Graduation Night (A Short Story)

Note: I posted a shorter version of this story earlier, because I couldn’t find this one. This is a more “finished” draft, a lot closer to what I was trying to say and do.

Finally came that great night, graduation night. It was a party and Russell was always conspicuously absent from parties. His brother was always at parties, going to parties, coming from parties, accepting invitations to parties, and telling him about them afterwards. He didn’t know anything about them. What did people do at them? Just stand around and drink? Talk? What? He had never been to anything more sophisticated than a birthday party. And, at some point it must have hurt, might have hurt if he didn’t immediately cover the wound with the soothing slave of, “I probably wouldn’t like parties, anyway. All the loud music, strangers, crowded rooms, drugs and alcohol. I would feel totally out of place at a party.”

            And, he almost convinced himself of it, as well. They don’t invite me, because they know it’s not my kind of thing. I would be awkward and totally out of place, and the whole party would suffer because of it. They probably just want to hang around people who are good at parties. He wouldn’t have enjoyed it, either, just standing around in someone’s house, while their parties were away, unaware, trying to enjoy himself, and be like them. He would have felt out of place, and different, if he wasn’t doing the things they did, like drink, and get drunk, and make out, and smoke marijuana. Almost.

But, they also didn’t invite him, because he didn’t belong. He wasn’t one of them. If he was, he would have had an instant invitation. He wasn’t invited – he usually didn’t realize there had been a party until the day after, when everybody was talking about it – because he wasn’t one of them. And, he couldn’t be one of them, because they didn’t invite him to stuff. They hung out without him, they partied, they went to the movies and watched sports at each other’s houses, and they didn’t miss him when he wasn’t there.

            All his life, he had had to feign disinterest in being one of the guys. He was too intelligent, too independent, too mature. He just wasn’t interested in being just another guy all of his life. A small thing, a tiny phrase, with the very nature of a backhanded assessment – “he’s just one of the guys” – but it was the highest compliment a man could get, in any school, the greatest praise, the penultimate badge, the only label that really mattered. To be one of the guys meant you had been accepted by your peers as being as good as them, as deserving of respect and reward, that you were no different, that they looked at you and saw themselves – and it was good.

            He wanted to be one of the guys. More importantly, he wanted to feel like one of the guys.

            His moment finally came, graduation night, of all nights. The ceremony was over, but they were still in their caps and gowns, just hanging outside the auditorium where they’d received their diplomas, and feeling a great sense of accomplishment, finality and purpose. They were finally out of school. They had made it. They had made it and made their parents proud, and…

            “Hey, we’re not seniors anymore.” He was sure Lara had said it, with surprise and great wonderment. They weren’t. They were graduates.

            “Nope,” he agreed, after the laughter died down. “We are officially almost adults.”

            “Yeah, as in, you’re almost any adult now, why can’t you act like one?”

            And, just like that, so casually, Brady looked him in the eye, smiling. He smiled, and spoke, so rarely, it as a thing of beauty, practically for the ages. “First party of the summer at my house.”

            Just like that. “Okay,” he said, just as casually. It wasn’t an invitation, either. It was just information. It was a sign. He loved Brady, in that moment. He wanted to hug him and tell him how much he liked him, and would miss him, when they had all gone away.

            He hadn’t gone home. Because they hadn’t gone home. They saw their parents into their cars, then just stood around talking, while the sun went down a little. Then they went to a nearby German store and bought stuff, snacks, drinks, sodas, bratwurst, brotchen, knockwurst, gummies, everything. They climbed into cars and a taxi, all of them, men, women, juniors and a few sophomores who were cool and rebellious enough to tag along.

            He was in the car Brady’s parents had bought him for graduation. Everyone was excited about that. As it wound slowly up the hill to Brady’s house, he thought, this is the first time I’ve seen Brady’s home.

            He helped in any way he could, trying to set up for the party, like he’d done it before. And it was fun, the energy and excitement thye all had, the playful talking, unselfconscious laughing, the happiness, the joy – the love, he now realized. They loved each other and they may not even have known it. He kept stopping what he was doing, to watch them, to see how much fun they were having, just to watch how they were, and they kept stopping to look at him, and make sure he was having fun. They do like me.

            The party got into full swing by itself. It started before people began arriving, and they just joined in, adding their happiness and passion to it, until it was happening. He made himself useful, putting up coats, and getting drinks for everyone, still slightly anxious about his place, but really happy to be there. It is going so well. I am just going to sit down somewhere, I’ll talk to anyone I know and just be social and, oh…

            There was Warren, one of the quietest kids he knew. He had never been able to get him to talk to him, to socialize. From experience he had learned, he could be friends with almost anyone, if he could get them in a conversation. Warren wouldn’t talk to him, barely looked at him, was self-possessed, maybe, and just above him. He just seemed too good for him. And, he seemed to know it.

