Thanksgiving

Stories of lasting friendship, and a message to an old buddy’s daughter

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Last September, Mark summoned up the courage to jump out of an airplane.

And I couldn’t even get up enough nerve to play and sing “For a Dancer” in front of 30 people.

I can play “For a Dancer” on the piano, and I have an okay singing voice, so I could have pulled it off. I got the idea because Mark’s sister, Jane, played a song for the occasion, one she had been practicing, and she performed admirably, even though I could tell she was nervous and shaking and struggling to follow the sheet music in a couple of places. It still sounded lovely.

I gave up trying to read sheet music a long time ago (I’m terrible at it) because I can play by ear, but at the gathering last Saturday, my courage just was not there. Maybe I worried that performing the song would seem like a distracting ego trip—I certainly didn’t want it to be about me. But “For a Dancer” did seem fitting. The event was almost over, and some people had left, when I finally sat down on the piano bench and played a couple of verses. No singing. I was surprised that most of my friends didn’t recognize what I was playing—see, singing the words would have been so much more meaningful! When I stopped, a few people thanked me and asked if it was something I had written. Across the room, someone I didn’t know made a remark about Jackson Browne.

I discovered the music of Jackson Browne and David Bowie when I was in high school, and I think it was Mark who introduced me to both. He was very passionate about finding interesting new things happening in music and art; another friend recently found and shared a Bowie album review Mark wrote for the school newspaper. Senior year, while our high school building was being renovated, we had classes in a half-dozen buildings scattered around downtown Pittsfield, an arrangement they called “open campus.” It meant, among other things, that we were free to go to the public library for study hall (or for any other period we decided was “free”). I think the library had some contemporary albums you could listen to on the house audio equipment and headphones. If I didn’t listen to Browne’s Late for the Sky album there, I certainly did at home. And one evening, lying on a blanket under the stars at Tanglewood, I listened to him play “For a Dancer” live, and the song’s simple elegance and melancholy left its mark on me.

The arc of my long friendship with Mark began in high school, when he and I and a handful of other friends and girlfriends would hang out together just like any other teenagers—in class, at sports events, at parties, at Boys’ Club dances. We scattered for college but always visited one another, and mostly spent summers back in Pittsfield. It was during those years, on one particularly sweltering summer night, that we went for a midnight swim that resulted in our most enduring story. Leaving our clothes piled next to the cars we had arrived in, we set out for the middle of Onota Lake. Good swimmers all, we nonetheless agreed to have names for a periodic “check-in” to make sure everyone was fine. Mostly, we chose goofy sounds—except for Dick, who couldn’t think of one, so his handle was “I don’t know.”

At one point Chris decided to stand on George’s shoulders so that it would look, to the next car that came around the bend and momentarily trained its headlights on the middle of the lake, as if Chris were walking on water. And that is exactly what the occupants of the next car saw—but they were not amused. So on came the flashing lights and out came the blue searchlight that probed the lake in a sweeping motion from one end to the other. I still remember waiting underwater for the light to pass overhead, then coming up for air and doing it all over again. We drifted this way and that, waiting for the cops to leave, which they finally did. We eventually swam back to our cars, though Chris had entertained the idea of swimming instead to the public beach to look for something in Lost and Found to wrap around himself before walking home.

The group stayed in touch for a while. In the early years there were letters (try to explain this to the kids …), holiday weekends home, visits to apartments in Boston, New York, and Buffalo, and class reunions every five years. But geography, new families, and years take their toll on old school friendships. I saw less and less of everybody until it pretty much ended. George left for Colorado, Mark for California. I saw Mark in 1989 when I flew to Los Angeles for a conference, and drove out to his house in the suburbs one evening for dinner with him and his wife Diana. Their daughter, Phoebe, had not been born yet. We told stories, we laughed, we had a great time. We probably talked about art (Mark was working as an engineer but longed to work as an illustrator, which he eventually did). And I remember watching Mark make homemade croutons. I’ve always made my own croutons since that night.

Prior to 2016, I hadn’t seen anyone from the old gang since the last class reunion, in 2001. Then, early last year, Chris sent around an e-mail titled “Cheese Dogs” (don’t ask) as a conversation starter about an upcoming class reunion, teasing us with references to funny moments from our school days. One by one, we responded with stories of our own.

Before long, the “Cheese Dogs” thread took on a life of its own. Soon our whole high school experience was being replayed on our laptop and iPhone screens. Every class, every teacher, every awkward date, every strange thing one of our classmates did, every zany night out—all reconstructed in hilarious detail. People everywhere have their own stories—ours are not uniquely funny, or even unique, but they are unique to us. And like photographs tucked away in a drawer for decades, they were a joy to share all over again. And like time travelers, there we were: wondering what to do with a fallen streetlamp after Chris’ car skidded on an icy road and into a snowbank; playing soccer hungover because the game was postponed by a day, but Margo’s party was not; watching in shock as a classmate, trying to close the Venetian blinds for a movie in chemistry class, yanked the whole thing out of its casing and watched helplessly as it smashed into thousands of dollars worth of Pyrex glassware. And of course, swimming nude in Onota Lake and ducking the police searchlights.

Reconnected, we all vowed to make it back to Pittsfield for that weekend in July, and most of us did. And what an amazing reunion. I had all but forgotten what awesome friends I made all those years ago in high school. Our e-mail group has remained active ever since. Not everyone is so lucky; I do know people who couldn’t wait to leave everything about high school behind, for whom high school was like one three- or four-year-long root canal.

As the official reunion event ended and many of us agreed to meet for a nightcap at my hotel, Mark asked me if I could give him a ride. Prior to the weekend, I had told everyone I was in the middle of a divorce, so it wouldn’t come up as a surprise. Mark and Diana had divorced several years earlier. He wanted to ride alone with me to find out how I was doing, and to share his experiences. And Mark is so funny and easygoing about everything, talking about divorce with him was anything but a downer. We were having such a good time, we stayed in the parked car for another 10 minutes before going into the bar.

At the gathering this past Saturday, we retold the midnight-swim story with four of five participants present—Chris, Dick, George, and me. We even remembered our check-in sounds. Everyone got a nice laugh out of it. I also met Phoebe, now a graduate student, for the first time. Later, I learned that she had had considerable difficulty letting go of the anger she felt toward her parents over their divorce.

That got me thinking about my own children, but also about Phoebe, and whatever between her and her father may have been left unreconciled. If I could say one thing to her, it is this:

I don’t know enough about you or your life to understand what you have gone through or how you feel. All I do know is this: If you’ve been married for any length of time, and especially if there are children, divorce is difficult for everybody involved. It doesn’t matter if it’s his fault or her fault, or everybody’s fault or nobody’s fault. It’s no fun for the kids and it’s no fun for the parents. It breaks their hearts to tear their children’s lives apart, but for one reason or another, they have reached the conclusion that there is no other choice. Mark loved you, but I’m sure you know that. He made that clear to us as well. You know what else about him, that you might have heard once or twice these past couple of months? When you talked one-on-one with him, it was as if you were the only other person in the world. We all try to be that much in the moment, but Mark did it effortlessly. And for me, it was a blessing to have that last 20 minutes in the car with him, as he shared his own difficult experience with me to make sure I didn’t feel like I was going through it alone.

On the night before Thanksgiving, at the home in Laguna Beach he shared with Corrin, his partner, Mark Warren Peronto died suddenly, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. Last Saturday, we gathered in Williamstown to toast his memory and tell stories celebrating his life—and to watch a video of him skydiving, smiling from ear to ear as he fell to Earth.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

 

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