Let me tell you a story.
I met my best friend when I was in the third grade, in our little town of Stawford. It must have been fate or something because we weren’t even in the same class. No, our rooms were right next to each other, with a removable wall between us. He was lucky and got Mrs. Holland, the normal teacher. I was stuck with Mrs. Linde. Man, do I remember her. She had a poof of curly blonde hair, an abnormally long nose, and a weird obsession with pigs.
The first day of class, when it was story time, they opened the wall and told our classes to sit together. I thought it was a terrible idea, so I sat in the back, hoping no one would bother me. Then along came this kid, all nerdy-like with glasses and crooked teeth. He sat down right next to me and introduced yourself as James. Now, my mother raised me right, the proper Catholic woman she was. I politely told him my name was Caspian, thinking (and praying) he’d leave me alone after that.
“Cool”, he said.
He asked if I knew that there was a Narnia character with the same name. I mean, of course, leave it to some geek to know where my name came from. I mean, Caspian isn’t exactly the most popular name around, no matter how cool my mom thinks it is. Still, I was impressed.
When I asked if he liked to read, he gave me a smile, one of those face splitting, really happy smiles. Books are the best, he told me. He apparently liked to read about magic, and wars, and dragons, and all kinds of things. I thought about it. Wars and dragons? Maybe this kid wasn’t so bad.
We started talking about random things, not paying attention to a word the teachers were saying. How we managed not to get caught, I’ll never know.
James and I had a lot in common. We were both the youngest in our families (me with two older sisters and him with three older brothers); we both played baseball; we both went to the same church less than a mile away from school; we were both into action movies and superheroes. Then again, what eight-year-old boy isn’t? Anyway, I decided to give this kid a chance and let him hang out with me and some of my friends during recess.
We played Hide-and-Seek. As soon as my friend Charlie started counting, James grabbed my hand and ran. He led me to a patch of bushes at the top of the hill near the playground. There was just enough room for us to hide. We sat there for a long time, until the recess bell rung and it was time to go back to class. We won that game of Hide-and-Seek, and every game after that. I never minded him dragging me to a new spot each time. He knew the best places to hide, and as cliché as it sounds, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.
That same year, James won an award for an essay he wrote. When I asked him about it, everything he said flew over my head, but I was happy for him—at least happier than his dad, who didn’t even bother to show up at the award ceremony. His dad did show up, though, to all our little league games. James and I ended up on the same team in the fourth grade. We called ourselves the “Diamondbacks” because Coach thought it was so clever. We ended up losing that year in the championship game, but we were number one the year after.
When James wasn’t on the field with me, he was curled up with a good book, well, what he considered a good book. Magic and witches and wizards were cool and all, but Harry Potter just wasn’t my thing.
When I rejected the “Boy Who Lived,” he suggested The Chronicles of Narnia one time. I wanted to roll my eyes. Me? Read? What a joke. I preferred my video games. Final Fantasy. World of Warcraft. Halo. Those were my fix of magic, action, and adventure.
Didn’t he want to be a dragon slayer, like a normal kid?
The answer was no. Instead, he said he would rather be a writer. I scoffed at him. Why? Why on earth would someone rather be a writer, some sap writing stories and poetry, rather than a badass slaying dragons, saving kingdoms. Because the pen is mightier than the sword, he told me. That time, I did roll my eyes.
I waved him off and tried to get him to see the error of his ways, but no, there was no tearing him away from his precious stories and their happy endings.
At one point—the summer before middle school—I made a deal with James. Every time I read a book, he’d have to finish a game with me. I never told him, but I just googled the summary of a new book every few weeks and pretended to know what I was talking about. He never figured it out . . . or maybe he did and never said anything. Either way, we kept the deal going all through middle school. It was one of the only things that kept me going through those dark times full of pre-teen angst.
Well, that and girls. Despite my overly shaggy hair and the fact that I wore the same sweater almost every week, I somehow managed to get this girl, Alice, to go out with me. Just before my date with her, James came over to help me get ready. I tried telling him only girls helped each other get ready for dates, but he insisted. Said my sense of style was terrible, the bastard.
I asked him what was wrong with the clothes I had and he gave me a look. You know that look when someone raises an eyebrow and tilts their head down, the one that kind of just says, “Really?” Yeah, that one.
He didn’t like my outfit. The word he used was “atrocious.” I remember just staring at him, blinking once, then twice. What middle schooler used a word like “atrocious”?
Okay, so I didn’t know what the word “atrocious” meant back then. Sue me.
After a few arguments–and after James tore through my closet–I was all dressed. My room looked like a disaster and my mom was royally pissed, but at least I looked good.
Alice and I met up at the movie theater. She was already waiting when my mom dropped me off. I let her pick the movie and we ended up seeing some chick flick about two childhood friends falling in love. I wanted to barf, but I was a good boy and sat through the whole thing. I got a kiss in the end, so it was so worth it.
