He was seven years old, and lived at the other end of my block. He went to a different school, but we played in the same playground. We were the same age, the same grade, not more than a few months apart. We played well and scrapped well and he was as fearless as I was.
He had all the qualifications to be my best friend, a resume written in band-aids and bicycle rides, headlined by falling off the top of the twirly side once and lived. Didn’t even break a bone. So we took each other on-board with salaries of shared Freezies and peanut-butter sandwiches, and signed off on benefit plans titled “It’s your turn next.” and “It’s okay, I’ll play Luigi.”
We were seven, and we weren’t wise to the world in the way only twenty-six years of introspection and retrospection give me. Back then I wasn’t wise enough to understand the signs of a quiet mother, a high-strung father dressing all in denim, a house whose floors were vacuumed seldom and the blinds never opened.
He was the first-born son to a father who was two parts cocaine-fuelled mania and one part earnest parent. His father existed in the silences and absences and the slender tremble of his wife who was, I realize only now, younger then than I am.
I had a younger sister, tiny and quiet, back then. He had a younger brother, diagnosed at birth with a disease that they said was filling up his lungs with scar tissue like a yarn-ball the cat got into and would die by twenty-one. Twenty-four at the latest.
But his brother was four years old then and twenty more years seems so far away when you’re that young and so we almost never let that thought sink in. But a grown-up dying? That’s the order of the world. A child dying? That’s a tragedy.
Like young boys in all places and all times in the history of humanity, we fought. We talked and we spoke solemn promises and we cut our hands and bled together in a time before we’d learned words like “blood-borne pathogens” and “hygiene” was brushing your teeth and washing behind your ears. We fought like devils with broken sticks and broken teeth and punched each other and bit and bled and the next day we were friends again. Over and over again.
New friends came and new schools and we got busy but we played soccer together and if you ever want to know what it feels like to win the World Cup then start with being eight years old and scoring off an assist from your best friend. Then scale down. Because the next morning a grown-up has to wake up remembering adulthood and reality and responsibility. But that kid is a hero forever, at least until the next goal, the next assist, and the next time the world feels sweeter than that first bite of quartered orange on the sidelines after.
We had a friendship with a bond that laughed at gravity. We climbed up the roof of his house and pulled each other up from over the edge. Remember that in physics and nine year old boys the fundamental forces of the universe are, in order, friendship, the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and finally weak old piddly piss-ass gravity. So I found the strength or he found the strength to pull me up over that impossibly long drop that a bungalow roof onto soft grass offers.
If we had let go, our bodies might survive those falls, but what about our faith?
So we never let go. We never hesitated to reach out and grab that flailing hand that had dared too much and we knew, right down into our bones, we knew: We could fall.
It can happen.
But we won’t let it. Not for each other.
Our gravity drew others in. Another boy, across the street. Same age. Same energy. Two boys at that age together, a whirlwind. Three boys? A hurricane. With us came our energy, our noise, our bonds. Our partnership became a company, and we incorporated together and paid out dividends in suppers and sleepovers and our parents becoming friends, too.
Eventually time took us apart, for two years, and when I came back it was with stories of Thailand and travel and my parents divorce, and he had stories of new Nintendo games and skateboarding and his parents divorce. And for a while my dad dated his mom and we were cool with that, because being step-brothers would be pretty cool, too.
We moved in. Got bunk beds. We played GI Joes and He-Man and had so many Ninja Turtles that Hasbro should have just bought stock in us. We took stock of ourselves and our lives and our friendship that was as awesome as ever. We broke shit, ate everything, ran everywhere from dawn until dusk, and terrorized a neighbourhood that had breathed a little easier for two years, but no longer.
Cars knew to slow down on our street, because we’d be in the street, pulling each other around on ropes tied from bikes to skateboards. Playing street hockey or tag or climbing trees or climbing roofs or climbing fences until we climbed everything, jumped from everything, and every day no matter the season felt like the first hot day of summer vacation because he was there with me.
My dad and his mom didn’t last. It wasn’t bad. When she had conquered the stiff stillness and the trembling and gone instead to a quiet place behind her eyes, she’d emerged the mother of two and the surrogate mother of three more. She’d traded a cocaine-fuelled bastard for one decent man and two more children. His dad came back twice while the grown-ups were out. The first time we hid in a closet, because his father had a bat.
