Everyone with a passing romantic interest in boys has a First Boy. The First Boy isn’t necessarily your first love or your first crush or the first musician you write fanfic about. But somewhere in the hallways and over-cluttered closets of the mind, there’s a tastefully reserved pedestal, with dark green velvety walls and a refined marble bust, and a little placard, just for them.
Chris was a gangly kangaroo as a kid; carrot-orange hair, skin born from a fjord, freckly, big-toothed. He was the youngest son of a family that felt like our kindred; not by blood, but by shared eccentricities. A couple of times a year, they’d decamp to our house for an early summer or late fall weekend. Mom would buy fancy croutons and bake granola, rare treats only reserved for royalty, as far as I knew. The four parents would howl together at the dinner table with the wine, recalling the 60s. The pack of us kids, nine in all, would sprawl in our tiny living room floor on blankets and have a “picnic.” We’d sip our own wine — Martinelli’s, in a juice glass or sundae cup or 49ers mug, whatever was left in the cupboard — and watch Ghostbusters, and eat blackberry cobbler, staining our faces with berries from the backyard.
The two families aligned like halves of a moon for seventeen years; every time my mother had a kid, her friend wouldn’t be far behind. Four times in a row, they prodded each other through nearly synchronized pregnancies. Once, when her friend was suffering with anemia during pregnancy, and the families still lived blocks apart in San Francisco, mom would stop by every afternoon and cook her a bloody steak. They’d split a beer, two women studiously growing their families and unconcerned with the advice of stupid male doctors. Our families became mirror images; one boy and three girls in ours, one girl and three boys in theirs. We split into little age-appropriate pairs. Chris was their youngest, born months apart from my sister, Clare. And then, accidentally, there was me, born five years too late, and without a mirror.
I determined I would steal Chris.
What do you say about the first boy you notice? When you’re too young for romance or even adolescence, but you recognize one as different and intriguing; a puppy seeing a kitten for the first time? The five year age gap between my sister and I was cavernous, and hostile — no one forgives a usurper of taking away the “baby of the family” role — but Chris didn’t care about that. To me, he was kind, and funny, and thought I was hilarious. He christened me “Miss Moosie,” and led a small but well-attended parade whereby they all took turns dragging me around the house on my blanket, praising my graciousness while I waved to adoring subjects and stuffed animals.
On our weekends together, my sister would very clearly note I was not invited on their adventures. Chris would find a way to sneak me in. We put on circuses in the backyard, and concocted plays and battles against dragons. He was risking a lot by dragging me along; he was desperately infatuated with my sister as we all spun like tops into adolescence, and who wouldn’t be? She was blond and thin and rode magnificent horses, and she had friends and understood what to wear (Gap flannels and Rocky and Bullwinkle boxers, which I stole.) But to me, five years younger, chubby, glasses wearing, lonely, his welcome never wore out. He was the first boy to make sure I knew I was worth something, that I should be let in to the party. How much danger did he lead me away from, in later situations with less kind boys, through such a simple assertion?
In our teen years, when divorce hit our mirror family, and the older kids aged into college and beyond, Chris kept visiting. The wine-soaked weekends of hearty hikes and raucous readings of Mark Twain’s “My Long Crawl in the Dark” were gone forever, but Chris stayed close. He’d trek up through the Bay Area by bus in the summer and spend a week sleeping on our couch. I’d be anxious and cranky before he visited, certain that this year, surely, he’d be as sick of me as my siblings. That he’d head off to their parties and secret smoking spots, and reveal to me the kid I still was. Instead, the last time I remember him visiting, a hot, dry August that seems to crackle in my mind, he told me that he wish he lived with us, that this was the best week of his summer. And I lit up inside like a small sun; some spark of confidence — both in myself and in my family — that would burn brightly in me for a million years.
Chris died last year. Too soon, and too tragically to bear.
We didn’t know each other well as adults. He was in a rock band with a reputation for wild, thrasher concerts, and then became an ENT. I always loved to think of him at his job; I’ve been in a few ambulances, and I knew by instinct Chris would be the best kind of ENT there is: kind and confident, making his patients laugh on the way to the hospital. There was no question that the boy who could see little dumpy, lonely me through the bright sheen of my family would make every person he cared for feel important, and safe. How many people did he soothe during one of the scariest moments of their lives? How many remember his red hair and face-splitting smile, a bright spot in the worst day?
At forty, I worry about touching so few people in my life. I may not be the kind of person people dread when I enter a room, but I don’t think many look forward to me coming in, either. We’re here such an unspecified amount of time, and every day is filled with an obstacle course to get from one side to the other. How many people take the time to stop on top of the monkey bars or while you’re belly-crawling through mud under barbed wire and say to their fellow traveler, “hey, at least it’s not snow!” You don’t need to live very long to save people, to set them on safer roads. Chris did that for me when I was six and he was eleven, and he does it still now that I’m forty and he is still the age he was last year.
When I think of him, he’s still a kid, a mischievous grin blooming as he lisps out some funny lines from Monty Python, a gentleness suffusing his whole presence, even when he tried to look tough. After all, we’re always every age, and the gift of connection grants us access to that shifting persona. We’re as young as the day we met someone who changed our lives, we’re as beautiful as the day they changed us, we’re as old as the memories last. Legacy isn’t just born from longevity, it flows through compassion. And by that measure, my First Boy will live as long as I do, and beyond.