James became my fashion consultant for the rest of middle school. His dad wasn’t too happy about that. After all, what self-respecting man got excited about playing Dress-Up? But James and I ignored him. We had a good thing going. Alice and I didn’t last long, but she always said that I, and I quote, “cleaned up well” for our dates.
Then, in seventh grade, James tried out for both the school basketball and football teams. He was surprisingly good for a guy who spent all his time with his nose buried in a book. In eighth grade, he became the class president, wowing everyone with his speech about acceptance and the struggle of trying to fit in. That was also the year I caught him swallowing pills every now and then. Medicine for his nerves, he told me.
By the time high school rolled around, James was at my house more often than not. I couldn’t blame him. His brothers were either married or away at college, his mom worked a ton, and his dad wasn’t the friendliest guy around. Besides, James was like a brother to me. We always drove to school together. And by “we,” I mean he drove me. I couldn’t drive—didn’t know how. Just one more thing James could do that I couldn’t.
Sure, I had baseball going for me, but that was nothing. James had quit just before high school, not that his dad was okay with that, but he still played football and basketball. He made both varsity teams his sophomore year. His grades were leagues better than mine and he had a handful of girlfriends, though they never lasted more than a month or two. Between school, sports, and a social life, to this day, I have no idea how in hell he ever found time to sleep. But let me tell you, high school. . . James really came into his own then.
I remember one night, just a week before graduation, he and I were camping in my backyard. We were lying down on the grass, just watching the stars. It was one of those nights when he and I had our “deep talks,” as we liked to call them. He asked me what I wanted to study in college. I told him I didn’t know. I was so focused on getting through high school and actually getting into a college that I had never really thought about what I wanted to do. Of course, I already knew James wanted to study English. The kid was in love with his books. I would have been shocked if he had decided to study anything else. Still, I played along.
I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Unsurprisingly, he said he wanted to be a writer. I asked why. And like all those years ago, he told me the same thing: because the pen is mightier than the sword.
I laughed and said, “Dude, I’m serious.”
And he said, “So am I.” He told me, “The pen is mightier than the sword because cuts heal and broken bones mend, but words inflict the worst kind of pain. They have the power to make a girl think she’s not pretty enough, make a student think he’s not cut out for school, make a gay man think he’s broken, make someone feel unworthy. Words may not cause physical harm, but they can kill the soul.”
When I heard that, I kind of just looked at him, not knowing how to respond. I ended up blurting out, “Dude, that’s hella depressing.”
He sort of chuckled and threw grass at me, and went on, “Well, think about it. If words can do that much damage, think how much good they can do too. They can make that same girl think she’s beautiful, make that same student believe he’s got what it takes, make that same gay man feel accepted. They can make someone feel special, like they’re worth something, you know?”
It was silent after that. I laid there, letting it all sink in. I’ll never forget that night because that was the night I became convinced that maybe he was on to something. Maybe the pen is mightier than the sword.
James graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA and a partial academic scholarship to Middleberry College. Lucky for him, I was apparently such an amazing catcher, Middleberry gave me a baseball scholarship. I mean, I shouldn’t have been surprised. James complimented me all the time, said I saw everything on the field. He said I deserved that scholarship and I believed him.
My parents threw us a graduation party to celebrate. The weather was perfect, blue skies with the sun occasionally hiding behind a cloud or two. There were drinks, and barbeque, and music, and loads of laughs… and then there was yelling. James and his dad were standing toe-to-toe at the edge of the backyard near the gate.
James’s dad grabbed him by the shoulders. “You’re better than this! I let you have your books, let you take those extra writing classes, but this is where I draw the line. What’s wrong with medicine or law, something productive?”
James took a step back, offended. I was offended for him. He clenched his fists, but calmly asked his dad, “What’s wrong with wanting to learn what I want to learn?”
His dad wasn’t having it. I honestly thought he was going to hit James, but instead, he yelled loud enough, I’m sure, that the whole neighborhood heard him. “I’m not wasting thousands of dollars on a fucking English degree! Choose a different major or you’re not going to college at all!”
I had never seen James so mad. I could see how red his ears and neck were from where I stood a few feet away. He opened his mouth, like he wanted to yell back, but he didn’t. He took a deep breath, adjusted his glasses, and walked away. Just as he was about to head inside the house, his dad said, “Why couldn’t you be normal, like your brothers?”
James paused at that. His entire body shook. He looked right at his dad, and said, “I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment.”
He disappeared inside the house then, leaving his dad fuming. I stood there another moment or two honestly confused. What was wrong with wanting to study English? Sure, it wasn’t a big money maker, but so what? Besides, from what I could tell, James was a kickass writer. He wrote for our high school newspaper and I had never seen him get lower than an A- on a paper. One of his English teachers even asked him to help edit a story before she submitted it to a local journal.
