Goodbye to an old friend

The first boy I ever kissed died a few days ago. He was 35. He left behind a wife, two kids, a loving family, and some of my most vivid childhood memories.

Scott (or “Scotty,” as he was known around the neighborhood back in the day) was a sweet, skinny kid with a bum heart that made him huff and puff a bit more than the rest of us on bike rides and during street hockey games. His older brother, Billy, was more outspoken, but Scotty was the natural leader. When a game rule needed to be made or an argument defused, the neighborhood kids generally listened to Scott. We lived next-door to them, and the proximity alone made us fast friends in grade school.

Scott was my age, though somewhere along the line he got held back a year and ended up graduating with my younger sister. I don’t remember how or when I developed a little crush on him, but I suppose it was inevitable given the sheer amount of time we spent next-door. Those were the days before gated communities and overly cautious parents, when kids roamed the neighborhood freely. We could swim in each other’s pools at will, explore the nearby woods without parental supervision, and play games like Hide ‘n’ Seek and Green Goober late at night with boundaries that stretched across several back yards. Eventually Marco Polo and kickball gave way to big-kid games like Truth or Dare, which is how we came to share that kiss. (OK, it may have been two.)

My sister doesn’t remember the day Scott asked her out, but I do. I remember it distinctly because it secretly crushed me, realizing that he didn’t like me like me, the way I liked him. I remember pretending to be happy for her and then leaving her there at his house and walking back across our front yards alone, escaping to my room where nobody could see the embarrassment of rejection I was sure was written all over my face.

Their “courtship” probably only lasted that afternoon but the mere prospect of it stuck with me, in the way that sometimes even a seemingly superficial cut leaves a faint scar. I’d never thought, until now, how funny it is that the same boy has top billing in both my “first kiss” memory and my “first rejection” memory.

Finding out the person you like doesn’t like you back is sort of a rite of passage for an adolescent; I’m sure it happens to everyone at some point. Besides the sheer sadness of losing an old friend, what’s been rattling around in my brain since I heard the news is how much that kiss, that sideline rejection, and everything else that happened between the fences of our youth made me who I am.

If you’re lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood teeming with kids like I did, much of your formative years are influenced by “majority rules” and “do-overs.” Because when you spend weekends and holidays and summers in each other’s basements and back yards, you do a lot more than play. You help one another figure out who you are. It’s like having an eclectic, dysfunctional extended family; there are roles to play and lessons to learn and secrets to keep and spill. You learn how to fight and how to make up, how to stand up for yourself and when to back down. You make up stories and games. You break rules. You break hearts.

You get to see how the world works outside of your own living room. You see what other people eat, how other people live, whose dad isn’t around anymore. And you play with labels, too. She’s tough. He’s slow. She’s bratty. He’s funny. I’m shy.

And then you all grow up and go off to live your lives, leaving behind the ones who labeled you in the simplest terms yet knew you were so much more than the fastest kid on a skateboard. Or the girl who could ride no-handed.

Or the boy with the pacemaker.

Scott’s heart was never healthy. I don’t remember the details of his affliction, but I do remember the long scar he had running down his chest from open-heart surgery he’d had as a baby. And I remember the day he emerged poolside without a shirt on and we saw the pacemaker doctors had implanted in his chest. It looked like a small box sitting just beneath the skin. Funny that it made him feel stronger but look more fragile than before. Kids are kids, and I’m sure we antagonized the hell out of one another about everything under the sun, but I don’t recall anyone ever making fun of Scott’s pacemaker.

We’ll never know how many more heartbeats that pacemaker gave Scott than his heart alone would have pumped. Rumor has it a staph infection in the pacemaker eventually took his life. I wish I’d tried to reconnect with him when I saw his name on Facebook awhile back, not to disclose some long-forgotten crush but just to say hello, and share pictures of our children.

Someday soon, for my kids’ sake, I hope to settle in a neighborhood like the one Scott and I shared. The last couple places we’ve lived turned out to be inhabited by mostly older couples whose kids had long since left the nest. The neighbors we’ve met, firmly entrenched in their retirement years, take a look at our little ones and say with a smile, “You should have lived here 20 or 30 years ago.” I imagine some of my old neighbors — the ones who could point their fingers at a row of modest homes and recall a time when the Rydzys and the Cheniers and the Chittys and the Huberts and the Browns lived there — have said the same thing over the years.

The neighborhood of our youth produced a lot more than friendships and fences. I could say a piece of my childhood died with Scott, but I prefer instead to believe a piece of his childhood lives in me.

4 comments:

Lyn said...

another haunting tribute, robyn...thanks for reminding me about the neighborhood stuff I hadn't thought of in years...he'll be missed.

Christopher said...

Amen

Heather said...

I had a group of neighborhood friends like that too. I don't keep in touch with them much, but little brother does and he keeps me up to date. About 4 years ago I learned that a childhood/neighbor friend was murdered in his home. Its amazing the memories that come flooding back, both good and bad, but mostly just memories of us being kids, and then teenagers together. He was not my first kiss, but his best friend was!

I look forward to settling down someplace soon, so that Dylan can experience those same memories of tag football in the street, swimming in the community pool and having a best friend that she met as a kid, who is still her best friend 24 years later.

Thanks again for reminding me of childhood friends, maybe I will meet up with a few of them when we go to CA in Dec!

Mom101 said...

Thank you so much for sharing this lovely recollection with me. It reminded me of my own childhood friend who died, end of freshman year in college. He was also a boy I had kissed from time to time - not the first, but among the first.

He still visits me in my dreams. I find it more comforting than eerie.

I'm going to remember your last line here for a while. Thanks for that.