            Warren nodded to him, not at all surprised he was there, just tipped his head up a bit. As if that was his, or their, usual greeting, and asked for a Fanta. He pulled a cold one from the refrigerator, making sure his hands were on the very bottom of the bottle, so Warren could see he hadn’t had his hands on the mouth. And, watched him go into the living room. People made room for Warren, whether they were conscious of it or not, because he was the post commander’s son. But he had said ‘hi’. Warren was drinking from a bottle he had held. They were at the same party together, and they could be again. There was hope for that. Warren was just one of those guys you really felt you had to be friends with.

            He debated with himself about grabbing a beer. But, decided against it. No sense sitting around sipping at something he hated, just because it might make him look less like the square everyone knew he was. Then he went into the living room.

And, oh…

            It was so casual. So casual. He entered the living room carefully stepping over various things lying on the floor, looking for a place to sit, or an open spot to stand in. Brady, on the couch, looked up as he was coming, and moved over, and beckoned him to the couch with his head. People parted for him, he was sure of it. When he sat next to him, Brady threw his arm over his shoulder, and pulled him into whatever they were talking about. And, just like that, he was one of the guys. He felt it. He really felt like one of the guys, not like one of the guys who had to watch his step or get kicked out of the club (or so he thought).

            It was so casual.

            For the rest of the night, he stayed right by Brady, leaned up against him. He didn’t remember what they talked about. He didn’t remember if Brady moved his arm. He reveled and wallowed in the belonging, in his first taste of what I meant to be one of the guys. He had been waiting for it so long and he didn’t even know it.

            Did he get drunk? He drank. He didn’t remember being drunk. He had never been drunk. He drank with the guys. He drank with his brother, and it didn’t like a put on. No one watched him to see how he handled his liquor. They just (yes) stood in the kitchen and had a beer.

            Brady was in his car, with the Robin twins, John and Christopher, taking a spin on the road that spiraled around the hill. John was his best friend. It was their third tour together, the third time they had been at the same school together, and he remembered Brady telling him how happy he was that he’d get to graduate with his best friend, how happy he was that they were together again.

            Well, when they came back, Brady ran into the kitchen, and grabbed him. “Your turn.” He didn’t want to say “no”, but…

            “You ever driven a car before?” He hadn’t.

            “Okay,” and Brady was pushing him out the door and into the driver’s seat. “Just turn the wheel in the direction you want to go – but gently – and apply the brake – easy – to slow yourself down.” Brady reached across his lap and fastened his belt. He handed him a beer. “It’s easy.”

            The car was running. He just stepped on the accelerator, and away he went. They pushed the car for a minute, for laughs, and slapped on the trunk hood. He looked at them in the rear view mirror as he pulled away. Brady, John, Christopher, his brother, Tony, Tommy, Breck, and Amy, Rose, and Leslie were crowded in the back door, waving goodbye, or something. Then he focused on the road ahead and not breaking Brady’s car.

            He let me drive his car. He marveled at the way his life, and luck, kept turning since they moved to Germany. Football, Basketball, track, speech and drama club. The two-lane road wound around the hill from the base to the very top, where Brady lived but there were only three or four houses on it, plenty of land. He kept the car between the lines, and tried to lean back, against the seat, casually. He couldn’t do it. He let me drive his car.

When he stepped out of the airport, the day they arrived in Germany, January, painfully cold, the wind had talons, he felt… something had gone. It wasn’t a weight, but something wasn’t there, anymore. The reality of being Russell Haynes from Denver, Colorado. He was free of the United States of America and all that it meant to him. That’s how it felt, driving the car, like he wasn’t grounded by himself, he was free, high, and somebody.

            He knew that on the other side of that was somebody he could would really like, someone he would be proud to be. If he had only followed it.

            He wanted to go back to that place, wanted to go back to Germany, with his friends, to see if he still felt that way, if it still felt that way. And live there. And stay there. And stay.

            He was coming to the bottom of the hill. And all is well. Now what? Oh. He’d drive back up the hill, like a grown man, and try to park it in the back yard, right outside the kitchen door for the next person to drive. And it was such a nice night, wasn’t it? Germany in the spring. He wanted to live there forever.

            Then there they were – Brady, Tony, John, his brother, all of them – they had run down the hill, to the bottom, to laugh, no they were cheering him, waving bottles and sloshing beer all over, illuminated in the headlights, like…

            But, they had come out too far. He was headed right for them. He froze. They froze. He knew he was going to hit them and they knew it. And his mind didn’t tell him to step on the brakes, or turn the steering wheel, as far away from them as he could. It recorded their faces as they looked from the bumper into his eyes – and their bodies, as they flew, leaped, scattered, fell, dented the bumper, slammed into the street under the car, slid or flew over the hood and smashed the windshield, and bounced off, spinning – and the road, how it looked just the same as it had before.

He kept the wheel turned just so, right down to the bottom of the hill. Then he could decide of he should drive back up to them, or walk. Or walk, the MPs asked him. You didn’t think you should run?

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