Sunday, April 13, 2008

Surprise Reunion

I spent my first two years in college living in a dorm. I could have easily commuted the twenty-five miles from my house in Redwood City, but I decided that it would be better for me to venture out of my self-imposed isolation at home and live with other people and become more sociable. I'm glad I did, because I had some great experiences living in the dorm that I would never have had otherwise, and I became friends with people I would never have met any other way.

I also met some very interesting people who didn't become friends, but they made quite an impression on me nonetheless. One of them was a guy named John. I won't disclose his last name. John was only seventeen when I met him, and, unlike most of the rest of us who shared double rooms with roommates, John had a single room all to himself. I suspect that this was more a matter of necessity than one of choice.

You see, John was a very strange young man. He was reputed to be brilliant, a veritable boy genius, but he was a social misfit in the extreme. He was well over six feet tall and boyishly chubby. He walked with a peculiar gait with his palms facing backwards, apelike, and his abnormally long arms swinging in tandem with his lead feet. That is, unlike most of us, who do just the opposite, when his left foot stepped forward, his left arm swung forward with it , and when his right foot stepped forward, his right arm followed suit. He also sat, stood, and walked hunched over like an old lady with osteoporosis, and when he walked this way, he looked as though he might topple over any second from his unbalanced position.

He wore thick glasses in large, dark rims, and brought his face, which looked as though it might be slightly distorted by a case of acromegaly, within two or three inches of whatever he read. He spoke with a very nasally voice and snorted when he laughed, often at his own obscure jokes. He also had such poor personal hygiene that we tried to keep our distance from him.

Everything about this young man was strange. He was like some Saturday Night Live caricature of comical eccentricity. Once, someone jokingly told him that he could earn a lot of money as a gigolo, and he started walking around the dorm introducing himself in his distinctively nasally voice as "John___, male prostitute." As I recall, he even had some business cards printed up to this effect. He also walked around mumbling, "Ohhhh death," in the deepest voice he could muster as he darted his eyes and tongue from side to side in a manner than can only be characterized as obscene.

It should come as no surprise that John took some ribbing over his peculiar ways, and I'm sorry to say that I and my roommate participated in this. Neither we nor anyone else were really malicious about it, so far as I know, but I'm sure John, despite the fact that he sometimes seemed to prefer unpleasant attention to being completely ignored, could have done very nicely without it.

For instance, my roommate, who liked to make people think he was as perverse as his sense of humor, would sometimes stare at John in the shower with a lascivious twinkle in his eye, and then both of us, when we saw him coming near our room, would grab hold of our bunk beds to make them squeak in a suggestive way while we moaned histrionically, and when he'd say, "You guys are sick...sick...sick!" we'd reply, "You don't know what you're missing, John!" We abandoned this line of teasing when he finally conceded that perhaps he didn't. We thought he might be serious.

I also taped things to his door such as a Playgirl centerfold and a ridiculously juvenile "poem" I made up that began with the verse,

One...two...three four,
Doris, open up your door.
Five...six...seven...eight,
Let me in to copulate.

John had a crush on Doris, who was almost as weird as he was. It was a match made in heaven. He didn't like the centerfold one bit, but he loved the poem. "Oh yeah," he said in a rumbling voice and with a big, lewd grin.

One night, Kevin, a guy from our floor who had a quietly off-the-wall sense of humor, somehow managed to climb from our floor one story below to the TV lounge wearing only boxer shorts and a pair of 3-D glasses and with a boombox strapped to his body, and he then proceeded to set the boombox on the floor, turn it on, and dance spastically directly in front of John to the cacophonous wailing of an Albert Ayler saxophone solo while John just sat there in stone silence staring into space and my roommate and I laughed till tears streamed from our eyes. After about a minute, Kevin unceremoniously turned off the boombox, strapped it back to his body, and climbed over the railing and back down to the floor below. It was one of the strangest and funniest things I've ever seen. John's only comment was, "That guy ought to be committed."

John was the subject of endless speculation among us dormmates. What was his problem? Why was he so weird? Nobody seemed to know, not even my roommate, who happened to be a grad student in his first year of the school psychology program.

