Love Thy Neighbor

Jon Lin · Sunday, 11 December 2011

Tom went for runs around Sycamore Drive at nine. Starting from his house, he’d try to do a few laps around the neighborhood, go through the turns and cul-​​de-​​sacs, pass over Keller Bridge, sprint the last stretch back to his house. His feet would slam into the sidewalk, flurry past driveways and mailboxes. He’d grunt. His chest would heave. When he finished, he’d breathlessly stop the timer on his digital watch and swear aloud. It was never good enough.

Tom always took a breather on the bridge. He’d look down at the dark water a hundred feet below, glistening with stars and lined with clouds. Breathing hard, stray cars passing by, he’d ask himself and God and the water why everyone hated him. He’d ask, brows furrowed, hair matted, why even Charlie didn’t like him. This went on for a while, thirty or forty times, until the Friday night he jumped and hit the water and broke his neck and everyone realized that that was the real reason he ran, that he’d been thinking about it every time on the bridge in the black, black night when he could only hear the sound of his own breath, the sound of his existence. All those nights before the final leap, perched over the edge, body and mind trembling, Tom marveled at how he could be so dead and alive at the same time.

–––

Charlie closed his eyes and listened to his own slow exhale. He stood shivering at the bus stop he and Tom had waited together at for the past three years. The news about the suicide had circulated around town over the weekend. Anger flared up in him. People thought they understood. People thought they were entitled to an opinion.

Oh yeah, he had a hard time in middle school and just couldn’t adjust to the high school environment. A shame, really.”

The bullying, the ‘fatty’ teasing that started who knows when. It drove the poor kid over the edge.”

The guy was emo all the time for no reason. Not surprised.”

Sad, yeah. Unfortunate, yeah. But not uncommon. A not-​​so-​​bright kid with not a lot of friends and not a lot of self-​​esteem.”

And so on and so on. Why wouldn’t they shut up? Why didn’t they just admit they had no fucking clue who Tom was? Charlie’s parents looked so serious when they told him the news. He’d been sitting at his desk in his room when they trudged in, limbs languid, faces glum. And then the actual shock of hearing what had happened. There had been a kind of graying-​​out of his mind when the words registered, a seizing sensation.

Charlie kicked the crumbs of asphalt on the ground. His anger turned toward Tom. What did he want? Sympathy? Attention? There was something petty about this last gesture that made him squirm on the inside, made him want to scream. The word “coward” came to mind, and he murmured it under his breath. Did Tom know how it’d look to others? Fatty ends himself because fat. Fatty sinks in the water. It was so silly from some strange, removed angle, this cartoon of a fat boy falling awkwardly off a bridge. Charlie laughed, then shook his head, horrified, confused, ashamed. What’s wrong with me? He looked around restlessly at the bus stop, at his neighbor’s crumbling driveway. He first met Tom in the same place.

It had been the beginning of sixth grade. Charlie had gotten to the bus stop fifteen minutes early, even though he knew the bus would probably be late. He was eating a bagel when a red Corolla pulled up and dropped Tom off before speeding away. Tom looked just as weird back then: enormous, wearing a gray woolen sweater with a blue zigzag pattern and wrinkled khaki pants. His greasy hair was pushed to one side, like he had just rolled out of bed, and there was something distinctively shark-​​like about him, with the blocky head, the wide-​​spaced eyes, the sharp nose. His forehead and cheeks were sprinkled with pus-​​bulging acne. Charlie stared. He was secretly glad he didn’t look like him. He coughed, then waved with bagel in hand.

I thought I was the only one at this stop.”

The stranger stared back at him blankly. Charlie cleared his throat.

What’s your name?”

Tom.”

His voice was surprisingly high-​​pitched and nasally—jarringly so, when it emerged from his shark-​​head. Charlie was also secretly glad he didn’t sound like him.

