You were a lot like me, except smarter, and more confident. The confidence was easy to see, easy to explain – your family had a lot of money, and that’s where confidence frequently comes from, for kids. From never being told, when something occurred to you that you wanted, no we can’t afford that. Other people can have it, but not you.
No, for you, it was the other way around.
As for intelligence, just about everyone who knows your story knows that, too. You were smarter than basically anyone you knew, too smart for your own good, maybe.
I met you in the fifth grade. Some kids I knew dragged me over to you and said, you got to meet this guy, and there you were, your thumbs hooked in the pockets of your weird, designer jeans for boys, wire-rimmed glasses snapped onto your plump and healthy face as if it were designed for them, your brown hair curly and windblown, your stance like a superhero. Who has summoned me before them today?
We had so much in common, the boundaries between us were blurred in just a few months. Puberty was just barely on the way, and for the two of us, it intended to take it’s time. For you, it would never finish its job, and for me it would take many, many years.
The kids around us started popping out of their clothes and talking in deeper voices, while you and I kept right on running through the woods carrying plastic He-Man swords, fighting hobgoblins and beholders and malevolent, living trees.
We used to say that we lived on the Night Side. Our marathon games of Dungeons and Dragons, with its crazy-shaped dice and sprawling maps and little pewter statues, would last well into the morning.
As we grew older, we took to slipping out of the house around midnight, while your mom was asleep, wandering the dark country roads for hours, prowling, laughing, dodging headlights as they came into view. We saw a shooting star one night, about four am, as we walked down the middle of Orange Road, miles from your house, and we made a wish on it.
I don’t remember mine, and neither, I’ll bet, do you.
The Night Side was for us, we said, because we were dark and magical. Because we were true creatures of the night, like cats or Batman. We abhorred the world of normality because we held ourselves above us, because it was in our freakish nature, we said, but it wasn’t true.
No, we lived our lives in the darkness because we were perversely afraid of the light. Because when we tried to do what normal kids did – sports, Frisbee, parties at Wyandott Lake – everything weird about us was starkly obvious. We couldn’t make our mouths shut up about the dorktacular thoughts in our brains, about the dragons and the invisible laser beams, about the many-sided dice.
It’s funny to watch Napoleon Dynamite, remember parts of ourselves in characters like that, but it wasn’t funny to live through. Out in the light, we could see exactly what everyone else could see, that nothing about us fit in to the world everyone else was celebrating.
At the beach once, we ran afoul of a bunch of bigger kids, and they dragged our rafts out to the pylons, and we couldn’t get away. They’d dunk us under the water so that we thought we were drowning, and all we could do was cling to the raft.
I remember your eyes, locking grimly onto mine, as they towed us further out, and we weren’t slaying dragons then, were we my friend? We didn’t unsheath our swords and vanquish any evil, because we weren’t really heroes, and we couldn’t really fight, not if our lives depended on it. Out there in the sunlight, we were a couple of scrawny little sissy kids, and there was no hiding it, no weeds to duck into as the normal folks drove by in cars.
The lifeguard blew his whistle that day, and that’s all that saved us. The bigger kids had to stop, let us get to shore, and they laughed at us like a bunch of screeching howler monkeys, treading water, pointing, like we were the creatures in the clan with the wrong color spots, creatures who were different, creatures who had to go.
We lived on the Night Side because no one could find us there, and because wrapped in the darkness, we could be whoever we wanted to be, and we used our holographic imaginations to create vibrant worlds where we were strong and brave and godlike. And we tried our damnedest to never leave.
But the months and years dragged by like massive ships passing beneath a bridge, ponderously slow, and the changes were easy to map. Both of us were clever, and we learned to crack people up, to get them making their howler monkey sounds with us, instead of at us. To distract them with patterns of words and funny faces, so that they wouldn’t notice our pale skin and shallow chests, our wrongness. Our spots.
