Saturday, November 27, 1999
“Patrick, come out here a minute,” Dad yelled from outside my Rancho bedroom door. I dog-eared my page, about a third of the way through the Prisoner of Azkaban, and stood in the doorway, my eyes adjusting to the cold, motionless New Mexico black.
“Yeah?” I asked. I tried to be cool, but in truth the intense darkness spooked me. Stalking coyotes. Scampering scorpions. Bats swooping to silently snap up bugs in midflight. But I was almost 16. Time to act like a man.
“Come here and lay down a minute.” I could just barely make out the shape of my dad lying in the gravel driveway, near the huge, ancient cottonwood that grandpa liked to say Coronado planted himself. I hesitated for a moment, wondering what stingers and fangs might be crawling among the rocks, but I always felt safe with Dad.
“Oh man, it’s cold! Why are you just lying out here?” I asked as I reclined next to him. Before he could answer, I followed his gaze skyward. Suddenly it seemed as if the sky wasn’t above me. It was beneath me, spread over my entire field of vision, on fire with a billion white stars. I was glued to the gravel, tenuously stuck there while all of infinity dropped out below. “Whoaaa...” I managed.
“The New Mexico sky isn’t anything like the one back at home, right?” he said.
“No.” It felt wrong to pollute the view with meaningless words – each like a smoke signal from my mouth, dissipating into the endless specks of brilliant light, so impossibly far away and yet also so close, so nearly tactile.
“What’s going on with you, pal?” He asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, we don’t get to talk much man-to-man, you know?” Whoa. Man-to-man. I always felt pressure to make sure I didn’t burden Dad with my problems. He seemed to have enough to worry about, enough stress.
“Oh, I’m fine.” I said, unconvincingly.
“Really?” he probed.
“Yeah. What about you?” I thought maybe I could redirect the spotlight back onto him. “Well,” he hesitated for a moment. “Honestly, son, I’m a little scared.” Adrenaline sprung through my veins. I sat up and looked around.
“Scared? What -”
“Oh no no no. Not of anything here. I’m just getting older. I mean, I used to feel like a master of my industry. Now with the world wide web and computers, guys half my age can do twice as much work as me. I’m not sure where I fit anymore.” I could hear the exasperation and raw-nerve uncertainty in his voice. It unnerved me a little, too.
“But... what you do – your work – yours is still better, right?” I asked.
“I hope so,” he said with a sigh, “But these days it seems like sometimes more is better than better. But I’ll be fine. I’ll find my way. Tell me what’s going on in your world. You seem different lately.”
“Different how?” I asked, feeling suddenly on the defense.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain, but a father can tell. It’s like someone turned your lights out – like you’re disenchanted... disillusioned. The Patrick I used to know would’ve jumped all over your granddad’s trials, would’ve helped your little cousins believe in his Father Christmas.” My heart dropped a couple inches. “You didn’t even help me with Copland,” he said. That was a slug in the chest.
Every time we made the drive to Santa Fe, dad would cue up Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as we drove off the Texas caprock into the New Mexico desert. We would sing along together in overwrought harmonic intensity, banging on imaginary tympani, then finally break into lap-slapping, snorting laughter.
I just wasn’t feeling it this year.
“What’s happening inside that head of yours?” He asked. “How’s school?”
All I could do was sigh. I tried to gather my thoughts. Where to begin. “Man. I don’t know. It’s weird. They’re all idiots.”
“Everyone?” Dad asked in a voice that said come on, Patrick.
“Well no, not everyone. It’s just... I don’t get it. It’s like there’s these slots you’re supposed to fit into. And it’s not okay to not fit. But I just don’t. I’m not an athlete type. But I’m not a nerd, either. I tried to be friends with the popular kids, but even the ones I’ve known the past couple years – like, when I smile or nod at them in the hall, I can see them holding back a laugh. I can’t be in their group – they’ve all been going to school together since their classrooms still had carpet squares to nap on.”
This was my third year with the same group of kids. We’d been in and out of the same classrooms since eighth grade. So I wasn’t the new kid. But I perpetually felt like the new kid.
What was new was me being in the same school this long. We moved all the time. Oklahoma City. Tulsa. Dallas. Edmond. Oklahoma City again. Plus moves within those cities. The first time I went to the same school two years in a row was just before moving to this district. It became a numbing, mindless cycle: making friends, then letting go, saying goodbyes. And each time it took something out of me, so I brought less and less interest in caring about the next school, the next cliques, the next group of friends.
I’d developed an uncanny ability to simply slide by on the periphery of everyone’s awareness. I had drifted in and out of circles of friends, never getting close with anyone, but able to coexist just fine.
This was different.
“I’m not a druggy or a goth. I’m not a punk, a skater, an ag kid. And the church kids – which is basically everyone else – Man, they’re just, I guess they went to a pretty different church than the one we used to go to.”
“Hmm. None of those groups really sound like you,” Dad said.
“I know.” For a moment, Dad let the silence just float around us. Crickets. Jubilant fireside conversation floated out from one of the other houses. I shifted around on the cold, sharp stones.
“I remember that challenge well,” said Dad, “I remember being scared so bad – nearly paralyzed – all the way through the lunch line, because I knew once I got to the end, I’d have to figure out who to try to sit with.” Dad said.
Seriously? Dad had these problems? But he was so well loved, had so many friends, so many people that looked up to him. “Exactly!” I said. “I do the same thing. Actually, I found this spot outside where I can sit and eat and no one can see me. Because, it’s like, being alone doesn’t really bother me, it’s being seen being alone that sucks.” Dad gave me a knowing nod.
I went on, “And it’s like they’re all looking at me, their eyes silently daring me, ‘Come on, Patrick. Pick a team, just not ours.’” Wow. I’d never thought of it that way until it tumbled out of my mouth. It was spot-on. And it hurt.
“God. I know just how you feel, pal,” Dad said. “High school was a total shitshow.” Hearing my dad curse startled me for a second, but then it made me feel big. Grown up. “I even feel that way sometimes now. Like I was telling you earlier.”
“Oh, of course! Look, here’s the truth that you won’t see until you’re much older,” Dad said, “All of those other kids, they feel even more alone than you. They may not appear to, but they do. Because they’re sacrificing what they truly believe and want and feel inside, so that they can fit into those slots or groups or cliques. Trust me: they don’t feel like they fit in any more than you would. But they’re too afraid to be their own people. They need the group to give them meaning and value. You, well, it seems to me like you don’t need that. You’ve been able to create your own meaning and value and direction.”
“Huh. It doesn’t feel that way,” I said.
“I know. High school makes most of us feel out of place and unwanted, and all of it leaves you with this bottomless desperation to fit in. But for those who do feel at home in high school, well, they’re not going to feel that way once they leave.” Dad said.
Dad turned on his side to face me. “I wish I had known this when I was your age, because I had to learn it the long, painful way, but when you create your own path, when you follow what you really believe in here,” he thumped me hard in the chest, “Others will respect it. They’ll want it, too. They’ll be attracted to it. And soon one of those popular kids will see the honesty in you and won’t be able to stomach the shallow facades of his ‘friends.’ A couple of the jocks will be inspired by your fearlessness. The punks will come around. Because that kind of courage and authenticity inspires others. I mean, I can’t say for sure what will happen, but as long as you stick to that infallible compass inside you, I have no doubt you’ll find your way. With any luck, some of those girls might even take notice, too.” He gave me a wink and a smile.
I smiled back, let out a long, uncertain exhale and gazed up to the stars. It was all too much to think about right now, but in that moment I felt like a little of that starlight reflected down into my soul, beginning to turn the lights back on.