Oliver, Part I: Stirrings

He had an old person’s name; he didn’t look like a teenager. We met at church 13 years ago, when I was in eighth grade and he in ninth. His hair was long and fine; he had wide, flushed, radiant cheeks and green eyes. His two comrades, Mike and Jesse, were tall, willowy, and widely admired by brainy, rebellious teenage girls.

Ollie had an appetite for a kind of worship-love that was epic and enduring: when we became friends, he was shattered, as he often would be, over the gentle rejection of a pretty girl. They wanted to be his friend; they wanted to make out with Mike and Jesse. They were not always brainy or rebellious, but to him, they were magnificent, luminescent, floating just above the ground. Ilona, Saskia, Larissa, Cat…the loveliest names, like wind chimes.

Our friendship was sealed one night when he lay his head in my lap and moaned softly over the first one. The affliction was familiar: I loved distant people the same too-hard way.

They were in a band together: Oliver was a jazz pianist, a guitarist, and a reedy, pitch-perfect singer. Jesse loved his bass almost more than his girlfriends, and thrashed at it with sinewy abandon, and Mike sang a pretty, haunting harmony and played guitar.

The first months of our friendship, I was dumbstruck that there could be smart boys with weird tastes, who didn’t skateboard or play sports, who were both nerdy and cocky at once. We talked on the phone forever. We were avid poets, drawers, alt rock enthusiasts, and vaguely into whatever underground political movements our parents and teachers had flirted with and mentioned in passing: communism, socialism, the “New Left,” peaceniks, Dadaism. We didn’t know what we were talking about, but we thought it might help us lift off from the banality of our adjacent suburbs.

Whenever Oliver discovered he liked something, he became its prophet. He became territorial but evangelical. This is how I came to like “A Coney Island of the Mind” and Walt Whitman and the Ween album “Chocolate and Cheese,” but my affection for them was private, never to outdo Ollie’s public declamations. I sat at the edge of his furious, ecstatic firelight, rapt for that first almost-year.

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