And the school wasn’t very big. It seems now, maybe there wasn’t room for two jesters in that particular courtyard. That competition between us was inevitable, especially when it came to girls, because not a lot of them were into us, were they? If we came across one who found our awkward bodies and clever wit to be something they were drawn to, well then they’d have to pick between us, wouldn’t they? Who was it going to be?
Never is it that simple, though. It wasn’t just about girls. To tell the truth, I can’t remember what shims and wedges were getting pounded between us, when the teen years approached. Suddenly we were sitting around creating elaborate worlds without swords or dragons, just worlds where the girls that we liked somehow landed beside us, became girlfriends. We could crack them up, sure, but that’s a long way from Hey, let’s go to the spring dance, baby.
And slowly we made our inroads into social circles above us, slowly we’d gain an ally here and there, popular kids who could afford to give us a second look, talk to us for a second, and then announce with confidence and authority, this guy’s all right. He’s funny and he’s smart.
You were a writer, too – light years ahead of me or anyone I knew. Your stories were intricately plotted, unbelievably well-paced. The rest of us would basically take a Saturday morning cartoon or a Star Wars subplot, and we’d change the names, call it Gongwar The Conqueror. You were writing about telepathic detectives on board the Titanic.
Our competitiveness was all the more sad, in retrospect, because I doubt anyone else noticed it at all, that we were vying for the position of Head Dork. The girls we were competing for certainly had no idea. We’d carry our secret crushes around for months, managing to blurt out a few words here and there at lunch, and then imagining ourselves running into them later, at the mall, and suddenly having the suave social skills of James Bond.
It’s funny what I don’t remember. I don’t remember what set you off, for instance, not with any clarity, and what I do remember, I’ll keep to myself, out of respect for those you left behind.
But I can tell you this, old buddy, I’ve got two daughters the same age you were, when you ate the barrel of your dad’s gun, and they’ve been through a hell of a lot worse than you ever got.
They’re tougher than you, is my first instinct. They can take it, and you couldn’t. Does that mean I won? Because it doesn’t feel like it.
But nothing’s that simple, is it? I have no idea what your home life was like, because I was a kid, too, and I wasn’t paying attention. I wouldn’t have known what to look for if I was.
What I remember is my friend Kelly, knocking on my door, her mom still out there in the car, idling in the driveway, and she was crying as she told me what you had done. And my stepdad awkwardly walked up on us, and I told him, too, in the bluntest of terms. He didn’t know what to say.
So Kelly and her mom drove away, and I wandered up to my room, dazed, and I picked up the telephone and did what dozens of kids did that day, out of sheer denial. I called your telephone number, and the person who answered told me, no, you weren’t there. And there was death in his tone of voice, the first time I ever heard it that way, an eye-watering stench of a word, unspoken but clear.
But the competition wasn’t over yet, because you’d made elaborate plans, outsmarted the cops from beyond the grave, and made sure I’d carry that bullet wound around with me, that I’d bring it to you one day, when it comes time to settle up.
No, I never got your note, despite your well-laid plans. I’ve had it summarized to me, in very general terms, but I’ve declined every offer to actually read it, in these twenty-four years. One thing – about the whole thing – that I could control, so I kept it.
My understanding is, it’s really a series of notes, messages to everyone you knew. In mine, you told everyone that you’d done it because of me, that it was my fault, and that you’d told me you were going to do it, that I’d ignored you.
To be fair, the word is you said some pretty nasty things about a lot of different people, in that note, but I’m not going to go into it. It certainly wasn’t all about me. But I was right there on the top of the stack, wasn’t I?
It’s hard not to be astonished, by the lengths you went to, trying to get us to read that note. You were smart enough to know that the cops, the paramedics, the counselors – they’d never give it to me, or anyone else, not just because you asked them to. But you knew they’d look for a note, and so you printed one out and you put it right there, on the desk.
Made a copy of it on a disk, though – a big floppy disk from the eighties, and you went out into the woods behind your house, where we used to fight monsters together, and you hid it under an overhang, in a ravine we used as a cave. You put it in a bag, and put that bag in another bag, and you closed that up in a small, metal box, and you put it out there, for one of us to find.
