Adam Strong reflects on a friendship that began in high school and spanned through college, the kind of friend we might relate to, the one who maybe shouldn’t have been.
How you got into all this TV stuff was college. You were born to act, or so you tell people, or told people because you haven’t acted in years.
Theater was your first major here in this town when you were so fresh from Miami. Theater was the lifeline that saved you. Another body, a fictional creation you could slip into and adapt your behavior into theirs. You got to be an interloper, a fake, you relished in that hiding.
But college took it out of you. The classes, the rehearsals where you didn’t get the part, or if you did it was a chorus member with no lines. You were not the big fish in the small high school acting pond. To get back to where you were you would need to start over and, was this where you wanted to spend your time?
But the audio thing, you wanted to be a record producer, but you didn’t play a musical instrument and you weren’t going to start playing half-assed left-handed guitar so you could eventually produce records. And the only reason you wanted to produce records was because your passion for music was so strong, you had taken in so much music swirled around in your 18-year-old brain, loud music made a hole large enough for you to crawl inside of.
You studied audio production with a crazy Croatian constable, Mladen Milicevic. Mladen would go on to score what is considered by many to be one of the worst movies of all time, The Room.
Mladen is brutal and brilliant but capable of flying off the handle if you don’t meet his insanely high avant-garde eastern-European standards. He called you into his office when you failed Audio 541, the advanced audio production class, you had a pod to work in and a patch bay, rows of ports, holes for the ends of cables to go into, you had to route these cables from the row of holes into the various noise gates and effect processors. You could demonstrate it to him, or you could draw it down on paper. Paper does not work for you, you are Mr. Sloppy left-handed handwriting guy, and your drawing of the patch bay is an impressionist smudge made by someone not cut out to be a record producer. Mladen couldn’t tell what you were drawing on your paper from all the smudges and erasures. And you got one chord, one of the monitor mix ports that was supposed to be routed to the headphone bay. Which meant that the entire mix was not audible to anyone. It was playing through the board, but there was no output, so the sound stayed in the machine.
He was yelling and screaming because that was his way. He wanted you to do well, audio just wasn’t the way.
“You are excellent visual student,” he said to you in his office. “Go to video.”
Thing was, his Vs sounded like Ws with this Croatian accent, so it sounded like, “Go to wideo.”
So, you went to wideo.
Films and story, you in high school, you and Mom folding laundry and watching Altman movies, your time in theater was really to please your mom, when you were talking about theater, or watching live theater, you felt like you were part of the same circuit that created it. Film and the movies, live theater, the flicker of ideas behind your eyeballs, you could stare at something long enough and a story would come out. When you were alone for long stretches of time, in the dinghy, being pulled by the sailboat your sister and parents were in. You came up with stories in that dinghy, your eyes and brain put pictures above the Miami skyline just off to your left from where you were, still in the dinghy, dreaming your life away.
You, still there with the unbearable drive and determination, the very thing that you didn’t wear well when you were younger, you were so on fire, so ready to go. Your identity had been carved out and shaped by someone I’ll refer to as “Gary.”
Gary was your one friend (only friend, really) from high school who still stuck around through college, who spent way too much time thinking about you.
Gary was your one friend (only friend, really) from high school who still stuck around through college, who spent way too much time thinking about you. Who wrote you letters every day when you were 16 at Outward Bound after your suicide attempt, who followed you to England to live with six other people. Didn’t they all think it was strange? How many times you had to apologize for him. Sometimes, you wondered if he wasn’t some shapeshifter made up of what you feared the most.
The friendship wasn’t all doom and gloom, you did have a lot of good times, but years later, when you think back on it, you can’t help but see all the times that he inserted his own running commentary about you, things your Dad would tell you yelling and screaming is the same thing he would say while playing video games, always video games, or watching televangelists: Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, and these weightlifters who smashed piles of rocks and boards in the name of Jesus, The Power Team.
Gary’s running commentary went like this: “You are so lonely, Adam, it must be hard. You are so alone, it’s a good thing you have me.” Then he’d comfort you. And you had no idea, he was presenting a version of you that wasn’t true, but that didn’t prevent you from lapping up that untruth. “It’s a good thing you have me, because what would you do then?”
It was this voice that sliced you down, took words away. At first, you didn’t believe you heard what you heard. Gary would pull the rug out from under you, you weren’t able to say anything in defense of yourself. This was a pattern he used, if he started with a shock line, you’d spend the rest of the time paralyzed. He’d hit you with trauma and you were too damn stunned to do anything about it, so the narrative was born, that through-line that would haunt you for the rest of your days, that you are not good enough, that you are so defective and no one will ever love you.
He’d call and call and call and call.
“Obsessed” is what your Dad called it. He saw it right away, tried to play it cool, though, like you, he wore his determination on his sleeves. Wasn’t sure why someone like Gary would spend so much time thinking about you.
You’d do something wrong, or just make a mistake, and there would be Gary with all of his commentary, and you’d be sleeping over, so there was no one else there to do all the processing for you. So, you believed him, there would only be you and him, anyone else who got close he’d find a way to cut off. You didn’t realize it was happening.
“There’s just something about you that makes people hate you, what is it?”
Sometimes, you got so into being the uncomfortable being you still are that you pay attention to the wrong thing, you are staring at the books on the shelf, and your friend is eviscerating your sense of self.
Years later, in high school, he will call one of the people you start to hang around with, people you really wanted to be friends with, they know bands, philosophers, politics, and art, and with a passion you want to be a part of. Gary saw it as a threat and called them up, told them about what was going to happen to them if they hung out with you. They laughed, “Who’s this guy and what has he done to you?”
