Mom made me attend activities with the Christian Science youth organization. The problem was, I only wanted to hang around distance runners by that point. So, when forced to go, I was all passive-aggressive and just sat there like a lump and scowled. Even though I was totally into the practice of Christian Science, I barely knew the Sunday school kids. They were nice, sure; but seeing people one hour a week wasn’t enough for me to get comfortable with them. Mom had the notion that the more time I spent with them, the more comfortable I’d be. But my notion was to run about a thousand miles with someone first; then maybe I’d begin to reveal who I really was. Even then, I wasn’t totally sure that I wasn’t just a freak masquerading as a jock. So, the CS kids got my “shutdown teenager” act, which they could interpret as aloof or shy; their choice. Suppose I did let them in, then what? Would they do me the favor of listing my faults for me? I wondered. Would they trash me behind my back? Narc me out to Mom for my own good? No, it was safer to hang back, lounge on the couch, and try to look as if I didn’t care that I was sitting alone when really, I spent the time obsessing that I looked like a loser.
One time, though, I ice skated with the CS kids and wore my “Cook’s Special.” That was supposed to mean that although I was shy, I was still a stud. Then some strange, non-CS guys asked me what I’d lettered in, “Football?” I nodded. They asked what position and squinted. I said, “Kicker.” When they figured out the little gold man on my letter was for cross-country, they did hockey checks on me until I took off my skates and sulked in the bleachers. I think the strangers would’ve been cordial with me, or at least left me alone, if I hadn’t tricked them. After they perceived that I’d played them for fools, they evened the score by intimidating me. Back when I was a chameleon, when I was deceptive, I asserted my right to be opaque if I chose to. I just protected my ego and didn’t intend for anyone to take it personally. But I see now that they felt manipulated and were insulted, the way those of us who brush up against chameleons often feel. They had their reps to consider, too.
My rep continued to evolve. Against everything that Christian Science and my mother stood for, I got drunk for the first time at fourteen and high at fifteen. That sounds so young and troubled to me today, but those actions seemed like honorable milestones to me then, and I bragged about them. I was the good runner who was also a mad partyer. I hid a lid of weed and a half-dozen miniature bottles of booze beneath my dresser. That’s right, I’m a shithead, I thought, sort of sneering inside with hurt defiance. I liked the contradictions of being a freaky-jock Christian Scientist—it was at least interesting—but I still felt guilty over my hypocrisy, though not guilty enough to stop. It wasn’t as if I did these things alone. I did them with freaks, jocks, and Christian Scientists. I knew firsthand that the stereotypes associated with those labels didn’t hold specifically true. I felt carried along by my fortunate emerging circumstances and studly new friends.
If Mom had known my secrets, she would’ve been devastated, for sure. Her head would’ve blown apart like the gourds we stuffed with ladyfinger firecrackers, pretending they were grenades. Then she would’ve devastated me right back. Lucky for her and me both, she only caught me acting out my shenanigans a couple times when I stumbled home drunk on cheap beer—grounded for a month for each offense.
Today, as a parent myself, I can understand why Mom was concerned; I’d be concerned, too. The difference between us is that I’d sit down and try to understand why my son did these things—the part of the iceberg beneath the waterline—rather than merely punish him into meeting my expectations. But for me, a misunderstood kid, it was worth the risk; I needed so badly to fit in with my peer group and cover up my emotions with wildness and chemicals.
Mom never found out that my buddy—whom we called “Antelope Legs”—and I once rolled loose blunts while parked in the mesa. Some guy paid me double what I paid for the ounce if I’d roll it up for him. I knew it was wrong and even technically dealing, but that was another reason I thought it was so boss. I liked being bad; I thought it was cool and one of the few things I could control. It meant that I was somebody, because it really sucked to be treated in a way that reminded me of how much I didn’t matter; plus, I could use the money. I was given room and board and not much else, so I started working at fourteen, washing dishes and bussing tables and even dealing some pot once. The sheriff trolled past us as we rolled those doobies in the mesa, and my life crumbled in my mind…but the sheriff just kept right on crunching past. He sought bigger game, I assume. Getting arrested with an ounce of weed would’ve gotten me kicked off the team and crushed at home, and it would have derailed my life. I would have been in a very deep hole. Would I have dug myself out and ended up here today, in a place where things are usually good, if not excellent? I was so lucky. Again. If Mom, running, and Christian Science were going to save me, they were going to have to get on with it. By the time I’d really become a shithead, it was way too easy to get away with dumb stuff. The guilt wouldn’t come until many years later, after I’d already gotten away with it all.