The Long Jump
The Long Jump (nonfiction essay - some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)
It’s mid-June, four months before Glenn will sing to me at my locker. Today is one of the final half-days of my freshmen year of high school. I have made it. A shaky start perhaps, but now sitting on the grass amongst the coolest kids of my class as we crack jokes while signing one another’s yearbooks, it’s clear my year was a success. It’s a perfect blue-skied early summer afternoon with just the slightest of breezes. Perfect t-shirt and shorts weather. The entire school sits on the visitors’ side of the football field. The upperclassmen are up in the bleachers and us lowly freshmen are on the grass—we don’t mind this separation today.
All two thousand of us are on the foreign visitors’ side, as it is closer to the school. We were not made to cross the football field as someone official deemed that where we now were was a safe enough distance from the orange-bricked building. There’s been another bomb threat, our third or fourth of the season. Later this afternoon, this one will prove to be more than a threat, as a device will be found in the sophomore section of the commons. The size and capabilities of this apparatus will long be the stuff of rumors but the truth shall remain forever concealed.
Being so close to the ground and to the thin paved path that leads to the sand pit, the landing zone—twenty-feet in front of the midpoint of the bleachers, I’m lucky enough to be one of the few to catch sight of Glenn’s first run.
> > >
I'm standing at my locker exchanging one hard-covered textbook for another. The school's halls are wide, illuminated by the sunlight filtered as it pushes through the Plexiglas domed skylight at an angle only October provides. Now a sophomore, I’m more cautious of every move my body makes, my words are chosen long before they are spoken. They're watching. Ready to pounce upon any imperfection. I turn from the peach-colored plaster wall that my locker's imbedded in. I'm ready for them, prepared for anything. I turn around, and from where I stand I can see them all. A brown construction boot with a shining exposed steel toe grabs my attention, as it slams hard into a sheepish-looking freshmen’s denim-covered ass. A bright red marble sized rubber bouncy ball lands on the poor kid’s head. Instinctually, I look left and right as I know what this usually means. Seeing flashes of bright colors flying everywhere I smile at myself for being so keen. Yes, someone dumped a bag of Superballs off of the balcony again. Three middle-aged women, cafeteria aides, fan out stumbling over themselves in an attempt to collect the springing nuisances. Laughter rises and falls in waves. The seven minutes between classes are always frenzied and loud. The staircases, doorways and halls swell, stretching to contain all of us at once.
"Hi Cris Driscoooooll!" the high-pitched voice pierces through it all, a bulls eye as it ducks into my right ear. I turn towards its source to see Glenn Sok, a junior, one year older than I. Glenn and I were seated next to each other for the entirety of a year of middle school chorus. He had the most terrible singing voice I had ever heard, yet was always so committed to whichever song we sung. By the end of the year we were friends. Friends only within those four walls, but friends nonetheless. Now, he’s bounding down the hall in purposeful long strides, the long black hair that covers half of his face flaps up and down with each step, revealing his wide grin, almost too large for his slender face. The clothes that cover his long arms and legs, his paradoxically lanky Asian frame, hang from him many sizes too large and are the stuff of thrift shops—their patterns and colors clash with intention, carefully chosen fashion not commonly seen in the halls of a high school full of people trying hard to fit in.
My mouth forms the slightest smile as I give a shallow nod in his direction. My eyes are always moving, scanning the crowd for onlookers. My face shows no expression. It took me the better part of the last year to perfect this, but it’s far better to keep them guessing as to what it is you’re feeling at a given moment. I would most certainly hear it if my features were to convey just how much I wish to smile widely, strutting alongside Glenn. He's different. He’s free. I like him. But I know they are watching and they mustn't see this. He bounces closer grinning still, looking towards me. A loud and purposefully pitchy song leaps forcibly from his lips and serenades me: “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand-alone. I hear you call my name, and it feels like home.”
He cackles with laughter and squeezes my shoulder as he passes me. I can’t help watching him as he walks away from me. His steps are a dance still in time with the Madonna in his mind. I'm aware of a feminine quality that Glenn possesses, but despite the fact that I'm entrenched in a culture where boys constantly use the word fag in both accusatory and insulting ways, the possibility that Glenn may be a homosexual never enters my young mind. Looking back now, I’m fairly certain that he was, in fact, gay. Knowledge of this, though, does next to nothing as far as assisting to uncover some semblance of an explanation to it all.
Glenn is out of my sight now. I turn and take my place among the herd; head-down, I slowly march towards my next class. The brief and insignificant encounter with Glenn Sok is already slipping down towards that mind space where memories go to die, no need to be called upon again. In three months I will be forced to drag these depths for it. After that dark and frigid night, it will never again sink too far from the surface of my consciousness. As unimportant as it seems, the memory will soon be a permanent one—our final interaction, revisited often.
