He was my best friend in 2nd grade
and 3rd grade and maybe 4th grade too. I don’t remember
when it happened exactly, but he had a sledding accident
at the bottom of that hill we called Bunker Hill
in somebody’s backyard, and I don’t remember
why we called it Bunker Hill or who came up with that name,
and it may have been the other hill,
the adjacent hill, the one we called Devil’s Pit,
and it’s possible it wasn’t even somebody’s backyard
but one of those diminutive wildernesses
that grew between the backyards and the houses in my one and only
childhood. But he was my best friend
and then he had that accident and then
he was in the hospital for a long time because I think he broke his neck,
which was something people said, like careful you don’t break your neck,
but I think he really did and I don’t
remember visiting him in the hospital and I don’t
remember what happened to him after that–
I think he may have gone to another school,
a school for kids in the hospital
or a school for handicapped kids, and I think I remember
seeing him once in one of those neck braces–
I think they call it a halo brace–it was screwed to his head,
but I could be imagining that because what I imagine
has completely overgrown what I remember,
the way a diminutive wilderness will overgrow
and swallow up a house where no one has lived in years.
Years later, I googled him and found him online–
he’s an orthopedic surgeon now with a thriving practice
and gray hair and a neat beard in that photo of him on the hospital website,
and I emailed him through the website
and asked him if he remembered me.
I reminded him that we were best friends in the 2nd grade.
I asked him if he remembered what happened exactly,
how had we lost touch and wasn’t it good to be in touch again?
But he didn’t reply.
But I didn’t give up because I had so many questions
and we were best friends once, so I emailed him again
and asked him about the sledding accident
and if it was what inspired him to become an orthopedic surgeon,
and he didn’t reply again, and after a third email and no reply
I called the hospital and left a message for him.
I finally got a reply. It was short.
He said he preferred not to engage with me.
He used the word engage.
I was puzzled, angry, hurt.
I tried to remember what happened but I couldn’t remember.
And now I think it’s possible that I abandoned him–
I mean after the accident I don’t remember but I imagine
that maybe I didn’t know how to be with him,
because he couldn’t come out and play,
because he was in traction and he couldn’t move,
because he had broken his neck,
which wasn’t just something people said but something that happened to people,
and maybe that freaked me out and maybe I stopped
calling him, and maybe I stopped being his friend.
I really don’t remember.
But I imagine he remembers.
I don’t remember being that young–
nobody does. I don’t remember
when I didn’t know anything, and thought
it was all about me, and my mother
didn’t disabuse me of that thought,
which gave rise to other thoughts
about the world and everything in it,
thoughts I’ve been carrying around
in the world ever since I arrived
in the world. And now that I know
a thing or two, or think I know a thing or two,
I can’t remember not knowing anything,
can’t remember looking at my own hand as if
it weren’t mine, putting it in my mouth–
putting everything in my mouth–to know it.
And how do I know a thing now?
How do I know anything now?
We spend our lives learning the world
by heart, putting everything in our hearts
and minds to know it. But we don’t know it. Not
really. I think if I could just see my hand again
the way I did when I didn’t know anything
I would suddenly understand everything.
I would put my hand to my mouth the way
you do when you learn something shocking.
PAUL HOSTOVSKY makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, the Muriel Craft Bailey Award from Comstock Review, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and the Best American Poetry blog. His forthcoming book of poems is Pitching for the Apostates (2024, Kelsay Books).