To understand it, I think you have to go back many years, even before High School. I met a kid when I first moved to the place that would eventually be counted as my hometown. He got tasked somehow with introducing me around to people, partially I think because he was also tasked with showing off my brother, who was sort of a reading wünderkind in Kindergarten, able to read at least as well as most fourth graders. They brought him into the third- and fourth-grade classes so he could read for them as if to say, “See what you could do, too, if you applied yourself?” Anyway, this kid, D, sort of befriended me because he was outgoing and personable and I was new, but probably not because he thought I was anything special. Well, other than “the guy with the whiz-kid little brother.”
D and I ended up in the same class the next year. I honestly don’t remember much about that first half year, I guess the whirl of change and turmoil overwhelmed me and I didn’t have time to think about who I was going to hang out with at lunch and recess. But fourth grade was different. D and I were buddies that year. We played at each others’ houses. We chose desks near each other. We rode bikes together and bounced tennis balls off of his garage door.
It was significant that I was switched to a different program the year after—that would have been fifth grade—because without D as my in- and out-of-class companion, I was lonely. The first few months of that year were tough as I tried to transition to a higher-expectation curriculum and dealt with the fact that I really didn’t have any friends. It was there that I met AB and Dr. Mac. I don’t think I realized at the time that Dr. Mac and D had been friends in an earlier grade, before I’d arrived at the school. But like myself, Dr. Mac had moved into the alternate program and D was off making other friends.
AB and Dr. Mac were very close friends already, going back to the third grade, the year I had arrived. When I realized they were into the same things as I was, the three of us formed a bond that lasted us the rest of elementary school, and I felt secure enough socially to allow myself to deal with the new pressure of the class structure and I ended up doing okay. I recall at one point the three of us started a game in which we would hurl insults at each other, jesting barbs that were supposed to be funny but were often in fact hurtful and mean. Dr. Mac, sarcastic and witty by nature, typically won these contests, and with my thick skull came a fairly thick hide so for the two of us it was largely understood to be no big deal. AB was always a bit more sensitive, perhaps I might have described him as artistically emotional if I’d been observant enough to pay attention. I didn’t know we were really hurting him, so it wasn’t until Dr. Mac and AB’s folks sat the three of us down to discuss our little game that I comprehended something was wrong.
I specifically recall part of the parents’ speech in which they pointed out that we were supposed to be friends. We were good friends; close friends. The kind of friends we were going to need as we entered adolescence and found along our way a new kind of struggle and an alien sort of torment at the hands of other kids. Older kids. Now was not the time to devour each other. Being insolent and stupid, I remember thinking the adults were completely missing the point and that I wasn’t going to be told what games not to play. Thankfully Dr. Mac had enough sense to recognize the danger of the game and without his wit the whole thing was more or less discarded in favor of some other, more constructive activity. While I still don’t remember why we thought insulting each other was fun or funny, I do recall clearly the prescience the parents showed us that day, knowing what I know now about what was to come.
When we all moved on to Junior High, the scattered class schedule meant that spending an hour here or there without a specific clique member was no great social impediment so D joined (perhaps re-joined) our trio making us a group of four. It was a good number. A safe number. Here and there we picked up an extra person or two for a period of time. The core of us, the four of us, remained pretty steadfast. That’s how I remember it anyway. We carried through into high school.
In the meantime we did what young friends do: We played together. We spent time with each other’s families. We got to know each other. We worked together. We learned in tandem. We explored new ideas, new passions, new hobbies. We introduced each other to our individual backgrounds so that we could see a wider view of the world. We cheered for each other. We didn’t let ourselves get away with being stupid. We watched out for each other. Some of us did these things better than others. All three of them executed better than I. Of the four of us, I know I was the lucky one to have had them. Maybe they could have done better at choosing a friend, but I’m glad they didn’t.
It really was the three of them that kept me sane in high school. There was something about each of them that I admired—still admire. D’s boundless energy and enthusiasm, his unwillingness to do anything half-hearted. He would succeed because “no” or “impossible” don’t exist in his world. He taught me about not giving up. AB’s thirst for new experiences, the casual way he granted me a passion for music and beauty and that magical moment when you see something from a fresh perspective for the first time. He would succeed because he knew tomorrow was one more chance to begin the search again. He taught me about the intangibles in life, the things you can’t hold but that frequently are even more precious. Dr. Mac’s analytical steadfastness, the way he never stops asking how and why. He would succeed because he figured out the way to get it all was to give everything it’s season and leave just enough flexibility to withstand the sudden storm. He would teach me that being smart wasn’t about having a lot of brains, but using them, all the time.
