Monday, October 19, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - The Bolton Street Synagogue - Part 5 - Part 5

I first spoke to Miranda Brunelli in early November, I believe it was in the lounge of Warren Hall, or perhaps it was in the Dining Hall, or maybe anywhere else. All I'm certain I remember was that I was on a hyperactive kick that night - roughly a month to six weeks away from a metamorphosis into a schizotypal personality who would see messages in movies and television he watched and the books he read and the music he listened to and the every facet of daily life he experienced.

I was feeling inspired to embrace life more than usual. The reason was that I'd just seen, of all things, Patch Adams, on the bus back from a wrestling trip to stare at the ceiling of a Prep School gym in Everywasp, New England. It was either that night, or the next afternoon, and I knew that there was this attractively eccentric girl who was friends with my friends, though we had not yet said more than two words to one another. I decided to talk to this girl to whom I'd never had occasion to speak before. I had no idea what to say to her, so I said the first thing that popped into my head:

"Your boyfriend's weird." And we were off...

He certainly was. I knew her boyfriend better than she ever did, Dave Wiseman and I had been in the same 'Discovery Group' at Hyde during my first year. A 'Discovery Group' was the semi-weekly required meetup into which our school of 200 or so kids would divide into sixteen or so smaller groups. The purpose of it was somewhere between group therapy and intelligence gathering - though, of course, Hyde saw no difference between those two concepts.

Dave was a good guy. He'd seen me at far more humiliating moments than I'd ever seen him, and while other kids in our 'Discovery Group' were animals toward me and the other nerds of the group, he stayed friendly to me when he could have easily joined in. Dave was a tallish, good looking, and reasonably athletic Jewish kid who clearly was clearly born with a little too much adrenaline. A few times, when no faculty was around the computer lab, he would shout out 'MOTHER FUCKEEEERRRRR!' at the top of his lungs. By Hyde standards, he was quite smart. If memory serves correctly, he was a very good sketch artist, and was enamored, like many Hyde nerds, of Beat Poetry, which he tried his hand at writing. He was clearly born to become a hipster.

Dave and Miranda were clearly just another waystation for each other in the sexual cut they made through the Hyde's not particularly large nerdcool swath. Not that there was much sex that you could have at Hyde - Hyde had prohibited not only sex but oral sex as well. They relied on a concept they called 'Brother's Keeper' to make sure that if you were discovered to have information on the rulebreaking of others and not to share it with the school authorities, you would be held as accountable as the person who broke the rule. Inevitably, this ethic led to a culture in which not only the school knew and punished every humiliating action of the students, but the other students as well. So when one girl took four jocks into the woods and blew all four of them, everyone knew about it only five minutes after the school did, and she had to live with the fact that everyone was free to humiliate the girl for it whenever they liked until she graduated.

After Dave Wiseman, there was also Rob Rees, there was Jacob Meir, there might even have been Kyle McKenzie and Rick Fuhrmann, and there were certainly other proto-hipster girls along the way like Amber Jager and Leah Klausner. Before I'd even said two words to Miranda, I'd had a thing for the hyperactive tomboy Leah Klausner, and Miranda assured me that her enormous tits felt so amazing that she wished she could put them in her pocket for whenever she needed to squeeze a comfort object.

I 'lived through' all these events, and told myself that I didn't mind all that much. Ultimately, I could probably live with it all until what turned out to be her last night at Hyde, when I actively tried to stop her getting with Jacob Meir (and failed). Wasn't one nerdy grandson of Holocaust Survivors enough for her?

I suppose the thought of Jacob Meir was too much for me. He was Hyde's cooler version of me - Jewish son of Yiddish speakers, with a similarly deep voice, dryly funny, an intellectual bent, both looking and sounding ten years past his age. Unlike me though, he didn't have a face like a pepperoni pizza, and he was genuinely athletic. He was neither prone to outbursts of psychotic anger nor random explosions of tears. Our gay friend Aaron Steinmetz would marvel at the package plainly visible beneath Jake's running pants. Clearly, on her last night, she wanted someone like me, but she wanted a better version. I was barely more nerdcool than I ever was actual cool. At Hyde, I was just barely on the cusp of social outcast at my best, and many more times than I'd like to admit, I was not even that.


