I know how I want to remember my friend

The last time I spoke to my old, good friend was the night before his final court date. I thought he was calling for help; but afterward I realized he was calling to say goodbye.

I don’t expect ever to see him again. But I always know how to find him. I just enter the website address for my state’s sex offender registry, and there he is.

He has to re-register every six months, so I’ll probably be able to find him easily from now on. There’s his picture, his name, his addresses for work and home, and a listing of the internet child pornography charges to which he pled guilty more than 15 years ago.

I was in bed with a good book the night he called. I had no idea what he had done, or what he was about to face. The man I’d known for years as a computer whiz and science fiction nut, also trafficked in images he’d never revealed to me.

He told me of having answered his door weeks earlier, to find 14 federal agents there to execute a search warrant and take his hard drive. He said the law had tracked him through his mail. I believed it had to be a mistake and tried to help, asking if he’d contacted legal aid, if he understood his options. But he was well past that point. He had exhausted his options.

I haven’t spoken to him since.

I knew my friend as a sweet, peculiar man living with some of my college friends in an off-campus group house. He was older, occupying an extra room to fill the house and help support the rent, bringing little but a rocking chair, a guitar and a cat. My friend wore his hair long, smoked Eve cigarettes and dressed only in gray, black and white.

We’d hang out around the kitchen table and eventually, he showed me poetry he had written, that he said was to become lyrics for a band he was pulling together. Having never heard him play a note on his guitar, I couldn’t imagine he had the stuff to attract other musicians. But he found an unheated, back-stairs, blankets-on-the-wall room for band practice, and the side musicians he needed, and his lyrics became music.

It was there that I spied a college guy completing a degree in music, a bass player who had just quit touring with a cover band because he wanted to make new sounds. My friend was not jealous when the college guy grew interested in me. And when we married three years later, our friend attended the wedding in a thrift-store sportcoat.

In time, my husband and I bought a house and had a son, to whom our nonconformist friends became “uncles” and “aunts.” I was a mom at home, taking my boy to morning playgroups, where friendships grew over mundane concerns and the wiping of noses and behinds.

Our son was never shy about asking to play with whomever was handy. So, when our old friend visited one day and brought a toy truck, my son invited him to come to his room to play. I felt the momentary respite an at-home mom craves when there is another adult around to entertain the kid.

But no, our friend said. He didn’t want to play. He said he wasn’t good with children. My son took his new toy and went to his room alone.

That was the last time I saw my friend. The next time I heard from him was by phone, the night before he went to prison.

Even though I know exactly where he is these days, I won’t call him. I hear he grew mean in prison. I don’t want to see that. I loved my friend as an eccentric but I don’t want to know him as a predator.

Still, I know that when given the chance to get closer to my child, he declined. Whatever else he’s done, whatever he’s legally guilty of, whatever will keep him on the sex offender registry for the rest of his life, he did not take advantage of a moment alone with a small boy.

There are no words for the relief in that. And although I will offer no words of gratitude to my lost friend, I know that in that moment he chose innocence.

 

— Maggie Wolff Peterson

writes from Winchester, Va.

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