James Stafford remembers the friend he–and society–left behind.
For most of my adult life I’ve had this recurring dream: I go back home and I see a childhood friend somewhere. I’m thrilled for no other reason than a familiar face after years away is quite welcoming. But the friend never sees things that way. Sometimes he ignores me, other times I’m greeted with a curt dismissal. Anger, embarrassment, disgust – I never know what I’m going to get from this ghost of Christmas past.
I’m pretty sure I know what the dream means. Those aren’t old friends who are disgusted to see me; rather, that’s the young me passing judgment on the boring middle class guy I’ve become.
My most frequent guest star in these nocturnal assaults on my threadbare self-esteem is Ronnie, a kid who lived within bicycling distance and shared my love of all things metal. Ronnie’s copy of Ozzy’s Blizzard of Ozz was the first I heard.
We both sported mullets and black concert tees, but Ronnie and I ran in different crowds. The adults in our lives thought they knew something we didn’t about our underachievement. We may have looked the same, acted alike, and listened to the same music, but for some reason only Ronnie’s underachievement was labeled some sort of inborn, unavoidable trait.
They were wrong about him, though. The guy was funny, kind, and smart. What he talked about when we were alone spinning records in my bedroom didn’t jibe with the badass who hung out on the Herb Curb after school. “I was just about to punch him and he said ‘Jesus loves you.’ Man, I can’t hit somebody who is talking about Jesus.” This was the paradox of Life as Ronnie.
I grew out of my mullet eventually and moved onto the post-punk fashion excesses of the eighties: eyeliner, asymmetrical hair, earrings and overcoats. Walking into school every day in our small southern town was like entering a war zone. . Ronnie’s crowd was rough on me, but he never came to my defense. He didn’t pile on, either — he simply vanished. In the battle of James vs. the Mullets, Ronnie was a redneck Sweden.
I ran into him once at a convenience store toward the end of our senior year. I strutted across the parking lot in my punk finery while the Mullets shouted “faggot,” “I’ll kick your ass,” etc., and I pretended not to care. Ronnie and I crossed at the store’s threshold. He was wearing black slacks and a tuxedo shirt.
“Hey man, how you been?” I said.
He looked at me, and then to his friends. “Good.”
“Why you all dressed up?”
“Oh, I got a job at the country club. I’m on my way to work.”
“Cool. Hey, we should hang out sometime.”
“Yeah,” Ronnie said, never taking his eyes off his buddies. “I’ll see you.” I felt terrible when he drove away, not because he shunned me but because I put him in such an awkward situation.
For years I’ve tried to track Ronnie down, but if he left an electronic footprint I never found it: no social media, blog, email — not so much as a YouTube comment on an Ozzy video. Yesterday I finally found him in the form of an arrest record that stretches back 15 years. Reading his rap sheet was like watching the adults sort us out all over again.
My gut tells me that underneath it all he’s probably that same kind, funny, smart guy, but once that first arrest happened he was a marked man. Every time he was stopped for a broken tail light, got a little too rowdy in the bar, whatever, those priors popped up and The Man knew he was dealing with a bad guy and another charge was tossed onto the pile. And while that little tornado was spinning around Ronnie, I built the quiet, normal life that young James berates in my nightmares.
I don’t know. Maybe life as James isn’t so bad, and for all I know neither is life as Ronnie. I can’t make any sense of why our two paths diverged so badly. I just want the dreams to stop.