“Did you hear Mason died?” Paul asks from the background. Our parents have me on speakerphone for our Sunday call; they’re visiting Paul.
“Mason? Mason Jones?” I ask, hoping I misunderstood. I had only been half listening while playing Solitaire on an iPad 2500 miles away.
“Yeah. I guess he died in 2013,” my brother answers.
My mind whirrs. I haven’t seen Mason in fifteen years. I didn’t know he was dead for three of those years. I haven’t really talked to him in over twenty years. “Was it drugs?” I hug knees to my chest, iPad still on my lap. Closing my eyes, I try imagining his face.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t find any details online. Mom heard from Mrs. Sherman.” Paul says. The Shermans, Mason’s parents, and mine had all been close.
“When did you find out?” I ask.
“A few weeks ago. We forgot to tell you, sorry,” my mom says sheepishly.
“How do you spell Mason?” I ask.
“M-a-s-o-n.” Paul says.
“No i?” I type on the iPad.
I find his Facebook profile. It says Remembering under his name, confirming it’s true – he’s dead. Mason Jones. No “i.” From Sweet Valley. I had looked for him a few years ago, hoping to reconnect, but didn’t find a page. I didn’t search that hard because my memory of him didn’t seem like he’d be one to have Facebook. But I had hoped and then given up quickly. I’ve never been good at spelling.
I look through our mutual friends, people who went to high school with us. He was two years ahead of me, two behind Paul. I’m irrationally mad at some of them for being connected with Mason and not actually knowing him. I’m mad I’m not on his list of friends. I want a reason for this building ache within me. That list of friends, they don’t know that Mason and I have history. And that Paul and Mason have history. But no one would have known that in high school.
“Are you OK?” Mom asks. I try covering the phone, but the sharp intake of air is a giveaway that I’m crying.
“Yeah. I’m just. I’m just sad.”
“She’s crying,” Mom whispers. “Sorry to bring him up,” she says into the phone.
“Remember that Halloween?” Dad asks.
My mind resurfaces memories. Was it Halloween when they picked Paul and me up, early, telling us we wouldn’t be coming back. No. That didn’t happened on Halloween.
I’m scrolling through the pictures on Mason’s profile. He’s holding a little girl.
“Did he have a daughter?” I ask, too distracted to answer the question. I’m trying to piece together the last 15 years of Mason’s life.
“Not that I know of.”
“He must have. Or a niece? He’s in photos with a baby.”
“Maybe his brother’s kid?”
I notice the caption. “No, it’s Mason’s. He called a photo, First time at the beach with my baby girl.” He’s holding her up in the sand, looking down at her in a flower dress instead of at the camera. I scroll through the same fifteen photos over and over. Where the hell did Mason go? someone wrote on a photo a year before Mason died. He responded months later, Don’t like this photo. He’s looking at the little girl as she wears his sunglasses. I notice the tattoo symbol on his neck and have no idea what it means.
“Any photos of him and his dad?” Mom asks.
“No, I don’t see any.”
“Remember how close they were?”
“Were they?” I’m focused on the photos, looking for clues.
“It was always Mason and Jonesy. Always together.”
I remember hearing about his dad having a heart attack. The rumor was, according to my parents, that Jonesy wouldn’t live long enough to see Mason graduate from high school. Jonesy lived long enough to see Mason die.
My mind picks another memory. Our parents and their group of friends were gathered around our kitchen table, all the adults playing cards, talking and laughing loudly. We went into the kitchen and Mason whispered something to his mom. I whined about wanting to know what was said. Paul pinched me. I screamed. Jonesy stopped me, saying sternly, “It didn’t hurt.” I left and stood hidden behind a wall. I heard Mason’s mom ask him if he had gone to the bathroom sitting or standing. Sitting or standing? I wondered. He can go to the bathroom standing?
Long after our parents stopped talking and right after Paul graduated, Mason and I were in high school together. We didn’t talk, even when he started dating one of my friends. We occasionally exchanged hellos, but nothing beyond that. I wanted to ask about his mom, how she was doing, anything about her at all. Mason came to school with hickeys all over his neck. My friend told me she had them too but under her bra. Before I could stop myself I imagined Mason sucking her nipples. I was repulsed. She and I were 14. Weren’t we too young for that?
Eventually the guidance counselor talked to my friend, encouraging her to break up with Mason, saying something about it being easier to bring people down than to bring people up. I didn’t want her to end the relationship. I thought they should stop with the hickey nonsense, but keep seeing each other, so he and I could keep exchanging hellos. And I knew the guidance counselor was wrong about what she told my friend because that didn’t happen in Sweet Valley, and I knew Mason may have been smoking weed, which was hard enough for me to grasp, but he wouldn’t do what they said he was doing. They didn’t know him like I did. He wouldn’t do heroin.
“We should find home videos with him in them and send copies to his parents. For his daughter.” I say, thinking about the tapes we watched last Christmas, one of them with my mom, Mason’s mom and me sitting watching the Sweet Valley parade – Paul and Mason were in it together. I ran to collect candy each time it was thrown in our direction and stared at Mason’s mom when I wasn’t running. I was enamored with her. She was beautiful and artistic. She made elaborate wreaths from fake flowers and decorated cakes like nothing I had ever seen. My family bought pre-made cakes and pre-made wreaths. She encouraged me to draw.
