For #145, I’m turning the reins over to our talented associate editor, Marie-Helene Bertino, who ushered Ethan Rutherford’s beautiful story on friendship, “Summer, Boys” through our publishing process. Really looking forward to hearing what our readers think on this one–it sparked an interesting discussion in the One Story office on childhood and sexuality.-HT
Last week I caught up with a friend I haven’t spoken with since Thanksgiving. One of the reasons she’d been out of touch was that on Christmas Day one of her two beloved dogs, a chocolate lab named Brown, died. While it was heartbreaking for her, she noticed that her surviving dog, a black lab named Black, was inconsolable. Brown and Black had been inseparable for 14 years. Without his friend, normally laid back Black was whiny and nervous and had begun to lose his hair.
When it arrived at One Story, Ethan Rutherford’s “Summer, Boys” ignited a spirited conversation in the editorial room. It is the story of two boys, never named, who at the end of the idyllic summer before sixth grade, encounter a rift in their friendship. The nature of the rift is unimportant, or is very important, depending on which One Story editor you consult. For me, the Issue Editor, “Summer, Boys” is about friendship, and friendship only.
Since there is no institution akin to marriage that legally binds two friends to one another, friendship grows and strengthens through less official shows of shared interests and devotion over time. Simply, a friend is someone who chooses to be with you.
Ethan describes it much better than I can:
“…here’s how the boys talk to each other: What do you like? What do you like? Is that something we should like? Every day is a disputation of taste, and nothing ascends without the explicit approval of both.”
The boys want to look exactly like each other and also like the Boz, who has recently been traded to their football team and who is their idea of the man they should be. They spend gauzy summer hours memorizing his stats, practicing skateboard moves, and organizing their Garbage Pail kids. They are, in short, best friends.
Ah, the best friend. Among the ship of friend (you be quiet), the best friend is the first mate. The best friend is someone you can call at three in the morning and say, I am feeling a lot like me right now and they will say, right now I am eating an entire cheesecake and have you ever noticed the way Ben Stiller’s voice quakes on the line “I’ve had a rough year, Dad” at the end of The Royal Tenenbaums? The best friend does not have to ask. Reads the same book as you do so you can talk about it immediately when you’re both finished. Does that ridiculous dance to make you laugh. Doesn’t ask why the boy doesn’t come around anymore, knows you don’t want to talk about it. Your emissary. Says: Start from the beginning and tell me everything. Says: you blew it again, didn’t you, Captain Robot? When you are not around, says: don’t talk about my friend that way. This all sounds like ad copy for Jameson’s Irish whiskey. But it’s also true.
When we are young friendships like this shoulder the added distinction of being our first foray into companionship. The stakes then can be higher when what is possibly the inevitable rift occurs. In “Summer Boys” it enters in the form of cousin Elias. Elias prompts the boys’ first separation, and Ethan articulates the pain of losing a friend in agonizing accuracy.
“And with every hour that passes, the distance between them begins to feel like space distance; within days they are galaxies apart…By himself, he becomes a storm-system of self-doubt, unsure of anything except that wherever he is, he is not where he needs to be.”
You ever lose a friend like that? I have. The nicest thing I can say about the experience is that it gave me plenty of time to listen to music and not eat. Meeting a best friend is as amazing as losing them is terrible.
As for my friend who recently lost her dog, Brown. Her vet cremated him and placed the ashes in a tin can. She showed the can to Black, telling him that inside was his lost pal. Since then, she said, it’s been the strangest thing. Every night for the past month and a half, instead of sleeping in his bed in their family room like he has for 14 years, Black has slept curled next to the can of ashes.
In the case of “Summer, Boys,” the boys’ separation prompts the final, shattering scene that was the source of so much spirited debate in the office. Regardless of its manifestation, the intent becomes clear in the piece’s beautiful last lines. Sometimes, at their most painful moments, we say to a friend: I’m here.
To read more about “Summer, Boys,” including a Q&A with author Ethan Rutherford, go here.