Tennis Shoe Thomas

“They’re nice, don’t get me wrong,” a kid named Thomas said of the shoes I wore, “but why do you insist on wearing tennis shoes?”

I would’ve sensed the mother-son tension if I were older, but I was young when I stepped into Thomas’ home, and he greeted me with this question. His mother chastised him subtly, but other than that I didn’t know how to answer his question. He asked me this question, as if he knew me for years, and he was bothered by my insistence on my apparel, but this was the first and only time we met. This was his greeting, and he said tennis shoes as one might say leprosy. “Do you have leprosy?” His question also laid a depth charge that would detonate throughout the course of this evening in the form of a theme: There was something I was missing out on, some crucial element of the pre-teen years, and the necessary preparation we need to go through for the life beyond.

imagesThomas’ confidence was difficult to mirror. It was his home I was entering, and I just stepped in, a particularly vulnerable moment for anyone. Had I been better prepared for his assessments, I would’ve mentioned the fact that I had no say in the matter. I didn’t pick these shoes out, and I’d never given much consideration to the process of buying shoes. I was a kid, my dad bought my tennis shoes, and I wore them. Second, I didn’t place much focus on what other kids wore, and I didn’t think anyone else our age did either. That would’ve been wrong, of course, for there was always a “cool factor” to the clothes and shoes one wore. The idea that tennis shoes were now deemed uncool and a tired element of the kid ensemble, however, had never occurred to me, or anyone else I knew for that matter.

It wouldn’t be the first time that my identity would be challenged, nor would it be the last, but this kid did a masterful job of placing me in a state of vulnerability. As soon as I formulated some half-hearted answer to one of these questions I had never been asked before, he was onto something else. The theme of our conversation was that he had little time for me, because I was a kid, and even though he was only one year older, he preferred speaking to his peer group.

I took it as a personal insult that he preferred to speak to my dad, and that he gave the impression that my dad was more his speed, until my dad asked him how he was doing. I can’t remember the exact question he asked him, but it did not divert much from the typical “How do you like school?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” questions adults ask pre-teen kids. The typical response to such a question, we learn from our cool contemporaries, is to be polite but dismissive, with a heavy dose of the latter.

Not only was this kid respectful, he appeared to prefer the company of my dad before knowing anything about himm. He also appeared to vie for his approval. It was so out of the realm of my experience that I was fascinated, after I determined that this kid was in full control of his facilities. His answer to my dad’s typical question consisted of a verbal flowchart of the path he planned for life, built on various contingencies that he could not foresee at that point. It was impressive in a cute kind of way that suggested that his whole life had been geared toward getting his father to muss up his hair with pride. The foggy tennis shoe question became clearer in that light. I thought he was trying to impress my dad to impress his all the more. Until, that is, he commented on my hairdo.

“That bangs thang isn’t working for you anymore,” he said after his mother all but shoved him out of the room. There were no adults around when he said that. He was the first boy I recalled meeting that had a hairdo. As I said, he was one year older than me, and I wondered if this kid was emblematic of what I’d be facing in a year.  He also had a girlfriend.

The girlfriend thang damaged the whole profile I had been building on him. I had been planning to tell all my friends about him, so we could laugh at this kid, and they could join me in considering this kid a laughable aberration of the pre-teen. The girlfriend thang would damage that presentation, I knew, for in the pre-teen world, having a girlfriend nullifies all other deficits of character, unless  that person cherishes her.

If a kid our age was lucky enough to have a girlfriend, he was to be dismissive of her. Among the fellas, she was to be a fait accompli. She was the “of course” that follows when we announce that we have a girlfriend. “Of course you do,” we want our friends to say, because you’re so cool, and all the ladies love you. The average and typical pre-teen didn’t talk about the process, because the process usually involves asking her to be your girlfriend, sometimes pleading with her. The process involves talking about things she wants to talk about and doing whatever you have to do to get her to laugh and want to be around you more often. There’s little-to-nothing to be gained from describing the process, because saying you have a girlfriend was often more important, back then, than actually having one. A guy with a girlfriend also doesn’t talk about how he feels about her. He just carries his badge of honor among boys, knowing that no other fella is going to ask him for details. This Thomas kid not only told me that he and his girlfriend were in love, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about how much he cherished her. He established his  a fact made evident by the fact that he enshrined her love letters in a central location, on a dresser, in his impeccably clean bedroom.

“She must really have it bad for you,” I said, looking at the size of that stack of letters.

