All past and future is created and issues out of that which is forever present.–St. Augustine
I am at David Weber’s birthday party, and everyone from Mrs. Stone’s class is there. David’s parents rented out the school gym and there are colored streamers and balloons everywhere and plastic pots full of candy. One of the teenagers that David’s mom hired to help her is trying to start a sack race in the middle of the gym, but the kids are putting the sacks over each other’s heads instead. Eddie Lawrence gets a sack over Glenn Fischbach’s head and he and Billy Johnson are hitting him with the stick that’s supposed to be for the piñata. Everyone has a piñata at birthday parties. I think Glenn’s crying, but I’m not sure, because all the kids are yelling and it is very loud in the gym. No one likes Glenn anyway.
There are no girls, because boys never invite girls to their parties. It isn’t because boys don’t like girls—I used to like Robin Krieger and even kissed her under a table in Mrs. Wolf’s class, when I was in second grade—but boys and girls still don’t go to each other’s parties. It’s time for food, and all the kids run to the middle of the gym, where there are paper plates and cups and stuff. Mrs. Weber got everyone Wetson’s. Evan Lewis, who’s really fat, takes three hamburgers, even though you’re only supposed to have one. Gregg Cohen makes fun of him, but Mrs. Weber tells him to stop. David doesn’t like the little pieces of onion that are on the hamburgers and tries to pick them off, and gets ketchup all over his fingers. He wipes them on Evan, who yells “Mrs. Weber, David wiped his ketchupy fingers on me!” and Mrs. Weber tells David to stop or he won’t have a party next year.
Everyone finishes eating and starts chasing each other around the gym. Pretty soon, we’re playing Ringolevio, and I’m grabbing David. Ringolevio 1-2-3! Ringolevio 1-2-3! Ringolevio 1-2-3! I’m too strong for him and he can’t break free, so he goes to jail. Evan’s there too, because he’s not fast enough to get away from anyone. Glenn is always in jail, because the kids who no one likes are always in jail. Maybe if he got free sometimes or got someone else in jail, more people would like him. Billy gets a bloody lip, because when he tries to grab Benji Connor, Benji hits him in the mouth with his elbow. Billy is one of the tough kids and never cries, even when he’s bleeding. He wipes the blood on Evan, who yells to Mrs. Weber again, but she can’t hear him, because she’s getting out the birthday cake. Then we’re all standing around the cake, and David’s blowing out the candles. Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday, dear David, Happy Birthday to you!
I want to go outside, so I push the gym doors open and walk out into the open square that’s in the middle of my school. It’s warm—it’s always warm in the summer, which is when David’s birthday is—and there’s a little wind, which feels good on my face. I’m standing at the edge of a big, open field, with tall grass, and the wind is blowing around little pieces of dandelion fluff. The sun is bright, so I have to squint my eyes and hold my hand up over my face, and it makes everything look gold. It’s quiet, except for a soft whooshing sound that comes from the grass waving in the wind. I don’t remember there being a field like this in my school square, and it must be really big, because I can’t see the other side, but I don’t care, because the warm sun and air feel so good.
After a few minutes, I see another kid coming towards me. It’s hard to see who it is, because of how bright it is out—Is it getting brighter?—and it’s only when he’s right in front of me that I can see his face.
I can’t believe it. It’s Fish.
I don’t meet him until college, I think. I look at him again. It’s definitely him. He’s eight, instead of twenty, but it’s the same grinning, freckly face. A little bit like a monkey’s.
“Hi Dan,” he says.
“Dan?” I ask, confused. “I’m Danny. No one calls me ‘Dan’…at least, not yet.”
Why did I say that?
It’s hard to concentrate; to keep my mind on what’s happening. The words come, but it’s almost like they’re slippery; like they’re words I don’t know yet. The whooshing has grown louder, it’s almost a roar, now, and the sun is so bright that the entire world around us has become nothing but white light.
Fish frowns. “Whatsa’ matter? Aren’t you having fun at David’s party?”
