I had an extraordinarily long bus ride during my elementary school years. We lived in a rural town in Ohio about an hour northeast of Cincinnati. I sat toward the back looking out the emergency-door window, the pavement rolling out from beneath the bus as we cruised along the faded country asphalt. The land was so flat and expansive where we lived that you could see where the road met the distant horizon like the point of a needle. I felt in those early days like I spent more time on the bus than in school. The effect of boredom on time seems almost metaphysical. It reveals the nature of each child the way a sifting pan reveals the contents of a river sample, unearthing creativity and humour in some and studiousness or mischievousness or cruelty in others. Children are experts at finding ways to occupy time when they know they are facing an abundance of it, particularly if it’s inescapable. I learned about my bus mates’ characters quickly because of their choices in the face of a gruelling, monotonous commute. It was on this bus in kindergarten that I had my first brush with both cruelty and deep friendship.
Peter sat in the seat diagonal from me. He sat quietly for most of the bus ride. No one had sat with him when we chose our seats on the first day of school. He looked a little awkward. He wore thin-framed glasses with small, oval-shaped lenses that made him look like a little wizard. He still had some leftover baby fat on his bones, and he wore a loud, blue Jeff Gordon hoody with red flames and the word “NASCAR” emblazoned across the back. He didn’t look at or talk to anyone. Other than noticing Peter’s slightly awkward appearance and aloneness, I didn’t give him much thought the first day or two.
As the first week of school rolled along, I started to get an idea of what each kid’s “thing” was. In the bus seat directly across from me were a couple of action figure nuts. These kids would bring what seemed like an entire toy chest’s worth of action figures for the bus ride. I would hear incessant onomatopoeias from these two kids: Pshh! Boom! Ching! Every once in a while I would hear what I assumed was one of their characters experiencing a gruelling death. As true as I’m sitting here typing, one of the kids once uttered, “Tell my wife she stinks and that I spent all our money . . . ughhhhhh,” as his character was greeted by an untimely death. Both my seat mate, Alex, who was a lover of the I Spy book series, and I got a good chuckle out of it.
The kids in the seat directly in front of me seemed a bit different from the other kids I had met so far. They were the type that laughed silently among themselves as they gazed toward other kids on the bus. They also liked to throw things back into our seat and then spit out laughter as they waited for Alex or me to react. I loved to laugh myself, but I could tell my sense of humour was not like theirs. The type of humour these two boys brandished struck me as something to tread carefully around. I had learned all about these types from children’s programming on TV: they were bullies, predators of the vulnerable. My diagnosis informed a suspicion that their behaviour would go from irritating to cruel at some point. The anticipation of this transition simmered in my mind like water bubbling upward toward the rim of a pot. That suspicion was confirmed when they turned their gaze on Peter.
I never saw it happen myself, but Peter made the unfortunate mistake of picking his nose while under the watchful eyes of these bullies. The two boys christened Peter “booger boy” and proceeded to throw wads of spiral notebook paper at him. Peter turned his body away from them and pressed his forehead to the window. They beckoned him to turn around with chants of “Booger boy, booger boy, booger boy!” He didn’t respond, and he didn’t move. Several wads of paper were rolling around at his feet. Another pile was forming around him on his seat. Why doesn’t he stand up for himself? I wondered. My dad had told me shortly before starting school that I was forbidden to start a fight, but I was allowed to finish one. The only way I had gotten these two boys to stop bothering Alex and me was by grabbing one of the boy’s fingers and twisting it in an anatomically incorrect direction after his repeated attempts to grab the pencil I was drawing with. Why wouldn’t Peter turn around and slug one of these kids?
The boys grew impatient with Peter’s lack of response. When calling him “booger boy” failed to generate a response, they called him “tubby” and other malicious names. At a certain point Alex looked up from his I Spy book and said, “They are being really bad now.” The urge to intervene started to reveal itself to me. I felt the cold that is cowardice start rolling over my body. My first real encounter with a scandalized inner monologue began. What am I even going to do? Should I just tell the bus driver? What if they start picking on me? What if they hit me? I was pulled out of my internal strategy meeting when one of the boys whacked Peter on top of the head with his plastic lunch box. Without thinking, I reached through the crack between the window and the seat in front of me and grabbed one of the bullies by the back of his shirt collar and yanked backward. The back of his head collided with the seat and window. He immediately turned on me. “What was that for?!” he said with tears forming in his eyes.
“Leave Peter alone. If you tell on me for banging your head, then Alex, Peter, and I will all tell on you both for bullying everyone,” I said with a shaky voice, trying to sound brave.
“And I’ll tell them you hit me with your lunch box,” Peter said. He was facing them now. I slipped out of my seat with Alex and moved to sit with Peter in his seat as a sign of solidarity. I looked directly at the boys and said that if they threw one more wad of paper at him, I would throw them out the window. An empty threat: both of these boys were at least my size or bigger, and I possessed only the strength of a kindergartener. But I had already bashed one of their heads into a window and tried to bend the other boy’s finger backward a hundred eighty degrees. Maybe my willingness to hurt them (which I do not endorse) was enough to make them think I might just try to throw them out the window. At any rate, the boys relinquished their attacks. And Peter became my first best friend.
As I got to know Peter, I found out he had endured horrors that would have never entered my darkest nightmares, things I did not think it possible a kid could experience. He always spoke of his aunt and uncle when recalling stories from home. One day as we were riding the bus (this was weeks after fighting off our enemies), I asked him why his aunt and uncle lived with him.
“Oh,” he said as his eyes filled with tears, “they don’t live with me. I live with them.” There is something about friendship that has never left me from childhood to this day. When my friends share their sorrow with me, I immediately begin drawing up plans to help them overcome or escape their circumstance. But what he was about to tell me no strategizing or goodwill on my part could cure. “My dad is in jail, because he killed my mom. And so I have to live with them now.”
