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Walking on a Wire
I was twelve years old and in the seventh grade when you first came to our Northern California school from East L.A. I was one who wondered things and ask questions,while you sat alone at lunch and at the back of classrooms, speaking the bare minimum and only when necessary. Do you remember when I sat with you at lunch sometimes; I asked things like where you went to school before and what your family was like, and you just shrugged your thin, bony shoulders and looked at me with the green, deep-set eyes of one who's seen too many horrors and would rather just stop seeing before the hurt can sink in too deep?
And then, a year later, when when we were both thirteen, you kissed me for the very first time, on top of the Ferris Wheel at the local county fair. While my mom was waiting for us below, ready to take us home for the night, and we were still stuck at the top looking at the stars and lights that sparkled and danced around our excited bodies. You leaned over and kissed my cheek. Your lips were blue and sticky from cotton candy, and lay there for at least five seconds before the wheel began to turn again and we were let to the ground. And I knew that that kiss had meant something, but it didn't mean that you loved me nor did it mean that I loved you. I knew I wanted to hold your hand for the rest of the night and the rest of my life, and I wanted to look into you intense green eyes until mine started to water and I'd have to look away from you.
But then we turned fourteen and I still didn't know what it felt like to really love, like my father had said he loved my mother before he left us. And after a night of listening to their fraught voices, with my ear pressed against the door of their bedroom, my father left and never came back. And I figured that love wasn't supposed to last, if he could tell her that he'd love her until the end of time, but then turn around and leave. He bought a house an hour away from mom and I. A lake house, with a porch and big rooms, and a balcony that looked over the lake. He got a new girlfriend to match, and she was nice and made smoothies when I came to visit and brought you along with me because you said you just needed to get out of your house for a while.
I remember once, we were sitting in the dark closet of the room at my dad's, where we were sharing for the summer. The lights were out and the only light in the sultry room was the one coming from the candle that was sitting on the hard would floor between us, and the cigarette you'd stolen from your mother and brought along. You leaned in and gave me a real proper kiss on the mouth, your hand resting on my shoulder, your nose pressed against mine. The tooth paste now resting on the bathroom counter, and the bitterness of cigarette smoke lingered in your breath and I tasted them on my tongue. I shut my eyes and waited for it to end, though I wished it could last forever.
When we were fifteen, things seemed to be a bit clearer. The ways of the world, and the things that other people perceived when you walked down the street in the fading light of the growing evening: I saw a beautiful boy who kissed me in my closet and held my hand when I was feeling sad, while others saw the skinny kid in the dark blue teeshirt who looked at the ground and dragged his feet as he walked down the sidewalk, minding his own business.
And I remember the first day they beat you up clearer than I would like to say. Will Rosen had you by the collar and was pushing you up against the chain link fence of the basketball court in the park by my house. I remember that all I could do was feel my sneakers digging into the concrete where I stood on the other side of the fence. Will screamed, “you're such a filthy little creep” and you spoke back “why?!” Then Will swung a heavy punch, and you hit the ground, and I felt my breathing catch in the back of my throat as I watched him and his three friends beat you until you were nothing but a shivering heap of bruised flesh on the pavement.
I went to you once they'd left, and you tried to get up but I pushed you back and told you that you should stay sitting. And then you attempted to hide that you were trying hard not to cry, so I told you that it was okay, they were gone, and it was okay to cry. But you refused and said that only weak people allowed themselves to cry in front of others. I wiped away the blood from your nose with the sleeve of my shirt, and pressed the pad of my thumb to the middle of your swollen bottom lip and gave you a look of such evident sympathy and despair that you looked away from me to hide that you couldn't keep the tears from leaking down your scratched cheeks. We must have sat there for ten whole minutes before you finally let me hold you while you shook and cried from the pain of your bruised limbs.
I knew, while I held you close to my chest, brushing sweaty strands of hair from your eyes, that I wanted to make sure that you would never be hurt like this again, that I was willing to stay by your side forever if it meant that I could pick up your pieces and have the satisfaction of being the one who you let hold you, and the one who you let see you cry. I loved the seeming power that it gave me, and I loved knowing that you trusted me enough to show your outside and inside hurt.
“Pete,” You said to me once, when we were seventeen and sitting alone in an abandoned park at night. We lay on our backs in the grass, and the dampness of the greenery was soaking through the back of my shirt and leaving the hems of my jeans stained green. “Ask me anything.”
