Sure, I tutored other kids during the free period after lunch. I took maybe not the hardest classes but the second-hardest classes. I started on English papers at midnight, nailed the SAT, was a Chemathon alternate. All of that came easy. That was school. But then there was not-school.
Not-school was my buddy Jesse and me sitting on his back porch one afternoon, staring at the netless basketball hoop that stood crooked at the head of the driveway. A cheap rubber Spalding rested in a patch of ivy, the top of the ball sun-bleached pale orange. I rocked in my chair, thinking of ways we could get a ride to the Constitution Park pool where there would be long, tanned girls in bikinis, girls who you could tell didn’t like getting their hair wet. But no one was around. We had no car and were too old for bikes. So we sat on the back porch, waiting. I was always waiting. It was just that Jesse made the waiting easier, or better. He made the waiting hum, like a power line.
It was late spring, tenth grade, a month before school let out. Jesse’s mom worked odd shifts at the hospital and his step-dad, a big man with a big mustache, did some kind of heavy work that stained his overalls splotchy white. We had hours to ourselves. This was years before we could buy beer and maybe just months before somebody’s older brother showed us how to jab holes in a Mountain Dew can so that you could smoke weed out of it. I’d gotten contact lenses and had somehow gained three pounds and after that I was only very skinny and not extremely skinny. We were sixteen, in-between, not kids any more but not yet grown up and so we were a danger to others maybe but almost certainly a danger to ourselves.
“Squirrel,” Jesse said, after a while. “Let’s huff gas,” and the world tightened.
I’d heard about it. All the laughing you couldn’t stop, the noises you’d hear. Still, it had never occurred to me that I’d ever be the one doing it. I was not that kind of boy. I was not the kind of boy who huffed gas. I was certain that I was not the kind of boy who huffed gas. I was relatively certain. “You’re kidding,” I said.
“There’s a can in the garage,” he said. He shrugged, his shrug saying: Whatever. He could do it or he could not do it. Either way.
But then I raised my eyebrows. That’s all I did. I just raised my eyebrows.
Jesse, chest bare, in cut-off jean shorts and dirty white socks, padded across the driveway, to the garage. After clanging metal against metal, he came back with the red can, rusty on the bottom and cobwebbed around the neck. He rested the can on the ground, between his feet. We stared at it, as if it were a pound of weed, a stick of dynamite, or maybe a sandwich. Carefully, he unscrewed the ridged nozzle and withdrew it, a drop of gasoline spreading dark on the concrete. He lifted the can to his lap. He curled his torso around the can like a question mark. He leaned forward, letting his lips come to a soft rest on the opening. When he hit it, it looked as if he were trying to suck the gasoline way down deep and into the bottoms of his lungs. The can went crump.
Jesse straightened, and stared ahead, his gaze slowly lifting up, from the basketball hoop to the roof of the garage to the houses past the alley, and finally, to the sky, blue and slashed with jet tracks way, way up. He exhaled.
“Whoa,” he said, his face contorted into that crazy grin, everything exaggerated. And then he held the can out, for me, ripe. It hung in the air. It was a test. But I would not do it, for I was not that kind of boy. I was still reasonably sure.
I took the can. “What do I do?” I asked.
“Just do it.”
I held the can in my hands. I tried to slow down the world enough that it would stop moving altogether. I was hoping his parents would come home. I was hoping the sky would turn green, or catch fire, anything. But none of that happened.
Some of my school friends would ask me why I hung out with Jesse. I told them it was because Jesse knew how to have fun, but they wouldn’t have understood the real reasons. I was Jesse’s friend because he pushed the button when I wouldn’t. He didn’t give a fuck. I wanted to be pushed. I wanted to not give a fuck.
So I leaned in, put my lips where his had been, and made the can go crump, and after that it was almost certainly not-school, and maybe, if you catch me on certain days, at certain late hours when there’s a certain look in my eye, it’s been that way ever since.