February 11, 2002

Gum

My tenth birthday party

My best friend growing up was Richard Sauginkan. My mother says we met by crashing our pedal cars together, but I don’t really remember it. In fact I barely remember Richard at all.

I have only one photo of him, taken at my tenth birthday. He sits to my left, wearing a light brown jacket and holding a slice of pizza in his mouth and making a peace sign. If it weren’t for this photo, I would have no way of knowing what he looked like. He looked like Sal Mineo.

But for all I’ve forgotten, I do remember this: everyone loved Richard. I recall my mother saying how gorgeous he was. And it was true: he was a looker. And not just a looker but a sweet-tempered kid.

When we were ten, Richard convinced two neighborhood girls to play kissing games with us. I would have given anything to kiss either girl, but it was clear they both preferred Richard. Not that I minded so much. Of course it hurt when Lisa Rothman kept turning her head away during Seven Minutes in Heaven, but I had no problem with either girl liking Richard. Richard glowed.

When we were eleven, he and his family moved to Syracuse. We said goodbye in the street, standing next to his family’s station wagon, which was packed full with boxes. After Richard got into the car, I walked around back and stuck the piece of gum I was chewing under the fender.

I don’t believe that Richard and I ever corresponded, and then, years later, I learned that he died at nineteen of a heroin overdose.

That was twenty-three years ago. And it’s been thirty-one years since I watched his family’s station wagon turn onto the next street.

In thinking about that day, I imagine it must have been traumatic to watch my best friend drive away like that; but the truth is, I don’t remember it. My last memory, as well as my most vivid, is of sticking the gum under the fender. If memories were like films, the screen would go black at that moment and the credits would begin to roll.