Jared, Devin, and The Deathwish

My parents and I moved to Helena Montana the summer before I started kindergarten. We were the first of three houses on a lane off of Hope Road, a dirt road off of a dirt road.

Our immediate neighbors were a very kind elderly couple, with grandchildren that I would see from time to time but never really got along with. I remember they had a garage sale once, and I had my eye on this small picture of a kitten. I went home and got $5 from my parents, but the couple wouldn’t take my money. They gave me the picture, and it hung in my room until we moved.

The house on the end of the lane belonged to Jared and Devin’s family. (Always Jared and Devin – never Devin and Jared.) I met them once playing on our mutual neighbor’s swing set. Meeting other little kids as a little kid yourself is still a strange concept to me. It feels wholly different than meeting other people at an older age, so it’s tough to relate to when looking back. It was awkward in completely different ways.

One day, soon after moving in, my mom convinced me to walk over to their house and say hi. When I got there, nobody answered. For some reason my little kid brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t home, so I decided to go inside and find them. The front door was locked, but their back door was open – I was persistent! I walked inside, “hello?” I turned down a hallway, then down another hallway into a bedroom. Nobody. Their house was weird, completely unfamiliar, a smell I didn’t know.

I felt as sudden urge to leave, so I started making my way back to the door. Instead, I found myself in another bedroom, completely confused. I started to panic, and I ran. Another turn, and I was crying. I was terrified that I would be trapped in this strange dark house forever. Eventually I found the door, and I burst out into the sunlight, my heart beating and tears streaming. I hurried home, too embarrassed to tell my parents what had happened. “They weren’t home.”

I smile to myself from time to time, remembering that secret terror. In hindsight, it’s hilarious to me. I wonder how many kids, at this exact moment, are running around a stranger’s house, completely alone, terrified, and crying. This could have happened in your own house, and you would never know! I’m still strangely delighted by this concept. Kids are weird.

Soon after, I found Jared and Devin at home, and we became friends. We each liked video games – they had an NES, and I had a Sega Genesis. We got into trouble in healthy little boy ways, running around the field behind our houses, throwing rocks at things and breaking boards. We were mostly harmless, as I remember it.

Sometimes my mom would call their house when it was time to come home. Often, she just yelled from our front porch. “Jonathon! Time to come home!” It’s comforting to remember these moments, when I was just a shout away from home. I think that feeling still sticks with me, making me more comfortable at parties when I know my apartment is just a short walk away. Eventually she got me a watch, and gave me the responsibility of being home on time.

Jared and Devin’s family was a little weird to me. Different than mine, at least. For one, I was an only child, so getting attention from my parents wasn’t really an issue. Jared and Devin had three sisters – one older, two younger. Their mom had a playdate system where, from time to time, each kid got a day date with their mom, without their siblings. It was a reward she would give her kids for good behaviour, a little slip of paper. This concept was completely foreign to me, and it’s only in hindsight that I can understand the importance of it. I rarely ate dinner at their house; the food was too unfamiliar.

I don’t think their dad was around all the time, but never really understood the dynamic. Their older teenage sister was always upset. Always. She almost exclusively kept to her room, so I barely saw her. When I did, she was yelling at us to be quiet. I think she was an early 90’s punk, but I wasn’t really familiar with those stereotypes as a kid, so my memory is hazy. Their little sisters were too small to really stand out. Mostly, I found the baby talk that people used with them to be annoying.

I saw Jared and Devin fight, as siblings, with their mom as the mediator. I had no way to relate to this, it was something new. I hadn’t had anybody my age to truly fight with in a way that required making up, since I’d just leave and go home. I never had to resolve anything. I remember their mom telling one of the kids to apologize, and they would say “I’m sorry.” The other one would usually yell back “no you’re not!” This was baffling to me – I had never had a reason to doubt an apology before.

I got along with Devin more than Jared. Devin and I would hang out sometimes, just the two of us, which wasn’t true for me and Jared. I think Devin was more of an awkward nerd, like me. Jared struck me as more of a jock, more alpha. He could be meaner and more physical, but was also our leader, dictating the adventures of the day. I was a year older than each of them, so we didn’t really hang out at school.

