One thing you can’t help learning about life is that most of the time it puts up a lot of resistance, as if you were trying to write a passionate love letter with a pen dipped in molasses. And yet now and then the resistance decreases. One day during the January of my senior year in high school, the stuff things were made of unexpectedly softened and began to flow in unpredictable directions.
At the time when it started to happen, I was listening to Ray Charles and John Coltrane every chance I got, I liked to read Dostoyevsky late at night, and I felt as though my balls might crack from the pressure of unsatisfied desire. The girls I knew at school apparently thought that getting good grades meant I shouldn’t have the same needs they and their boyfriends struggled over – but I made a hell of a confidant. I had had years of practice at that, with Toni Anastos, Claire Joseph – who’d once been my girlfriend – and more recently with Becca Shulman. I spent at least half an hour every evening on the phone with one or another of them, hearing about their love lives, philosophizing about the emotions and why people did what they did. No remark dropped in the halls – no gesture, even – was too insignificant to be analyzed at length, second- and third-guessed, squeezed ruthlessly for every drop of meaning in a way that would have thrilled Mr. Kearns, the AP English teacher, if only we’d been doing it to Shakespeare. Those were conversations I couldn’t have with boys, other than my best friend Dal, because if I tried to have them, all I got were variations on “Didja get to second base?”
Dal’s real name was Darryl, but that had last been heard some time in grade school. Even his parents called him Dal. He was a terrific ballplayer – when Dal was in Babe Ruth League he made the all-star team – and when you saw him playing baseball you seemed to see exactly who he was. He was a center fielder, responsible for a great stretch of open space that he could somehow cover without seeming to make an effort. He never looked bored out there; he looked as intensely involved as the shortstop, but in a different way, as if the real game were one nine-inning-long thought he was maintaining by a perfect act of concentration from the first pitch to the last out. At times it seemed as though everyone else played inside Dal’s idea. He looked pure to me – not just on the field. Maybe that was making too much of him, but maybe it wasn’t. It’s just that some people’s role in the greater scheme of things is that nothing ugly, or vicious, or cruel is supposed to go on around them; there’s something in them that puts ugliness to shame. And it’s not that Dal was one of those armor-plated, invulnerable people, either – not that at all. He played it the riskiest way of all; he just was. Whereas my other friends had plenty of defenses, that let you know they thought they were living in a difficult world. Well, didn’t all of us? All except Dal. A lot of the time, he didn’t seem to be evaluating the world any more than a river evaluates the fields it’s running through.