Sunday, September 04, 2005

Brother To A Prince, Fellow To A Beggar

As we enjoyed a pleasant lunch (or, in my case, a pleasant cola) at a sidewalk cafe, my friend asked me what it was that interested me so much about Afghanistan after all - a pretty reasonable question on her part given the four or five volumes on the subject in my bookbag. Examining this sort of thing often shames me, as I vocalize one half of the answer - that it seems like about the most dangerous place you could be at any given moment - and decline to vocalize the other half - namely, that I have always embraced an almost eminent degree of caution in my own affairs. I was the only one of my friends not to learn how to skateboard. I went to school two hours from my hometown. I've never even tried yogurt. But, armed with a volume of Kipling and a modest trickle of the Highlands' better stuff, I become the Captain Kirk of the armchair, boldly imagining things in broad detail that were once vague and fuzzy concepts. And, to tell you the truth, I sometimes hate myself for it. I have friends who are traveling the world, teaching English and meeting exotic and beautiful people, not knowing where they will be a few months from now, and relishing the uncertainty like a gooey and mysterious dessert obscured by a low-hanging mist of chocolate sauce. Me? I just want a satisfying career and an Australian shepherd.

The question at hand, however, took me back in time almost six years, to the glory days of water polo. It would have been about mid-October, 1999. I was sitting on the deck at Bellarmine College Prep's lavish aquatics center, thumbing through what was, even at that time, and old favorite: Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King". My recently acquired friend descried the book and sidled over to take a look, revealing that he too was a big fan, and especially of this, perhaps the master's finest tale of adventure. For the uninitiated, I will not endeavor to give away the story and all its pleasures and intrigues, except to say it concerns two opportunistic loafers who affect a variety of disguises on their way deep into the tribal zone of the Hindu Kush. Through a few ingenious machinations and some firearms wholesaling, one of the two comes to be regarded as a divine king, the other his right-hand man. As the village toughs rally around the charismatic con man and his co-conspirator, the game begins to go to their heads, and it becomes a fair question to ask who is really being fooled.

The fellow to my left was, as I have mentioned, a newly acquired friend, but I had a feeling that he would prove to be a trustworthy one. What followed was an extraordinarily frank exchange of aspirations and fears, the upshot of which was a personal compact forged in the sort of Speedo-clad brotherhood only water polo players can understand. Now, we both had goals of the more prosaic type, beginning with admission into the college of our choice. If neither of us made it there, we agreed, we would have no recourse but to turn our backs on the American dream and set out for the tribal zone, where we would set ourselves up as divine rulers in the manner of Pop Kipling's loafers, incidentally named Daniel Dravot and Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan. We shook on it, and there the matter rested for a period of some six months.

In the meantime, we grew up, as schoolboys must do if they are not resourceful enough to avoid it. We discovered new passions - distance running, scuba diving, Falun Gong, and, for one of us more than the other, sickening acts of total insanity. We both went on the Carmel High Desert Trip, and on the tail end of it fell for a pair of beautiful girls who were a lot better than either of us, respectively, deserved at the time. By this time, we had received what we thought was the bad news on our college admissions, and, knowing no more about Afghanistan than that an ominous and poorly understood force called the Taliban was destroying Buddha statues and making things extraordinarily hot for practitioners of free enterprise, we tacitly let the dream die - no small failing for blustery types like us. But, as e.e. cummings might have put it, "...only the snow can begin to explain/how children are apt to forget to remember."

Months turned into years. We both carved out niches for ourselves at our respective institutions, foregathering at Christmas and Easter to compare notes, each one with some idea how the other one spent his time. In his mind, I was a model student, well on the way to a Ph.D; in my mind, his school's tradition of secret societies in lieu of Greek life had furnished him with a frenzied cult of followers awaiting his every command. It was not until the very beginning of our senior year that I was able to visit him in his natural habitat with school in session. Although my professorial pipe dreams would ultimately prove to be just that, I was more or less accurate in my picture of his life. He was a figure of no small notoriety on campus, the acknowledged commander of its most extreme Society, which, as its president pro tem informed me, was "not a frat, but a gang." He had worn a variety of disguises on his ascent of this dangerous hierarchy. One was mere respectability. Another was a full-length duck suit, complete with feathers from head to toe, inside of which he had terrorized his fellow students during the rites of spring. His academic records suggested a pre-eminent loafer. I, however, knew just how hard he had worked for his lordship of that night that falls, like an angel stripped of its wings, over the borderlands of L.A. and Orange County.

I arrived at my friend's house around 9:30 PM. I do not recall exactly how I appeared, but I almost certainly was wearing a tanktop. A pair of platinum blondes greeted me at the door with ceremonial kisses. He had seen to that. Inside, a crowd of young men teemed about, many of them rapping along to the Big Tymers' "# 1 Stunna" with the reverence one reserves for an anthem. Into this assembly burst my friend. Despite the overcrowding in the room, a path cleared before his feet. As I walked around introducing myself, I could not help noticing that the same courtesy was paid to me. I tried to act as though I were used to it, or knew why. My friend took me aside and began pointing in various directions. The young man in the Society ballcap by the refrigerator was a recent initiate, something of a personal slave to my friend, who oversaw all induction rituals. The enormous fellow who now came in the kitchen door had been made to walk on hot coals for the moral instruction of the rest of his cohort. This, too, had been my friend's idea. He laid a comradely, but in some way paternal, hand on my shoulder. "Before I took over, these guys were complete animals", he assured me. "I wouldn't have been surprised to learn they made blood sacrifices." I asked what had changed. He smiled, with the faintest note of sadness. "Not a goddamn thing", he replied, in the same instant giving me to understand that this was somehow for the better.

Following the muster of the Society, we set out to a nearby house for a mixer of some kind. When the opportunity was there, my friend would give me the background on various women in the room, many of whom were soon introduced to me. The content of these briefings was often quite horrifying. I asked about the girl in the neon green shirt with beads in her hair, standing clear across the room.

"She's different. Very cool, very high standards. If you don't have a lot to offer, don't bother talking to her." Clearly, a mandate was being issued. I did my best to meet it with the courage I felt I was receiving, as so often happened, like a transfusion from him to me.

On that subject, there is very little to say. I conducted myself with ample honor for the remainder of the evening, falling asleep on the couch, arm in arm with the girl in the neon green shirt, a few of the beads in her hair now resting on my cheek. In the morning, she left, and, after a wordless, muffled goodbye, I went back to sleep, waking up some time later on sunlit linoleum soaked in what must have been an inch and a half of warm beer. A few minutes later, my friend walked out, and observed that we should both be very proud of ourselves. All, he assured me, was right with the world, at least this remote corner of it. I needn't worry about cleaning the place up, he explained; there were pledges of his who would attend to that task when they arose themselves. But all I could think about was how he, and, by courtesy, I, had become pretenders to a savage's throne after all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is that desert trip still happening?

7:17 PM  

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