You were my best friend. Wakefield, early spring, 1980. We were two fourteen-year-olds who were introduced to each other by a troublemaker, and his bringing us together was the one good thing that kid did all year. He wanted something in return of course, so you and I conspired to present him with the dullest afterschool plans possible, day after day, until he gave up and walked away.
We walked, as well. You and I walked everywhere. We couldn’t drive yet, right? We had our precious Friday nights, free from school, free of home, and we needed to get moving! We walked around Lake Quannipowitt, often two or three times a night, boombox in hand, our latest favorite tape blasting our newest favorite music. We’d make tapes for each other, you brought me Randy Rhoads and Rush’s Subdivisions, I gave you music from The Elder. We’d walk five miles or more on those nights, talking about the bands, talking about the world, and talking about girls.
Life was so good to me, and that’s the vibe I flowed to you, a good environment. I did it unknowingly, without conceptualizing it or making it some grand mission. You liked my cheerfulness and it rubbed off on you. I recall an early day when you came to my house, and without a word, you stepped right into our closet where our jackets were hung. Click, you closed the accordion doors, shutting yourself inside. My parents and I stood there wondering: What the hell is he doing?
Quick! I laughed and ran for my camera. I was ready when you opened the door. You had a big smile on your face and I captured the moment, not just on film but seared into my mind. That grin could only happen right there, in my house. You produced it just for me. I can see you right now, and remember the moment perfectly– especially the sounds, the before and after sounds of you being bold, your unexpected action thoroughly entertaining.
The world as it was, and the world as we wanted it to be. That’s what we talked about, for hours and hours on end. What was our destination, and where could we go to plan it? We’d hunt for any place to chat, a place clear of our families, a path around the school’s cliques and away from peer pressure. We did not do what was expected, not from the popular kids and not from the unpopular kids, and not our folks. None of them were going to understand how you and I had fun, if they were judging by the way we spent our time.
Oh, where could teenagers go to be entertained, and not get into trouble? Where could we go, and not spend more than a few dollars? Where could we go, and not be shooed away? To not be terrified, intimidated, beaten up, or bored? To survive, every teen had to find this answer. Because the solution wasn’t at home. Our parents couldn’t provide it to us. They couldn’t create such a space; we wouldn’t have accepted it. The combined minds of two friends was the only resolution to this question.
Teens had to be on the move. Or as you said, “Let’s go mobile.”
At the lake, next to the American Mutual Insurance plaza, there was an empty plot of grass, two city-blocks wide, mowed short and kept as a neat lawn. At the back of this field there was a narrow but dense thicket, separating the highway from the grass. Do you remember? At 9PM, 10PM and 11PM we sat on the open grass, far enough away from the access road so we could flee if the police, or if troublemakers, saw us there. No one could approach us from behind; Route 128 protected us. We sat at this perfect place under the stars on those late weekend nights, a bottle of this or that in our hands. We were in full sight, that is, if anyone happened to look out there.
We talked it all out, our frustrations, our joys, and our dreams. Because we were kids. Because we were friends.
You were articulate with your perception of life, and what action you wanted to get from it. You wanted to windsurf in the Bahamas, happy to start your plans at this modest lake. You challenged every established idea that your elders laid in front of you. Teachers, parents, and community leaders would get a counterpoint from you, points that you’d worked out on your own. You didn’t just kicked the tires, you questioned whether tires were really needed. Your suppressed desire was to windsurf, after all.
After hearing you talk one night, I joked, “The World’s Problems Solved, By My Best Friend. Available on Nine 45-Minute Tapes.” I could have made such a statement on dozens of nights, in those high school years.
In December 1981 three underclass girls started phoning me, together, from one of their homes. I didn’t know them. The bold girl dialed the phone and was the first to say hello. Then she’d pass the receiver to the girl who was more chatty, a real extrovert, very cheery. Finally, a thoughtful girl would get on the phone, and speak with me the longest. She was the reasonable one, with a beautiful voice, apologetic for the intrusion.
