Cool Enough, For the Moment
It was the spring of my senior year in high school, and my friends and I were so desperately cool we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We were an honor-roll posse of over-achievers who passed around the New York Times crossword puzzle in AP Physics because, well, who needs to pay attention in AP physics? In History class we debated the new hall pass policy and compared the principal to various European tyrants. At lunch we ate our mom-packed lunches and complained about homework and the campus security guards who kept us from skipping class for a Taco Bell run. We wrote earnest articles for the school newspaper, made bad art in the photo lab, and toilet-papered houses on the weekend. We were a sitcom in bed with an after-school special— Saved by the Bell meets Degrassi Jr. High; Ferris Bueller a few decades shy of The Big Chill. We were on top of our own little world, and, I think, a little terrified of falling off.
Of course, talking about one’s insecurities is pretty uncool, so instead we sat around the lunch table cracking jokes and making plans for “real life”—which meant making plans for anything that wasn’t high school, even if that usually meant picking a house to TP on the weekend and which movie to watch when we were done. What I wanted then, I think, was a little intimacy, some freedom to be vulnerable, to admit that being a teenager was scary, awkward, and confusing. But there’s no way to articulate that as a 17-year-old posturing at a lunch table, so instead I batted around movie quotes and song lyrics with everyone else, and allowed that to pass for social bonding. Remember that film, we’d ask, remember that great line? We’d all laugh as if to say, ‘look, you and me, we’re tight, we get it.’
And I wonder now how many of my friends felt as I did—like I spent most of those conversations floating around the edges, listening in, feeling that unnamed need for intimacy, convinced that at any moment the whole group would turn and ask me to leave. “Sorry,” they would say. “We thought this would work, but you’re really a drag.” And then they’d point at a table across the cafeteria where three kids in trench coats were playing Dungeons & Dragons. “Why don’t you try over there,” they’d say. And I wonder if it was that mess of insecurity that made me pipe in when someone brought up Karate Kid. We were all laughing about Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi and the douche bags from the Cobra Kai and that over-the-top final scene with Daniel-san’s injured leg and his crane arms in the air and Mr. Miyagi’s confident, knowing nod. An even now when I think of that scene, there is a ten-year-old boy inside of me with goose bumps, but as a senior in high school at lunch with friends, I had to keep that ten-year-old boy in check—could only laugh along with everyone else—mockery the only acceptable form of criticism any of us understood.
Not that I didn’t find the film ridiculous. It had been out fifteen years by then, and the acting was at times so campy as to nearly induce physical pain, but what the film got right has much to do, I think, with that question of acceptance—the frustration of teenage social hierarchy, the pain of trying to fit in, of not having the right car, the right house, the right set of parents, the right jaw line—and the Hollywood pipe dream that such pain can be erased by kicking someone’s teeth out. Then again, that’s part of the beautiful simplicity of the teenage male social economy—the lingering belief that a good fight might make things better.
And then someone said, “We should watch it,” and someone else agreed.
“Hilarious!” we said. “Let’s do it.” And it really was the perfect plan—all of us sitting around someone’s dark living room in complete ironic bliss as we relived a childhood memory that didn’t really belong to us because we were only four years old when the movie came out.
And then someone asked where we should hold this ironic movie party, and that’s when I piped in and offered my house on Friday night.
“Ha!” we said. “This is going to be great.”
“The best,” someone said. Karate Kid, Friday night, Joey’s house. 7pm. Be There.
And it can really only be my fault for taking the idea so seriously—this brief chance to approximate some intimacy through an old, cliché-riddled, racially insensitive karate flick. But that’s what I did. Friday night came and I cleaned the house and I made cookies. I invited my girlfriend, rented the movie, picked out my clothes, changed them, and changed them again; I checked my hair in the mirror, cued up the movie, plated the cookies, and then my girlfriend and I sat on the couch to wait.
7 PM arrived and we were still waiting. 7:10, 7:15, 7:20. Then, finally, a knock. But it wasn’t a half-dozen friends with bags of chips, bottles of soda, and stupid grins already on their faces. Instead, it was just Phil, the one kid in our group who, I’m fairly certain, felt as out of place and unsure of himself as I did. The kind of kid who, I imagine, like me, really needed this sort of party. In fact, if Phil had offered his house, the situation might have been reversed. But since he hadn’t, Phil found himself standing in my foyer, looking at me and my girlfriend, and I could see him playing out the rest of the evening in his head—the three of us watching Karate Kid in my living room, the lights down, my girlfriend and I on the love seat, Phil on the far end of the other couch, the plate of cookies standing guard between us.
“This is kind of weird,” said Phil, and he chuckled, and I thought he was going to leave, that he’d make some excuse and back out the door, but he didn’t. Somehow, against all odds, Phil weighed his options, and me, my girlfriend, the plate of cookies, and the mid-80s karate flick won out.
Our problem that night was this: an ironic movie party for a large group of friends only really works if there’s a large group of friends. Calling out bad acting and weak plot points to a mostly empty room quickly loses its sardonic pleasure. Instead, we sat silent through most of the movie, nibbling cookies and allowing Mr. Miyagi all the space he needed to dispense a few hours worth of wisdom and roundhouse kicks. We said nothing about the improbability of five Cobra Kai teenagers beating up the new kid in town just for spite, or Mr. Miyagi assaulting those same five kids to break up that fight. We let slide such lines as “This is a karate dojo, not a knitting class,” and “What’s the matter? Your mommy isn’t here to dress you?” We watched Mr. Miyagi and Daniel become friends, and we laughed in earnest at the well-placed jokes (think Daniel catching that fly with chopsticks, or Mr. Miyagi tipping Daniel out of the row boat); and by the time the movie had ended and Daniel had won the All Valley Karate Championships and the crowd had lifted him on their shoulders and one of the Cobra Kai douche bags had even run over and said, “You’re alright Larusso,”—by that time the cookies were half-gone and I was kind of glad that no one else had shown up.
As for Phil, he thanked me for hosting and apologized for all our friends who didn’t come, and then he left pretty quickly. I took my girlfriend home and then came back to my empty living room, still charged a bit with that feel-good energy Hollywood is so adept at generating. I really should have felt worse about how the night turned out, and the following week at school I would feel foolish enough when I saw my friends and tried to play the night off like they were the ones who missed out. But for the moment I was cool enough in my own living room. After all, the movie had done its job; It had got me trusting in the neat and tidy ending, in the happy conclusion with promises about getting justice, the girl, and the big trophy. All you need is a chance to kick the right person in the face, the movie seemed to say, and everything will work itself out. And if it doesn’t, don’t worry, in a few years we’ll make a sequel.