We met at lunch in the eighth grade, standing in line then sharing a table with some mutual friends. Did we hit it off and become best-buddies right away; not necessarily, we were just two eighth-grade boys goofing off in the cafeteria like any other eighth-grade boys. If I saw him in the hallway, or he saw me, we’d say hello and could carry on a casual conversation. But we didn’t have any classes together, didn’t share any after-school activities, didn’t live in the same neighborhood and didn’t yet drive, so our contact with one another was limited to the cafeteria or just passing by.
In the tenth grade our friendship took on a deeper level. It started plain enough; I had given up playing basketball two years prior and my parents wanted me to participate in some activity other than just going home to watch television. Both of my older brothers, by then in college, had performed in the school plays with Drama club. I figured since I already knew some of the older kids through them I’d hang out and see what there was to do, even though I had no interest in going on stage. He was there, as were some other friends from our class. I got along with most people and decided to stick around, joining the stage & lighting crew for the play.
It was some of the seniors that were largely responsible for bringing Brandon and I closer. Having played Dungeons & Dragons with my older brother before (yes, we were geeks and proud), they asked me to be dungeon master for a new campaign. I’ll freely admit I was less than enthusiastic about it, but I agreed. Overall I think the campaign was an abysmal failure, but Brandon was like a co-DM and we became closer. We shared an enjoyment of the game, as well as some board games and the like, and an appreciation for one another’s sense of humor. Good times were had.
One of our biggest bond-generators, however, was volleyball. There had been a few times when the entire drama club would play some volleyball at the court just down by the school. A small group of us were pretty decent players and began to get together to play at another area court where there was some good competition. Now that we were of driving age, friendships were a little easier – no longer limited to the extent of overlapping classes, specific activities or parental chaperones. Brandon and I, over the course of high school and into college, would arrive at the volleyball court in the late afternoon or early evening. Often times we’d be joined by our friends John and Mike, sometimes others, and either practice (if the court was empty) or challenge the sitting team. We’d invariably win to take the court about 99-percent of the time. Then we’d control the court until the park turned the lights off between 10 and 10:30 – beating back every challenger. Sometimes it’d be a full, 6-man team, or just me, Brandon, John and Mike; but many times it was just me and Brandon wiping out any 2-man to 6-man team that tried to take us. We weren’t perfect, but we almost always were able to hold the court for the night.
Afterwards came our traditional Redner’s run. (Redner’s being the local grocery store.) Gatorade and a few snacks to replenish our lost energy then off to my house. Brandon spent so much time at my house he began to call my mother, “Mom.” I spent enough time at his house that I did the same with his mother. Sometimes our hanging out would produce some interesting results – such as our two goofball movies, “The Duck That Ate Valhalla” (with our friend John) and “The Detective.” (Even if I still had copies, I wouldn’t put them on YouTube – I couldn’t do that to the world.) But our finest invention out of boredom was a little game we created when the power was out at the volleyball court one hot summer night.
We had decided to play ping-pong. After getting back to my house I remembered that our table had been used to build a cat cage. (Local strays were causing our cat to mark his territory in the house during the night, so he was put in the cage overnight to protect our carpets and furniture.) We had paddles and ping-pong balls but no means to play the real game. Having some pent up energy which we couldn’t spend playing volleyball we took to my parents’ screened-in back porch and just casually started hitting the ball back and forth. After a while, I still had plenty of energy but was getting bored; so I hauled off and hit one as hard as I could. Nailed him right below the left nipple. And thus, Barbarian Cage Pong was born! Over the next hour plus we had rules and a point system in place. But the best time was when our friend Mitch videotaped us playing in near 30-degree weather during winter break, wearing nothing but shorts, socks and shoes! Hearing the crack of the ball on the paddle, the crack of the ball on skin, and the “AAAAAAAAAAAAAA” after contact was damn entertaining.
And so life went throughout high school and during breaks from college. We were close, calling each other “bro.” And then, I betrayed his trust.
He had been dating a girl who lived not too far from his house. Brandon had girlfriends in the past, and was much more likely to have other friends in the popular crowd. I was pretty much a nobody in the social circles of high school. I rarely dated and was far too shy to ask girls out. This was probably the third or fourth steady girlfriend that Brandon had. Having no luck other than becoming friends with girls – even those I was interested in – who always seemed to have boyfriends, I was the third-wheel on the side. Brandon NEVER made me feel like the third wheel, in fact he was always a true and inclusive friend even when dating. I just kind of felt that way. One day on the volleyball court his girlfriend was visiting and I jokingly asked her if she knew anybody she could fix me up with. It was just a silly question, nothing out of the ordinary. The night of volleyball went as usual, winning the court and playing into the night. It was the next day when things got hairy.