Knowing that he did it opens up a big cloud of a question in your head. A question with too little known for you to do anything about it.
How did he get their number?
How did he do any of this?
You are young and you talk about the cheat codes in Contra and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, you talk about the music that you love and the girls who make you crazy, you still have a thing for sci-fi movies, having just stopped playing with your Star Wars figures a year or so earlier. When you open up your mouth, you let out the torrent of stutters, song titles, poetry snippets, a posture of pretension to cover up the cloud of who you are not.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Popping the Yolk
- Dispatches From the Apocalypse: Taming Roko’s Basilisk
- Thoughts on Life After the Death of My Friend
You knew Gary was dangerous, and you didn’t care. Wasn’t it just nice to have someone pay attention to you? That was the allure, you are not alone, I alone care about you, nobody else gives you what I give you.
You didn’t see this then, because none of this made sense at the time. What about you, at age 10, would cause someone to want to do this to you? What was special with you was you were alone, you were vulnerable, weak, he moved in. He thought, I could have some fun with this one.
When you finally put together fifteen years of connecting the dots, when you asked him that last day on the phone before you hung up, you asked him why he did all of this.
“I don’t know what else to say other than I was bored.”
Classic Gary: to play off something monumental as something that could be discarded. He could tell you the white race was the purest race. He could tell you that in the middle of a square in Budapest and your thoughts would get jumbled in the fog, all arguments in you would freeze up. The area around the space you were living in, you became hyper-aware of. So, you remember that ATM and the shade of her long-sleeved shirt reminded you of Paprika, the one Gary stopped to ask directions, just so he could talk to her.
All of this happened because you were too chickenshit to say how you felt, which is that this scares you. You love his intellect and his capacity for knowledge and facts and his music and video game collection and his art books, all this is great and good, and Gary has the same passion for music that you do. But most of your time is spent watching him; “hanging out” meant “hanging on” to him.
Occasionally, he’d do something really good and decent, almost too decent for the person he was. And that was the point.
Gary, his name, the one he was born with, there is a journey in saying it, a place to go to bring him, full awful, in the room with you, smelling of Doritos. The cracked sly panic of his voice, the know-what-you-are-going-to-say trap you fall into, every single time. The combination of sounds that make up a name, the psychological gears grinding on like the gaping hole in you that will open up when you put his name on the page.
And you are scared to reveal it because, once you do, he will have the power to conjure himself out of whatever scraps of memories are lying around, some real-life golem not made to defend a community from larger outlying aggressions, but a force capable of sending whatever was left of your sense of self blasted into a million pieces and shot into the sky.
You act differently when you are around him, you become him somehow. Your Dad sees it right away. Gary’s voice was so strong and powerful to you. Say what you will about your Dad having a short temper, but he loved you fiercely, and he wasn’t about to back down to this person who was turning his son inside out.
Say what you will about your Dad having a short temper, but he loved you fiercely, and he wasn’t about to back down to this person who was turning his son inside out.
Then, one day, Dad is there at your door, he wants to talk and he doesn’t appear angry. He sits down on your bed, khaki pants on your purple comforter, a hade of khaki, cream and purple.
“Don’t mix Gary and sex.” The look in his eyes, the very real fear, of you becoming gay as if becoming gay was this horrible thing.
“Tray is gay as a summer’s day,” they sang.
There was a boy in the class a few years ago, Tray, who was into things that boys, according to your classmates, should not be into. Even though you half thought this is wrong, you knew if you turned against them they would turn against you and you know how you felt about Marco and that yellow polo shirt, how it made the skin on his arm something you wanted to get your hands around. How you couldn’t get that arm of his out of your mind for weeks afterward. That feeling, that want, that question, all of that other into one hand gesture.
Easier to continue on with “Leee-ves for Ms. Theeeelan” you said in an exaggerated lisp southern accent wafting out Tennessee Williams Blanche Dubois every fake female voice from a boy clueless as to what a woman would actually sound like and instead of address your own affection, you flaunt rock your right hip back on your diving board, put your toes at the edge, let them curl around before you take one last swishy dive into your swishy swimming pool. It was your birthday party, your house, and later there will be cake and soda, and you will get three new Star Wars figures in their plastic black and silver Kenner packaging, the blue next to the white a promise of all the fun hours to come as long as you weren’t a boy like Tray.
“Tray is gay as a summer’s day.”
These words will haunt you. As much as what he said, Gary, the boy whose name you feared would create a golem, not the Gollum of “precious” and Tolkien, but the golem of Jewish mysticism, which means animating the inanimate, make a man out of clay and flour, whatever you’ve got lying around, and this golem is the thing you fear, this person you’ve named but still can’t name the force that doesn’t exist in your life anymore but always will be there.
Gary is several states away. How you had to wait until you moved to Oregon, even then, he still didn’t get the hint, flew out three times in a year and a half, a visit every five and half months. Wondering why he hadn’t moved on. Knowing you were this close to cutting him off. You were becoming your own person in spite of him, he couldn’t hold you down, and that day when you said over a phone line in your basement apartment that smelled of cat piss.
“I can’t be your fucking wet nurse anymore.” You put the phone down, hard.
You went outside for a cigarette. The rain stopped each night when you needed a smoke, the sky parted and there was the parking lot where mountain climbers would meet, and you’d stand wondering when you’d be able to wake up early enough to climb a mountain.