A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Some identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
You called as I pulled off the interstate on a sunny summer afternoon. You were grilling corn on your parents’ deck. You’d just gotten back from visiting your kids. You said you could see them only three times a week. You didn’t say the visits had to be supervised, but I assumed they did.
“When did you get home from Maine?” I asked.
“How did you know I was in Maine?” you said.
I forgot you hadn’t told me that. I couldn’t think of a lie, so I confessed: I’d heard it from my mom. She’d run into your wife’s parents, who’d said you were too high to stay with your wife, and your own parents couldn’t manage you, so they’d shipped you to a rehab in Maine.
“Jesus Christ!” you said. “Everybody’s talking about me like I’m some kind of fucking scumbag.”
I told you to chill, said it was my fault. I’d told my mom everything: How you’d overdosed while driving and crashed into a house. How you were technically dead and they had to hit you with Narcan. How you’d been in and out of rehabs. When my mom saw your in-laws, she had probably let slip that she knew you had problems. That’s why they’d opened up to her.
“If you want to be mad at anyone,” I said, “be mad at me.”
You sighed and said, “Fuck. I’m not mad at anyone but myself.”
Then you said you loved AA. I said I kept thinking of going but always chickened out. You told me to give it a shot because it helps. You told me to find the “old-timers.” I liked hearing you use AA lingo. You asked how bad my drinking was. I told you about the time the ambulance came and the bad stretches when I drank all day. You said that sounded hard.
Then you said, “Shit,” because you’d burned yourself on a hot piece of corn. I heard you suck the part of your hand that got burned. I was at a stoplight almost five hundred miles from you, but I could see clear as day your weirdly thick thumb and your wide thumbnail, and I missed you.
“I got all the tools to stay clean,” you said, “but sometimes I don’t use them. I don’t know why. I get depressed. I have so much self-loathing.”
These weren’t your words. It was language you’d picked up while getting help. I felt a flash of hope for you, even though I knew — because of the distant and resigned tone of your voice — that you were going to die soon.
I told you to use your tools. You said you’d try.
I remembered when you were first doing hard drugs in college. I’d told you to be careful because that shit was addictive. You’d said only weak people got addicted.
I remembered how in high school you loved making fun of crackheads in Newburgh.
It occurred to me that you’d probably turned your contempt inward since then. In your opinion, you’d become someone weak and laughable.
You said you couldn’t wait to finally meet my wife. You asked if we planned on having kids. I told you we had talked about it but were unsure. You said I’d make a great father. I said, “I don’t know, man. I suck at life,” and this made you laugh good and deep. Then you said, “You can’t suck worse than me,” which sounded nothing like you. Back in the day, you’d never have insulted yourself, even when you deserved it.
You said you were going to get baptized. You’d found your Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. You encouraged me to read the Bible. I told you I’d read the New Testament quite a few times. You said, “Jesus is a pretty cool guy, isn’t he?”
I wondered if you were a little high. I decided you weren’t. I didn’t want you to be high during our final conversation.
I knew — I swear — that I’d never hear your voice again. You weren’t going to use your tools. You loathed yourself to the core. I’m not revising my memory. You sounded like you were already drifting out of this world.
You said you missed playing football, because on a football field you were allowed to hit people. I laughed and said I missed football, too. You asked if you could come visit me. I said maybe after COVID, thankful to have COVID to blame. Really I was afraid you’d say something racist, and I’d yell at you. I was afraid my wife would see how I’d grown up loving hateful people. I was afraid you’d be high or dangerous.
You were always dangerous. That’s why I had slowly cut you out of my life. You sold people poisons. You were a thief. You encouraged me to gamble, even though you knew I had a problem. You told me stories I prayed were exaggerated about beating up people who owed you money. You thought your hatred was funny. I never told you this, but as an adult I didn’t like you as a person. At some point, years ago, I stopped believing you’d change.
I did love you, though. Mostly because of who you had been to me when we were young, when all we talked about was sports and girls and what we wanted out of life.
I didn’t say any of this.
I said I’d been jogging thirty miles a week with my dog. I hated it, but it kept me too tired to drink. You laughed. I encouraged you to jog with your dog. I wanted you to be too tired to use. You said your dog was pretty old. I said the dog could probably handle short jogs. Then you confessed you couldn’t do short jogs.
There was a whoosh on your end of the phone. A sliding glass door, maybe. I pictured you taking a tray of corn into an empty house. I don’t know why I felt sure your parents weren’t home. You just sounded like you had no one near you.
“You wouldn’t recognize me if you saw me,” you said. “I’m a fat guy now.”
I laughed and instinctively assumed my mean old high-school voice. I said, “Well, take your fat ass out to the street and go for a trot.”
You laughed — hard. You wanted me to guess your weight. I refused to. You told me 250. I said that wasn’t bad, but I was upset because you’d always been so thin and muscular. You said you were shaped like a refrigerator. I said you were built like your old man now. You said, “Yeah, I guess so,” like it had never occurred to you. Then you changed the subject, probably because you didn’t want to discuss your dad, who I’m certain was ashamed of you.
You asked what I was doing right then. I said driving. I was almost home. I’d been on the highway all day.
You asked where I was driving from. I said Beacon. I’d gone north to spend time with my brother’s baby, Rudy. You repeated my nephew’s name like it was a pleasant surprise. You got quiet for a second.
Then you said, “Why don’t you ever come see me when you visit Beacon?”
I said, “Shit, man, I’m always stretched thin with family stuff.”
I was lying. We would have fallen completely out of touch if you hadn’t always been checking in. I wondered why you checked in. Usually you called to talk politics, which was pointless. We’d just raise our voices and call each other idiots. We had nothing in common.
I know now that you always called because you loved me, too, but I couldn’t let myself think that, back when you were alive. Acknowledging that you loved me would have made it harder to cut you out of my life.
I pulled into my driveway and said I was going to lose service when I walked into my house.
You asked again if you could come visit me. I said after COVID. You said OK, after COVID. Then you said something I’ll carry with me until I’m as dead as you are. You said, “If you’ll have me,” and I knew you could sense that I wouldn’t have you, and I hated hearing that sadness in your voice, so I figured I’d buy myself some time and lie. To do this, I had to lie to myself. I had to pretend you were going to live.
“Hell, yeah, man, I’ll have you,” I said. “I just want to wait until after COVID, is all.”
I could feel your smile through the phone. I don’t remember how we said goodbye.
John Paul Scotto