Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Space Where There Was A Friend

Out of respect, I won’t use his name—I know of whom I write, and that is good enough.

The first time I met him was in elementary school, and it is not when we became friends. I remember walking down the hall, to the bathroom probably, when I saw him waddling towards me down the hall with that awkward gait he had. Before then, I don’t think I had ever seen a seriously handicapped person before, and in my youthful curiosity I couldn’t help but stare. His chest was distended, his wrists were too big, his limbs too short, and his walk made a duck seem graceful in comparison. Even at that age, he was unnaturally short. As I, slack-jawed no doubt, closed the distance between us he said the first words that were to pass between us, “Get the hell out of the way!”—this was not an auspicious beginning.

In the years that were to follow, I remember feeling a sort of terror whenever I passed him—based in no small part on our first encounter. My terror was not an emotion that was saved for just him, and had little to do with his handicap. The sad truth was that at that tender young age I was painfully shy, and so unsure of myself that I was terrified of anyone who could raise their voice above that of the average field mouse. As the years went by my confidence grew, but his bones did not—he remained unnaturally short, growing organs straining against a skeleton that just didn’t seem to understand which way was up.

Our friendship began in earnest in high school at a party on the beach. I was doing something foolish with a paper cup, charcoal lighter fluid, and a cigarette lighter—a cocktail I called “the Chernobyl”. This particular trick seemed to impress him, and I remember seeing him for the first time as a person and not some terrifying, loud enigma.

Over the years after that we saw more of each other, and our friendship grew to be something shy of close friends but greater than casual friends. Many nights he and I would stay up trying to solve Rubik’s Magic and going head to head on classic space shooters on my Commodore 64. He was unabashedly a nerd, and in him I found a kindred spirit to while away the some of the small hours towards the end of high school. Without a doubt he had one of the finest minds I have ever had the pleasure of encountering without losing his social skills, and he had a wicked sense of humor to boot.

The last time I saw him was after I dropped out of college, shortly before I was deployed to Germany with the Army. I came upon him in Market Square, and he didn’t look well. His condition was a progressively worse one, as his internal organs had grown to adult size inside a child’s body. He had had a tracheotomy to assist his breathing that had become difficult due to the thickening of the tissues in his throat. I don’t recall what we talked about, but recall again being scared around him—unlike when I was a child, for the first time I was scared for him, and not of him.

Shortly after I was stationed in Germany, my unit was deployed to the Middle East to beat back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. We were there for about six months, and as soon as I was re-stationed in Germany it was my top priority to call my family. When I got through to my mother, she gave me the news that seemed to suck the oxygen out of my lungs. While I had been stationed in Iraq, it seems that my friend had decided to go for a swim in the Piscataqua River one night. The thing about the Piscataqua is that it has the second fastest current on the eastern seaboard, and is deadly even to adults in the prime of their health, let alone an ill young man trapped in a child’s body. I’m told it took almost two weeks to find his body.

The news devastated me. I went to town that night and drank what seemed to be my weight in tequila, just trying to burn the awful truth away. Staggering back to the barracks, I vaguely remember barging into my Sergeant’s room. Sergeant Smith was a very religious man, and I demanded that he tell me why God had allowed such a thing to happen. The cruel joke that tequila pulls on a person is that it leaves the memories you don’t want, and takes away the ones you probably do—all I clearly remember is that Sergeant Smith was very patient with me, and I didn’t get any of the trouble that I so richly deserved the next day.

I don’t know why my friend went into the river that night, and I don’t want to speculate. All I know is that my life was richer for having known him, and even now he is missed.

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