“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
When I was 20, maybe 21, signing up for yet another semester of Humanities at the local community college, adulthood perpetually as imminent as the red button, the Cold War was unknowingly about to end. In a desperate ploy to hang on to childish things, to look cool in the eyes of others, I graffiti’d a pair of white Vans with titles of Vladimir Nabokov novels in red magic marker. Save for that stunning opening paragraph that even now astounds me by its physical lyricism, I hardly knew who Nabokov was, much less Stanley Kubrick or James Mason, who together brought Lolita to the screen. Smitten as I was with the younger intellectual skateboarding boys on campus – with their long hair and side-parts, lanky surfer bodies and West Coast fantasies – I scrawled ‘Bend Sinister’ across the left shoe and ‘Invitation To A Beheading’ across the right, in true contrarian embrace-the-enemy fashion. What’s that mean? they’d ask, as we’d hang out in concrete basement bars, pretending we were old enough to be there, but not so grown up to be confused with the proletariat drinking their dollar and a half draughts during dusky happy hours.
God forbid our fraud should slip.
While Michael, boyishly cute and charming and the one I had the maddest crush on, played aloof, I did my wiliest to mirror his nonchalance (therefore showing him how much he really wanted me) and instead tried impressing his friends with arcane Soviet trivia. When I found them gawking over stacks of nudie magazines one afternoon after class, I casually mentioned Nabokov’s penchant for getting published in Playboy, proving that yes, men really did read it for the articles and they should, too. Were any of us planning on graduating and growing up at some point?
We never saw that our restless energy was held in check by end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it propaganda. What young adult wanted to stake claim in an era of Reagan and Gorbachev and the crisis of missiles? We did as we were told: good little Communist-haters, except that we weren’t. We were too naive, still, to really understand anything, so we played on both sides of the rail, never knowing when the train was going to race down the tracks and split everything in two.
Meanwhile, I taught them to play chess, (the Russians were masters, right?) and we’d plot moves until dawn, taking rooks and pawns and they taught me to say “Prost!” as we toasted with cheap vodka; it wasn’t until I went to Germany years later did I realize that I didn’t have a trademark on affectation. In time, our attempts to dazzle each other with bluster and bloc fizzled, but as the breezes of destiny blew, it turned out we all just really loved being together. Especially Michael and I. Ultimately, we paired off, whirling around in a magical wonderland with passionate abandon, leaving the group behind. For months, we were intoxicated by the blindness of bliss, closing our eyes and diving deep enough inside to feel lo. lee. ta. in each other’s mouths.
Eventually, the other boys all said goodbye, scattering off to four-year universities or low-paying jobs in nearby towns. Michael and I remained, still partly caught in the stickiness of our infatuation, but somehow sensing a shift in the wind. That fall, with legs entwined, curled up in front of the TV, we watched the Berlin Wall come down, governments toppling like dominos, the only world we ever knew crumbling, and we tried to imagine life without impending nuclear catastrophe and its fear we unwittingly swallowed. The structures that had defined us were no longer. Where do you go when you can go anywhere?
As we planned our escape to California, as far from New York as we could imagine, tragedy struck. There was an accident and his brother died. All spells broke. The world had changed; nothing would ever be the same.
The stranglehold of the eighties loosened and catapulted us into our futures. The cocoon of youth dissolved.
He left for Hollywood, alone. I never saw him again.