Sometimes, my memory is like an old television set, turned on after the show has started. The screen takes a few minutes to warm up, the picture coming into view as a cathode ray tube writes analog signals, showing us—finally—a chubby kid standing on a sidewalk. The camera captures him from above, through a dirty second-story window. Pan left, there’s Rob, staring down at him. Pan right, there’s Pat, slack-jawed. Down below, the kid—Mike—is glaring at his observers. Even from a distance, they can tell he’s trying not to cry. He extends both arms away from his body, then extends both middle fingers, then continues to storm down the street.
Mike had invited all of us over the night before. He wanted us to camp out in his backyard and play Dungeons and Dragons or Marvel Superheroes all night, which is something we frequently did in the woods near my house, but never out at his home. None of us really liked going over to Mike’s, which was always messy and drafty, way out in the West Virginia wilderness. His parents were strange. His dad was frequently gone, and his mom—a teacher at the middle school we’d all just graduated from—seemed to spend most of her time screaming at her younger children.
I don’t know which of us mentioned it first, that day as our role-playing game club met in the office above the bookstore where we bought our ten-sided dice. But gradually, we realized that none of us—and we numbered over half a dozen, I’m sure—had gone out to the house in the woods. Nobody even bothered to call Mike to decline the invitation. We laughed about this, and I guess we laughed when Mike flipped us off, too, although that was a more nervous laughter, a way to reassure ourselves that we hadn’t done anything wrong. Mike was just being a wuss.
Later that afternoon, at my house, we gathered our camping supplies and character sheets, ready to head out to the woods. My old TV was tuned in to the local news. This seems odd, in hindsight– 15-year-olds watching the local news? Maybe we’d been watching something else beforehand. Regardless. The top story—local middle school teacher arrested that morning for having sex with a 13-year-old student. She would later insist that he had seduced her, that she fell in love while trying to help him do better in his classes, and I don’t know. Maybe. I can’t really say what goes on in some people’s heads, and Mike never spoke to any of us again—his dad moved them away pretty quickly. All I’ve got is that image—the kid standing on the sidewalk, trying not to cry as he flips off the kids who were supposed to be his friends on what, I’m sure, must have been the worst day of his life. And then the image on the screen fades and caves in on itself, leaving only blankness.