A Storyby James Kaplan
In the last summer of the sixties, the world was in upheaval, and so was Steven Ockner. To begin with, he was in love with his best friend’s girl. To make matters worse, through some combination of adolescent tumult and disdain for the college admissions process, he’d been admitted not to any of the schools of his choice but to his fallback, an engineering school in the Bronx. He heard the news in April and had the rest of the spring and summer to get used to it. He drove around a lot, going nowhere fast in his parents’ big Olds wagon, listening to the Psychedelic Stooges growl: “Well, it’s nineteen-sixty-nine OK / All across the U.S.A. / It’s another year for me and you / Another year with nothin’ to do.”
The astronauts landed on the moon that July; Steven worked in Borgenicht’s, the local ice-cream store. In some crucial way, his life seemed over. In September he would be reporting not to Cambridge or New Haven or Morningside Heights, but to the unthinkable vicinity of University Heights, near Jerome Avenue. It seemed best not even to discuss this with anybody. Instead he wrote in his notebook: acid little sketches about his high school classmates, and long poems, poems that rhymed and scanned relentlessly.
Lark was his muse. She had dyed and ironed blond hair, sad eyes behind black harlequin glasses, long legs, and ample, unimaginably thrilling, breasts. Philip, his best friend since fifth grade, was short, dark eyed, big headed, and—so it seemed at the time—compellingly brilliant. Steven and Philip had always competed in everything, and the competition was simple: Philip always won. That he had won Lark practically as soon as they entered high school, when he and Steven were barely out of the Boy Scouts, made perfect sense. Philip and Lark had been an item since sophomore year; they might as well have been married. Yet Steven was a crucial part of their relationship. Philip and Lark’s ease with each other encompassed and even required him—he reflected and enhanced each of them separately, and both of them together. If Philip was the sun and Lark the earth, Steven was the moon.