From the very beginning, ours was an unlikely friendship.
Alistair Cameron Easton entered my life when I was seventeen years old. Our families lived in this small town, a suburb really, Cedar Creek. The picturesque town, just north of the big city, features rolling hills, dotted with mansions and Ferraris. It’s where the rich, who work in the city, live, play and flaunt their money. This is the image the town likes to project, a calm, peaceful oasis, just minutes away from the crowded, bustling city.
But there is another side of Cedar Creek, the neglected, forgotten east side, the one the rich folks wish would rather just disappear. Made up of families driven out by the high cost of living in the city, these are the families that keep it all running. They do the jobs no one else wants to do. But unlike the hills and creeks on the west side of Cedar Creek, the east is filled with desperation and squalor. There are no mansions there.
Most people who live in the east primarily work for one of the big rich families. Ali’s family is rich, but back then at least wasn’t among the super-rich, which really irked his father. His dad owns Easton Limited. Finance, communication, agriculture, automotive, the Easton’s are involved in several aspects of society. My dad worked in an Easton factory. He had a low paying labour job, as did my mom.
Ali, as I called him, and his family, lived in a mansion, a 10-bedroom behemoth, on the west side. My family lived in a small, two-bedroom home, on the east side. It’s not an exaggeration to say we lived in completely different worlds.
The west side did not interact with the east side. If we had to go to the west side, for work, or anything else, we were looked down upon, mistrusted. We normally went to our own grocery stores, you couldn’t afford anything in the west anyway. But if you happened to be there, walking down an aisle, it wouldn’t be odd if you noticed a security guard close behind you. They could tell you were from the east from your clothes or shoes. That was the mentality.
To Ali, I should have just been a guy on the periphery. That’s how all of his friends viewed people who lived on the east side. If they saw us in the west side, they’d go out of their way to make sure we knew we weren’t welcome. They’d make fun of our hair, our clothes, our hand-me-down shoes. They made sure we knew that we didn’t belong. As a kid, I rarely went to the west side, but when I turned sixteen, in an effort to help out my parents, and much to their objections, I got a job cleaning a rich family’s stables on the weekend. That’s how much money there was on the west side – families had stables.
Every weekend I would walk an hour from my house to the west side in my scuffed-up sneakers. I wasn’t the only one; some of my friends also got jobs on the west side. But that’s when it all started to go downhill. The west side kids were relentless. They’d drive around in their ridiculously expensive cars, follow us as we walked to work, and constantly harass us. One day, a kid from my school Eddie, had enough. He asked the brats to leave him alone. It didn’t end well. He was beaten to a pulp. To add insult to injury, Eddie, who didn’t hit anyone, was charged with assault. The brats? Nothing. Justice my ass.
Everyone always knew there was a problem, but after that, no one could turn a blind eye anymore. In an effort to ease tensions, the private high school in the west, and my public high school in the east, suggested having joint events to foster harmony. The west side parents though, weren’t keen. They didn’t want their kids mixing with us. The horror, right? So, what was the next best thing? Pen pals. You get to know one another, but at a ‘safe’ distance. For some reason, the program was anonymous. I think some east side parents were worried about reprisals (that alone is indicative of the toxic environment). So, we weren’t supposed to use our real names. Instead, each student was given a number. I was number 17. Ali was also number 17. So started our ‘friendship’.
I was skeptical at first. Participation was mandatory. We had to hand in a letter as part of our grade. I expected to get a few random lines from this guy, just enough to pass. That’s what most of my friends got. The teachers were allowed to monitor the letters (though I’m sure they didn’t), so no one was openly hostile or rude.
Ali though was different from the start. He actually seemed to care about the assignment, and it felt like he truly wanted to get to know me. His letters were always thoughtful, long and full of questions. At first, I didn’t say much. It felt like a trap. But slowly I began to trust him. I’d ask him questions too, and he’d give detailed responses. Anonymity, it turned out, was a blessing. I think that’s why we both eventually (though I was slower) felt so at ease sharing intimate details about our lives. It got to the point where getting his letter every other Friday was the highlight of my week.
The next day, as I’d walk to work in the west side, I’d see a guy his age in a fancy car and wonder if that was him. Then he’d yell something obscene at me, and I’d hope it wasn’t. The guy I got to know in those letters didn’t seem like the type of guy who would hurl insults at random strangers. But people are always different in reality.
