A Popular Friend

My best friend in seventh grade had been Palmer, but Palmer’s mother decided she couldn’t handle Palmer and his older brother, and so both were shipped off to live with their father in Pennsylvania, and then Palmer wasn’t my best friend anymore. I needed a new best friend in eighth grade, and that friend was Frank. Seventh and eighth grades were the only two years in my childhood where the question of being popular or unpopular weighed heavily on my mind. I could not really understand the benefits of being popular other than to avoid the shame of being unpopular. Frank, I observed, would have nothing to do with the equation. He amazed me. He was universally well liked even while lacking any of the qualities popular boys normally possessed: cute, in a band and/or good at sports, and cool.

Instead, Frank was very funny and very honest. He seemed more adult than the rest of us. He had a grownup vocabulary and he could poke fun at teachers as if they were his peers. I learned that his mother had died the year before. I attributed Frank’s honesty and pointed adult humor to a lesson his mother’s death had taught him. I do not know if this is so, but I knew I wanted to be his friend and join him in this world where popularity is something silly and deserves to be made fun of when viewed against the death of one’s mother.

Our friendship ended when we attended different high schools, but I would never again wonder so much about my popularity. Occasionally that word will pop up in my work when I read about popular fiction, or what is most popular on Amazon. For a moment I am twelve again, wondering what it will take to be a part of the In Crowd. For a moment, life and writing feels like a dance whose steps I am required to master or be relegated to lesser lunch table obscurity.

But the feeling passes as quickly as my eyes travel across the words on the page. I used to have a morbid envy of Frank and his bereaved wisdom. If only some terrible loss would elevate me to the height from which my troubles look like ants scrambling on the sidewalk. As if I couldn’t see the whole world from where I stood; as if love weren’t ready at a word to teach me I could never be unpopular with anyone but myself.

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