinese restaurant near my apartment. Now, here’s the thing: Lee G.’s little blue car was essentially a rolling apartment. The boy loved road trips — Athens, Asheville, Memphis — Lee G. was always coming from or headed toward somewhere. The back seat of his car was unusable as a seat, its function now no more than a stand for the several open briefcase-style cassette cases that accompanied him everywhere. He owned hundreds of tapes.
“Why do you buy cassettes?” I once asked him.
“Because they’re portable. I can play them in my car or my boom box.”
“But why not buy the albums and tape them? That way when the tape breaks you can make another.” It was 1986, and neither of us introduced compact discs into the debate. No early adopters here.
Anyway, Lee G.’s tapes were buried beneath the mountain of clothes concealing the back seat. He possessed exceptional fashion sense, but details like “clean” and “dirty” were meaningless to him. Once he challenged himself to see how many consecutive days he could spend in the same pair of Levi’s. I saw recently on the Weather Channel that the odor from that experiment is still detectable when low pressure systems hit the Appalachains. The phenomenon is known as El Leegio.
We piled into the Toyota and hit the Chinese restaurant near my apartment. “So what should I get?” he asked.
“Egg rolls. Three for a buck-fifty. And ask for the hot mustard.”
The food at Dragon House or whatever the joint was named wasn’t very good, but the mustard was insane. I’m not even sure that it was meant for human consumption. There exists the distinct possibility that Dragon House’s hot mustard was a paint stripper, practical joke, or mild hallucinogenic. Or all three.
Our egg rolls arrived along with an over-sized dish of hot mustard. “Go on,” I said. “Try one.” Lee G. swirled the egg roll around the dish, heavily coating it with the evil brown paste. He took about a third of the roll in a single bite. A moment passed, and then his eyes widened like a man suddenly stricken blind. He fell over on his side and remained there, cheek on the cool red Naugahyde, for twenty seconds or so.
“I have to do that again,” he said, and he jammed his egg roll back into the mustard. We placed another order, laughing at each other’s momentary blindness after each bite. That was some serious horseradish, assuming it was horseradish. We packed up the leftovers and drove over to Tybee Island.
On the way to the beach we learned the the United States bombed Libya. We didn’t really know why, other than Gadaffi was a “mad man” and Reagan had been itching to fight since taking office in ’81. The whole thing seemed strange and dreamlike. Lee G. turned eighteen just a month prior. I was barely nineteen.
We sat on the darkened beach, Oreos and orange juice in hand, watching the moonlight dance on the waves. It was the same thing we did back home on the skeleton of the old trestle bridge, though the ocean churned with much more violence than did the gentle ripples of Mud Creek.
“What if we get drafted,” I said.
“I’ll move to Canada.”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t want to move to Canada.”
“Do you want to go to war?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to go to Canada.”
“Look at that beach,” Lee G. said. “A nuclear blast would turn that whole thing into a sheet of black glass.”
I looked at my watch: 11:11. To this day when I see 11:11 my broken brain whispers the glass beach. I’ve had ten 11:11 moments in the last two weeks, one last night. I was asleep, and I woke up to see 11:11.
Prior to writing this I never realized that 11:11 was one of my first numeric rituals, if not the first. For years I looked at a digital clock at that moment at least once daily and my brain whispered the glass beach, as if that would somehow ward off nuclear holocaust. Maybe it has, who’s to say? Better safe than sorry.
War did not come, so we returned to the business of being art school-like lads in Savannah, Georgia. In the evenings we would go see A Disturbed Jennifer or The Killer Clowns, and during the day Lee G. would either hang around the school or explore the town while I was in class. He found a burned, gutted train station, its concrete walls overtaken by vines like some sort of ancient ruin.
“This place is awesome,” I said, and he tightrope walked across a blackened floor joist. “I want to have a show here.” But I didn’t, really. No, what I wanted was to get the hell out of there. Savannah’s violent reputation hung like humid voodoo in the air. Any minute I expected Scoop and his boys to tumble over the walls and attack us.
Humidity — the Southeast is known for it, but nobody does it like Savannah. More than once I opened the front door and audibly gasped when the thick, mossy air filled my lungs. One can actually see the air some days in Savannah, that watery shimmer that slows life to a crawl. The heat and humidity weren’t doing the laundry in Lee G.’s back seat any favors. As the week rolled on the odor blossomed from “annoying funk” to “chemical warfare.” By the end of the week the stench was too powerful for me. I refused to ride in the Toyota anymore.
“Man, I must have some underwear back there that turned or something.”
“If you have underwear that rank, you have bigger problems than laundry.”
We spent the rest of that week getting fake high on egg rolls and mustard and arguing about SCAD.
“I don’t like that school,” Lee G. said.
“It’s too commercial. All they’re concerned about is money.”
“That isn’t true.”
“Yes it is. I’m going to UGA or Memphis.”
“You just want to go to UGA to be in Athens,” I said.
“It’s a good place, full of artists.”
“Yeah, but SCAD is a good school.”
“I don’t like it,” Lee G. said.
I received a postcard from him a few days after he returned to Spartanburg:
James: Thank you for the excellent visit. You’ll be pleased to know that odor was not my fermenting underwear. The first day I was there we left egg rolls under the seat. – Wm. Lee
We drift through life for no other reason than our hearts beat, and now and then we bump into someone who completes us in some way. If we’re attracted to that person we call it love; if not, we call it friendship. We need another word for love that is neither romantic nor familial. It’s a damned shame that Philia has morphed meanings since antiquity.
I read my buddy’s postcard and I laughed, not only at the stupidity of slow roasting Chinese food in a locked car for a week but because we both so readily accepted that the problem was the Creature from the Blackened Clothes Hamper. I laughed not because of what the postcard said, but because of what it didn’t, what was unspoken, like so many of the things that made us laugh until we cried and left those around us confused.
I laughed because I loved my friend and I missed him, and I didn’t know what else to do.