I can still hear your knee cracking on the boulder jutting out from the dry Arizona dirt after the branch broke and you freefell 10-plus feet from the tree we were climbing in my backyard. From a few limbs above, I was bone-chilled by your howls and relieved you were still alive. I was still scaling down the tree when my grandparents rushed out, tipped-off by the alarmed barking of the chocolate lab. We were six. I still can’t remember who took you to the hospital or when we discovered that your leg was broken, only the weeks that followed and how we detached, unconsciously, with no malice or intent, just floating apart like a sudden loss of gravitational pull.
But a few months passed and we found ourselves back in my living room wailing on each other with oversized boxing gloves. We built a ring out of the couches and a coffee table and let loose, swinging wildly, uncorking bottles of rage we didn’t fully understand. We smiled as we fought. And when our arms grew too tired to punch we shed the gloves and wrestled until you wrapped up my torso, lifted me off the ground, and pile-drove me forward the way you would eventually learn to do on the football field in high school when you would still have the same white-blonde hair, suntanned skin, and sharp jaw. I reached back to brace for impact and felt my arm fracture under your weight. You waved goodbye as my mom’s car pulled away, a cautious smirk drawn on your face as if you knew our bones weren’t all that were broken.
In college I heard you’d been dipping into pills but it didn’t fully register until I saw you riding a bicycle near Club Congress in Tucson, looking into car windows because you said someone had stolen your backpack and you were sure as fuck going to find it. The curiosity had long been gone from your eyes, replaced by a well of sorrow that I vaguely recognized, but it was too deep to fully grasp. High school had revealed the sitcom-ish perceptions of our families as fiction, but your script was worse, less common, more public. We never mentioned it. Not once.
In America there are roughly 876,000 divorces and 15 million fractured bones a year. In 2011, there were 40,000 opioid overdoses. You were one of them.
Sometimes I think about the swim party I had for my 11th birthday and how you pissed into a Dixie Cup and poured it on a Kyle’s head because “He always talks shit.” I think about the time I was at your college house, just a couple hours after your brother told you he was dropping out of school to join the military, and how exhausting you said it was to try so hard yet be unable to get through to someone you love. You feared he might fall from the tree. The next year I moved into your old room as if to prepare to occupy a space where you used to exist.
When I think of you now, I think about the days I drank too much and got kicked out of school and a felt afloat in the atmosphere desperate for land. I think about how you, even at your worst, were able to fake it. No one considered that you wouldn’t eventually be okay. But mostly I think about our bones, how they aren’t rigid like I once thought — they are complex organs made of collagen and tissue and marrow. How they are actually flexible and can use stem cells to reproduce themselves when they fracture. They’re not like the rock you smashed your knee on. Sure, they eventually decompose, but slower than the rest of us. It’s been eleven years, and I like to think yours are still intact.
Andrew Maynard is a middle school teacher in San Francisco, and has taught creative writing at the University of San Francisco and San Quentin Prison.