As kids, Paul and I saw Mason everyday. And when we didn’t, it was every weekend.
“He’s got to be on more home videos,” I say. “Didn’t Paul and Mason play Little . . . Little Baseball together?”
“Little Baseball?” They laugh. “You mean Little League?”
“Yeah, Little League.”
One afternoon when I was six or seven, we were playing in Mason’s house and knocked over a barstool. Jonesy yelled from upstairs, “What the hell was that?”
Mason yelled back, “It was, um, a . . .” Paul pointed furiously to canned corn, “a can fell!”
“Can my ass!”
Mason, Paul and I burst out laughing. We repeated Jonesy for years, saying, “Can my apples!” because we didn’t want to say ass. Paul and I still quote it.
“I’ve had dreams about him,” says Paul, who isn’t on Mason’s list of Facebook friends either.
“You were really close. And I tagged along, annoying you guys.” I laugh.
“You were annoying sometimes. But we had a lot of good memories. Like Lost in Space.”
“I remember watching it.”
“We played it too. Our spaceship was his picnic table with a sheet over it.”
“Must have been the fastest ship in Sweet Valley.”
I remember sitting under it with them. Sitting in the grass. Wind gently blowing the blue sheet. Them steering the spaceship. Acting panicked because our ship was crashing. Then we’d crawl out and explore Mason’s yard as if on a new planet.
I remember when they kept singing to me: “Whatcha doing? Eatin’ chocolate. Where’d ya get it? My doggy dropped it.”
I’d listen. They’d laugh. I didn’t get it. I kept picturing a dog walking around with a candy bar tied to his tail and the ribbon coming loose and the candy bar falling to the ground and Paul and Mason grabbing and splitting it and not sharing with me. After a few days they finally explained to me that the song was about a dog’s poop.
“Remember that Halloween?” Dad asks again.
“No.” I can’t remember any Halloween together.
“Dad’s talking about the Halloween you and I went trick-or-treating with Mason. After, we were going through and trading candy at his house. Jonesy asked if we heard that noise coming from outside. He must have been in on it. The three of us – you, me and Mason – went out and dad came running, yelling from around the back of the house in his army gear scaring the crap out of us.”
I’m smiling. “Sounds about right.”
My dad starts talking about a football game, but I can’t focus, and I tell them we’ll talk next week. I hang up, tossing the phone onto a chair across the room.
I lie on the couch, thinking of the last time Paul, Mason and I were all together. The night our parents picked us up early, they told Paul and me we wouldn’t be seeing Mason again. They wouldn’t tell us why. We snuck upstairs. Paul secretly called Mason and they tried figuring out what happened and how to get our parents back together.
There was a heavy sadness lingering in the room. I whispered as they spoke, “We have to figure out how to see him.” Paul hushed me. “Oh! Let’s pretend to order a pizza and then Mason can walk over to deliver it!” I was desperate and it seemed like something that would work on TV. Paul rolled his eyes. We never came up with a plan, and we didn’t see Mason again until high school. He lived only a mile away, yet we didn’t walk to see him. Our parents made it sound like something serious and horrible happened. We trusted them and stayed away.
When we heard the rumors about Mason going to rehab, Paul and I shared with each other the resentment we kept hidden that we both felt towards our parents.
“They should have let us keep seeing Mason.” Paul had said.
“Maybe he wouldn’t have...done drugs. I know that sounds silly.” I said.
“I’ve had the same thought.”
A few years ago, mom finally told Paul and me what happened to end the relationship between them and the Joneses. Mason’s mom had a habit of “throwing herself” at the husbands in their group of friends. The wives had had enough, and decided to end the friendship – ending Paul’s and my friendship with Mason as a result, or perhaps a precaution, or simply out of anger. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to fuel my own anger, decades after the event, with answers that would likely feel inadequate.
As I fall asleep in bed I’m wondering how things would have been different if we had been allowed to stay friends. Maybe Mason never would have tried heroin, become addicted, gone to rehab. Maybe he’d still be alive. Despite how many times I try telling myself Mason would have lived if my parents never had a falling out with his parents or if Paul and I ignored our parents telling us not to see him, I know that it wouldn’t have mattered – the last twenty years would have happened all the same.
I dream of Mason. We’re in the pool at the house in Sweet Valley. We're adults. I know he's dead. I put my hands on each side of his face, holding it, looking at his green eyes. He smiles at me. He lowers himself beneath the surface. I watch the ripples distort his face as he continues sinking down into the water.
* Names have been changed.
It wasn’t a special occasion. Or maybe it was, because anytime we are together it’s special: an investment in our relationship, our therapist says. My carnivorous husband had made dinner reservations for a fancy vegetarian restaurant because he knows it’s one of my favorites. I was ready to cancel our plans, though, because it was a long drive. A big effort for a meal. And I was tired. It had been a long day of cleaning the gutters, sweeping leaves, and vacuuming followed by a hike. We could save money and stay in and drink Taylor Fladgate and play Settlers of Catan. But he convinced me we should go.
So I got dressed up. Or did I? I had leggings on. The kind normally paired...