After a week or two of these calls I asked the bold girl out. She was my first girlfriend. When you asked me why I chose her, I told you straight out: What got my attention was how gutsy it must have been for her to call a stranger. I mean, a team could come up with a plan, but someone had to pick up the phone. She impressed me, sight unseen. As the calls came each day, I kept her on the line a bit longer each time.
Not all of my experiences with girls would go so smoothly. One time I was in real danger, and needed your help. In the spring of ’82, you and I were on the outdoor track team, and our sport was the javelin. Remember the day we traveled with the team to Winchester? Remember how scared I was on the bus?
“What’s going on?” You wanted to know. As the bus got within ten minutes of Winchester High School, I told you what had happened while I was living at my summer house, the previous year. I’d been interested in a fourteen-year-old, the prettiest girl on Wingaersheek Beach, and I finally got the nerve to ask her out. And we’d gone on a date. One date. And then she was done with me.
That should have been the end of it. But big problems arose.
A friend of mine at the other end of the beach also liked this girl. He was seventeen, one year older than I. He spotted me having a drink on the deck at her house late one night and did not like the fact that I’d cut in on his game. As luck would have it, his winter home was in, you guessed it, Winchester.
Now, I told you this boy was older, but there was more. I’d been over his beach house several times that summer, and the previous two summers. We’d spent a lot of time together fishing, working on neighbor’s yards, and exploring the beach and rocks. One day, weeks before the girl flap, he told me his dad had a temper, and a gun, and did I want to see it? I said no, to either. “Take a look,” he said, pulling out a shoe box. Inside was a German Luger pistol, with a packet of bullets.
“Don’t worry, it’s loaded,” he joked.
I said, “You mean, it’s not loaded.” “No. It’s loaded. And you don’t have to worry, because we get along. We’re going to be fine, you know. Just don’t get me angry.” He shook a retreating finger at me and put the gun away.
A month later I asked the girl out. I hadn’t known he knew of her, never mind was interested in her! Needless to say, he was livid, and I avoided him. I laid low for the rest of the summer, and was happy to head back to Wakefield in September.
I told you all this as we rode to this boy’s town.
As our bus pulled into the facility, I crouched low. You said, “You think this guy will be here? What are the chances? Does he even know you’re on the track team?” I was unsure, about nearly everything. “No he doesn’t have any idea of that,” I said, “and yes, I do think he’ll be here. He knows I’m from Wakefield. Our meet will be enough for him to ask around.”
“What do you want me to do?” You asked. This was another defining moment of our friendship; you did not flee. “I’m staying on this bus, out of sight,” I said. “I have a plan. I have two cards I can play and I’m saving them. Get off with the team. See if he’s out there.”
“How will I know?”
“You’ll know. He’ll make it known very quickly.”
The team filed off the bus and I didn’t dare lift my head to look. You came back within a minute. “He’s here! He’s asking if you are on this bus. And, he has a javelin. He’s on the jav team.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Look. He’s a tough fighter. His dad used to hit him. If this turns bad you just have to let me get close enough to reach him. I need to be no more than a foot away. But if I get too close he’ll hit me first. Understand?”
“C’mon,” you said, “Let’s just face this.” And we stepped out.
You, my best friend, always seemed to find a way to protect me from the world. You did it many times. You were like one of those cement barriers on the highway, my personal barrier, taking scrapes from all the idiots of the world. And now, one such person was at hand.
Oh, God, that was him all right. Big shoulders from weightlifting–bigger than ever!, light brown hair, and a killer smile.
He greeted me, and I could tell he couldn’t believe his luck. He looked cheery enough, and because we had been friends before our little conflict, it was natural for him to smile and say hello. He and I had a good couple of summers and the currency remained valid. He acknowledged our passing teammates with charm and a gentle voice. It was all damn subterfuge though. He was a dangerous boy.
At this moment, he was using his friendliness as a means to edge physically closer to me, and to wait for the team to pass. I think you sensed that. You didn’t leave my side.
