The boy from Kentucky
January 15, 2021
We migrated south from New England, down to the Badlands of Fairfield County. Technically still New England by virtue of the nearly invisible line separating it from Westchester County, New England it was not.
I'd never stayed in any one place longer than five years; but after coming east from Michigan in 1970, we stayed in the foothills for ten years and two months. Three towns, three dwellings, but still New England. I tell you, it was a brutal shock and I was in no way prepared to make that leap. My little brother didn't fare much better so I can't really blame it on age.
I made myself invisible, for the most part. I've also been told I'm hard to miss. The end result was I remained largely friendless. There was no one to talk to, no one who saw me, and really nowhere to hide.
We moved over Thanksgiving weekend and I got a job almost right away. I could walk or drive to the local McDonalds and I had a date on Christmas Eve. I do not recall that boy's name but I know what movie, I remember what he looked like, and I even know where I met him. It was the boy who didn't register. I must have had one hell of a shell.
In January I had a boyfriend. This is one of those dates that just sticks no matter what. January 9, 1981 and he was called Doc on account of his last name. He looked like Christopher Reeves, and he played LaCross, and his sister was a cheerleader. She hated me and I don't blame her one bit. I wasn't hateful but I sure was different and that boy followed me just about anywhere I went. I remember a lot about him, mostly because he stuck around so long, but who he was? I couldn't possibly answer that.
Doc had a friend with a nickname I never much cared for. I didn't believe it suited him, but apparently he was stuck with it until he left home. I didn't understand the friendship. It didn't make any sense to me; how could this tall, lanky boy from Kentucky, who didn't seem to have adjusted any better than I, find anything at all in common with my cookie cutter Fairfield County boyfriend? To be fair to Doc, he was a very nice guy with a very nice car and I never saw him do or say a mean thing to anyone (I'm sure he did, don't we all?). The friendship didn't make sense, but it really didn't have to; it just was.
By virtue of Doc, the boy from Kentucky was also my friend.
I have enormous memory gaps from this time. There are a lot of reasons for the gaps; extreme trauma tends to wipe out great swaths of time. But I met the boy from Kentucky well before the bad thing and he had nothing to do with it. That I can't remember when or how I met him bothers me because I remember so much more. Why this one thing?
We had a relationship that existed outside of social boundaries. It even existed outside of Doc. I can't really put my finger on exactly what it was, but I can look at some of the events that illustrate who he was. Looking closer, I can see parts of myself. Given the entire ball of god awful circumstances, that's a bloody miracle. In the course of seventeen months I came completely undone. And yet...
The boy from Kentucky had a big black pickup truck. Not the sort of thing you'd see in Fairfield County at the time. I never thought to ask why. Doc was easy. He had a 240Z and doesn't everyone want a 240Z? Who wants a big black pickup truck? The boy from Kentucky does and I remember getting gas with him once and finding out there was such a thing as dual fuel tanks and fell in love with trucks forever. Because magic, right? Just accept it at face value.
We were upstairs in his room when he played The White Album for me, which is full of some pretty amazing stuff. The boy, however, was mostly focused on that one long piece titled Revolution 9; number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9... and during the ten minutes of that astonishingly discordant piece, he became a three dimensional person to me. I hadn't realized he wasn't.
I don't have the memory that belongs to this snapshot anymore, but I am dancing around a room singing Back in the USSR at the top of my lungs. This, in a time when joy lived mostly at the bottom of the sea. The snapshot is firmly attached to the boy from Kentucky.
The Grateful Dead were not news, but parsing Robert Hunter's New Speedway Boogie hadn't even hit my radar. Hand written on a piece of notebook paper, the boy presented me with this:
"Now, I don't know but I was told
In the heat of the sun a man died of cold
Keep on coming or stand and wait
With the sun so dark and the hour so late"
Do you understand? Do you see? Yes, I think so, but truthfully it took a lot longer to understand how cold he was. Not the distant sort of cold, the sort of cold that accompanies epic loneliness. Nobody could see him either. The boy from Kentucky had an impossibly tender heart and he lived in music. He lived in it and he gave it a great deal of thought. In retrospect, he was probably the smartest, or at least most intelligent human being I had the good fortune to know well enough. I think that a thoughtful, intellectual was hiding behind the goofy nickname. I'll tell you right now, he was never that person.
He was the person who took me on an airplane ride which involved turning the truck lights off and driving fast on very dark back roads with twists and turns and hills and valleys and it did indeed feel like an airplane ride. I believe this was a stone cold sober event. So, listen, who the hell does that shit? Who goes with him without question? There are a lot of answers to those questions but none of them are stupidity. What does it take to feel a thing when you've buried your heart in a bunker?
And why have you buried your heart in a bunker?
I never got the answer to that question, but I never asked either.
He took me to see Das Boot before it was dubbed. I'd never seen a foreign film. I'd never had to contend with subtitles. I didn't realize until we left the theater that I'd forgotten I was reading subtitles and listening to German almost immediately. I didn't realize until much, much later that the boy would have had to have thought I was intelligent enough to deal with it. That's a thing I was stripped of that year. I was stripped of much meaning at all. He must have been home for some sort of break because it was February, 1982 and I was still in high school and he was back in Kentucky.
My life imploded in November, 1981. I had to have been an absolute disaster. And yet. And yet, the memory of sitting in that theater for two and a half hours rises to the surface as if it was yesterday. The memory of the thought:
I am allowed to sit here with my friend and we can do this thing that no one else would do (for so many reasons), and in this moment I am safe and I know who I am.
The boy from Kentucky was an intellectual with a heart and spirit that never really got beat out of him. What do you call that? An analytical magician? I don't have the words just yet but I'll tell you this, I've been watching him claw through the protective layers of skin for at least the last ten years. I've been watching him reclaim his magic and his heart. It's damned beautiful and anybody who can witness this sort of thing is damned fortunate.
I haven't actually seen him since maybe the summer of 1982, 1983 at best, but John lives in my tesseract and I can't say that about many.