To this day, I remember his eyes. I wish I could trade that memory for any other petty detail of my childhood – anything silly and sugary would do. If I could only reap the intangible profits of that absurd cliche and ‘bury the past’, shovel mounds of suppression on top of it and walk away. But I’ve come to realize that the past is not meant to be buried – it cannot be buried. I believe in the essence of haunting memories. Those terrifying recollections that force us to delve into our own psyche and examine our character. Almost ten years have passed and I still remember his eyes. I never avoid them – not anymore. They bring tears and regret, but they also bring a reminder – a reminder of who I will never let myself be again.
His name was Emil. He was scrawny, fragile and chronically bald. He covered the pitiful stubs of hair on his head with a red baseball cap, a clever accessory to his prehistoric, red ‘Balkan’ bike. His odd appearance and physical weaknesses naturally appealed to the brutal instincts of my fourth-grade class, a savage tribe of kids to whom cruelty was as habitual as breathing. And I was one of them.
I never participated in the occasional mockery of Emil. I did however devotedly ignore him. Even though alphabetical order sentenced me to four long years of sitting behind him in class, it couldn’t force me to surrender my right to ignore him. I chose to avoid his bright green eyes and politely let him be the class loner. Despite the fact that he was my burdensome classmate and downstairs neighbor, I rarely recognized his existence except for the occasional slight nod on the elevator.
The summer prior to the exciting arrival of fourth grade, unfortunate circumstances left me wasting away in the city. With all my friends away in the province or the Black sea coast, my only oasis was a rusty old playground amidst a sea of crumbling, grey apartment buildings. I spent my precious summer days mostly scorching my hands trying to climb the sun-heated metal jungle gym. One day I saw Emil riding his bike around the playground, looking just as lonely and pitiful as me. I looked around sheepishly, realized no one was watching and went over to talk to him. It was a bit awkward at first, especially for me. I was fully aware and ashamed of my imprudent behavior back at school. I was never proud of it, but it was a survival skill I had learned back in kindergarten – alienate the weak or risk becoming one of them. I went with the horde. Emil understood.
He taught me how to ride a bike. It took three treacherous days of bent spikes, scraped knees and a few thwarted tears, but I did it. The rest of the summer evolved in dozens of shared sunflower seed packs, a few exchanged books, and long afternoons of laughter and games. Emil and I spent the rest of the summer together on that pathetic corroding playground, although I did occasionally disregard his existence whenever a friend of mine returned briefly to the city.
When everyone eventually returned to the city and school started in September, I recoiled back in my ascribed role in ‘the tribe.’ I went back to completely ignoring Emil and only muttering a few shy words of greeting in the elevator. I felt low, yet constantly aware of my endangered reputation in class. I spend the entire year curtly evading him in school and even climbing the stairs to my 7th floor apartment so as to avoid the awkward silence in the elevator. I felt guilty and pathetic, but rules were rules.
The following summer, as I was returning from vacation, I saw a new necrology posted on the entrance door of the building. Fresh death was always an attraction among the sea of obituaries plastered all over the sepulchral city of Sofia. It was Emil’s. He had lost a week ago to a long fight with cancer. His green eyes were staring at me from pensively from the flapping piece of paper. They still are.
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