The Ghost of a Friend
He was never my best friend, but he was one of the best in every way. As early infant play days slid solidly into school, they came into my life. Daniel and Leo, friends since birth, separated only by a neighbouring house. I remember the day that I first met Daniel – my shyness had kept me from dropping my tender guard and even then, in my very first class, I sat slightly apart from the others, both in distance and depth. Then he entered the room and walked straight into my soul and from that moment, I knew that we were to be firm friends.
As months went by, we forged our bonds in bloody knees and muddy clothes, childish pacts and dreams of far-off futures. Sitting at the top of a rickety climbing frame, like Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing, our six year old logic determined it reasonable that since we each grumbled about our own siblings (my querulous sister and his annoying brother) then the world would, and should, find a way of making the switch and that we could be brothers. Even if we did things that brothers wouldn't normally do.
But this isn't about Daniel and the days of seasons past, each filled with glorious games of rough and tumble and trampling through the uncharted territory of our youth and backyards. This is about Leo, the other spoke to the wheel, the extra member of the gang whose light was often outshone by the brilliance of my foremost friendship.
On days when Daniel disappeared, reluctantly shuttered from the world by familial duties or sneezing disease, Leo would be there, waiting in the wings to take up the mantle of playmate of the day. Eager to grasp the rod of the relay race of friendship. Although this doesn't do him justice so maybe you should forget that last line, an affectation to innuendo that jars with his memory but which, like so many things about him, I can't quite bring myself to get rid of.
Those times seemed like honey to me – sweet, golden and glorious. I guess as time went on, if I was to stick to the analogy, that Daniel was more like peanut butter – sometimes smooth, sometimes rough, enjoyable while there but you didn't always look forward to it so much as understand its essential place in your existence. And sticking to the roof of your mouth in more ways than one. Somehow the intimation of things more coarse doesn't seem to bruise him so much.
But Leo? Oh he was tender in his ministrations, yet strong in his assertions. A hero with a heart, or at least it seemed that way to my addled young mind. Perhaps it was the touch of the unfamiliar that drew me to him in those chaste and fleeting moments of connection, seeking solace in shared moments of uninhibited play. Although innocent in intent, the simmering undercurrent of hints of something more lent fire to my growing desire and there were occasions when I had to walk away for a moment for fear of being burned.
Daniel and I had regular, spectacular, extra-curricular fun, almost always at his insistence. But while these fumblings lent tingles to the body and joy to the senses, they paled in insignificance next to the almost nothing of the moments of depth that flecked the bond between Leo and I. The stray brush of a hand passing ketchup, the flicker of a smile as eyes connected, the pang and the pain of a hope that whispered yes as the demons of timidity and fear shouted no.
There was a moment when the time of change was just around the corner. The promise of exams that would filter us into new schools, tearing apart the muscle of childhood friendships to be replaced by the fresh fibres of adolescent camaraderie. We were in his room, playing at TJ Hooker, each taking bullets to save the other's life. With increasing melodrama and outrageous laughter, we threw ourselves at each other, rolling around with heroic action and weeping manfully to save a life.
Then it happened. I was flat on my back, the victim in this turn of the script, and peeking a playful eye at my saviour I found him settled on top; missionary about to save me or damn me to hell. The heat from our exertions suddenly seemed more intimate and the longing in his deep brown eyes served only to draw me in to a place that I was eager yet terrified to go to. There are moments in life when everything seems to shift and the whole damn situation is suddenly so beyond measure that the ballpark isn't even a ballpark any more. Wavering on the knife edge of intense possibility, I knew that my next move could change the world.
But true to form, I panicked and froze. My longing was so great that it made itself out to be nothing and seconds later the spell was broken and the magic lost. In the many years since, I have often wondered what could have been and I almost always shed a tear.
Our play continued from that day but it never felt the same. We ate at each other's houses from time to time; we consoled each other when Daniel's tantrums found their mark too close to the heart; we discovered music and abandoned hope. There were times when my fevered desire would dream of complicated and profound ways of recapturing that moment, of begging the Universe to put us once more in that place where I could be asked the same question and have the courage to answer differently. But time drifted on and we drifted apart.
When it came to deciding which secondary school to pledge the rest of our adolescent lives to, Daniel chose suitability over friendship and we parted ways. Although Leo and I made a different choice and were dropped into the same whirlpool of educational and emotional madness, the distance between us grew to be more than the couple of desks that separated our surnames.
As teenage years gave rise to the hormonal flush of different crushes, old bonds were forgotten as new ones were forged. Ever-increasing rebellion transformed him into James Dean while I remained more Doris Day. On leaving the school that had simultaneously encouraged my intellect while quashing my spirit, I finally gained the freedom and temerity to start to become who I really was but by then it was too late and all remnants of those glory days were gone.
The last time I saw Leo, he had succumbed to the alcoholic attachments inherited from his father although at the time it seemed nothing more than the usual excesses of exuberant youth. But then time has a way of allowing us in our mid-30s to see the truth of our early-20s for the dangers that they held. Looking back, I regret not doing more to help and that our last words were slurred through a haze.
In the years since, I have sent questing enquiries throughout the internet to see if he was still out there somewhere but apart from a few reviews and scattered words of randomly-placed wisdom, I found no more than hints of a life, the ghost of a person. On a site designed to reconnect classmates, I found only this message: “I did what I had to do. Got the money I needed. Blue skies forever. See ya there.”
I'm not sure what was worse, the pain that I felt from his woeful words or the one that sprang from the realisation that I didn't know what they meant.
I dreamed about him again last night. Over the years, every now and again, he would come to me in ever more distant ways. At first there were words, then only glances and finally just reflections in misty windows or shadows on tear-stained walls. Every morning would see me renewed with the intent of finding him, comforting him, holding him safe. But every evening would bring the resignation of futility and the loss of more of my dwindling hope.
As I sit and type the remnants of a near forgotten life, the days of childhood seem too far away for my heart to still feel as bereft. Daylight breaks through curtained glass and fades my dream into the echo of a longing for something that almost was. In this world and the other, I have searched and prayed. But this time, for the first time, I walked away.