Time passed from the early days in high school where all we had was one another, huddled close in hidden areas of the school to avoid devastating scrutiny, into the more carefree years of the upperclassmen when the older aggressors were all gone and the peers who may have hassled us at one point lost their appetite for conflict in a dawning realization that our youths were ending in the present tense and they hoped for some selective amnesia if not outright forgiveness under the unspoken pact of the shared-experience survivor clause. New friends would come, girls would (finally) come around, and our protective four-sided shield would no longer be necessary. I know I didn’t recognize the significance of the moment when that happened.
After the tour of duty we shared in the public education trenches, our paths would diverge. They always do. In some cases the divides would be physical, as geographic miles separated us. In others, it was just life, where distant colleges and separate paces to key post-high school events staggered our common ground. Perhaps there were some grievances that went un-aired, a slight or misunderstanding. I’ve struggled to grow past that know-it-all brat in fifth grade who still thinks it’s funny to tease a friend (but would certainly lack the courage to tease an enemy), still trying to quash the snooty punk who declares with a scowl that no one is going to tell him how to act, still working to rid myself of the blind fool behind my eyes who never sees the value of what I have until long after the point is moot. I wish I knew if I needed to apologize. I wish I knew what to apologize for. I could say I’m sorry for not being a better friend, if only I knew how to try harder. Maybe it’s just me that misses them. Maybe I always needed them more than they needed me. Maybe there’s nothing to it, there’s no divide, there’s no misunderstanding. Maybe this is just the way it goes. You win some, you lose some. Friends drift in, friends drift out.
AB’s father passed away recently. I hadn’t spoken to him in maybe five years. It wasn’t a cold silence. It wasn’t a heated, angry silence. It was just silence. D contacted Dr. Mac and told him the sad news. Dr. Mac told me about it, said he wanted to try and make it back. Turned out he couldn’t do it. But I could. The physical separation isn’t there. It only feels like a canyon.
I was trembling as I made my way through the dark-clad throng of people. Mr. B was a very well-liked man. I myself had liked him a whole lot. He taught me what very little I know about fishing. He let me help run drills at little league practice for AB’s younger brothers. He had an opinion about everything and he was always right, as far as I ever heard. He was outgoing and funny. The chapel was crowded, which I expected. I had butterflies in my gut, which I didn’t expect. What if AB was mad at me for some reason? What if he didn’t want me to be there? I knew I was drowning in my own stupid antisocial baloney, but I couldn’t stop. Nik was there, but I didn’t know how to let her help me not be miserable. We finally waded through the line and paused at the chapel doorway.
AB was right inside the door and when he saw me he didn’t hesitate. He grabbed my hand in his and yanked me into a giant hug. He told me he was glad I was there. I was suddenly glad I was there, too. I told him, “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t just referring to his dad. AB introduced me to his fianceé, and framed her round belly with his hands, introducing me to his daughter. She’ll be born in the fall. My eyes burned and I wished him congratulations. Nik hugged AB and then squeezed my hand as we found some seats near the back. I wanted to linger, to monopolize his time. It wasn’t appropriate. I knew that.
During the service I kept running over memories of Mr. B. I remembered AB’s family went to Disneyland on vacation and they took me with them so AB would be able to have fun with a friend instead of having to babysit his younger brothers. I was honored to go. I thought about Mr. B coming up to AB and describing a hand signal he had devised, like a third base coach giving the steal gesture to the runner. I don’t even remember what it was supposed to signify now. AB seemed a little embarrassed at the time, as if he didn’t want me to think he was a dork for having a bunch of encoded gestures as part of a secret language he shared with his dad. I didn’t think it was dorky. I thought it was cool. AB and his dad, they had a bond. They were buddies. They had their own little world. I wanted to tell AB about that. I wanted to tell AB about a lot of things. Music I had found. Games I had played. I wanted to show him pictures of Callie and ask about his baby. I wanted to find out where he’d met his fianceé, when they were getting married and what kind of work he was doing. It wasn’t the right time.
The service was, as these things go, beautiful. AB stood up and spoke quickly, trying to get through a couple of prepared notes, one he’d written, another his mom had put together. His rapid-fire delivery was peppered with deep, heaving breaths as he struggled to stay in control of his surfacing emotions. I felt for him, but I was proud of him. He did a wonderful job paying tribute to his dad. The minister stumbled through the benedictions, clearly unfamiliar with the man he was trying in vain to honor. It wasn’t appropriate to feel so, but I was angry with the man for mispronouncing AB’s gestating daughter’s name. I didn’t care for the way he said things like “I guess he fell in love.” I didn’t think the pastor should be guessing. I felt he should have done some more research. The least he could do was worked to understand the man he was soon to bury. I wondered if AB even noticed.
