Paul’s house always had a rotating cast of perma-stoned, full-time gamers around 20, my age. They treated my best friend Liam and I at a distance, as we did to them, like we were alien tribes. Paul was a translator of sorts. I went to his house a handful of times, and each time, playing Fortnite was the main event. I’ve never seen the TV there without Fortnite on the screen. I met him through my friend Liam, who met him through our friend John. John had been good friends with Paul in middle school, but they grew apart because Paul’s dad did meth sometimes. Paul was a behemoth, tall and twice as wide as an average man, but he had a baby face and always sat with his mouth open. His build, shaved hair, and slow speech made him resemble a giant toddler, or Patrick from SpongeBob. He always chuckled at the lazy, juvenile gags in video games. Liam liked hanging out at Paul’s because you could smoke inside. It was Paul’s mother’s house, but I never saw her there.

I would call Paul my friend. English really fails me when I must identify a person as a “friend” or “acquaintance” to a third party. It depends on the third party, and the situation. My “friend” from high school scored a touchdown against Alabama sophomore year. Some guy I knew was charged with a DUI. Sometimes I will begin a depraved but funny story with “one time my friend…” only to be met with, “wait, you’re friends with this person?” and I have to backtrack and relabel. There are acquaintances I see every week and friends who I have not talked to in years. If two people are “old friends,” it means “longtime friends,” but if someone says “my old house,” it means their former home before they moved somewhere else. “Buddy” is a pretty exact synonym, only adding on some feeling of male camaraderie. The best we can do is “good friend” or “close friend” as steps between “friend” and “best friend.” We need more words for these things.

Topics of conversation at Paul’s revolved around video games and mutual friends. There wasn’t any small talk about personal details or plans for the future. When girls or dating came up, Paul’s group discussed it with a middle schooler’s bewilderment, using terms like “second base.”

Despite being a hub of illicit activity, Paul’s house was eerily average. The living room had deep light brown sofas with black dining room chairs pulled up around them. There was no coffee table. Drinks, bongs, and ashtrays scattered the vinyl floor like Mario Kart obstacles. The distinct olfactory cocktail of weed and cigarette smoke filled your nose, clashing with the cinnamon bun scent of his mother’s candles. The walls were decorated with those abstract canvases of colors and shapes that you buy at a big box store. The candles and the décor were the only proof I had of Paul’s mother living there.

Paul’s aimless associates came and left at their own leisure. It was hard to tell how many of them knew each other, or if they even knew Paul. Most of them had short, simple hair and dressed casually and unfashionably. Slow and erratic, they were always forgetting their intentions. At one point, more and more of these extras began spawning in the doorway, smoking cigarettes and misplacing their phones. Against Paul’s commands, the door kept being left open. The idling in and out struck me as odd, but I dismissed it as paranoia. Paul began speaking to them sternly, talking about his mom and neighbors. They all left aside from these two chubby guys, who were brothers. Paul grinned and looked at me afterwards, saying, “See that? I don’t just force people to leave, I make them choose to go on their own.”

I wasn’t sure why he was speaking only to me; that was maybe the third time I had met him and my first time at his house. Maybe Paul respected my opinion in particular, or maybe he noticed that I was visibly uncomfortable. I announce, “Paul moves in silence,” paraphrasing Lil Wayne. Paul smiled and tapped his temple.

One of Paul’s friends was taller, with brown hair, an Abe Lincoln beard, and a patchy, disconnected mustache. He had thick legs that supported his hanging belly, while his younger brother was built like a South Park character, blonde and short with a baby face and no neck. I don’t think the younger one had any wits about him at all. At one point, he apologized for a misunderstanding, “Sorrrry, I’ve ate acid eryday for the past two weeks, so I think I kinda friied my braiinn.” Afterwards, he chuckled hueh hueh and his beady eyes shined. His spoke in labored breaths, croaking like a frog. Both brothers sat reclined on the couch the whole time, only leaning forward to take whatever smoking accoutrements Paul passed to them. I would later learn this relaxation was due to ingesting Xanax. I never learned their names, and they would never learn mine, so the room of strangers was forced to address each other in overly casual terms like “buddy,” “man,” and “bro.” This false familiarity made it unclear who was supposed to answer questions, leading to awkward silences and interjections that quickly trailed off.

Later, the brothers would lose their weed and tear the room apart hunting for it. They checked all of the drawers and under all the furniture. They even checked the kitchen. At one point, Paul asked the older one if the weed was in his pocket. He quickly checked the left pocket of his gym shorts and then stood in the middle of the room as he took items out of his right pocket one by one. He fished a phone, a wallet, car keys, a pocket knife, a lighter, cigarettes, Chapstick, and another lighter out of his pocket before declaring that he did not have it. After throwing all the cushions off the sofa, they deduced it had been stolen by one of the idlers.

There was an ordeal where Paul was going to call a particularly suspicious former houseguest and casually ask him if he had seen the THC wax that belonged to the chubby guys. They debated for a while whether they would accuse him outright or not. Paul wanted to ask the possible thief a series of questions and accuse him based off of how he acted. Paul looked at me and referenced how he kicked out all those people earlier in a similar sneaky manner. I nodded. After planning out a loose script, Paul dialed the number. No answer.

We reassembled the couch and resumed playing video games. At some point, the younger brother displayed a white pill to the group and then put it in his mouth.

“What are you doing?” Paul interrupted whoever was talking.

“I’m just breathing, man,” said the human toe.

