If you had a best friend when you were in fifth grade, a friend who was you even if one of you was rich and one was poor, a friend you couldn’t imagine being without for even a minute, a friend you got matching weird haircuts with, a friend who, when he fell over your foot and got a black eye you’d find atonement by icing your own healthy eye, a friendship that suddenly changed one day and you didn’t really understand it at the time but something happened and one of you was not the same any more – you’ll want to read this.
Or, if you want to read a story that treats two characters so equally they don’t even have names yet you know in every sentence which “he” is being referred to, and if you want a story so powerful and visual and real you can here the musical score playing as you read (the first part would’ve been all peppy woodwinds and occasional brass in major riffs, a sudden interrupt at the ice pack with a building sentiment of violins to warm fuzzy chords; and when Elias entered, the dark tones would come in, tense, foreboding, minor keys, discords, warning. Jaws music without the pulse. Silence of the Lambs music), if you want a story that’s going to have you gulping down the words on the last page and leaves you breathless and awed and shocked and amazed after you taste the last word – find this one. Order it from One Story. Get someone to loan it to you. Beg, borrow, steal it. Yeah. It’s that good. At least I think it is. And I’m not even totally sure what happens. Not exactly.
I was sure at various points I knew what would happen: one boy would grow up faster than the other and leave him behind; one would realize he had feelings beyond friendship for the other and that would poison their friendship as the other got scared; they would see each other through Elias’ eyes, fear being scorned for being just a kid, or worse, tainted with the fag label, and lose each other just to avoid that. Something would happen to end that time of bestfriendness, it would be sexual, and Elias would be the instigator in some way. As I said, I’m still not exactly sure what happened, why they were separated for those few weeks, what was on the movie Elias brought in, exactly what went on in the basement on the L shaped couch and who wanted what and who didn’t, but it broke my heart anyway. Because of the love, and the lie: I’m here, if that’s where you need me to be.
Every page has a favorite line. Of the Boz haircut they give each other: “Before this, they were just friends, certain of their affection, uncertain of its expression. Before this, one of them was worried that his hours in the Laurelhurst house were numbered, that he would overstay his welcome, that he would be exposed as an interloper, but now that worry is gone. The haircut is proof. The haircut is a leveler…they look like each other, and that, for one of them, is close enough.” On their relationship: “What do you like? What do you like? Is it something we should like? Every day is a disputation of taste, and nothing ascends without the explicit approval of both…for one of the boys, this equilibrium seems a natural, effortless state; for the other, it’s become everything.” Then after the black eye incident, Elias shows up, a cousin, five years older: “What’s wrong with your eye? Elias says. What’s wrong with your hair? What, he says, is it with the matching sweatshirts? They are caught off guard by the certainty of this questioning and wonder why it, suddenly, matters to them. They are surprised that anyone’s opinion but their own should count for beans, but it does, and they stand silent astride their bikes, not daring, not even wanting, to defend themselves. Have they been wrong this whole time? Is their closeness being called into question?” I love the wording of this, the punctuation, the phrasing – look at it, “What, he says, is it with the matching sweatshirts” could be written so many ways but putting “he says” in there feels so perfect, just a tiny bit off balance, with the rhythm of the paragraph. And the “suddenly” in the next sentence, is placed so perfectly, even though “suddenly” is a word that sends workshoppers into frenzies of rulebook-waving. I love the writing in this. And the emotion: “One of them feels the end of something, and waits desperately for the feeling to dissipate. The other seems uninterested in rescuing himself.”
It’s odd that, with all this wonderful material, I still am not sure what happens with Elias, why the two boys spend a few weeks apart, and what is happening at the very end of the story. It isn’t that I don’t know, it’s that there are so many possibilities. All of them heartbreaking, some more so than others, some just growing-up-heartbreaking and some tragic-heartbreaking. I think my favorite stories are like that, because I can read them again and again and they’re never the same story twice.
This author, Ethan Rutherford, had a story in BASS 2009, “The Peripatetic Coffin” which I barely skimmed because it took place on a Confederate submarine during the Civil War. I can’t imagine anything I’m less interested in. But I’m going to take another look, because someone who writes like this deserves it.
See the One Story website for an interview with the author and for blog discussion.