by Jonathan Roberts
I walked into Chipotle on a summer’s afternoon, which always means two things. It meant that the line would be long enough to reach the door, and it also meant that I was either off of work or I had just finished. I can’t remember if it was either of the two. I don’t remember what came before I walked into that restaurant, but I will always remember the moments inside.
As I waited in line I started to get the feeling that I was looking at the back of someone’s familiar head. Blonde and shaved down to what I would say was a three on a hair clipper. It was not well kept. The hair was shaggy but short enough that there was no need for a comb or to put product in. His faded white t-shirt hung on his broad shoulders as if it was wrapped around a wide, metallic coat hanger. It wasn’t until he turned to ask for his choice of rice and beans that I realized who he was.
It had been almost two years since I had seen Dalton Lambing last, and he looked skinnier than ever before. His once rounded cheeks were gone and his bones looked as if they wanted to poke out from under his skin. The dark bluish bags under his eyes seem to engulf his entire sockets. I watched him tell the employee what he wanted in his plump burrito without looking at the menu above.
Chipotle always reminded me of Dalton. In my early years of high school, he was one of the first people to take me to the restaurant. When ordering, it was always double. Double meat, usually chicken. If Dalton was low on money he would tell the worker that he wanted steak. He then would wait until they dropped the perfectly portioned spoonful into the bowl and then immediately ask if he could get chicken as well; insisting he only wanted half and half of both types of meat so he never had to pay the extra charge for double meat. The kid knew what he was doing and he could always figure a way around any system. Whether it was school, homelife, or Chipotle; he always seemed to work around the rules.
A couple years before, he challenged me to eat two double meat burritos. As we walked on the restaurant’s sidewalk he pointed to the stain on the walkway, informing me that was his attempt at the challenge. He offered to pay for the second burrito and at that point why would I not take the offer? I can remember him recording me as I slowly worked my way through the second burrito. He had an infectious cracking laugh that would turn his face amber from the pressure built up from within. He couldn’t stop laughing that day.
I would have never guessed that the place where our friendship began would be the last place I would ever see him.
He turned to me, instantly smiling and reaching out his hand. I clasped his hands into a four finger grip and hugged him with my other arm.
The last time I had seen him was in 2013 when we both threw our red caps into the air during our graduation. Over the four years in high school, we slowly drifted apart. We were introduced by a mutual friend and in my freshman year of high school, I knew I loved this kid. Dalton loved food, he loved video games, and he loved his friends. We bonded by over-eating delicious food and playing Call of Duty on many nights until the morning. But it wasn’t until I saw a picture of Dalton from middle school, that our little friendship turned into something real. In the picture, his face was almost twice the size. His cheeks were puffed and red and he reminded me of Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka. I could see the joy in his face as I looked from the phone back to his current slim freshman face.
“How’d you do it?” Iasked. “It’s all about diet really.”
He was proud and had every right to be. It was at that moment that Dalton and I became close. I was so impressed yet so proud of this kid I barely knew. Growing up as a chubby little nugget like Dalton, it was always my own dream to break out of the body that I felt trapped inside.
Looking at Dalton made me feel like there was a possibility to lose weight and, one day, to look like him. He used to call me BJ, short for Big Jon, a nickname that spread through our tightly knit group. I never told him that this secretly tortured me.
Besides the fact that we grew up fat, Dalton reminded me too much of myself. He was originally from Pittsburgh where his mother stayed, while he lived in West Chester with his father. While he would never reveal too much he would sometimes talk about the troubles he had with his parents after their divorce. Eventually, he would learn about the problems I had growing up with what I call a dysfunctional father figure. He would always say “Fuck him, Jon.” And just like Dalton, I focused my sadness, and more importantly my anger, with anything I could get my hands on. Our addictive personality was present in the ungodly amount of calories we would consume, eventually leading to our obesity. Then it was video games, the hundreds of hours we would pour into these digital realities just to escape our own. Eating and gaming were a distraction from what we didn’t want to talk about, and that was addicting.
A couple years into high school, Dalton found a new addiction: he joined a local CrossFit gym in town and within a year he was riddled with more muscles than anyone our age. Again this made me take a step back and ask why I couldn’t do this, why couldn’t I look like Dalton. It was at this same point that he started to call me OJ, short for obese Jon. I had reached my lowest point and my highest weight when I started a new diet. I don’t know what I told myself or how I convinced myself to keep going but I never forgot the first time he affectionately yelled OJ at me.
As I eventually lost weight, the nickname went back to BJ, but as senior year slowly approached we continued to separate. He had gotten more deeply involved with people I didn’t like. People whose lives outside of West Chester East High School were dangerous and unhealthy ones. I knew he shouldn’t have been hanging out with them, but I wasn’t his father. I was more of a brother and I wasn’t going to stop him. The funny thing was that there wasn’t any tension between us. Even as we drifted apart, as soon as we would meet up we would be right back into telling each other stupid stories. Like the time he surprised me late at night, outside my front door asking if I wanted to do something. It was almost midnight and he was with a mutual friend, Ross. The two of them climbed a pavilion in the local park next to my house, and they watched from up high as I laughed from below. Or the time that I took the blame for throwing a water bottle at someone in the cafeteria. Dalton had been trying to shoot the bottle into the trashcan but instead whacked a poor kid right in the back of the head. One of the gym teachers threatened to take us all down to the office unless one of us confessed; I just figured it would be easier to take the blame. It wasn’t. But Dalton felt horrible for the detention I received.
Years later, inside the Chipotle where I would eventually work, I stared into another version of Dalton, one I thought I would never see. He told me how he had been in rough shape for the past couple months but wouldn’t explain more. I asked him if he was in school or working anywhere in town. He worked for his father who had a fencing company. Dalton’s job was to dig the holes for each post to plant in. It seemed that his intense workout regimen ended once this job started. He looked like he was severely underweight for his size. As if I watched the transformation of this kid, a friend whose body shifted over the four years of high school to inside the Chipotle another two years later. We couldn’t help but be excited as we hadn’t seen each other in so long — I had thought I would never see him after high school.
“Yeah. I plan on going to Delaware Community College next semester; I need to do something else. I don’t want to be digging holes the rest of my life,” he smiled.
But Dalton Lambing spent the rest of his life digging holes.
A week after that night in Chipotle, he overdosed on heroin. I knew something was wrong the moment I saw him, but I couldn’t muster up the strength to ask. Looking back, I can still see those dark circles around his eyes along with the pale skin that was once filled with so much warmth. I watched him walk all the way out the restaurant that night, and even then I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t.
If you open up his Facebook page today, the first thing you will notice is his profile picture. An image frozen in time. An image with no signs of loss. Just a photograph. Standing in a street engulfed in darkness, Dalton stands shirtless with his muscular back to the camera. The street is empty and he stands alone. With his arms spread, he takes in the night.