"A friend is a present you give yourself. -- Robert Louis Stevenson"
I had a friend when I was about three years old. We vowed to be best friends forever and he suggested we should be blood brothers. He was almost a whole year older, you see, and knew about these things.
His name, curiously was Robert Louis Stevenson, but he wasnít the same one. His parents had an apartment near ours, in the next building actually. We met one day when I was sitting on the front stoop watching traffic, something I seemingly adored at that age. At any rate, he came up the stairs and sat down next to me and imitated my pose, chin on cupped hands, elbows on knees, and he watched with me. We never spoke that day. When Iíd had enough of this, I stood up and went into our building. He, I believe, stood up and went home to his own. I donít know for sure, because I didnít look around to see what he was doing.
A few days later we met onthe street and he nodded solemnly to me and I returned the nod. As I moved a few steps past him, I heard him giggle and I laughed in return. Suddenly we had a secret. I donít think my mother realized what had happened that day. I donít know about his.
When we met for the third time he introduced himself and I was forced to do the same thing.
"Iím Robert Louis Stevenson," he said, extending his right hand, open and flat, palm up. "How do you do?"
"I do fine," I said. "Thanks."
"And who are you?"
I hesitated a moment. "I am...I am Maxwell Draper.
"I have three names."
"So do I!" I snapped that back at him. "Max Well Draper."
"Oh, okay," he said sweetly enough, "then Iíll just call you Max. And you can call me Louie."
We shook hands, like the grownups always did when they came to an agreement. I knew right then that Louie would be my best friend and that I could tell him anything.
We saw a lot of each other that spring and summer. New York City was an easy place for children in 1949. It was safe for us to run around the block and play in the alleys behind our buildings. There were women on the steps of almost every building , hanging out of windows, shopping in the local stores. It seemed that there was always someone nearby who knew Louie or me or our parents or my sister. We were protected by the neighborhood, safe in our world. Cars didnít speed then. Or at least they never seemed to do so. Garbage cans were our fortresses. Fire escape ladders were our circus tents. We jumped, flew, hid and ran. We werenít angels, but we werenít devils either. We were two kids playing and two people developing personalities along the way. Louie, being slightly older, developed quickly, but I was keeping up with him most of the time.
It was late in August. We had been playing cops and robbers for hours and I was tired of the game. I dashed up the stairs of Louieís building and got myself a perfect top step seat on the stoop. The iron railing of his front stairs included wide bands of textured metal, painted black and at that particular point I could squeeze myself tiny behind three of them and almost be completely out of sight while maintaining a perfect view of the street below. I was in place when he came hightailing it out of the alley next door. He stopped at the curb and looked up and down the street for me, but he didnít see me. I saw his shoulders drop a bit and his neck bend forward so that his head could droop a bit. He looked tired to me. Then I heard him sob once. It hurt me to hear that. I didnít understand it.
Without hesitation I called out his name and stood up so he could see me behind the metal bars. He threw back his head and laughed and came quickly up the nine steps of his stoop, throwing himself down on top of me. It was a roughhouse sort of thing, a way of playing and we wrestled around a bit. Winded, he stopped suddenly and pulled back and stared at me.
"We should be blood brothers," he said. I nodded, not knowing what he was talking about. "Alvin told me about it. You donít know him. He lives in Brooklyn. Heís my cousin."
"Okay," I said. That was all I said because I didnít understand a word of it.
"You donít know what that is, do you?" Louie asked me.
"No. What is it?"
"Well, itís like this," he said, "youmake a cut in your wrist and I make a cut in mine and when weíre bleeding good and hard we put our wrists together and our bloods mix and youget mine in you and I get yours in mine and weíre blood brothers, forever and always."
"Iíd have to cut my wrist?" I asked him.
"Sure. All guys do it."
"I donít know about that."
"Indians do it, too."
"Iím not an Indian," I told him.
"Well, they do it and we can do it. We're as good as any damn Indian."
"Better," I said. "My sister knows an Indian and she doesnít like him, but she likes you."
"How does your sister known an Indian?"
"She knows him at work," I said. Briana was fourteen now and she had a part time job in the drug store making sodas at the fountain. An Indian who worked on the bridges liked to come in and drink an egg cream every afternoon and she had talked to him.
"Golly gee," Louie said. "That sounds like something big."
"Yeah," I said, sorry Iíd said it because my father always told me not to say yeah.
"Well, we have to be blood brothers, Max. Thatís all there is to it."
I agreed and we decided to meet the next day and cut ourselves become really best friend blood brothers forever and always. The truth was I didnít want to do it, but I knew I had to do it and that was that.
