One aspect of Facebook that I will never get used to is how easy it is for people to come out of the woodwork and find me. You know the type of person. That one guy who you played travel soccer with but never talked to after 7th grade, or that one girl whose mom was really good friends with your mom so you saw a lot of each other despite not really talking outside of playdates that were organized by your parents, or that one person you sat next to on the bus to high school but never talked to again after you got your license. Certain people like these show up every now and again in my Newsfeed, and all they usually get is my passing glance while I look for something posted by a friend that I know better. There was one man I knew who was one of these people, and while I never talked to him after I turned 14, something about him forced me to stay “friends” with him despite multiple purges of my Facebook friends.
This man, who we’ll call Zach, was somebody that was on the same youth hockey team as me. As with most youth team sports, those of us that started playing at the same time grew up together, and played on the same team for many, many years in a row. This was even more pronounced in my hometown because it was particularly small. From Mites all the way up to Midgets, every single year there was always a core group of guys that I played with. There were always a few that would disappear for a year or two thanks to the cut off dates for each age group, but after a few years we all knew who was going to be on the team. In addition to this, we had to drive on average 2-3 hours for any game that wasn’t on our home ice. Fortunately our parents loved us and shuttled us across multiple highways and back roads trying to find hockey rinks inconveniently placed in the middle of the woods, which led to carpooling and even more bonding time for us. Everybody got to know each other very, very well.
Zach was one of those guys that disappeared every odd year, only to return for another season or two before disappearing again. He fit in relatively well into the larger group and had no single defining characteristic or feature that set him apart from the others. The only thing I distinctly remember about him was that he had a bit more energy than average, which is saying something considering the energy levels of pre-pubescent boys. He was always involved in some sort of locker room shenanigans and antics, but never truly out of control. Zach was always upbeat, and I could never sense that something was seriously wrong. Not like we had a particularly good ability at the time to pick up on those sorts of things, but we could piece together when somebody wasn’t acting normal or started to go on an extended mean streak. Zach never had anything wrong that I or others on the team could notice. We were friends, no doubt. But we both had guys on the team that we were closer with than each other.
After we all went to separate high schools, everyone on the team started to grow distant. But since we all either lived in the same town or close to it, we tended to have quite a few mutual friends. There was usually some sort of overlap, even if it a couple degrees of separation away. Around this same time, Facbook had just allowed high schoolers to sign up.
Once Facebook spread to high schools, everybody was still trying to figure out what the social norms were for using such a website. Was it cool to check out somebody’s pictures if you weren’t friends with them? What kinds of things should I post on my friend’s wall? How many personal quizzes can I take without pissing people off? Who can I friend? How much stalking was too much stalking? Naturally it took a bit of time before old childhood friends started to find me. At first I tried to batten down the hatches and keep my online friend group to a minimum, a quick lesson I learned from my failed (yet in retrospect entertaining) experiments with MySpace. But curiosity is an insatiable beast, and every so often I found myself accepting a friend request from someone whose name hadn’t crossed my mind since that asshole purposefully lied to me about what he had in his lunchbox so he could fuck me over when we traded desserts.
When Zach first friended me in-between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I immediately accepted. He had a relatively sparse profile at the time, which at that point in time meant you either just set it up or had something to hide. The idea of actually withholding information on Facebook hadn’t quite caught on yet, in part because the security settings back then didn’t involve plumbing the depths of the settings page in order to prevent the entire internet from seeing a moderately funny quip I posted on my friend’s status. I initially gave Zach the benefit of the doubt. After all, I had spent too many hours skating around a slab of ice with him to make such brash assumptions based off of his nearly blank profile.
He only had a couple profile pictures at first, all of them selfies that were taken with a shoddy cell phone camera in a bathroom mirror. He wore the type of shirts that you associated with people who were probably friends with the internet meme Scumbag Steve. It took a lot more self-discipline than I had anticipated to not immediately judge him based off his appearance. It wasn’t until I got a good look at his eyes that I realized there was more than just a shitty picture and what I judged to be an unacceptable wardrobe. In every picture Zach’s eyes were slightly bloodshot, and I was unsure if it was because of drugs or something else. There was this look in his eyes, not quite vacant, but a type of glare which hinted that he had seen and done some shit that my poor sheltered mind couldn’t comprehend one of my peers involving himself in. I wondered what happened in his life that put him in such a predicament. If these are the profile pictures that he wanted his friends to see, then I thought about what he looked like when he wasn’t posing in front of a mirror. I thanked my lucky stars that I was fortunate enough to avoid his fate.
