Words by Kathy Iandoli. Illustration by Teneille Craig.
He had these phases.
Well, we had these phases.
During elementary school he had this fascination with Boyz II Men. He would show up everywhere in denim shorts and long-sleeved button down shirts, even in the winter. He perpetuated the “white boys wear shorts in any weather” stereotype. The first day of this obsession, he showed up to my family party decked in his “Motownphilly” best: the shorts, the shirt, the vest, the hat cocked to the side like he was entering The Alexvanderpoolera. Me? I thought I was Left Eye. I didn’t even know what a condom was so I bunched up green saran wrap and taped it to the inside of Dwayne Wayne glasses with a giant Cross Colours shirt to match. We were always trying to be someone else.
“Why are you wearing that?” I asked him.
“This is my new style,” he retorted triumphantly.
“Well I hate it.”
That was a good question. He was my best friend of four years. I should support his 12-year-old decisions and respect his new direction. The truth was, I was angry he didn’t run it by me first. In my preteen delusion, he was becoming someone else and evolving past me. And I was scared of losing him. I was in love with him. I just didn’t know it yet.
A year later my breasts and his facial hair came between us, but neither of us knew why. No more sleepovers. No more overnight trips to the shore with my mom. No more bringing him as my plus one when I stayed with my godmother two hours away. No more days off home alone for more than three hours. Things were more innocent twenty years ago. So we drifted apart. I went to a Catholic high school; he went to the public school with all of the ruffians in his town. I say ruffians because they were. He found his crew real quick. They didn’t like school, so by default neither did he. His Gifted & Talented transcript was muddied with intentional flunks because smart kids weren’t sexy. He’d call me on the phone and tell me “one of these days we should meet at the mall” in between his rants about Wu-Tang Clan and how Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was still his favorite cassette despite being well over two years old. But just like him, his boys thought they were someone else too. They all wanted to be Wu-Tang. One grew his hair out like vintage RZA, complete with a gold grill of fangs. Another played the back as U-God. He was Method Man though. A tight Caesar with a headband and a White Owl perpetually behind his ear. He never smoked them back then. I knew all of this because he told me. “Fu-Gee-La” just dropped and I was convinced I was Lauryn Hill, so I was more concerned with Gore-Tex and sweats at this point. I still wanted to see him.
Curiosity killed the Kat though.
“Come meet me tonight at the mall,” he said one fateful Saturday evening. We hadn’t seen each other since the 8th grade. I was nervous, but anxious. I was a lot of things.
“Okay,” I said. I knew he and the rest of “The Wu” would be there, so I needed backup. I was the only one with a car, so I had the duty of picking up my small army. “Where will you be?” I asked him before heading out the door (it’s not like I had a cellphone to call him there). “You’ll find us. We roll deep.” Oh god. I was already regretting my decision, but it was too late now. As we entered through the food court, I saw a swarm of brown leather jackets and black Triple Fat Goose coats bopping around in front of the infamous mall fountain. He was in there somewhere.
My girls ditched me for Cinnabon, so I was on my own. I approached the crowd of young men with the courage of a mall cop, tapping “The RZA” on the shoulder. He recognized me from the photo inside of “Method Man’s” locker. “Is he here?” I asked. The sea of coats parted and there he was. His hair was shorter, his facial hair longer. A White Owl tucked behind his ear, just as he promised. We locked eyes, and I knew. I understood why when his G.I. Joe fell in the lagoon during our trip to the shore one summer and he started crying, I cried too. I understood why our first kiss in front of a wishing well on a dare turned my face so red even though I covered it with gagging noises. I understood why I hated his Boyz II Men phase, since he started it without me. At that moment I didn’t want to be someone else. I just wanted to be his. He randomly flicked his White Owl into the fountain. Maybe he didn’t want to be anyone else either. But mine.
Sixteen years later, I sat in the passenger seat of his car with the windows down as we drove down the West Side Highway at two in the morning one crisp fall evening. My hair whipped me in the face, as I turned to look at him. No hair on his head, but plenty on his face. A half-smoked White Owl tucked behind his ear. He glanced over at me and smiled.
“Track’s about to change. What do you want to hear?” I paused and then smiled.
“Put on some Wu-Tang.”