The second time, two months after we’d moved out, his father broke his ribs in two places.
Everything was very quiet for a while, after that. Dad had moved us about seven blocks away. Nothing a bike-ride at the age of nine couldn’t easily conquer, but now it was far enough away that every day was every second day, and then every third. And his mother became stiff again, and had the tremble, and now I wasn’t too young to understand and he was too wise not to know and we’d both learned what the words ‘restraining order’ were, and how they were only bullshit grownup magic that never stopped a man with a bat before and never would.
He’d been a fearless boy and maybe he was still fearless, but he didn’t live without disappointment anymore. A tightness filled in behind his eyes, a tension and little hint of fear that only in hindsight so many years later can I recognize as being the fear a boy has of growing up to be like his father. That the man that he needed to be the one evicting monsters from his closet had become the monster he hid inside his closet to be safe from.
I don’t know what that feeling weighs, but I know it weighs enough to make a nine-year-old boy’s shoulders slump. It’s weight enough to make his smile wear thin like the gloss on a jawbreaker two hours past it’s prime but you spent half your allowance on the damn thing so you’re not going to stop now.
I know what a nine-year-old boy at the end of his rope weighs. I know what it weighs to have your visiting mother pick up the phone and turn my way, and watch horror and grief bloom in her eyes. I know what it weighs when the first words out of your own mother’s mouth are: “I’m so sorry, baby, come here…”
And I am left only imagining what the feelings weigh of a still and nervous mother finding her nine-year-old son seated on the floor of their bathroom, his younger brother’s skipping rope around his neck and the doorknob. I am left only imagining the weight of a feeling that could push a nine-year-old boy to sit that way, a feeling so heavy that he couldn’t flail his hand out my way and trust in me to pull him back from that edge. I am left only imagining the weight of a feeling that kept him from simply getting back up on his feet, and putting the rope away.
The strong force of friendship is millions of times stronger than gravity. But the weight of his grief was at least two million and one times heavier than our hearts, because he never reached out. Maybe he knew it would only pull us both down.
I don’t know.
That was a long time ago.
Today I stood in a line that should have been an hour long for six hours. And I thought of him. For the first time in a handful of years I really thought of him and the place where I’d shaved my arm for some silly tattoo of my favorite punctuation itched and– I thought of him.
And I wondered why. What hadn’t he seen, in that future ahead of him? What hadn’t he found that he needed to find when a boy imagines his future and sees what it can be and how different from his past?
I paid fifty dollars to stand here until my feet hurt and my arm itched and I lost all my good cheer because standing there in that busy bright place full of people in good spirits all I could do was think: I haven’t eaten today. I haven’t had something to drink. They didn’t let me sit in the front row of his funeral, because that was ‘for family’.
As if his grandfather had seen him more in his lifetime than I’d seen in a month. As if his aunts and uncles knew anything more about him than photographs in christmas sweaters and visits from cousins. They didn’t know he didn’t like Fire Flower Mario and they didn’t know that I was the one who first beat Soda Lake and he was the first one who beat Bowser and they didn’t even know that he’d once fallen off the twirly slide.
And hadn’t had a broken bone to show for it.
It took his father, to do that.
And suddenly I don’t even want the tattoo anymore because I realize for the rest of my life every time I see my right arm I’m going to see that mark there and I’m going to remember that funeral. That I will be counting the math of every year staring at it, counting how long ago it’s been since I stood staring into the casket. And thinking to myself: This can’t be him. His suit is way too clean. We’d have icing or dirt on that thing within minutes, come on.
I didn’t have a very charitable heart, as a child. I had a lot to say that was ugly, then. About suicide. About what it had cost me. About how the pain of it colored the next few years of a childhood that is charitably called ‘monstrous’, because of who I was.
I don’t know if I’d have been much better behaved, with him nearby. But I’d have been a better person.
And when I remember that I know I’m going to stick out the last stupid hour in this stupid line where my feet hurts and a headache is coming on from the noise and the hunger and the wait.
And I know I’m going to endure it without a peep when the needle hurts my arm more than I was expecting, not like much more, but about 20% more, just enough to tip me over the line into “Yeah, I probably won’t do this again.”
Because I know what those feelings weigh.
I know what all those feelings weigh.
I don’t know what his feelings weighed.
And it’s too late for me to help bear them for him.
But I can do my little part to help bear someone else’s.
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