A dismissive “yeah” may have been called for at this point to keep it cool between the fellas, but this Thomas kid didn’t say anything of the sort. “They’re mostly letters from me expressing my love for her,” he said. “I talk about my plans to marry her,” he added, and then with a big, broad smile that my aunt would’ve considered so cute and sweet, he said, “We’re in love.” Had Thomas not set a proper foundation for that line, I might have searched for the hidden camera documenting my reactions. He said he thought about her all the time, and he maintained that gooney smile throughout. He talked about the fact that he so wanted her to be his wife one day. He said that most of his letters detailed those long-term goals, and that some of the letters in that stack were from her, and they contained  positive responses to his plans. “And if that never happens,” he concluded, answering a question I never asked, “I’ll be just as happy with a kiss from her.” This was all said, I feel I must reiterate, without any parents, or aunts, in the room. This was just two fellas sitting in a room talking. Thomas didn’t want to play with his Atari 2600, as he reiterated throughout the evening without saying these actual words, Thomas didn’t enjoy playing.

He had a deeper voice that he reserved for conversations with adults, a voice I presumed was an affectation he had developed to garner more respect from them.

“I prefer Thomas,” he said when I asked him if he went by Tom or Tommy. “My birth certificate says Thomas,” he said when I asked him what the fellas at school called him. “So, I prefer Thomas.”

Thomas was such a violation of everything I held dear that I toyed with the idea that I was missing out on something. I knew responsible kids who talked about getting good grades, eating right, and being respectful and nice, but Thomas’ violations of everything I held dear went deeper than the nerdiest nerd in my class however. He basically stated being a kid sucked.

Kids I knew hated being a kid, because that meant that they were subjected to authority, going to school, eating vegetables, and and the general sense of being so confused about the way they were supposed to act, but this kid hated the good stuff about being a kid. Without saying anything of the sort explicitly, he basically stated that he envied those who had responsibilities. He envied implied maturity, “Why is everyone so surprised that I’m so mature?” he asked me. If he asked that of me now, I might say, “Maturity is overrated kid, enjoy your immaturity for as long as it lasts, because it doesn’t last long.” This kid adored his parents so much that he envied them, he loved school and bragged about his grades. I didn’t see anything wrong with the latter, until he told me that he worked hard in school, because he wanted to prepare for his future. You say such things to an aunt, and you say it as if you’re reading from a Teleprompter. You repeat what your dad said when speaking to your grandmother, but you don’t say such things to another kid, when there are no adults around. Once we were alone, and away from all parents, I half-expected this kid to let me in on the joke, ‘I just say things like that to keep my mom, the old bag, off my case.’ He didn’t say anything like that. He, in fact, upped the ante on such matters when we were alone, and we were supposed to be playing.

When I learned that Thomas’ parents invited us over, because they thought Thomas needed to be around kids his age, it clarified that whole evening for me. Thomas was an only child who didn’t play with kids his age often enough, but he adamantly rejected me from my first step inside his home on. One might think a kid trapped with his parents all day long, every day, might at least greet another kid warmly. This kid not only rejected me in front of his mother, which could be interpreted as a rebellion against her wishes, but he rejected me and all of my foolish, kid notions when we were alone. I had no idea what was going on in this kid’s head, as it went far too deep for me then, and due to the fact that we only met once, I can only guess what , but he was so thoroughly convinced that childhood was a waste of time that he basically campaigned against it.

I never saw Thomas after that day, so I have no idea if one of the paths on his flowchart panned out, but we spent most of that evening discussing how much Thomas had going on, and how much I’d missed out on by being such a kid. My guess, now that I’m old enough to reflect on the people that shaped my life, both large and small, is that Thomas suffered from a debilitating case of only child syndrome. My guess is that the reason the two of us focused on how much I missed out on was, in part, a defense mechanism he had developed to prevent us kids from focusing on how much he had missed out on. My guess is that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, when fools, like me, may have been able to teach him how fun it was to be foolish, in these ever dwindling years in which it’s acceptable to be foolish. My guess is that he got so wrapped up in his solitude that he forced others out before they could darken his door. I was the reason that our family was invited over to their house, based on the need Thomas’ parents thought Thomas had for another kid to teach him there was another way of conducting oneself as a child, a way other than the one his parents had taught him. My guess, not knowing how Thomas’ life panned out, is that soon after one of his flowcharts panned out, and he addressed all of the variables that he couldn’t foresee as a kid, he began wearing tennis shoes, playing Atari 2600, and all of the childish endeavors he rejected as a child. My guess is that as an adult he purposely regressed back to his youth by acting so immature that most people didn’t want to be around him. I think he probably reached a point where he rejected all of the bullet points of being a responsible, mature adult in his pursuit of all of the youth he missed out on.


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