It took me years to realize why Garrett no longer came to family reunions. His parents still came, just without Garrett, and even at the age of five I could discern the grim, thin-lipped set to their faces, the way that they would laugh and converse with other family members, but would always keep themselves apart from everyone else at a particular distance.
Me and Garrett were an odd pair. Sure, we were cousins, but he was so much older than I was and we each had other cousins who were much closer to our own ages. Yet, he’d chosen to hang out with me whenever our family got together and that always caused a swell of pride within me, that there was something about this awkward little kid that made it worth spending time with me. And, likewise, I’d chosen him because he was the only older person I knew that seemed to truly understand me. I could be loud and boisterous as any young child could be, but I was also at times remote in nature, choosing to hang back and just observe. My curious nature was satisfied by simply waiting and watching—as a bee pollinated a flower, as a fish swam upstream, as the clouds passed across the sky and cast huge shadows on the land in wide, open spaces. Garrett would wait and watch with me and never ask any questions. He was like the older brother I wish I had gotten.
We spent a lot of time alone together, which may have been where the problem started. We had secret adventures that we would never tell anyone else about. There were secret jokes between us that only we understood.
“A table is a car, and a car is a picture frame, and a picture frame is the universe,” he would say. And I would crack up.
We messed up each other’s hair and rolled down hills and he took me into the woods to a secret place where there was a small, dilapidated fort made out of a tarp and tree branches which he had first built when he was younger and I now helped him fix it up again so that it could serve as our personal club house. We moved about on the fringes of our shared family and took no notice of anyone else, thinking that no one else would take notice of us. We bathed together, which was probably the second problem, and I took notice of his more developed body and wondered when mine would look like that, though I never asked him. Instead, I talked to my mom about it, but she quickly became reluctant to discuss it and I learned right away not to talk about that stuff with her.
The first time I saw a dirty movie it was with him, though it was entirely by accident. We were in an uncle’s basement just roaming around and exploring and saying away from everyone else who were stomping around upstairs and making a terrible clatter. I was bored and wanted to watch a movie so I went over to the TV that that uncle kept down there hooked up to a VCR. There were all kinds of VHS tapes scattered around the player and not all of them had labels. I was more interested in the ones without labels, for their mysterious natures, and popped one and waited for what would come up on the screen. What came up were a man and a woman, completely naked, touching and kissing one another and moving together in a synchronized fashion. The woman had very dark nipples, which I had never seen before, and my child’s brain immediately assumed that those must be “smoker’s nipples”, those were just the kind of nipples you had if you smoked a lot, as if nipple-coloration were an indicator of lung health.
Garrett came over and ejected the tape not five seconds after it had started to play and told me we should just hide that away behind the VCR. I could see he was embarrassed and uncomfortable, and I knew that by placing the tape out of sight it was meant to also go out of my mind as well, but I couldn’t help but replay what little I had seen over and over again in my mind and wished that I could’ve seen more. It stuck in my mind like a barb, so much so that I couldn’t help but mention it to my parents during the car ride home.
My mom turned around in her seat, a very serious, concerned look on her face, and she asked me, “Benny, does Garrett ever touch you?”
Right away I said, “Yeah,” and thought of all the times he ruffled my hair or lifted me up so I could grab onto a low-hanging branch of a tree or when he would hold my hand as we ventured together downtown to buy candy from the gas station and needed to cross the street.
She said, “No, no, what I mean is, does he ever touch you in your “no-no” places?”
I thought about it for a moment. I gave it my fullest, five-year-old’s consideration and actually tried to recall a single instance of when Garrett might’ve touched me inappropriately. In the end, I shook my head and told her, “No.”
“And does he ever want you to touch him in his “no-no” places?”
Again, I thought. I thought in my stupid little kid’s brain, Does Garrett want me to touch him on his “no-no” places? I was willing to do whatever made Garrett happy. He was the best friend that I had at the time. Again, I shook my head.
“Are you sure? It’s okay if you did and you’re embarrassed. And if he told you that you had to keep it a secret, know that it’s okay to tell us those kinds of secrets.”
I grew very uncomfortable then. My mom clearly wanted me to respond in a specific way, but I didn’t know what way that was. I felt hot in my booster seat and squirmed a bit to get out of her gaze, but there was nowhere to go. So I said, simply, “Me and Garrett have a lot of secrets. We promised never to tell anyone, not even our parents.”
“But you should, okay?” She kept looking at me with that very serious, concerned look.
I shook my head. And then I began to cry. It made me feel awful to have her look at me that way and I just wanted her to stop.
My mom began to cry, too, but she didn’t say a word and instead turned back around in her seat and we spoke no more of it. And that was the last time I saw Garrett at our family get-togethers, and I didn’t understand until many years later when I found myself thinking of him and our time spent together and I remembered this moment specifically.
Now I’m twenty-two and I’m sitting in an ugly car my parents bought used for my high school graduation gift and I’m waiting for Garrett to come out of his apartment and get into the car with me so that we can drive somewhere. I’m wondering if I should knock on his door, but I’m afraid that he won’t answer. On the phone he didn’t sound very enthused. I’m worried that he doesn’t want to see me again. He didn’t sound like he was happy to even be speaking to me.
But he does come out of his apartment, pulling on a jacket over a thread-bare t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and he turns to look at me as I’m sitting in my car. I hold up a hand and give him a little wave as he approaches but he does not return the wave. I roll down the window to tell him hello, but he swiftly moves around the front of my car and slides into the passenger’s seat beside me.
He doesn’t look at me.
“Hello, Garrett,” I say.
“Hi, Benny,” he replies. “How’s it going?”