Over the next couple years of high school, his profile eventually showed up less and less on my Newsfeed. He never had too many status updates or new photos of him that were tagged. I forgot he existed for months at a time. It wasn’t until I ran into another member of that same youth hockey team in the one Hannafords in town that I got a meaningful update on Zach’s life. I remember we were talking about high school, how our respective hockey teams were doing, potential colleges we were thinking about applying to, etc. It wasn’t until we started talking about other people on the team that Zach was mentioned. Word on the street was that Zach got in deep shit because he apparently put a plastic bag over his mom’s head and repeatedly punched her in the face.
I didn’t want to believe it at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it lined up. As soon as I got home the first thing I did was look at his Facebook profile to make sense of what I was just told. His profile was still nearly bare, his only pictures didn’t look good, he didn’t live in the best part of town, and it said in past tense that he had attended the local high school (read: he probably dropped out). I couldn’t think of him the same way. The stare in his profile pictures suddenly said so much more.
After hearing this piece of information, Zach had disappeared entirely from my Newsfeed. Absolutely nothing for at least a year, probably closer to two. Eventually the fog cleared and I saw a sign of life. A single status update appeared that said “Going to Afghanistan soon. Leaving town on Friday, come find me if you wanna say goodbye”. I was stunned. I thought this guy had either disappeared for good or was in a correctional facility somewhere, and now all of a sudden he was going half way around the world. The next day he posted a picture of himself with a buzz cut and army fatigues. He was getting deployed to the front lines.
From here the Facebook updates were more frequent, but always off-putting. Pictures would go up of him driving a Humvee, or holding a massive grenade launcher, or standing out in the open with other members of his regiment with the Afghan mountains behind them. One day I saw a status update about how he hated the kids there because their dads had set up an IED that nearly killed his friends and fellow troops. I was torn. I didn’t know what to think of him any more. Not only had he done something unthinkable to the woman that brought him into the world, he despised young children he has never met before and assumes the worst of them; but somehow I was supposed to support him because he was doing his patriotic duty. I sat next to this guy in locker rooms from the ages of 6-14. He had hit rock bottom and picked himself back up by his proverbial bootstraps. He used the military as a means to regain his life. But for some unexplainable reason I was unable to support him. A visceral feeling deep in my gut reached up through my spine and told my brain that I couldn’t give him the same support I would to any other member of the Armed Forces. Something just didn’t quite click, and the most frustrating part was that I couldn’t figure out why.
The status updates kept coming, usually in waves. Every couple months or so pictures would show up, usually of him and his regiment in their complete fatigues from helmet to boot. Sometimes a meme would show up, referencing some inside joke within the military. One time he even commented on the meals inside of a military base. Something in the way he projected himself through Facebook indicated that he seemed to have a sense of purpose that most people our age hadn’t quite figured out.
One afternoon I noticed Zach posted another selfie just like the first one he put up back in high school. He was standing at the bathroom mirror, taking the picture with a crappy cellphone camera. Despite standing there in his formal army uniform, I saw the same look in his eyes that he had years ago. He’d seen some shit I could never comprehend. His eyes were tired, holding on to a weight that nobody could help him carry. You could see into his soul, and it was someplace that I desperately wanted to visit but could never fully understand.
Then one day recently he had posted something saying he was coming back home to the states, that he’d be in town for a period of time, and to hit him up because otherwise he’d get bored. I had half a mind to get in touch with him. I wanted to pick his brain and see what was going on in there. I wanted to dispel rumors and hear about his life through his own words. I wanted to see the progression from hockey player to abusive son to military man. But I couldn’t do it. It had been too long since we last spoke. Not in the sense of time passed, but because of events that happened. I had seen too much of this man’s life through pictures and status updates that having a conversation with him would have been too much for me to handle. I didn’t have the ability strike up a normal conversation like I would have with any other former teammates and simply pretend that what was on Facebook wasn’t there. I had become a passive observer of this man’s struggles, and changing my role would be impossible.
I remain Facebook friends with Zach to this day, and I still occasionally see his name when I scroll down the infinite Newsfeed. Every time I see it, a small knot tangles itself in my chest. In order to undo this knot I have to leave my cursor hovering over his name so that I can get a better look at his picture without opening his profile. Every time I do this I’m greeted with that picture of himself standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I look through his eyes and into his soul, and momentarily lose myself in thinking about what could possibly be in there.