When I was a child, I had two best friends. We were inseparable. But on the first day of 7th grade, we parted ways forever, and it haunted me for years. I still don’t know where they are.
Scott and Gary lived two doors and five doors down, respectively. We did everything together. We rode bikes to the gully, put baseball cards in our spokes, cheated each other at marbles, and started a rock ‘n’ roll band together (without instruments, because who needs instruments when you got an imagination?).
Sometimes, we’d have sleepovers at Gary’s house, with the inside walls painted a rich blue, and we would roughhouse till late, jumping on beds and throwing pillows till 9:30. When Scott broke his femur and was in a chest-high cast for months, we visited him and played army with his little plastic army action figures and GI Joes, him stuck flat on his back, saying, Pow! Bang! You’re dead!
“I hope you get well,” I said to him once.
When the Beatles came to America, we formed a rock band in our garage. Gary borrowed a guitar from his older sister and I had a pair of drumsticks. We wrote a couple of songs and wailed them in the garage. Scott’s song was “Green Ruby” and mine was “Red Diamond.” My words went, “Red diamond, red diamond, red diamond, red!”
But on the first day of 7th grade, something happened between us. I waited for Scott and Gary in the morning in front of my house, as our mothers had planned, to walk to school together. But when they showed up, they were different. They were wearing weird clothes and black boots. They were rude to me. Scott was walking in the gutter. They seemed to be enforcing a 2-man blockade of something, I wasn’t sure what, but at the very least, friendliness.
“Why don’t you get lost,” Scott finally said.
“I will,” I said.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
“Don’t worry, I am.”
So I sped up and left them to amble to school alone. I waited for them to make up with me, as they always had in the past, but soon, it became clear that they were no longer interested in my friendship.
For a long time, I was devastated. Junior high was a strange new world with cockeyed rules, and I didn’t have my best friends to help me navigate it. Girls were wearing makeup! Shelly Mann caught me looking at her fabulous legs in her microminiskirt and told everybody I was a pervert. The school was teeming with kids I didn’t know.
Every day, I walked to school alone. I didn’t hang out with anybody at lunch. After school, I didn’t have any friends to play with. I began thinking about God, and what might happen if there wasn’t one. It seemed like I was walking into a long, dark tunnel.
My body was changing, too. Suddenly, my underarms stank. My hair began to turn curly and I couldn’t figure out how to comb it right. I felt awkward and self-conscious all the time. To top it all off, Scott and Gary were suddenly hanging out with the tough guys, smoking on a grassy area with other tough guys and making rude comments to girls.
More than anything, I wanted my grace back. I studied Richard Watts, the most popular kid in school, really studied him for the secrets to his grace. One day, I made an astonishing discovery. Richard said hi to everybody in the hallways, no matter who they were. So I copied him, saying hi to everybody. Suddenly, I had people to eat lunch with. Suddenly, people were talking to me. It felt like cheating.
Still, no matter how well I adjusted, I never quite got over the devastation of losing my closest childhood friends. Every so often, I’d see one of them, smoking or even drinking. In high school, both were expelled from school and sent to a stricter, more locked-down “continuation school.” It blew my mind that they were willing to throw away their lives like that. As children, we’d had dreams–becoming an astronaut, a baseball player, or even a writer–but it seemed like they were condemning themselves to a life of manual labor.
At age 28, something else happened. I was making my living as an editor on Shape magazine, but was stuck at home for a couple weeks, suffering through a bad flu. I was watching a lot of television and wandering around my tiny little apartment in that twilight state that consists mostly of half-thoughts, long-ago memories, and random associations.
For some reason, I began thinking about Scott and Gary. Night and day had become confused. And then suddenly, it occurred to me. Right around the time that Scott and Gary threw away our friendship, their parents were both going through divorces.
“That’s what happened!” I said out loud, staring intensely into space. “My God!”
Although they never let on, the pain must have been unbearable. At the time, I was focused only on my own pain–Why had they hurt me?!–but had never given a thought to their emotional difficulties. Turning into a tough guy was at the time something mysterious and even incomprehensible to me, like Tree of Life or jihad. But now, it finally made sense.
In high school, both Scott and Gary got into trouble and were sent to a continuation school. That was a step on the road towards juvenile hall and, eventually prison. We never saw continuation-school kids again, and I never saw Scott and Gary. Around age 19, I heard through the grapevine that Gary had hit some child with his souped-up Volkswagen bug and killed him. The term manslaughter was mentioned, but the details were fuzzy. I suppose he went to prison for a while. At that same time, I was in college reading Victorian literature and had not even had my first drink yet.
Sometimes now, I search the Internet for them. I did that just now, in fact. They’re not on Facebook, not on WordPress, don’t have their own Web page, and don’t seem to have become self-made millionaires, either. They’re probably nobodies who live in a nowhere apartment and work at a dead-end job.
But here’s the thing. It’s strange to think that once, we were best friends, that we pledged always to be friends.
“All for one and one for all,” we once said after seeing The Three Musketeers, our hands placed on top of the others’.
At the time, I took that oath seriously. In my heart, I believed we would always be friends. We sat in our bedrooms with each other, baseball cards spread on the carpet, and promised to be loyal to each other, to never let anybody get between us. But we grow up, and that seems to break something. The shattered pieces lie on the ground. I suppose it is the pieces of my heart.