Miranda and I also shared one other crucial thing: a mentor. He is the one man in this section whom I shall mention by his Christian name, because I've certainly mentioned him in this blog before, so there's no sense in concealing him: Mr. Spaeth. Mr. Spaeth would practically scour the school for smart kids and collect them the way some boarding school teachers collect the richest, best connected ones. No doubt he found it gratifying in making sure smart but rebellious kids found something worthwhile in their lives - perhaps he saw himself in them, or perhaps he held a slightly elitest (though perhaps true) notion that the smartest kids were truly the ones most worth saving. But it's most likely that Mr. Spaeth saw what the smart kids at Hyde knew in their bones but often dare not admit, even to themselves: that the rusty, blunt, apparatus with which Hyde corrected bad behavior was a formula to destroy everything about certain kids that was worth preserving. While other teachers at Hyde wanted a formula, Spaeth made sure that we preserved through the other side of the 'Hyde Process' with our individuality intact.

The now late, lamented, Donald Spaeth was the greatest, and most consequential, teacher I've ever had. And like all great teachers, he was all the better an educator because of his pronounced personal flaws. Flawed mentors was Hyde's specialty, and I was lucky that my mentors had personal flaws perfectly matched to guide this irredeemably lost kid to stumble into an adulthood that probably should never have been his to experience.    

Don Spaeth was truly a child of The Sixties. He went to the Canterbury School for Prep School, then to Williams College, then to Vietnam. Somewhere before Vietnam, at least according to an interview Miranda did with him for the Literary Magazine, he acquired a death wish, and that is why he enlisted. He then went to Wall Street, did lots of cocaine, and made millions. Sometime in the eighties, he lost 12 million dollars of some investor's money and his reputation as an investor was finished. Then came a terrible midlife crisis, and the resolve to become a teacher. When his oldest daughter began to act up, no doubt similarly to ways he did at that age, she was sent to Hyde. Mr. Spaeth became a teacher at Hyde, realized that he loved teaching in a way he never loved Wall Street, and became a maestro of the classroom.

He was, among many other things, a fantastic folk guitarist, and a Dylanologist. I remember that he once, to prove a point about how important it is to share with others what you love, stood in front of the Hyde Summer School, and performed all seven verses of a Dylan song. I have no idea if it was Tangled Up in Blue or Shelter from the Storm or Chimes of Freedom, all I remember was that it was an extremely boring tour de force.

Spaeth, as was his talent, saw the potential in me as perhaps no other person ever has, and provided a soft landing to end this incredibly ignominious childhood and begin me, hobbling though I might be, to the still not yet paved path to true adulthood.

In January 2000, the worst month of my life, after Spaeth heard that I would be at Hyde for yet another year, he resolved to make my time there a better one, and took me on as his sole pupil for a period during which we would work on Literature together. We would go through Dante's Inferno (truly, the perfect work for a kid in crisis), and then we did the Canterbury Tales. I would bring him some of the literally hundreds of poems I wrote during this period, and he'd critique them, with a healthy dose of life coaching and psychologizing in the meantime. Like a true English teacher of a New England Boarding School, his encyclopedic knowledge by no means stopped at Dylan but also included Frost and Cummings and Whitman and Eliot and Blake and Melville and no doubt so many others I don't even remember. Music had not saved me, but literature and language did, and it's all thanks to Don Spaeth. He began me on the path to reading and writing, which has done more for me, my sanity, my sense of self, my sense of the world's largeness, than all those failures in music ever could defeat me.

He was a second draft of my father. They even looked a bit alike - but Spaeth was of course more handsome. He was a year younger than Dad: greyer, but slightly taller, slightly thinner, they even wore the same kind of aviator glasses. Spaeth was the goyisher version of Dad, assimilated by the world into something palatable, that I dreamed of having.

