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Last updated on December 24th, 2017 at 11:17 am

By Olivia Schwartzman

Lawrence is my neighbor. I am nine, and he is ten, and it is summer. We sit on the road, lined with flat prairie grass for as far as we can both imagine, wearing heat like weights on our heads. Our shirts stick. I pick at some loose gravel with my little fingers. It is a day that wraps the world up in warm fluid, making everything move sluggish and slow, as if swimming through molasses sun drunk. Lawrence is lying beside me, and I look down at him to see his fraying shorts, his skinny legs, and two knobby things, two dirty, pretty knees that look as if they haven’t quite hardened yet. I blink, and under my eyelids I imagine running so fast the trees are a blur, the only substantial image the mountains on the dry plain.

Weeks later Lawrence and I are walking on the road when we find a dead squirrel. It is perfectly intact. Lawrence turns it over with a stick. Its eyes are blank, its stomach slightly distended. We both stand, too skinny and too tall for our age. We know we are looking at something important, something huge and too monstrous to hold on to the concept of. Lawrence will be eleven in one week exactly. For the first time in our little lives, so short compared to the men on the porches of the old houses chewing tobacco next to their wives reading drug store paperbacks, lines in their eyes and on their ears, we consider death as a being. It is standing near us, and I feel sorry for death, because nobody will ever love it, nobody will ever free it. The hot road burns through my worn out shoes, and Lawrence says we should get back for lunch. We stay for a moment more, the universe expanding and August blossoming golden all around us.

We are growing and becoming less and less ourselves, we are growing and we are lost in things we do not understand. When I am thirteen I catch a blue-black beetle with one white spot, a beetle I have never seen before. I put it in a jar and I show Lawrence, and he looks at it for a minute and wonders aloud, how many other beetles haven’t we seen? And for some reason I begin to cry, and he doesn’t know what to do, because looking out over the plain I realize there must be billions of little bugs that we have never seen, and each bug has a name and a species and it is a part of the world and performs a function and we never knew, we never knew it wasn’t only crickets serenading us to sleep, we never knew the world went so much farther beyond the road and the mountains. Lawrence hugs me in a clumsy way. I tell him he can keep the beetle. I tie my shoes and start walking home, with an absent head and a feeling of sadness in my soul.

At sixteen Lawrence and I sip whiskey on a winter night, darkness tracing the new lines of our bodies in the cold. Neither of us can stand the taste of alcohol, and we both want to vomit, but we would never admit it to each other. We feel as if we are going through some rite of passage. We feel as if we are doing something dangerous, something secretive, and we both feel nervous and excited because we’ve always wondered. Soon enough we feel as if we don’t need our hats and mittens, and half of the shiny glass bottle has disappeared, and for a moment anything seems possible and we kiss, lips not quite hitting right, teeth exposed in laughs that are attempting to fill the empty space of nervousness. We will never mention the kiss again. Each of us will remember it in pieces, only acknowledging that it occurred when it is late at night under wool blankets and long johns. It is too dark to see each other, so dark that we could be anywhere, we could be floating out in space endlessly. When we think about this we curl up into tight little balls so as not to let our limbs and lives drift away into other worlds.

Years pass. I move away, Lawrence marries, we work and we become substantial beings. I come home when my parents die, a simple man and a Christian woman who kept prayers in the back of their pickup and God’s will in the leather seats. I visit Lawrence, and he is the same, but with more lines and a larger shoe size. We stand on the bridge overlooking the bank where the geese sleep, their heads bent tightly to their chests, forever dreaming in respectful mourning. In the fading light, anyone of them could be a swan. In the fading light, our sorrows could be spelled in the wind, a cold gust that causes blood and childhood to bloom in our cheeks. Our heads are empty as the sun sets heavily on our backs. Lawrence shows me a photograph of his daughter. How hard, he says, how hard it is to be young. I nod my head in agreement, marveling at the mechanisms of blood and veins and delicacy and life.