I think you might have made another copy – there have been dozens of versions of that story, how your note made it back to the school, but that’s the one I believe.
But the note showed up and everyone got to read what you had to say about them, your final word, everyone but me.
You stayed home from school for a day and a half, working on the note, getting the copy in place, getting the decoy printed out and displayed. You made the title page a cartoonish joke. Another friend of yours – a neighbor – found you there, in your chair, the rifle in your lap, your hands clamped to the arms of the chair. He’s the one who found the note, too, days later.
The counselors arrived, and God bless ‘em, I’m sure they meant well. I learned what to say pretty quickly, how to run them off. And that was right about when the mean stepdad started to lay off, and the big kids at the beach, I guess they figured I’d had enough. A lot of my problems, well – they went away when you did.
You’re kind of mysterious and dark, when your friend dies – I wonder if you knew that? If you knew you’d be bestowing upon me the very thing we tried to invent about ourselves? That tragedy was depth, and that depth was the cure for being a dork, that it made you alternative. Eccentric. Interesting.
It would be great if it were really all that shallow, if my life just turned rosy once you were gone, and we could all appreciate the irony.
But there was a lot wrong with me after that, because what I thought was that things were exactly as they appeared, exactly as they felt, exactly as you said in your parting manifesto – that your death really was my fault. That I really had done something on par with killing you myself. And that I had gotten away with it, too.
They say that we live on in the memories of those we leave behind, and you certainly lived on in mine. I dreamed about you for years, dreamed that Hell was real, and that you’d be waiting for me on the day I walked in, your unread note in one hand, your rifle in the other. You chased me through forests, and down Orange Road in the pitch black night, and through the hallways of our school, in unbelievably slow and lurid detail, through so many nightmares I grew to abhor sleep itself.
Other dreams you’d just show up, sometimes the same plump-faced fifth grader I met long ago, sometimes the haunted preteen, his face slick with blood, and you’d simply ruin a perfectly good dream, lurking in the background, watching me. Sitting suddenly at the end of the table. Snatching aside a curtain, in a dream about a castle or a mansion or an elaborate play.
Sometimes you’d tell me earnestly, there’s been an incredible mistake – you had to fake your own death because you work for the government, and the dream will seem so achingly real for so long. In the dream, the neutron star of guilt is lifted with absolute clarity. It’s a real memory, I think, of a time when your death wasn’t the dense alien metal that my skull is made of now.
Late night television and frozen pizzas, then south campus bars and pouring shots in restaurants, I stayed on the Night Side where you left me, my friend. I skulked around campus wrapped in hair and trenchcoats and outlandish hats, sat on my porch until the sun came up, and only went to my dreams when it was absolutely necessary.
Even now, that’s what I’m doing, my garage door up, leaning back in a chair in the dead of night, this little computer on my lap, though there’s sleep in my future now, and your visits have grown infrequent, and my feelings toward you have changed. Still I’m always on this side of things, watching quietly while cities sleep around me.
I used to think if Hell were real, I’d have to face you one day. In the same way people dream about meeting their grandmas in the House of the Lord, I thought I’d have to deal with you, one way or the other, on the day I walked in there, shovel over my shoulder, guilty as Hell for what I had done to you.
I didn’t know who would be in charge that day, which of the two of us would deserve to get punished more. Or if we’d be there together, like old times – getting towed around by bigger kids at the beach, dunked under the water, completely helpless right there in front of each other. Forced to see it reflected with stark clarity, in each other’s eyes.
These days, I don’t think of Hell as something real I’m likely to walk into, with a shovel. But if I did, here’s the difference: I think of kids your age as kids, not pals.
If I saw you tomorrow and you were looking for a fight, you wouldn’t get one. You’d get an arm around your shoulder, and an ear to talk into.
I wish I could have given you that when you needed it, old friend. I truly do.
(Note: this was published last year and I must have taken it down when the book came out, though I’m not even sure it’s in the book now. Anyway, someone asked about it, so here it is.)
Then later: Bullying and the Suicide Fantasy