Michael was one of those people I just knew. My mother says we didn't meet until our second or third week of nursery school, but the way I remember it he was with me all along. We entered that narrow church basement together on the first day, holding hands. He lost his balance a bit by the jungle gym and bumped his head into mine. Back then we were always bumping heads. It didn't hurt.
He would grow up to be gawkier, but then he was just long-limbed. Everything about him was longer than me: his arms, his legs, his torso. When we stood against the door frame and his mother drew each of our heights with pencil, his line was higher than mine by the width of three fingers. He had dark hair, the same brown as mine, and sometimes—especially Halloween, when my father took us trick-or-treating—we were mistaken for brother and sister. He wore a lot of red and blue, dark colors that hid stains. I never noticed that his ears stuck out until he tried sticking them to his head with tape.
We built castles out of wooden blocks in his living room. He could reach higher; I had the steadier hand. His mother took a picture of us posing by one of our castles, the biggest one. It took all afternoon to build. In the snapshot, I'm wearing denim overalls and am biting my lip with pride. He's in a tee shirt and soccer shorts, with sweatbands on his wrists. He stands just behind me, a little crooked, as if he's about to lose his balance.
On Halloween, our nursery school had a parade to show off our costumes. Michael and I headed up the line. I was dressed as an angel in a long white nightgown, scuffing in ballet slippers through the fallen leaves. He was dressed as the Wizard of Oz: a black top-hat perched on his ears and forehead, a black cape over his white pants and shirt, a striped clip-on tie. As we walked, other children in costume caught up to us in the back, then started to pass. By the time the parade had circled the playground and started back up Eliot Street we were at the very end, our mothers urging us forward. This was a family joke for years. We were the kids who started half a block ahead, and walked so slowly we held up the snack-time juice and saltines.
It's Christmas, and we're comparing loot. He got four Transformers, a magic set, the He-Man doll with the rotating chest plate. I got a Pound Puppy, Little House in the Big Woods, a Cabbage Patch Kid.
We've decided to believe in Santa at least one more year. Even though some of the gifts from Santa were wrapped in the same paper as the gift my mother hands to Michael's mother in the hall. Even though the sleeper pajamas Santa gave me for my Cabbage Patch Kid have Michael's baby sister's name written on the tag in ink.
"What do you think?" I ask. "Is he real or just our parents?" We're in the living room, turning my father's train on and off so it jolts around the track. One car has missiles that we like to shoot into the bowl of water feeding the Christmas tree.
Michael chews on his lip as he thinks. "I still believe in Santa," he says at last. "I'd hate to be wrong about a thing like that."
There's potato leek soup for dinner, served cold like my mother's parents served it when she was growing up, then we scramble for our parkas. Tonight is the Children's Mass, where the CCD students will parade down the aisle with candles while the guitarists pick out "Silent Night." Michael can't join me in the procession—his family's not Catholic—but he's promised to save me a seat beside him in the pew.
At church there are lights, candles, wreaths, crying babies, people singing, party dresses in reds and greens and golds, patent-leather shoes. Even the priest is excited. He calls the children to sit on the altar steps during the story of Joseph and Mary and the inn. Michael joins me for this, watching with me as the older children put on the show. We both laugh when the golden Star of Bethlehem falls off its post to the floor, one prong bent on impact. "It's just cardboard," he whispers later, as we walk past the fallen star to our seats. He touches it and his fingers come away specked with glitter.
We've just squeezed into the pew when the priest says, "Thank you, my brothers and sisters." In church we are all brothers and sisters, even if we're not in the same family. This must mean Michael is my brother, too. I try to ask my mother if this is true, but she's kneeling with her head bowed. She whispers, "We'll talk about it at home." Michael's parents are sitting together at the end of the pew, his baby sister between them. But Michael, my brother, sits with me.
