The very first time we spoke long into the night, I dragged a blanket into my closet and huddled beneath it next to the pile of shoes from J. Crew, the last shoes I ever owned that didn’t have a heel. I wore skirts mostly, even back then, and the bottoms of the longer ones grazed my arms as our conversation became animated, as I gestured with my hands to make a point. While my earliest anxiety-ridden phone calls with short middle school boys had taken place with me shutting myself in the downstairs bathroom for privacy, the long telephone cord stretching taut from the kitchen as I stared at my face in the mirror – I’d hope beyond hope that I would instantly become prettier by the attention I was getting, that the impact of a boy calling would be similar to the effect of the sun changing the color of my skin – that time, the time with him, was the only time in my life I took refuge inside of my bedroom closet.
I was lured by the dark, and I laugh now as I type those words because perhaps they define me better than anything else. Back then – back on that first night – my need for darkness was literal. I guess I just felt more comfortable being myself in the shadows. Today I still veer towards the darkness even though I know exactly who I am.
He was a phone person and I was not, but he had two older siblings who weren’t really around at night and besides, there was always something bubbling beneath the surface with him that craved an explosion. I recall being surprised when I made his call list because we’d met only a year before and we hadn’t immediately become close, not at all. On that day, I went to visit the high school with my former best friend. I was living in the city with my father that year and I knew I was lucky for the experiences – for the culture, for being encouraged to become worldly, for being able to order pizza at any hour of the day, for having that year with him before he suddenly died – but I didn’t love going to high school in Manhattan and the metal detectors scared me and I wanted to look out of classroom windows and see a football field and some days I just wished I could climb aboard a yellow bus, not the M14 where I rarely snagged myself a seat and felt uncomfortable if my knees brushed against a stranger. I’d made what I called Necessary Friends that year in order to survive, but they were not my Real Friends. Those people were back on Long Island where I’d left them and when Carley invited me to sleep over her house one weekday and go to school with her, I jumped at the chance.
There were hugs thrown my way that entire morning and shocked glances from people who never understood why I’d moved to the city and I felt a bit like visiting royalty. I told everyone about my city adventures – learning to ride the subway; that night in the empty loft when someone took a mirror off the wall to cut up lines – but the truth was that I didn’t want that hectic sort of life, not then, not yet. And I was just beginning to imagine actually saying those words out loud and allowing my façade to finally slide all the way down my face when some guy walked over to me, said hello, and then backed me up into a locker. He told me his name and said it in what I thought then was a sexy whisper and he smiled when he saw the flicker of shock pass across my features and I pushed him away while he laughed and I walked quickly down the hall with my friend.
“He does that to every girl,” she told me – and I suddenly felt strangely let down that this stranger’s minor assault didn’t mean that I was special. I made sure not to even glance back at him as we rounded the corner towards her Social Studies classroom.
When I ended up back at that school the next year, my brain was too fogged up with the heady aftereffects of loss to even recall that strange boy who had made my toes tingle for a second all those months ago. The first weeks back on Long Island were a blur. There were all those mornings I woke up and felt fine until a fraction of a second flew by and then I’d remember my father was gone and it would be forever and I had to walk through the world without him. I held it together for the most part, but there was that day I left my English class crying after our teacher gave us time to free-write in a journal and I wrote about my dad before internally collapsing into myself and my friend Jackie peeled me off my desk and walked me out into the hallway where she just let me cry while she hugged me. In less than a year – on the first anniversary of my father’s death – Jackie would die too in a terrible car accident and, in many ways, her death would be the catalyst that brought that strange boy into my life for real.
Sophomore year ticked by and I developed a crush on the locker-pushing guy’s best friend for no other reason than he gave me some attention at a time when I wanted to think about anything other than what was real. That flirtation didn’t go anywhere really – I mean, we ended up kissing one night two years later, but that’s just because there was a bonfire nearby and the stars were twinkling extra brightly and we were standing close to one another and it just sort of happened. But it was his friend – the one I’d read correctly as dangerous the very second we met – who would change me.
In the days following Jackie’s death, we clung to one another in a manner that would have seemed weird just a week prior. We hugged each other constantly and epic poems were often expressed between us with just a long look. We were fifteen and sixteen years old, and there was no way to pretend anymore that any of this — the long days and even the endless nights — could be forever. I remember walking into the funeral and all but dragging Carley down the aisle of the church where we were to sit with Jackie’s family and place a flower on our friend’s casket during the service and she didn’t want to walk – she didn’t want any of it to be real – but I understood so clearly in that very second that all of it needed to begin so the funeral could eventually end and that everything that would come next would be the worst of it. I didn’t much care for being the token expert on loss, but I’d already been forced to learn certain lessons and one of them was that staying outwardly strong made me feel a little bit inwardly proud. Afterwards, in the entrance of the church, I recall several people wrapping their arms around me and in a moment of total devastation, I felt weirdly lucky. It was a reaction I would feel tremendous guilt for having for a tremendous amount of time and I would also wonder sometimes in the most painful hours of my twenties if all that strength I’d had back then had somehow been depleted, that perhaps there was not an infinite supply and I had used mine up during two funerals in August that were exactly one year apart before I’d even become a grownup.
The boy who once took it upon himself to intimidate me for a second of kicks on the afternoon we met was also the person who called me a day after the funeral to tell me how much he admired my strength. It was a call from a person I didn’t expect to hear from, even though he’d made sure to grip me tightly when we both stumbled from the church into the cruel sunlight of that terrible morning, and it was a call made expressly to tell me that he recognized within me the trait it had been the hardest for me to achieve. I’d started to get prettier that summer, my gawky stage crawling to the depths of the past where it belonged, but he didn’t mention my face or how my hair was suddenly curling so much better. Instead, this person I always felt was a walking act – this person who I watched from afar and wondered about like he was a mystery to be solved by someone who wouldn’t be me – this was the person who called to tell me that he had been watching me too and he knew exactly who I was because he really saw me, and it remains today as one of the most poignant moments of my life because I was fifteen and I was struggling and I’d written the word “STRENGTH” in capital letters with a Cornflower Blue crayon on the inner cover of my journal like it was a fucking hope chest and a sixteen year old boy I had rarely spoken to until then ended up being the one who got me the way nobody else did. And what mattered most – what matters still today – is that he always saw me the best.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter