In the 1970s, my next-door neighbor, Paul, was my best friend. This was no small feat, as it was an era when Helen Reddy sang a chart-topping anthem about the power of women and Bobby Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to a tennis duel, a match so unprecedented Salvador Dali showed up at the Houston Astrodome to attend it.
I hadn't seen Paul in decades -- that is, until just a few months ago. He was in New York on business, and we spent a dinner reminiscing about a childhood that would give Wes Anderson enough material for his next five films. Paul and I had been pals for a long time as kids but, like many early friendships between boys and girls, ours didn't survive the treachery of adolescence.
We built forts and rode bikes everywhere, pretending to be Ponch and Jon from the TV show CHiPs. We gave concerts, charging kids a quarter to watch us strum our first guitars and sing into faux microphones fashioned from masking tape and crumpled aluminum foil. We wrote stories, though not together. One of mine was called Three Boys, about the anachronistic childhood friendship of Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Paul wrote and illustrated a how-to on drawing sailboats. I still remember Mrs. Auerbach, the kind librarian who put our folder-bound "books" in the stacks and our names in the card catalog. Paul and I once rebuilt a go kart out of an aluminum shell we found -- or more likely stole -- on the sidewalk. Paul's father helped us affix wheels to a wood frame and make a pulley for steering. We took turns being bike riding dragger and go kart rider, making each other skid out wildly as we took wide turns around the block. It's a small miracle we both survived, unlike the go kart, which fell apart. Another time, Paul sailed me across Great South Bay off the coast of Long Island in his Sunfish. We overturned the boat and hung off the side, floating in our life jackets and riding the wakes of other boats until we pushed ours upright and sailed home, and then, one day that fall, we raked fallen leaves into the shape of a football field in Paul's backyard so we could make diving, dirty catches in the end zone.
During our dinner, Paul and I delighted in our memories of childhood creativity and fearlessness. Something we didn't talk about, however, was that by the time we became teenagers, we had gone our separate ways. We had remained neighbors for years, but we were no longer friends.
The inevitable downfall began as puberty kicked in. Paul and I had begun sneaking out at sunrise to kiss before school. It wasn't really kissing, it was more like smooshing our lips together, moving our heads around and making moaning sounds like we'd seen in the movies. On those mornings I'd set my alarm, brush my teeth, sneak outside and meet Paul by the pop-up camper his family kept in the backyard. If the camper had been left up overnight, we'd climb inside and get to it. If it had been closed, we'd have to prop it then crank it down again when we were finished so no one would become suspicious. Once inside, Paul would comb his hair and ask if I was ready. I'd say yes and we'd kiss, and he'd make a sound like "mmmm" or say something like "that's nice" before we'd wrap it up. After a few minutes we'd get up from the scratchy cloth cushions, return to our respective homes and crawl back into bed. I'd pretend I was asleep when my dad came to wake me for school.
It probably was for the best that Paul went to Catholic school in junior high. We had gone from being the best of pals to being a girl and a boy and, as we grew into those awkward-enough teen years, it became clear that our friendship was at its end. I think I knew it was over for sure when I saw Paul mowing the lawn one day. I walked outside and waved, but rather than stop the mower and ask if I wanted to play curb ball when he finished, he just gave me the half nod -- the kind where you barely lift your chin. It was a cool acknowledgement and no invitation. Paul went on mowing and I don't think we spent any time together again.
I don't remember what I did next. I may have moped around the yard with my soccer ball, or maybe I went next door to see the neighbor on the other side. Maybe she and I talked about school or books or maybe we watched TV. Much as I liked her fine, no matter what we did, I'm pretty sure I wished I were instead running around, in joyous abandon, with my old friend Paul.