warnings: this is long, and part of it is disturbing.

I like war movies. War memoirs, too. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect that it’s largely due to the fact that I like to think about the way that people behave in extreme situations, particularly situations I have never encountered. I like to think about the way that I would behave in such situations (usually, my conclusions on this point are not that flattering; a post for another day).

High school is like war. I don’t mean that in some overwrought, My So-Called Life, teen angsty sort of way. What I mean is that during your childhood, your situation is something you have no power to change, and this becomes increasingly intolerable as you develop towards adulthood. You might as well be stuck in the trenches. And all the people around you are stuck there just the same. And if you live in a small town—especially if you live in a small town—there is a 90% chance you loathe everything about your situation. You look on adults as enemies and your hometown as a place you can’t wait to leave. All you have are your compatriots, your comrades-in-arms, your friends. And you are all counting the days until you get your discharge papers.

In the last episode of M*A*S*H, there’s a part where Hawkeye and B.J. talk about how they’ll meet up when they get home, despite living on opposite sides of the country. But what you know, and what they know, is that they never will. War exists outside of normal life; the person you are in war exists separately of the person you are at home. War changes you, but it remains inherently separate. Once you’re gone from it, that world ceases to exist. That person ceases to exist. You go home to your family, to your job, to your life. And all those people who were your friends in the trenches, as you faced the same unchosen fate together, suddenly you see all the ways you are different from them, all the gulfs that separate you. In some ways, you will always know each other; in others, you will never know each other. It’s a rare relationship that can survive in both worlds.

The other day, a friend of mine, one of the few I’ve kept from childhood, told me that a distant acquaintance of ours had been arrested for beating a four year old to death. Apparently, meth was involved. I don’t recall meeting this guy, but his name is familiar; I’m pretty sure he went to the school my mom worked at, which means she would know him. I know he has siblings; I’m not sure which of them I’ve met, but I know there are several.

Obviously, I found this horrifying. Who wouldn’t? The scant details in the paper paint a pretty bleak picture of the situation. But this also started me thinking, about the people I grew up with, about the relationships I once had, and the gulf that now separates me from them, these people who were once my fellow soldiers.

When I was in high school, it really did seem like generational warfare at times. My mother hated that most of my friends were older boys from the alternative school, despite the fact that she didn’t hold with the idea that being at an alternative high school made you bad. She worried they’d take advantage of me, or that they’d be a bad influence on me. I thought this was a patently ludicrous belief. Why, I argued, would I hang out with people who took advantage of me? After all, the big tough boys I ran with would have—and did—kick the ass of anyone they thought was bothering me, regardless of my feelings on the matter.

Where my mom saw drop outs, juvenile delinquents, and products of broken homes, I saw people who cared about me—manna from heaven for a girl who’d never had a lot of friends. By all standard reasoning, I should not have been friends with these guys. I was young, and shy, and I cared about school. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t listen to the right music, I didn’t have sex, I never said the right things. I was not cool. But they seemed to like me, for whatever reason. I really believed peer pressure was a myth for a time; none of my friends ever tried to make me do something I didn’t want to do. If I turned down a cigarette, they seemed impressed. If I left early to do my math homework, I was never teased.  The limits imposed by my curfew—and my unwillingness to break said, although they all understood that my mom was scary—were obnoxious, but that was just the way things were. I truly believed that these boys were good people, and that in worrying about their affect on me, my mother simply didn’t understand them. She wasn’t willing to believe in them, she didn’t know them the way I did, she didn’t understand the world I lived in, she had no faith in my judgment. Of course, in retrospect I see the areas for concern. I see how easily I could have gone awry, had I not been blindly forging my own weird path through life, had I not been absolutely dedicated to the idea of escaping my hometown, had I not been more scared of drugs than I was of social ostracism.

Over the years, these boys who surrounded me, who seemed smart even if they weren’t really into school, who seemed to have such good hearts and such potential—some of them have done what they talked about. They’ve moved on, they’ve moved up. And some of them have simply become their parents, living in the same shitty neighborhood, in the same shitty town, tied down to a spouse they don’t love and children they didn’t plan. I don’t mean to imply here that living in a small town or marrying young are de facto evidence that you’ve given up and failed at life. There’s no shame in choosing that life. But the feeling I get from many of these people I once knew is that they didn’t so much choose it as they let it choose them. They took the path of least resistance. Instead of going out and meeting the world and trying for something they wanted, they simply settled for what was there.

For the past few days, all I can think about is this past and how it’s changed, how far we’ve all grown from each other. We left the war, we made our choices. We became citizens, not soldiers bitterly fighting a war we hadn’t signed up for. We look at each other and we recognize the shared experience, the lives we led together years before, but they bear little relation to our lives now. We share nothing any more. And this man who did this horrible thing, at one time he was someone I could have known; he could have easily been among my circle of friends, he could have been one of those boys I believed in implicitly, one of those boys I defended. But now, ten years later, we are not those people any longer. Now I am a woman who thinks deeply about trivial shit like popular culture, and he is a man who ended a boy’s life.

We live long lives, if we’re lucky, and we change greatly across the course of them. But certain critical moments change us more than others: a war, for instance, or those years when we first become adults and start to make our own decisions. We may not always be the people we want to be, but we have more power to change our circumstances. We no longer have one common goal, one common path; we now have a multitude of roads to choose from, roads that lead us away from one another and the space we once called home.