I never learned how to swim. In ninth grade I passed the required swimming test with a skillful combination of not touching the bottom of the pool and the lifeguard’s pity.
Because we were tested in alphabetical order, I went last. I watched everyone else tread for 30 seconds and then effortlessly freestyle to the other end of the pool. Then everyone watched me. I could barely keep myself afloat as I managed to use up all of my energy treading. I was not only panicking about drowning, but about what everyone thought of me. Somehow — utilizing the ugliest dog-paddle strokes ever witnessed — I made it to the other end of the pool and avoided nine weeks of swim lessons.
Though in all honestly I could have used the practice. I still can’t swim.
Walter became my best friend in fifth grade. I don’t remember how or why, but I do remember being grateful for his companionship. Fifth grade is when people started becoming aware of themselves and of others. For the first time in our young lives, divisions were forming, and while I managed to ride the good wave for a while, it wasn’t long until I was an outsider. I knew why.
But Walter was right there with me. He only lived three blocks from school, so when I didn’t feel like going home after classes, I went to his house instead. We listened to music and played video games. We played outside with other kids from school. We had sleepovers where we’d spy on his neighbors. Everything was made better by Walter.
“Did you see her wash that dish?” he asked during one of our nightly spy routines. “She barely scrubbed it! This is so gross. Let’s never eat off of those plates again.”
I knew Walter and I were different from each other for many reasons, some of which we could help and others we couldn’t. He lived in a duplex with his mother who managed the local Taco Bell. I lived in a two-story home with both my parents who had nine-to-five jobs. Walter wore baggy white t-shirts almost every day and wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself. I wore polo shirts and I was proud of the fact that I’d never broken a bone in my body.
Walter and I would eventually go our separate ways. He played sports in high school and enrolled in less-rigorous classes. I wrote for the school paper and loaded on accelerated classes.
But I never resented Walter. We never developed hard feelings or avoided each in the hallways. We were just two people who split in two directions. Walter was the first male friend I’d had in years. And I was too young to think anything of it. I was just happy that sometimes when the phone rang, it was for me.
In second grade, I fooled around with my first boy. I’ll call him Miles.
Miles lived down the road from me, so he was an ideal friend. I could just as easily bike to his house as I could walk to it, and within minutes we’d be eating an after-school snack prepared by his mother and playing in the basement or in his bedroom, the latter of which was the most dangerous.
I don’t remember when or how it started. I don’t even remember who initiated it, but if I were a betting man I’d put money on Miles. I was so shy and afraid of people that I would do anything to please them. But my interactions with Miles didn’t need much persuasion. One afternoon — after a progression of events over months of time — Miles pulled down his pants and asked me to kiss him. He handed me a single, white tissue.
“To wipe your mouth off when you’re done,” he said.
I looked at him with a mixture of fear and pleasure. Secretly, I had yearned for this exact intimacy with Miles for as long as I could remember. But I knew what we were doing was wrong in some way. If only because we were in his room trying to be as quiet as possible, and the door was locked and barricaded with a chair. We weren’t just hiding — we were protecting ourselves.
I looked at him, and then at his brown shag carpet. And then I bent my knees as if going down for prayer. I kissed him and he handed me the tissue.
“See?” he said. “It’s good. Now try putting it in your mouth. Then I’ll do it to you.”
I bent down again, but then we were interrupted by a knock at the door. His mother brought us snacks, but she couldn’t understand why the door was locked. What were we doing in there?
Miles got up to open the door and the tissue fell to the ground. I kept my eyes focused on that lifeless white sheet for what it really was: a white flag of surrender.
We stopped hanging out after that day. I never went back to his house and he avoided me at school. Even though we had gone our separate ways, I still fantasized about him. I would torture myself by imagining what that second kiss could have been like. There was a period of time when I got in trouble for taking 20-minute long showers. But I couldn’t help it. I’d let the warm water run over me while standing frozen, looking down, and praying that if Miles gave me one more chance to kiss him, I wouldn’t screw it up this time.
There are many versions of La Llorona — “The Weeping Woman” — but one short version goes like this:
One afternoon by the river, a beautiful woman named Maria seized her children and threw them in the water in an effort to win back the husband that scorned her. But the man rejected her again, so she drowned herself too. Her punishment was being forced to wander the earth for all of eternity searching for her lost children, her only company the sound of her constant crying.
People who have encountered her say she’s most likely to come out during the evenings and nights from bodies of water. Some believe that if you hear her cries, you’re marked for death. That if she puts a hand on your shoulders, death is imminent.
In the fall semester of my sophomore year in college, I went to a party because I was chasing a boy who told me I was too young for him. I drank for all the obvious reasons: to get the courage to talk to him, to numb the inevitable pain when he didn’t reciprocate his feelings, and to forget that I was, in fact, too young to be with someone who was long past the dramatic and immature phases of a 19-year-old obsessed with finding his first boyfriend.
When I left the party alone, it was pouring rain. The subway had stopped running, so I hailed a cab. But the driver was confused about the directions and I was too drunk to care, so he dropped me off 20 minutes from my dorm. I walked the entire way, not at all deterred by how soaked I was by the time I reached my room.
I sat on the floor to peel off my clothes, but it was useless. I didn’t have the energy or the motivation to remove my new, wet skin. Instead, I opened my computer and went online, where I read that Walter had drowned in a lake in Kansas. I didn’t know what to do except cry. Cry until I fell asleep in bed with my clothes still on.
Miles would end up making the news too. A few months ago, he died in a murder-suicide. He shot his girlfriend, then turned the gun on himself.
I don’t believe in ghosts, except for the ones we carry with ourselves every day.
We spend our whole lives searching for them — these mythical creatures, these legends — for the chance to say, I saw it once. Just once, I really saw it.