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To Alex, on my Birthday
When I think of you, I wonder why time repairs some things and why it leaves others broken.
I’m sorry. I wish I could remember more.
I remember hearing your name. I’d nearly forgotten you, so much time had passed. I was fifteen, sitting alone in the empty break room at my father’s therapy practice while he finished with a client. The local news was playing on the television across from me, but I wasn’t watching. I held a schoolbook open on my lap, preparing for a test; backpack open on the couch next to me, papers and other books spilling out. I was reading from the book and taking notes in a spiral-bound notebook. I wasn’t conscious of listening to the news at all.
The voices of the two local news anchors were a familiar patter in the background. The lilt at the end of a sentence. Their light laughter, then a pause and segue into the next story. They were only noise to me until they said your name. I looked up at the screen and listened to the segment. It was a half-minute, at most. Then I closed the book in my lap and sat silently. I was fifteen. Which means you were fifteen too, Alex.
How old were you when I knew you? Were we seven that summer? Maybe younger. We were still in that haze of early childhood, and you were only around for one season. That’s why I don’t remember you very well. If you had been in school with me, I would remember more. I made all my real friendships at school. The girls who were fixtures at the sleepovers and birthday parties. We ran out the school doors at the end of each day, and down the sidewalks, (racing full speed for blocks without touching a crack in the concrete) to their living rooms, and ate sloppy peanut butter sandwiches and watched Saved by the Bell together. When I say, “my childhood friends,” I mean those girls. They lived in town.
But you were a forest friend. A summer friend.
None of us who lived in the forest knew each other during the school year. We might brush past each other in the hallways, but we weren’t in the same grades or the same classes. We might smile at each other or not. It didn’t matter. That was the school year, and even after school or on weekends, I was with my school friends. Only in the summer did the forest friends matter, those long weeks when all the parents drove down the hill for work and left us behind with hours of empty sunny daylight and nothing in particular to do. That’s when we found each other.
One summer, I was the fourth sister in the Golden family. All three of the Golden girls were darkly tanned and skinny in swim tops and shorts, running up the gravel road barefoot to my house. Then, another summer, a new girl suddenly lived in the cabin next door, with big eyes and a bright red ponytail. Her family was renting for the season. She and I discovered the acre of rusted-out cars behind our conjoined properties. We sat in her hammock and rocked back and forth. At the end of the summer, her family had a garage sale and I bought two Diet Coke glasses for fifty cents. That’s all I remember of her. Not a name. A hammock, the Diet Coke glasses, the rusted and half-buried cars. A summer friend.
I don’t know how old we were back then, Alex, because time meant nothing in the summer. No one looked at a clock. Our parents were out in the world somewhere and no one took any photos.
I know you came in the Spring. You came with the tulips and the thick plop plop of snow melting off the trees, right around the time of my birthday. I was introduced to you, standing behind my father’s legs at your doorway.
My father seemed to know you already, though no one explained why. He had walked me down to the red house to meet you. Your mother, blonde and nervous, was thanking him for something as we stood there. You were next to her, silent, with a matching blond nest of hair. Dad brought me home and told me to be kind to you.
On the first day of May, I ran down the gravel road in my school clothes and dropped a May Day basket on your porch. But I didn’t know you then. Not yet.
Early that summer, a little kitten arrived. He wandered out from the trees one day into my front yard. I never understood back then why sometimes in the Spring a kitten or two would walk sleepily out of the forest. Or why one would suddenly be curled in a corner of the garage, eyeing us warily as we walked to the car. Those kittens were like tiny gifts from the forest. The forest, which was both known to me and unknown. I knew my trails, my places, but all around me the wide dark, leafy world spread out in all directions. I looked out from my bluff and thought I saw palm trees out in the distance. So, wherever the kittens came from, I embraced them.
