I graduated from reform school when all of my friends were in the middle of their junior year of high school. I had nine months to kill before heading off to college, so I got a job at Lombardi’s Sports and did my best to cram every teenage experience I’d missed out on into that time.
One cliché I had zero desire to live, however, was prom night. I saw what happened when Kelly and Brenda showed up in the same dress and Donna Martin almost didn’t graduate. It looked painful and boring; plus, I preferred 40s of Old E in the park to champagne in a tacky limousine.
But then my best friend gave me tickets to her school’s prom for my 17th birthday and told me my date was Oscar, a mutual friend with a crush on me that I didn’t exactly reciprocate.
Oscar was awesome. If I knew now what I knew then, I would have appreciated his lanky frame, 70s wardrobe, quirky sense of humor, and the fact that’d show up at my work to give me mix tapes and thoughtful notes written in vintage greeting cards. But I was 17 years old and thoughtful lost to asshole every single round.
But I agreed to go to prom. I mean, the tickets were a birthday present. It’s not like I had much of a choice.
The day of Prom came. I worked until 6 p.m., as always. Oscar was going to pick me up at seven. I caught the 1 California bus back to my house and got home around 6:30. Luckily, this was the 90s and teenage girls were a lot less high maintenance, so half an hour was plenty of time to get ready. I jumped into the shower, washed my hair, got out and wrapped a towel around me. All I had to do was slip into the dress I borrowed, dry my hair, throw on some lipstick, and I’d be ready right as the doorbell rang.
Except, when I went to open the bathroom door, it wouldn’t budge. This had happened before, typical San Francisco house issues, so I didn’t panic. I knew all I had to do was apply a certain amount of pressure and maneuver it so that it would catch on a certain piece of metal... which is when I pushed too hard and the knob on the other side of the door crashed down onto the floor, effectively locking me inside the bathroom.
It was 6:45. Oscar would be there in 15 minutes.
Did I mention I was home alone and on the third floor of a very big house?
I tried everything I could, but there was no way out of that bathroom. I was stuck. In just my towel. With only a tiny window 40 feet above the ground.
I sat on the floor, my knees pulled up to my chest, completely helpless. There was literally nothing I could do.
And then the doorbell rang. And rang. And rang. Followed five minutes later by the phone. Again, this was the 90s, so just to be clear. Oscar had to get in his car and drive to a payphone, put a quarter in the slot, and dial my number. If I didn’t answer the door and I didn’t answer the house phone, the only other way to get in touch with me was my pager. Which I could now hear buzzing in the other room.
I knew what Oscar thought. That I’d ditched him. That I wasn’t going to be his prom date after all. “Just don’t give up,” I tried to psychically communicate with him. But eventually, the phone stopped ringing, the pager stopped buzzing, and I knew that he had. That he thought I was the kind of girl who would break a date. Go back on a promise. That I would purposely stand him up. Without a second thought.
My heart broke. I’d never felt so helpless.
Eventually, not much later, someone came home, heard my cries, and rescued me from the bathroom. I paged Oscar and when he called me back, I explained what had happened. I was a pretty shy kid and I remember being mortified as I told him that I could hear him ringing the doorbell, I was just trapped in the upstairs bathroom. But he understood and he came and picked me up. We met my best friend and her date at some fancy restaurant in Pacific Heights, at which point the boys actually announced that they weren’t going to attend prom with us after all. Instead, they’d be waiting at the motel room on Lombard Street where we were having the after party.
I went to the prom anyway. Got drunk in the bathroom. Didn’t dance even once. And fell asleep fully clothed at the motel room while everyone partied around me.
At least no one else was wearing my dress.
Fast forward a few years and Oscar was in New York to see his dad perform. I met him at the venue and this time, something was different. We were both a little older, more mature. He reminded me of home. Of who I used to be. The night is a blur of loud music and cold beer, but I remember one thing clearly: When Oscar went in for the kiss, I kissed him back. And I liked it.
Oh, how I wish the story ended there.
A few months later, Oscar returned to New York. Specifically to visit me. It was my 20th birthday. I got too drunk, blew him off, acted totally uninterested. I’d just moved into a six-floor walk-up one bedroom in the East Village. My first apartment. He stayed over, but all I remember is the oppressive heat of my un-air-conditioned apartment. Tossing and turning all night. Kicking the sheets off. Sighing in frustration. He left the next day, but before he did, he gave me an antique necklace and matching earrings he’d bought for me in San Francisco. A birthday present.
I don’t remember how we left it. If I apologized. Explained my behavior. Kissed him goodbye. I just remember that the entire weekend, I was cavalier with his feelings. Because I’d just turned 20. Because I thought I could get away with it. Because sometimes youth is the absolute worst.
That weekend was the last time I saw him. A year and a half later, I got a call on New Year’s Eve. Oscar was dead. Overdosed on heroin. Weeks, maybe months, out of rehab. Clean. And then… gone.
It takes time, but you do eventually recover from a phone call like that. At first, you can’t stop screaming. Then you can’t stop crying. Eventually, you get through an entire day without an emotional outburst. Then an entire week. One day you realize that you haven’t thought about him in a while. You feel like a fucking asshole.
You talk to him sometimes. Wonder if, wherever he is, he can hear you, see you. When you’re older, you’ll imagine what your friendship would be like now. If things ever would have gone back to normal. What it would be like to look up over your beer glass and see his funny smile grinning back at you.
Yeah, you eventually recover from a phone call like that. But when you do, you’re not the same person you were.
I saw a play last night called “High” starring Kathleen Turner. It’s about an unconventional nun/rehab counselor who reluctantly agrees to try to help a 19-year-old drug addict and gay prostitute, discovered strung out in a motel room next the body of a dead 14-year-old.
You know, just some light fare for a Thursday night.
Actually, there were many laugh out loud moments -- a feat that is impressive when dealing with material that dark and loaded. But the playwright, a recovering drug addict himself, understood that for many of us, comedy is a part of dealing with tragedy. After all, you can’t really have one without the other.
During the intermission, however, which occurs right after the 19-year-old relapses, it was clear to me that there was only one ending I’d be okay with. “She’d better not save him,” I thought. Because that’s not how it would happen in real life. Because I’ve always preferred fact over fiction.
I won’t spoil the ending for you. “High” is still playing for another couple of nights in San Francisco and then it’s off to Minneapolis and Toronto. The film rights have also been optioned. You should see it if and when you can.
And anyway, the ending of the play doesn’t really matter, does it? Because, when the curtain fell, and my mother and I grabbed our coats and filed out of the theater and onto the sidewalks of the Tenderloin, it hit me. I looked around at the wealthy couple hailing a taxi, the homeless guy begging for money, the frat boys in line for the swanky bar, the emaciated woman on the stoop smoking crack… And I realized:
We all have an Oscar. Drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, whatever. We all have an Oscar we want to save. It might be true that statistically your Oscar’s chances of recovering are slim. But, despite the truth of the matter, there’s really no choice but to wish for a happy ending.
And god, I hope your Oscar gets his. I hope whatever demons are affecting you or your friends or your family, that there’s someone who can help. Because as too many of us know, there’s nothing worse than being left with only a couple of vintage greeting cards, a phenomenal mix tape, and the knowledge that your last goodbye was no goodbye at all.