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And there goes Bruno.

As an oddball kid at his school, Bruno was ostracized by the other kids. They hated him because he read books, and he was smart, and he was big and fat. This was a long time ago, when most American kids weren't yet overweight, so Bruno was ahead of his time.

We lived miles apart, so Bruno and I attended different schools. I wasn't fat until my mid-20s, but like Bruno, I was bullied by the other kids, and sometimes by the teachers.

Bruno was my first friend, my best friend all through childhood, and for a long while he was my only friend. I was the only friend he had, too, but just one day a week.

His family and mine went to the same church. We were the same age, and in the same Sunday School class, and it became our refuge from the horrors of the other five or six days. At church, the other kids didn't know we were freaks, so we weren't freaks. For a few hours we were happy, outgoing kids instead.

I often sat with his family during the sermon, or he'd sit with my family. Usually one of us went home with the other's family, so we spent most Sunday afternoons together. Bruno's family lived just a few blocks from the church, and my family was extremely Christian — every Sunday after morning worship, we returned for the evening service too, even though it was the same pastor preaching the same damned sermon — so our Sunday switch-offs were logistically easy for both sets of parents.

When we were 7 or 8, and we'd already been best buddies for years, Bruno said something to me one Sunday. "My life as a kid sucks," he said. "I spend five days a week in school, surrounded by kids who mostly want nothing to do with me, and a few who threaten me, punch me, laugh at me. Saturdays are so much better, because I'm alone with the cartoons in the morning and my books in the afternoon. And Sundays are the best, because I spend Sundays with you." And I felt the same way about Bruno, and about Sundays.

Whenever we ran out of things to talk about, Bruno talked about fish. The guy could've had gills. Our home town didn't even have a decent public aquarium, but Bruno had a big aquarium in his family's living room and a smaller one in his bedroom, and he always wanted to be a marine biologist. Me, I never knew what I wanted to be. Still don't.

We were in his family's storage shed one Sunday afternoon, where there was a mess of random hardware, including a toilet that wasn't connected to anything. Just porcelain, no plumbing. I'd never seen a toilet without water in it, so of course Bruno and I both took a dump in it. We thought that was hilarious, but his mom didn't. When I visited the next Sunday she made us go back to the shed with a bucket and some rags and clean up our shit.

Another time, when Bruno was at my house for Sunday dinner, we were walking around the neighborhood, and I mentioned that we shouldn't go down 99th Street. Bob Schenk lived in the pink house halfway down the block, and Schenk was my most feared tormentor at school, so of course I knew where he lived, and avoided not just his house but his entire block.

Bruno had a better idea. Nobody in the neighborhood knew Bruno, so he volunteered to walk down 99th Street without me, but he told me to watch from a secure vantage point across the cross street. "You'll enjoy this," he said, and I did. To my surprise and delight, Bruno pulled a rock from his pocket and launched it through the Schenk family's front window — crash! — and then he just kept walking. "Running away," he said to me afterwards, "would have made me the prime suspect." Bruno, being the fat kid, wasn't much for running anyway.

Only a month or so later, we were hanging out at a park near my house, and who comes lumbering up to us? That bastard, Bob Schenk. He was alone, though, unaccompanied by his team of fellow bastards, so he called me by my actual name, instead of my cruel school nickname. He asked me to introduce my friend, and I thought maybe this was a trap, but he couldn't beat up both of us, could he? Especially cuz Bruno was so big.

The three of us talked, and we flew on the swings, and Schenk never said a word about his front window that Bruno had shattered. For half an hour we were three normal kids, talking about TV shows and chocolate chip cookies and the horror of getting socks for Christmas. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my youth, and to this day, that afternoon informs my understanding of human awfulness and amazingness. Bruno was surprised, afterwards, when I told him who we'd been talking with, and the next day at school, of course, that friendly kid at the playground again wasn't a friend of mine.

When we were a little older, Bruno and I masturbated together several times, in the basement at his house and at mine. It wasn't a sexual thing, though. We had our dicks out and we were stroking them, but it was just a competition. First one to finish got the prize — we gambled for possession of each other's comic books and porno. At our age and in that era, a single, stained copy of Playboy was a treasure more valuable than moon rocks.

When I was old enough to move out on my own, I stopped coming to church on Sundays, but by then Bruno and I were best friends on other days of the week. Before he had chairs in his apartment, he'd set up his aquarium, only now it was a bigger aquarium stocked with more esoteric fish. He had a good job where they offered help with tuition, so he was still thinking he'd maybe go to college and study marine biology.

We didn't drift apart until my early twenties, when I had my first serious girlfriend, leaving not much time in my life for Bruno. When the girl was out of town for a week, though, I called Bruno and we did whatever semi-normal men in their early twenties do together — food, movies, etc, but no more masturbation duets. Sometimes, depending on everything else in the world, we'd go a month or two without talking, but when we got together it was like we'd never been apart.

As adults, it was especially fun that we disagreed about everything. He thought abortion ought to be illegal. He thought Captain Kirk shouldn’t have disobeyed orders, in Star Trek 3. He thought America needed to project military strength across Europe, to stand against the communists. He thought Good Times was funnier than MASH. He was still a Christian, even teaching a Sunday School class; I was an atheist (and still am). We could talk about almost anything, and he was wrong about almost everything, but he was usually right about fish, and we never took our arguments personally. The debates sharpened my mind, taught me to not just have an opinion, but to articulate why I held that opinion, and to have the guts to retreat when I was wrong. Although with Bruno, I was never wrong.

Eventually I came to the turning point in my life: I was weary of passing for normal. I wanted to change a lot of things about me, and that included the setting of my life story, so I'd decided that I was leaving town. The destination didn't matter, and hadn't even been decided; what mattered was the departure.

I asked a few friends, one by one, to accompany me. Mark, my second-best friend, said "No way, are you nuts?" Margaret, my then semi-sort of-girlfriend, said "I'm not that kind of girl," but she actually was that kind of girl, just not with me. And Bruno, my best friend, said "I'll have to think about it." He kept thinking about it, while I planned it. As D-Day came closer and I asked again, he was still mulling it over. I stopped at his apartment on my way out of town to give him a hug goodbye.

Several years later, a much different and happier me returned for a brief visit with my family, and I spent an afternoon with Bruno. And again, same as always, our friendship hadn't suffered from the separation. We picked up topics exactly where we'd dropped them long ago, and we still disagreed about almost everything. We had fish and chips for lunch that day, and I ribbed him for eating the things he loved. He still had an aquarium in his living room, and he was still talking about maybe going to college and becoming a marine biologist, though by then we were well into our 30s. I gave him another hug at the end of our afternoon, and never saw him again.

He was a big guy, so I guess a heart attack was always coming for him. His came while he was feeding the fish in his apartment, and Bruno took his fish with him when he went. His fall toppled and shattered the aquarium. He lived alone, so it could have been a month before his body was discovered, but the water seeped through to the apartment below, so the neighbor called the landlord, and Bruno and his many fabulous fish only laid on the carpet for a day.

And there goes Bruno. We disagreed about more things than we agreed about, but always cordially, and we disagreed about whether to follow our dreams. He was a good man, but not many people knew it, because he was always a recluse like me. But to me, he was a good friend, one of few.

 

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