The other day in preparation for a hike, I got out my old camping gear, including a couple of canteens. One in particular dates back to 1981. Its an old army surplus canteen I bought for my first class in college. Alas the cover for the canteen was in poor shape, so the canteen stayed home. Later the next day I broke out the sewing kit and made some repairs; reattaching the belt loop which was about to fall off, fixing up the wool felt lining which had fallen into pieces, and tightening up the corners so the canteen fit more snugly.
Just as I was finishing up, I flipped the canteen over and saw on the bottom the initials PJ. And that’s when I knew I was in a ghost story.
You see, back in 1991, which was a few years after I moved to LA, I hit a point in my life where I seriously crashed and burned; loosing a friend and a girlfriend in a one of those big dramatic messes that seem to come with youth. When the fire finally went out I found myself broke, and renting a room in Sherman Oaks from a man who ran a dance studio. For about a year I lived in that place and slowly rebuilt my life from the ashes.
My next door neighbor in that place was a newly single mom with three bright boys. Over the course of that year the mom and I became close, and I began to see the boys often. At a very dark time for me they were the bright spot of my life. The oldest boy, PJ was about 10 at the time. He was kind, and smart, with a ready smile and a passion for jumping into things. So when he went on a camping trip with his school I was happy to lend the use of my canteen for the journey. His mom, being especially good at motherhood, was careful to mark his initials on the bottom of the cover, and thereby guaranteeing, by some inexplicable rule of the universe, that the canteen would never be lost. Hence the PJ.
And that’s about it for the story. Time went by and I moved on. I stepped out of the nice safe shell I had built and slowly stumbled into adulthood. The mother eventually remarried a wonderful and talented man, and the boys grew older. PJ went to a nice private high school, and did quite well. He gathered around him a collection of friends who were kind and bright and fun. He was by all accounts the kind of child any parent would be proud to have. My last strong recollection of him is talking math with him and his friend who only ate cheese pizza and was about 20 times better equipped for the conversation than I was.
If by wishing we could make things happen, then I really wish I could end this story here. PJ would quietly move on into that nebulous and shiny land that people go to when they exit your life. The same place one wishes upon ex-girfreinds, distant family members, and former workers. The land of happiness, and wealth, and opportunity. But, as I suggested in the title, this is not a happy story. This is a ghost story.
They say marriage changes things, and its true. Only sometimes the things it changes are not the things you expected. My friendship with the boy’s mother, which had limped along for years and had every indication of lasting longer, did not survive my marriage. I say this not as something I wished for, or even something I liked at the time, but something that happened. Nor was it the only thing that fell from my former life to make room for the new. Maybe a bigger man, or a wiser man could have walked that path. All I know is I couldn’t or didn’t. Alas, along with that friendship went my ties with the boys.
But friendships are tricky things, and once someone has burrowed their way into your heart they leave connections behind like a spider’s web that tug and pull long after they have stopped being the center of your life. While you may stop seeing a person, you will still be connected to them indirectly through the friendships you once shared together but now maintain separately.
Thus it was that I still heard about PJ from time to time. I learned that he graduated from high school, that he had in interest in music, and that he apparently showed some talent as a music producer. Then one day that spiderweb of connections was tugged, the various strands tightened, and just like that PJs bright shiny future ended.
I was a car that did it. A drunk driver if I recall correctly. It happened right across from his high school. He was 21. And. Just. Like. That. He was gone.
I may have got the details wrong. It was some years ago, and like I said, our connections were indirect. But still, the results were the same. He was gone.
At one time I was quite close to PJ, but now, some 23 years on, I find I cannot recall much about him. When he was young he liked Transformers, and had a fondness for video games. He was at times fiercely protective of his brothers, but at other times was happy to use his larger size against them. He liked to play, and could be strongly competitive, but he also had a big heart and a ready laugh. Even now I find I can recall his laugh quite well.
And that is largely how I remember him. In my mind he is still the boy he was when we met. He is still in that nebulous fog all kids exist in until they grow old enough to discover their future selves. Because to me he hadn’t discovered his future self yet. To me, all his futures remained unmapped, and uncertain. Not that these things didn’t happen. I just never saw them.
In a happier story, the one without a car crash, PJ would now be around 33. Old enough to start getting serious in life. Maybe marry, maybe see a therapist, maybe start a family of his own. Old enough to grow up into a interesting adult, and surely PJ would have been an interesting adult. Many of the people I count myself lucky enough to work with are about that age, and I like to think that in that happier story I would one day run across PJ at an office and share old remembrances. Maybe we would have lunch together, tie up some loose ends, reconnect in ways that are healing and less painful.
But this is not that kind of story. This is, as I said, a ghost story.
There is a hole in my heart from a boy who is no longer a boy, and who is no longer there. There is no future I can connect him to so he can safely move on, and no past I can remove him from without also destroying myself. Thus he sits. A hole that cannot be removed nor repaired. A wound that cannot be healed. In short, a ghost. Perhaps he is only my ghost, which would be a much nicer ending for his friends and family, but a ghost none the less.
So when I flipped over that canteen cover, and saw his initials on the bottom, all of this came to me in a flash, like a wave that rolled over your head and buried you in the bottom of the surf. Because this is not a happy story. This is, as I said, a ghost story.