From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Love & Friendship

The Need for Speed

Nobody told me what to expect during my teenage years. But what I was most unprepared for was loss. Not just loss of childhood, but loss of innocence and simplicity, too. I felt like I was standing between two continents, childhood and adulthood, in some in-between, nowhere zone.

So I started doing crazy things that involved speed. Like clinging to the roof of a car while my buddy T. J. gunned the engine and spun in circles in an empty parking lot at night—knowing full well if I were to slip or let go, my life would be over. Or like skiing or biking down steep hills so fast I could barely stay in control—all without a helmet. Was it that the speed made me feel alive? Or was I trying to get away from everything around me?

Although by all accounts I was a normal, soccer-playing, sixteen-year-old suburban kid on the north shore of Chicago, with a B-plus average, a doctor for a father and a housewife for a mother, everything seemed to be going haywire around me. I started losing friends in dramatic ways, one after another.

First there was my friend Nick, the basketball team captain, the football quarterback, the guy every guy wanted to be and every girl had a crush on. One sunny suburban day, Nick crashed his motorcycle into a truck. The next day he was paralyzed from the waist down for life. For life? I couldn’t fathom the notion. I tried to stay friends with him, but the Nick I knew was gone.

Next was John, the lead guitarist in the coolest band, the guy who would shut his eyes on stage, lean back, bathed in a magenta glow, and let his fingers scatter up the frets, effortlessly, while everyone gawked. He got heavy into drugs, invited his girlfriends to climb the tree outside his window to his bedroom where they’d have sex, and then he’d help them down the tree before dawn. Very Romeo and Juliet, he thought. I’d been friends with John forever and knew that there was something basically good in him that had gotten buried. But whenever I saw him his eyes were glazed over and he could barely walk, and I soon realized there was nothing left between us. He tried suicide a few times in a few different ways, and one frigid January Sunday, his parents had the men in white take him, yelling and screaming, to a psychiatric clinic.

Then my friend Heather, who had always been a great student, suddenly became obsessed over perfecting her homework. She wrote and rewrote term papers, staying up all night, going to sleep just before dawn, walking zombielike through school corridors, lost, often bewildered, always postponing handing in papers so she could make changes. In class, she began plucking hairs from the crown of her head. Her parents sent her away, too.

Those were the dramatic losses. But I felt everyone was pulling away, growing faster, doing more, knowing more, being smarter, moving quicker, getting more grades, girls, glamour. I couldn’t get a handle on it. And nobody seemed to be paying any attention to those of us who were left behind.

One day, T. J. asked me to go winter camping about two hours north in Wisconsin. He had the whole thing figured out: We’d snowshoe in with backpacks, a gas stove, sleeping bags and a tent. We’d stay a weekend, then miss a day of school. That was the part that intrigued me: It was a statement to everyone at school that I was different, not interested in the usual stuff, the kind of guy who could take care of himself. “What if there’s a freak storm and we freeze?” I asked. He looked at me as if to say, Danger is what we’re after, right? Against all odds, my parents, after hours of haggling, let me go with him.

So there I was, leaning against the hood of T. J.’s car, strapping on snowshoes. “I never used these,” I said. “Just like walking,” he replied. But it wasn’t. For me, it was more like floating—above the world, above my worries. I liked the slow pace, the tracks I left behind me and the untouched snow ahead.

It wasn’t that night, when we made a partial igloo, pitched our tent, melted snow to make water, cooked a pathetic astronautlike meal and fell into deep sleep. Nor was it on the second day, when we melted more snow and fretted about the need for water and the threat of dehydration. But on our last day, it warmed by ten degrees and everything around us started to melt. T. J. was going on about new dangerous stuff we could do back home: laying down on streets so startled drivers would have to stop; climbing up roofs of cheerleaders’ houses and tapping on their windows; throwing iceballs at cars as they drove down a lonely ravine, hoping the drivers might chase us . . . when he spotted an iced-over pond and dared me to touch the center. A voice said, No. The more he urged me on, the more I had to get away. I began to snowshoe up a ridge, and then I continued until there was no sign of T. J., where the only sounds were my breath and snow falling in clumps off pines.

Suddenly, inexplicably, a surge of sadness seemed to pulse through my feet, up my legs, through my arms and right out my skull. It wasn’t like crying, more like an eruption . . . and it felt good, natural, sane. And when it ceased, some time later, I realized it was just me in the world, but that was a gift, not a curse. My life was mine to make or break. It was my show, my ball game. I couldn’t control everything. But I realized I’d lost more than just friends: I’d temporarily lost myself. The speed I’d been seeking by clinging to the top of cars in parking lots hadn’t helped me find myself. One-step-at-a-time snowshoes had.

James D. Barron

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