He turned to me. “Hey Hagopian. You know why I’m here?”
“You weren’t expecting me, were you?”
As he and I talked, he began throwing the javelin sharply into the ground in front of us. Each throw was a bit closer to my feet. I started talking fast. I told him two things he needed to hear: First, I hadn’t known he liked Rory, which was the truth. Second, we’d gone out only once. Also the truth. I’d been to her house but two times.
He was somewhat satisfied with this. Plus the fact, a half a year had elapsed. Perhaps he’d found another girl?
Somehow, his satisfaction wasn’t enough for him. I don’t think he was going to allow any non-physical resolution. The javelin strikes kept landing near my feet. The spear clanged with a loose internal weight that he kept shaking free before throwing again. You asked me something like, “What do you want to do about this?” You were ready to fight.
The team had moved to the playing field. We three were alone.
“Danny,” I said to our nemesis, “Rory wasn’t worth it. She had her sights elsewhere.”
“Like, the McFadden kid. You know, the middle brother. Chris.”
“Yeah. He had the money, he had the boat, a car, and he was eighteen.”
“Really?” he said, like I’d told him the Blues were running the Annisquam River.
“Yep. They’re dating.”
“No way,” he said, but he wasn’t throwing anymore. He used the javelin to lean on now. He smiled and adjusted his glasses, which was his way of saying, Let Me Slow This Down And Clarify For You. “He had no business with a kid like that. A little girl.”
Then: “I still owe you a punch. Why did you disappear? You didn’t show your face. For like, the rest of August.”
“Why did you hide? Unless you knew you were guilty.”
“You know,” he said, still keeping it slow for me, “I had nothing to do, for weeks. The folks wanted to know, what I’d done this time.”
“Because, you know, I always had to have done something. ‘That Hagopian boy was so sweet,'” he mocked his mother’s tone.
I turned to you, just for a second, but Danny lowered the spear. “You think your friend’s going to help you?” He looked at you and laughed.
Then, to me: “You’ve never been punched before Ara, have you? I know you!” He scoffed at my utter, pitiful weakness.
“Danny, let’s just have a track meet,” I offered.
“Oh yeah?” He laughed again. He was relaxed, and had let his guard down. He was inches from me. Inches!
“Yeah,” I said, and quickly put my hand on his shoulder. I was like lightning and gripped my fingers with something I gave all hope would be perceived as concern. Do you remember how this all happened? And, just like that, he stood down. I mean immediately, as if his muscles lost their air.
As if he was relieved.
“Danny. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I’d done that to you.”
That was the one-two that got him. He’d long been a boy in need of gentle contact, you had to move fast and couldn’t telegraph it was coming. Otherwise, he’d flinch and back away. And then there’d be violence. But if you could touch and hold any place on his upper body, and sell it as sincere, it was like paying him a compliment. Better yet, if you were sincere, it was a compliment. I’d known this on the docks, and from mowing lawns with him, and walking side by side on the dune trails. He took the concerned touch like a gentle man, if given to him.
Was something his father had never learned.
The first person to land a hand had won the match. “We’re on the jav team too,” I said. “Can you show us where the field is?” And he did. Like a victor. Like a friend. Because I knew him.
Later, you asked me about the two cards I held in reserve, and had I played them? I told you I’d used one, the bit about Chris McFadden. The other card I did nothing with, and dropped all talk right there. But, I will tell you now, thirty-nine years later.
Here was my last-ditch play: I’d had one date with Rory, and… one date with her mother. At thirty-six she was well over twice my age, and knew how to manipulate boys. That was the card I was going to use to slay Danny, had all else failed.
That night when he was walking by Rory’s street and had spotted me at her house, standing on her palatial stone deck, I wasn’t there to see Rory. I had walked her mom home from a lawn lecture we’d attended, arm-in-arm. Mom had brought out the wine but I’d stuck with the lemonade. Rory chastised her and told her she was making a fool of herself. Luckily, I kept that mess to myself. Because her dad would have killed me. Really.
