My best friend growing up was a boy named Seth who lived across the street from me. We were both in the same kindergarten class and hung out after school every day. Seth was allergic to dairy and had to eat his cereal with water. Seth liked to wear plaid shirts. Seth would push me on the swings on the playground. According to our classmates, Seth and I were to be married when we grew up. It was only after he moved away and over twenty years had passed did I think to start searching for him.
It was Thanksgiving 2008 when I started looking for Seth online. Instead of finding him on Facebook or Instagram, I found his online obituary. He died seven months prior. I also discovered his ex-wife, who emailed me that Seth died alone in his bathtub from an accidental drug overdose. I knew immediately why, or what I thought the obvious reason might be. When Seth was five, he almost died after being hit by another car while his mom was driving him to school. The aftermath was a lifelong demon that would follow him until his death almost eleven years ago. I remember as a kid waking up one morning to walk across the street to his house to play and there was a moving truck and workers loading all of Seth and his mom and older sister’s possessions into the back. But his dad’s belongings were not included. They were getting a divorce. It might have been because of the accident, or the trauma that followed, or both. Seth was paralyzed on the entire left side of his body. He couldn’t run, but he could do a kind of half-run half-scrape jog. He couldn’t push me on the swings with both hands so he used his right one. We adjusted. Little kids are good at that. We’re adaptable.
I stood in my mom’s kitchen the morning I found Seth’s obituary and told her Seth was dead. Hmm? She said, opening the door to the oven to peer at the crisping lump of meat inside. Seth’s dead. I repeated. She turned around and saw the look on my face. Elizabeth’s son? Oh, that’s too bad. She opened the oven and poked. They were such a great family. My mom and Seth’s mom were more than the kind of neighborly, our-kids-play-together way. They would sit on the back porch of Seth’s house and smoke cigarettes, whispering and laughing while we played upstairs. I touched the potatoes resting on the counter that were ready to be skinned and boiled and watched as they wobbled away from me. I wanted to hear more. I wanted her to tell me stories I didn’t remember about Seth. I wanted to hear her reason why Seth left and came back someone different. Why his dad left and never came back, leaving Seth alone with his mother and sister. I wanted to tell her about the time he slammed his thumb in the door of his bedroom or how I would make faces at him while he ate his cereal with water instead of milk. What happens if you’re allergic to milk and you drink it? I asked him. Do you die? Almost, he said. But you can always come back. It’s like being halfway dead.
There are lots of ways to remain half alive and half dead. Tons.
After Thanksgiving dinner that day I went home and wrote Seth a letter. My boyfriend at the time told me it would be a good idea to find closure. Months before, he moved halfway across the country to attend his MFA program. When he left, I barely recognized him. He was different from the night of our first date. So was I. We spent the night in Cap Hill for Halloween roaming from one bar to another while zombies and super heroes swept the streets until dawn. Maybe he wanted the letter to be practice for when our relationship finally fell apart a year later. Maybe he wanted me to finally get out all the reasons I regret giving us a second, third, or fourth chance when we never should have survived past our first week of dating. I was a single mom with a baby, he was living in another city an hour away working on his undergrad degree. It was oil and water, at best. I didn’t fit into his world and the world he tried to fit in with me was unpredictable and filled with temper tantrums, potty training, and dealing with an abusive biological father who wanted custody. When I wrote the letter to Seth, I was hoping to feel some relief from the regret I felt for not looking him up sooner. Maybe it was a bit of leftover regret from not trying harder with my relationship. But regret, even if it’s leftover regret, still has to be dealt with. Even if I managed to find Seth before he died, it didn’t mean I could have saved him. And I sure as shit didn’t feel any better after writing that letter to him. It was filled with nothings and regret. I don’t even remember what it says. Maybe it’s a thank you. Maybe it’s a series of sorry and memory paragraphs outlining a friendship that ended one day when the leaves were just turning from soft to stiff. That letter is stored away in a shoebox in my closet with the name Seth on it, sealed. I’ll probably never open it.
I don’t remember being thankful for his friendship. When we were kids, friendship wasn’t something you took for granted. I didn’t realize I could have lost him until after his accident. I do remember running to his house to escape while my mom and dad fought. His room was warm and smelled like Play-Doh and laundry softener. His bed was filled with alligator and shark stuffed animals and clothing discarded from days before. The neighborhood we lived in wasn’t what you see now, a lot of cookie cutter houses that all look and feel the same. A kind of numbness box where individuality and creativity aren’t allowed. I remember when the hail came down hard one day and broke almost every window in our house, leaving chunks of ice and standing water. It triggered a storm that would eventually end my parent’s marriage. My mother fled back home to Indiana one night and didn’t come back for what seemed like weeks. One evening she kissed me goodnight, and the next morning she was gone. My dad walked around with a tight mouth, not giving me or my brother any reason why. When she did come home, she had a giant stuffed dog for me. She held it out in front of her, and the space between me and her and that dog were all the miles she traveled to leave us. But she came back.
They found Seth dead in his bathtub when he didn’t show up for work. Not halfway dead. And he didn’t come back. No one should die alone, certainly not in a bathtub. The places we die are sometimes the same places we seek to try to find some kind of semblance of relief.
I’ve lived long enough to realize the things that seem like they are a coincidence really aren’t. People will come into your life and stay, and some people will leave. Either in the middle of the night after tucking you into bed, on an airplane on their way to an MFA, or in a car on the way to school. And if they do come back, they aren’t the same people they were when they left.
I don’t know if Seth ever knew what happened after he woke up from his coma in a hospital bed. He left for school that morning one person and woke up in a different body, a body he had to live with until the day he managed to climb into his bathtub with one paralyzed hand and arm and leg and never woke up.
I still have our kindergarten class picture. Seth is sitting cross-legged in the front row, hunched over and barely smiling, wearing a plaid shirt. At some point, I took a pen and marked an X over him along with several other of my classmates. At some point I must have been mad at him enough to want to never see his face again. But I can’t remember why. There’s an image in my head of him on the swings on the playground of our old elementary school. The sun is shining on his hair. His eyes are squinting in that half-awake, half sleepy way they always did. He’s missing two of his top front teeth. I can see the man he was supposed to be; a kind of mashed together version of his dad and mom mixed with early 80’s movies actors. But I’ll never really know. I only have his senior year picture I found online, looking exactly the same as he did then, but not quite an adult and no longer a little boy. Maybe I chose to look for him at the exact moment I knew my relationship was ending as a way to find closure for something I didn’t know was ending yet. Maybe I was trying to knock two birds out with one stone. Neither my relationship unraveling or the discovery that Seth was dead gave me any type of direction to be able to make sense of either one. That’s what the letter was about. And thinking back now, maybe I wrote the letter more for myself than for the person it addressed. That’s the thing about people leaving, it doesn’t always guarantee an absence. And absence doesn’t always mean someone has left. Sometimes it just takes the place of something that was there a long time ago that you can never, ever get back.
Hillary Leftwich is the author of the forthcoming collection Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How To Knock from Civil Coping Mechanisms (CCM) Press in 2019. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and organizes/hosts At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, writing workshop instructor, and guest instructor for Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash Workshop. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in print and online in such journals as The Missouri Review, The Review Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matter Press, Literary Orphans, Occulum, Jellyfish Review, and others. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com.