The kitten was orange with white stripes. Healthy. Friendly. He walked right up to me and let me hold him. When my mother was home from work, I asked her if kittens drank milk and she looked it up somewhere and told me that kittens could drink condensed milk. So, that summer, whenever the kitten appeared, I poured condensed milk into a baby bottle and held the kitten in my arms and fed him. I would go out in the mornings and watch for my little orange kitten to appear out of the woods. And, for weeks, he did. He would let me feed him and pet him and talk to him for a while. And then, at some point, he would demand to be set down and then I wouldn’t see him again until the next day. He seemed to have other appointments, so I let him come and go.
I didn’t want to be friends with you, Alex. I had enough to do, waiting each day for the kitten and reading my sister’s Cosmopolitan magazines. And who were you? Just an unfamiliar boy down the hill. But I was told to spend the day with you, so I did. I walked down to your house and sat on your living room carpet with you as you pushed some cars around. I talked to your mom. She sat at the table and stared out the window at the trees. While we played with your toys, she asked me a string of questions. She didn’t pause for the answers. She smoked one cigarette and then another.
After a while, you wanted to go outside. Or, who knows, maybe it was my idea. Either way, I carried a few of the cars with me. We sat under some trees and pushed them around in the dirt and you talked. I couldn’t follow what you were talking about. Something that you had seen with your stepdad once, a long time ago. Or some car, which was way cooler than these little cars. I just looked at the ground and kept pushing my fingers into the dirt.
We played with the cars and we walked under the trees. I broke into your monologue to explain to you about the witches that lived in the forest, and how to leave little gifts for them, but you couldn’t seem to understand what I was saying either. You were hearing another story altogether and you kept spinning it, adding action scenes and big dramatic flourishes, long after I was done talking about the witches. I decided this was almost like a conversation, so it was okay. And when you asked me if I knew what a Charley Horse was, and I said no, and you gave me one, I fell back with tears in my eyes, but I forgave you. You seemed sorry. It was summer, and I had agreed somehow, without knowing, to be your friend.
Every few days, I would walk down to visit. And each time I left feeling confused and upset. I never wanted to come back to you. Little blond boy-creature with all your energy and fast words. I didn’t understand anything about you. One day, I brought my flying doll over to your house, thinking you might like it. The doll sat on a holster full of thread. When I pulled the thread, she spun and flew. Sometimes she traveled a few feet away before falling down to the carpet. I showed her to you, and pulled the thread so she would fly. But you kept talking about some TV show you’d seen. I put her back on her pedestal and pulled the string faster, trying to make her flight more impressive. You stood up suddenly. She flew above your head and you jumped up and thwacked her so that she ricocheted hard into the wall.
“No!” I yelled and ran over to check her wings. I looked at you, confused. “You’ll break it,” I said. I had broken things myself, out of clumsiness or misunderstanding. I could understand mistakes. But I didn’t understand you. You stood there, embarrassed, while I carefully packed the doll away into a bag. You were quiet while I left.
It was the summer of 1994. I just looked it up a moment ago. I remembered it was the year the Jim Carrey movie came out. You remember? The Mask. Your mom rented the tape, and you and I watched in your basement. We sat awkwardly next to each other through the closing scene, while Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz kissed each other beside the water.
“We could do that,” you said quietly, as the credits rolled over the scene.
We looked at each other warily for a moment. “Ok,” I agreed. And we went into your bedroom and lay down on your bed next to each other.
We lay there silently for a few minutes, not touching. I waited and waited, and then I daydreamed about Jim Carrey; I wondered what it would be like to be kissed someday, and I wished wholeheartedly that I could start living my grown-up life already. Finally, after I had begun to think you were asleep, you sat up and said you were hungry. And that was it. We got up and I trailed after you up the stairs to the kitchen, not wanting to seem disappointed. I knew you weren’t capable of kissing me, not the way people kissed in the movies. But I had been expecting something. I couldn’t understand how you could forget so quickly.
I don’t want to believe that a child can be doomed. But already something was very wrong. One day, while we were playing, you told me that you had been in my dad’s office—you and your mom. That your mom talked to my dad for a while. Then the two of you had talked to him about your stepdad and you didn’t understand why. You told me your stepdad had been mean to your mom, but that he was really sorry about it now, and you wished you could see him. I listened, nodding, and didn’t say anything.