Back at home, our ears still swelling with Joy to the World, Michael gives me a gift. He's said before that I need boy dolls for my dollhouse so this is what I'm expecting, but instead he gives me a small hinged box, the kind rings come in. Inside is a white shell on a string. "From our trip to Martha's Vineyard," he says. "My dad helped me drill the hole." I pull it over my neck—it just fits—and my father takes our picture. We pose under the mistletoe. Then, in the moment after the flash, Michael steps right up and kisses me on the lips. His mother says, "Look, get the camera," but we're too quick for them. He steps back, stumbling over his own feet, barely catching his balance so as not to trip.
One day we're in the backseat of my mother's new used Toyota after school. He ducks as we pass the playground so none of the kids on the field will see him going home with a girl. This never mattered when we were in Kindergarten or first grade, but in second grade it does.
His mother signs us up for ice skating at the local rink. The classes last eight weeks, Mondays after school, and after walking to his house we have enough time for a snack before his mother drives us to the rink. We're in different classes this year. When school lets out there are so many kids it can be hard to find each other, so we agree to meet on the blacktop in front of the school, by the flagpole. I like carrying my ice skates over one shoulder, tied together by the strings. My skates are white; his are black.
One of these afternoons I linger by the lockers with a blonde girl I've just become friends with. We had been sitting next to each other in class and we talked so much the teacher had to separate us. She's going to ask her father if I can come over so we can walk her dog together. I'm not supposed to go home with anyone unless our parents have already planned it. She says not to worry. Her father can call my mother from the principal's office.
We're almost down the side staircase when I remember Michael. I say, "I forgot I have ice skating," but I don't say who with. By the time I get to the blacktop some of the buses are pulling away from the sidewalk. The swarm of kids in front of the school has thinned out now and he's standing by himself at the flagpole, looking for me.
"Where were you?" he asks. All I say is, "I forgot my skates." When we get to his house, his mother packs us into the car right away. We don't have time for a snack.
That night, guilt keeps me awake. I try counting the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. Then I turn on the flashlight and look at the different My Little Ponies on the bedspread. Michael wouldn't talk to me that afternoon. During our lesson I slipped on the ice, and he laughed along with some of the other boys.
Finally I climb out of the bunk bed and go downstairs, where my mother is using her sewing machine at the kitchen table. I tell her what happened after school. I thought my mother would be angry, but she isn't. She tells me to go back to bed. A few minutes later she comes into my bedroom. "I called Michael's mother," she says. "I asked if he was upset. She said he didn't say a thing." My mother can't reach into the bunk bed to tuck me in, but she blows a kiss before closing my bedroom door.
I can't put my finger down on the calendar and point to the day it ended. Michael and I continued to share classes in school, to carpool, to have dinner at each other's houses. For awhile. I don't remember when it stopped. But at some point, it did stop.
There were almost two thousand kids in our high school. Sometimes I saw Michael in the halls. I don't know when he started wearing all black, even his socks and shoes, and that big overcoat, even indoors. His hair was shaggy and long around his neck. A friend of mine who was in his physics class had a crush on him. "I can't believe you knew each other when you were little," she kept saying. She wanted me to tell her about him. "I don't know him anymore," I said. My mother had been telling me stories. How he was doing poorly in school and might not get into college. How he took his mom's car without telling her, clipped a corner on Eliot Street and drove into a tree. One of his passengers was in the hospital for two days.
The last time I remember, we were sitting together in an empty classroom during a free period. My friend who had the crush on him had invited him there. He smelled like cigarettes and had a pair of headphones hanging around his neck. The cord led down to a walkman in his coat pocket. I sat across the room and read Jane Eyre while they talked. When the bell rang he and my friend didn't get up to go to class. They were still talking to each other as I put away the book and slung my backpack over my shoulder.
Right before I left the room he glanced up and called out to me: "Emily, see you later." I was almost surprised he still knew my name.
I moved to California after college to work at a software company. This is where I was when my father called. He never calls unless there's something to say. "We got some bad news about Michael," my dad said, and even before the next sentence I knew what it would be. "Michael killed himself."
How could someone so small do something so big?
I went online and plugged his first and last name into search engines. One of the web pages that came up showed pictures of students who'd been in an exchange program the year before. Michael looked even more like his father than I remembered, with his hair cut short again and starting to pull back on his scalp. I also found his name listed as a TA at the top of a geology syllabus. So he had gone to college after all.
