SOMETIMES I THINK that everyone has a tragedy waiting for them, that the people buying milk in their pajamas or picking their noses at stoplights could be only moments away from disaster. That everyone’s life, no matter how unremarkable, has a moment when it will become extraordinary—a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen.
My friend Toby came down with a bad case of tragedy the week before we started seventh grade at Westlake Middle School. We were fanatical about Ping-Pong that summer, playing it barefoot in his backyard with aspirations toward some sort of world championship. I was the better player, because my parents had forced me into private tennis lessons ever since I’d been given my own fork at the dinner table. But sometimes, out of a sense of friendship, I let Toby win. It was a game for me, figuring out how to lose just convincingly enough that he wouldn’t figure I was doing it on purpose. And so, while he practiced for the mythical Ping-Pong world championship, I practiced a quiet, well-meaning type of anarchy toward my father’s conviction that winning was what mattered in life.
Even though Toby and I were the kind of best friends who rarely sought the company of other boys our age, his mother insisted on a birthday party, perhaps to insure his popularity in middle school—a popularity we had not enjoyed in elementary school.
She sent out Pirates of the Caribbean–themed invitations to a half dozen kids in our year with whom Toby and I shared a collective disinterest in socializing, and she took us all to Disneyland in the world’s filthiest burgundy minivan the last Tuesday of the summer.
We lived only twenty minutes’ drive south of Disneyland, and the magic of the place was well worn off by the end of sixth grade. We knew exactly which rides were good, and which were a waste of time. When Mrs. Ellicott suggested a visit to the Enchanted Tiki Room, the idea was met