When I was a child, I had a friend, a very good one. We were friends the way only twelve year-olds can be. Ours was a amity sealed with all the emotion, enthusiasm, naivete, and loyalty of youth. We were drawn to the same things, dreamed the same dreams, and, together, did the silly things that twelve year old boys do. We swapped hockey cards, collected bubble-gum wrappers, hunted for crows’ eggs in neighbourhood trees, and we played Chinese checkers and Parcheesi. How we loved to play Parcheesi! That was our game! We played it for hours, hiding from our elders when we should have been doing our chores.
Childhood has its own deaths. One day we were given the news that my friend’s father was being transferred away. My friend and I, twelve year old boys that we were, were not much consoled by the fact that the transfer was for one year only. To a child, a year is a lifetime.
I was in mourning. For whole year there would be no best friend, no raids on birds’ nests, no checkers, no Parcheesi. The last night before my friend left we played a last game of Parcheesi. We were too young to understand ritual, but this was our last supper, our farewell discourse to each other, our seal. When the game was over, we packed up the board. It was given to me, in trust, for the year. It was to remain the symbol of our friendship. Then, with a sincerity only twelve year-olds can manage, we swore that a year’s separation would not change any thing. We would remain best friends.
The year that followed was not easy, especially at first. I missed my friend and though I made new friends, I did not make a new best friend. So sometimes when I felt lonely, I would go to the closet and from its cherished place among my childish possessions I would pull out the Parcheesi board. At those times, all the ache and joy would flood back in and I would take a calendar and count the months until my friend was to return.
I wrote letters to my friend during that year and even though he didn’t answer, I wasn’t uneasy. Unlike myself, he was not the letter-writing kind.
Never in my adult life have I ever anticipated anything as eagerly as I did, that year, look forward to my friend’s return. Finally, the big day arrived. His family had came back and I headed for their house with our precious board tucked under my arm. A surprise awaited me.
I met my friend alright, but it was not the same person with whom I had collected bubble-gum wrappers and raided crows’ nests. The young man I found stretched out on a sofa was four inches taller than the year before, he no longer wore his hair in a crewcut, and he was smoking a cigarette. Worse still, he was with another boy from our neighbourhood, an older boy, a big, tough kid, someone whom he and I had formerly avoided.
Intuition is merciless. It took me less than a second to realize that things were not the same, would never be the same. My friend, I suspect, recognized something similar and was, I suspect too, as disappointed – for we stared at each other in silence. I forget what exactly eventually we did say to each other, but, whatever it was, it did not do much for the distance the was now between us. After a few awkward moments, he turned from me to his new friend:
“Remember that Yoblonski kid?” he said, “Some loser he is! He probably hasn’t been more than 100 miles from here in his life! Probably still collecting bubble-gum cards!” He crushed out a half-smoked cigarette and got up from the sofa. His friend snickered and I suddenly became quite self-conscious about the Parcheesi board under my arm. Then he and his friend left the room punching each other all about.
I returned home, carrying the Parcheesi board. I put it on the dressing table, walked over to the mirror and, for a good long time, studied my crewcut hair. Then I cried for the last time as a child.
That was more than thirty years ago. Those years have been kind to me. I’ve been blessed with many friends. I’ve grown four inches taller and have let my hair grow out. But, through all these years, I’ve kept that Parcheesi board, and I am saddened whenever I look at it, not because I feel back through all those years to a best friend and the times we had together – but because I think of the fierce loyalty of youth, how it can be lost, and how people can grow apart.