We grew up with the same.
The same street and gray skies, spray-painting stencils on the griptape of our skateboards in my parents’ yard, as tractors pushed seeds into the ground around us. You said, “Your parents’ house is big.” And I said, “They work a lot.” And we ate sweet corn from their field.
We were nowhere anyone wants to be, but we didn’t know better. Our neighborhood was small, and our world views, smaller. We only had each other those summer days in the woods. We were victims of location.
And I’m out of that nowhere world now and you’re out of all of them. My hair is turning prematurely gray, but at least I still have a full head. My mom said, “You’ve always been a worrier.” And I suppose she’s right. So I play music and I’m coping with what I can and I think it’s working.
We wore our hair long the summer I watched Mia Hamm take off her shirt in your living room, while your mom smoked in the adjoining kitchen. She scorned us for making her house dirtier. I was wet and muddy from when you pushed me in the creek, earlier in the afternoon. You reached out your hand to pull me up, then pushed me back down again.
“Our little group has always been / And always will until the end.” Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Your dad yelled at your little sister from his chair as she ran down the hallway and we sat in your room playing video games. You kept beating me. I threw the controller down and picked up your guitar and played the chords I learned from my first couple lessons. I said, “This is Nirvana.” You said, “Yeah okay.” I said, “I’ll make you a mix.” You said, “I don’t care.” You said, “Let’s go another round.”
“The resentment rides high / But emotions won’t grow.” Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
In school, I fumbled with puberty. You were a year my senior, and you played the part of a teen movie villain. This is what had changed from our summers alone, not your actions, but the publicity of our classmates. The attention we received when you pushed me into walls in the hall and knocked books out of my hands on the bus and snapped me with towels in the locker room, where I stood exposed, shivering in the heat doing nothing to stop you. I didn’t want you to see me.
Or rather, I didn’t want anyone to see you tearing me down.
“My body’s broken yours is bent.” Placebo: “Every You Every Me”
You were ominous until you were diagnosed, later.
You came back to school fragile and hairless and I wanted to push you down and bleed out the last of your radiation-filled blood.
But before anyone knew what was eating away at you between your legs, we had practice, together. Combines ate the corn stalks around the football field. You’d aim for me, whether I touched the ball or not. Leveling me with the painted lines on the turf, holding my stomach, catching my wind, and praying my organs weren’t bruised.
“I got all the time that I need to kill.” Beastie Boys: “Time to Get Ill”
I started skipping practice. I’d say, “I’m ill,” and take the bus home, because you weren’t there on the way back. The cattle would low and watch as I’d skate up and down my driveway. My dad would say, “I thought you were too sick to go to football.” And I’d shrug and go inside before you came home.
It still happens when the nervousness hits me and my neck gets hot and the blood flushes from my face and runs down into my gut and I grind my molars together to stop what’s coming. The room spins and I’m going to throw up. In those days, I used to cry. In college, I would drink, but now I just faint. Or sit down before I faint.
“Teach us that it’s just a phase / When I grow up my children will probably do the same.” Billy Talent: “Nothing to Lose”
I started skipping more and lying in the nurse’s office, saying I’m sick, then shoving my fist in my throat, aiming for that punching bag on the roof of my mouth, because the bad feelings were going to come up one way or another. A reflex I’d always had. I just helped it along those days. When it worked, I did it more and more and didn’t have to worry about memorizing plays or the feel of your helmet in my ribs.
“I want to be wrong but / No one here wants to fight me like you do.” Metric: “Combat Baby”
I cried in class and ran out of the room. You blocked me in the hall and I only saw in reds and browns. You asked, “What are you crying about.” Calling me by your version of my last name. Twisting each word as you dug your thumb into my shoulder. I said, “Not right now.”
I became a regular in the nurse’s office until she sent the counselor in to talk to me. I didn’t name names. I couldn’t connect with my peers and they were taking advantage of that. She told me, “Get over it.” Nobody likes a victim story.
“Wish I knew what you were looking for / Might have known what you would find.” The Church: “Under the Milky Way”
I tried to get over it the day on the slopes when you asked me what kind of music you should listen to. I kicked snow off my board when we rode up the chairlift. Water from the pond below was sucked up and combined with chemicals. The flakes landed on my mitten and they weren’t oranges and yellows like the lights let on, but up close, I could tell they were white.