Oh, man. I’m glad you were with me on the bus that day.
Truth is, for those four years, you were by my side more than anyone. High school is acutely exciting and generally terrifying. Sometimes kids find pals that are just right for them. And the terror is diffused, along with all the other wild emotions that come with pre-adulthood.
I want to tell you, as often as you’ll hear it, how much I admired you. You were my hero. You said and did things I didn’t have the guts to say or do.
You also introduced me to music that enriched my life.
I’m trying to picture all the days and nights you must have spent in your basement, listening to records, just by yourself. You brought those bands into your house, and then you let them take you out of there.
What a selection you chose. The Beatles, Moody Blues, Rush, Floyd, Soulsonic Force. So much more. April Wine. Queensryche, when they only had their EP out. You were always making discoveries, beyond what your classmates were getting into. I remember how excited you were about the Rafferty solo in Baker Street. The keys in Highway Star. The dynamics in Night Moves. The bouncing rhythm of If I Can’t Have You.
You explained these nuances in great detail to me. It wasn’t just about Rafferty’s choice of notes. His guitar tone completed the mood, perfectly.
When Rush talked about escaping the suburbs, you heard it as a kid fighting the boundaries that were holding him in the same old place. They were talking to you! And when they spoke of Chemistry, it absolutely blew your mind! They delivered the magic trio; the mix of lyrics, music, and you.
I have had many great friends. I’ve only had one best friend. You have been the only one I’ll ever have. First of all, you wanted that title. You claimed it. You wrote your name on it. Second of all, it did come with risk. If we’re going to talk about you being like a protective highway barrier for me, then we’re going to have to talk about the scars.
One early morning the two of us were walking the corridor at school, headed for our homerooms. The warning bell sounded and we had about five minutes to get to our respective rooms. Up ahead, a few boys blocked our path. You recognized them and they called to you. I recognized them in a different way; they were bullies. You told me to stay back.
“Let’s just go back, up the stairwell,” I urged. “We can circle around them if we hurry.”
A boy stepped out of the recessed entrance to the library door. It was probably the only time he’d been that close to sequentially-numbered books. Lo and behold, it was Dale, the guy who’d introduced us, two or three years before. He came up to you, didn’t even see me. Two other kids remained in the shadows.
“Hey!” he said, “We’ve got something sweet. Want to come outside with us?”
“C’mon Dale,” you said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re late for homeroom,” Dale said. He frowned at how ridiculous the concept of attendance was. He slapped your shoulder. “Spend some time with The Dukes.”
“Nah, that’s not what I’m into.”
The Dukes. That was the name of Dale’s short list of friends, who named their gang after a joint.
He laughed. “Not what you’re into? Who isn’t?” he mocked. “Why? Why be weird?”
You were conflicted. Dale had been a good friend of yours, not too long ago. You’d been elementary school pals. As you’d grown older, his choices had appealed to you less and less.
Oh, but you were a loyal bastard.
“C’mon,” he said. “Please. No really, and I’m serious, please. Be normal. Hang with us. Just this morning. We have passes. You won’t get into trouble!”
“No!” you said, and without looking back to me, you proceeded forward.
The two Dukes stood up. Dale grabbed you by the neck, punched you in the head, punched you in the gut, and threw you like a rag doll headfirst into the library door. He laughed and the three of them took off.
I went to help you up but you wanted nothing of it. I wanted to get you to the nurse’s office but you told me to just shut up. You were red and angry and you stormed off. The boy who just weeks before had smiled so brightly and happily in my closet doorway made haste out of that nook of a library entrance.
We were both late to homeroom and our parents were notified. That was the first time a pair of adults questioned my influence on their son.
I left you alone for about a day. Which of course, was an eternity for us. When you called, you wanted to talk about anything other than what happened that morning. In fact, we never spoke of it again. Instead, you asked me an odd question. You wanted to talk about Elizabeth, the girl I’d dated that winter.
“Why did you pick her? Out of those three?”
“I told you, she was daring. She had confidence.”
