In order to escape the pull of the earth, an object must achieve a speed of 25,000 miles per hour. Escaping high school requires significantly less speed but no less intellectual effort. Surviving the morass of group think and excessive hormonal discharge without loss of one’s individuality feels like an exercise in fatalism. The humdrum nature of my experience provided few exceptions, but those few made the journey worthwhile.
During my sophomore year, I met Marshall, an outgoing and talented guy who was a year ahead of me. What first drew me to Marshall other than his super-friendly and unique personality was the fact that he always seemed to have a throng of girls hanging around him, and nothing gets the attention of a teenage boy more than a throng of teenage girls.
Marshall and I became fast friends. I loved his attitude on life and the way he expressed himself in the histrionic way that only a talented actor and singer could. Marshall’s talents were always underrated. He could belt out a tune from Culture Club or Erasure and hit all the notes back in those days. His turn in Lil’ Abner remains one of the best high school productions I’ve ever seen primarily because of his spot-on acting. In a sea of drab, emotionally-stunted sameness, he sparkled like a nugget of gold just below the surface of a murky river.
After the fiasco with Rachel, I had returned to my normal orbit around Leah, but by the end of my junior year, I realized that it would never work for reasons that were larger than either of us. Some things can be reconciled, but the foundation of a person’s philosophy on life cannot be compromised. That fundamental understanding forced me to move on. Finally.
By that point, Marshall’s release date from high school had been set, and he wanted to celebrate in a big way. He planned a trip to Florida and invited me along. I had never gone much of anywhere other than the few trips I had taken as a kid, so the prospect of hanging out with friends in Florida sans any adult supervision proved enticing, as is the case for most teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.
After Marshall’s graduation, we drove down to Orlando and spent a couple of days at Disney World and then headed over to Daytona for a few days on the beach. Being on my own gave me a taste of the freedom that was to come, but it also introduced me to the underbelly of reality as if I needed further clarification that things weren’t always cheery in the adult camp.
On the streets in Daytona, a drug dealer approached us and asked us if we wanted to buy some coke. He looked like he had completed a few deals before (hey, I watched Miami Vice), but he had no idea that he had encountered two naive bumpkins from the furthest reaches of North Georgia. Being the smart ass that I was (and still am), I said the first thing that popped into my head, “No thanks, I prefer Pepsi.” Marshall didn’t appreciate my flippant comment, and we scurried away hoping that we wouldn’t get shot. To this day, Marshall still muses over my careless comment whenever this story comes up. Either that or he cannot believe I was stupid enough to say the first thing that came to mind in front of a strung-out thug.
Later during our time in Daytona, we met two college girls at a restaurant. They had sat down in the booth next to ours and Marshall struck up a conversation with them. Marshall, always outgoing and interesting, had that way about him. He could engage anyone and pull them into his circle like they were life-long friends. Before I knew it, the girls were sitting in our booth and we were talking about getting beer and hanging out at our hotel. Neither Marshall nor I were old enough to buy beer, but the girls were.
I admit that I was skeptical of their intentions. I thought they would take our money and disappear once they walked through the doors of the liquor store, but when they walked out a few minutes later with beer in hand and followed us to our hotel, I was surprised. We ended up getting drunk off Coors light and playing quarters well into the night. It was my first experience of the prototypical college life, which ironically, didn’t happen once I actually got to college. The night ended with a few drunken goodbyes and nothing else, a true testament to our lack of experience in such things.
We returned to Georgia a few days later. The long drive up from Daytona felt depressing, like we had lost a good friend. We had the summer break ahead of us, but both of us had to work, and when fall arrived, Marshall would go to college and I’d go back to high school. It felt like an ending in many ways, and to some extent it was. Marshall and I spent that summer together, but we slowly drifted apart by the time school started back. He had a new life in college, and I returned to the drudgery of high school minus one of the shining lights that had made it somewhat bearable.
That summer, with its remarkable beginning, also had one other pivot point that had lasting repercussions for me. Marshall introduced me to one of his many girlfriends, and we struck up a relationship, one that would continue for several years and ultimately go down in flames after limping along well past its expiration date. Once again, I chose to learn lessons the hard way rather than stop and think and extract myself from an unnecessary situation. Some things never change, but experience begets an understanding that lays the foundation for much better things to come.