Wipe Out

The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.

—Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Most of all, I remember the girl.

Bob O’Connell sat behind me in 7th grade math class. I remember exactly nothing from that math class, other than Bob, and the girl. Bob played drums, and like most drummers I have known, he rarely stopped playing the drums. He practiced his paradiddles on the back of my chair, and tapped on my backpack with his feet—something about a double bass drum pedal. And when the girl walked by us, I felt a strange pressure in my chest. Ah, so that’s why they call it a crush. To this day, I am still horribly embarrassed at the way I couldn’t stop staring at her. Eventually, she let me know it made her uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help myself. I was hooked, hard, and I had yet to learn self-control.

As she walked by, that day in math class, Bob noticed me noticing her, and nodded, once. Me too, he was saying.

In high school, Bob adopted a pseudonym, based on his passion for the works of Stephen King, and submitted several florid love poems to the school literary magazine. I think he and I were the only ones who knew that they were about that same girl. The editor selected them to feature in a section unofficially titled “Walk On Me.” I may have had one or two of my poems selected to run in the same section. There is always more than enough teenage angst to go around.

Eventually, I found my place. At the Coffee Kingdom, I belonged. Bob drank Ethiopian Yrgacheffe by the pot, and I can’t remember a day when he wasn’t there. I would stop in on my way to school for a pastry, on my way home from school for a cream soda and some chocolate ice cream, and back after dinner for one of Mary Beth’s amazing desserts and some live music. He was always there, smoking, writing, drinking coffee. The next morning, the shower would wake up the smell of his cigarettes in my hair, and I had to smile, remembering the night before.

Bob was the drummer in a high school punk band. They called themselves Biohazard (no relation to the famous band called Biohazard). One of the band members had a family member who worked at the UMass Medical Center, and he managed to lift a roll of Biohazard stickers from the supply closet, so that was the name of the band. I volunteered at a theatre downtown, so when Biohazard got a gig at the local community center, Bob came to me and asked if I could borrow some lighting equipment. I made a ridiculous mess of the lighting plot, which my designer friend Jason straightened out in about 30 seconds. I helped set up for the concert. I remember a song called “Welcome to Managua,” which involved a lot of screaming. And they did a cover of “Wipe Out,” complete with extended drum solo. Bob’s glasses flew off his face during that drum solo, as they so often did, and his squinched-up expression as he tried to see what he was doing resembled nothing so much as a far-sighted hamster. I still have a couple of Biohazard stickers, and that lighting plot is around here somewhere, with the drum kit labeled Hamster.

I also remember that the band members were planning a post-show celebration. They were going to wear rented tuxedos and go to Denny’s. The plan was to order Hot Fudge Brownies à la Mode, in unison, monotone, faces expressionless, and when the sundaes arrived, to plunge their faces in and eat them without using their hands. I have no idea if that ever happened, but I would like to think they went through with it.

There were more nights at the Coffee Kingdom, and love, and heartbreak. We went off to college, but it wasn’t until the Coffee Kingdom closed its doors for the last time that I truly lost touch with Bob.

Twenty years later, he found me on Facebook, and what do you know? He was working in the building next door to mine. Could we get together for lunch? We could indeed.

Over burgers at the Rattlesnake, we caught each other up on our adult lives. It’s funny how the important events of twenty years can be summed up in twenty minutes. I was no longer working in theatre; he was no longer playing drums. He told me of the loss of his mother; I told him about how I’d lost Sarah to cancer. I told him about Sandy, and he told me about his wife, Tricia. Our eyes met, and he nodded. I get it, he was saying. The way he spoke of Tricia, the look in his eyes, I knew he understood. Love is so much more complex and powerful than we ever imagined, in that seventh grade math class, struggling against our carbonated hormones, desperately yearning for something we didn’t understand.

He’s gone, now. He died last night, after a month in the hospital. Lung cancer. Wiped out, if you will, like an eraser across a chalkboard, and my faded memories of him like the ghost of what was written there. I want to be very careful, how I write this next part, because I don’t want anyone to think for a second that I am blaming him for anything. Cancer is pure evil. It can and does strike anyone. But scent is such a powerful memory trigger, and I can never smell a cigarette without remembering Bob, sitting at a glass-topped table in the Coffee Kingdom, French press, Think Book, denim jacket, and all. So when you smell cigarette smoke, take a moment to think of what happened to Bob, to Josh, to Sheila, to your friends. How quickly and easily they were taken from us, here one minute and gone the next.

You can’t live every day as if it were your last. Our minds aren’t built to handle that level of awareness. But once in a while, when you smell cigarette smoke, surface, for a minute. Remember how fragile we are, how briefly we are here. Tell someone that you’re glad they’re alive.

As for the girl, she is still beautiful. I could email her tonight, and apologize for the clumsy, desperate way we loved her. It had nothing to do with love. I know that, now. But Leave me alone, she said, and I have, and I will.

3 Responses to “Wipe Out”

  1. Matt Smith Says:

    Totally awesome! I wish I had been more involved in the Coffee Kingdom gatherings, but alas, I lived a school bus ride away and rarely ever visited CK. But thank you for posting this, I really enjoyed it! RIP Bob! <3

  2. Courtney Says:

    This is amazing. Very touching tribute to a soul who touched your life in a way he probably didn’t fully grasp. None of us know the true impact we have on each other. Spent many a nights at CK. Rolos in one hand with a cup of sugar with a splash of coffee in the other. That ride-on horse, the apartment with numerous friends who called it home. The skate shop next door. The nicest clerk at the convenience store next door. And yes, the heavy, intoxicating cigarette smoke. God, I miss those days…

  3. Moira Says:

    I also remember that concert, and that Wipe Out cover. And my favorite fixtures at the Coffee Kingdom. Chamomile tea and Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider. Backgammon. The Think Book.

    I hadn’t seen Bob in years, but I will always remember him as a part of that place and time. Thank you so much for bringing me back there so poignantly.