Photograph by Kai Z. Feng
Simon has changed, and, probably, so have I. He has a big white beard now, and I have white hair to match. The last time we met was in the mid-1980s — yes, such a time really existed. We were friends at the same small-town school in Marlborough, England, and my abiding memory is of long afternoons in Edith’s, a local café run by elderly sisters who made their own soft-set jam and marmalade and the most delicious fudge. “The jam would be lined up along the stairs,” Simon reminded me. We ate the jam smeared on hot buttered toast, and walked freely in and out of the kitchen to refill our teapots.
How quaint all that seems, and what a charming part of my childhood narrative. Simon and Andy and Bryn and Michael. And me. Five teenagers in their school uniforms, drinking tea and learning to be adults. Someone should write a book about it. Although memory gets hazy, I am pretty sure I nurtured silent crushes on them all, but this was the 1980s, so that particular exercise in hope was going nowhere.
Simon’s parents used to run Frederick J. Chandler, a saddler’s store that had a “By Appointment to HRH the Prince of Wales” crest above the door. Even then it seemed like a remnant of another era. Now the saddler’s and Edith’s and so much else has gone, but none of that is a loss, not really, because instead of saddling horses, Simon now lives in El Paso, Texas, where he runs a soccer club for disadvantaged kids, and I live in New York editing this magazine, and neither of us really want to be in Marlborough drinking tea at Edith’s. It’s better as a memory. The world shrank and we grew long legs that took us to the places we needed to be.
So, anyway, Simon came to New York, and we talked and reminisced, mainly about Michael Cheke, who was that person (we all know one) whose grace and charm touches a very wide swathe of people. In some way or another, all of us looked up to him. He had a loping gait, a mop of black, curly hair, and dark, almond-shaped eyes. I’m romanticizing Michael, but I was always a little in love with him. It wasn’t physical, it was emotional — something about the way he conducted himself, oblivious to the conventions that kept the rest of us in check. He loved to crank up the Kinks on his beat-up record player, he loved paisley shirts, and he loved to play Risk.
At night, ensconced in his room, we could drink tea and smoke and play his records loudly without his parents caring. And maybe that was the problem. He taught us, in his way, to be less hidebound to the rules that circumscribed our lives, but maybe what he envied in the rest of us were the very conventions that gave structure to our lives.
This, at least, was Simon’s observation as we sat at the Old Town Bar near Union Square some weeks ago. Michael’s family were eccentric, a little kooky; ours were, well, ordinary — normal. I realize now just why Michael seemed so different, so effortlessly himself: He’d had to take responsibility, learn who he was, while we were still working out the ground rules. Simon remembered the delight Michael took in being a guest at his house and sitting down to breakfast, as exotic to him as his boundless freedom was to us.
Most kids conform, of course, in order to fit in, but it doesn’t always work that way. We still stand out. Simon recalled watching me from the school bus, being picked on and bullied, the kind of memory I’ve left largely unexamined. After all, I’m not that person anymore, and that’s partly thanks to Michael, who showed us the view from the other side of childhood, beyond the desperate need to blend in. But alone among those friends from school, Michael has gone. He got on a plane to the Gambia one day and disappeared. Even as I hope that, like the rest of us, he found the place he needed to be, I fear that not even Facebook will bring him back.