When I first moved to Exeter, New Hampshire – it was a strange experience. My mother was friends with a lady neighbor, and this neighbor had a brother. He and my mom got together, eventually, and he whisked us all away to his home in a higher-end trailer park from our roach-infested apartment in Lewiston, Maine.
At first, I was a little worried about not fitting in. My siblings and I were all from a poor household, and my mom’s new boyfriend was more middle class and so were the new neighbors. Most of them had decent cars (we hadn’t even had a car), the lady in one of the trailers next door was older and screamed at us if we encroached on her side of the yard, and most of the kids in school hated me.
No, they really did.
When I first arrived at the junior high the attention was sort of a benign curiosity. I stayed under the radar and nobody quite picked up on my presence until the next year or so, in my freshman year of high school. That’s when the bullying floodgates opened.
In class, girls would actually dare each other to walk up to me and touch my hair, which was mullet-long and greasy. I would feel a quick tap on the back of my head and then pretend not to notice as I heard the girl run away and then everyone start laughing and making fun of my shoes, my family, my home state, my hygiene, etc.
In gym class, my desperate physical education teacher took me aside. “Look,” he said. “All you gotta’ do to pass this class is change in the locker room. Shower. Like everyone else.” I flat-out refused, and was labeled as a problem child. Of course, the teacher never knew or cared that if I did enter the locker room, being that I was physically behind everyone by one year, I was immediately surrounded and antagonized.
During one particular day in the gym before the teacher’s speech to me, I was surrounded, whipped with towels, shoved into the walls. My antagonizers said things like “I bet his balls haven’t even dropped yet, the little faggot.”
In another instance, a group of boys rode to our trailer on bikes and threw a rock through one of our windows in pure hatred.
So you can guess that I didn’t really have a lot of friends. I got some later, in my sophomore year, but it was a long first year of high school for me in Exeter. Enter Erik Caswell, my young next door neighbor.
I can’t recall how exactly I met Erik, but I think it was almost solely because he lived directly next door and we were a big group of kids. But I do recall that before I hung out with him, I had somehow gotten around to hanging with a couple of younger kids, a brother and sister, on the outskirts of the trailer park where people had actual homes. Their parents were nice, and I think Erik hung out with them with me, and maybe that’s how I met him.
But at some point, the father took me aside and quietly told me that he didn’t think I should be playing with his kids, that I should find kids my own age. I told him about my problems with other kids my age, and he sort of just softly apologized and told me to keep trying and that they’d eventually accept me.
Instead, I just hung out with Erik.
Erik was a very small kid. He kind of had a squeaky voice (at the time) and he had a birthmark on the left side of his face and neck. The birthmark didn’t bother me at all because I had a rather large one on my own back. Soon, Erik and I were hanging out in the yard playing with action figures or he’d try one of the various board games I created in summer school. And then, later on, his parents met me and met my mom and stepdad and I was over there all the time, playing Sega Genesis and eating snacks.
Erik was a good companion to me during my first troubled years in Exeter, and somewhere along the line we kind of lost touch. I became a brooding, troubled teenager who was into impressing girls and joining gangs and setting the trailer on fire during impromptu parties.
Sometime around 2012, we found each other on Facebook again. He grew up and joined the military, and then moved to Europe. This is what he looks like today.
Recently, a couple summers ago, I had a RUN IN WITH A DEER. My car was totaled, and many of my graduate school program friends told me I should set up a GoFundMe account so they could help me out. I did, and I ended up getting a few thousand bucks which helped me put a down payment on a new car and also on a new apartment since I had to leave my living situation at the time as well. One of the biggest contributors was Erik, all the way from Europe. He had gotten one or two of his military buddies to chip in, and he was not only insistent that he help out – he wanted to help me reach my goal before my goal was actually reached by everyone else.
It was a super-kind gesture on his part, and seems to be part of who Erik is as a person. We haven’t caught up in person in years but we have plans to in the future. I definitely owe him a beer (or, y’know, hundreds). When I told him recently about how much his friendship meant to me when we were younger, he simply said the following:
“Haha, no problem. I remember. You were pretty much my best friend at the time, honestly.”
Glad I met the guy, and proud to know him.