“But you don’t know David!” I’m trying really hard, now. Things keep going in and out of focus.
Fish stares at me. “What? Yes, I do. We go to school together.”
“No we don’t Fish, not yet!” I grab him by both arms and shake him. “Fish, listen to me. This is really important. We’re going to meet one day. Later, not today. And not here. Somewhere else. And we’re going to be friends. Do you understand? Friends.” I’m squeezing his arms now, as if my life depends on his understanding me.
Something eight passes across his face, and I can feel him trembling. He gives one of those half-laughs, but it’s a grown-up laugh, and he shakes his head. There are tears rolling down his face. He pulls away from me.
“Yeah, I understand. You’re right, it is important.” And he walks away, until I can no longer see him, and I’m standing alone, in the white light.
The party is over, and David and his parents have left in their car. We figure that the other kids must have gone home too, because only Benji, Eddie, and me are left, and it’s getting late. We don’t know where our parents are. Maybe they forgot us.
We start to walk home together. Benji and I both live in River Estates—his house is right behind mine—and Eddie lives on the way, in the apartments, down by the train station. Something is wrong, though, because once we get out of the school parking lot, everything looks different. We’re standing in on top of a small hill, and there are hills and trees going on forever. There’s no street. No train-station. No houses. My first- and second-grade school is gone. My nursery-school is gone. River Estates is gone.
I start to cry. Eddie isn’t crying, but he’s holding onto my arm. Only Benji doesn’t look scared, but that’s because he’s even tougher than Billy, who I saw him beat up once. He presses his lips together and pats me and Eddie on the back. Even though he’s only eight, a lot of the time he seems like a grown-up. “Let’s try over that way,” he says, pointing.
We’re on a dirt road, now, and it’s hard to walk, because there are rocks and pebbles all over it. Looking at Benji walking in front of me, he suddenly seems a lot bigger—taller, actually, because he’s still skinny and always will be—and I know that he’ll be in the army or something like that. Eddie has stopped crying and is talking fast like he always does. He’s asking me if I remember how great it was living together those few years downtown, and even though it’s a weird thing to say—it will be years and years before that happens, and I know it won’t be as good as he says it will be or as we will remember it—I smile at the thought of it. Benji is calling back over his shoulder to me, asking if I remember the Adam and the Ants concert that we’ll never go to but will talk about as if we did. David and I have been telling each other for years that we first met at Wetson’s, when we were just three years old, even though we didn’t, and the truth is, neither of us know when or where we did. It’s been decades since I’ve been with any of them and there have been so many more since; so many people and places, and so many things that have happened up until now. The funny thing, though, is that I don’t remember any of it, not really. Sometimes there’s a flash, like Fish’s monkey-face, or that drive with Halbie down to Miami, or living in Queens with Joe, or Bret, who I think I was in love with. But, I always come back to David, and Eddie, and Benji, and all the rest, who were there at the beginning. To River Estates. To eight. I remember them. And I wish they were with me. Somewhere other than here, I mean. I don’t know why I wish this, since there isn’t anywhere else but here. But I do wish it…so badly that it hurts.
We come around a turn in the road and stop short. Everyone is there: Glenn, Gregg, Billy, Evan…all of them. The girls too. I look at them, but I can’t tell how old anyone is anymore. Their faces are the same, but their hair is grey. Their hair and bodies are the same, but their faces are wrinkled. They’re eight, but as tall as grownups. They’re hunched over. They’re still in nursery school. Some have faded and are so faint that I can see through them. All I know is that we’re kids. Just kids. Standing there, looking ahead. Quiet. Waiting. It’s like the whole world is holding its breath.
Suddenly, there’s an explosion, and a great ball of fire. A silver rocket shoots up, into the sky, and we watch it, until it disappears and there’s nothing but a white trail left. It can’t be the Apollo mission, though, because I was only a year old when that happened, and you don’t remember things from when you’re that young.