Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What I Was Thinking About When I Wrote The Spider Man

I had a sort of boyfriend in high school that people called the spider man. It wasn’t a compliment. They called him this because he had a habit of climbing up the exterior walls of the school and hanging out on the roof. The other kids thought he was weird, not heroic.

Let’s call this young man Jenner, since that is what I called the character I based on him in my young adult horror novel entitled The Spider Man. Jenner enrolled in our Catholic school as a sophomore the year I was a senior though he was older than me by a few days.  He had a history of juvenile detentions and of boys’ camps designed for rehabilitation. He had a history of drug addiction, homelessness and violence that was written on his arms, hands and chest in a web of scars. Some scars were round and puckered, others shallow and white. One scar along the underside of his forearm was a deep, long ditch of ruined flesh. I wondered how he had survived the wound.

Jenner didn't like to talk about his past. He sent me love notes on candy grams that student council sent to the homerooms as fundraisers.  He gave me gold jewelry and stuffed animals and burgundy red roses on long stems. He took me to Homecoming. We were sixteen.

We didn't see each other much outside of school. We went on a few dates where we doubled with friends of his that were in their twenties. Once during his dad's cocktail party, we snuck away from our parents to visit the next door neighbors. The next door neighbors’ house had once belonged to my parents’ good friends. I had spent a lot of time there as a child. That night as I sat in the living room while the new owners got my boyfriend stoned I realized that life was stranger than I had ever imagined.

Guys never liked me. Jenner was the first to take notice. His attention was heady, interesting, sexy. He was rock star handsome.  He was tall, skinny, with nearly white longish blonde hair and eyes that were aventurine green. He had high cheekbones and a way of half smiling to hide his crooked teeth. 

There were a lot of drugs and alcohol in my school’s culture but my friends and I never partook. We saw ourselves as morally superior. My friends didn’t really get Jenner.  He smelled like marijuana and incense and Chanel for Men.  He talked like someone out of Grimm’s. He said “my lady” to me a lot.

On Halloween he wore surfer shorts, a t-shirt and a bathrobe. He carried a hockey stick and said he was the Grim Reaper. He was embarrassed when people laughed at him. He swore that the devil had appeared at his thirteenth birthday party and had been after him ever since. He scaled the walls in order to escape the devil’s hands sticking out of the ground ready to grab him and pull him into Hell. He saw these hands every day. He was frightened all the time.

I thought, finally someone who can match my imagination. Finally someone who understands about the world beyond the world. I had no idea what he was really dealing with.

Now as a high school teacher who has worked with hundreds of young people, I know that Jenner was traumatized, addicted to drugs and probably in the early stages of schizophrenia. I think of him in my teaching practice when I try very hard to be present to my students with mental and emotional health needs. I wish a kind and savvy adult had been there for my friend when we were kids. He had a reputation as a loser. With me he was a respectful and attentive friend. During the school day he was my prince. At night he went out with much older people. He did and dealt drugs. He got another girl pregnant.

We broke up, whatever that meant to a boy and girl who saw each other almost entirely at school.  After that he got kicked out for a million reasons. His last day was when he screamed at the dean and lay down in the middle of the busy street beyond the parking lot, begging someone to run him over. 

Once his dad said to my parents: “I don’t know what your daughter sees in my son.”

Jenner walked onto campus on the last day of school. I ran to him to say hello. He signed my yearbook.  He told me that he had a poem I had written for him taped to the dashboard of his car. He said he was sorry for what he’d done. He said he would always think of me and feel glad that someone believed in him.

I saw him again two years later at the Walnut Festival. He was talking to a girl as equally strung out as he was. His body was skeleton bony, his face twisted in a reptilian leer.  He didn’t see me.

The summer after I graduated college my dad called with the news that Jenner had leapt to his death from a cliff in New Mexico. I was not surprised.  I knew why he was always climbing. 

Six years ago I did an internet search for Jenner’s name. I didn’t know what I expected to find. Not many other people from high school knew him. He had connected with so few of us and he had been there for such a short time. Sometimes I wondered if he truly existed. Even his one yearbook photo looks faded, his pale face washed out in the frame.

A Google image appeared of Jenner’s tombstone in New Mexico, adorned with fresh burgundy roses. He is buried in a Catholic cemetery in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. Someone there cared enough to give him red roses and to archive his stone.

The Spider Man is about a girl who falls for a boy who flees the devil’s hands by scaling walls, who smells of smoke and fine perfume, who has been long dead by the time she meets him. He makes everything exciting. He introduces her to classic rock music. He loves her wholly in a way that in the end feels unholy. As addicted as she is to his love the girl knows that if she really loves him she’ll find a way to help him find peace.

The real boy I knew was brave as long as he could be in the face of demons that were real enough to drive him to seek higher ground. For a brief time before succumbing to illness altogether, he had tried to live another reality. He’d tried to be a Catholic schoolboy with a sweetheart who accepted his gifts of roses. When I look back on it now it breaks my heart.

I wish I could have helped my friend find peace. But instead I wrote him a poem. Instead I archive his courage and his wildness in a story. It’s the best I can do as a writer. 

I wish it could have been enough to save him when we were kids.

Red roses for my friend.

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