When you love someone, you can’t help but want to throw yourself between them and cruelty.
I couldn’t address this problem any more than I could make a volcano swallow back its eruption. He went on to tell me that it had happened just a couple of years ago. He didn’t remember it himself; he just knew that his sister had grabbed him and hid with him in her room. Their parents were arguing, and then his dad killed his mom with a knife. As he told the story, I felt I had stumbled into something I shouldn’t have. His sister had called the cops, who arrived at the scene quick enough that their dad hadn’t even attempted to approach him or his sister. Eventually they both were sent to live with his aunt and uncle.
As he finished telling me the story, his little glasses were fogged up and tear particles were sprinkled along the bottom of his lenses. I put my arm around him and tried to provide whatever banal words of comfort I could muster. I don’t remember much of what was said between us after he had finished telling me his story, but I do remember what I felt: I wished I had beat those two bullies to a pulp.
When you love someone, you can’t help but want to throw yourself between them and cruelty. I have often thought this reflex echoes Christ’s teaching that “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” My defence against the bullies on my own behalf carried little interior value compared to my standing up for Peter. Coming to his defence didn’t just spark my getting to know him but made it easier to begin to love him as a dear friend. Perhaps that sense of loyalty and protection is a sign that we are pursuing some semblance of justice, giving love the opportunity to materialize out of work performed on behalf of the other. If pride was what I felt after defending myself, then love is what blossomed after protecting Peter.
But as with all deep friendships, sorrow was hardly the root of our bond. With Peter I first learned the capabilities of imagination. We spent many after-school hours playing in an overgrown field behind my house, bathed in the sun’s golden light. To this day I can’t smell fresh-cut grass or baled hay without thinking of those afternoons with Peter. It was in this bucolic setting that Peter and I began a saga of make-believe. Our first time out there he instructed me that we were two lowly field hands who had just watched an evil Viking king and his army ransack our village, and that all of them must be defeated. We fought every invisible enemy we could find, swinging sticks around in that field with all the strength and speed we could muster. My little body grew sweaty from the warfare, and my legs itched ravenously from the high grass. After what seemed like hours, we walked back to my house so we could wait for his uncle to pick him up. I told him I wished we could play that game forever. As if to tell me a secret he assumed I should have known, he looked at me and said, “We can keep playing this game. We just pick up where we left off next time!”
Perhaps our play provided a sense of hope that there was still joy to be experienced in this world, despite whatever joy he had been robbed of.
And so Peter and I began to build worlds together. The feelings I associate with this time are some of the most magical in my memory. I don’t remember many of the details our imaginations produced, but I do remember he was the one who killed the Viking king. For some reason, I felt like he had to be the one to do it. I suppose on some level he was trying to rectify what his dad had done to his mom. I can’t really know. What I do know is that this healthy and joyful escapism brought out the best in Peter, both in our imaginary world and in our real one. I hadn’t got to know him deeply until we ventured into imagination together. Perhaps our play provided a sense of hope that there was still joy to be experienced in this world, despite whatever joy he had been robbed of.
Peter and I remained friends until the fifth grade, when I moved away after my parents divorced. On my last day of school before moving, I told him I would miss him more than anyone else I was leaving behind. He hugged me, and I distinctly remember wanting to cry. This was my best friend. We had fought enemies both real and imaginary together. Through our play and through our interactions with others, our characters were sharpened and our understanding of what it meant to be good was enhanced. I remain in debt to him to this day. But by the time of our parting the sorrows of my own life had begun. In the chaos that these sorrows produced, my dear friend and I were lost to each other. I didn’t see him again after that.
As I grew older, I modelled both my responsibilities toward and expectations for friendship on my bond with Peter. That childhood archetype has been the wind in my relational sails for many years—and I have never been lost to the sea of loneliness. If God has provided me with one certain grace, it is this: I never lacked a proper friend at any point in my life. Regardless of the sufferings of my childhood and teenage years, I had found in my experience with Peter the compass to keep me aimed toward the shore that is the security of friendship. Throughout my life, friendships have provided both safe haven and the call to bravery. They have bestowed proper conviction and soothed poor-spiritedness. Perhaps the prime benefit is that my friends have provided me with the courage to face the worst parts of my nature, and they have laboured with me to temper my nature into something far more seaworthy than I could have hoped to produce on my own. It is because of this unique power of friendship that I count it as one of the most heavenly, even mystical experiences we are permitted to undertake here on earth. St. Francis de Sales speaks to this understanding when he says that “friendships begun in this world will be taken up again, never to be broken off.”
Recently a beloved friend confessed to my wife and me her concern that as we came to know her and her husband’s faults and flaws more intimately, we would come to like them less. I have thought deeply about her remarks since then. I suppose my response to them is the words of this essay. I understand my responsibility as a friend now as I understood it when I defended Peter on that bus all those years ago, and as we played in the field behind my house. We are called to offer our friends protection and security. And we are called to help our friends build worlds. Worlds where we can stand before our Creator in both play and production, and wrestle with our flawed nature under his watchful eye and heavenly blessing. Only in the shamelessness marked by the childlike spirit Christ calls us to can this be achieved. Our participation with one another grows only after we have drunk the whole cup of vulnerability that friends can offer each other. This participation, capable of eradicating immeasurable boredom and granting courage amid the horror of death and loss, is one of the most noble things we can engage in. I first tasted this glory as a young boy in a sun-drenched field. If I can deliver all my friends to this heavenly place that Peter and I discovered, then I can say, if I’ve achieved nothing else, we will have discovered the paradise that is the presence of true friendship.