She also gave me my first kiss, at sixteen. I remember the tree we stood under, and how seriously she took that moment. I took it seriously, too.
You said: “The other girls had more going for them though. They talked to you more. They focused more on you.”
“I told you. She was the one who called me.” And that pretty much summed it up for you.
I’m sure you remember seeing KISS on their Creatures of the Night tour. That was our first concert, at the Centrum, and boy was it loud! We’d met the band earlier at Strawberries Records, and after that you and I shared a pizza in some Worcester dive. There was a video game in there. You worked your magic on that console, just like you did on every twenty-five cent video game in the Wakefield area. You got the top score. The three letters you entered would remain until someone beat you.
The initials you chose for yourself were AAX. I never asked you the significance of the letters, but boy did you leave your mark as the best gamer around. Tempest and Black Widow at Christy’s on Main Street. Defender and Stargate at Nick’s Pizza across from the Post Office. Robotron and Front Line at House of Pizza near the tracks.
Missile Command got the AAX at the Colonial Hilton lounge in Lynnfield. Omega Race at some no-name place on North Avenue. Donkey Kong and Deluxe Asteroids at the convenience store next to Triple A on Albion. Asteroids at the YMCA. Phoenix across from the Bowladrome on Water Street. Space Duel at Mancini’s.
House of Pizza also had the 1943 game. Remember the day we got a free pizza? We walked in there and Les Hakey said, “Gentlemen, what’ll you have?”
“Les,” I said, “He’s saving his money to beat this game. I don’t think we’ll be buying more than a slice.”
Les laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s been a popular one. Lots of plays. Boys let me tell ya. Tonight’s your lucky night. I’ll tell you what. Someone ordered a pizza an hour ago, and he hasn’t picked it up. You two like onion and pepper? It’s a large.”
We looked at each other. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Les was an interesting guy. He grew up in our neighborhood, up the road a bit near Aborn Avenue, and was only a few years older than us. I remember when I was a kid, maybe nine or ten years old, I was walking home from Hancock Street. It was dark out, I’d stayed at a friend’s house too late, and was hustling to get home. I had four blocks to go, an eternity.
I heard some steps behind me. I was scared. The steps got closer. I stopped. It was Les.
I didn’t know him, but he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Don’t you ever worry when you’re walking alone. The worry will kill you. Just whistle, and, walk very fast. Don’t stop. Whistle, and walk. You’ll get home all right.”
I think you remember the boom box I had, it was the best boom box a hundred bucks could get you at Sears. I decked it out with metallic stickers and a Native American guitar strap. You and I played that thing to death when we were out on our walking nights.
One night, the play button broke. We were so disappointed, we couldn’t get the damn thing to stay pressed down. Then, luck! We got the button to stick, just when we’d reached House of Pizza.
When we got into the booth we were told to turn the music off. A conundrum: We’d worked hard to get that play button to stay. I turned the volume down very low. The album, after all, was from our ear-bleeding concert.
The chef came out from around the counter and leaned into our table. His eyes were blood red. He said, this restaurant was in mourning. Turn off the radio. Les Hakey had died.
Death comes and the music stops. When Randy Rhoads died you called me, and you were heartbroken. There would be no more music, played his way. I met you in your driveway and we talked it out, for ages.
When my father died, on Mother’s Day 1984, I called you. You were in my driveway within two minutes. I never told you how it felt. Dad dying was like my family being crushed inside a collapsing house, with all the wood beams and plaster falling on our heads. We had to get out individually, on our own, or fall where we were caught. We couldn’t help each other, we were thrashing, choking, not able to see.
One person pulled me out of that mess. It was, of course, you.
You dusted me off, cleaned my face, kept the curious away.
You ignored what I told you and listened to what I had to say. I went away for awhile and you wrote to me every week. When I told you I was going to have a very bad year, you said we were going to have a very bad year. When I told you I was going to rot alone on New Year’s, you told me that night was so overrated anyway. But you came by. Anyway.
Because you were my best friend.