When I got home that night I didn't even take off my coat. I dumped my jewelry box out on the floor and sifted through the contents—beaded bracelets I'd worn in high school, choker necklaces I bought in college. Michael's shell necklace wasn't there. I had kept it for so many years, long after it would fit over my head, but it was gone now. Maybe it got lost in one of my college moves. Maybe I threw it away.
My parents mailed me a copy of the program from Michael's memorial. His picture was on the cover, as a little boy. This was how I had known him, eyes big and grin big and front tooth missing. Inside was a poem he wrote in the third grade about building a snow fort in the backyard. This program taught me nothing I didn't already know.
I wish I'd sent his parents a card.
When my older sister got married, my mother threw a party and invited all the family friends. I saw Michael's mother for the first time in seven years. More than a year had passed since he died.
The first time Michael's mother and I spotted each other, right before the champagne toast, she ran over and admired the tattoo on my shoulder. "Got any metal in your mouth?" She stuck out her tongue and wiggled it. "My daughter just got one of those tongue rings." My mother had mentioned to me that Michael's mother now spoke as if she only had one child.
She came over again during the meal, sat down and asked questions about my boyfriend, whether he was teaching me to fly his airplane, how I liked California. She said, "My daughter loves it there. She's looking for an apartment right now."
"That's right," I said, trying to remember. "Didn't my mom say she's moving to the Bay Area?"
Michael's mother said, "Santa Barbara."
I asked a few more questions and Michael's mother answered. After studying political science in college, Michael's sister had decided to teach high school. She was living with her boyfriend now but only until she found a place. She planned to live apart from him for a year, then with him for a year, then they'd get married and at twenty-six she'd have a baby. "That's my daughter," Michael's mother said. "I try to tell her, just roll with the punches. Not her. She has it all planned out." She sounded grateful.
I said, "That's really good."
"It is," Michael's mother said. Then before she even exhaled she said quickly, "Nice talking to you," and pushed away from the table and was gone. She must have sensed I was about to start asking questions about the other one. The one I cared about. Her son.
I don't know how he died. It's just as well; the knowledge would just keep banging around in my head. How could I have stopped him—if not at that moment, then years before? What could I have said in that empty high school classroom instead of acting like we shared no history? Why had we never sealed a pact in blood or ketchup, promising that nothing would change over ten, twenty years? If only I could have kept him under my parents' mistletoe a second longer. Long enough to say Don't. So we'd stall a moment, we'd have another picture taken. His life wouldn't have unspun if I'd only said that one word. That little boy I knew so well would not be dead.
The closest I come to seeing it is this: he's sitting in a dark room, in profile, his knees to his chest. His head is resting on his arms. He looks as I saw him last in high school, with long legs and dark shaggy hair. He's already decided how to do it. He hasn't put the plan in motion yet, but very soon he will. He won't let me see what he's about to do. This is the same Michael who took a bite to the hand protecting me from a German bully in nursery school. Michael who postponed his birthday party because I had to visit my grandmother. Michael who took my hand then kissed me, lightly on the lips, under the mistletoe swinging in my parents' living room doorway.
He's sitting in the same bedroom we played in as children. I can only see a small part of it, behind the open door, against the wall. Beyond this there was once a bunk bed. A toy box. A boy Cabbage Patch Kid he made me promise to keep secret.
Just outside that door and down the hall is his parents' living room with the black-and-white television. There's a tan sectional couch bending around the corner, with board games and puzzle boxes peeping out from behind, and a glass coffee table centered on the rug. On that table stands a castle of blocks, the largest castle you've ever seen. Turrets and towers are stacked so high they totter in the air like the John Hancock building, too tall to keep still. It's just like the one in the picture his mother took. The castle is still there, after so many years, right down the hall from where he sits. He just has to get up and go to it. Get up, go. But he doesn't.
Michael, sitting in his bedroom, won't let me see what's about to happen. No matter how long I watch he just waits—waits, until I look away.
Finding a Way to Say Goodbye to the First Boy I Ever Kissed © Emily Morganti. Do not reproduce without permission.