“Pepe died. Seriously.”
I was watching Chile win their World Cup game when a friend messaged me. The irony of truly shocking moments is that the first thoughts after are often mundane. If Pepe’d had his way, I thought, it would’ve been Italy instead of Chile. Then I thought: The only other person who’d appreciate that is gone.
The first time I met him was 9th grade. I’d been kicked out of gym class and it was his first day at our school, so he was excused. We were the only two people in the bleachers. He was shorter than me, and a bit pudgy, half-Italian and half-Chilean and, depending on the company he was in, at times angrily dismissive of the Chilean half. He was like a superhero, always appearing in pretty much one costume: black T-shirt circa Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Cannibal Corpse, etc. Black pants.* Black busboy sneakers. Black trench coat.
*Pants ≠Jeans. Years later, the first day he came to school in jeans—blue jeans!—people was scandalized. Successfully scandalizing a school where the Spanish teacher was in Playboy and the consensus #1 lunch menu item looked like the real vomit toy vomit is modeled after made Pepe the natural successor to Elvis Presley and Jamie “Four Johnsons” Sanders as the 20th century’s greatest below-the-waist provocateurs.
His fashion talisman was his black Metallica army cap. His hair was stunning. STUNNING. Black as a star dying, that immense density of light collapsed to darkness. If hair won races, this hair would retire a champ and be put out to stud.
My first words to him were my hypothesis that Mr. Romano’s heroically short shorts could potentially indicate a latent homosexual who as a gym teacher was in a unique position to satisfy his paradoxical desire to be tempted by young boys while forswearing them. Sharing this theory with Mr. Romano during jumping jacks had led to my expulsion from square dancing for the day. Instead of allemande lefting, I got to know the box hat all-in-black new kid.
In 9th grade lunch, we both sat at a table with a half-dozen other guys. This was not a table anyone would consider cool. Pretty much hockey players and perverts (almost synonymous, but only some of us could skate). One day Pepe got his feathers in a ruffle because he was better at dishing insults than taking them, and in a fit of eloquent, Shakespearian rage declared us all losers and he too good for the lot of us. He said he was leaving us for greener social pastures.
For a few weeks he sat at one of the few tables below ours on the social ladder (ha! none of them could skate). One day, we were finalizing our latest gameplan for “Innocent Conversation With One Of The Sexagenarian Hall Monitors That Ends With Asking Her To Sit On My Face” when who do we see approaching, in that arms-not-moving way that was so Pepe…
“Pepe!” we yelled. He made that face he always made, the one I see as clearly now as 20 years ago: the dark eyes looking down and away, his smile embarrassed but relieved, and while it’s true we yelled to stoke the last steps of the prodigal’s walk of shame, this is truer: we yelled because we’d missed him.
We were shooting hoops at my house and he had to go home; he had, like, the most bizarrely early curfew. I’d heard he’d used some miracle shot like 2 or 3 times in games and it’d gone in every time. I wanted to see it.
He took off his coat to line up his shot. I knew then I’d never forget that sight. He held back so much. He was this gifted hysterically funny perspicacious dude who held back so much.
He took the shot. Flew clear over the garage.
He almost never played football with us. Once when he did it was nearly time for him to go home. I followed him the length of the field, cajoling him to stick around just one more play. We were close to a touchdown. I offered Eve the apple: he could play quarterback. Eve ate.
I ran back to the field yelling the news, knowing he’d think I was an asshole for such a foolish spectacle, knowing he’d never suspect I ran ahead to tell both teams that when the ball was snapped every player on the field was to gang tackle Pepe. Add a techno beat and a few more experimental souls to the mass of humanity that ended up on top of him and you’d’ve had quite the friends of Dorothy orgy.
He LOVED Jaromir Jagr.
In 11th grade he sat down at the lunch table (he was happier—this was a much nicer lunchroom neighborhood) and out of nowhere pointed a commanding finger at me and a girl we called Uma and quoted from The Cardigans’ “Zombie”:
With their tanks and their bombs
and their bombs and their guns
only he emphasized the third “their,” like, emphatically, and the whole performance, from the shock of its onset to its virtuosic timing and percussive climax, was an “instant memory for life” event. It was art.
I don’t remember what the set-up was anymore. But one day at lunch a series of humorous “ah-ha!” realizations ended with him pointing at me and saying “Et tu, brute?” and it was such a perfect comedic moment, and he knew it and he radiated as he said it, before looking away and smiling. I still remember the physical sensation in my brain, in that moment. I can still trace its echo.
I never had more fun in my life than 9th grade Spanish with him and Gummy.
Every time I see a YIELD sign, I say his name.
He was driving me and some other friends home after school. His van was brown and red and smelled spicy in that nice way some smokers’ cars smell. We were busting his balls about his driving. He was going from a ramp to an expressway and was coming up a little fast on the YIELD sign. You know what? He wasn’t even coming in too fast. We needed no reason to bust balls.
“Yield, Pepe!” S yelled. The three of us laughed and he cursed us. Ever since then, for 20 years (that number always seems bigger and bigger, and then someone dies and the number shrinks to the size of your skin), if I’m alone in a car and I hit a yield sign, I say, out loud, “Yield, Pepe.” It’s become an unconscious gesture; I’ll say it and not even think of him. Sometimes I’ve said it and wondered what he’s up to. What will I wonder next time?