The field is duplexes now. Our field. That long expanse of grass where we used to hit golf balls--remember that time you hit the side of Jerry’s house?-- is now filled with brick buildings, paved driveways leading to the road. They block the view of the lake. Some of the neighbors still have signs that say Say No to Duplexes! poking out of their yards.
The house that used to be my house looks exactly the same on the outside. White house, black shutters, red front door. I wonder if I step inside if I’ll still see the tile entry where you slipped and chipped your tooth that one winter. The nick in the wall where you threw your dress shoe at the wall to get a spider that night after the orchestra concert. The red stain in the carpet where I spilled my freezie-pop when you touched my hand for the first time.
When I see your picture at the funeral home, propped up in a nice gold frame next to a lantern with a burning candle in it, you look exactly the same on the outside, too. Black hair in a wavy mess creeping down your forehead. Brown eyes that hide something behind them. I remember when you told me you wanted to get your lip pierced. It was fourth grade and you had just seen your first PG-13 movie. To be cool, I’d said I wanted to get my nose pierced. But you’d meant it.
The funeral home is full of people our age I don’t recognize. People who joined your life after I left. You must have had a strong impact on them. I’m not surprised.
Your mom has been crying all day. Her eyes are red and puffy, and she’s got a crumpled up tissue in her hand at all times. When she sees me, I start crying too. Because all I can think of when I see her is going over to your house and her making peanut butter and fluff sandwiches for us. Grape kool-aid in those green cups with the swirly straws. That time you took me on a family vacation to Vermont and we each laid our pillow on the cooler in between us.
She looks surprised to see me, like I’m a ghost or something. She grabs my shoulder and pulls me into her chest. She’s shaking. Sobbing. I can feel the fabric on my shoulder getting wet. I just hug her back and let her hold me as long as she needs to.
“Thank you for coming,” she says. “You have always been so special to Derek.”
So special that when I told you I was moving for middle school you acted like you didn’t care. We sat back to back in the field, picking at the grass and letting our shorts get wet from the mud. I didn’t want to go, but all I wanted was for you to tell me you didn’t want me to go, either. What you said was, “Whatever. We can still be friends.” Like it changed nothing, when really it would change everything.
We tried to keep talking after that, but within a few months, we had our own lives and we didn’t fit into each other’s anymore. Facebook made it easy to keep tabs on each other, except you started posting less and less, and every time you posted lyrics to a song I didn’t know, it was like you were becoming a stranger.
“Of course,” I say back to your mom. “I’m so sorry.” I feel guilty for wishing someone would tell me they’re sorry. You were my loss, too.
Your mom sighs and turns toward your picture, keeping her hand around my shoulder. “He was a good kid, despite everything. He did try to get help.”
You were always fascinated by my dad’s cigarettes. One time when you were sleeping over, you dared me to steal the pack from his bedside table. The only reason I did it was because I could sense a rift forming between us as we got older. Our interests were changing and our relationship was changing. I didn’t want you to completely move on without me. I’ll never know where you got the matches from. Neither of us knew how to properly smoke--we were only nine. But when you held the cigarette between your index and middle finger, something ignited behind your eyes, like you’d awakened something dormant in you.
The moment I heard that you’d died, I blamed myself for that stupid day when I stole my dad’s cigarettes.
Your mom takes my hand and leads me away from the crowd, out into the hall of the funeral home.
“I was hoping you’d come so I could give you this. Derek would want you to have it.”
She hands me a shoebox stuffed full of envelopes addressed to me, with no street address. Shayla Boxer, Wherever You Are, Somewhere In Pennsylvania.
I don’t know what to say. I can’t stop crying. Your mom holds me and we cry together.
There are two hundred twenty-nine letters from you. I leave them in a pile on my bedroom floor, counted but unread, for about a week. For a long time, I’m mad at you. Why didn’t you send them to me? Why didn’t you reach out to me on Facebook? Text me? I could have helped you.
The letters start from that day in the field when I told you I was moving. You were sad, but you were trying to be strong for me. As the letters go on through the years, you talk about how you are having a hard time making friends because no one gets you like I do. Everyone else already belongs to a group and they don’t have room for one more, especially not one more weird kid. Eventually you make friends with a guy who’s a year older than us. He buys you beer and cigarettes, asks you to pay for half with the money you earned cutting lawns in the summer. You meet a girl and when she kisses you for the first time, you pretend it’s me. You feel disconnected from yourself almost all the time, and the only thing that brings you back is the drug. You don’t know how it happened so fast. You wish you could go back. You want me to come back and you want us both to go back together. You check into rehab and go through the motions but the second you’re out, you’re craving it again, and you always manage to find it.
But when I read the latest one, dated the day before you died, I realize I couldn’t have helped you. You were already gone.
I think about you the same way I think about heroin. When I crave you, I shoot up. It gives me the same feeling as being with you. I don’t really have any friends anymore. I have a supplier, and someone I have sex with, but I don’t feel anything for anyone. The last time I felt something was that day in the field, and then you left. I replaced you with heroin, I hate to admit. I keep chasing the feeling of actually being with you, of actually being understood and actually liked for who I am. It works for a second or two before it fades and I’m left feeling worse than before. I can’t get off the ride. I search for you in heroin, and every time I shoot up, I see you in front of me, turning the corner. When I follow you, you’re still just ahead of me, turning another corner. And another, and another.
I don’t blame you, you know. For leaving. For anything. If you saw me now, I’m sure you’d be disappointed in me. I hope you can forgive me.
I’m not sure if it was a suicide note or not. Your overdose was marked accidental. But how would they know what was in your heart at the time?
After I read your letters, I put them back in the shoe box and push it under my bed. It’s one of those things that will travel with me in every house I ever live in, through college dorms, apartments, weddings, first houses, forever house. It’ll be my way of taking you with me, the years that I didn’t get to have with you.
Your mom has a plot in the cemetery for your urn. I ask if I can include an urn of my own to bury with you. I fill it with a melted red freezie pop, a green cup with the swirly straw, a packaged Uncrustable peanut butter fluff sandwich, and a grape Kool-aid packet. I place the urn next to yours in the plot and toss a handful of dirt on top. Your mom and I stand back as we watch the hole be filled in with dirt.
When the plot is filled in and grass starts to grow over it, it’s funny how your gravestone looks just like everyone else’s on the outside. But you have pieces of me with you. Pieces of our past, of who you used to be. I hope that by burying these things with you, you’ll be reminded of home, of me, of who you used to be. I hope you are who you want to be now that you’re free.