When I was in the eighth grade, at a school in a suburb of Boston, a kid named Brad moved to our town. It was halfway through the year, and most of our grade had known one another for nearly a decade. Considering the conventions of this kind of thing, Brad should have been shunted into social obscurity; he should have been a nonentity, a blip. Instead, he took over.
I actually remember the first time I saw him. (This is extra weird for me because, while I can make some educated guesses, I don’t actually remember the first time I saw any of the people I now consider my closest friends.) He was brought into Ms. Balogh’s social studies class, and introduced as a new kid. I’d had some personal experience with “new kid” status—my family moved from Israel to the Netherlands when I was in the third grade, and then to Massachusetts two years later—and my heart went out to him. Surely, I thought, he’d spend the next few months playing Magic: The Gathering with the sweaty kids in the cafeteria, slide anonymously into high school, suffer through four tortured years, and then move onward to the endless slog that would be the rest of his small life.
My empathy lasted about 30 seconds. That’s how long it took for the two cool girls sitting behind me to kick into a spirited analysis. Brad, it turned out, was “soooo hawwwwt.”
It turned out he was awesome, too: funny, smart, curious, and kind. By lunch, it seemed, he knew everyone’s name. Inside of a week, we were all hanging out at his house after school. (As I recall, his parents were rarely home—a fact which only now, years later, feels significant.) He was like a hip-hop hype-man, constantly revving us up. One afternoon he persuaded us all to jump out of his bedroom window. It was on the second floor, and there was a soft grass patch below, but it still seemed like a really scary thing to do. I don’t remember whom Brad got to go first, or what reasons he gave as to why it was a good move. But all of a sudden the room was a mess of giggling kamikaze stunt pilots preparing for our leaps out the window.
I was a “good” kid—early in grade school, I used to start doing my homework while still in the elevator, on the way up to our apartment—and this was such an obvious “no.” I could almost see my parents’ disapproving faces hovering in the sky. But—as if suddenly gifted with the spirit we would later come to know as YOLO—I said “fuck it” and jumped. I landed poorly, tumbling head over tail, and could feel my ankle throbbing immediately. I was worried I’d have to go to the hospital, and more worried I’d have to admit I’d literally jumped out a window because some kid had told me to. Instead, I hobbled on a tender ankle for a few days, and told my parents I’d done it playing basketball. It was totally worth it. I mean, I’ve never since known the adrenaline rush that is jumping out of a second-floor bedroom window.
Another afternoon, Brad asked us if we wanted to get high. I was nervous, partially because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to say no to whatever contraband he was about to unwrap. We were watching the movie Kids a lot at the time. Like, over and over. If you haven’t seen it (and if you’re over, let’s say, 14), you should: it’s about a bunch of skateboarder teens romping around Manhattan unsupervised, going to parties, hollering at girls, and saying hilarious things. It’s also super dark and twisted, involves awful, immoral behavior (mostly on the part of the protagonist), has a tragic ending, and carries a clear message about the repercussions of youthful indulgence—a message which we willfully glossed over.
I certainly wasn’t anything like the kids in Kids, and I didn’t really want to be. What was so addictive about it for me was that it articulated the reality of an as-yet-unformed concern—a vague premonition hovering somewhere right behind me, just out of my peripheral vision—that at some point soon, this was just going to happen: things were going to get druggy and ugly and weird, and that, partially, was what growing up would be. Later, I’d learn that that was a little true, and a lot false.
A few months later, someone whipped out a pinch of weed that he had stashed in one of the little baggies they give you at the orthodontist, the ones you have to use to tie your braces’ wires down with. I had a baggie like that on me too, only mine still had the rubber bands in it for my braces. I took my rubber-band baggie out, waved it around for a bit of prop comedy, got some laughs, and then felt weird. They got high. I didn’t.
That afternoon at Brad’s, though, there were no drugs. Before waiting to hear a response, Brad stumbled to the refrigerator, grabbed a soda, shook it up, popped it open, sprayed it all over his front door, and then staggered around like a drunk screaming, “I’m high on life! I’m high on life!”
Why have I always remembered that so well? I don’t know. When I was speaking with Rookie’s editors about writing this, they asked if I’d be OK with having it fact-checked. I’d give them some names of kids I went to school with, and Rookie would call them, make sure that I what I remembered about Brad checked out. And, to be honest, I had a little panic attack.
No one else is writing essays about this 14 years after the fact, right? What would they think when they heard I was? And, worse: what would Brad think if he happened to read it? My best play here was that he doesn’t remember me, and doesn’t recognize himself. Why would he, right? But if, by some off chance, he does—what if he’s not flattered, by pissed? Like, maybe Brad had loving parents that just worked late? Maybe I just happened to be around when they weren’t? Maybe they were home and I just didn’t remember? Or would he be more than pissed off? Like, when I mentioned to my mom that I was writing this, she remembered I’d once asked her to take me shopping to find a leather jacket, one like Brad had. I mean, seriously, was there some Single White Female stuff going on that nobody wanted to point out to me?
Brad’s family moved again pretty soon after he got to town. I have no idea where he is, or what he’s doing; he’s just some dude I knew once, briefly, a long time ago. But I’m a grownup now, and part of being a grownup is having the balls to be honest. And part of having the balls to be honest is to admit that, yes, this how I remember that kid Brad who moved to our town in eighth grade. Fuck it. YOLO. Jump out some windows.
So say I am remembering this in my own, special way. Say I have streamlined it into a narrative—one complete with plot clichés and moral hazards and ambiguous endings— in my head. It’s clear to me, now, why. I saw this kid come out of nowhere, and pull off what to this day is the most impressive bit of assimilation—swift, vibrant, dominant—that I have ever witnessed. And he wasn’t a jerk about it, or pushy, or mean. And seeing that at a time when being social, for me, wasn’t easy, meant it stuck. Being social wasn’t easy, and then, eventually, it was. And I guess I always kind of knew it was possible that I’d get there. ♦
Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.