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  LIFE AS A LOSER #82: "TO KIM."  

 This is a love letter to my friend Kim.

Kim moved to Mattoon after our freshman year of high school. She was tall, pretty, funny and smart, so she immediately caught the eye of us gifted dorks. But there was something inherently aloof about her. She seemed to be silently contemplating mysteries we couldnít even comprehend while we were distracted by girls and baseball and girls and girls and girls. It was amazing, really, how quickly she incorporated herself into our friend group. One minute, she was the new girl, and before you knew it, before we even realized what was happening, she was hosting post-dance parties at her house and commenting in her withering, sharp-as-tacks way on the screwups and failings of our own aspirations. But she did it a way that was kind; like her infamous mother - hell, like everyoneís infamous mothers - she had a way of dressing you down while still letting you know that it was OK, that she still thought you were the beeís knees.

She was everywhere, and we were all stunned at how easily she joined every single nerd activity - scholastic bowl, chorus, SMAIM (Students Moving Ahead In Mattoon) - without a modicum of concern for her social standing. She was single-minded and unrepentant; she was one of our dork groupís close friends because she said she was, and if it took us a while to catch up to her, well, she was willing to wait. And she didnít have to wait long.

All the guys in the nerd group - OK, how many can I remember? Tim, James, Jeff, Robbie, Andrew, Pat - secretly had crushes on Kim, and the girls - here goes: Amanda, Melanie, Laura, Christine - were so stunned by her ability to rally the troops and become the pack leader, she was near-worshipped. Kim used to love to make fun of me because I dated freshmen and junior-high girls (I was 15; forgive me), and she always said if that if I got my act together, there were plenty of ladies my own age who could have potentially been interested.

By the end of our sophomore year, Kim was our ringleader, our soul, our spirit, our conscience. Whatever plans we ever had - and at the time, we were all too intelligent, too sensitive, to soil ourselves with alcohol - were always run through Kim. She was an unstoppable force.

Then she started dating Asshead. To most, he was known by Jon, a moniker most unsuitable, as far as I was concerned. Asshead had always seemed to sum him up for me. Jon was a year below us in school, on the scholastic bowl team, a drummer and the butt of almost all the jokes from the male groupís ringleaders, Tim and I. The guy raced bicycles competitively, something that would have been a most impressive athletic achievement were it not for his propensity to shave his legs. We could never figure out why bicyclists did that. Was it to reduce wind resistance? Was it to avoid having hair caught in the spokes? It didnít really matter; it was grist for our insult mill, and we milked it for all it was worth. To us, Jon was a short, dopey, slightly feminine little wienie. He hadnít really done anything to deserve such dissection, but we were in high school and needed no justification. He was just our mental punching bag. He was the only one we could bully; we used to steal his physics homework over lunch hour, copy it, then demand he do better the next day. We were used to having the same thing done to us, but as we learned, there is always a smaller fish.

And Jon, no way was he good enough for Kim. I mean, she was like a foot taller than he was. But before we knew it, before we could even do anything to stop it, they were together. And they stayed together. Through our junior year, through our senior year, they were the solid couple, the unbreakable bond. They even survived a semi-breakup, which culminated in a conversation where Kim told Jon that none of her friends liked him, and he said ďwhat about Will?Ē and she delivered the classic line, ďJon ... he calls you asshead.Ē We all graduated, and Kim and I headed to the University of Illinois, she in music theory, me in journalism, while Jon finished up his senior year in Mattoon, and Kim and I, who lived only two dorms apart, became best friends.

She tried to set me up with all her friends - who had a problem with my mullet, I think - took me to all her fun music parties, cheered my newspaper articles, talked about how much she missed Jon. We were both whisked into this new world, so different from Mattoon, where women were assaulted in the park, where people grew facial hair and had weird parts pierced. And here, we only had each other. We were inseparable.