At dinner that night I didnít tell anyone about the plans that Louie and I had made that day. I was already afraid of what my mother might do but I had some questions about the bleeding and I had to ask someone something, so I brought up the subject after dinner. My father had gone back to the hotel to work a partial night shift and Briana wanted to listen to some dance music on the radio. So this would be a perfect opportunity to talk to mother.
"I have a question," I said to her.
"Is it about modeling, Maxie? I know you love to do it."
I did, but that wasnít my goal, as I told you, so I shook my head emphatically.
"Oh, all right then, whatís on your mind?"
"Its about the bleeding," I started to say, but she grabbed me and put her hand over my mouth.
"It happens to me every month, darling, and itís nothing for you to worry about."
"You do it every month?" I asked her, not believing what I was hearing.
"Yes, all women do."
I stared at her not believing what I was hearing.
"You must have a lot of best friends," I said.
"Yes, I do, darling, why?"
"If you do it every month."
"I love you so much, and now I think youíre terrific," I said and I hugged her very hard. She hugged me back and held me close her heart. I could smell her perfume and her sweat all mixed together. Then she relaxed her grip.
"Maxie, I think it was very sweet of you to be so concerned about the bleeding, but thereís nothing to worry about. I have these nice large pads to absorb the blood and in a few days Iím fine."
I knew the pads she meant. Iíd seen them in her dresser drawer. It was an immediate decision that followed: I would take one and bring it with me for the bleeding ceremony. That would make things all right.
As soon as I could the next morning I stole into my parents room and took one of her absorbing pads and hid it in my pants. Right after lunch I went out to play and found Louie already waiting on my stoop.
"I found the perfect place to do it," he said. "Follow me."
I rushed off after him, entering the basement door of a building around the corner from the block on which we lived. It was dark in this basement hallway and I could barely see Louie who was still ahead of me. Then he pushed open a heavy metal door and stepped inside a lighted room. I followed him in. It was a laundry room. All of the machines were going and that made it both noisy and hot. I felt perspiration on my brow and I wiped it off with the back of my hand.
"I brought something," I said, "for the extra blood." I pulled out my motherís pad and showed it to him.
"You wonít need that," Louie replied. "After we mix our blood, if thereís any left, we can just put our arms in the washing machines."
That was clever. I would never have thought of that. I stuffed the pad back down my pants. We knew what we had to do, and this was the time to do it.
"Hold out your arm, Max," he said, and I did, shutting my eyes tight.
"You too," I said to him. "Okay, cut."
"With what?" he asked me. "Did you bring anything?"
I hadnít and, it turned out, neither had Louie. We didnít have a knife between us. Eyes open again, we looked around the room for some sort of sharp implement to use but there was absolutely nothing.
"Whatíll we do?" I asked him, a tightness in my throat.
"I donít know. I donít know." He stopped to think. I heard his sharp intake of breath that always signified an idea. "Yes, I do. I do know something."
He grabbed my pants and yanked them down around my hips. This sharpness of this act also pulled down my shorts. Before I could say anything he did the same thing with his own pants and underwear.
"What are we doing?" I shouted at him.
"Blood and piss, my old man always says, is the same thing. So we can piss and touch peepees and it will be just like the blood, donít you see?"
Well that made sense to me, so I nodded and we each took a step closer and touched our peepees but neither one of us made water. We just stood there like that waiting. It felt silly. Then Louie got another bright idea.
"You hold mine and Iíll hold yours. Then it will be like we are each other. See?"
I saw. So we did that and still nothing much happened. I say much. Iím actually wrong there.
That was the moment when the door opened and a woman walked in. I believe she screamed, then she shouted, then she groaned. We didnít know what to do, so we just stood there as we were, holding on tight to each otherís infantile penises. We were looking at her, not sure what we should do, but in less than a moment we knew what had to be done.
She grabbed us both by our ears and began to pull us apart. I grabbed for my pants with my one free hand and Louie did the same thing. For some reason I never understood we were still holding on to each otherís baby parts. The woman began shouting for help, calling out to whoever could hear her for assistance. It didnít take a lot of shouting for a crowd to gather, each new person seemingly upset by what they saw, although a few of them seemed to be laughing more than they were doing anything else.
The woman, a Mrs. Lowry, found out our names and dragged us home to our parents. Louieís folks were very angry, more at me than at Louie it seemed. My mother was outwardly upset, but later on she laughed and laughed as she told the story to my father. He thought it was a pretty funny tale and so did Granny Elaine. I donít remember what Briana thought or if she even knew about it. Aunt Gussie was disgusted and called me some sort of name, but I forgot about that pretty quickly because my mother loved the story so much.
Louie and his family moved a week later to some other neighborhood and I never saw him again, but I always think of him as my best friend, my blood brother, and the only person I really want to come hold my peepee for me. Ever.