Sometimes I wonder what happened to him.
I must have been about six, or maybe less, when my best friend was Paul. He had a much older brother, and of course, the older brother seemed so cool to me. Paul and I went to different classrooms or started hanging out with different people or whatever other forces move children apart in their relationships came into play, and I didn’t spend so much time (any) with Paul. But I never forget a face. Never.
So I was walking home from school, with my horn-rimmed glasses and wild, 70s mane and nerdy clothes, and I had to use not one but two crosswalks. This became a big deal to me at some point. But being the concrete literalist I am, I stayed in the midst of those crosswalks as I moved from the school to the neighborhood surrounding it.
I saw him from a distance coming my way, and I figured we’d get to the crosswalks about the same time. I was right; he was crossing toward the school side as I was crossing to the neighborhood side. I looked at him square, just making sure it was him. I thought, though the sands of time have buried it deep in my mind now, I may have offered a weak and shy smile.
I’m not skinny now, but apparently when I was a child I was very thin. My father told me he could count my ribs through my shirt. I look back and remember being a little thick in the midriff, just as my mother. Being of a certain ethnic decent, my mother is prone to high percentages of visceral and subcutaneous fat. I probably have inherited some of that, but my father doesn’t exactly hail from bony stock either. They’re big-boned (I’m not) and tall (I’m not) and heavy (oh yeah, that’s me).
So I’m skinny and probably a bit pudgy all at the same time. And here’s this wild black hair glistening in the strong sunshine, and I’m in goofy clothes (never paid much attention to them then, but looking back on old pictures I can only shake my head) with my flapping sneakers or maybe the ever-popular Kinney’s store brand shoes, and I’ve got a stupid expression on my face and maybe a diastema-exposing smile to go with it. And I’m staring through basic black horn-rim glasses, all in the early-mid-1970s.
So, here comes Paul’s brother, crossing the street. He’s tough-looking, and so grown-up to me, and has this really cool blonde hair, and he’s just all that when you’re six or so.
Imagine my surprise, then, when he snarls, “What’re you lookin’ at, four-eyes?” and punches me in the gut without provocation.
It wasn’t a hard punch. Just a jab to let me know he could really pulp me if he wanted to. I was shocked and it did knock the wind out of me, but not enough to make me stop walking. No, I just kept walking with tears in my eyes on the sidewalks of our neighborhood, wondering what I did to warrant being punched and reviled. I had to walk a long, long block home, and all I did was think about what I might’ve done.
I still don’t know.