Molly, Shawn and Krystina walked up and down the hallway, arms linked, footsteps echoing on the tiled floor, off the walls that still smelled faintly of fresh paint. Their sobs echoed too, the keening of sudden widows, of women who’ve felt sorrow through the ages, united by the pain they couldn’t comprehend, their bodies couldn’t hold.
My shoes were scuffed. Sitting in sixth grade algebra, Mrs. C at the chalkboard she always liked washed so you couldn’t see the streaks, and my shoes were scuffed on the inner parts, the parts that rubbed together when I walked. It was September, almost October, and the shoes were still new enough. New enough that mom would be angry if she saw the marks, new enough that I should have kept them clean. But I couldn’t help the way I walked any more than I could help hearing Mrs. C’s lessons in a kind of Greek chorus, floating over my head like so many stars. I was 11. I couldn’t help anything.
Kyle had leukemia. We all knew about him, through the lightspeed grapevine of Catholic school gossip. He went to our rival school, had played on the basketball team until he got sick. I knew this: Cool kids played basketball. Krystina, Shawn and Molly did; donned their shiny electric blue uniforms every Friday before the game, pulling their Pantene hair into ponytails, slicking on Lipsmackers in a different flavor every. “Can I smell?” We younger girls would ask, and they’d hold it out like a coveted flower. “Mmmmm,” we’d answer. They always smelled like wax and sugar and something we couldn’t name, an adulthood just outside our reach, like the puberty we both feared and longed for, with the dichotomy of middle school lust.
Sixth graders were allowed on the Junior Varsity basketball team. It was a rite of passage, to be allowed to stay in the sweat-soaked gymnasium after school, when the rest of the building went dark and quiet. To squeak our shoes around under the glaring fluorescent lights that buzzed like so many flies, hoping, angling to make the buzzer go off that meant we’d scored. There were no try-outs, and I pulled on the t-shirt that was our uniform, the “Blazers” name in cracking white iron-ons, and tried my best to be a basketball girl. But I couldn’t dribble, sure couldn’t score, and couldn’t understand the directions Pancho, our coach, shouted at us from the sidelines in heavily accented English. If he’d spoken Spanish outright, I may have done better. I’d been learning that since kindergarten, but basketball was new.
For a few brief months, I basked in the cast-off glow of the basketball girls, proudly sticking out my still-pancaked chest on game days. The JV girls played before the varsity, a sort of preview for what was to come. For a little while, I sat proudly on the bench, surrounded by the kinds of girls who would be slicking on lip gloss in a year or two, who would know the names of the boys on the other teams who borrowed our gym for matches of their own. I was only put it once, and was so overcome with the shouting, the squeaking shoes, the way the basketball seemed to thump in beat with my heart that all the other players turned to blurs and I shot, I shot for my life and made it. For the other team.
My shot was over, then. And I knew it. I’d never learn the other boys’ names, except in whispers through the hallways, passed like incantations from girl to girl, a secret passcode to a world that had swished through my fingers like the ball through the ripped and faded net.
Catholic schools are insular places, but not as insulated as our parents hoped. We were a tribe unto ourselves, enduring and creating our own sorrows in almost equal parts. The culture was exact and exacting. Penny loafers were in that year, and I begged my mom for a pair, but Payless didn’t sell the kind the basketball girls wore, so no penny loafers for me. I’d content myself with shoes at all, young lady, and be happy we could afford a new pair every year.
And it was for that reason we all knew Kyle, not because he was that popular, but because we were a pack of prepubescent wolves, hungry to borrow other people’s pain, like a talisman against our own. Kyle’s illness was abstract to most of us. He didn’t live among us, didn’t sit next to anyone in history or trade sandwiches in our cafeteria. He was an idea, a concept, a cautionary tale against bad luck, mis-aligned genes or not saying your prayers before bedtime. His story was passed around our school like a folded-up note, and everyone had a peek, and no more. We didn’t want to get too close, because even middle school jugglers know fire burns.
Except for the basketball girls. Shawn, Molly and Krystina knew Kyle, had sat next to him in the gym as the buzzer ticked down the hours. Had watched him do lay-ups and dribble between his legs. Had maybe grabbed a slushie with him afterwards, if the game was a win. Always on tenuous ground; their school was our rival, and we didn’t like to get too cozy. But our schools crouched on either side of the same neighborhoods, and we couldn’t cold-shoulder our neighbors. Summer vacations, weekends are an eternity, and boredom a beast more savage than the colors on our jerseys, the mascots with painted names.
Kyle’s death ripped a hole through our little world. Suddenly, he was real. He had a casket, a grave site, a stone. Shawn, Krystina and Molly helped his parents establish a fundraiser race, to raise money for pediatric cancer research. I stood in my driveway with my hands in my pockets as it ran past my house the following summer, listening to the runners’ feet pounding on the sidewalk, watching their sweaty faces flicker past in the July sunshine that suddenly seemed garishly bright. I thought of the sound the girls’ feet had made on the tile, the sound their voices made the first time I ever heard real sorrow.
And it’s them I think of, whenever I hear women cry, really cry. There’s a place we all carry, deeper than our spirits like to admit. It’s a sacred spot, an alcove where the most precious people live, and that place cannot be violated without consequence. It sounds like raw, unadulterated pain, that place. It sounds like a 13-year-old boy dead of a disease that ravaged his body, then his soul, and finally, his memory. He ceased to be a person, the day his body died. He became a cause, and lost forever.
Today, more than a decade later, almost no one knows Kyle as a basketball player, or a child. He’s a name on a banner, a shotgun start, a registration form, a medal. He’s a scholarship fund and a newspaper clipping. No parent wants that for their child. The basketball girls didn’t want that for their friend, the little boy whose smile never graced a man.
No one wants to know these places. These days that live so deeply in our memory, they emerge as sounds and snapshots. But our minds all imprint sorrow, the kind of sadness that doesn’t need a name. It’s a sensation we’d rather borrow secondhand, a sound we’d always rather hear from someone else’s soul.
An earlier version of this story first appeared on Medium.com.