The Size of the Room

Notable Essay of 2009, The Best American Essays. Published in Longform, 2014; The Saint Ann’s Review Tenth Anniversary Issue, 2011; The Saint Ann’s Review, Fall 2009.


. . . You don’t know this yet, but in a few years you’d hear that a childhood friend named Kent had died. You’d been close in junior high, but deciding to attend the arts school downtown each afternoon pulled you apart till it stopped occurring to you to call him. After hearing the news he appeared to you unbidden for weeks the way you’d always known him, moppish hair, a stained front tooth and quick smile that always revealed it, the kind of voice destined to crack well into high school, a lanky body that would reach six feet but never feel at home with itself so that when he lashed out he only put himself in jeopardy. You used to bike each summer to the tennis courts behind the elementary school you’d attended, hauling a jug of instant tea with ice cubes that retained the stale smell of your freezer. He showed up in Docksiders and an Izod and was soon smashing the ball as hard as he could, inside the line or out, it didn’t matter, and occasionally when he missed a shot chucking his racquet or ball over the fence so you spent the better part of an hour in the brush. It was fine, really. You were teenagers, a little fucked up, and playing was really an excuse to grouse about the things you thought had made you that way.

You hadn’t talked to Kent for years – if you’d never seen him again you wouldn’t have been surprised – yet when you heard he’d been dead for over a year you felt a sense of vertigo, as if the world you imagined, that mental construct that filled the landscape you walked through and contained all the people you’d ever known, hadn’t matched the world you lived in. When you heard the news you thought, as you always do, that somehow you should have known. You tried to find out some details without much success: he’d made his way to California and lived in his car for a while till he fell, or jumped, off a cliff. You’re pretty sure you’d never know why. A messy divorce, whiffs of trouble – you’d understood him growing up not because you’d known a few details about his life but because you spent time together on summer afternoons and fell into a rhythm. Now, with nothing left to do, you tried to imagine what it might have been like that night. His car, ripped vinyl, perhaps, or a leaky sun roof, an automatic window opener that didn’t work, something an irregularly employed person could afford. A cliff. Scrub brush you spliced in to make it seem more real. A beer can discarded by the back tire or spilling out the door. The music, something loud and alternative, or slow and forlorn, something he turned to by habit and didn’t even hear as he sat on the hood or stood and leaned out and saw . . . what? You were distracted the next few weeks, his image hovering but out of focus, till you recalled how he’d snuck out of his house during hurricane Gloria to see if the wind could return his serve. You started imagining him that way: a hand grabbing his Wilson racquet in the breezeway, the slam of a storm door, a glimpse of his windbreaker as he ran toward school. It came close to capturing all the possibilities of his existence, the playful energy, the potential for self destruction, and every time you mentioned him you pictured him there and recounted the story he’d told you till he came to live somewhere on that court, lunging, windswept, caught between a curse and a grin . . .