I was their neighbor and friend for about four years. We built a fort in an old barn in my backyard. The spring that Helena flooded, we played in the water, slipping on the ice underneath. We explored the construction site of a new neighborhood. We had throwing contests, which I never won, and Jared always did. We used a hose to turn our old garden into a mud pit. We tried walking to the end of a rainbow, until we were as far away as our parents would let us go. We took turns playing Mario, Zelda, Sonic. We’d swing on a pipe in their basement, and we’d get in trouble every time. We ate otter pops. We fought, but nothing that wasn’t forgotten the next day.

There were two other houses near us, off of a different parallel road. One with a boy our age. Cory, I think. He was never really a proper member of our gang. I remember that he had a lot of toys, but that didn’t make me want to hang out with him.

The other house shared a backyard with our lane, and they had a little boy, about three years younger than me. We’d entertain him sometimes, but he was too young to really hang out with us. They had the fanciest playground set on the block, so we liked that.

For some reason his mom never liked us, and she didn’t want us using the swing set. I can remember her yelling out of their bedroom window that overlooked the backyard, shooing us away. And I mean really yelling. Until then, I was used to adults being nice, and I was generally free to explore the neighborhood at will. For whatever reason, she was different. Maybe we were more trouble than I thought.

I remember one night, playing on their swings after sundown, when she yelled at us, as expected. We left, once again upset that we had been shooed away. One of the others said that they hated her, and they wished that she was dead. We agreed – yes, we too wish that she was dead. We wished that she was dead so that we could play on her swing set without getting yelled at.

One night, while watching TV with my parents, we saw police lights through the windows. There were police cars in the neighbor’s driveway. My parents didn’t know what was going on, and I think my dad made a joke. I wasn’t familiar with police lights, so I didn’t know what to think.

The next day at school, I saw Jared and Devin during a school assembly. I asked them about the lights, and they told me that our neighbor died. The mean one. The one with the young son. The one that we wished would die, she was dead. She had a seizure in the shower while her husband was at work, while she was home alone with her son. She fell, and she drowned. When her husband got home from work, he found her here there, and his son all alone. Before the ambulance showed up, Jared and Devin’s mom tried to resuscitate her.

It was a lot to process as a kid, and the weight of the situation didn’t really hit me until I was older. That’s when I felt bad for the husband, the son, and Jared and Devin’s mom who was a close friend of hers. At the time, the concept of drowning in the shower terrified me. As I understood it, seizures just happen sometimes. This was reinforced when a schoolmate had a seizure in another classroom, out of nowhere. I couldn’t see how it was possible to drown in the shower, but I knew it was. Drowning in such a small amount of water seemed terrifying because of how helpless you would have to be.

I remember other kids would occasionally wish that somebody would die. It was a popular way to convey hatred towards another kid. For a time, I would protest. I told them to be careful what they wished for, and that I once had the same wish fulfilled. Nobody believed me. Kids say all kinds of things, after all, so eventually I stopped. I started keeping it to myself. I even forgot about it for a while, and didn’t dwell on it whenever I would remember – until now.

I know that I didn’t kill the woman, but I wasn’t so sure as a kid. At that age I was just beginning to realize that the whole world didn’t only exist around me, for me. Santa and The Tooth Fairy and all their friends were becoming less real. I started to understand that the kids at school had their own lives after the last bell rang, as did the teachers. There were other people and other lives.

In that time of philosophical awakening, I still wasn’t sure what to make of the deathwish. Not only was I uncertain about my influence on her death, I also didn’t know how to feel about it. Should I be happy? I definitely wasn’t sad about it, she was too far away from my center. And I had, after all, gotten what I wanted. My own life improved a little now that there was one less person yelling at me, and the cost wasn’t something I could process yet. Still, I knew it wasn’t something to celebrate, so I existed in conflict.