I’m Charlie. Do you live far away or something? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

It was a strange response, and Charlie laughed. Tom laughed with him. Before they knew it, they were talking about trading card games and the new holographic ultra-​​rares that you could only get in special booster packs. Charlie later found out that Tom and his parents would soon be moving into the house down the street, around the bend—until they finally settled, Tom’s mom was going to drop him off at the bus stop he was supposed to wait at—he should “get the middle school experience from the very start,” she said. Charlie was ecstatic. His classmate, his new friend, was going to be his neighbor. From that point on, they started doing everything together: lunch, sleepovers, homework, video games, cartoons. It was Charlie and Tom, Tom and Charlie.

When eighth grade rolled around, Charlie decided he wanted to do track. He’d always done well in the physical fitness tests in gym and occasionally ran with his dad, but he didn’t play any sports in school. Tom had acted cold and jealous about it at first but eventually conceded. Charlie told him he just wanted to try something new. They’d still hang out, of course. Track practice only went from three to five every day; there was plenty of time afterward to go over each other’s houses like usual.

As time passed, though, Charlie found himself becoming popular on the track team. As it turned out, he was one of the fastest sprinters in the school. He was making new friends, Brian and Richard and Gary and Steve. They started making a lot of inside jokes that Tom didn’t—couldn’t—understand. And there was this pervasive attitude of vulgarity and curtness with his new friends. It changed everything—the way he talked, the way he walked—he didn’t know how to explain or reverse it.

He started to notice annoying things about Tom that he didn’t care about before: Tom’s hyena laugh at his own jokes that weren’t funny to anyone else, his high-​​pitched, nasally voice, his disgusting acne that never went away, his weird, off-​​color remarks and non sequiturs, and finally, his weight. At some point, Charlie found himself resenting Tom for simply being fat. What he hated even more was how Tom didn’t do anything about it, kept sitting around after school watching the same TV shows and eating popcorn. His friends took care of themselves—why couldn’t Tom? And why wasn’t Tom funny and confident? Why wasn’t he interested in anything besides trading cards and cartoons?

The roar of the bus coming around the turn snapped Charlie back into the present. He checked his watch. 7:18 AM. Three minutes late. He once played this game with Tom while they waited for the bus: they’d both guess what time it would come around the turn and whoever had the closer guess would board first. But Tom was dead. When the bus pulled up, Charlie boarded alone.

–––

Some people in Charlie’s homeroom didn’t know yet. Charlie sat stoically at his desk. One of his track friends tried talking to him, but he had trouble focusing on what was being said. For a moment, he regretted not staying home. But another part of him told him that that was stupid, that he would be just as much of a coward as Tom was if he did that. Charlie wanted to live. He wanted to face the world. Other students were chatting, hanging around their friends’ desks, filling each other in on the weekend. After a few minutes, Mr. Williams quieted everyone down for the pledge of allegiance and the daily announcements.

The usual things were droned over the PR by some senior: a sports practice had been rescheduled, a play was happening on Friday, an environmental club meeting was taking place after school. But then, at the end of the announcements, there was a long pause. A serious pause. The PR system was still on—everyone could hear the muted static, everyone knew something important was about to be said. Charlie felt the tension in the room build up, and by the time the principal’s voice came on, the entire building was listening with rapt attention.

As some of you may already know, last Friday, one of our freshmen students, Tom Jennings—the principal paused, as if he wished he could avoid the words that came next—took his own life. I know this comes as a shock to many of you. We sympathize with the Jennings family. No words can express the pain that the community feels for their loss. If any student needs someone to talk to, our counselors are making themselves available all day and in the upcoming weeks. Tom was a loved and cherished member of the student body at Ridgeview High School, and he will be dearly missed.

The PR clicked off, leaving the room utterly silent. Charlie gritted his teeth. Loved and cherished member? No one liked Tom. The teachers didn’t even like him. Whenever they asked him questions in class, he just stared blankly back at them. Tom’s parents had forced the school administration to keep him in the honors classes, even though he wasn’t smart enough, getting Cs and Ds across the board. They’d threatened to sue the district if he wasn’t given the “best educational opportunities available.”