“When you asked me if I knew anybody I could fix you up with,” she told me over the phone the next day, “I thought, ‘Yeah, me’.” Oh boy – this is not good. I picked her up with the intent to take her straight to Brandon’s place so she could tell him. He was my friend and needed to know. I also didn’t think it appropriate to have this discussion with him over the phone. I changed my mind on the way over; I swung by Brandon’s place first. I was going to bring him with me to her place – she needed to tell him. But he hadn’t gotten back from work yet, and neither his mother nor sister were home. Well, fair enough, I’ll go pick her up, talk to her about telling Brandon that she didn’t see them as an exclusive couple like he did, then take her there and have her actually tell him. Right away. But as I talked to her, and as I thought of the girl I liked but was out-of-reach, something snapped in my brain. Instead of telling her the right thing to do, and instead of doing the right thing, I found myself kissing her.
When Brandon found out, it took its toll. He was too good of a friend, one I didn’t really deserve. He forgave me just about instantly; but there was a strain on our friendship. Later that summer when I was playing volleyball with just Mike and John, Mike asked if I was coming to Brandon’s party the next day. I hadn’t heard of the party until then, and Brandon never mentioned it to me. As my only close friend, it took its toll on me, too. Even though he showed remarkable forgiveness, there were times I was a little cross with him for excluding me in those little things. How I wish I could let him know how karma paid me back in the coming months; but that’s a different story.
Eventually, we both went back to college. Our contact was much less than years before. I don’t think I even called him until his birthday in November. Over the phone I could almost hear the tension being released. Things would be fine between us; and they were. But, we were getting older; another year closer to graduation and both in relationships. It’s funny that I didn’t find a lasting relationship with a woman until I damn near killed the best friendship I had ever had. But even though our volleyball time and overall social time was becoming more limited during breaks, we were growing closer again. He was, once again, my other brother.
Thirteen years ago this month, Brandon was convicted of first-degree murder. In a nutshell, he married the wrong woman. She had been cheating on him with another woman. When this woman, who was living with yet another woman, said she was going to move across the country, Brandon’s wife killed her. Brandon’s trial attorney said it best, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” It was a three-way trial. The prosecution claimed Brandon and his wife conspired together to commit this murder and cover it up. His wife (now ex-wife) claimed she loved the victim and would never have hurt her – it must have been Brandon. Brandon’s defense was that after breaking up a fight between the two women he told them to take it outside. After they didn’t return for quite some time, he checked up on them only to discover his wife with the woman’s dead body inside their garage. He agreed to cover it up to keep his pregnant wife out of jail. In Pennsylvania you can be found guilty of the same crime as the perpetrator if you aid in covering up the crime. As the jury convicted them both of murder but acquitted them of conspiracy, I feel that they agreed with his side of the story. As do I.
I managed to get time off for most of the trial and was there when the verdict came down. I, among others, didn’t think he should marry this girl. At times, I feel I betrayed him again. Maybe, just maybe, I could’ve made him listen to reason. His mother, his sister, other friends who lived closer all tried to tell him not to marry her – but I held my tongue. What if I was the only one who could’ve talked him out of it? He’d be a free man, a chemist, possibly a happily married father of four, like me. (It turns out she had lied about the pregnancy a few days prior, as Brandon was considering leaving her at that point.)
Since his incarceration, I’ve visited him three times and written some letters. This hasn’t been nearly enough. He needs friends as he sits and fights through the appeals courts – one day at a time. Months ago he was transferred from the state prison which had been his home for the last 12-plus year to the county prison within the jurisdiction he was tried. Hopefully the length of his stay is a sign that things are going well – and I pray each and every day that they are.
Although I’m far more apt to write at length than to speak at length, I try to keep my blog posts short. I’m a firm believer in “brevity is the soul of wit.” This has certainly been an exception. I apologize if it’s been rambling at times, but I just needed to get all this out somewhere. I guess I could’ve just summed it all up in four simple words.
I miss my friend.