At that time, my relationship with my father was, of course, horribly strained - as it's often, though hardly always thank God, been since then. I've often said that my life is the result of a family that gave me all the love in the world and not a scintilla of approval. Jack Tucker is not a man to willingly give comfort or approval on his most generous days, and in the same way that many women who don't get romantic approval from their fathers flit romantically from guy to guy, looking for, and usually not getting, the approval they needed from the person who would never give it to them, I would flit intellectually from older authority figure to authority figure - pathologically seeking the approval of an older generation who will never, and perhaps can never, give it to me; every criticism weighing upon me like yet another accursed rejection from Dad.

In many ways, my closest relationships at Hyde were to my dozen-or-so Dad substitutes: Mr. Winters, Mr. Knight, Mr. Deichmann, Mr. Andrews, Mr. Dicks, Mr. Magnus, Mr. Pepper, even Mr. Faure. In all of these intellectually charged men, I needed what Dad clearly found impossible to give me. Who, perhaps, could blame Dad? I have no idea how he would have reacted toward me were I a better son, but a good son I clearly was not.


For a week after Miranda left, I had no idea where she'd gone, and nobody would tell me. Finally, it was Mr. Spaeth, with his gloriously big mouth, who told me the truth. I was mortified I hadn't figured it out on my own. I had no idea what to do for her or what to do about it. I only began to realize what he I'm sure had known long before I did, that I was completely in love.

Like so much in the Chaucer we were reading together, it was courtly love of the most unconsumable type. I don't know what Mr. Spaeth thought would happen, but the nature of my relationship with Miranda was often much like a Knight of Medieval Romance and the Lady whose banner he champions. If ever these two precociously literary and preternaturally dramatic archetypes of adolescent angst got together in real life, the illusion of love would immediately lift.

But Spaeth, far more than I, was clearly a Romantic at heart. The Institute for Living was in Hartford, so Miranda could come up fairly easily to Hyde's campus in Woodstock Connecticut for a night or two so she could be Christopher Hoedenborg's date for the Senior Prom. During that night, realizing that she and I may never see one another again, and thinking that perhaps there was one last chance for us to tell one another how we really felt, he let her know in no uncertain terms that Evan Tucker was madly in love with her. I doubt he honestly thought she might also be in love with me, but he probably thought that I'd be better for her than whatever ur-hipster du jour she might end up with, so perhaps something so over the top could at least nudge her in my direction. Later that night, I gave her 'the poem.' The rest, as they say, was history, and so ultimately was our unconsummated ersatz relationship.

When I think back on Miranda Brunelli, what amazes me more than all else was the short amount of time in which it all took place. I don't remember the exact chronology, but in my memory, we became friends in November. By Thanksgiving Break we were inseparable. By the time of Winter Break, we had already had our first fight or two - no doubt, she wanted to be more separable than I did, but we probably spoke on the phone over Winter Break at length a few times a week. By the time we came back to school, I was already on the verge of a terrible nervous breakdown, a breakdown which was compounded by stress from four significant and separate directions by the end of January 2000, a period we were not speaking to each other at all. At some point in February, our friendship resumed at a somewhat cooled temperature that still recaptured the 'old flame' at times. By the beginning of April, she was gone, only to come back for Senior Prom and the week of Graduation.

We were both due to work Hyde's 'Summer Challenge', where Hyde used an especially heavy hand to 'break in' the new meat. But Miranda was still at the Institute. She came two weeks into the program, and during those two weeks, I had already found a Miranda substitute among the new kids: Margaret Benson, a frizzy-haired, very funny and smart girl from Michigan with an estranged father who was Executive Vice President at one of America's preeminent financial firms. My trajectory with Margaret was even more compressed than with Miranda.

The day Miranda came back was a day or two after I had to tell Margaret, with whom I spent most of my free moments, that we had to stop hanging out with each other so much, because I was developing feelings for her. By even telling her this, I was risking getting fired, but I valued our friendship too much. Margaret did not respond except to say "I need to leave," and left the table. The next day, she was dating Mike Cohen, the temperamental Jewish theater kid from Westchester in her discovery group. I was crushed.

