When you have a really good friend in Middle School, you assume you’ll always be friends. Of course, you’re probably wrong (as you are about most of the assumptions you make in Middle School). I still remember when my best friend and I had a falling out. It was in seventh grade and started, as these things often do, over a Girl.
He was actually the first person I ever even called a best friend. We always seemed to wind up on the outskirts of the Middle School Social System and never quite fit in except in our group of two. We got along really well, had similar senses of humor, made great plans we never followed through on, and both loved telling stories (I greatly embellished them back then). He often tried to convince people of ridiculous things just to see if they would believe him. He once persuaded his little brother he had broken his leg in the back yard. His brother freaked and ran inside. I laughed when he told me and only laughed harder when he said, completely deadpan, “Yeah, it was really funny right up until the ambulance pulled in the driveway.”
He once called to tell me he was in the hospital, which I of course completely disbelieved. He kept trying to make me believe and eventually I did. He got off the phone because the doctor came in. I took the opportunity to call my dad and beg him to leave work to take me to the hospital. My next conversation with my best friend contained the phrase, “It was funny right up until you said your dad left work to bring you to the hospital.”
Oh, right, the Girl. My best friend kinda sorta liked her. Liked her liked her in the parlance of the Semantics of Relationship. I didn’t like her like her, I just liked her as a friend. The three of us were friends, but we didn’t stay that way, for one simple reason. She wanted me to give her her First Kiss. I have no idea why. Really. Maybe it was because I was so wiry and gawky that I wasn’t threatening at all. Maybe it was because my friend was a little more . . .well, if Stephen King were writing our lives, my friend would physically resemble Ben Hanscomb (that’s from IT). Maybe it was simply because I had already been Kissed at the skating rink and had experience (at least according to my version of the story). For whatever reason, she wanted me to provide her First Kiss and, more importantly, she was very vocal about it. She didn’t care who knew.
That’s where the problems began. She knew my friend liked her. Liked her liked her. She even said she liked him back, but she still wanted me to be her First Kiss, not him. No matter how many times I told him it wasn’t going to happen, he didn’t care. Something had fundamentally changed between us. We were friends no longer (his choice, not mine).
There were many ways over the next two years he made my life miserable, but he truly pulled out all the stops in seventh grade. First, while he didn’t create the nickname I was saddled with earlier in the year (one that still haunts me, and a story for another time), he made sure it was spoken often. So often that it became fused with my identity and people still occasionally bring it up to this day. Second, he formed a club. Actually, it was an Organization. It was called S.A.L. Students Against Leighton.
I call it an organization because it was, well, organized. There is no other way to describe it. My once best friend turned his considerable powers of persuasive speech to one end: destroying me. That’s not paranoia, that was in their charter (yes, they had officers as well. Also, membership cards. Laminated membership cards.). I became the butt of most jokes and a true pariah with the seventh grade class. The taunting and mocking at lunch was so unbearable, I actually begged one of my teachers for lunch detention (since he was truly one of the Best Teachers Ever, he gave it to me).
If my life were an overly dramatized movie of the week, part of the rising action would be an incident in the locker room. We were changing and self-conscious as only boys on the edge of puberty can be. It started quietly with my friend, a chant that grew and became a flame scalding me. “kill leighton, kill leighton, Kill Leighton, Kill Leighton, KILL LEIGHTON, KILL LEIGHTON! KILL LEIGHTON!”
The chant rang on as I was forced to listen, trapped in a corner. I was always small then, but I couldn’t be small enough. I stood there as the tears formed and I hunched over. Since it wasn’t a movie of the week, I simply took it until whatever fueled that moment faded. No dramatic gestures. No heroic speech or action. Just a scared little boy, pale and scrawny in his tighty-whiteys.
That year brought more indignities, though none as searing as that day in the locker room. The summer seemed strange without my best friend, but I managed. Our eighth grade year brought more taunting, but no membership cards. We went to different high schools, and I experienced some measure of peace (though that execrable nickname followed me). But I never truly shook the experience (I still haven’t).
I’d like to think it was as formative for him as it was for me. Sadly, I know it wasn’t. Our paths crossed again briefly in college. We talked a bit, but never about that year or the things that happened. In all of our few conversations I desperately wanted to hear him say, “It was really funny until the whole class turned on you.” Then we could laugh about the silliness of youth and I would know i spiraled out of his control and became more than he intended. Those words never came. We never spoke of it.
Oddly, though I wish it had been different, I’m now okay that it all happened that way. I kinda like who I am (not like like, that would be weird – maybe I should say I’m comfortable with who I am) and I realize I wouldn’t be me without those experiences. In many ways I’ve left it behind, and many ways I haven’t, but the perspective of time has granted me reprieve from the pain it once brought me.
Now my biggest regret is that I didn’t get my hands on one of those membership cards and keep it. It would be a great souvenir and a way to remind me how temporary agony can be, how someone can grow beyond such things. Also, I know it would have stayed in pretty good condition. Those things were laminated.