In hindsight, I know that kids will be kids, and it was just bad luck that I was the one with a deathwish granted. In a strange way, I’m thankful. If somebody had to die, at least I learned something from it. While not a grand transformation, I think it made me consider my words with more care. I think it made me a better person.

After 4th grade we moved to Missoula, and I never saw or talked to Jared and Devin again. I mostly forgot about them until very recently, that part of my life fading in my memory. I wonder what, if anything, they remember about me, and what stories they could tell about my family, what they thought was weird about us.

And sometimes I wonder if they, too, know that not every wish should be granted.

The Stars

Space was one of my earliest fascinations. I got a small astronomy book for Christmas in the 2nd grade. I would read it before bed, and most of it went over my head. But not all of it. The planets were the characters, just like other books had, each with their own story. Saturn was quickly my favorite, but I always had a soft spot for Neptune. Jupiter was a jerk. Venus was a friend.

This fascination got me a little sidetracked. I read dozens of books about aliens, and I watched every bogus History Channel show about how ancient civilizations were helped by extraterrestrials. Along with an early love of magicians, I think this lead to me becoming jaded a little too soon. Before I was in high school I figured out that these things weren’t real. Not really. I felt duped, and while I continued to appreciate astronomy, my fascination had waned.

I never stopped loving the stars, though. My family had a cabin on a lake in the middle of the woods, and I spent many nights sitting alone by the fire and looking at the stars. I would lay on the end of the doc and stare up, the entire sky laid before me. So clear and open. I didn’t care about what was happening in my day-to-day life at that moment. I just looked up.

My family sold the cabin when I was a sophomore in high school, and we moved to a new town. The move was good for me. I made friends and spent less time alone. Instead of weekends with a fire pit, I hung out with people, eating pizza and playing video games. For a little while, I forgot about the stars.

During my first week as the new kid, this girl convinced me to ask her out, then dumped me a few days later. I think she didn’t like that I played Magic during lunch, but it’s not like we had a real relationship anyway. We went on one date, bowling, and split the bill. I had no idea what I was doing, and wasn’t very surprised when she told me a few days later that she “just has to focus on her schoolwork right now.”

A year later, for reasons I still don’t understand, another girl set her sights on me. She got me to go to a movie with her and a friend, then back to her friend’s place to watch movies. We made out for most of the night. It was my first kiss, and she had to guide me at every step of the way, even pulling my own arm around her to start it all. Back in school on Monday, it was clear that it was just a one-time thing, that we hadn’t started a relationship. I wasn’t surprised. We stayed friendly, but I didn’t really know her in the first place.

Those two experiences represented the entirety of my experience with relationships by my Junior year of high school. It became a running joke with my friends that I would never have a girlfriend. Jon? A girlfriend? Yeah right. I played along, mostly because I thought they were right. I had no confidence, and my humor was very self-deprecating.

That said, I was always good at being friends with girls. They told me it was because I listened. I was just a friend, but I usually didn’t mind. I liked being a friend, and tended to dislike the typical guys, as I saw them.

In my junior year, I joined the speech and debate team. This was the first time I had participated in any major school activity, and it served as a catalyst for many things to come. It gave me the confidence and drive to work on the school newspaper, act in a play, and join the tennis team. This world, the one where I participated in things, was incomprehensible to me before speech and debate. And most importantly, it’s where I became friends with Erika.

She was part of a tight group of friends, these four girls. They all took a liking to me, and we started hanging out together. I joined them for lunch, then movie nights, then snowball fights. I started hosting speech and debate team parties at my house, and these girls were often the first to arrive, and the last to leave. They really liked to laugh.

I connected with each of them in our own way, none of which were romantic. Our friendships were never a threat to my guy friends, who made passes at these girls from time to time. I remember one of my friends asking another for permission to pursue Erika. He was told sure, go for it. Then they both looked at me, wondering for a moment if they needed my permission, and we laughed. Jon, dating? Hilarious. In the end, nothing came of his advances.