In the end, the pen pal assignment was largely a flop. Nothing changed. The two sides were still worlds apart. The school announced the program would end when school finished in two weeks' time, but not to worry, we were encouraged to ‘continue building bridges’, whatever the fuck that meant. I was heartbroken that day. I knew the program wasn’t going to last forever, but in the last few months, I felt like I really had gotten to know Pen Pal 17, and I wasn’t ready to let him go just yet. I hinted that it would be great if we could continue writing. But I figured when I got his last letter it would be goodbye. But what he sent surprised me.
“My Dear Friend Pen Pal 17,
Forgive me for this short letter. I’ve written this a dozen times already, but each time I throw it in the trash. I know this is likely our last correspondence, but I’m not sure how to say goodbye. How do you end something when you have so much more to say and so much more to learn? How do you end something that you desperately look forward to? That makes your week better? For the first time in my life, through these letters, I feel like I am true to myself. I know we’ve never met, but I feel like you see me, not the rich kid from the west side, but who I actually am as a person. I don’t want that to stop. The truth is I don’t want to say goodbye, so I’m not going to. This is not the end, but the beginning.
The choice, however, to continue, and how to continue is completely yours. Please do not feel any pressure to respond. If you feel like this is the end, I’ll understand. But if you want to stay friends, here are two suggestions.
Do you know Creek Central Park? It straddles both the east and west side. Some people call it neutral territory. I’ll be there next to the giant fountain on Thursday at 4 p.m. We can finally meet. Or, if you’re not ready for that yet, and you’d rather continue writing, enclosed in this letter you’ll find two keys. Off the main entrance to the park there is a little work shed. My dad’s company is responsible for the park’s maintenance, though no one uses that space anymore. One key opens the shed, and the other opens a small lock box inside on the top right shelf. If I don’t see you Thursday, I’ll check the box to see if there is a letter inside.
Whatever you choose, to meet in person, to continue writing, or to say goodbye, I will respect your decision. Just know, it has truly been an honour getting to know you.
Alistair (a.k.a Pen Pal 17)”
In the end, I decided to continue writing.
There weren’t many kids with the name Alistair, so right away I knew who he was, and I knew we didn’t belong together.
Still, I desperately wanted to meet him in person, to see what he looked like, to hear his voice, his laugh, but at the same time I was afraid. I had built this image of Pen Pal 17 in my head, and I was worried if I peeked behind the curtain, everything would change, that I would realize he was one of those guys that tormented me all my life. I was happy living in my illusion. Even though I knew he didn’t care that I was from a working-class family, I was afraid he’d see just how poor I was, and remember he’s not supposed to be friends with people like me.
The number of letters we exchanged shot up dramatically. Before we would each write one every other week. That first summer we were writing letters multiple times during the week. We didn’t plan to fall into a pattern, but we did. Once school ended, I got a full-time job. After work, I’d go and drop off a letter. Ali would pick it up the next morning. His letter would be waiting for me that evening. I’d go home and stay up all night crafting my response. The next night, I’d drop it off. This went on for weeks, then months.
I never got tired of the letters. Rather, every time I opened the box and saw a new one there, I’d feel a rush of excitement. I wouldn’t even wait to get home. I had to read it right away. There was just something about him, and the way he wrote. We wrote about everything. From silly jokes, to intense debates about serious world events, to what was happening in our personal lives, almost nothing was off limits. The one area we didn’t touch on was our love lives. Ali never seemed interested in talking about girls or relationships and I was more than happy to ignore the subject.
You’d think we would have little in common, given we had such different upbringings, but we were more alike than we realized. Also, the differences we did have brought us together. I think we both learned so much about a part of the world we didn’t know. I always assumed being rich that life would be easy, and he wouldn’t have a problem in the world. While he led a life of privilege, that doesn’t mean he didn’t face obstacles and insecurities as a teenage boy. He had tons of money, fancy cars, yet he felt alone in the world. He felt like he didn’t fit in. I could relate. I also learned money isn’t everything. I didn’t have much, but at least my parents were always there for me. Their love has always been invaluable.
I remember one letter in particular, Ali described in detail the fraught relationship he had with his dad. His father expected the world from his only child, because one day he would take over the family business. Ali was told from a young age he was exceptional, he was special. He had to excel at everything. He had to be the best at every sport. If Ali ever faltered, or if he failed, like when he didn’t become captain of the school’s soccer team, Ali’s father would be livid. To him, Ali had tarnished the Easton name, and it was Ali’s failures that were stopping the family from joining the elite class. No matter what Ali did, he just felt like he was never good enough. In the same letter, Ali mentioned how much he hated his name. His father felt Alistair was a respectable name, plus he wanted his son’s initials to be ACE, because his son would be an ace. One day he told his family he’d prefer it if they called him Ali. His father flew into a rage, smacking Ali across the face, sending him to the floor. Standing above his son, he said he would rather die than hear someone call his son a “fucking ethnic name.”
