I haven’t thought of him in years. Maybe decades. He used to be my constant internal companion.
When my parents took me to China, now a story of adventure, then a time of aching loneliness, he was with me every day.
I remember the first time we met. He was a shadow in his mother’s kitchen. We entered through the side door, the family door and it smelled like someone else’s dinner. Warm, spicy and not the smell of home. The room was dim, and he was tall and dark in the corner. His sister, my friend, scowled at him. He stayed and stared her down. ” Who’s this?” he asked her, flicking his hand sideways to indicate me- half intruder half crumb. “I’m Anna” I answered, stepped towards him and reached out.
We stood frozen until he turned and left.
He sister began giggling. “He likes you.”
It wasn’t quite how I thought like would feel. But I felt something. His shadow over us as we moved through the house. Would he be there? In this room? What if I got water? Would he hear the tap and make his way to the kitchen to stare at me again?
We spent the summer together, his sister and I, oddly underscheduled and free roaming. I always lobbied to hang out at her house. She knew why and teased me. She rarely said yes. One day he joined me at the table. She arched one eyebrow and left the room. I was being interviewed for something. He fixed his eyes on me and asked me questions.
Coke or Pepsi. Neither.
Books or TV. Books.
Cats or Dags. Cats.
Ice cream or french fries. French fries.
Records or Radio. Radio.
He never indicated his preference or allowed for elaboration. I worked through his checklist quickly.
“Ok.” He said at the end of it.
I didn’t know exactly if I had gotten the job, or what the job was. I reviewed my answers, questioning having opted for honesty rather than strategy and finally gave up the wondering. I didn’t see him again.
He shot himself the week school started.
I thought ceaselessly about our interview at his kitchen table. The round edges of the quartersawn oak. What it felt like to look into his eyes fringed with curling lashes. Why didn’t I see it? I had interpreted his closed attitude as aloofness, his loner status as individuality, his fierce squint as intelligence. I thought I could see into people’s minds. I was wrong.
I imagined him through high school, choosing his classes, making sarcastic comments. I pictured him roughing up my hair when he came up behind me in the hall. I tried to keep him alive, but he became an extension of what I knew rather than any piece of himself. I gave him up by college, in a new setting, walking halls he had never walked. Living longer than he had lived. Each sunset casting long shadows of the buildings on campus, another day almost complete.
Another day that he would never breathe.
Unthinkable things can happen. People can just stop living, and the rest of us go on. Mostly without them.
Just their shadows in the corners remain.