Man, I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell his dad that I thought James deserved to study whatever the hell he wanted to, but I didn’t. Everyone was watching and I didn’t want to make a scene. I wouldn’t find out till later that there was so much more to that argument than about James wanting to study English.
When his family left, the party slowly forgot about their little spat. I found James in the spare room my family kept for him. He was reading The Chronicles of Narnia . . . only he wasn’t. I never told anyone that I watched my best friend cry that day, or that I let him cry on my shoulder, unsure what else to do. We sat on his bed for an hour, not saying a word, our party forgotten.
Our last year of college, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. James and I were both almost done with our business degrees. It wasn’t exactly the field his dad wanted, but it was apparently good enough for him to pay for school. We went out one night, just to take a break from studying. Without telling anyone, we drove an hour home to visit, but we ended up at an old playground instead. We used to hang out there all the time as kids. We ran around, not caring who saw us, and when we were too tired to take another step, we collapsed on the swings and just sat there.
I asked him what he planned to do after graduating. He wanted to travel, to see the world. He wanted to get away from everything. “I’m just so sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he told me.
I asked him what he meant by that but he ignored the question and asked what my plans were. I shrugged my shoulders. Get a job and start a family, was there anything else for me to do? He looked at me a long time and I stared back. Then I noticed he started coming closer. Before I realized what was happening, he had kissed me. It was really quick, almost like it didn’t happen, but I remember being so shocked that I froze.
Then I started laughing. It was a joke, it had to be. James sat there, his eyebrows all scrunched up. I wish I could say that I handled the situation differently, that we talked it out and things turned out fine. But I fucked up. I laughed in his face and said, “Dude, what kind of gay shit was that?”
I’ll never get over the way he looked at me. His whole face fell. He looked down at the ground for a while before standing back up. He walked back to his car and I followed him. He didn’t talk to me the whole car ride back up to campus. He didn’t talk to me the rest of that week. I knew why he was upset, or at least I thought I did, but still, I said nothing.
I remember he didn’t come to class one morning later that month. I took notes for him . . . and when I was walking back to our dorm, I noticed I had over a dozen missed calls. I listened to a message my mom left and I did everything to get to the hospital across town as quick as I could. Everyone was already there: my parents, my sisters, James’s family, everyone. I’ve never cried so hard in my life.
I’ve never been good at these kinds of things, telling stories. That was always his thing, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from him, it’s that it’s better to have said something than to have said nothing at all.
So here I am, sitting at your tombstone, reading your name over and over: James Theodore Wilmont. Here I am, wishing you were still here because if you were, you’d laugh at how the wind makes the trees look like they’re dancing. You’d make up a story of how the birds above me are locked in some epic battle of life and death. You’d point out that cloud on the left, the one coming just over the trees, and tell me you think it looks like a dragon. Instead, I’m here alone, telling you a story you already know, one that you no doubt could have told better yourself.
It’s been a year since they found you in our bathtub, a bloody knife sitting on your lap. They said it was a clean cut straight across your throat, said you were probably dead by the time our first morning class had started that day.
What happened? Did you wait till I left to grab a knife and hide in our bathroom? Were you planning the whole thing when I asked you to play video games the night before, while reading that stupid book of yours, ignoring me? Or while refusing to talk to me for two whole weeks before that? Master of words, my ass. You wanted to be a writer, always talking about how a stupid pen was mightier than a fucking sword, but where was your note? Where were your last words? What the hell was going on in that crazy mind of yours? Did you even stop to think about how it would hurt your parents? Your brothers? Our friends? Me?
James, you bastard. I’ve known you since the third grade and I thought I knew all there was to know about you. You liked your peanut butter chunky and your ideal PBJ was extra peanut butter, hold the jelly. You had a scar on your lower stomach from that one time we crashed into each other on our bikes and you fell onto some rocks. You preferred to read in the dark, with a flashlight, because it made you feel cool and secretive. Your favorite color was white. Your favorite number was seven. You fucking cried when Rose let go of Jack. I knew all this and more because I was your best friend.
But damn it, as your best friend, I should have noticed the way you never left my side. I should have noticed the way your eyes lit up whenever I asked you for fashion advice. I should have noticed the medicine you took was to help you stop feeling depressed all the time. I should have encouraged you to study English no matter what your dad thought. I should have noticed you loved me in a different way than I loved you.
As your best friend, I should have told you that you should never be ashamed of how you feel, that even if I didn’t feel the same way, you’d always be my best friend. But I didn’t . . . because . . . because the moment you kissed me, I wanted you to take it back. I wanted you to keep hiding who you were so that I wouldn’t have to deal with people looking at you differently. I didn’t want people to misunderstand our friendship. I didn’t want them thinking that I was like you—that I was different. I was a selfish coward blinded by fear, and I was too late to realize that it shouldn’t have mattered. My comfort was not worth your life. You trusted me enough to show me who you really were and I guess, in the end, you saw who I really was.
James, I’m sorry. You deserved better.
**Find the featured image here.