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John and his license expired last week. He had warning, of course. The date was stamped right on the front and they kept reminding him to get a new one. I told him too, told him that nothing lasts forever, not even for him. That, when time runs out, it’s gone, and he’s be screwed. How could I have guessed he wouldn’t need it?
They say sometimes, with lives not licenses, you know it’s the end. Like a balloon, you get older and lower and wrinklier as the life seeps out of you and then, one day, you just pop. But with John, it wasn’t like that. He wasn’t old – just a kid, really. With John, it was tragic. Though don’t expect me to cut the jokes; John and I always had a habit of laughing at things that were awful. And since he can’t do it, I will.
It started with a girl. Doesn’t it always? Start with a girl? Or end with one, I guess. John didn’t end with one. John ended alone. But the girl’s name was Peach. When she said it for the first time, John grinned at her, leaning against his new-old-car in the school parking lot, nose red with fall air.
“I love that name.” He said, just staring into her green eyes. I stood beside him and tried not to roll mine. Best friends are good like that. Even if you’ve been saying Peach is a stupid name since your first Mario game, we won’t call your bluff. Peach smiled back at him, kinda shyly like girls do when you know they’re not really shy at all.
“Thanks.” She said. “What’s yours?”
I nudged him in the back. Your name is John, I wanted to scream. Finally he remembered and held out his hand. “John. John Hemsfield.” He gave her that mischievous goofy grin he was always so good at. She laughed.
“Nice to meet you, John aaaaannnnndddd…?” We looked at each other, both having forgotten I was there.
“Bruce. Aikens.” I gave her a half-wave, a little awkwardly. Not the time for potentially overpowering charm. She gave me that sad look reserved for nerdy friends of awesome guys and turn away. We laughed about that later.
“So you’re on the football team?” She asked and John puffed out his chest a bit, proud of his jock side. I’m proud to say, even at sixteen, I had the wisdom not to mention he also played World of Warcraft and slept in footie pajamas until he was nine.
“I sure am. And you’re a cheerleader?” He inflected the end a bit, as if he wasn’t sure she was a cheerleader. As if he didn’t know when the squad practiced or how high she wore her bouncing blonde ponytail.
She nodded. I remember thinking then that, for a cheerleader, she sure wasn’t very bubbly. There was an awkward silence. I imagine it was worse for John, as he stood there with sweating palms, trying to get up the guts to ask her at the same time he acted like the thought didn’t terrify him. I hit him not so subtly and he burped out the question – would you, I don’t know, want to do something? – cool shattered in a moment of weakness he conveniently forgot later.
She said, “Yes. Friday?”
Fast forward. Lunch table, seventeen years young. I sat there with what I think may have been a burrito at one point. A point before countless freezings, a microwaving or two, and a near miss with a bully’s rear end when he sat at the table to taunt me. ‘You like that book so much why don’t I smash your face in it, you nerdy asswipe’; right before John slugged him in the jaw.
Peach was nervous, didn’t even touch her food. She twirled her hair around her finger. It used to be ginger – a far cry from her natural blonde – but was purple at that moment. She’d been doing odd stuff like that for a month or two, dying her hair and breaking the rules. When we asked her about it, she would laugh. “Carpe the hell out of your diem.” She would giggle as she dropped another plastic snake through a forgetful teacher’s open sunroof. John would kiss her then, laughing at her antics. He loved that girl.
There at the table though, she looked close to the tears. I remember being confused; John was only in the office, surely giving some brilliant BS about physical aggression versus verbal bullying and how grateful they should be he only punched the guy. He’d been gone a while. Maybe that approach didn’t work, and he was on to the ‘threatening to call his lawyer father’ stage. His father was a car salesman, but it worked every time. Damn, that kid was good.
He finally came back, smiling smugly. Peach paled to a papery white and I grabbed her arm, afraid she would faint. She gave me a weak smile and I let go. Oblivious, John sauntered up to the table, making an innocent face and speaking in imitation of a preteen girl.
“Oh please sir, I didn’t mean to break his fat ugly nose! I just get so upset when I see bullying, I lost control!” He sniffed, pretending to bite at his nails. “It’ll never happen again.” He rolled his eyes, sitting back in his designated spot between me and Peach, knowing he’d be back in the office in a week or so. I laughed. She didn’t.
“I’m going to die.”
I dropped my burrito. Would have thought she was joking if I hadn’t seen those eyes. If it hadn’t made so much sense.
“What?” John choked, the laughter draining from his eyes along with the blood from his face.
“I’m going to die.” She whimpered a little bit more the second time around, looking so small and alone. “It’s in my brain, they said.” John wrapped her in his thick arms, tears welling in his eyes, chin afraid to rest on the top of her head even as she curled into his chest. Somebody yelled ‘get a room’. I flipped them off.
“How long?” John choked. He winced at the crack in his voice as he fought back tears.
“A month. Maybe.” She looked at the finger she’d been twirling her hair with, a frizzy purple cord encircling it, detached from her head. I felt horrible for not noticing. “I didn’t want to tell you, but I couldn’t do it anymore.” She was crying in earnest by then. So was John. It seemed so private, so heart-wrenching, I couldn’t shake the horror of the idea it was happening in the middle of a cafeteria. The bell rang and the cafeteria became a mob, a stampede of students rushing to get to their class. But the three of us were frozen, stuck in a nightmare, unable to wake up. A broken record blared in my mind: Peach is going to die.
Hospital beds. Shaved heads. IVs. Goodbyes. Everyone wore white at the funeral. John told me he was joining the Peace Corps.
I found my own girl while John was in Africa and I was in college. When I went to ask her out, he wasn’t there to remind me what my name was. My wingman was a cell phone picture, featuring our party of three. We were Mario, Luigi, and a wig-clad Princess Peach going off to drive go-karts, a week before Peach checked into the hospital and didn’t check out - the last time John really laughed. Some people are already starting to say that John died when Peach did. But he didn’t – I just want everyone to know that. There was always that jock inside of John, that dangerous bit, and maybe, if Peach had stayed, she could have gentled it. But that’s all.
When John got back, I was twenty, working on my computer science degree and my software tan. He was the same age but ancient, working on his muscles and cutting ties with the Peace Corps.
“I can’t take it.” He told me one night, over one too many beers and the white noise of a football game. “I can’t watch them suffer, try so hard, and still fail. I can’t watch them want so badly to live, then be crushed under the thumb of some dictator or warlord or some other selfish bastard.” He slammed his fist down on the table, drunk tears in his eyes. I put a hand on his shoulder, consoled him, and – having had several drinks myself – told him I knew just how he felt.
John told me he was joining the Marine Corps.
Knock on the door. Mrs. Hemsfield answered, a cheery smile on her rosy face and the smell of chocolate chip cookies clinging to her floral apron. Her smile fell when she spotted the visitor, a clean-cut young man in a freshly pressed uniform, his cap in his hands.
“I’m sorry ma’am.” He said, pain he was too young to have to feel shining in his eyes. “Your son was killed in action three days ago, serving his country in Iraq.” At least, that’s how I imagine it went. If it didn’t it should have. And maybe she was able to keep her tears back long enough for him to tell her that he saved a lot of other people’s sons, that he was a hero. I really hope she did.
John. The guy who got all the girls and had no idea how to talk to them. The one who was an athlete as well as a mathlete. The one who charged out into the world, determined to be something but not knowing what. Who left his wallet on the table with his keys and shipped off to drive Humvees instead of his Mustang. John, the guy who jumped on a grenade.