BY MARK VICTOR YOUNG
Mark Victor Young’s novel Henry on the Fifth was recently long-listed in The Writers’ Studio 1st Book Competition. Copyright is held by the author.
MY BEST FRIEND in Grade Nine was a girl, but we weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend; our relationship was purely platonic. Katy was interested in all the best stuff. She loved Star Wars movies and comics and role-playing games — even more than I did — and she was the smartest person I knew. We always ended up at her house after school, watching TV, reading books or just talking in her basement, trying to avoid her “Little Bother.” She had two enormous Pyrenees Mountain Dogs who would jam their sniffers right into your crotch area as soon as you walked in, but they were mostly harmless as long as you didn’t get knocked over and licked to death.
We went to the same public school and met in the library during the last half of Grade Eight. We were in different classes, but both of us volunteered as library helpers. I did it mostly to avoid being picked on at recess, but Katy seemed to want to read the entire library. She volunteered so she could get to know the books she wanted to read next. So we shelved together and hung out in the stacks and she would tell me one of her amazing theories about the Way Things Are or some story about her Hero de Jour, like the time Plato got in trouble with the King of Syracuse and got sold into slavery for a while until a wealthy admirer paid for his freedom and he returned to spreading his wisdom across the land. Good times.
The summer after Grade Eight I spent a lot of time over at her house, often reading from booklists she prepared for me. We rode our bikes, swam in her pool, went to movies, fended off her dogs and just hung out. Neither of us had a summer job and her parents both worked, so we pretty much had the run of the place, although we had to look after her brother, Davey. She would pick a topic for us to research and then we would spend part of the day at the public library reading everything we could about it, making notations in these little spiral-bound notebooks her mom got us. By the end of the day, we would be smarter than anyone else in the world about Roman mythology, African tree frogs or some former Canadian Prime Minister. Or so we thought at the time.
It might seem as though that would be boring, but Katy made it seem really challenging and interesting, like a murder mystery we were solving. She would get right into it, her brown hair hanging in a curtain in front of her face as she concentrated, her skinny arms hugging a book on one side and scribbling with a pen on the other as she made notes. She had a kind of freckly face and a nice smile, good teeth (which meant no braces, unlike me) and dark eyes. The goal of all that studying was to totally victimize our teachers with trivial minutiae when those topics came up in class. It felt good to know more about something than a grown-up. And to think it was all just waiting for us at the library whenever we felt like knowing something.
Of course, Davey was too little to stay at home alone, so we had to take him with us to the library all the time. The three of us would bike down there together with our backpacks full of books to be returned and come home later with another full load. He would always play with the train sets or watch a video while we were into our research and then he would get a big bunch of dinosaur books to take out. He was into dinos in a big way. He was always playing with toy dinos, reading dino books, getting his mom to take him to “The Land Before Time” twelve times that summer and he went to a Dinosaur-themed day camp at the museum for one week. He would come screaming into Katy’s room, flapping his arms and she would say, “Get out of here, Pteranadon. There are no scrumptious jubjubs in here for you.” And out he would go, still screaming and cawing like mad.
Katy’s theory about why all kids seemed to go through a phase about dinosaurs was that it’s their first hint regarding their own mortality. I’ll call this the Dinosaur Theory.
“The existence of dinosaurs,” she said. “Is the first frightening concept for a child because they are evidence of the possibility of extinction, of which the child has never before conceived. Because dinosaurs are extinct, it means that things die. Even kids. What force fuelled their inability to survive—was it random or deliberate? How will Death come for us and is it something we should watch out for? Will it come when we are dreaming and is that something which should keep us awake at night? These questions are part of the fear and fascination kids have with dinosaurs.”
“Huh,” I said. “It’s not just because they were totally powerful and cool? Like with wicked claws and teeth and stuff?”
“Sure. That’s part of it, too.”
“Okay, I was going to say.”
The summer passed quickly, as all summers do. The spectre of high school loomed large in my imagination. I envisioned a lawless place where an innocent “Niner” could run afoul of the pack in a single misjudged reaction or statement and be stuffed in a locker, given a swirly or any other form of torture dreamed up by seniors, juniors or your former friends from public school. But at least I had one friend on my side and if we could manage to avoid notice, it was at least possible that we could survive for the entire year in the library. Katy didn’t seem worried, which gave me confidence.
The social scene at our high school, when the day finally came that we were dropped into that thick soup of posturing and insecurity, included all the usual cliques: the jocks, the nerds, the student council, the preppies, the rampers, the stoners, the losers, the debate club freaks and the band geeks. And then there were the legendary In-Betweeners: those who skirted the edges of other group concerns without getting sucked in to all the hoopla. The key to this very select group was ironic detachment. We were too cool to belong.
