I’d seen him at the intermission lurking in the corners of the auditorium, but didn’t approach because he’d been so integral the High School Theatre Department malarkey which still, despite all that had transpired, felt so raw and recent.
John Breen was wildly talented, popular and charismatic (certain to become a professional actor in the future), but he was also withdrawn and brooding and (what I felt was) dismissive of my underclassmen status. Not to mention, he was a classmate of A, S and K (and A’s boyfriend for a period of time), and all of this, I suppose, made him an adversary-by-association in High School terms. I dunno. I just tried to stay out of everyone's way.
But in hindsight, I realize he was most likely shy.
After the show I approached from across the theatre. (In case you were wondering, the journey through the cushioned folding chairs is also known as The High Road…) The trip was arduous.
“Hi John,” I said, nodding awkwardly.
“Oh, hey Alex” he replied with his signature nonchalance.
I tried not to wince at the jarring use of 'Alex,' (deeply, deeply not my name) and distract myself by observing that he was also finding our prior connection confusing—do I or do I not like her? Am I under the same obligations in college as I was in High School? Ah! This mind-of-my-own is killing me.
“What are you doing here?”
“I just saw the show.”
“Right…” he looked about him and thought, “...but you don’t go to school here do you?”
“Right. But you’re a Freshman right now, right?”
I suppose it was technically true, and even if it wasn’t, it was the easiest response.
“So are you home early for Thanksgiving or something?”
This was by far and away, the most concern John Breen had ever shown me, and that concern, far more than the probing nature of the questions themselves, was starting to feel a little uneasy.
“Um—” I hesitated, “well, not exactly.”
“Oh.” It started to dawn on John Breen that something was fishy, “God Alex, I’m sorry” he immediately retreated, “I didn’t mean to pr—”
“—My Dad died.”
There was a horrible pause.
John Breen stared at me.
“A few weeks ago. He’s dead. He died.” I was repeating it because John wasn’t moving. I was beginning to become concerned for his life.
The Playing Frisbee with the Popular Kids story goes like this:
[AL— a Freshman in a large, typical, public American High School holding her own because of her ability to excel in the performing arts but a Freshman and young woman nonetheless. It is the spring of 1998 in a typical Midwestern “Wonder Years-y” suburb. The phone rings. AL answers it.]
Freshman Al: Hello, Silber residence.
Popular Senior: [awkwardly] Hey Al, this is Popular Senior calling.
Freshman Al: Oh. Um, hi Popular Senior [WTF?!], what’s going… on?
Popular Senior: Well…
Popular Junior: [calling from the background] Ask him! He said! He said to call! He said he’d play!
Popular Senior: Eh, sorry that was *Popular Junior Guy.*
Freshman Al: I see.
Popular Senior: Well, we were calling because we were just hanging in the park and wondered if...
[AL thinks momentarily “Ohmigod the popular guys want to hang with me…”]
…If your Dad wanted to play Frisbee with us?
Popular Junior: [yelling from the background] Is he gonna come?!
Freshman Al: Let me… um… get him… one second…
Popular Senior: Well, we’re actually… like down the street can we just come over?
Freshman Al: Eh, sure. I’ll get my Dad.
[Hangs up. Calls upstairs]
Al: The Popular Boys wanted to know if you want to… play FRISBEE with them…? [disbelief] Did you say you’d hang out with them?
Dad: …well… um, yeah. [AL displays further disbelief] Can I go? I promise not to say anything embarrassing. I’ll be really cool I promise!
Al: DAD! THEY ARE THE SUPER MOST POPULAR BOYS! THIS IS So…. RIDICULOUS!!
Dad: But Al I really want to play Frisbee! Pleeeease?
Al: Oh God FINE.
[Doorbell rings. AL answers door…]
Popular Boys: Hey.
…Um, is your Dad home…?
Al: [life-over] Yeah.
Popular Boys: …Cool…
Al: …okay…I’ll go get him…
[AL turns around and sees her Dad right beside the door looking really, really cute and anxious to go and play with the boys. Like a kid.]
Al: Oh go ahead Dad heavens sake!
Dad: Thanks Al! See ya!
Popular Boys: Later Al.
…[AL alone, “My Dad is more popular in high school than I am…Awesome” on her face.]
That was pretty typical.
A group of über-cool teenagers thinking my Dad was the absolute best. Of course the über cool teenagers could get in line, because everyone thought Mike Silber was the absolute best.
Back in the auditorium, John Breen was still before me, completely still.
“Oh my God Alex, I am…” he looked at the floor, his hands in fists within his winter coat pockets, “I am really so, so sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay...” I replied without thinking.
I wanted it to be okay. For him. Despite the fact that we had never really been friends, that he had never really given me the time of day aside from the lines we exchanged on stage, and despite the fact that he had never exactly stood up for me. Despite it all I wanted him to come out of this conversation unscathed, for I could actually hear his heart crumbling from an arm’s length away.
“I mean, of course it is not okay,” I reconsidered, “but… well, anyway thank you.” I could feel the acid in my throat.
“I uh…” he hesitated, “I really liked your Dad...” John said, eyes still locked on the bizarrely bright carpet on the floor of the theatre, “… a lot...” said John Breen of the popular Frisbee boys.
Whoever would have thought he would be so devastated to hear that Mike Silber was no more?
“Take care, John.”
And I left him there; alone and aching in the emptying theatre.