One night, I was sitting in my dorm room, very lonely, depressed as usual, and Kim called. She wanted to know if I wanted to go see a movie, Reality Bites, at the campus theater. We walked there, chuckled at all the angst, joked about our desire to give Ethan Hawke a long-overdue bath and shave, and then walked out at about 9 p.m. The weather was glorious, one of those cool, quiet, crisp nights that can only happen in the Midwest, a light wind, 60 degrees, stars spreading across the sky from plain to plain. We just walked around all night, until about 2 a.m., talking about the past, and our future, and our friends, and what we wanted out of all of this, anyway. We covered the entire campus six times over, just two old friends, starting a new life, totally unprepared for whatever changes might be creeping perilously just over the hills.

That summer, I went back to Mattoon to work in a factory, and when we came back to school, Jon had enrolled, and I had become entangled in the college newspaper, and Kim and I just didnít see each other that often anymore. It was more of the same for the rest of college, and then I got engaged, and then she and Jon got married, in a beautiful Catholic ceremony with the whole gang back together again, me wearing a tuxedo, standing up there, so proud, newly respectful of Jon, who seemed a lot tougher and smarter and together than Iíd noticed in high school, and I felt like a jerk, and they were joined in holy matrimony, and I almost cried, and I hugged them both, and then I moved to Los Angeles, and then back to St. Louis, and Kim and I only saw each other on holidays, lost touch, it happens, you get older, you might have gone through something similar yourself, chances are you have, itís no fun, but thatís life, and then she called me one night at The Sporting News.

ďWill, thereís something I have to tell you.Ē Could it be? Jon and Kim had been married for about two years now. Their lives were becoming more settled. Kim would make an incredible mother. Maybe theyíd let me be the wacky godfather, the guy who finds quarters behind the kidís ears and looks drunk in all the pictures. I beamed in anticipation of the news.

ďI have cancer.Ē Sweet Christ. It was true. Hodgkinís. She would be going through chemotherapy and surgery and testing and all that horrible stuff that happens to old people, not people like Kim. I was so stunned that our conversation lasted only about 30 seconds. I wished her good luck, told her I was sorry, then went out and drank until I forgot my name.

Every time I would call for the next few months, Jon would answer in a grave tone, and tell me whether Kim had the energy to talk or not, usually not. I kept abreast of what was going on, but only Jon and Kim, who quite understandably retreated into their own world, could really understand. She lost all her hair, she was weak, she was tired. Yet when I talked to her, she was still Kim, still on my case about something or other, still caustic and a whirling dervish. And Jon was a rock, handling the situation like a man. I donít know if I ever took the opportunity to apologize to Jon for the years of abuse and belittlement my friends and I heaped upon him, so if I didnít, Iím sorry. Seriously. It was high school. We were stupid. Youíre a good man. You have my respect. (Asshead. Hee-hee.)

Sometime, Iím not sure when, maybe around Thanksgiving 1999, Kim announced that she was pronounced completely clean, the cancer gone. That Christmas, she and Jon hosted what they promise to be a biannual Christmas party, with all the old gang there. We made fun of James and his new girlfriend, everyone mocked my hair, we watched old videos, we drank wine and talked all night, like the last 10 years had been a week. I took Kim aside, hugged her and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and ridiculed me for being so sappy. Then she hugged me back.

I saw her last Christmas. It was after Christmas Eve service at the Catholic church, and she was with her family. We only talked briefly, and we made plans to try to meet up before she and Jon went back to Vermont, where they now live. But it was a busy week, and we didnít meet up. And then I received another e-mail from her this week, addressed to about 30 people.

It had pictures. They were black and white, with a bunch of letters and numbers at the top of them. I couldnít figure it out; it was a fuzzy monitor. And then it dawned on me: These were pictures of a sonogram. These were of Jon and Kimís son. Nineteen weeks in. October 19 is the due date. In the midst of a Times Square Internet cafť, I broke down. They did it. Kim, a mom. The next time I see Kim, she will be holding her son.

In my junior yearbook, Kim wrote the following:

Please never forget me. I mean, how could you forget me? Iíd kill you. This is really mushy and itís making me sick, so remember this: If I was a guy, Iíd want to be you. - Kimberly

Kim, itís been nine years since you wrote that, and donít worry, Iíll never forget you. And if I were a girl, Iíd want to be you too. As long as I donít ever have to have sex with Asshead.



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