My Friends on the Wind

            I’m lying in my room on a cold Sunday night, browsing on my laptop, almost 100 miles away from home, alone. I text my mother to remedy that. She’s eager to hear from me as always. The subject turns to friends, the ones I’ve made in the past, and the ones I haven’t made in the present. The subject of Jae is inevitably brought up. I ask her what he’s been doing these days, and she finds his LinkedIn. He served in the army before spending four years in law enforcement, and now works as an NRA firearm instructor. He’s also a Republican, but that goes without saying. My mind is pulled to the past, a world where I once considered him one of my best friends. I can’t help but wonder if he’s ever tried to look me up and thought the same things.

            The autumn leaves crunched under our feet as we walked, my two best friends and me. It was the first time I had ever had both over, and I couldn’t have been more excited. Despite grey clouds, I remember the light that day was positively beaming. The sky was so blue, and the forest so deep, it almost felt like an autumn ocean. I was around 10 or 11, and my friends were the same, fellow ships just starting their journey on an open sea. One was blonde, scrawny, always nervous, and his name was Victor. The other was dark, heavy, and tall, always holding something in, and his name was Jae. I was convinced they’d be with me forever.

            Jae and I first met when we were toddlers. My parents and his were neighbors, and befitting the middle-class suburban spirit, we mingled. I can’t really recall how we first met, and even if I could remember, I don’t think I’d call it the start of our friendship. That will always be the moment we shared together at my family’s camp. We were both jumping on my parent’s bed and laughing, nothing more or less. I was always an awkward kid, and I really couldn’t make friends in preschool. Enjoying the moment together, hearing us both laugh at the top of our lungs, that was when I understood what friendship was. I’ll always remember it fondly.

            I first met Victor a few years later, near the end of middle school. We were both homeschooled, and our reason for meeting didn’t go much further than that happenstance. It didn’t take too long to see our common ground though. Very extravagant houses surrounded by woods, playing with whatever toys one of us had that the other didn’t, and enjoying any activities that let us indulge our interests or burn off our excess energy. One of my strongest memories of him was him smacking me for a reason I can’t remember, before he was chased down by his mother. I remember how miserable he looked when she caught him. Whatever my transgression was, I’m pretty sure I deserved the slap.

            We were all walking across my backyard to the entryway to the forest, the hanging and fallen leaves coating it like a bronze cave. I always thought that it would be fun to bring Jae and Victor together, so I jumped at the chance without a thought of hesitation. I remember Victor asking me about Jae; I think he wanted to know what he was like. I talked about how long we had known each other, and how fond of him I was, as far as I can remember. I’m not sure I brought it up, but I know that now, I wish I could have told him how much they were alike. Jae and Victor’s coming together had a sort of inevitable quality to it, in a way I wish I could have more clearly seen. I feel guilty recalling this because I can’t help but think I let my mask slip. Some subtle trepidation in my description that gave away my fear and worry. I don’t know if Victor picked up on it or not, but in the end, I don’t think it would have made a difference.

            All I cared to see back then was the endless expanse of an autumn sea stretching out before us. Two companions, like ships racing on the wind, guiding me. We could sail as far as we wanted.

            It was through Jae I learned both what Korea and a belting were. Both Jae and his older sister were adopted from Asia, she from China and he from South Korea. Their parents are white Americans, originally from Michigan.  I’m sure they adopted him out of some misguided White Savior instinct, but I was too young to understand any of that. Jae told me how, whenever his father got mad, he would beat him with his belt. I don’t think I understood the concept. I knew belts were those uncomfortable leather things that Dad wore, and I think I remember him threatening to smack me with one once, as a joke. I couldn’t really imagine the deed really happening, let alone from a father to a son. Jae couldn’t look me in the eye while he described it to me. I could never quite look at his father, who happened to also be our family dentist, the same way after that.

            It took my experience with Victor’s father to hammer home that those kinds of fathers really do exist. Most of my interactions with him were in passing, and even now I can barely remember his face. Still, I was always slightly on edge in his presence, mainly because of how much more visibly unnerved Victor became when he was around. One day, Victor insisted we interrupt whatever we were doing at his house to take a walk around his yard, something he had never suggested before. Not one to disappoint the sole social contact I had, I followed beyond the point most parents would consider it safe for their teenaged kids to travel the suburbs alone, never mind 10-year-olds. I only realized the depths of our transgression when the echoes of his father’s shouts reached us all the way at the end of the cul-de-sac. I wanted to go back, but then I noticed Victor started to break down crying. Later, I would learn his father regularly physically abused both him and his mother. There was nothing to do but comfort him and stay put until our parents inevitably pulled us back.