Yet, one thing we did know is that John didn't particularly care for my and my roommate's antics. We found that out one day when the resident adviser for our floor came to our room holding a hand printed letter that John had given him. The letter accused us, "two notorious homosexuals," of harassing him, and it demanded that we stop. Our RA was actually quite amused by the whole thing and gave us the letter. I believe that I still have it somewhere amongst a disorganized pile of old memories stored in a box in the garage. Nevertheless, my roommate and I decided to cool it, not out of fear but out of a desire not to cause poor John any further distress. In fact, I made an effort to spend time talking amiably with him and once even took him to the Pussycat theater downtown to see his first porno movie. The first time he saw Johnny Holmes in all his magnified glory, he said, "Ohhhh, death!"

Rumor had it that John, despite his reputed brilliance, especially in math and science, was failing his classes because he wasn't attending them or doing his homework, and, sure enough, he apparently dropped out of school at the end of the semester.

I've thought about John a great deal over the following decades. I've often wondered what became of him. I had the idea that he was probably so miserable being so hopelessly strange and alienated that he might very well have killed himself and that if he hadn't, he was probably desperately unhappy. I found myself, especially in light of my increasing awareness of my own difficulties and social awkwardness, empathizing with him more and more and wishing him the best. But I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I'd see him again.

Then one day last week my wife and I went to the local tax preparation franchise to have our taxes done, and, I had no sooner said hello to the receptionist when I heard an unmistakable voice from behind a partition. I couldn't see the man speaking, but I instantly knew who it was. I looked around the partition and saw a tall man with thick glasses and beard standing slouched over, papers in hand. It had to be John! I couldn't believe it!

After we filled out some preliminary paperwork in the waiting area, we were summoned to meet with our tax preparer. I prayed that it would be the female preparer in the office and not John, or that, if it was John, he wouldn't recognize me. One part of my prayer was answered. It was John, but he didn't appear to remember me, not even when he saw my name on the paperwork we provided him. He talked to us (and to himself) in his distinctively nasally voice, sometimes snorting as he made little, mumbled jokes. He combed through our paperwork with his face just inches from it, and my wife glanced at me quizzically as if to say, "What the hell is this?" I couldn't wait to get out of there and tell her all about John.

After business was concluded, I asked the man his name. His first name, sure enough, was John, but his last name was different from what it had been in the dorm. I wanted to ask him if his last name used to be ___, but I refrained for two reasons. First, I didn't want him to know who I was before he prepared my tax return, since I thought he might harbor some grudge against me and be deranged enough to use it against me. Secondly, I thought he might not want his colleagues in the office to overhear anything about his name change.

Yet, when I returned the next day to pick up a copy of my completed return, I wanted to say something to him, and I think I would have if he'd been free to talk with me. But he was with another client. It was probably just as well. No sense dredging up a past that he might prefer to keep in the past. But our most unexpected meeting has brought many memories to the fore. I also feel relieved to know that John did not commit suicide and that, even though he seems to be almost as strange as he was more than three decades ago, he's found a way to get on with his life.

I wish him the very best.

9 comments:

Night Stranger said...

Steve, this is awesome! I only wish the story had ended differently -- that somehow you had been able to reach him now and say a little to the effect that you wish him well, and that you could have found out something about his life during the years since you'd seen him.

But it was for the best this way. Food for thought, and an interesting story.

Nagarjuna said...

Night Stranger, I don't know what would have actually been for the best, but I too wish that I'd been able to talk with John the way you described and that it had turned out well for both of us. In any case, I'm glad I was able to see John again, and I hope he's happier than I feared he would be.

randi rhodes said...

So in your estimation would you consider yourself a bigger loser than John with the way things have worked out in life?
Maybe kharmic laws aren't so hokey after all.

Nagarjuna said...

Why do you ask?

randi rhodes said...

Curious.

Nagarjuna said...

Well, I'm curious to know what kind of karma you think you're generating with your conduct here (and elsewhere).

randi rhodes said...

Why do you ask?

Nagarjuna said...

Just "curious."

shirley said...

I beleive a true repentant man would have made a face to face apology to the man regardless the projected fear that he may do something to your tax return. It would be the only opportunity for a true miracle to occur within yourself. You ought to try it sometime, it's very freeing and expanding.