Thirty-five years ago I graduated from high school. That day, to the best of my recollection, was the last time I saw Jeff. My own son just graduated, from a different school, and the traditions of his last week of senior year really took me back. That last day of high school was, at that point, the best one of my life. Everything stretched before me, full of possibility, like a road vanishing into the horizon. I would cast off the old labels and remake myself. I would leave the tormentors and creeps behind. The realization that I'd never see 90 percent of my schoolmates again filled me with absolute joy. I couldn't stop smiling.
I remember every detail of my final day of high school like it was yesterday. I arrived early, and hung out with my friends, as usual. I only had a couple morning classes, since I completed most of my required academics the previous semester. I made a cursory appearance in the art room and cleaned out my file drawer of completed assignments. The art teacher, sitting at her desk by the door, bid me a fond farewell by calling me her "biggest disappointment." I had squandered my talent, you see, on too many comix and cartoons that year, instead of making "real" art. I glared at her without rebuttal. I dramatically tossed my unwanted portfolio of still lifes and model drawings in the large trash bin by the door and left without a comment or a backward glance. Needless to say, she was no mentor and I didn't bother to keep in touch, even after I became the most illustrious art grad that school ever produced.
I spent the rest of the day in the band room, the only place in high school that I felt at ease, with my friends, the various members of the Dahmer Fan Club. We ate as a group in the cafeteria one last time, huddled together at "our" table, the band nerd table, and wolfed down the familiar cafeteria gruel. The tater tots and fries were quite tasty, actually. We didn't give the slightest shit if anyone snickered in our direction. That stupid high school crap was behind us. Onward! I could've left at any time. It was an open campus and seniors came and went as they pleased, not that any teachers, who were as anxious for the year to end as we were, paid attention. When that final bell rang, we burst through the bandroom doors onto the lawn outside with great whoops and high fives. I lingered for awhile, soaking up every moment, until the long line of buses pulled away in clouds of dust and exhaust and the sudden afterschool quiet settled over the grounds. Only then did I make the short walk home. I remember the smell of the trees and freshcut grass, the sound of birds, the feeling of the springtime sun on my back, and when I walked through the front door of my house, a great sense of relief washed over me. I was done. I was out. I was free at last!
Dahmer's last day, as I recount in the book, was quite different. There was no joy. I doubt he was capable of joy, or almost any emotion, at that point. I remember seeing him in the halls that day, and briefly lurking around the band room, as he often did, even after the Dahmer Fan Club ceased to be and we pushed him away. He was drinking a prodigious amount of booze by then and spent much of that day in a drunken stupor. Then he staggered onto his bus and rode away, never to return.
Commencement was the following Sunday. The ceremony took place at the Richfield Coliseum, a 20,000 seat arena, now long demolished, that was stupidly built near the highway on the outskirts of my sleepy hometown. Even with families "swelling" the assemblage to 1,000 or so, we were swallowed up by the vast, empty cave of a space. It was a spooky venue, especially since only half the lights were on. Darkness loomed far overhead and in the upper reaches of the stands. Amplified voices echoed into the void. I remember Dahmer was seated in the row behind me, a little way down. We gave each other the traditional spastic greeting. I didn't see him after the ceremony. I posed for pictures with my other friends, but Jeff had vanished.
That evening was the traditional Senior All-night Party at a country club in Akron. I made an appearance, I don't know why, except that's it's hard to break away completely, even from a high school society that you loath. I certainly wasn't welcome there. And when an effeminate classmate showed up (who would later come out) and was immediately hurled into the pool for being "a fag" by a group of cackling jocks, I beat a hasty retreat. I drove around town all night with friends, cruising the familiar routes as we had done a thousand times before, and watched the Monday morning sunrise on the front steps of the high school. There was no sense of what we were losing. Indeed, several of the friends I sat with that morning would soon vanish from my life altogether. No, there was only joy. When the buses pulled up with underclassmen (who still had a couple weeks of school to go), we greeted them with mocks and jeers. It was liberating!
|I took this photo of the sun rising over the high school the morning after graduation.|
I never saw Jeff again. Not around town, not at the mall, not at any of the familiar haunts. I ran into plenty of schoolmates at those places, but no one ever reported seeing Jeff. We still worked "Dahmerisms", recreations of his spastic schtick, into our group patter, and did so all through our college years until we either tired of it or realized just how indefensibly tasteless it was. I wondered about Jeff's disappearing act at the time, and thought it very odd. There were plenty of classmates who I never saw again, but my friends, close or casual, materialized every now and then. At the very least, word reached me about what they were up to. With Jeff, nothing. I was around often that summer, even though I started college in Pittsburgh summer semester I returned frequently, and then moved back home for good at winter break in December when I left art school, but it was as if he just dropped off the face of the earth. Thirteen years later I would learn why.