Years ago, his sister handed me a bag of just red Sour Patch Kids. She had drawn my name from a hat weeks earlier for our debate team’s Secret Santa. Now my gift had arrived, in all of its one-flavor glory.
“Minimalistic,” a facetious classmate walking by said, snickering at my present.
I rolled my eyes at him, then turned to his sister. “Did someone tell you to give me this?” I asked with a smirk.
“Of course,” she said flippantly. “I didn’t know what to get you, so naturally I asked him.”
“Him,” being my best friend at the time. The one with whom I drove around aimlessly in his Mustang named Misty, who edited my essays, tutored me in the hard concepts in science class, who was two years older and currently studying at the University of Washington 3 hours away.
Months earlier, I had told him, in a way that only true friends would tell each other, that I didn’t know how much I believed in love — of any variety, really. But the one thing I wanted was for someone to care about me enough to give me a bag of just red Sour Patch Kids.
“Why a bag of just red Sour Patch Kids?” he asked. The look on his face implied, “you’re so weird,” but I also knew he knew I had a good reason for my answer.
I didn’t like the other Sour Patch flavors. But red was the chewiest — the juiciest — the flavor I loved the most. I always finished every Sour Patch Kid in the pack, but red was the best.
Red was special.
“I want someone to give enough of a shit about me to pick out all of the ones I like,” I said. “I want someone to think those are special, too, and that I’m special enough to spend that much time and energy on.”
He’d given me normal bags packaged with all the Sour Patch Kid flavors over the last year before he graduated, even once at 3 a.m. when I was stressed about a bio test.
He was away by the time his sister gave me this bag. But this was a small reminder that he had not forgotten me.
He came back from college for winter break a couple of weeks after I got the bag. I showed him it to him, unopened, proposing we share these hand-picked reds together.
“Too bad you didn’t hand-pick these,” I said.
“One day I will,” he said, monotonously, no expression, but I knew he meant every word.
Subtext? I’m special.
We talked about our relationship one summer day before I flew off to Missouri for college. In his words, I would never want to settle down in Washington, and he would never want to join me in a glamorous, loud city as I plowed full steam ahead toward success as a journalist. It seemed he’d given a lot of thought to our lack of future together.
The years went by. Intimacy from other men eluded me — or maybe I eluded them. I started noticing the days I cried into my pillow were days I faintly wished he were there to talk to me. College came and went for him.
I stopped sharing the stories in my head; the experiences I’d had in the Midwest; my emerging fears about becoming a writer of consequence.
When Misty was sold eventually, I knew an era — the days of our innocent friendship — had ended. The era’s remnants: I could always count on seeing him for a few hours when I came home twice a year.
The fifth time I came back, he paid for sushi for five people, but barely said a word to me for hours. I was nervous. This time, I didn’t know how to approach him and thank him for this edible gift.
In the car, I looked at him.
“Thanks for dinner,” I said. “I’ll pay you back —”
He brushed it off. But his stony silence melted away eventually as I leaned my head on his shoulder, feeling the uncertainty dissolve further.
That was a gift almost as nice as those red Sour Patch Kids.
For a while, I couldn’t taste red Sour Patch Kids without being transported to the time we shared them. But now I’m occasionally transported to the dreary funeral home where I saw him resting peacefully five years later.
He died in November.
In December, I started searching within to recover some of the loneliness that comes from a loss, trying to figure out what it even meant to be lonely. I turned to Zen Buddhism, Stoicism, Nihilism, late night Tinder conversations — anything to stop feeling a lack.
Then I put pen to paper about our bond ostensibly for a contest, something I’d intended long before he passed— long before I noticed I’d never found anything replicable like our connection, even as my friend count creeps to 4000 but still I dodge intimacy — as I felt the shock of realizing the one person I could have loved up until now, was gone.
As people share memory after memory about how quietly observant and compassionate and great he was, I on occasion indulge myself: what if he were my shot? What if the universe ordained, ‘here’s a great guy that gives a shit about you,’ and I said ‘no, I want to do greater things than let myself want someone, or feel tied down, or take a risk.’
What if he were the one, and what if now that he’s gone, it’s punishment? It means I can’t have the one.
That’s a self-centered but unwaveringly human way to think about death, as if it gets in the way of me living my life in pursuit of my own fulfillment.
It’s selfish to remember him as an idealized person, putting him on a pedestal with more power over my life than anyone should have to bear the burden of.
I suspect his worth to me was relative more than objective, and gaslighting myself for my differing priorities throughout the years is futile. If he were the one, or more importantly, if I cared about him being the one, I would have run after him with the same zeal with which I chase my career.
Maybe what I can say is he lit the fire, but he hasn’t been the one to fan the flames. He was the one who had the intent to get me red Sour Patch Kids, but wasn’t the one who ultimately did. I admired him, and he — wherever he is — will always have a piece of my heart. But not more than that.
I won’t fit him into the possible constraints of ‘my tragic love interest,’ making our story about me instead of us both. Stressing over whether we were in love dilutes the perfection we already were, without the labels or pressure of making a lack of future work.
I still feel him with me when I quietly observe and take in my surroundings, practically hearing his piercing commentary. And I find my thoughts drifting to him when I walk home alone, hugging myself from the cold.
During those times, red Sour Patch Kids can keep me warm by feeling something. When I’m sad, they taste sharp and bittersweet. When I smile at his memory, their texture is comforting and familiar.
No matter my mood, when they hit my tastebuds, I close my eyes and hear his voice in my head, like a voicemail I play over and over. You know what he tells me? He tells me to run after life sure that someday, someone will want to give me red Sour Patch Kids like these.
But that someone won’t stop there. We’ll sit together and eat them, and someone’ll listen to the stories I tell — maybe even the ones about him — and never want me to stop.