A girl sitting to his right in the front row had burst into tears and was sobbing helplessly. Poorly applied mascara ran down her cheeks. Charlie couldn’t believe it. She was the same girl who had helped spread false rumors that Tom masturbated in the school bathrooms. She was also the same girl who laughed at Tom with her friends when he couldn’t do a single curl-​​up in gym. What a fucking bitch. Mr. Williams sent her to the guidance office and carried on with the class. Charlie wondered what she’d talk about with one of the counselors. Probably how sad it all was, how she never thought this could happen. The counselor would hand her pink Kleenexes until she cried the pain away. Something fake about it made Charlie want to vomit.

His classmates eyed him warily as class went on. Wasn’t Charlie friends with Tom? They were neighbors, weren’t they? Was he okay?

Charlie remembered the first signs that things between him and Tom were falling apart. It was something stupid and petty, like Charlie asking him what the math homework was when he missed class for a track meet. Tom told him he didn’t know even though he clearly did. Another time, Tom asked Charlie if he wanted to see a movie that had just come out. Charlie said he couldn’t go when really, he could and both of them knew it. Things finally reached a boiling point when close to the end of eighth grade, Charlie decided to go to a special track training camp in the summer. Tom got angry and confronted him in the main lobby after school.

Heard you’re abandoning your only real friend like usual.”

What’re you talking about?”

The track camp. Don’t be stupid.”

How’d you find out?”

Doesn’t matter. Why didn’t you tell me?”

What do you mean? Was I supposed to?”

Yeah, real friends tell each other things.”

Charlie was annoyed. Tom could never just be chill like his other friends—he made a big deal out of every little thing. And it was true that he purposely didn’t tell Tom, but that was only because he knew Tom would freak out like he was doing now. What really ticked him off was the term “real friend.” Tom wasn’t his only “real friend”—his other friends were real too, and it was Tom’s fault, not his, that he didn’t get along with them. A fresh wave of hatred passed over Charlie.

Well, I guess we’re not real friends then.”

Tom stared hard at him with his shark-​​head eyes.

When’d you become such a douchebag?”

Look, why can’t you just be okay with me going to this camp? I’m good at track, and I want to get better at it.”

We were supposed to hang out this summer.”

We can still do that! After the camp. Why’re you being such a pussy?”

You’re completely different from before. You changed, you know that?”

Charlie hated Tom’s stupid analysis of his personality. He was constantly talking about how things were different before, how things used to be.

People change, Tom. Grow up.”

Oh yeah, like you’re so mature now. You know you make me feel worthless, right?”

Well, do something about it then! Make yourself valuable! Stop sitting around on your fat ass and change yourself!”

Charlie had crossed a line, and he knew it when he saw Tom’s jaw go slack, his face redden. Up to that point, Charlie had never insulted him about his weight; he had always listened to Tom complain about it. But even after the words left his mouth, Charlie didn’t feel sorry. Tom’s face tightened all of a sudden.

Okay, I will.”

He stormed away like a little kid. Whatever. Charlie didn’t want to listen to the whining anymore. He was tired of hearing the no-​​one-​​understands-​​me-​​you-​​betrayed-​​me routine. Tom was just going through a phase. Seriously, what was wrong with him? Did he just feel bad for himself all day, every day? Why didn’t he ever stand up for himself?

The bell rang, forcing Charlie back into the present. Mr. Williams was blabbing about the homework assignment due on Wednesday, but Charlie shuffled out the door without really listening. He passed the day amid the whispers of all the dumb fucks who didn’t know anything about Tom, all the I-can’t-believe-it’s and the speculations about how, where, when exactly did he die. His track friends said they were sorry, it was too bad, they knew it used to be Charlie and Tom, Tom and Charlie. But the words meant nothing. To Charlie, no one understood. No one knew Tom like he did.