Two days later, Margaret and I sat down together to have a kind of 'Come to Jesus' moment. This is the moment Miranda comes in. She sees what's happening, and says to her over my shoulder 'Don't tell me he has a thing for you...' She was probably half-joking, or perhaps she knew more than I thought I'd told her, but oh my god, it was absolutely true. And I was mortified - the girl even had the same 'MB' initials - and we haven't even told the story Mia Babcock, the daughter of a failed Brooklyn playwright who was my great unrequited love from my first year at Hyde, about whom I said to my first Hyde roommate "I've never felt this much for a woman before."


I saw Miranda on my very first day of class at AU. But after a year, she was almost unrecognizable. She was just as anorexic looking as ever, and just as beautiful, but her shoulder length plain orange hair became a frosted white crewcut with her stretch pants turned into ostentatious white leather pants. Near to her lip, but not on it, were two cheek piercings with studs to fill them. This was Miranda not as she was at Hyde with her wings clipped, where a girl that electric could seem approachable, but with her full plumage stretched to its wingspan. At AU, we saw each other only seldom, and never for more than just a run in with one another that occasionally turned into hanging out. Inevitably, Miranda seemed to be with a different guy every time I saw her. They all looked alike in their way - lots of piercings and tattoos, all tall, all thin, all a little glassy-eyed and slack-jawed.

When we were near to wrapping up Sophomore Year, I saw her with a guy who must have had at least five piercings in each ear. It was in TDR, AU's 'famed' mediocre dining hall. I asked if I could sit with them, and they of course they said yes.

Miranda and I hadn't seen each other in a while. She explained to me that she'd no longer been on campus nearly as much, perhaps that was code for she was ditching classes, and perhaps she was thinking about trying to make a go of college somewhere else. From there, talk between us, inevitably given all the history, got very heavy very quickly. She began to start talking about how sorry she was by how much she'd broken my heart.

Neither her boyfriend or I wanted to hear about this. I conspiratorially looked at the boyfriend as though to solicit some kind of sympathy and help to change the subject. He clearly understood that I didn't want to hear this either, so he chortled slightly.

Not noticing my beseeching look to him, she turned around and yelled at him "Stop laughing! Not all of us can be so good with women that we've slept with seventy-five of them!"

Somehow, even coming from Hyde, I was shocked that a twenty-year-old was capable of racking up such a tally, and without thinking I loudly blurted out: "YOU'VE HAD SEX WITH SEVENTY-FIVE WOMEN?!?"

The room suddenly went a bit quieter...

I don't remember how, but at some point later that afternoon, Miranda and I ended up back in my room. Not for sex, obviously, but to simply keep hanging out and talking like old times. I don't know whether or not I realized that this would be the last time I saw Miranda, but I have to imagine that I knew it was possible. I told her I wanted her to have something of mine, and I gave her my copy of Dante's Inferno, which I studied with Mr. Spaeth, marked up with his insights. I hope she still has it.

We all have that one person in our memories who catches us in our youths when we were, or at least felt, the most alive we will ever feel. For most people, it's a lover. For me it is, inevitably, a friend who wouldn't have touched me with a ten foot pole. But no matter what the nature of the relationship, its duration is inevitably short, because if the person evolved alongside you into someone more mature, the intensity would subside. The tempo of the relationship is fast because it uses up all its energy so quickly, and evolves through all the stags of relationships and friendships at a severely accelerated pace.

In my memory, Miranda Brunelli is youth itself - when we were so young that everything in the world was possible. We were two people too unique to ever be contained by any environment, or by each other. We could neither be assimilated to the world nor could we stay our pure, unassimilated selves for very long. All friendships, were they to operate as they should, would perpetually exist in that blinding light with which Miranda and I began our friendship. But no one can ever exist in that uncompromised state of pure being for any longer than we did. Once the vitality begins to subside, adulthood can begin. Life, as ever, has to assimilate us.

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