But in all the groups there were the hormone cases. One girl and one guy who came together like all the magnets in science class suddenly clamped on to each other in a desperate lip lock of primal urges. The whole school was filled with these kinds of barely concealed gropings and snoggings in the hallways and by open lockers. Like Katy’s dogs, they were sniffing at each other’s crotches and even, it seemed, humping legs. It was really kind of sick. There was a reason we were above all that and that reason was Plato.
“Is this our fate?” said Katy. “To be such slaves to our animal instincts, our genetic predilections? Must we have this constant reminder of our Neanderthal lineage? This dirty, sweaty sex thing always controlling our every move? Will we never evolve to the Platonic Ideal of Love? If only we could find a comfortable way of surgically removing the urge, what a difference it would make to the world.”
“Well, it would certainly curb the over-population issue,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said. “A great peripheral benefit.”
“So nobody would fall in love anymore?”
“There would be more love, not less. Just not romantic love.”
I loved the feeling of certainty she always had, the sense that she had everything figured out. When my parents were going through a horrible divorce during my first couple of years in high school, she was a comforting distraction. Even if I had a tendency towards certain feelings, or longings shall we say, regarding her, her certainty about the higher beauty of Platonic Love kept me at bay. I’ll call this the Love Theory.
“There is no logical argument which can prove the existence of love,” she said. “It’s a leap of faith. To non-believers, love is nothing but a crossed wire between sentiment and sexual desire. Sentiment itself is simply a survival instinct connected to the time when a mother’s protection meant safety. All emotions, therefore, are based on explainable chemical reactions in the brain.
“But for those of us who believe in love, there is no higher form of it than Platonic Love. It is love freed from the chains of sexual desire and possessiveness. It is a recognition of the beauty we see in others as it is connected to the source of all beauty and divinity in the world.”
“So no marriage and babies,” I said. “I get that. But wasn’t Plato gay anyway? It kind of makes sense he wouldn’t be interested in those things.”
“Unproven,” she said. “The ancient Greeks spoke of love in different ways, so we just might not understand their references to love between men.”
“But he never got married.”
“And that was because he didn’t believe in Romantic Love?”
“Yes, that’s what I believe.”
“Okay,” I said. “But he had this ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ right? Which I don’t really get, by the way, but anyway. It’s all about the things in our world being just shadows on the wall of a cave, cast by a flickering fire light. How is he going to see the shadow of love up on the wall?”
“That’s just it. For Plato, love didn’t have a physical form. It was spiritual.”
“Okaaaaaay. It just seems more like the love that dare not speak its name.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter and you’ll understand Plato,” she said.
“We are all in the gutter,” I said. “But some of us are looking at the stars. Oscar Wilde.”
Of course, I never really said this, but I wish that I had. All of my profundity was of the kind that I imagined and inserted years later into our remembered conversations. Maybe some of hers, too. I know I felt like a clumsy oaf around her much of the time, led around by the ear by her genius. It was enough to me that she believed something to believe in it myself. So Platonic Love it was, but the pressing urgencies of adolescence were not to be denied. When an embarrassing erection makes a tent of the front of your rugby pants in the hallway of your high school, it’s difficult not to believe in it.
So it was a surprise to hear that Katy wanted to go to the first high school dance that year. What other reason was there for dancing than the search for that tawdry, pre-dawning of the Age of Aquarius compulsion called Romantic Love? We rolled up at the front door of our school at 7:30 on a Friday night, paid our $2.00 admission to the Student Council and we were in. The halls were lined with teachers posted as Sentries Against Funny Business. It felt weird to be in the school at night and I wondered why the teachers would want to spend their night at the place where they worked all day just so a bunch of kids could dance in the gym. Nice of them. They didn’t even look too miserable, smiling at us as we walked past.
There were some kids sitting and talking in the cafeteria and in the hallway and we could already hear the loud noise coming from the gym ahead of us, which was dark. There was a teacher I didn’t know in the doorway with his back to us as we walked in and felt the full force of the music and all the dim coloured lights pointing at the half-hearted decorating job the social committee made of the walls and ceiling. It was a fast song, so people were cavorting in little groups all around the dance floor and there were people standing all around the outside wall, whisper shouting at each other.
“Look at all the sniffing and humping going on in here,” I shouted in Katy’s ear. “It’s a whole room full of Crotch Dogs.”
“Yeah,” said Katy. She was looking around at everything, seemingly distracted and lost in her own thoughts.
“I’m just going to the bathroom,” I shouted.
“Okay,” she shouted back.
I left her by the locker room doors, still taking it all in. I passed clusters of boys and clusters of girls on my way to the bathroom, each cluster sizing up the other for signs of movement. Would one individual emerge from the group and make the brave trek across the six feet which separated them to risk rejection in the most public, humiliating form? Like a red crossing the roulette wheel to put all its money on black, while the whole room kept on spinning.