< < <
He’s clearly focused, sprinting as fast as he can. The combination of his awkward long limbs threatening to tangle at any moment coupled with how his clothes wave behind him like a banner make this sight utterly hysterical. This spontaneous decision of his is most likely the closest thing to an organized sport that Glenn’s ever involved himself with. His white tennis shoes, typically the footwear of the girls, leave the ground as the black pavement ends and there he is cartoon-like, suspended in air before landing, producing a cloud of dusty sand. Before I can even think, my hands are repeatedly clasping together hard and I’m yelling, “WooHoo!” I respond to the questioning looks of my friends by simply pointing in his direction, as Glenn Sok is readying himself for a second run.
This run, equally hysterical and satisfying, is met with more cheers and applause. By the time his third is finished, even more are invested, as they join in the clapping and cheers. I scan the crowd in search of those making fun of the freak, or scheming against him, possibly constructing projectiles to hurl at him. Amazed, I find none of this. Instead, all those who have taken notice, seem to share in expressions of surprise and glee. Arms and legs rise and fall spastically from the crowd in the bleachers as kids frantically struggle to get one another’s attention. I see mouths hung open, without hesitation, so wide their jaws must be unhinged. I watch as eyebrows become raised so high that folks are hardly recognizable. I soon realize why. They all now appear far younger.
> > >
I'm high, super-high. Mangled, as we call it, and it's a Monday night. This is the first year Christmas vacation has allowed such freedoms. My three best friends and I are headed to do what kids growing up in Northport are known to do before they cross the ultimate threshold into the driving years. Like my many teen predecessors before me, I walk towards the quaint and sleepy village, downtown, as we call it, where we will meander up and down each side of Main Street (the whole loop, no more than a half mile), beside dark and empty, but adorable single-room shops. Inevitably, we’ll bump into other friends and small groups will converge and grow into a singular larger entity. We will end up in the park at the end of Main Street, but when really lucky, we’ll stumble upon news that someone's parents are away, the home within walking distance of downtown, and we’ll swarm. We will smoke brown marijuana or drink from a father’s dusty old liquor bottle or his forgotten case of canned beer. Some of us will end up clumsily rolling around in the darkness with the opposite sex; the rest of us will talk about them. There’s usually at least one fistfight, but if not personally involved, one can still enjoy it, serving as a careful spectator and critic. Someone may end up arrested, someone hospitalized (either injured, or too fucked up) but the absolute constant was that if you were in 9th and 10th grade, you did not want to miss Friday or Saturday night downtown. You did not want to hear of these events second-hand. I missed the epic Nick Graziano/Mark Foley brawl that apparently lasted upwards of a half hour and never regretted anything more.
Tonight, we trudge along the shadowy sidewalk of Main Street, still not quite downtown. I stare down at the dark grayish-brown cement that projects a recurring pattern of bright oval pools that present my shadow as it grows and shrinks. Main Street is illuminated every forty feet by a buzzing yellow light above, and looking up towards the noisy source, I marvel at how much the curved metal pole that presents the light looks like that famous picture of Nessie, coming up for a much needed breath.
Just ahead is Junior’s Pizza, the first shop announcing you’ve arrived in the village, one of three establishments open at this hour. There are others open, but they barely register on our radar, as they’re not available to us. These mysterious dens certainly welcome the company of many of our parents. Up ahead, two figures take form from shadow as they separate themselves from the darkness on the left side of Main. Passing beneath a Nessie they transform, further revealing themselves to be Ray Caputo and his girlfriend Phyllis. They are now just ahead, crossing the street towards Junior’s. Ray is that rare skater kid who hangs out with the freaks but is also embraced by the jocks and burnouts and dirt bags. Rarer still is that as he canoodles between these groups the freaks don’t reprimand him or return his membership card and, instead, consistently welcome him back with no questions asked. His young-surfer good looks and sarcastic, quick-wit allow him to exude true, unguarded honesty and kindness. Ray walks a higher path. I like him and, despite him being a year older, far cooler and in no need of new friends, he hangs with me often.
A few steps closer and it’s clear that Ray is drunk and severely so. His foot catches one of those long unused trolley tracks that run down the middle of Main and this sends him stumbling, leaning fully forward in a few frantic running steps before he finds his balance. I too begin to run towards him hoping to loudly celebrate our shared intoxication. Something stops me just within feet of him. There are serious, perhaps even grim, undertones to his staggering and as his girlfriend Phyllis grabs hold of his arm, he rips it away. As she stumbles a few steps away from him, like the team in tug 'o war that doesn't know the other has dropped their side of the rope, I yell loudly, surprisingly forcefully, toward him. He turns to me revealing a face much older than I'm used to—red and haggard.
"Oh, you haven't heard, have you?" His eyes are somehow mean. "He fucking killed himself, Cris." I want to know who, but I dare not speak a word. I'm stuck in scared silence.