You turned onto your side and looked me straight in the eye. And I remembered how I always knew you were the kind of person who made everything into something that had to be pulled out of hiding. And right then, after almost five years of knowing you and having to guess your mood and wonder what it was you were really thinking, you were offering me a free pass into your head. Ask me anything, you said, and a thousand questions burned through my mind, flashing in and out as possibilities of things to ask you.
“What do you think love is?” I finally decided on, when really the words had only spilled from my lips like word vomit I couldn't hold back anymore. You turned all the way on your side, and I moved my head so I could see your face and analyze it and determine if you were really serious in the answer I was preparing myself for. The sky sparkled with luminescent stars above us, and you shifted your eyes to gaze at them as you answered that you thought love was whatever you needed it to be at any moment.
And I understood, but I knew that I didn't like what you'd said. I guess I was looking for a more direct answer, and I felt like you were cheating me with words that could be taken any way I wanted to believe them. I wanted you to tell me solid; I wanted you to tell me that I was doing this right, and that this was right, and that you cared that I was trying. I was trying so hard. And maybe it was just that I was trying too hard. But then you went on to tell me everything about you; that your dad was dead, and you mother muttered prayers to the lord for forgiveness of your sins; that all your life, all you really wanted to do was run – and meeting me, spending time with me, was just that chance.
The day of your eighteenth birthday was the day you got your letter of acceptance to university. And it was also the day you decided that you weren't going to go to school in the fall, or the next fall, or ever again. We were accepted to the same school and up until that point, before you said school was useless and I told you you were an idiot, we were planning on attending together.
We didn't speak for five days after you stormed from my kitchen, the torn paper that was your potential future ripped and left lying motionless on the linoleum floor. Until you called me and invited me to come to your house for the first time in six years. When I got there, your mother showed me up to your room with hate in her eyes, we yelled at each other until my throat felt raw, and your back was pressed against a corner window as you retreated away from my anger and annoyance at my ruined plans. And I was thinking about leaving you there and never coming back, and I started up yelling again about how you were such a failure, but stopped when you pulled me to you by the hips into a kiss, and then frustration at each other that we'd never been able to express until a time like right then, when our emotions were high and the stress was near boiling point.
Then when I was leaving, you showed me to the door of your room, told me I may as well just not come back again, and that you wouldn't be calling or dropping by my house either. But before you closed the door, you stopped, and said that life was like walking on a wire – if you couldn't find balance, you had to not be afraid to fall. Or just jump.
A few weeks later, I was told that you took your car, and never came back. I called your cellphone, and I left message after message until your phone storage was full and it cut me off before I could get my first words in. Then you mother finally got a hold of me after a week, and told me they'd found your car at the bottom of a ravine at the state border, and they'd found your body as well. And her voice had an awful tone, like it was my fault her son had gone and killed himself. She didn't invite me to the funeral.
I remember a lot of things about our lives, and what we did together, and the things we said and felt. I remember everything like it only just happened an hour ago. But I don't remember what I was feeling right then, after your mother hung up the phone. I think I stood there, with the receiver held loosely in my hand threatening to fall to the floor and break into the pieces that my chest was trying hard not rip into at that very moment.
I do remember that I drove to my dad's house, and closed myself up in the closet, a candle burning and a cigarette lit, because I couldn't get a clear view of your face without picturing it bruised an beaten from the accident. I tried to strangle myself in the smoke curling up from the candle and the cigarette as I remembered that this was the place where we shared our first real kiss; I laughed and cried and spluttered and cursed as the air became more and more saturated from the heat and flame and smoke closing in around me. Then my father threw open the door and made me drive home, still hacking and half crying from the pain seizing in my lungs and all my limbs.
I waited to visit you alone until the initial shock had passed. The crying was over, and I was addicted to cigarettes because they reminded me of you from when we were kids. At least, they reminded me of what I'd imagined you were, and what I wanted you to be for me. I wanted you to love me, and care, and for a while, I really thought you did. That was my problem. Our whole lives I'd created a whole rendition of your being; what I thought you were, and what you were, and what I hoped you were, were all too different to be true. So I just lay on my back on top of the still fresh soil of your grave and spoke to you. I told you what I was feeling, and what I'd imagined about you.
They still hadn't put in a tombstone, and the space felt empty, and dirty, and alone. Just like you had wanted to be, and in the end made yourself. So I hurt for you. I hurt because I tried so hard for you. And I hurt because I don't think you tried hard enough.