“Everyone is a fucking Napoleon,” Jonathan reads to me from his English term paper. Even though I recognize the song lyric, I still flinch at the f-word because it’s in an English paper, and that’s just not done, generally.
It’s not yet the year 2000, and this I know because I’m sitting in Jonathan’s apartment in my memory, and in my memory, my boyfriend was very angry that I was friends with a man like Jonathan. I say “man” because, even though he was only a couple years older than me, the years were formative. My boyfriend at the time was in Baton Rouge, over an hour away. Jonathan was a man because he was an artist, an actor, and had hair down to his waist, and wore a bucket hat, and didn’t care about other people’s opinions. He had achieved a state of adulthood that I knew was on my horizon, but still too far away to afford me the right to cuss in term papers.
It’s not yet the year 2000, because I have a beeper, not a cell phone, and in my memory Joey’s paging me incessantly. I call him from Jonathan’s landline and he immediately asks if Jonathan is with me. Simultaneously, Jonathan is yelling at me to hang up the phone because, he says, “In five years, that idiot’s not gonna mean anything.”
I didn’t believe him, of course, but, of course, he was right.
It was ludicrous for anyone to think I was involved with Jonathan. No one thought we were involved except for everyone on campus. I can swear at this moment, 13 years later, that I have never come into physical contact with him. We never once hugged each other, shook hands, or fistfought.
Jonathan could size other men up within minutes. Together, we could tell if a guy was embarrassed when using his own self-imposed nickname in an introduction. We knew when someone wasn’t sure if they were pulling off their new haircut. We were aware when girls were feigning lesbianism on the dance floor in order to attract other guys. We were stuffing our faces with tepid breakfast burritos en route to some meaningless class when, on the televisions in the Student Union, some suit on a live CNN feed nervously announced 9/11. We didn’t stop chewing, because we weren’t surprised, and we just kept walking to class shoulder to shoulder with silently raised eyebrows.
One afternoon, the campus became infected with a Panhellenic Parade. There were pickup trucks of fratboys throwing beer instead of beads, and scantily clad sorority girls squealing their way though the quad like it was Prom. I holed myself up in my dorm room with an Alice in Chains album, some Andy Capp hot fries, and a half pack of Marlboro Lights that I knew I wouldn’t smoke. Not a half a song had passed when I heard kicking at my door, and there was Jonathan with a bottle of crappy wine, a blanket, and three packs of Laughing Cow Cheese, the kind in the tiny foil triangle wrappers.
“What the hell is this.” I said it with no inflection whatsoever.
“We’re going to the parade, idiot.”
He didn’t answer. He slapped the unlit cigarette from my mouth, hauled me down the rickety fire escape, and tossed the blanket into Audubon Street, directly in the path of the oncoming parade. Right in the part of the road where, eleven years later, my friend Jake would die in a car wreck.
He sat Indian-style and motioned for me to do the same. I did, of course. He filled my glass with three buck chuck, unwrapped a Laughing Cow, smirked at me and said, “We’re having a college experience. Ignore the parade.”
I ignored the parade even though it was approaching with a drunken quickness. I saw Casey Talbot leading the procession at the helm of an F-150. Jonathan didn’t look up, not once, and when the fratboys realized that instead of a game of chicken, this was merely a game of, “You Go Around Us We Are On A Cheese Picnic,” they went around us.
To call it thrilling is an understatement. That was the moment I learned that the world could fuck off if I wanted to eat a snack in the middle of it.
In front of the Ceramics entrance to Talbot Hall, I wallowed with the other dummies in the art department, wishing I had the guts to tell my parents I wanted to be a painter. My parents would have supported me, but I couldn’t do it. Honestly, I went to the Student Stores when I was undeclared, and made my decision to major in Sociology based on the prices of the art supplies. Jonathan would force me to paint and tell me I was good even though I wasn’t at the time. It was like teaching myself a foreign language. Now I paint for a living but it took years to get here, and I realize that my failure to expedite my art education all those years ago was a mistake.
I often acted as a patient makeshift audience while Jonathan practiced his lines at me. Once, when he was rehearsing for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he asked me to read the part of Nurse Ratchet. I was so bad at it, so stilted, that after two lines, he ripped the script from my fist and read both parts really badly because he was exasperated with me. I resisted the urge to ask him for a second chance.
Jonathan brought me to his dad’s house once, and I dressed like a child and I didn’t seem intelligent at all. Jonathan was the epitome of adulthood to me, and when faced with someone triple his age but identical in genetic makeup, my brain wanted to melt. I was very busy trying to memorize the smooth curves and stucco arcs and pale Easter paint color of the Forets’ foyer, wishing I hadn’t worn ripped jeans, when suddenly Jonathan started screaming at his father. I had no idea what the fight was about and I couldn’t hear a thing except the word, “Actor,” several times.
I didn’t see much of Jonathan after that day. I wasn’t presumptuous enough to think I was related to the fight in any way. I think he left town.
Three years later, at my college graduation, I sat in my stupid folding chair in the Thibodaux Civic Center and fumed about whatever, because I was 20. I wore silver platform heels, my sweaty bangs were plastered across my forehead, and I wasn’t graduating With Honors because, despite my otherwise flawless GPA, I failed one class during my entire college career. The class was Statistics, and I failed it because I hated it. It was an elective I took because the professor looked exactly like my dead grandpa. I knew it was a bad idea when I registered for it, but I spent 15 hours a week staring at this man’s face, not listening, pretending he was my murdered grandpa. That is why I didn’t graduate With Honors, and I’ve never admitted that out loud before.
After the ceremony, I clomped outside in my giant dumb shoes, clutching my cap to my chest. I didn’t throw my cap in the air with the rest of the losers because I had anthropomorphized the hat and was worried its feelings would be hurt if I wore it for twelve minutes and discarded it in a flurry of ritualistic excitement. Celebrating my mediocre education didn’t seem like a good enough reason to throw something away. I’m 32 now, and the hat is currently sitting in my art studio in the bottom drawer of the junk dresser my parents’ adulterous former neighbor gave me when he cleaned out his house a decade ago.
Anyway, I clomped out into the midday sun to collect my congratulations and have some small talk with people I’d never care about again. I posed for a couple of pictures with my brother and sister and grandma. I stood next to a tree and stared at it for a minute. I thanked my parents for whatever.
Then a shadow covered mine from somewhere behind me, and an almost forgotten voice in my ear said, “Congrats, kiddo. You really showed them.”
I turned around to behold a clean-shaven Jonathan, his eyes the color of a flaming pair of Levis and his suit ironed in the right places. His hair was very short and he was laughing at something my mom had said to him. He was telling her he escaped Thibodaux in favor of a traveling acting troupe and my mom was smitten and acting impressed, and I think she really was impressed. I stood next to her with poor posture, literally holding a useless degree in Sociology and dreading my upcoming shift at the local pizza parlor.
She didn’t act confused by my life choices but I knew she really was.
He didn’t call me a sucker but I knew that’s what he thought.
Now, it’s 13 years later, and Jonathan and I are friends on Facebook, and his hair is still short, and he looks exactly like Anthony Bourdain, which is exactly what he looked like in college, only Anthony Bourdain hadn’t written any books yet so it didn’t matter then. I wonder sometimes if he knows how much he affected me. The lessons he taught me probably weren’t intentional on his part, but that’s precisely why I still take them so seriously. The art of being effortless, and the balance between being selfish and being happy, and the importance of acquiring at least one protégé during your life on this stupid idiotic Earth, Jonathan taught me all that junk.
“Everyone is a fucking Napoleon.”