Pete was not a good friend, in that he was neither very good nor very much of a friend. He was the kind of kid who came over to your house and drank your cough syrup. He was the kind of kid whose parents never knew where he was and weren’t too worried about it.
We met at All County Band, where I was third-chair flute and he was not in band at all, but was riding a contraband skateboard through the hallway. I was bored with John Phillips Sousa and the (marginally cooler alternative) Beverly Hills Cop theme song. I was over the competition of All County Band and the nervous knowing that I was only third-chair flute by some fluke. Not because I was good. I wasn’t good because I didn’t practice.
I was in a phase of not applying myself, which meant I did enough to skate by, and skating by meant being in the top percentile of my class but just barely. I was number ten of the top-ten. “Dumbest of the smart kids,” I liked to say. I made a habit of not studying. I memorized and took notes and never dared find out what I was capable of if I actually tried.
I was already leaning way from the straight and the narrow. Pete, some punk version of the Artful Dodger, looked like an option I had not previously considered.
Pete actively applied himself at not trying. He’d rerouted any scholarly energy into skipping school, stealing beer, and narrowly averting the police. Pete, I knew, the moment our eyes locked at All County Band, was my spirit animal. That is, if spirit animals came in pairs and one was good and one was evil. Pete was the evil one. But also the more fun one. The one with better band t-shirts. The one with a better record collection. A record collection he’d probably shop-lifted — he was that sort of spirit animal.
Most of our friendship (with air quotes) was Pete showing up at inopportune times. Family dinners. Getting a friend to drive him to my house then getting the car stuck in my driveway so my dad had to tow them out. Inviting me over to play records, then stealing my Sid Vicious album.
But with Pete I got to be The Girl With The Sid Vicious Album, which I preferred to The Girl Who Makes Third-Chair Flute In All County Band. With Pete, I could wear black nail polish and torn jeans. I could apply myself at not applying myself.
Plus, I was a year older and two inches taller and my parents still cared where I was. Not that I always told the truth about where I was, but they would have noticed if I didn’t make it home by dark. I had that over Pete. So when he called to see if I wanted to hang out behind the high school in Geneva I said yes.
And when Pete said “Let’s break into the pool,” I was like, “Uhm,” but luckily we couldn’t. Neither of us was motivated enough to apply ourselves at breaking and entering. So we just milled around, unwilling to admit that Hanging Out Behind The High School In Geneva was lame.
But then Pete had the brilliant idea to throw lit matches into the dumpster, one after the other. I laughed at first, but maybe ten matches in it seemed like Maybe Not The Best Idea. I said so. “God,” Pete sulked. “What do you think’s gonna happen?”
A tentative flame licked the metal lip of the dumpster. We were both impressed. It was soon joined by a more boisterous flame, and then a family of angry and determined flames. “Oh shit,” Pete said. He picked up his skateboard and took off running.
When you have a friend like Pete, a friend who is not such a great friend, a friend who drinks your cough syrup and annoys your dad, you are not altogether surprised when he sets a dumpster on fire and leaves you alone at the scene of the crime.
I called 911 from the payphone and waited a safe distance from the dumpster for the firetruck. “Did you set this?” the police asked. They came, too.
I said no. I said I was there for All County Band practice. I said I’d made third-chair flute but maybe next year I’d get first chair. “Fingers crossed,” I said and kept my fingers shoved into my pockets so the police couldn’t see my black nail polish.
The cop looked around for the real culprit. Clearly it wasn’t me. Even with my torn jeans. I still had too much of the stench of a smart kid. A flute-playing top-percentile kid. “Do your parents know where you are?” He finally asked.
I said yes. Earnestly. Wide-eyed. It was pretty much mostly not a lie.
I thought of Pete who was in the wind, Pete who still had matches. Pete whose parents maybe hadn’t remembered to worry about him that day. That week. I thought of all the dumpsters out there and how much Pete could destroy if he applied himself.