I don’t know what to say back. Instead, I put the car into Drive and pull away from the curb.
After a few minutes of silence between us, he says, “Long time, no see.”
“Yeah,” I tell him.
“I hope the place you chose has good food. I’m starving.”
We drive to a cheap diner and arrive there just before they stop serving breakfast. He has bacon and eggs and a flapjack, with coffee, and I have the same. He stares down into his plate as he eats and I’m so nervous that I can’t even think about touching mine.
“What are you up to these days?” he asks.
“College mostly,” I tell him. “Working a bit.”
“Where you work?”
“I’m a waiter at a sushi place.”
“I don’t like sushi.”
“Neither do I.”
Then it’s quiet between us again.
“What about you?” I ask. “Where do you work?”
“Right now I’m unloading trucks at that new big-box store that just opened outside of town. The pay’s shitty, the hours suck, and they work me to bone.” He looks at me for what I think is first time. “I hate it.”
“Yeah. Look, Garrett, I’m sorry for what happened.”
He shrugs. “Water under the bridge now. Right?”
I stare at him.
He looks back a me. “Nothing you can do about it now.”
There are bags under his eyes and his hair has thinned considerably. When we’d first come into the diner there was a mother and her young son waiting in front of us. The boy held his mom’s hand and he kept turning around to look at the two of us behind him. Specifically, he kept turning around to look at Garrett. I noticed how Garrett avoided meeting the little boy’s gaze, instead pretending that the kid didn’t exist at all. There was so much tension in his body and face, and it visibly drained away once the mom and her boy were seated.
“It wasn’t fair,” is all I can say.
He pushes his last bit of egg through a puddle of pancake syrup and forks it into his mouth.
“I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a family reunion happening this weekend.”
“Yeah, I think I heard something about that.”
“It’s going on right now.”
He looks at me. “And you’re not there with them? Chose to spend time with your estranged cousin instead? I’m honored.”
“I was hoping you’d come with me.”
He sets his fork down on the plate. “No. No. No one wants me there. My parents don’t even want me there.”
“I want you there, though.”
“Is that the reason why you invited me out today?”
He sighs. “I don’t think I can swing it. That’s a big ask, Benny. Everyone there hates me.”
“They don’t hate you.” But I’m not sure. “Everyone’ll enjoy seeing you again.”
“I don’t know about that.”
I can see that he’s thinking about it. I’m sure that he wants to say yes.
“Okay,” he says, “but we’re out of there as soon as things start to get weird.”
The car ride to the reunion is just as quiet as it was to the diner. I can see Garrett fidgeting a little bit in the passenger’s seat, adjusting and readjusting his seatbelt, I can see that he’s nervous and worried. I’m nervous and worried as well, but I want so bad to erase this thing from our pasts and I think this is the only way to do it. The reunion’s taking place at a pavilion in a wooded area beside a nearby lake. There’s a small gravel parking lot beside the pavilion and already it’s run out of place, so people have begun parking their vehicles in among the trees. I slip into the first available space I see and try not to ding my door against the trunk of a tree. We begin heading toward the pavilion.
There’s people coming in and out of the building and congregating down by the water. It’s been many years, but it’s obvious that people are recognizing Garrett and a brief look of distaste passes across their features before they can manage to hide it.
“I don’t know about this, Benny,” he says.
“Just trust me.”
We head inside the pavilion. There’s folding tables set up throughout a large room and most of them are fully occupied by laughing, chattering family members. The noise is cacophonous, but immediately people are taking notice of who just walked in with whom and I can almost see the ripples as the news spreads. Garrett is getting some dirty looks and I can see him trying not to notice them, but they’re coming from every direction. I catch sight of his parents and even they look embarrassed and ashamed by his presence.
“Benny,” he whispers.
“Just a little longer,” I tell him.
But it’s too late. Garrett has already spun around on his heels and is fleeing out the door. I chase after him and try to get him to stop.
“It’s not going to work, Benny. They hate me.”
“They just don’t understand what really happened. We’ll explain it to them,” I tell him.
But he’s shaking his head. “No. It’s too late. The damage is done. No one can take it back now.”
“Come on, Garrett,” I plead.
But he keeps shaking his head and continues walking to the car. “Take me home,” he says to me. “This was stupid idea. I should’ve never come here. I shouldn’t have let you talk me into this.”
“Garrett,” I plead again, but then I get into the car with him and I drive him back to his apartment. For the third time, there’s just silence between us.
“Maybe we can get together again later,” I say back at his apartment.
“I don’t know, Benny. Maybe it’s just better if we stay away from each other.”
He gets out of the car before I can say anything. I watch him unlock his apartment door and then head inside. No once does he look back.
I sit there awhile, the engine idling, debating whether I should knock on his door and press the issue further. Instead, I pull away from the curb and begin driving. I don’t return to the pavilion. Instead, I drive around aimlessly and try to clear my head of all its thoughts about Garrett and our shared family and all the great times we used to have together, and all the times I missed him when he wasn’t there. I drive for so long that I need to fill the tank before heading home myself. My own apartment is dim and barren and smells slightly musty. I drop myself onto my couch and lay there with my eyes closed. I try to think of ways that I can get our family to accept Garrett back into their fold again, but even I can see that it’s useless by now. There’s no way I can take back what I did.
Eventually, I fall asleep and it’s dark in the apartment when I wake again. I brush my teeth and get ready for bed. Then I pick my phone up from where I’d placed it on my nightstand. For a moment I consider calling Garrett, to see if he changed his mind about getting together again, but I think better of it. Instead, I wait for myself to fall asleep and then I dream about days running through the forest with my older cousin, rebuilding a fort, and having so many things between us that no one will ever know about.