2. Beginnings

We moved to Dallas, from farther south in the state, the July before I started third grade. My dad had just received a Ph.D. and was taking a position as a history professor at a college in Dallas. I had a 6-year-old brother and a 4-year-old sister. My mom was a clinical psychologist; she began setting up a practice within the first month that we'd moved. Up to this point I'd done well in school as a little kid, socially and intellectually. I was naturally gregarious; a born talker, I guess. I had pretty much no fear...yet; and I was always good with a ball out on the playing field. So I made friends without too much trouble as a kid, and got along well with teachers.

Those trends continued in my new home. I'd been in Cub Scouts since I'd started school, and in our new neighborhood my parents got me hooked up with a den where the den mother lived just half a block away from us. And that's where I met Matt.

Matt lived several blocks away from us with his mom. I'd seen him playing outside that summer while we were moving in, and of course I ran into him at school during recess in the early weeks of the school year, but here I got to meet him in a more personal setting.

At that age I had vaguely blond hair and pretty fair skin. I was wiry but strong. Fast on my feet and fast with my head. Always talking. Matt, on the other hand, was darker. He tanned quickly and deeply. He had to work harder at academics than I did; but he outweighed me and was stronger and faster. And just like me, he liked to talk, and liked to play ball. So it was in our Cub Scout den, and on the playing fields of school, that the bonds of our friendship were established and solidified.

Both of us were intensely competitive, intensely aggressive on the playing field, and both of us loved sport. We hit it off almost immediately. Well, "hit it off" would be telling only half the tale. What I should have said is that almost immediately we developed an intense love/hate thing:  In our relationships with our peers, Matt and I both found ourselves being treated as "leaders of the pack."  It’s generally not a pretty thing to put two guys like that into close quarters with each other; the rivalry gets intense, and it can get ugly.

We subconsciously recognized each other as rival contenders for the top place in the little-boy pecking order.  The things we had in common drew us to each other; but they also set us against each other occasionally.  As a result, we became best of friends, and worst of enemies.  One minute we'd be hard at it, playing together on the playground; the next minute we'd be shouting at each other, "I fuckin' hate you!" and getting into fights of such intensity that the adults-in-charge would have to separate us physically.  And then, like a West Texas thunderstorm, those dark clouds would blow over and disappear as suddenly as they came up; and the next thing you knew, we were back in each other's physical space, against all the best efforts of the adults to prevent it, laughing and enjoying each other's company as if the fight had never happened.  This was cyclical, periodic, reliable; inevitable even. Adults and playmates alike could count on it. Fights or no, Matt was the one I invariably tented with on campouts; he was always the guy I buddied up with when adults told us to pick a partner for some project. Routinely, in the course of those things we'd end up getting into it with each other; but we knew our way out of those places, and always got back on good terms with each other.

Sometimes adults got smart and designated us as opposing captains when dividing up a group of boys on the playground for games. You'd have thought we were mortal enemies the way we brought our teams to bear against each other. Turf, and the battle for it, was everything, and in that competition we were unremitting opponents; but through the course of those days we were also becoming the fiercest of friends. On weekends sometimes Matt would spend the night at my place, or I'd spend the night at his. You remember how it was at that age. And daily, after school, we could count on being together at my place or his, watching TV, having an after-school snack, and doing homework together. My family began to regard Matt as pretty much an extension of our own nuclear family, and Matt's mom more or less adopted me into hers as well. It became standard operating procedure to set an extra place at the table if one of us was at the other's house after school.

Yet sometimes Matt would go through dark and sullen moods in which he was difficult to talk to. He'd grow uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn, sometimes on a dime, out of nowhere. He was never overtly hostile, unless I pressed him about it. But I learned to give Matt plenty of space during those times.

I didn't know what to make of it. But I was aware that there were things I didn't know about Matt that a third-grade boy doesn't know how to ask another. Like, where was Matt's dad? And I'd seen pictures of an older brother at his house. Where was he?

One weeknight as I was lying in my bed trying to fall asleep I heard my parents talking downstairs in the living room. When I heard Matt's name mentioned, I perked up my ears, and heard a story that rocked my little third-grade world and in many ways has haunted me and shaped me into the person I've become. Apparently, a year before we'd moved to Dallas, Matt's older brother had been playing out on the front lawn one summer afternoon. Matt was at a friend's house, and Matt's mom was in the house doing laundry. While no one was watching, some twisted asshole abducted Matt's brother right out of his front yard. Imagine, if you can, the panic, the corralling of the neighbors to help search, the frantic phone calls to the parents of his friends to see if he was there, the police search...and the deep, deep fear that must have assaulted all of them.

