In the sixth grade, I was a year shy of my last big growth spurt that would carry over six feet, but was still tall and may have looked taller for being so skinny. I had yet to start combing my hair with any regularity thus have to assume I carried the appearance of a dirty, malnourished child. That, and the approach of my teenage years left me flooded with crushes over girls, and marginally less shy but no less socially awkward.
And there was Bud. His real name was Wilfred--the sort of name that doesn’t exactly help an uncool kid. Bud was chubby and no more socially adept than me. We bonded upon the discovery that we each owned the same X-Files t-shirt, and even in the same size (absurdly tight on him, laughably loose over my frame).
None of my elementary school friends shared the same lunch period as me, and so Bud and I gravitated to one another. We ate the bologna, or tuna fish, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches our fathers made us (mine a stay-at-home dad, his a single parent for reasons undisclosed) and spoke of TV shows and movies, and concocted our own stories out of speculation about alien abduction and vampires and cannibalistic social studies teachers.
Things skewed a little weird for my tastes. Bud told me about an organization he and a neighbor, Matthew, had founded, dedicated to investigating extraterrestrial happenings in the area. He thought I should join and gave Matthew my phone number. Sure enough, a day later I got a call.
“Wilfred tells me you live near a wooded area,” Matthew said.
“Well, there's a row of trees across the street, in front of the neighbor’s house.”
“Anything else peculiar in the area?”
“There’s a little cemetery around the corner.”
Matthew clicked his tongue. “Sounds like you’re in prime territory for some paranormal happenings.”
The call didn’t last much longer, but I took note of Matthew’s deep voice. Most of the boys I knew were hitting puberty around that time, so the deep voice didn’t necessarily mean he was older, but did open the possibility that the person on the other end of the line was less a kid with a passing fascination in conspiracies and the occult, and more of a grown-up whackjob.
There were more harmless oddities to knowing Bud, too. The point at which, apropos nothing, he decided we should record a radio show together and went so far as to start calling local studios. He wrote our theme song, “It’s Monday-Monday-Monday-Monday, with the Chinman-Chinman-Chinman-Chinman and Bud show!”
I played along. We had our laughs, but just the same, when summer came, Bud wasn’t the sort of friend who I made arrangements to hang out with, or spoke on the phone with. We lived separate lives, and I figured we’d see one another the following school year.
We did. But things had changed.
That summer, I went to sleepover birthday party for Zach, one of my good buddies from elementary school. Four boys in a tent in the backyard, and a reunion of sorts as our school schedules hadn’t aligned well, and I hadn’t seen much of these guys the preceding year. The conversation turned to girls--crushes, first girlfriends. I left the party with renewed friendships, and was all too pleased when seventh grade started and I had plenty of classes with these same guys, not to mention the same lunch period. The same lunch period as Bud, too.
I tried to welcome Bud into the fold. He saved a seat for me the first day and I signaled for him to, instead, come join me at the table where other friends waited. I knew they weren’t a perfect fit, but I might get the best of both worlds. Keep Bud as a friend while also enjoying my own marginal social promotion, even if those two worlds never fully intertwined.
The guys weren’t particularly welcoming of Bud, but neither did he give any clear indication he was interested in befriending them, spending most of those lunch periods engaging only me, and only in eccentric subject matter until I grew annoyed that he was keeping me out of other conversations, and, though I didn’t think of it so consciously at the time, that he was making me less cool by association with him.
Things came to a head when Bud insisted I sit with him, apart from the others, during the recess portion of lunch. Weather permitting, recess took place at the football field, surrounded by a gravel track, surrounded by bleachers. I agreed to sit with Bud, but when I did, he only wanted to talk about the most recent X-Files episode. Zach came over and whispered in my ear that we could run. I gave him a smile, and second later, the two of us sped off along the track, kicking up dust behind us, while Bud called out, “Where are you guys going?” We both knew he was in poor enough shape that he’d never catch up to us.
The next day, Bud spoke to me at recess more warily. The same friend slinked over. We made eye contact and it was clear we would run again.
Bud sighed, “Go ahead and run away.”
Zach was already off and sprinting. I jogged after him. Trying to explain to Bud that I didn’t mean to abandon him, despite the obvious and immediate evidence to the contrary.
My memory is fuzzy after that.
For all of his belief in things supernatural and interplanetary I don’t suspect Bud actually dematerialized or transported himself to another plane. For all I knew, though, he’d might as well have disappeared, because I honestly don’t remember ever seeing him after that day. In my imagined epilogue he ate lonely lunches in some uninhabited corner of the middle school cafeteria. Maybe he found another friend. Maybe he didn’t. I see his father seeing how lonely he was and transferring him to another school in the area so as to get a fresh start. Maybe it was a mutual decision--it never sounded as though Bud had much other family in the area, much tying either him or his father down. So maybe they packed their things in a U-Haul and started a new life in the Midwest or out in California. For all I know, I’ve since walked right by him in a crowded bar in Indianapolis, on the train in Houston, hiking through a wooded area on Yosemite--my eyes on the Redwoods, his analyzing the clear blue sky for signs of saucers.
Plenty of friendships come with expiration dates. The time by which common interests will run dry or geographic distances will make it harder to keep in touch. It’s unlikely Bud and I still would have stayed friends even if I hadn’t run away from him at recess that day.
Still, it was a shit thing to do.
I don’t know Bud now. But I know I screwed him. And I’m sorry.