Our friendship was volatile. Tim was a year older and what seemed to be twenty pounds heavier than I was, although we were only six or seven years old. I was skinny and he was stocky. I lived in his dead grandfather’s house. My parents paid his parents money for the privilege of living there and subterranean resentment always played a role in our interactions.
Tim beat me to tears on at least three occasions during my time in Carp. The last one I remember most clearly: We had been playing in his basement (a remodeled family room) and started arguing about something. Eventually he let fly a “shut up!” and he shoved me. I was so stunned that I actually obeyed. Then I went home, holding back tears because my best friend had been mean to me, and when my mother saw my face she forced me to confess my troubles. She was more annoyed that I had done nothing but come home than she was that Tim had pushed me, and perhaps in order to prepare me for the next time, the next shove, the next challenge, she told me to go back over to Tim’s and tell him: “You shut up.”
And I did. I walked over to his house, knocked on his door, asked his mother if I could talk to him for a minute, and when he came to the door I said “You shut up!”
It wasn’t the cathartic moment I had hoped, and the pummeling he gave me in his driveway when I failed to get away quickly enough was certainly not what I had planned. Maybe my mother had known. Maybe she thought it more important to not stifle my own hurt feelings than to protect my skin from small knuckles.
We weren’t always fighting. But we were small boys and we were largely unsupervised. We would dismantle old rolls of wooden fencing to salvage sword-blade sticks and then attack each other relentlessly. He would scream “Crazy-Man Ewok!!!” while charging and I’d try to deflect his whirling blade. My introduction to fencing came on my front lawn, a piste upon which we’d try to sever hands and heads.
We were often joined in our marauding by the twins from across the road: two identical blonde boys with an English father and a sadly dead mother, although their father remarried shortly after I moved into the old farmhouse. They were a year younger than I, and bonded utterly closely. Whenever a game Tim and I were playing could be expanded to include the twins it would be, though that often meant, because of the way we were, that Tim and I were pitted against the twins in some way.
And just as Tim was sometimes cruel to me, his slighter, younger friend, so were we jointly cruel to the twins. Our aggressive games took on severe undertones as we played, and the twins were sent home more than once with bruises or tears or both. One particular “game” we’d play involved picking as many crab apples from the tree out back as we could and then just throwing them at each other. Crab apple fights in the backyard left welts and bumps and bruises, and although Tim threw harder than I, my aim was better: we made short work of the twins and eventually they ran home, wondering why they continually let the older kids from across the road torment them.
I wondered the same thing, about my relationship with Tim, all the time. No matter how many good times we had, how many tree house sleepovers and midnight trips to the field we had, how many rhubarb stalks we sprinkled with sugar and ate raw in the backyard, the bitterness of those few stinging fights was always with me. Those fights I lost to Tim define that part of my life just as much as anything else.
Almost twenty years later, long after I had moved away from Carp, one of the twins killed himself. I don’t know what his life had been like up to that moment when he decided he needed to die. I don’t know what pains he carried with him. His mother had died when he was very young and his father remarried shortly after. He grew up with a twin, and I think he was sexually confused and frustrated for most of his short life.
As I look back on my relationship with Tim, at the tears I shed every time I lost a fight, and at the relish with which I tormented the twins by his side, I wish I could do it all over again and be a better person this time.
I especially wish I could take back one of those apples and the bruise it left behind.
—Shawn Burns, backpackingdad.com.