Matt's brother was found dead in a garbage dump a few days later. He'd been sexually molested and murdered. The murderer was never caught. In the resulting grief and guilt and recriminations, the family didn't survive. Before a year was out, one night, without a word, Matt's father quietly packed up his stuff in the middle of the night and left. No goodbye, no note, nothing. In the space of half a year, Matt had lost a brother and a father.

As I listened in increasing horror, my safe little world crashed down around my ankles, permanently. So the kid stories were true: There were fucking monsters under the bed.  And they were real. And, worst of all, grownups were just as scared of them as little kids, and grownups couldn't always keep them from eating little kids.

I didn't sleep the rest of the night, and over the course of the next weeks and months my world, and my attitude toward it, changed forever.

First of all, my security was shaken to the core. To think that a kid like myself could be stolen and fucked over and murdered, and that grownups couldn't prevent it--that was more than I was prepared to handle. I mean, I'd seen and read about crime and tragedy and disaster on TV and even in children's books...but right here in my neighborhood, evil stalking Death had walked right up to a kid like me, and said, "Your ass is mine, bud." What this meant to me was devastating beyond belief. It meant that nobody could protect me.

So, secondly, over the weeks and months that followed, my shell-shocked little psyche developed a set of convictions and an operating strategy in response, which has stayed with me to this day: I decided that I was the only person who could watch out for me. I vowed to myself that I would be constantly on the alert for any kind of threat life would bring. I swore that I'd work hard on my mind and body so that I'd be faster, and smarter, and stronger, and able to scope the terrain constantly, to discern potential threats beforehand so that I could stay three steps ahead. And I swore to myself that, in any case, if anyone ever fucked with me, if I were outmatched and going down, I'd at least see to it that my assailant would damn well know he'd been in a fight for his life.

I realized was that it was pointless to talk to an adult about this horror. Grownups were just as impotent before it as kids. Hell, some of them even bailed on their families rather than dealing with it. And on top of it all, I came to understand that Matt was carrying around a world of hurt. If just hearing the story was traumatic for me, I knew there was no way I could comprehend the horror as Matt had experienced it. And in the innocent optimism which is the unique gift of childhood, I committed myself to easing his pain.

My parents and teachers must have seen that I'd grown somewhat quieter for a few weeks. But I don't recall anyone asking about it, and I wouldn't have talked with them anyway. During this time I was going through the motions of third-grader life, but inside I was concentrating on what it meant to live in such a world.

My friendship with Matt continued to be about the same externally. I needed to talk to him about his tragedy but I didn't know how, and didn't have the nerve, so I let it go. But sometimes when we were together I'd find myself staring at him, lost in thought, trying to imagine what it must feel like to be him.

Gradually, things got to feeling back-to-normal. Thank God. I felt as though I'd been transported to a new and stranger, more violent planet...but kids make adjustments and norms re-assert themselves. One thing that didn't change was my need to talk to Matt about it all. The thought of doing so scared me, but learning about his tragedy had helped me understand his moodiness, and I had to let him know that I intended to be his friend through whatever shit he still had to deal with.

One Friday I was spending the night at his house. We were in his room playing a Nintendo game.  I'd been thinking about Matt's tragedy all evening. After the last alien had been vanquished, I looked at him, then down at the floor, and stuttered, "I heard...I...I heard my mom and dad talking about your brother...and your dad."

I looked up at his face again; his steel-blue eyes locked onto mine and held us both there, frozen. There was no sound, no movement in the room, for what must have been forty-five seconds, as his piercing eyes both took in my compassion and silently expressed his own deep devastation. I don't know how long we would have remained frozen there, but a single tear cascaded silently down his face from his right eye. Desperate not to cry myself, I put my right hand on his left, and, clasping our hands together tightly, said, with all the ridiculous bravado, naivete, and sincerity a third-grader can muster, "I promise I won't let anything hurt you again."

Still radar-locked onto each other's eyes, a few more moments of silence passed, as I watched his face register a series of takes which seemed later to me to have expressed, in rapid succession, doubt, sorrow, a sense of incredulity, even a sort of bemusement...until finally, he arrived at a sad half-smile. Then, squeezing my hand even tighter, he replied, "I know you won't." With those words, he let go of my hand and turned back to his Nintendo game.

We finished the evening, and the weekend, not discussing it again, resuming the rough-and-tumble camaraderie that had grown to be characteristic of our friendship. We got into a couple of fights that weekend, and plenty more in subsequent weeks and months. Situation normal, in other words. But although I didn't know how to express it until years later, Matt, at that hour, had become a part of me; an inescapable place in the landscape of my heart; a tragic and beautiful piece of everything that I am.

Copyright 2003-2007 by Adam Phillips.  You can email me at aaptx28@yahoo.com