I didn’t have many friends growing up. For about nine years or so (from third grade to senior year of high school), I only had one, real friend. I had myself convinced that there are two kinds of people in the world: social people who have lots and lots of acquaintances but few meaningful friendships and then the folks who have very few friends but the ones they have are very deep, meaningful friendships. I remember telling myself that if I had to choose between lots of “friends” versus one, close friend, I’d choose the meaningful friendship every time.
Today, I don’t think our choices for relationships are quite that dichotomous; I think that’s just something I told myself at the time to feel better about the fact that I didn’t have very many friends. But I’m not sure I would’ve done it differently if I could go back in time and redo it.
My best friend was Aaron, a Korean-American adoptee whose family moved into the house across the street the summer after the third grade. One day, when I went to get the mail, Aaron dispatched his brother, Chris, who was the same age as the two of us, to find out who I was while Aaron stood at a comfortable distance in his yard. I remember Chris kind of rudely saying something like, “Who are you? What’s your name? What do you like?” as though I were being screened for some kind of friendship test. For Aaron.
Aaron liked comic books and art and Lego’s and, like Phineas from A Separate Peace, everything Aaron did carried with it a kind of originality I always envied. In intellect, we treated each other as equals, but the truth was, Aaron was much smarter than me. He never presented himself as such, and I’m not even sure he ever thought he was, which is really what made the friendship work. I think if Aaron realized how much smarter he was, our friendship would’ve been too competitive. I remember a class assignment in the seventh grade where we were supposed to write a fiction story, and Aaron’s short story blew the teacher and the whole class away, and I think that was when I realized how gifted he was. We were a bit like the Krelboyne’s from Malcolm in the Middle, except Aaron didn’t know he was Malcolm (the leader and the smartest of the group), while I acted like that’s who I was.
I made a ton of memories with Aaron. One year, he went with my family to Ft. Walton Beach. The next summer, I went on a Greyhound Bus with Aaron all the way to Las Vegas to stay two weeks with his grandparents. Almost every semester, we took art together. In fact, our senior year, on 9/11, we were the only two students by fourth period still interested in following the news of the towers falling, and our art teacher let us drag the television into another room to watch while the rest of the students kept doing class work.
But of all the memories I have of Aaron, the one that resonates with me the most and the one I wanted to write about now was the day I said goodbye to him:
First, though, a little set up is in order. A few years earlier, Aaron’s family had moved a few miles down the road to a plantation-style home with a pond and a large barn with a rainbow painted across the top of it that said “JESUS” in large block print. Inside the large white house, there was always a radio playing country music quietly, day and night, and his mom had decorated the kitchen with jars of jam and apple wallpaper lining the walls. The water that poured from the black refrigerator came from the family well and had a sweet, frigid taste I have spent much of my life trying to match (and only topped once when drinking glacier water pouring into a cow trough in Switzerland). The dining room was dark with pinewood paneling for the floors, and even though I hated and still sort of hate country music, I loved that it played constantly at Aaron’s house. It wouldn’t have been his house if there wasn’t a radio blasting some guy whining about his lost love and his dying dog.
I don’t know why that house stands out so vividly to me or why it’s necessarily to even mention it. I also don’t know why your best friend’s house is always so much cooler than your own. I mean, we always seem to love the things that aren’t ours more because they aren’t ours – because we grow bored of our own stuff. Even today, if I were to buy a house, I think I’d style it a little like Aaron’s. The inside would be dark with pinewood paneling everywhere. There’d be an earthy atmosphere to it, a kind of home-style, country comfort everywhere with ceiling fans hanging everywhere that slowly turned like a helicopter just starting up.
The day I said goodbye to Aaron, I drove over to that house that had become a home to me and stayed until pretty late. He was spending all night packing his bags before, early in the morning, leaving for college in Arizona. I still had three months of summer left before I’d leave, and that night was when I learned it’s much harder to be left behind than it is to be the one leaving.
I remember feeling this need to say something profound, something that could sum up a nine-year friendship or some way to say goodbye that would do justice to what he meant to me. I don’t remember what I did actually say, but I do remember that Aaron just sort of acted like it was any other day. I remember thinking that he seemed callous to it, though in hindsight, I think neither of us knew how to express our gratitude for something like friendship. I was trying to sum it all up and searching for some climactic moment, and Aaron was trying to avoid that.
He walked me outside when it was time for me to leave. He was wearing an orange t-shirt shirt and blue parachute pants. Because, hey, it was the 90s after all. When I got ready to walk to my candy-apple, Pontiac Grand-Am, Aaron put his hand out for a handshake, as though we were ending a good business transaction, and I ignored him and went in to hug him. When I turned around and started walking to my car, I started tearing up, and as I pulled out, I started crying uncontrollably while Aaron stood there with a sad look on his face, his hands in his pockets.
When I drove away, I knew high school had ended and that I wasn’t a kid anymore. And of all the life experiences I’ve ever had, I don’t think there’s any harder than saying goodbye. And that moment was the first time I knew what it was like to really love and care about someone. It was the first time I knew what it meant to be grateful for a relationship.
I don’t talk to Aaron anymore. There’s no bad blood between us. I’m sure if we crossed paths, we’d probably catch up and tell stories like it was yesterday. We’ve just gone our separate ways, grown apart, and probably endured a dozen goodbyes with a dozen more friends I’m sure we’ve both made over time, each goodbye likely harder than the one before it. But that doesn’t make me any less thankful for that friendship or the person it made me into over the years.