Happy Shadows

I lost my best friend to a stroke of bad luck. Well, I didn’t exactly lose him. Florian and I are still in touch, I guess. Seven years after he left, we do still exchange emails every now and then. It just would be so much better if he were here. Now we’re both fourteen, have spent most of our lives apart—do we even have anything in common anymore? I sigh, and sink back into memory. Suddenly, I’m small; nothing’s lost yet—

It was a warm evening in October 2007. I was over at Florian’s. We were having a sleepover. Excited, we buzzed about the house, playing with his toys, having a great time like only kids can. The air licked us, bathing us in humid warmth. We decided it would be fun to go out. We grabbed a soccer and a tennis ball from his closet, and headed for the door. Chattering across the front yard, our shadows mingled with the evening environment, but although darkness was coming on, there was no fear here. Together, we were encapsulated in a bubble of friendship, young and safe from all troubles.

Florian lived in a quiet residential neighborhood of Oakland. Small cottages lined the thin gray of cracked pavement as far as the eye could see, and trees sprouted here and there, casting green shadows over the mute townscape. Across from his house there was a large school complex. At the center the buildings huddled together, like the bull’s-eye of a target, and around them was a big open-air playing area. There was a clumpy, browning field, and a chiseled basketball court, lined cement upholding netless hoops, a worthy landmark to this age-worn place.

We skipped eagerly toward the complex. The sky had lost its watercolor blue to something deeper, but near the horizon there remained a distinct lightness that enabled us to see; perhaps behind the distant skyscrapers of San Francisco, to the west, a sliver of fire still lived. An orange rectangle flicked on behind us as we approached the street.

“Florian, sweetie, remember to look both ways, and run across quickly!” His mother, Agna, chirped from the kitchen window.

Asserting our maturity, we shrugged, and peeking to the left and to the right, dashed across the quiet strip. She watched us, silhouetted in a rectangle of warmth and safety.

Safely on the other side, we eyed our next obstacle. The school’s perimeter was surrounded by a large chain-link fence.

“Lets climb it,” Florian said, as I hesitated. “Look, it’s easy, I do it all the time.”

He launched the balls over, and they bounced softly to a halt on the other side. Then he began to ascend, and it seemed easy enough, so I grabbed hold of the fence and began to drag myself up too. The cold steel bored painfully into my fingers, but I was determined to succeed. Finally, we reached the top.

“Now what?” I asked.

Florian motioned to watch him. He carefully maneuvered over the spiky links till he had both heels securely nestled into chinks on the other side. “Weeeeeeeee!” He screamed, and let go with a kick. He dropped five feet and crumbled laughing onto the grass.

“See Milton? It’s easy! Just go slowly, and then jump! It’s like flying.”

I was nervous, but I managed to work all ten toes over the top and into safe positions. “Just jump?” I stammered, nervous. It was high up there.

“Yeah. Trust me, you’ll be fine.” I looked at the sky for support.

I let go, spinning, and the deep blue was no more. I felt the swish of fast air around me and the cool sudden softness of fibrous grass. “Owwww,” I exhaled, giggling. I turned over, and was looking into Florian’s brown face. We smiled at each other. He stood up, brushing off dirt, so I did too.

“Come on, let’s go! What do you want to do first?”

“Let’s play soccer.”

In agreement, we crossed to opposite sides of the field. I used the evenly spaced fence posts as my goal, and we pooled our striped sweaters to create his. I punted the soccer ball into the air at random, to begin the game. Adrenaline filled me, and I was immediately streaking toward the spinning ball. We were two blurs in a desperate chase. I reached it first, and looked up with just enough time to see Florian sprinting at me, hands flat like slabs of pita to improve aerodynamics (this was a secret of ours, and we were both very fast. Coincidence? You tell me!) With the agility of an ice skater, I cut the ball to the side and dodged the wildly blowing hair of the human cannonball. My own hair, heavy, straight blond to his wild, curly black, flapped chaotically with a life of its own, and life became a race with the speeding ground.

He had doubled back, and gained on me as he had no ball to dribble. Neck and neck. Unconsciously, I turned my head to look as I ran, and my flushed face saw his. We shot forward together. The ball swerved between our feet, a colorless shape in the darkening surroundings. His goal was becoming nearer. He was ahead of me now, turning around. I slowed down. He came at me again, confident in his actions. I tried to turn, but felt the ball resist. I looked down—he had taken it away. He turned with the ball, and I was scared. I was tiring. Desperate, I reached as far as I could, and with the tip of my outstretched toe, managed to poke it away from him again. I was once again in possession of the ball, but he was coming at me. It was now or never. At the last second, I kicked it with all my might. We both squinted into the darkness. Behind Florian, a speeding shadow raced across the torn earth, and came to rest on the other side of his goal.

“Gooooooaal!” I shouted uncontrollably.

