How’s this for a first memory? I was four years old, sitting too close to the TV in the living room of my parents’ starter home. My father, a construction foreman, was out on the job. My mother whistled while she cleaned and cooked.
Mom told me every day to scoot back from the bulky black-and-white TV and sit in one of the comfortable chairs a safe distance away. Every day, I ignored her. I was happy to swing my pigtails and to flop onto my belly and to rest my head on my arms and stare at the pictures on the screen like a zombie. The garish shag carpet clashed with my pink My Little Pony overalls, but it was soft, and the pile was long enough to pinch between my tiny, stubby fingers.
As usual, Mom popped in a video to keep me occupied while she made dinner. I watched Bambi and Thumper frolic in the forest. They got all twitterpated and spun around on the ice. Just as Bambi and his mother were looking for food, enjoying the change of seasons, my mother said a word I had never heard her say before. The big black cake pan and the pot roast inside clanged to the floor as she dropped them and ran into the living room. She dove to stop the movie and took the tape out of the VCR.
When I asked my jus-covered mother what was wrong, she just sighed, smiled and told me that was the end of movie. Mother and son spent the rest of their days eating berries and roaming the forest.
I learned to read pretty young, and the first book I remember reading all by myself was Babar. It was very important to me to make my mother proud, so I sat there in her lap, tapping the page with my finger as I sounded out the words. As I reached the end of the book, Mom was shifting around, eyebrows furrowed. Was she mad at me? Had I done something wrong?
All of a sudden, she said it was bedtime. She scooped me into her arms and flew me into bed like an airplane. After she tucked me in, the sun was still high in the sky, and it cast a wide swath of light on my eyes. When something keeps you awake, it gives you plenty of time to think.
The next day, I was dying to see how Babar ended, so I begged for it to be storytime. Filled with anticipation, I crawled into my mother’s lap and opened the book to where I had left off. The black letters now looked as though they had been written in by hand, but it was nice to discover that “Babar and his family lived happily ever after and nothing bad ever happened to them.”
The first time I lied to my parents was really more of a fib. I told my parents I was sleeping over at Cindy Manning’s house—that part was true. They never specifically asked if it was a co-ed party, so I just didn’t tell them that I was most excited about spending time with Leo Manning: Student Council President, JV quarterback and head of Science Club. (I know what you’re thinking. Cindy’s parents never left the room. They were watching so closely, I still find it hard to believe they’re nurses and not prison guards.)
The night was G-rated, except for the movie. Cindy Mackenzie is a big theater geek, so we watched the film version of Rent. The songs were good and I thought it was fun, except for the depressing parts. (I admit; they would have brought me down more if I hadn’t been watching them with my arm and hip touching Leo’s as we reclined on the couch.) At the end, the character Mimi dies of AIDS, but the love of her friends brings her back to life.
Leo got upset and said it wasn’t fair. He said that Mimi should have stayed dead. He said she was strung out on drugs and was going to die in a few days anyway, so we shouldn’t be happy that she came back to life. He thought her resurrection just created a false sense of hope, a fantasy that didn’t lead to a better world.
I disagreed with him. What’s the point of being down all the time? Shouldn’t we try to keep away all of the bad parts of the world?
Luckily, he didn’t stay mad long. Everything fell perfectly into place. Cindy’s parents finally went into the kitchen to get more snacks, and our other friends were just too preoccupied to notice when Leo looked into my eyes and smiled a little. He brushed his finger against my wrist, and gave me my very first wet, warm, soft kiss from a boy.
Mom and Dad tried to stop me from asking Leo’s parents what happened, but I think you’ll agree that I really had no choice but to disobey them. The newspaper just called it an “accident.” The principal called an assembly and referred to the “sad event.” I needed to know the truth.
Leo had been out boating on the lake with his parents and older brother. They had taken turns waterskiing. His parents had dropped the handles in the water, and Leo dove in to retrieve them since his turn was next anyway. It happened as his brother turned the boat around to pick up his parents…
Leo was knocked unconscious when the starboard side of the boat hit his head. He sank into the murky water. Despite everyone’s best efforts, they didn’t find his body for hours. It was just an accident. An unlucky happenstance.
It’s not right. It’s not fair. Leo was strong and young and smart, and would have made the world a better place. He was going to accomplish things, maybe have a family, maybe even love me forever. Who knows?
What kind of world would let someone like him go so soon? How could I go on just pretending everything was fine?
I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It just took me over. Swept me away like a powerful undertow. The world isn’t just. Or fair. And there’s nothing you can do to make it that way. No one I knew or cared about had ever died before; it was the first time I thought life wasn’t worthwhile.
That’s the first time I thought about killing myself. That’s the real first you and the other doctors wanted to know about, isn’t it? Now that I’ve told you, when can I go home?
Kenneth Nichols teaches writing in Central New York and maintains the writing craft website Great Writers Steal. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Main Street Rag, Crimespree Magazine, and Lunch Ticket. Join him in the fight to #MakeMoreReaders at books.greatwriterssteal.com.