Life of Brian: Fast Times at Commie High

Ann Arbor Michigan in the 1980s was a small town. Parts of it still smelled like tamari and dense yeast bread from the 70s, but the seedy porn shops on 4th Avenue were being replaced with more dignified establishments. And there were quite a few good ice cream shops. The Mountain High ice cream shop on Liberty Street, which had served Carob Everything alongside that fancy European brand of Rum Raisin, changed hands in the early 80s. It served bubble gum and pink flavors next to the Haagen Daz and there were a couple of cute cheeky boys helping their mom behind the case – very interesting to my tween self.

There was also a high school in downtown Ann Arbor called Community High School, or “Commie,” where the kids wore all black and smoked on the porch. When I was in 9th grade I visited Commie, because back in those days, they actually had to recruit kids to go there to take jazz instead of orchestra, and study Bible Lit with a butch English teacher who students called by her first name. On my recruiting visit, I sat in on a social studies class with my friend Richard. A boy showed up late to class. He had a fleece-collar aviator jacket, big boots, a crazy mullet of curly brown hair and an attitude like he was David Lee Roth. He sat on top of desk at the front of the room and engaged the teacher in a vociferous debate where the rest of the class might have participated, but some of them were probably like me, dazzled.

After class I found out his name was Brian. Brian Jones. I went back to my ordinary junior high school, but several months later the year-end 9th grade dance rolled around. Being an awkward, nerdy hapa kid, I most certainly did not have a boyfriend, or even a boy that I could call upon as an escort. So I went to my friend Richard, who had a bit of a soft spot for me, and asked him to furnish me with an impressive escort to strike awe into the hearts of the junior high school girls with their ruffled pastel dresses and big hair. He suggested several of his acquaintance, but I broadly hinted that he should engage the services of Mr. Jones.

I don’t precisely know what passed between Richard and Brian, but we met up at Drake’s Sandwich shop, chaperoned by Richard and their mutual friend Jon. Brian draped himself in the booth and breathed cigarette smoke all over us all and I persuaded him that it would be amusing to go to a junior high school dance. I did request that he shave.

When the big day arrived he showed up on my parents’ door step, looking like Don Johnson: black tropical print shirt, ivory linen suit and not shaved. He was eighteen, so while he could grow an impressive stubble, he also had a big zit on his cheek. (And he was probably high). His friend Roger drove us to the dance, which was in the basement cafeteria of Herbert Slauson Junior High School. The room was pitch black except for a disco ball and the music was too loud. But we participated in the fast dance, and he gallantly partnered me for a slow dance or two. Then Roger came back and fetched us. They dropped me off at home, Brian might have given me a chaste hug, then they drove away, presumably to much more fast and loose entertainments. And to my lasting delight, at least one semi-popular girl later asked me “Who Was That Guy” who I brought to the dance.

A few weeks later Brian graduated from Commie High. None of the pictures of me and Brian dressed up for the dance turned out (film cameras, don’t you know!), so a friend agreed to get some pictures of Brian at graduation. I have the pictures still. Brian is sitting on a chair in the school library in the same linen suit, exuding charm – shaved that time. I also still have the chartreuse silk dress I wore to the dance. It was actually my mother’s, made for her in Taiwan and I wore it regularly for special events for the next ten years. But Brian is dead. That’s getting ahead of the story, however.

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Much of that summer I daydreamed of Brian. My mother, always patient with those sorts of fits said, “He’s very decorative. But he had that exact same silly grin, like he knew how clever and cute he was, when he worked in the ice cream shop.” Apparently he had been one of the boys in the ice cream shop down on Liberty. Once we ran into each other nose to nose in the midst of a crowd during Art Fair and he looked down at me with his rakish grin and said “You are very hard to find.” My best friend pointed out that it was a shady trick to suggest he’d been looking for me, when we knew perfectly well that he’d been doing no such thing.

That fall I started at Commie High myself. I had several other boys who I was mooning over, but I did still think of Brian’s stereotypical bad boy charisma. He was at loose ends after high school, gradually working up to joining the service, and sometimes he’d burst through the high school. We still had friends in common and one day he carelessly tossed me an invitation to a party at his apartment in Ypsilanti. He lived there with his girlfriend, a remarkably statuesque young woman named Stephanie, and several other very young single folk. To this day it amazes me that my mother let me go. We got terribly lost trying to find the apartment, but she took me right to the door, looked in at a bunch of rowdy, debauched young people and said she’d be back for me at midnight.

As a teenager I viewed drug and alcohol with puritanical judgment. It probably saved me from a lot of unpleasantness, although I was snotty about it. There was a girl at that party, back in one of the bedrooms, who did not fare well, although I didn’t know it at the time. Stephanie was not doing so well either, having had a bit more to drink than she could handle comfortably, but Brian and a bunch of the boys were boisterously drunk. I ended up perched on the arm of the sofa, completely befuddled and concerned, listening to all kinds of crazy boasting while trying to untangle Stephanie’s hair from tiny rubberbands that were probably meant for braces. She sat smoking in her bathrobe, feeling miserable. Her hair was pale red and so delicate and smooth it clung to my fingers.

I think I saw Brian twice more after that. Once he was home on leave, swanky in his uniform and we were part of the same crowd at the Pantree, having pancakes and milkshakes after midnight and smoking up a storm (I wasn’t smoking, but I always came home smelling like an ashtray). A few years later I passed him in the hall at a science fiction convention. He was looking worn and dissolute, dressed in some military/zombie/mercenary attire. I don’t know how much of the look was part of the costume, but certainly not all of it was.

It might have been another ten years after that when my mother sent me his obituary, clipped from the Ann Arbor News. He had died very suddenly in his mid-thirties. I’m not precisely sure of the cause of his death, or who he left behind other than an older brother who by all accounts loved him very much. We had long since stopped having overlapping circles of friends. Until I joined Facebook. Then I reconnected with those friends, some of whom had been at that party in Brian’s apartment. And every now and then I see a ripple of love for Brian, from people who loved him and knew him far longer and more intimately than I did. They remember someone with a big heart who loved his friends, his food and a good time.

Almost thirty years later, one of my nieces has passed through Slauson and is now at Commie High. Now there’s a lottery and a wait list to get in to Commie. There are still several ice cream shops around downtown Ann Arbor, but the best one closed a few years ago. Two other people who were at that party in Ypsilanti are dead now too, one from cancer, one from what I suspect were complications from a life lived too hard. Of the others who I know, or know of, some are still in Michigan, others scattered to the west coast or southwest. Most have jobs and young families. I didn’t know the Brian who comes up occasionally in their Facebook threads. I don’t know what he was like when he left the service and came home. We had little in common during the brief period our lives overlapped. But I remember a gorgeous boy with a crazy streak. And as a middle aged woman I also look back and see a kid with a kind enough heart that he would go to stunningly boring junior high dance with a starry-eyed fourteen year old and treat her courteously the whole time.

Some of Brian’s friends have said that they hope that wherever he is, he’s enjoying spicy pickles. I hope that he’s riding around the stars on a motorcycle, picking fights and laughing like a maniac. There’s no reason he can’t do all that while enjoying spicy pickles.

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One Response to Life of Brian: Fast Times at Commie High

  1. Pingback: The Black Knights and the White | rage. creation – joy

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