            Back in the autumn sea, my friends are still sailing with me. Jae has scaled a great wall of rocks, and Victor is playfully fiddling with a stray wiffle bat. We challenge the world in our tiny boats, far away from the jagged shores that can, and will break us.

If the previous experiences were any indication, I’ve always been more comfortable with the maternal figures in my life. That’s part of the reason I was content being left in the care of Jae’s mother for an entire evening. It was a standard visit to their place. Though their house was just as big as ours, I always found the place fascinating compared to the relative flatness of my own home. Their equivalent of a “living room” was a massive foyer with large windows and filled with plants. I always mistook it for a massive greenhouse. My lack of familiarity with the home’s true boundaries is likely what contributed to whatever it was that caused Jae’s mom to snap that day.

            I have no recollection of the reason for her outburst, or if there even was one, but the image of her charging down the hall like a freight train won’t ever leave my head. The next thing I knew, I was carried off and screamed at, brought to the table with the other kids for my public shaming at the hands of our merciless inquisitor. After what felt like an eternity, my own mother finally returned to pick me up. Jae’s mother put on her rehearsed Stepford smile to try and pretend all is well, but it only takes one look at my face for my mother to realize something seriously wrong has occurred. She was never comfortable leaving me alone with Jae’s mother ever again.  Without my mother’s care and persistent protection, is it possible I would have resented my female caretakers just as much as I did my male ones? I wonder.

            Victor’s house made just as much of an impression on me as Jae’s did. I didn’t have the sense of scale to comprehend how big my own house really was back then, so every house felt big to me. Yet even with that lens being all I knew Victor’s house through, I can still say with confidence the place was grand. It appeared to have two tall stories that stood proudly at the top of the cul-de-sac, rows and rows of windows and an ornate curved roof presenting elegance as a suburban McMansion can muster. It turned out to be an illusion, a false outer grandiosity since there were actually three floors, with the finished basement layer built right into the side of the hill the foundation rested on. The interior was, however, miraculous, with a wide sprawling foyer leading into open living rooms and kitchens where you could come and go as you pleased. The centerpiece was a stairwell that took you right to Victor’s room, easy access to all the toys and joys on display. Not even the basement was dour, as all kinds of shapes and colors were strewn about for us to enjoy. Heck, the backyard even had a pool. Even with the clarity of time, it’s painfully obvious how much I exaggerate.

            No matter how objective I try to be, I can only remember it in this rosy form. I think that’s probably because if I didn’t, the only memories I’d have of that place would be colored with pure discomfort. Open foyers that felt closed in by the overbearing presence of Victor’s mother. A stairway that felt more like a maze the closer you got to the parent’s bedroom. A basement of color where I vividly remember seeing Victor’s father for the first time. A pool decorating the same yard where Victor slapped me. An impressive two-story visage slowly fading into the distance as Victor and I fled from it. Since Victor lived there, he had none of the rosy interpretations that I always carried, and I can’t help but wonder if he always saw me as a tourist in a prison.

            The leaves on the autumn sea blow, like the billows of waves before a storm. Jae hops across the stone walls with abandon, no care for weather he lands or falls, while Victor swings the wiffle bat aimlessly, no care what he may or may not hit. Any good sailor would turn back at the signs and signals of an impending storm, but I was a mere pretender, and let ignorant joy carry our sails towards oblivion.

            Once upon a time, my parents surprised me with an exceedingly expensive Christmas gift that instilled in me a great sense of responsibility. It was a Nintendo 3DS, back when they were first sold and excessively overpriced. I don’t want to spend too much time on the details, lest I get accused of materialism, but know that it represented exceptional value both personally and monetarily. I always found myself jealous of the toys Jae had, so for once I was glad to possess something that made him jealous. Once it disappeared, I was devastated. I had no recollection of how I had lost it, but I assumed it was carelessness on my part. I apologized to my parents profusely, begging them for forgiveness for my carelessness. They were incredibly understanding, even helping literally upturn the entire living room just to find a trace of it. I was too absorbed in self-loathing to realize how far they were going for me and how reasonably they treated the whole situation.

