Sam Murphy and I have been good friends since our freshmen year in high school when we almost dated but didn’t.
We sat across from each other in Mr. Peterson’s American History class, occupying seats at the end of the two center-most spokes in the room’s radial desk arrangement. Mr. Peterson liked everything to have a very unbiased kind of order, and so his seating assignments were alphabetical by last name, starting with Susanna Alvarez in the left-front-corner chair and then snaking up and down each aisle until he reached “Laib” and then “Murphy.” Thus began a friendship that has persisted for nearly thirty years. I suppose we have the alphabet to thank.
Though I’d lived in the same town my whole life, I really didn’t know anyone in high school, as a fluke of district boundary-making had left me the only one of my elementary-school friends to attend Jefferson Middle School while everyone else I knew went to Emerson. Those were lonely times, during which my elementary-school friends developed breasts and crushes and a nascent interest in smoking and alcohol while I nursed my perpetually nerdy love of horses and books. By the time we were all reunited in high school, nothing was the same. I had classmates, but no friends to speak of, and was wary and worried about making them.
Lucky for us, Sam and I seem to have hit the cynical stage at exactly the same time. In true teenage fashion, we were both eager to find the hidden fault in just about any idea, person, or concept we encountered, and I’m sure Mr. Peterson must have looked our way many a time only to find us rolling our eyes at each another while passing a half-eaten bag of M&Ms across the aisle. Nothing was too much for us; we took on the signing of the constitution, the threat of communism, and the announcement of the homecoming queen with the same sort of reckless disgust, investing each with just enough interest to leave us exam-ready and socially astute.
Sam played trumpet in the band and I sang second soprano in the choir, and we occasionally saw each other in the music wing, situated as it was far out of the way (and, I suspect, out of earshot) down by the gym and the sprawling parking lot. The winter concert featured both of our acts, and after the program was over I met up with Sam outside the gym after we’d rid ourselves of robes and instruments and were back in street clothes, and suddenly he grabbed my hand and we walked together like girlfriend and boyfriend down the corridor and out into the two-week break that separated the fall and spring semesters. It gave me the shivers — the closeness of our time in history class suddenly made real by our bare arms brushing against each other in the warm air of a Southern California night. I didn’t see Sam over the holiday, and when we came back to school neither of us spoke of our encounter, and even though a high-school romance could in my day be sustained for months on little more than what we had shared, ours came to an abrupt and mutual end.
When we were sophomores, he started dating Julie Omori somewhat seriously and I felt horrible about it, as if he had betrayed me. But we remained extraordinarily close despite it, and because of that I always felt that Sam was really “mine.” Besides, I’m sure by Julie’s time I had developed my ongoing crush on the dashing David Preston, a romance that would never progress beyond him serving me an omelet one morning at a fancy restaurant my parents had taken me to for my birthday and where, unbeknownst to me, he worked. I was struck dumb by the experience and remember floundering with my order. When I passed David in the halls the next Monday while walking with my friend Margot, he said, “Did you enjoy your omelet?”, causing an inane eruption of shrieks and giggles. David graduated later that year and I’ve never seen him again, though I hear he is now the owner of a decidedly hip clothing store in a big city up north.
The friendship Sam and I shared flourished despite more girlfriends for Sam and crushes for me, the question of who we hung out with and what we did on Saturday nights, endless games of tennis, arguments about music and movies and books, plus the lingering question of where we were going to college. Sam and I had almost all of our classes together, having been tracked into the same Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses that would supposedly give us a leg up at university.
During our senior year, we both had Mrs. Fontaine for fourth-period Theory of Knowledge — a year-long romp through the murky world of philosophy and the crowning achievement of ’80s high-school academia. We studied all the big thinkers — Rousseau, Descartes, Socrates — and suddenly it was cool to discuss how it is we know we exist, or how it’s possible for us to ever touch our books if the measurable distance between our hand and the cover can always be split in half into infinity, or what the meaning of life is, in the back quad over a nutritious lunch of soda and yogurt and peanuts-and-raisins mix.
Sam’s pet peeve that year was conformism, and he was after me all the time about it.
“Why are you such a conformist?” he’d ask, in that half jesting/half serious way of his.
“I am not a conformist,” I’d reply, without any substantiating evidence to back up my claim.
“Yes you are.”
“NO I’M NOT!”
We had roughly this same conversation over and over again for weeks. I really didn’t get Sam’s drift at the time — I just thought it was one of our little inside jokes, and so I loved it even if I was the butt of it simply because I shared it with Sam.
That said, I really didn’t think of myself as conformist. My idea of it was somebody who wore the same trendy mall clothes as everyone else, who was into cheerleading or captained the football team, who was praised for their “upbeat” attitude. My clothes might have been called classic or arty but they were never (God forbid) trendy. I didn’t give cheerleading try-outs a single thought. And lord knows no one ever called me “upbeat.”
But I did sort of float through high school in that unweighty way of the stereotypical middle-class teen, my worries limited to grades and college on the one hand, clothes and cars on the other. Sam obsessed about these things too, in his own way.
But then his dad died. Looking back, I don’t know how he handled it — can’t even remember exactly when it happened. I don’t think he missed any school, and I certainly never saw him cry over it. When I asked him about it, Sam told me his dad had died of AIDS.
“Marshall is really upset, so I’m going to try to see him this weekend,” Sam mentioned one day. Marshall — a man’s name, I thought. Sam’s father’s partner. Sam’s father was gay. Was this how he got AIDS? I didn’t know what to say. It was all way out of my league.
No wonder Sam was questioning conformism — he was contemplating his dad’s life at the same time as he was coming to terms with his death. I realize now that this was the start of Sam’s worldliness, a worldliness that would lead him to foreign countries and cultures and an income bracket most of us only dream about, far away from the world I have come to inhabit, which is in a way the same as ever: with me still deeply committed to standing out while desperately afraid of not fitting in. It’s clear that Sam had to define himself much more quickly than I, and that definition, out of loyalty to his dad I think, ran contrary to mainstream 1987 American culture. Even if “nonconformist” by my standards, my adolescent musings were still average fare by comparison to Sam’s. I had poetry to think about, and a kind of blasé disenchantment to perfect, while my friend was busying himself with the real politics of identity.
Right before graduation, I did finally figure out the perfect comeback to Sam’s badgering, and the next time he lobbed that by now familiar tirade my way, I was ready.
“You’re such a conformist, Christa,” he said.
“Sam,” I answered, “if I agreed with you, wouldn’t I just be conforming to your ideas?”
He gave me that funny look he sometimes got when he was stumped. He’d shake his head back and forth rapidly, squint his eyes and purse his lips while uttering a quizzical “hmm,” and then he walked away, promising to get back to me later with a comical shake of his fist.
But he didn’t get back to me later, and to tell the truth I’m still not sure where we landed on it. At the time, I was glad to have “won” the discussion, but now I wish we had dug deeper. Maybe Sam could have questioned me more, made me think more about whether the easiness of my life was really such a good thing and therefore pushed me to do more with it. Maybe I could have helped Sam talk about his dad and tease out the personal loss from the political landscape while providing some true comfort. Maybe it isn’t even too late for all that yet.
After all, we’re still good friends, almost three decades after the fact.