"Some worker found him up there today. Who knows how long?” With each pause, the rage builds behind his face. He's redder still, compressed.
"Glenn hid up there until everyone was good and gone for the weekend, and then..." He punches his own palm making a dull thud slap. “then he jumped off .…” he delivers another loud hand punch “the top of the mother....” and another “Fucking....” I don’t want to hear the rest. “Empire. State. Building!"
With those last words he bursts off right and kicks a Main Street garbage can hard. He stumbles along with Phyllis trying to hold on to him. She glances back at me; her eyes wide and scared have sent large tears down the sides of her pretty face. They move away from us as a mobile embrace. His breath is visible and surrounds him enveloping him in unpredictable clouds. It is clear he's sobbing. It is obvious that this is not a joke or a prank. It is instantly apparent that things are forever changed.
< < <
Glenn is now exhausted, his hands placed on his hips, folded in half, bent at his waist. One arm leaves his body and waves shallowly at his peers seeming to say simultaneously, “Thank you, thank you,” and “enough, I’m done.” Word must have spread, though, and now the entire two thousand hold Glenn as their focal point. People are stamping on the booming metallic bleachers hard, clapping and yelling as loud as they can. Mumbled words like “Go!“ and “Glenn!” mutate, transforming and melding until they form one singular chant:
“Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”
Glenn’s face transforms too. Now one of purpose, severity, serious business as his head rises first leading his folded midsection. Upright now, he slowly, deliberately takes confident strides towards the beginning of the narrow blacktopped track. The raucous crowd falls to utter silence and I swear I can hear his heart beating rapidly. He begins to run.
It was the next morning that my father simultaneously knocked on my bedroom door while allowing himself in. His face sagged and his puffed eyelids spoke of exhaustion. He looked serious, sad, and uncertain. I ended his suffering quickly, letting him know I already knew of Glenn's suicide—the extreme method he chose. Being an English teacher in my high school, my father had just received the news by way of the chain of calls, the system instated for such occasions, but more often used for school closings due to severe weather.
He looked somewhat relieved by not having to tell me and sat down on my twin mattress where I still lay. Here my father transformed before my eyes. His dark eyes fixed straight ahead as he chewed on the inside of his cheek, struggling for something. This face I’d known better than any was now somehow and suddenly even more familiar. It was my own.
"He gave me a Christmas present," he said, his voice broken and cracking, fighting back tears. My father currently had Glenn in his Verbal Analysis class, a course that readied kids for the SAT's but left ample time for fun.
"It was a plastic Groucho glasses and a nose.” He slowly shook his head but with the slightest, increasing speed.
“He was saying goodbye." And now there was no more fighting. My father's tears poured uncontested as he hung his head. I had never seen this before and never have since. Choked-up on occasion, sure, but this was full on, unbridled sobbing. We hugged, but it felt more like I was hugging him.
Even then, I knew that he felt responsible, that he felt he should have seen that gift as a sign. Even then, I knew that he couldn't have done anything to change what had happened. But I didn't tell him that; instead, I just squeezed him tight for a while. He rose eventually, mussed my hair lovingly, and exited my room to leave me alone for a bit. I waited patiently for the door to be shut completely before plunging my face into my pillow, burying it there. Once I was thoroughly shrouded in cold darkness I breathed as deeply as I could and at last, finally, I cried forever.
< < <
This time is nothing like the others. His legs now charge, they transform into a stallion’s, his sweat-streaked face, the embodiment of determination, his eyes focus, squinting, trying their very hardest to make out something in the distance. He vaults at the very last possible millimeter before grass becomes sand and his body soars, frozen in perfect form, forward flying, on and on. His feet finally meet the sand in perfect unison, pushing pulverized rock and dirt back violently but his behind stops abruptly, remaining stationary. It’s completely unmoving, only centimeters above the loose ground. The sandy soil will remain untouched.
The eruption that comes from those two-thousand people sounds more like it’s from sixty at a walk off game at Shea, as the apple emerges, showing itself in centerfield, but here different—a higher pitched celebration. The youthful thunder doesn’t stop, slow or die-down either. It is a deafening constant. Staying in position, Glenn pushes those feet of his (perfect mirror images) straight downward, forcing his body upwards until he stands, absolutely straight, an unmoving wall. For a moment he looks out at us all and a strange face creeps across and covers his, seemingly, making sure it is all really happening. The expression vanishes as quickly as it arrived and Glenn Sok simultaneously reaches his hands and his face upward, looking past his ten outstretched fingers that scrape the cloudless sky.
I see his face; somehow a close-up shot now, his features filling the frame. His eyes are closed tightly, purposefully squeezed shut hard. His lips forced back with smile so far I can almost see his every tooth as they glisten, reflecting the June, afternoon sun.
Here stands Glenn Sok, a mere few steps from me. Undoubtedly, the happiest person my eyes have ever seen.