I knew, even as a little kid, that people go to therapists for all sorts of reasons, and that it wasn’t a bad thing. But I looked at your face while you were talking—you were looking down, pushing a plastic truck across the carpet—and I thought to myself, I see it. The something wrong. It was inside you. You weren’t a bad kid, Alex. Or you didn’t mean to be. But something was wrong inside your face, inside your body, so that you couldn’t help yourself from flailing out and hurting things. And I felt so sorry about it. Even when you twisted my arm, or you kicked your toys down the stairs. I knew you didn’t want to be bad. If I’m honest, it’s why I kept coming back. I thought I was helping.
And it’s ridiculous, because I barely knew you, but now I feel like I have met you multiple times in my life, in different men. Even women, one or two, whose anger broke everything fragile around them. I’ve made the mistake of offering things that are delicate, things of mine, thinking it would help their anger. I turned my thoughts into words and gave my words to them, only to see my words get twisted and wrung out until they had no meaning; I’ve lost things I loved that way. In some rooms, with some people, it’s dangerous to give anything at all, and I’ve learned now to keep the things I cherish most to myself. But I hadn’t learned that yet when I knew you.
I’ve met enough boys who break things to know that some are truly cruel, and others are just spinning out of control. I will never understand it, wherever the anger comes from. And I don’t want to put myself in its path again. But I do know that you didn’t mean to cause the pain you caused. I could tell afterwards, when the anger left you and you saw what you had done.
I only wish I had never brought the kitten to you. I carried him with me one day, near the end of the summer. He had wandered back into my yard, and I wanted to show him to you, so I held him in my arms like a doll, feeling stupidly happy. Unthinkingly happy. I brought him down the hill to meet you. And you were so delighted with him! Petting him and counting his stripes, watching him stretch and explore your mother’s living room. It was such a good day until it wasn’t.
Your mom pulled you into her bedroom to talk about something, I didn’t know what, and when you came out your face was red and tear-streaked. The kitten and I were on the floor in the kitchen. I saw you look at him. Why did your face look like that? You walked across the floor and picked him up. I reached out. “No. No, Alex.” And then, like it was nothing, you threw him across the room.
A loud scream. Mine. I ran across to my little kitten, who had landed in a skitter on the tile floor. I picked him up and touched each of his legs. I looked him over, petting the fur along his legs, and touched his head, and tucked him against my chest and cried. He was okay. He was okay, thank God. But I wasn’t. I looked at you and saw blue eyes bright and terrified and confused staring back at me.
Were we only six years old? I saw where your rage had been, the pink on your cheeks, sweat on your forehead. And now it was gone; a bewildered little boy standing on the kitchen tile.
Your mother came out of her bedroom into that scene, the two of us on either side of the kitchen. I held the kitten tightly against my chest. She stared at us for a half-second, then said, “Kids, I’m so sorry. But I need you to go to the basement now.”
The basement? I stared at her. I wanted to go home.
But she was already pressing her hands at our backs, pushing us toward the steps.
“Just for a little while. I need you to stay in Alex’s room. Okay? I called your dad, Tonya, and he’s on his way, but he won’t be here for a few minutes.”
She followed us into your room and showed me the doorknob, turning the lock. “This is locked.” Turning it back. “This is unlocked.” She locked it again and said, “Do not open this door.” I looked up at her solemnly. “Don’t open it, okay? Not until Tony is here.” My dad’s name.
I understood that this was something serious. I nodded. Next to me, you had your mouth screwed shut. There were tears rolling down your face.
Your mom left, pulling the locked door behind her. I sat on the floor with the kitten and watched the door, afraid of what might try to get in.
“It’s my stepdad,” you said. You were lying on the bed. “He found out where we are, and she doesn’t want him to see us.”
I watched the door.
“He only wants to see us,” you said quietly to yourself.
I waited. I kept the kitten in my lap, petting him and murmuring to him. I pretended you weren’t there. After a while, probably fifteen or twenty minutes, I heard a door opening upstairs. Then, a moment later, my father’s voice. I jumped up.