–––

Charlie sat despondently in the backseat of his parents’ car. They were going to be late to Tom’s wake. As they passed over Keller Bridge, Charlie couldn’t help but wonder where he jumped from, which railing he had climbed over. When did he first consider killing himself? Charlie thought about how he ignored Tom in the summer. During track camp, he hadn’t gone online on purpose. He didn’t want to see the little green available icon next to Tom’s name in his messenger window. But “real friends” talk to each other all the time, Tom had said. The one time Charlie did sign on, Tom led him into yet another annoying conversation.

cooljennings: hey ur actually online
charlie303: yeah what’s up
cooljennings: nothing much started running
charlie303: rly? that’s great
cooljennings: i usually just do the neighborhood
charlie303: yeah when I run at home that’s what I do too, it’s like 0.8 miles or something
cooljennings: i can’t do the whole thing in one go too hard
charlie303: no worries you’ll get better
cooljennings: why is everything so easy for u?
charlie303: well im the slowest guy at this camp and it sucks
cooljennings: yeah well at least ur not fat like me lol
charlie303: yo sry i gotta go
cooljennings: …
charlie303: what?
cooljennings: u can just say it
charlie303: say what?
cooljennings: that ur tired of talking to me…
charlie303: no i actually have to go dude. i’ll be on later alright?

Charlie signed off in a bad mood. Tom was right. Charlie didn’t want to talk to him. But how could anyone blame him? He didn’t want to listen to Tom go on and on, complaining about himself and their friendship. Tom’s insecurities were overwhelming. Charlie uninstalled the chat program on his computer. He didn’t sign on for the rest of the summer. When high school started, he apologized to Tom for not staying in touch, but things between them just weren’t the same anymore. And then Tom stopped going to the bus stop in the morning. He slept in and made his mom drive him to school. They were no longer friends, real or not.

–––

The wake had started on time, and Charlie and his parents shuffled quietly into the solemn room. Charlie found himself sitting in the back of the funeral home with his parents. He wondered if there had ever been an honest commemoration of a dead person. “Tom Jennings was fat, dumb, and immature. He talked to few people and few people talked to him. No one liked him. He was a fucking coward, and he died like one.” Charlie looked around the room at all of Tom’s relatives, these people who weren’t being honest with themselves. A few of them were crying, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. Most of them were stone-​​faced. He was the only Ridgeview High School student there. Tom’s parents hadn’t invited anyone else because there was no one else.

Toward the end, everyone lined up to see Tom for the last time. A mahogany coffin with flower arrangements on either side rested at the front of the room. Charlie was the last person in line and it slowly inched forward, people weeping, hugging Tom’s parents, Tom’s parents thanking them for coming, then some more hugging, more tears.

When Charlie finally stood in front of the open casket, he looked down on Tom. He looked down at death. For an infinitesimal moment, he was Tom on Keller Bridge, peering down into the water, peering down into the blackness. But then it was just Tom’s shark face, eyes closed, scarred with acne yet somehow more beautiful than ever before. And as Charlie looked down on him, he realized that from the very beginning, from the very first encounter, he had looked down on him. It hit him like the water must have hit Tom, and then he couldn’t stop the tears, the flood of guilt. His neck was horribly wrenched in place, and he just stared and stared, the tears unending, blurring his vision.

He managed to stumble away from the casket but Tom’s parents were thanking him now, telling him he was Tom’s closest friend, telling him he had known Tom the best, telling him Tom had talked about him all the time. Thank you so much for coming, they said. This means so much to us, they said. This would’ve meant so much to him, they said. No, I wasn’t his friend, I wasn’t good enough to be his friend, Charlie sobbed, I’m the fakest one of all, I didn’t know him at all. But they didn’t believe him. No, no, you were a good friend, they said. You were a good friend, they repeated. This isn’t your fault, they said. You were a good friend, they said, you really were.

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