I thought we would meet again and again. We were so close once that I assumed his star and mine were somehow twinned, not by fate, by the lure of likeness of mind, the coalescing strands of enthusiasm who form a friendship. But we were sent to different schools, then his family moved out west, and the years passed without us seeing each other again.
When I learned that he had, at 10, read the novel Butterfly, it was like finally meeting a child from the same planet as me; a kid from Mars, a kid from Venus, a boy from Neptune, a kid who had run down the Mississippi and sniffed the harsh air of the Bastille. Every other kid I knew thought Nagambie was exotic and Murray a wild frontier. They thought our local jail housed fascinating rascals rather than payday drunks. He and I were the only kids I knew who read books, secretly visiting other worlds. Fortunately, with enthusiasm, we began to embark on romantic expeditions together. What page did you get to last night? Have you reached Devil’s Island? And these lepers?
My siblings knew I read, and they denounced me as a bookworm, all of whom remained staunchly illiterate. But outside our home my passion for reading was hidden before meeting him. Reading was a compensatory pastime for children unable to kick a ball or do pirouettes sur pointes, who were not chosen for the team. It was one of those activities in class that the teachers forced you to do on pain of detention. So finding someone else who read for joy, with enthusiasm, someone who reveled in language, drama, history and thought, legitimized reading for me not just as an activity valid, but also dangerous, risky, noble and enlarging. It was like finding the other gay in the village. The other communist. The other scientist.
I had suspected I was onto something powerful, too, but until we got together to affirm each other’s suspicions, we both doubted our strange passion. Without his enthusiasm, mine would not have been possible or, in any case, would have remained secret, and perhaps never would have been fleshed out. So I am eternally grateful to him.
Back then, I was infected with love as easily and as often as ringworm, and every time my heart broke from a girl who didn’t know I existed, we sat outside. in the anguish of starry cicadas and he denounced this girl. character and questioning her judgment and telling me she couldn’t be trusted – she was another Madame Bovary. What a good friend and passionate romantic he was to turn my oblivious crushes (just hopscotch girls) into scarlet women.
We met only once as adults, in the atrium of a big hotel where I was staying, in the town where he lived, very far from here. I was visiting this city as a guest of a literary festival, writing my latest novel. I remember being a little embarrassed by the strength of our shared enthusiasm for books when we were boys. Were we snobs back then? Certainly, we had considered ourselves the first two boys to enter the land of literature. Perhaps we had been a little proud of ourselves to find novels. But in our defense, no one in our hometown mentioned books, so they seemed to be our discovery.
We reminisced quietly in the atrium, testing our memories to see what they were worth to us now. Our friendship had been based on mutual risk, opening up and confessing an unorthodox passion, sharing stories that other people had written; exotic, exciting, tales filled with betrayal and nobility. But one of us had already forgotten some books. He didn’t have time to read these days, he said.
He had become a thoughtful man, a measured man, immersed and expert in an obscure branch of law, a professor. He paused, thinking before speaking. That’s how I knew we weren’t friends anymore – we filtered our thoughts. He had broken up with his wife, but they were quite civil, he told me. Every morning he went to the house that was once theirs, now his, to prepare school meals for his children before going to university. I was saddened that he told me that he no longer read. It was as if he announced the death of Huck Finn.