After the service we stood around, waiting for a chance to meet up with the family. I had to get back to work, which I thought was a crummy excuse for leaving so soon. But part of me didn’t want to stay, to wear out my welcome. I hugged AB again when the coast was clear. I babbled about the few memories that had come up during the service. AB seemed to humor me, but here I was monopolizing his time. I was trying to be supportive, to let him know that his dad had impacted my life, perhaps in a small way, but not an insignificant one. I don’t know how it came across. He smiled at me, and there was pain in his eyes. He said he missed me. I assured him I felt the same way. He suggested I contact him on Facebook and I told him I would. Some other people got tired of having me overstay my welcome with AB and shouldered me aside. I understood.
I lurked uncomfortably near AB’s mom, and finally got a chance to speak to her. I said hello and she asked, “And you are…?” It should have been expected, after all I had hardly recognized AB’s brothers. Time, kind or unkind, has an effect on people. I told her my name and her eyes widened, but she smiled and there was some pain in her eyes, too. I tried to tell myself it was just normal: She had lost a husband, AB had lost a dad. There was perhaps something in the way she said, “It’s been a long time,” though, that I thought maybe meant some tiny part of that pain was meant for me. I told myself to stop being so narcissistic and offered my limp condolences, and introduced her to my wife. She thanked us for coming in that robotic way people do at weddings and funerals because they don’t have much else to say but blithe politeness. We drifted away as others moved in to be more comforting, more supportive, more welcome. I didn’t care that there was a certain misery brewing in my guts, suggesting that I had more than I wanted to admit to do with the long period of silence that had grown into a gaping chasm of communication and distance between the family I once knew and the relative strangers that we were now. After all, what’s some guilt over poor relationship management compared to the loss of a father, of a spouse?
We ran into D on the way out. He looks basically the same, fit and trim with a fashionable suit that made my wardrobe-by-Target slacks and dress shirt feel crass and inappropriate by comparison. The crow’s feet webbing away from the corners of his eyes suggest the years since I’ve seen him have been kind, filled with enough smiles and laughter to keep his fiery spirit nourished and thriving. But the conversation was stilted, stiff. We talked small about kids and parenthood, neighborhoods and commutes. We laughed nervously and I tried to resist casting my eyes down at my shoes. “You have to get back to work?” he asked, and it stung like an accusation though his tone was neutral. I mumbled something affirmative and felt chastened. I’m still doing it, I thought, still making excuses. Still finding reasons to not be around. We finally broke away and headed out for the car.
As the summer sun warmed me back up from the relative chill of the air-conditioned chapel, I finished sorting through the bitter introspection that made me feel like I hadn’t done a good job at memorializing AB’s father. It was part of the parcel, I guessed. My problem, universally, is me. No one dislikes me as much as I think they do. Very few people like me as much as I hope they would, either. My social anxieties are rooted in my inability to accept that being social is just a matter of being social. There’s no magic trick to it, no secret that can be taught. My daughter knows how to do it already and she’s so fresh in the world still the new baby scent hasn’t rubbed off of her yet. She smiles at people. She shows an interest in them. She gets delighted when they show an interest back. She spends some time by herself, but not so much that she has learned to prefer it. It’s practically instinctive, and I haven’t spontaneously developed some aversion to it or been afflicted with some kind of block against it. I’ve fostered this isolation. I’ve groomed it. I’ve taught myself to adore the terrifying solitude of talking to myself as the only audience who gets it, who appreciates the me I imagine myself to be. I’ve pushed everyone out and aside and away and sprayed these ill-fitting words into the light of the world of human beings so far away now it’s a tiny dot of light above my head.
The sound echoes and fades and resonates only with the grubs and worms and scarcely reaches the few who keep lowering their ears closer to the bottom of the well while I dig ever further from them and shake my fist that I’m not heard.
So no, I’m not the victim of unfortunate disorders. I’m not the afflicted with a short straw in my dirty fingers who lost the lottery of mystical or genetic ability to simply speak and listen with other human beings. I’m out of excuses.
I know I mourn the loss of a man I once knew and admired. I don’t think there will be mourning for the death of a foolish hermit, the portion of my self who let cowardice and selfishness deny the growth of a well-adjusted person. The slaying of that facet, shearing it from my personality, may be gruesome and painful, but there will be no tears. At the funeral we’ll never hold for the unlovable persona I loathe there will be only this eulogy:
“Spoken once in only whispers,
This self-imposed impostor lies
It gave birth to winged drifter
On firey wings of fellows flies.”