I grew from young boyhood into my mid-teens on a quiet country road in Central Florida, back when Central Florida was largely rural. My humble little road sliced through farmland that seldom left my family in want of watermelons, squash, or green-beans, and ended at the deep woods and swamps that border Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River. It was a great place to grow up, especially for a kid like me, who loved little more than fishing and freedom to wander the woods and swamps near my home.
Whether by nature or circumstance, I was a bit of a loner, but over time I became friends with the three other boys who lived on my road. Robert was a year older than me, Lloyd, his half-brother, a year younger, and Donny, who lived across the road from Robert and Lloyd, was my age. Over time, we became as regular a band of rapscallions as ever there was. Fishing, exploring, building forts in the woods, riding our bikes into town to visit the library, the marina, or the drug store for french fries covered in ketchup, there wasn't anywhere we couldn't go if we were willing to peddle or hoof our way. Those were better times, it seems to me, when boys like us could leave home in the morning and not return until dark without our parents going into a panic. We could camp in the woods or spend the night away without background checks or police-organized search parties, and for several years I lived a life that, looking back, I would be pleased for my own sons to enjoy.
Of course, life wasn't perfect for me or my friends, but what life is? We didn't have much money, nobody on our road did, but I don't think we noticed it much, at least not amongst ourselves. But my parents were going through a difficult time, back then, and I did notice that. My dad worked out of town most of those years, coming home only on weekends, and when he was home, the tension between him and my mom was…high. Thankfully, my parents' marriage survived, but back then it didn't seem likely, and home was often a place I didn't want to be. Still, if my home-life was less than ideal, Robert and Lloyd's was downright unpleasant.
Robert's step-father was an over-the-road trucker, seldom home for more than a day or two every few weeks. When he did come home, it was a battle, loud and long, between mother and step-father. I never knew Robert's step-father to be pleasant, and I never knew him to have a kind word or anything else for Robert. When the step-father was gone, Robert's mother was gone, too. Where, I don't know. Wasn't my business, and this information wasn't offered. That's how it was. Maybe things would be different, now, but back then we didn't talk about problems at home. We had personal boundaries, and we respected those. Or maybe such personal exchanges were taboo. I don't know, I only know that Robert's home-life sucked.
Robert was probably the best friend I've ever had. For several years, there weren't many days I didn't spend a big chunk of hours with him, and for the most part, those were good times. We were a well-matched pair, he and I. I was athletic, an outdoorsman, reserved and less prone to troublesome adventure than Robert. He was bold, tough, cynical, and far more mature than Lloyd, Donny, and I. And Robert had balls. He would fight at the drop of a hat, didn't mind dropping that hat himself, and broke any and every rule he could find to break. He was a natural leader, always of Donny and Lloyd, and less often but sometimes of me--I still had a tendency to go my own way. We had fun, our little band, as we grew from young punks playing guns or swimming in the river to older punks chasing girls and causing minor mischief.
But things change.
I don't know everything that went on with Robert or at Robert's home, but as we grew into our mid-teens, he changed. We were best friends still, but Robert grew…darker. He was moodier, even more cynical, and angry at just about anyone outside our small circle. I saw less of him, much less, and when I did, he seemed…I don't know…edgy. Somehow, word got back to my parents that Robert was involved in a large-scale shoplifting operation led by his mother. This was true, I know, because he told me. He was proud of it. They would hit the malls and come home with hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars in merchandise. He got arrested. Then he stole a car, crashed it, and got arrested again. My parents, doing what most parents would, forbade me to associate with Robert. Maybe, over time, things would have cooled down with my parents, and things between Robert and I would have been okay, but probably not. I think he was sliding away, even then. Didn't matter--Robert took my parents' move to protect me as a personal affront, a betrayal, and the fuse was lit.
Over the next year or year and a half, I fought a lopsided battle with Robert, Lloyd, and Donny, that frequently left one or more of us bleeding and bruised. If they caught me off guard, I paid. If I found one of them alone, it was payback time. And so it went. This probably sounds weird to most, but it was normal for us, or seemed normal at the time. Maybe it's an ingrained Southern thing, feuding, I don't know, but it's hard to break free of once it begins. And we never did. The first time my nose was broke, it was Robert's left knee that did it, and I can still hear the crunch of it in my head and taste the blood in my mouth. My dad tried to straighten it, but it never worked so well after, and I had to have it fixed when I was in the service a few years later. It's been broke since. Oh well.
Anyway, I missed my friends, especially Robert, but I got along. I went my own way, as is still my habit, and I kept to myself. Robert's family moved, and though I went to the same high school with him for a year, the gulf between us had become too wide to bridge. I would nod in passing, he would nod, and that was pretty much it.
Thirty years. Thirty years gone in a blink, so fast I don't know where they went. I've done a lot, seen a lot, and for the most part, wouldn't change much. I have a great wife, great kids, an okay job, and my health. Not bad. Oddly, my e-tracks crossed paths with Lloyd's e-tracks not long ago, and I dropped him a line. Didn't know if I would hear back from him, but the feuding was long past, and I wanted to know about Robert. Lloyd must have had to think about it, because it was a few weeks before I got a note back, and it wasn't what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that Robert was fine, that he'd picked himself up, married, had oodles of kids and a great job--You know, fairy tale stuff that makes for happy endings.
But fairy tales only happen in books.
Robert was dead, of course. He died in 1993. Of Aids. He was gay. And a junky. He died far from home. Lloyd said he hadn't seen Robert, but for once, in fifteen years. That meant Robert must have skipped out before finishing high school. And gay? Robert? How did that happen? He'd been as girl-crazy as the rest of us, or so it seemed. This all hit me hard, much harder than I thought it should, much harder than I've shared with anyone. Robert was gone. Not just gone, but long gone. And not just Robert, I suppose, but a large chunk of my youth with him.
So I've been thinking about this for more than a week, and I'm still rocked. Does it bother me that Robert is dead? Yes, but I can't say it came as a complete surprise. I'd known in my gut it was more than possible. He'd seemed bent on self-destruction, and so angry at the world it came off him in waves. Does it bother me that Robert was gay? No, but it surprised me, and I've wondered if that wasn't part of his anger. Was it a burden to carry that secret inside him, never sharing it with his friends? Or did he not know until after we'd parted ways? I don't know. Would I have dealt with it well if I had known? I don't know. Probably not, back then, if I'm honest. Not because I have anything against gays or lesbians—I don't, I have a lesbian sister I love dearly—but because the times were different, and that wasn't something heterosexual boys of my generation knew much about.
So where does all this leave me and my memories of Robert? Despite inherent shallowness, I looked deep inside myself for answers and, surprisingly, I found a few:
It leaves my memories unchanged. Robert was still the best best friend I've ever had. Robert was still Robert; bold, cynical, ballsy, and ever-ready to drop that hat. He was a hero to me in many ways, because he was all the things I was not. My fervent hope is that Robert did not die alone, that he had friends, people he cared about and who cared about him. I hope he didn't die in pain or afraid. I refuse to think about him sick and wasted by disease and drugs. Instead, I think of him grinning a hard grin as he and Donny and Lloyd caught me half-stepping, flipping me off, or breaking my nose. That was the Robert I knew.
So tonight's blog is for Robert, and the bourbon in my belly is for him, too. This isn't much of a memorial, but it's all I've got, for now, and he would just give me the finger, anyway.
Cheers, Robert, you were a damn good friend.