“This isn’t fucking breathing,” Paul mimed putting something in his wide-open mouth. He would later tell me that he didn’t mess with Xanax anymore. Paul was a guy who sold weed and sometimes acid. He wouldn’t strike anyone as a hardened, violent dealer, but he had been stabbed once over some drug-related issue. It was in the hip or leg and didn’t leave any lasting injuries that I could tell. From what I heard, the stabbing had been pretty uncalled for, but I can’t really blame the guy. If an ogre of a man like Paul was squaring up to me, stabbing him would seem like a pretty good idea.

As we were leaving that day, Paul dapped me up and pulled me aside to get my Snapchat as Liam walked to the car, “Hey, Will! If you ever need anything, hit me up, man! You’re welcome at my place whenever, even if you aren’t with Liam or anyone.” I never took him up on either offer but appreciated his going out of his way to make them.

The next time we went over, Liam and I found significantly less excitement. We discussed movies and games as normal. I learned that Paul pirated most of his content. He recommended me a good free VPN to use, so your Internet provider won’t catch you for illegal torrents. Paul was taking Fortnite more seriously. His fat fingers wrestled with the controller as his character built ramps and walls for protection. He was totally immersed in the game. He kept interrupting Liam and me to point out details of his player’s exclusive new skin. We did our best to engage, but it was impossible to match the joy he experienced watching a monkey dance on his avatar’s shoulder.

The last time I saw Paul, he was giving Liam and me a ride from his mom’s place. On the way, he pulled off the main road and began winding through the rainy night. “Sorry, I have to stop somewhere real quick.” He coasted up to a mailbox in front of a driveway that sloped upwards into darkness. A figure waited in a raincoat. Wet, scraggly long hair poured out of the hood. I caught a glimpse of a pale, angular face handing Paul money before we drove to John’s house. Liam and I looked each other with slight grins but concerned eyes.

After Paul left, Liam and I joked about the exchange to John, “Sorry we were late. Paul had to sell weed to an 1800’s fisherman,” Liam said.

“You have to respect his dedication; that man was just posted up in the pouring rain,” I joked as John stared at the ground.

“God, he’s such an idiot. You know he got arrested last June?” John said. He smiled for a moment, but the shaking of his head wiped it away. John explained how Paul had attempted to dismantle the security device on a pair of headphones at Walmart and ended up getting caught and charged with shoplifting. We all laughed, more at Paul in general than this particular misfortune. John kept offering up cautionary Paul tales for the rest of the night. Liam and I laughed less at each one. John talked about Paul like he knew something that we didn’t, which was probably the fear of having Paul’s father drive you in a car while high on meth. The incident that led to John mostly cutting ties with Paul, who had been one of his oldest friends.

We continued to find our time with Paul funny, though. We would recount stories of the chubby stoner brothers, like when the younger one smoked salvia in front of us and his voice changed from bullfrog to foreboding demon, somehow becoming even deeper and slower than it was before.

I’d tell these stories to other people, and my labeling of Paul became more removed as time went on. When I was at his mom’s, I was hanging out at my “friend’s” place. Paul was my friend who didn’t care if you smoked inside. Paul slowly became “Liam’s friend” who had stolen two cases of Bud Light from Walmart, or “this guy I know” who had been stabbed. I didn’t even know the details of the stabbing or arrest when people would inquire further, so it felt a little disingenuous claiming that drug dealer as my friend. But also, if someone were my friend, I wouldn’t want them to pry for details about the time a fight ended with a knife puncturing my hip.

“Liam’s friend” is how I would mostly refer to Paul, despite Liam being one of my best friends and him only being slightly better friends with Paul than I was. I could measure out how many times I saw Paul, how many hours I had spent with him, how many personal details we knew about each other, how often we talked, or any other metric of human familiarity, and we would total out to be more than acquaintances and far from close friends. But when I left Paul’s house for the first time, the two of us spoke as friends. I’ve also had quick interactions with strangers where we talk like friends. All it takes is five minutes of bonding over a public inconvenience or waiting in line outside a bar to be “friendly” with a stranger. There are also people I’ve known for years and have talked to for hours, who I choose not to consider friends. An integral part of considering someone a friend is how you choose to act towards them. The adage “friends are the family that you can choose” implies that “friend” is entirely a label of choice. Would I consider Paul as “family” to me, even in the loosest sense? Definitely not, despite addressing his friends primarily by “bro.”

In the next summer, over a year later, Paul was arrested again. I checked my phone and had a text from Liam, “Holy shit, Paul was caught with child porn.” I immediately began blowing up his phone in disbelief; could it have been his dad’s? What? In the moment, the combination of the crime and Paul was so outlandish that it mostly seemed like a bizarre joke. Then Liam sent me a news article: “POLICE CHARGED 20 Y/O MAN WITH POSSESSION OF CHILD PORN.” I didn’t even have to open the link to see the picture, Paul’s mugshot. I stared at him. His hair was longer and he had a disgusting neckbeard and faint mustache. His picture matched the headline perfectly. He was being charged with eight felonies, and I’d later read that he had been apprehended due to a cybercrimes task force tipping off the local police. Liam and I had a long, capslocked exchanged that can be summarized as “DUDE WHAT THE FUCK PAUL WHAT.” I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked that it had been Paul or just that I had known a pedophile personally.

Seeking advice, I began typing a message to my friend group from college, who didn’t even know of Paul:

“Holy shit, my—” I backspaced.

“Holy shit, a guy I know pretty well just—”

“Holy shit, a guy I used to hang out with just got—”

“Holy shit, a friend of a friend, who I have hung out with multiple times, at his house, and known for a few years but have not seen for a while was—”

“Holy shit, an old friend of mine just got arrested for child porn.” Send.