I asked you what you listen to and I named off some bands I thought you’d like. You said, “Tom Petty.” I said, “The Grateful Dead.” You said, “Green Day.” I said, “Modest Mouse.” I said, “I’ll make you a mix.” You said, “Cool.” All the cruelty of the past seasons washed away with the new layer of snow. I thought your streak was over. I thought we could be friends.
“Too late to beg you or cancel it.” Echo and the Bunnymen: “The Killing Moon”
I thought I could come over unannounced again. I thought we could watch skate movies in my basement. I thought you’d give me a ride when you’d get your license. I thought I’d have someone to show me what to do, because I knew I had no idea what or how.
“You were so true to yourself / You were true to no one else / Well I should put you in the ground.” Modest Mouse: “Black Cadillacs”
We kept talking later in the lodge. You said, “Maybe you can teach me some things on guitar.” I said, “Cool.” You took off your name brand goggles your parents had saved away to get for you, and you set them on the table. I placed my own knockoff goggles on the seat beside me. When the girl you knew I liked sat by us, you ate all my fries and said, “You’ve got no balls.” You put your arm around her and smirked at me.
I called my dad from the pay phone and asked him to pick me up and I tried not to vomit in his truck. But that’s my reflex. Years later, a shitty therapist would call them anxiety attacks and give me a pill to take daily and warn me not to drink on it, but I would do it anyway.
“Didn’t get to sleep that night ’til the morning came around.” Grateful Dead: “Friend of The Devil”
That night, I burnt a mix CD, put on my Walkman, and punched my pillow wishing it were your smile. I wished you were dead then. I wished and I prayed and I’m afraid God listened to me.
“You better watch what you do to me.” Tom Petty: “You Got Lucky”
When your diagnosis came out, everyone wore Livestrong bracelets and said you were so brave. I said, “It’s years of karma stored up in your scrotum.” You told me you met Lance Armstrong, and I said, “I don’t care.” You told me you were going to be a starting kicker because you had cancer, and I said, “You’d be a bad kicker because you have cancer.” I said, “If you got tackled, you’d be down forever.” I was determined to make my words twist the way yours did to me. I finally felt more man than you.
Some time passed and my mom asked if I wanted a ride to your funeral. I said, “No, that’s okay.”
“The past is gone but something might be found / To take its place.” Gin Blossoms: “Hey Jealousy”
After college, I was working at our school as a substitute teacher, as a placeholder before I did better things. Your little sister asked me math questions and I couldn’t look her in the eye, because I was the reason she didn’t have her brother. And I couldn’t tell her I was sorry, because I didn’t want to lie.
“I’m sinking like a stone in the sea / I’m burning like a bridge for your body.” Brand New: “Tautou”
The seniors organized a memorial fun run for your foundation around our combined junior high and high school, even though you died years before and the students probably didn’t know you, but hell, it’s a small town, everybody knows everybody and we’re all exposed. They made a Facebook page and posted pictures of you, bald and smirking. People left comments saying you were a great kid and I thought, Was he really? People left comments about how your smile was infectious. And it made me ill.
After I skipped your memorial fun run, my little brothers asked me why I didn’t like you. My mom told them you were mean to me and left it at that. I told them, “That was right.” I told them, “Try to be nice to people, because someday you’ll die and you’ll want to be remembered as someone who was nice to people.” They shrugged and played video games, ignoring me, trying to beat each other.
I’m still not sorry.
But I’m trying to be.
A note from the author and Rumpus editors:
We accepted this piece because it excavates difficult terrain, and the types of conflicting ideas people have within themselves. It raises questions about childhood, bullying, anxiety, shame, guilt, and forgiveness that many people probably recognize. It is also crafted in a thoughtful way, with the insight of a young adult looking back at vulnerability—which both humans here are shown to have.
To anyone who is struggling with anger, fear, or bullying, please know there are plenty of people who are willing to listen. Do not hold your anger in. It may seem like nobody is on your side, but know you are not alone.
Illustration by Leroy Sheridan.