We paused a few seconds to regain our breath, then began again. Ten more minutes we played, then got bored. I had had a glorious victory of sixteen to nine. Then, with the sun’s last fingers creeping back from the horizon, we jogged over to the basketball courts and tossed the soccer ball at the frayed net, like a monster bug at a very worn spider web. It was still light enough to see, so we packed in the baskets, then got bored again and broke out the tennis ball, began throwing it to each other as far as we could. Sprint and catch the piece of fuzzy green at full throttle, feel the wind and the heavy air, the coolness of space and the night. Eventually, it became too dark even to toss or kick it to each other, so we abandoned it. But everything was so nice, we still had energy to use…

We had the idea at the same time.

“RACE YOU BACK!”

We were off like crazed atoms, running less for the pleasure of competition than for the wind, the smells of the night, the flying sensation of freedom. We swerved back and forth, criss-crossing each other, reaching the fence but unsatisfied, turning around again and shooting back into the dusk, around and around and around—heaving chests, we finally collapsed into breathless happiness, indefinable, yet so pure. Then we just lay there and laughed for a beautiful eternity. Finally, in near-absolute darkness, pierced only by the raw streetlamps, we rose shivering and weak.

“That was so fun! Ahhhhhh.” I heaved a sigh
of satisfaction.

“It must be getting late. Let’s go back home.”

Side by side, we stumbled back through the night to the fence that barred our exit, a monstrous knight in chain link. But we knew it wouldn’t hurt us. We clambered over it together, two seasoned climbers, and carefully looked in both directions before fording the street. The orange rectangle remained lit. There was no face in it now watching us. We toiled up the garden path to the door, which was unlocked.

“There you are! You were out there for ages! Come in quickly and eat something! It’s 7:30, almost your bedtime!”

We were assaulted by the pungent smells of home cooking. Agna guided us into the small kitchen dining area, where Florian’s dad, Julian, was sitting and reading a thick book. He glanced up momentarily, and then went back to his read. We seated ourselves on rickety chairs in the warm orange light, sharply contrasting to the darkness outside. The light made me feel safe, but outside in the dark with my friend, I knew we had felt safe anyway. The cool, crusty macaroni slipped down my hungry throat, although I didn’t like it, and my full belly began to make me sleepy. Agna gave us a soy vanilla ice cream sandwich, a chez-Florian special which I loved, and two gummy vitamins apiece to help it down. After we’d finished, she herded us into the bathroom. She yelled at Florian to brush his teeth, hunted around for a toothbrush for me, watched as I spread it with Monster’s Inc. flavored toothpaste and slipped it into my mouth, pretending to like the flavor. I’ve always preferred mint.

Finally, our evening drawing to a close. We crawled, beaten, into Florian’s small, closet-sized room. The dark space was littered with Pokémon cards and toys, and a cramped loft bed took up the right wall. We both clambered up into it, lying down with our feet facing each other. Agna and Julian came in turn, kissed Florian, said goodnight to me; then, as Julian left, he flicked the switch beside Florian’s door. The orange abruptly disappeared, the door closed, and I found myself in complete darkness. Even breathing filled the room, and despite the darkness, which alone would have been menacing, I felt safe.

Six months later, Florian moved away to China. His mom, who worked for Leapfrog, had been transferred. I couldn’t understand why he had to go. I wanted him to stay here. She could move to China if she wanted. It never really occurred to me that he was leaving until he was gone. The last time I saw him, at the end-of-year school celebration, he seemed fine, normal. We ran about as usual, and although I felt an undercurrent of urgency, I didn’t show it and neither did he. I only partially realized that I wouldn’t see him again in years. When it finally came time to say goodbye, we hugged and clung to each other like magnets. Come on, Milton, I thought. You have it easy. He’s moving to China. But it was still too much. That last hug, and brave teary smile, then his striped sweater being jerked away through the crowd—only then I understood I had lost who I most cared about.

I searched the schoolyard frantically with my eyes, found nothing, and suddenly, sprinted toward the exit. I had to find him! I had to! But I couldn’t. A knight in chain-link, who suddenly seemed very tall, barred my exit. And without Florian, I couldn’t climb. I was trapped. Suddenly, from around the block a flash caught my eye. He was running back. I was delirious. An adult opened the gate for us and we hugged one last, beautiful time. Then his parents pulled up beside the curb, motioned him in. In my arms, he looked up at me and tried to convey that we would always remain friends. But his eyes were tearing up now. He was embarrassed, and looked away. Finally, we broke apart; he turned and sprinted into the vehicle. The doors closed, Julian and Agna waved, and the car turned the corner and was gone. He was gone. A long moment passed in silence. Suddenly, I was running again. Running fast, back through the crowd, to a corner under the play structure that seemed secret. There my tears sprang from my eyes, and grew exponentially from droplets to a stream to buckets and buckets of warm, salty sadness. The grief pounded on my mind like a hammer, a physical pain, and I cradled myself—waiting, powerless, as an ocean poured out of me I didn’t know existed. All thoughts were wiped away, until finally, nothing remained of me but a shivering husk. The celebration was over. I sat in a puddle of my own tears. My parents came and I hardened my shell, bracing myself. We drove home. In another car, fifteen miles away and reaching the airport, he was crying too. But I knew nothing of that.

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