            My mother would confess to me a few years later that both she and my father were quite certain that Jae had stolen it. Though they had no concrete evidence, other than a rather damning conversation that she had with him concerning the missing console, where he displayed an obvious sense of guilt. She mentioned how Jae how much it was hurting me to not have it and he replied that there was a well-known black market for such goods at the local elementary he attended. Interestingly, at the same time, his parents reported him receiving a large amount of money for selling a device he allegedly “found” in the woods. They bragged about his ingenuity. By then, I was thoroughly over it, and my relationship with Jae had already collapsed beyond repair. In truth, I couldn’t bring myself to resent him for it. Not after everything we had gone through.

            The last time I heard of Victor was when I heard that he had run away from home. My Mom informed me that he was reported missing by the police, and warned me of the possibility that he might come to our house to seek sanctuary. We were both in agreement that we would rather shelter him, rather than hand him over to the authorities, especially given what we knew about his domestic living situation. Part of me actually hoped he would come to us for sanctuary. I had always wanted to provide that for him, ever since I saw him break down while running away from his father’s wrath. I had hoped he might even share a room with me and I could act like a surrogate brother of sorts. He never did show up though, and eventually he was caught and returned to his family. I have no further recollection of what happened to him after that. I don’t think we ever found out if he was headed to our place or not.

            Again, we walk through the woods together, all the past and future completely out of our minds. Victor absent-mindedly swings around a spare wiffle-bat we had lying around in the front yard. He had the same need for constant stimuli that I have. Jae and I talk about something, anything, nothing we will ever remember.

            I wish I could remember, to put some kind of satisfying final conversation into our mouths. But all I can remember is the sight of Victor swinging the bat ever more rapidly, and a mounting sense of dread consuming me a split second too late.

            The bat leaves Victor’s hands and smacks Jae right in the face. For a moment that feels like an eternity, the entire forest is silent. The sea’s silence breaks, the ocean erupts into a storm. The two boats that guide me ram into each other, shards and splinters scatter to the waters below. I watch in helpless fear as I am dragged into the ensuing maelstrom.

            Time resumes, and the world leaves me behind. Victor awakens first and makes a beeline towards the backyard and the woods. Jae soon follows, and he darts onto Victor’s trail, gaining from the very first step. All of this has occurred in the span of five seconds. I am so overwhelmed with panic, that my body can only express it as laughter. I laugh harder than I have ever laughed in my entire life. I am blubber as I chase after them, uncertain if what I’m experiencing is really happening; my questioning leaves me sagging behind. I see Jae catch up to Victor just as I reach the yard, and any doubts about the veracity of the situation shatter. Jae sits on top of Victor, pins him down, crushes and chokes his frail body, and wails on him the whole time. The laughs do not stop, they only grow heavier and dampen with tears. I stumble back to the house, desperately trying to reach my parents in the hope they can stop this.

            I make it up the steps and try to express some kind of message through my tears and laughter. My mother seems to pick up on whatever it is and rushes out while I collapse onto the floor. I spend an indeterminate amount of time lying there, letting the laughter and tears drain themselves, until I can get myself to return outside. Mom is on her way back to the house. She tells me Jae has fled up the driveway, headed in the direction of his own house. I run to Victor’s body, which lays crumpled where Jae has abandoned him. He isn’t seriously injured, but the only thing I am able to process is that he is alive and in pain. I turn back towards the driveway and shout the most severe condemnation I have ever spoken. The words flow like molten fury from my throat, an enraged attack meant to scorch the earth so severely that the invader will never dare to return.

            Whatever I said, it worked. Though he was almost too far away to see, as he was fleeing up the driveway, I could tell Jae was weeping.  

            I’m back in my room on that cold Sunday night, remembering I’m on the phone with my mother. I’m still trapped in the gloom of that day, the collapse of the most foundational friendships of my life still weighing on my head. My mother’s sudden reply well and truly returns me to the present. She asks me about Dan, my current best friend, and whether or not he’s going back to college in Florida. I let her know that he’s going to at least remain in town up through winter break, so we’ll have time to see each other in person again. After wishing my mother a good night, I decide to hit up Discord and blow off some steam with my friends there. I hit it off with them as naturally as I breathe. After I finish, I realize just how distant my memories with Jae and Victor really are. That moment felt like the end of the world, but the world didn’t end, and neither did I. Nor did Jae or Victor either, as LinkedIn clearly attests. No matter how much a person changes, the memories and bonds that form who they are will echo on across the seas of time.  

            I’m alone on an empty autumn sea. All the ships I once sailed with either abandoned me or were lost. I sail on, guided by the insight gained from all they taught me to remember them by. An experienced sailor, I take the helm, and let the winds blow me onward to my future.

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