This is the mindset I was in as Junior prom came around, that a relationship wasn’t something I did, that it wasn’t an option. But I was also coming out of my shell, making more friends, gaining confidence. Dances weren’t a terrifying non-option anymore, not since I had gone to spree (also known as Sadie Hawkins) with another friend of mine earlier that year. Somehow, seemingly out of nowhere and despite myself, I had a realization: I should ask Erika to prom.

Despite the unfamiliarity of the idea, I immediately knew I was right. And I knew, with full certainty, that she would say yes. It wasn’t because of any flirting or awkward advances or who-likes-who rumors. It was because of a connection we had, as friends. Mostly, I remember a moment on the bus, on a way back from a speech and debate meet, just talking. I remember that we were both by the window, talking to each other over the back of my seat, lit by passing cars and city lights. In that moment, I wasn’t talking to a girl I had a crush on. I was talking to a friend, and it was really nice. Somehow, because of moments like that one, I knew she would say yes.

The day after I had this idea, I pulled Erika aside. We had all just gotten to a friend’s house after school, our usual hangout, but I had to leave for work. I looked down at her, she looked up at me, and I awkwardly spit out the words. “So, umm, I was wondering, do you want to go to prom with me?” She said yes, enthusiastically. We shared an awkward-but-welcomed hug, and then I left. I was happy.

The few weeks leading up to Prom were fairly normal, and prom itself was pretty awkward. That whole day was. There’s a lot of pressure and expectations in a very unfamiliar setting, and nobody really knew how to handle it. We all had fun, but it was definitely awkward and not ideal.

It would have been easy for things with Erika to stop right there, to fade back into a nice friendship, nothing more. But I wanted more, and now I finally had the confidence to try. I asked Erika to hang out, and I obliviously trudged through her deflections at every turn. Eventually we watched a movie at my house after school. It seemed clear that something was there, but neither of us really knew what to do. I was very nervous, and she could tell. I think she appreciated it. For our next date, and neither of us would have called it that, she suggested something perfect.

She said we should look at the stars.

It was summer, and the nights were warm and clear. One weekend night we went to the the high school football field and rolled out a blanket. We laid on our backs, side-by-side, and looked up at the stars. The sky was open all around us, just like it used to be for me. It felt so good to share that with somebody else. It felt perfect.

It was under the stars that we fell in love.

It didn’t happen immediately, but over many summer nights. We kept going to the same spot on the football field, with the same blanket, and we continued to look at the stars. We would talk until the sun came up, fighting to stay awake. We were so desperate to just spend time together. As the nights got colder, we got closer.

A year and a half later, I was weeks away from leaving for college, and Erika was about to start her senior year of high school. We had agreed to break up when the time came, and it did. We were both fiercely career driven – neither of us wanted to hold back for anybody, not while we were still so young. In theory.

On one of our last weekends, we got in the car and drove to the next town over. We drank lemonade, we listened to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and we went hiking into the mountains. It was quiet and secluded, and we found a stream. There, we carved our initials into a tree, enjoying the embrace of a cliche.

We talked about returning one day, to the same spot, as friends. Many years in the future, our lives properly split and propelled forward, we imagined a respectful reunion on the same path. I pictured us sharing the intimate details of our lives, made comfortable by our history, and made important by the knowledge of where we each came from. I still hope for this moment, but I do not expect it.

A couple weeks after the hike, I dropped her off at home for the last time. We cried, and hugged, and said goodbye. I remember a look in her eyes the moment I let go, standing in her driveway under the stars, as she realized that was it. As we both did. That’s the moment that sticks with me the most to this day. It was by far the most vulnerable I had ever seen Erika, which was probably true for her as well. We had agreed to jump off a cliff together, and that was the moment we both realized we were suddenly in the air.

Extraordinarily, this was not the final end of our relationship – that moment came six-and-a-half years later, in a different story.

The stars mean something different to me now than they once did. Whenever I look up at a clear night sky, I remember those summer nights, and what it felt like to truly be known for the first time. The clearer the sky, the stronger the memory. It’s still hard for me to visit Montana for that reason. Thankfully, the rainy embrace of this bright city keeps me sheltered from the stars.