Even his mother knew he was hiding who he was behind that hair, but Paul Schneider was running, too.
Being the only kid at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School with a full beard and shoulder-length hair (sometimes pulled back in a ponytail), it was obvious I was the one who was the go-to guy to get the beer and other spirits for the weekend parties.
It wasn’t my plan; I grew the all the hair because I wanted to be different (conforming still me makes jumpy), I wanted to be cool and unique in school. What I told myself is that I wanted to look like John Lennon on the Abbey Road record cover as much as anything. And aside from the glasses, I did. The truth is I wanted to draw as much attention away from my braces and acne as possible
Years later my mother said to me: “I always thought you were hiding something back then when you looked like that.”
She was right. I was hiding all the shame I felt from growing up without a real dad (I liked my stepfather a lot, but he wasn’t my real dad). My real dad died when I was nine years old. All my friends, all the other kids in school, had two parents. I felt very different.
I didn’t know it back then, but I was really hiding from the shame I felt from all the emotional abuse my mom heaped on me: all the crying on my shoulder (literally) when I was nine and ten, complaining about how lonely she was, and how I had to be the “man of the house,” whatever that meant. She never explained it to me.
So I was hiding from her, mostly. I wanted nothing to do with her back then.
Drinking seemed liked a good way to forget who I was, or what I looked like. It was a chance to lose myself in the experience of being with my friends. Thankfully, I never developed an addiction to alcohol; I was, and remain to this day, too scared to find out what would happen if I went too far.
That first time, though, I thought I had gone too far.
The party was at Bob’s house. Bob was so cool that cool wasn’t even the right word to describe him. At seventeen years old, he played the bass, drove a pine green Chevrolet Camaro, but the very personification of humble and intelligent. We also joked that he didn’t have a lot to say, but when he did, it was always sharp; sometimes biting, always funny. He died at the age of 36 from stomach cancer. I miss him, a lot.
I walked into his house and, as usual when his parents were gone and it was just us friends, the music was blaring. It was either the B-52s or U2 or Talking Heads or something like that. I walked over to the “bar”—a table laid out with bottles of rum and Seagram’s and beer (most of which I bought) and glasses—and stared at the spirits.
I don’t remember if someone had been trying to talk to me; it didn’t matter, I was practically in a trance. My whole being focused on those bottles. Being a runner, I was very conscientious about my health (I am still too scared today to even take a hit off a joint), but I was also eager to escape from myself, my face, and my shame.
I stepped to the table and mixed myself a Seagram’s and 7-Up, with way too much Seagram’s (I still had a lot to learn about mixology). I sipped the first sip and—yecchh, blechh, blah—almost ran out of the house. After taking a couple of moments to regain my head, I mixed in more of the soft drink and—voila! —began a lifelong affair with all manner of drink. Something about the sweet taste of the 7-Up with the somewhat bitter and completely foreign flavor of the Seagram’s just called to me. It was the elixir of escape, the conduit I needed to run away from myself.
But not to run away too far. For though I was still unhappy with who I saw staring back at me in the mirror—bad teeth, bad skin, virginal—I was still very aware that I was the only of my friends who could wake up in the morning and run six miles with little effort. Certainly I wanted to escape from me, but escape only; I still possessed a fear-based desire to maintain control, to not completely sacrifice my health. It’s what I had to keep me from running away altogether.
Image credit: xJason.Rogersx/Flickr