After that, no one dared to call him Ali. But from that point on I called him Ali. He liked that. My actual name is James, which is what I use now, but my grandma always called me Jamie, and that stuck. Growing up, everyone knew me as Jamie. After he revealed his name, I decided to reveal mine too. It was both exciting and nerve-wrecking the first time I signed the letter as Jamie.
I also shared a lot with Ali. I also told him that sometimes I felt different, that I felt like an outsider even in the east side. I knew why I felt different. It was during this time I realized that I like guys and not girls. That’s why I was glad we never spoke about our love lives. While I shared everything, I didn’t mention I’m gay in those letters because I wasn’t sure how he was going to react, and I didn’t want to lose him as a friend.
I did though, with hesitation, tell him about the sorrow I felt when I’d see my mom and dad wince in pain after a long day's work, with very little to show for it. We lived pay cheque to pay cheque. I was never angry that I didn’t have more. I didn’t need more. But I wanted more for them. I wanted them to take a vacation, to put their feet up and relax for a few days. But they couldn’t. A day off meant no money, and we couldn’t afford that.
The reason why I was hesitant was because I knew what would happen if I told Ali about our financial troubles. I could tell he had a big heart, and as expected, he offered to send money. He even once offered to help pay my tuition! I insisted that I didn’t tell him my story because I wanted his money. I told him I couldn’t take it, that it felt wrong, that I didn’t want people to think (not that anyone knew we were friends, I thought neither of us told anyone about the letters) that I was just using him for his money. He told me he knew that wasn’t the case, and that friends are meant to help each other. In the end, I refused. I told him his friendship was all I needed.
It felt like Ali’s heart was in the right place. It was in the right place when he decided to buy me a five-hundred dollar watch for my 18th birthday. My jaw hit the floor when I opened the box and saw it there. It was the most beautiful gift I’d ever received, and one I could not accept. Everyone would have assumed that I’d stolen it; there was no way in the world I could afford such a watch. I left the watch in the box with a long letter explaining how touched I was by the gesture, but how I couldn’t accept his gift. I wasn’t sad that I had to give it back. I was sad because I knew I could never buy Ali a similar gift. I couldn’t even afford to buy him something worth fifty dollars. In that moment I really hated being poor, because for the first time, I felt like I let Ali down.
This went on, these back and forth letters, for a year. Every time I walked into the shed I was always a bit nervous. I always expected that would be day there would be no letter. That would be the day Ali would realize he was tired of me, realize I’m old news. That day turned out to be May 21st. Given we were in our last year of high school, we weren’t writing as frequently and sometimes we would miss a day here or there. But if Ali or I were ever busy, or if Ali was away, we would let the other know. He had just celebrated his 18th birthday, so I assumed that’s why he didn’t get the chance to write. I came back the next day, and the day after, but there was still no letter. On the 25th, I left another letter, asking if he was okay, if I had done something wrong. The letter was gone on the 26th, but there was no response the next day. I left another message on the 30th. Again, it was gone the next day, but again there was no response. That’s when I knew it was over.
I was crushed. The greatest chapter of my life, abruptly done. I thought I would be okay when it ended, but I wasn’t. I wanted to know why. I desperately wanted closure. I kept going back to that shed, but two weeks out, there was still no letter. I cried myself to sleep every single night. I knew I had lost more than just a friend. Eventually, I realized I had to move on. What we had was special, and I’d always cherish it, but that’s all it was now, a memory.
“You were in love with him.” It’s not really a question, more of a statement from Will.
There really is no point denying the truth. “Madly, hopelessly in love. Even though we had never met, or spoken in real life, I knew I was in love.”
“Fuck. So, what happened? Did you ever hear from him again, or get another letter?”
“I didn’t get a letter, but I did hear from him. Out of the blue one day, he showed up at my door.”
“Woah. What happened next? What did he say? Did he explain why he dropped off the face of the earth?” Will asks eagerly desperate for answers.
“He did. He explained everything. I’ll never forget that day. It went from the best to the worst day of my life in just mere hours. It’s when my life completely fell apart.”
Why did Ali disappear? What made him come back? And why did Jamie's life fall apart that day!?
Let me know what you think. Theories, feedback and comments much appreciated below.