Remember kindergarten? I do. You were a jerk. And not even a popular jerk. You were the type of jerk who wanted to be one of the popular jerks, but hated them at the same time, so you stuck with making fun of the brainiacs because you were too afraid to make fun of the popular kids. I was a brainiac.
But, as they say, opposites attract, and one Wednesday during the summer, the one we both spent at camp, I had finally had enough of you being a big asshole and made a bet that I could climb to Sadie Point, the highest peak of our hiking trail, before you could.
You started running before I even said go. Asshole.
But I'm glad. I'm glad you went with me, because that's how I got to know you—for more than your assholeness. We stank of sweat and grass when we reached the top—I think I beat you, I'm pretty sure I did—but I was glad.
I beat you. But, in hindsight, that doesn't even matter. It was one win in a hundred losses. We dared each other to get as close to the edge of the cliff as we could, past the "restricted" sign. I went three steps. You went five, and then one more, just to prove a point. Funny. And then, there were the chocolates. I had two leftover boxes that I didn't sell in my hiking backpack. I wasn't braver than you, but at the moment, I was pretty sure I had a bigger stomach than you did. You were tiny. You still are. I was wrong. On one—and this time I didn't cheat—we flipped open our boxes and started at the three dozen harlequins. I remember, I was so excited to see that I only had two left—I was going to win—but then, I heard you heave a sigh, and in the corner of my eye, I saw you lean back. I still thought I'd won. You leaning back, it was in defeat.
I've always admired your vocabulary. Oh, and you ate like a cow. Still do.
"Not fair—I had three cupcakes for breakfast!" But I was never mad that I'd lost, like I thought I'd be. Instead, I admired you for winning. Somehow, I knew that that was what friends did—they were happy for each other, even when one lost and the other won. I didn't have a lot of friends back then.
Maybe I still don't.
I told you my secrets that night. I told you things that I wouldn't for the hell of me have told anyone else. I guess maybe you were myonly friend; the only person who I knew would keep them safe. I told you about how I was always afraid, and how the reason I said so many mean things was because, without those phrases, I was nothing—I didn't think I would even know how to talk. You listened, and you patted my back, a gesture beyond your years. You made me feel okay. What friends do.
You weren't afraid of the dark.
When my mom asked the next day how things went, all I said was "fine". The only things I remembered doing was racing up that cliff with you, eating my chocolates, and watching you laugh with it smeared all over your face. You were cute. I wondered if I would ever see you again—if we would be in the same first grade class, that is, and crossed my fingers the whole rest of the car ride home that we would. I watched the trees and sunlight catch in my windowsill, and for the first time, I felt poetic.
You started getting popular in fourth grade, because you started getting cute. I know because Monica Kapinski, the head of the popular girls—she always stood in the middle—started talking to you.
The problem was, she never stopped talking to you. It got on my nerves. The more she talked, the more I disliked her.
I tried being nice. I'd smile whenever she came over, and nod when she talked to us—or just you—about Britney Spears, soccer, and the rest of the things I didn't like. I even nodded when she told me the shoes I wore, my favorite tennis shoes with the power rangers, were ugly.
You didn't say anything. You were a coward.
I'm a coward, and a hypocrite. Two things you hate.
I'm sorry I chose Monica over you for so long. You didn't deserve it. You didn't deserve her making fun of your shoes and making you ashamed of being smart. You didn't deserve a friend who just stood there and did nothing. A friend who was a coward.
But you weren't. You stood up for yourself. I remember. You told Monica that her shoes were the ugly ones—although I think the word you chose was "unsightly"—and that Britney Spears was a loser and if she looked up to her, she was a loser, too, before telling her to shove it. I didn't look at you. I wasn't like Monica. I couldn't look at you and just see through you.
You told me to "eat grass".
I felt horrible. For the rest of the day, there was a pigeon in my throat. I couldn't talk without my words getting jumbled. I was afraid to talk again, like before I met you.
So I did. I went home and shoved a few blades down my throat. It didn't make me feel any better. It was the first time I felt helpless, but not the last.
What was it, Caleb? What was the sign? Was it when you stopped talking to me the first day of sixth grade? When you got suspended for punching Malcolm Forrester in the face? Because he had it coming. To us, you were a hero, and the fact that you were punished for it made you all the more cool.
Was it when you missed that goal at state soccer? We all thought it was a fluke, Caleb. We all thought.
Or maybe it was when you went to homecoming alone, without Monica. But you seemed happy without her. I was happy you didn't go with her. Am I to blame here, Caleb? Tell me, because it's gnawing at me. Every morning when I wake up, it gnaws, and when I'm too exhausted to keep my eyes open at night, it still gnaws. It doesn't stop. Ever. I'm almost gone. Caleb, help me.
All along, you knew. You knew when, on the first day of middle school, I was empty again and all I had left were the things Monica wanted me to say and the way she wanted me to dress—who she wanted me to be. Everyone else became invisible. That day I missed the goal, I couldn't see. There were my teammates' faces, but I had no idea what all of them meant, what they wanted from me. What Monica wanted. So I stopped. I stopped listening. I stopped playing. I stopped talking. I didn't know how to do it anymore, especially with you. You weren't like Monica. You could see me.
Sometimes, I wonder what you saw.
I put on nail polish that day. My mom's. Can you imagine? Me, with nail polish? And not just nail polish—yellow dress, eyeliner, curled hair, the works. I must've liked you a lot.
That day was supposed to be my fairytale, Caleb.
I'm ugly inside. I had trophies, popularity, and you, but I was ugly. I was scared that you could see. You're so beautiful. I was afraid you wouldn't like me anymore if I was around you too long—you'd realize how ugly I truly was. I'm always scared.
But, I kissed you, didn't I?
I hope that makes me a little less of a coward in your book. There was this last part of me that still felt human, this part that wanted to kiss you, and when I did, that part of me peeled away, and I was nothing.
It was a fairytale, for a little bit. Your breath was salty, and I imagined the ocean. When you pulled away, it was like the tide ceasing.
You walked towards the edge of Sadie Point, like you were just going there to enjoy the view. In the background, your friends were laughing, because they didn't know what you were about to do.
The wave hit.
Suicide. That's what they call it—that's what we call it to ease the weight in our chests.
Did we kill you, Caleb?
Your friends won't come to Sadie Point anymore. But I do. Every Wednesday. I bring a box of harlequins and eat until I wanna puke. Until I can't breathe. Breathing hurts.
I stare at the sunrise, and wonder what you saw between the sun and the birds, the purple clouds.
I realized the other day, though, that you were never looking at the sun. Back at camp, in the summer of '96, when I very first met you, I wasn't looking either. I was looking at you.
And you were looking at me.