It was a relief to emerge from the dark gym into the slightly quieter hallway, which was bright with fluorescents. I saw my English teacher standing and talking to a couple of boys I didn’t know, so I waved at her and kept going. I entered the bathroom to the sound of someone saying “Bleah” really loudly. It was as though someone asked him if he liked mushroom soup and he showed his disdain by saying, “Bleah.” But when I rounded the corner to see fully into the room, I could see a boy kneeling on the floor, puking into a backpack. Three other boys were there with him, laughing and high-fiving, pushing each other into the sinks. The acid vomit stench hit me and I just looked straight ahead and crossed the floor to an empty stall, pulling the door closed behind me.
Standing there, having my private pee, I considered what the heck I was doing there. At the dance and really in my life in general. Was I just going to trail along behind Katy as she made notes for her future anthropological thesis? A harmless minion? A subservient admirer? Or was I going to say what I’d wanted to for a long time, but couldn’t ever quite find the words to say? Was it going to come out as an approximation of “I’d like to clasp your sweaty body quite close to mine and shuffle in circles in the dark?” How is that any different from all the other knuckleheads out there, or this guy in the bathroom, letting go of a stomachful of barley, hops and pizza? I needed an angle to come at this thing which she would respect.
I zipped up with a vague idea that I would ask her to dance in the tradition of courtly love. “Prithee fair lady, gentle friend, wilt thou dance with this base knave?” Something like that. It couldn’t be helped that I didn’t actually know any ancient dances of court and we’d really just be shuffling in circles. I opened the stall door to find the boys were all gone and, strangely, so was the backpack. I washed my hands and appraised my face in the mirror. Dork. Metal Mouth. Pimply and pale with prominent, swollen-looking features. Greasy hair because I was on a Day Two of my shower schedule. At least it wasn’t a dreaded Day Three when I couldn’t pull myself out of bed in the morning. Why couldn’t the dance have fallen on a glorious Day One when my hair did that neat feathering out to the sides thing?
If I’d had some notice that we were planning to go to the dance, I could’ve snapped into action and done a back-to-back shower that morning with just one suds instead of two. But there we were at our lockers, getting ready to go home after last class and she just all of a sudden came out with this crazy plan.
“It will be like a social experiment,” she said. “We will be there as observers, as anthropologists noting the mating habits of the urban teenager.”
“Well, that sounds like fun,” I said. “Will we be carrying binoculars and notebooks? Because that won’t look geeky and get me beat up at all.”
“You’ll be fine,” she said. “We’ll just blend in with the crowd and see what happens.”
Despite my disappointing appearance and a persistent fear of ending up head first in a garbage can, I left the bathroom resolved to ask her to dance. I figured I’d lay down a little Middle English on her: “Little wot it any mon, how derne love may stonde. But it were a free wymmon, that much of love had fonde.” I think that’s how it went. It would be that much better if I could bust out a few Medieval or Renaissance dance moves to go with it. I went back to the spot in the gym by the locker room doors where I had left her, but she was nowhere around there. I looked up and down the gym walls to see if she might be talking to somebody she knew, but no luck there, either.
I decided she must have also gone to the washroom, so I found an out of the way place to wait. I was just scanning the pairs on the floor who were dancing to a slow song when I realized that Katy was in one of those couplings. She was dancing with some tall guy. As I waited for them to make their slow rotation around so I could see his face, I noticed to my shock and horror that they weren’t just dancing, they were literally sucking on each other’s faces. How had this happened? How could she be doing that? With him? Where should I stand and what do I do with my hands in this situation? I shifted my weight first onto one foot, then the other. I turned to leave the gym and then turned back, frozen to the wall, feeling a sense of the “Bleah” rising in my own stomach. Where could I get out of this noise, this damn twirling disco light?
Katy didn’t seem to notice me and what was worse, she didn’t look at all out of place dancing with the captain of the basketball jock asshole squad, her hair flipped back off her forehead in a cute way, her training bra small chest poking out at him and the jeans which looked normal when we were on our way here looking all of a sudden very form-fitting, her skinny legs seeming more like what you’d call slim and when did her hips start curving out like that? And since when had there been Platonic tonsil hockey, for Christ’s sake? How could Katy be a Crotch Dog? She invented the term. That was it… I was so done with Plato.
That moment up against the wall, feeling sick and betrayed, was the instant end of my romantic feelings for Katy, although we remained best friends throughout the remainder of our high school years and to this day. Suffice it to say that I took her wonderful Theories with a grain of salt after that. And came up with a few of my own. Like the one where Oscar Wilde kicks Plato’s ass any day of the week and twice on Sundays.