We all endured Cotter the Marine, (as we had started calling him) and often his idiosyncrasies could bring us to laughter, but it was always bittersweet because we knew he would never know us, and we could never know him. The biggest gesture of faith in another person is to open yourself up to be read, to say "Here I am! This is me, in all my flawed and irrational glory, and I want you to know who I am!" Had I been able to do this for Cotter, I would have told him one or all of the following things:
1) When I lie I fidget with the contents of my pockets. I believe I inherited this tell from my father, who did the same thing - leaving me to wonder if I was as cluelessly obvious as he seemed to me.
2) I have a crippling fear of both rejection and ladybugs. I can explain neither.
3) The Brooke Situation. (That we were 'just friends', but only after drinking tequila and having sex.)
4) When I was eight, a boy named Chester Frieze who was two grades above me made a comment about how his parents were still together while mine got divorced and I beat his face against the ground until it was bloody and raw. Two friends pulled me off, and because he was terrified and embarrassed he never told anyone what really happened. Neither did I.
5) Bach's 'Air on the G String' makes me cry and I don't know why.
These are the things that comprise me, these and a million other faint bits of emotional and transactional detritus. I'm not the guy who studies English, likes radiohead, and dresses in out-dated flannel shirts. I'm the guy who has a terrible jump shot because of a childhood wrist injury, the guy who has deep-seated abandonment issues, the guy who ate an entire envelope on a dare. These are my rafters and girders.
And so one day, Cotter and I walking back from the highly suspect Thai food truck perpetually parked on the corners of Dawson Street and Forbes Avenue, I asked about his family.
"Yeah. Well. You know, they're back in South Carolina."
"Who are they? You have any brothers or sisters? What about your parents?"
"Oh. I have a little brother. Pete. Mom misses me. What else is there."
"What about your dad?"
Cotter's face hardened. I had struck upon something kinetically bad, and I knew it right away, like when you can tell by the feel of the room that the distant relative you just asked about had recently been killed in a decidedly gruesome manner - pecked to death by small, flightless birds or cremated by accident during a blast furnace tour.
"Yeah." [pause] "Dad was a rough guy."
All I knew about his father was that he had been a Navy SEAL and Cotter's upbringing had been a military one. This scant information left me with little to go on, but my mind's eye, in it's swift, pathological glory, conjured up curled stop-motion glimpses of taut, unforgiving bedsheets, dinnertime role calls, and dustless, unremarkable rooms devoid of ornamentation or color. Like morbid vacation slides, they hung askew in my brain.
Cotter looked at me. I mean, he looked me in the eye, something he usually reserved for the moments immediately prior to a headlock or a bludgeoning of some kind. "I don't really want to talk about it. Yeah." He was smiling still, (I only saw one face the entire time I knew Cotter, and it was this one. He had the same thin smile on his face when he told me about the girls he slept with that he had when he told me about the first time he watched someone die.) I had become somewhat accustomed to the smile, and I could usually see the anger or disappointment that lay just under the surface, hiding in his jawline and under his cheekbones. This was the first, and only, time I saw fear.
I'm not gonna say that I was right, or that it made sense, but for whatever reason I became outraged. He had never been open to me, or any of the people who would always refer to him haphazardly as a "friend," and I don't know why it was this particular night and subject that did it to me.
I said "You're fucking amazing," and told him that I still didn't have the slightest idea who he was, and that I was sick of trying to have logical conversations with him. I stormed off, unaware of where I was heading, blinded by self-righteousness. Past the student union, past the twin dorm towers, When I cleared slightly, I saw that I was underneath the entrance to Megan's dorm building. Megan was a girl I had been close with the previous year - close enough to know that she liked getting bitten, but not close enough to know what her tongue piercing was truly good for.
I called up to her room from the lobby, and was surprised to hear someone else answer. I knew she had a roommate, Danny, but I had never met her. The voice that buzzed me up cracked; She was in tears. At the time I was clueless as to why, but looking backward through retrospect's significantly more reliable pupils, I have a strong feeling that anyone could have stumbled onto this quaking, unraveled little girl. Anyone could have gotten buzzed up.
And witnessing what I was about to, anyone could have fallen for her.