My first thought today brought back Bolivar. When I stayed with you there, foghorns on tugboats pushing barges lowed in the Intracoastal Waterway. Even when I didn’t hear them, I held them in my head like thoughts loosely tethered together.
If we saw a butterfly, bird, snake, or insect, one of my brother’s books would identify it. We leaned over the pages as if we were looking into a deep hole. We didn’t mind touching. The object of our search didn’t always appear, so we whispered to catalog everything we had seen, pointing and saying when and where we’d encountered it.
Early on, I thought of friendship as gathering together-stories, the time we shot a mocking bird with your b-b gun and buried it so the police wouldn’t discover we murdered the state bird, or the time we cut sections of grape vine to smoke and coughed for a week, or the time we soaked your sister’s underwear, froze it, and returned it to her drawer.
In my memory you never ask me to go to your house after school, never show up at my door to ask me to play, never say “Best Friend.” Our parents negotiate our visits and sleepovers. We have no plans. We account for time by being together.
Mom says the school must have separated us because we’d be trouble together. You may recall that after first grade, we never sat in adjacent desks.
Concentrating, I can bring back your scent. It hits me just as the first whiff of your house did when I walked through your door.
Do you remember all the accidents I witnessed? I was present when you spilled boiling water on your chest, cut your foot jumping out of the window over your garage, split your knee open as we skim-boarded after a morning thunderstorm. Your mother was so calm. She sent me home as if we both needed soothing.
I don’t do friendship well anymore, as it requires leaving the room of myself, something strangely challenging. But our hours seemed easy, as neutral as the sun’s indecisive attention to shadows on a cloud-crowded day.
We must have fought but I don’t remember apologies.
People in the neighborhood often mistook me for you, partly because we were the same size but mostly because we shared the same first name. Did you know when they meant me? Did you correct them?
The depression in the center of your chest troubled me. Where my sternum was straight as a last yours seemed to leave no room for your heart to beat.
During all the weekends I spent with your family in Bolivar, the house remained unfinished. When we returned from roaming the salt marshes looking for Jean Lafitte’s treasure, empty cans of Falstaff and Lone Star gathered near sites of fitful labor.
Mom says your dad was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen. She thought you and I looked alike, but I wasn’t sure she approved of you. Sometimes you can tell when, inside, someone sneers.
When people use the expression “Something came between us,” I imagine a scary story you made up once about a husband and wife waking with a corpse.
We saw the moon landing together. Of everything I’ve reported, I’m sure you don’t need to be told that.
Later we shared friends. They were your friends first, then mine. Being with them when you weren’t present felt like winging around in a looser orbit. One punched me in the face when I beat him at basketball. Another invited a girl over so I could learn how to French kiss. One day, out with one of your friends, we broke into an empty house to smoke cigarettes and the cops came. You may actually have been there too. It feels like it.
You convinced me to explore the network of cement storm sewer tubes crisscrossing under our neighborhood. You kept saying how surprised people would be when we suddenly appeared somewhere else. Girls would be impressed, you said.
I just remembered the summer I invented a language you refused to speak.
There must have been a day I stopped calling you my best friend.
Maybe memory stumbles here, but I connect every friend to you. Not directly, because all those separate steps disappear, but in character—as if they stood in the same circle of smoke blowing from the same fire.
When people run into other people who know people they know or are people they know, they say, “It’s a small world.” Maybe that’s the biggest change since last we met. It hasn’t felt small enough for me in quite some time.
One of my college roommates regarded friendship as a test. If you passed, you couldn’t un-pass. He took you on forever, though not really. I expected to finally relax but never overcame feeling indebted. When I tried to explain my discomfort to another roommate, I used you to demonstrate proper friendship. I’m ashamed I’ve exploited your memory for such petty causes.
The summer I left our hometown, I imagined saying goodbye to you, but, by then, we barely knew each other and practicing our conversation was like talking with a ghost who’d left the attic long before.
People brought me news of you after I moved away—some of it horrifying and heartbreaking—but those accounts were as fanciful as games we played as boys, when it was fun to imagine the neighborhood as a harsher, less forgiving landscape.
I’ve never reinvented you as a character in a story. The few times I’ve tried to describe you in writing before now, the prose slipped from my grip like a kite that slackened and fell as soon as I stopped tugging.