Only now, nearly thirty years later, do I realize how that must have been for you, when my father came down the steps to your bedroom door and I unlocked it and raced into his arms. “Daddy! Daddy! Can we go now?” And I ran ahead of him up the stairs to his car outside, so that I could go back to my safe, warm home.
Now I realize, you didn’t get to leave.
I’m so sorry, Alex.
That was the last time I saw you. I told my Dad I didn’t want to spend any more time at your house, and he was happy for me to stay away. He wouldn’t tell me what happened that day. He only told me that you and your mom were in danger, and that you would probably be leaving the forest soon. It had seemed like a safe place, all the way up the canyon, tucked away in the trees. But it wasn’t safe enough.
When I thought of you, over the next nine years, all I thought of was the kitten flying across the kitchen. You introduced me to something new that day. A new kind of fear that has never healed. A fear that has only deepened with time. What if I am surrounded by monsters who don’t look like monsters? What if I fail to protect the ones I love, and I deliver them into the hands of monsters? I am not big enough to protect everyone. I am not even big enough to protect myself.
The next time I heard your name, I was fifteen and the local news reporters were announcing that you were dead.
I sat staring at the television as the news went to a commercial break. When I looked down, I closed the book on my lap. I put it away with my notebooks and pencils, and I waited on the couch silently until my dad came into the room.
“Do you remember a little boy named Alex?” I asked him. “He lived down the hill one summer? Him and his mom?”
He repeated your name, then your last name. I nodded.
“They just announced on the news—it was just a minute ago,” I said. “He died this weekend in a motocross accident.”
There had been a little image of a motocross rider in a square on the screen while they read the story. I don’t know if it was a photo of you. Probably it wasn’t.
Dad walked to the couch. He sat quietly with me. I knew he was thinking of your mom. Somewhere in his office was a file folder with her name on it, and yours. I pictured her, the way she had looked when we were kids. Short blonde hair, a red sweater and a cigarette. Now she was in a room somewhere and she had lost her little boy. Good God.
I don’t like to believe a child can be doomed, but it feels like you were. Nothing ever went right for you. Not a thing, from the day you were born to the day you died. I don’t want to believe that the universe creates a life, only to torture it into its grave. I don’t want to believe that the universe itself can be the monster. But when I think of you, I’m not sure.
If I had known you at fifteen, I wouldn’t have been friends with you. I’m sorry. I was afraid of you at six years old, and I would’ve been more afraid of you at fifteen.
As for now… I am thirty-five now. It’s my birthday today, and for some reason I thought of you. Maybe because you will never get to be thirty-five. Maybe because it would have taken a miracle to get you to this age, even if you had survived that motocross accident. It’s raining outside and I can hear the wet sound of cars in the rain-filled streets. I can hear thunder. I am so conscious of everything that time has given me. I wish you had been given more time.
I’ve known other men who started the way you did. Your chances weren’t great. But I can’t really say what you would have become. You were good at heart, Alex. I believed in it. And I wish you could’ve had the option, even if you never took it, of having a good life. I wish you could have seen some of the things I’ve been allowed to see.
Living is an act of repair. I can feel it all around me. Everyone I know is scarred by something. We’ve all met the world’s monsters. We’ve met them in others, and we meet them in ourselves. But still, I feel the world continuing to weave itself forward. Time is reaching for the thread ends, around the scarred places, and it keeps weaving. I wish you could feel this. Each morning, just by brushing my teeth and putting on my clothes and walking out into the world, I am collaborating with time.
Someone must have eulogized you once, but it wasn’t me. All I can say about you, summer friend, is that your life wasn’t fair. And when I think of you, I wonder why time repairs some things and why it leaves others broken. You were left broken on a dirt trail at fifteen years old. You lived and died at a loose end of the thread. It never resolved into anything. And, knowing that, all I can think is that life comes down to luck. That gifts are given without reason and taken without reason. All I can think is that time doesn’t care about fairness, only about movement.
Would time have done its work on you? Maybe it already has, somewhere, in some way I can’t understand. I don’t understand anything about the universe, Alex, or where it will take any of us. I don’t understand time. All I know is I want more.
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