I spent most of my childhood alone. I had a step brother who was much older than me. He had to go to a mental hospital when I was five. He was in and out of them for a while after that. I don’t remember all that much of it, but my mother was completely distracted by it during the years that it was going on, and she sort of forgot about me. I guess she just assumed Dad would take care of me.
But then my Dad, well, he had this other daughter from his first marriage and she had had a kid a few years back but had refused to stop going out and partying. They were living in a caravan out the back of our house. We lived basically in the middle of nowhere, so she just used to leave for days at a time. She never told anyone when she’d be back or where she was going. The kid was my age, but she hadn’t even been properly toilet trained. And then, all that neglect had made her really badly behaved and desperate for attention. So Dad was pretty pre-occupied with trying to take care of her. I guess he just assumed that mum would take care of me.
With everyone assuming that someone else was taking care of me, I ended up slipping through the cracks, so to speak.
I didn’t mind so much. I’ve never really been one to crave attention. But even someone who is naturally introverted eventually begins to feel the weight of all that time alone. And the thing is, even when I was with my parents, I was still alone. They knew I was there, they could see me, they could hear me; they just didn’t seem to care. I was always brushed over, pushed to the side, left and forgotten. That’s when you really start to feel it. True loneliness. Deep, penetrating and constant. The kind of loneliness that changes people. It can only be born for so long before you feel that you must do something to relieve it. I’m sure there are as many different possible reactions to it as there are people in the world, but for me, as a child of five, I reacted by closing myself off. I developed an imagined world of my own in which I could live happily, with or without other people. I interacted as much as was necessary, but for the most part, I was totally disconnected. In fact, it wasn’t until high school that I even made any friends. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but for all of primary school, I didn’t have one single friend. Not a friend, no. But I did have something else…
The primary school I went to was very small and out of the way. We lived about halfway between two cities, in a sort of no-mans-land. There were only 12 kids in my class (5 girls, 7 boys) and less than 100 in the whole school. We never got new students. But in my final year there, a new boy came along. He was exactly like me. He didn’t make any friends and he didn’t really speak much as far as I could tell. Despite this commonality, we never made friends and we never once spoke a word to each other.
But then he started the strangest thing. Every afternoon, when the bell rang, we were supposed to put our chairs up on our desks. To help out the cleaners I suppose. I’m not sure exactly when he started doing it, but every afternoon, he would come from his desk (at the opposite end of the room) and put my chair up for me. If I started to do it myself, he would take it from me – gently, but with a firmness that told me it was useless to resist. This went on the entire year. Not a word was ever exchanged.
I didn’t quite know how to feel about this peculiar interaction he had started. In part I was annoyed by it; it felt like an invasion and that bothered me. But at the same time, I always felt this building excitement as 3 o’clock drew nearer. It was something that was ours, it was shared. And it may have been tiny, but it was totally out of the ordinary. I can’t even put words to it. The best way I can describe it is that it was an acknowledgment of each other and the seclusion we both existed in that didn’t require us breaking that seclusion and thus breaking the very thing that tied us together.
As I said, this went on the entire year, without a word being said. On the last day of school, we were all sent out to collect a handful of rubbish from the school grounds. I think we had to have 20 decent sized pieces each. Once we had displayed our rubbish to our teacher, we would be free to go home.
He had put my chair up for me again that day. I felt… well, I didn’t know how I felt really. It was the last day of school. The last time we would see each other. The last time he would put my chair up for me. It had happened. And it had been the same as every time before that. I felt a bit stupid for caring. But I’d somehow thought there would be something more. I’d grown to have a deep connection to him, just through this simple act. We had spent barely any time in each other’s company. We had exchanged no words. We hadn’t even touched. But he had infiltrated my world. And he had gotten deeper than anyone had ever gotten before.
I was angry at myself for letting him get to me. My own parents didn’t care about me, so why should he? It was just some meaningless game to him. This train of thought was about to lead me into an all-out internal assault on myself, but then I stopped. He was there.
I had stooped to pick up my last piece of rubbish, and when I raised myself up again, there he was, right in front of me. I stood and looked at him, wondering what he was going to do. For some reason, I felt that the situation was out of my hands. If he hadn’t done anything I think we’d probably still be standing there staring at each other. But he did do something. He reached out and took my arms in his hands. It was the first time we had even touched. Then he leaned in and kissed me, softly, on the lips. I lost all sense of time and space. The rubbish I had collected fell to the ground. I don’t know how long it lasted, but at some point I became aware of the fact that it was over and he was gone.
We never saw each other again after that. But somehow, it felt complete.
I ‘came out of my shell’, as my mother likes to put it, during high school. I have friends, I’ve had relationships, I even developed a closeness with my parents. But sometimes it all just feels so superfluous, so empty. No relationship I’ve had, of any kind, has ever felt as real or as deep as that first unspoken bond I shared with the boy who gave me my first kiss.