Looking back at my freshman year at Eldorado, hanging out with Ramon was pivotal. I hadn’t yet fully transitioned from a freak to a jock. I still wanted to be both. I was scared to give up my freakiness before I’d been fully accepted as a jock, but that wasn’t the way it was done back then. You had to pick a side; straddling was frowned upon. I certainly wasn’t going to be a stomper (an urban cowboy) or a brain (an academic); those chameleon colors were still years away for me. Ramon did his part to recruit me, though; he encouraged me to ditch class and go with him to the video arcade off campus, which I did. I got away with a lot back then; I admit it. I was lucky. Sometimes I see people who’ve dug themselves into deep holes of trouble, and I think that could’ve been me except for distance running, a passion to write, much more than my fair share of good fortune, and others’ forgiveness.
But sometimes I was blamed for stuff that wasn’t mine to own, like the time the earth science teacher separated Ramon and me for clowning in class. When she wasn’t looking, Ramon shouted, “Bitch!” and I caught the blame because I wouldn’t rat him out. I wanted street cred for that, but it was also true that Ramon had a reputation for offering no mercy in fights, which helped him avoid fights. Ramon was even known to carry a switchblade, and sometimes he let me brandish it. When I held that steel, I imagined that the next time, I’d be the one to jump someone rather than be the one who was jumped. Anyway, not ratting Ramon out just seemed prudent. I’d like to say that he was a bad influence on me, but the truth was, I was happy that someone had my back. If I took a bad rap in earth science, so be it. I was extremely willing to explore the dark side. It felt cool in a way that I didn’t usually feel. I think I can understand the attraction of gangs.
The last time I saw Ramon, I again endured the gauntlet of freaks on the Freak Wall. A cigarette butt ticked off my back, and I spun around, fists balled. Ramon had transitioned out of the book room as well and now slouched against the three-foot-high parapet; smoke swooshed out his nostrils as he sneered at me, one foot pressed against the wall: very cool,primo. He wore cholo boots, the kind with the square toes and metal rings on the sides, greasy blue jeans, and a white T-shirt with a pack of cigs rolled in the sleeve. I, of course, wore my “Cook’s Special.” Our colors had gotten much more dissimilar since junior high, when we both wore army shirts with hippie patches.
“Damn jock,” Ramon spat.
“Damn freak,” I said, playing brave, but I grinned so he and his buddies knew that we were merely bantering. I wasn’t 100 percent certain that Ramon wouldn’t jump me out of peer pressure. I probably would’ve hung out with him on the Freak Wall if I hadn’t needed distance running and the jocks so badly. But the way things were, the freaks didn’t really want me there, which was easy to tell.
Ramon grinned back at me.
I raised my chin to him and strutted away, the social forces at our school too overwhelming to resist at the time. Both our chameleon colors were too inflexible for us to remain friends. The thing was, I really liked Ramon.