I wrote this last year, in the days that led up to the first anniversary of your death. It has remained in its embryonic stage, in a tangle of nonsensical pieces and parts, until today. I wasn’t ready then, but I’m ready now.
To F. – (as Pete Yorn would say, “cos it already is”).
A few weeks ago, I went to a bachelorette party at the bowling alley by my mom’s house. Directly next to the skating rink and behind a now-defunct entertainment park, it is the same bowling alley that I’ve been going to since we were all kids. We used to rule that entertainment complex, back in the day. We went from being dropped off by our parents to walking the distance from my house, smoking bummed cigarettes, to driving ourselves and meeting up once or twice a year, when life provided the time.
I haven’t been there since you passed away, and in all honesty, I really wasn’t thinking about that when I hurriedly trotted across the parking lot. I was thinking about how I was already a few minutes late; my friend getting married; about passing my impending mortuary board exams; about the myriad of chores and tasks that I needed to be doing and how the last thing in the world that I had time to do was spend a few hours bowling. I shouldered the door and was immediately immersed in the familiar smells and sounds of my childhood. I don’t think the place has ever even been renovated. The same day-glo carpet, the same sticky floors, the same variation of apathetic teenager behind the shoe rental counter.
It was instant. As the blustery winter wind blew the door shut behind me, I was transported immediately back to a time where you would have been the one waiting on me. I could see you there clear as day, eating a slice of pizza bigger than your head as you twirled on a stool, watching the game, darting in front of my grandfather’s video camera and throwing a hand in front of the lens as he filmed a birthday party, making him howl with rage like he did anytime we blocked his shot. As I greeted the group that I was actually there to meet, I couldn’t help but gaze off in the distance. “Watch this,” you said with a dangerous grin as you intentionally followed your ball down the lane, slithering down the slick flooring like a cocky otter, and then promising the employee on duty that raced over to reprimand you that it was an accident (all the while eagerly looking back at me over your shoulder to make sure that you had made me laugh, which would have been worth it).
(For the record, you did. You always did.)
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your loss in this past year, trying to make sense of something that is, at the end of the day, absolutely senseless. To say that it affected me profoundly is the understatement of the century. At times, I have felt guilt. I haven’t seen you since high school. I was angry at you the last time that I saw you, and I made sure that you knew it. We were silent facebook friends. I told you “Happy birthday” every year on your wall, except for the last birthday you would end up ever having – I decided, angry all over again, that I was tired of reaching out, and that you didn’t deserve to hear from me. Please know that I regret that now, and for the birthdays that you have now missed, I have honored them, and will continue to do so.
When it became hard between us, it stayed that way. I felt like you betrayed me, strutting around school the way you did, so eager to escape the kind and funny boy that you had once been. I could not understand why you were so quick to yield to high school hierarchy, why you were so desperate to fit in with the very same people that bullied you for your thinning hair, for your lanky, un-muscular frame – as an adult, I understand that while we were both used to being underdogs that were picked on for our various reasons, maybe what I never took into account was that I was the strong one and I could handle it, and you couldn’t. I wish I had this insight then, so that I could have shown you kindness and understanding, and not bristled with anger anytime you walked into a room – you disgusted me. My friend, the sellout. My friend, the mega-douche. My friend, who had his reasons.
I guess I always thought, as we grew up, that there would always be time later to sort all of that stuff out eventually, because no matter what distance ever came between us, it would only take one phone call from me busting your balls, or you showing up again at my work to harass me until I cracked a smile and you knew you were forgiven. It was inevitable, because that’s what our friendship was. But the longer I waited, the less pressing it became. And then I am waking up from a nap after my first day back to mortuary school for the semester to a text message asking me if it’s true that you died, to look it up on facebook because that’s what everyone is talking about. And just like that, in an instant, we were out of time.
I think about that the most, probably. I think that’s what gets me the most.
Your loss has hurt me, confused me, devastated me, forced me to face some hard truths and facts – and I try to find a way to calm my mind, but I can’t – there’s no closure, our story ended with the last few chapters ripped out before anyone could read them. I did judge you for who you became, and that was wrong – but so was the person you became. We share the guilt. I had to learn to stop romanticizing you, because what was once puppy love became sad and full of a lot of sharp edges.
I did reach out to you. I told you “happy birthday” every single year, and while you were never keen on computers or online very much, you still ignored me. Whether or not I should have pursued it further, I don’t and will never know. But you were on the other side of the line and you never picked up the phone, either, and I have to accept that. Ours isn’t a sad love story, it isn’t romantic or ill-fated or anything else that I’ve tried to assign it to in the past. You were cruel to me. I was cruel to you. I did judge you for changing. You judged me for staying the same.
From what your new friends say about you in the sad messages they leave on your Facebook wall, you were a wonderful person; the best friend anyone could be lucky to have. I want you to know that no matter how things ended between us, I do know that to be true, because I, too, was so very lucky once. I only wish that you had been that friend to me, in the end. And that I could have been that for you, too.
So many conflicting memories, I hate that I had to know the both of you. The fake accent that you put on, the way you squared your shoulders in the hallway to look tough, how you screeched out “DICK! BUTT! BALLS!” in class for the cheap laughs. He was nothing compared to the you that threw their arms around me the night before you moved, a sudden hot wet burst erupting against my cheek, the ragged sob in my ear promising that I was your best friend. The you that begged, from the other end of the telephone line, as I curled the cord around my finger – “Tell me. Who is it? Who do you have a crush on? Just tell me.” And I knew my answer was you, just like I knew yours was me, but as would become a repeating pattern, I never spoke up when it counted, and the moment passed.
Not too long ago, I was sorting through old boxes and found my yearbooks. I found one where you signed my sweetheart page – the only boy who signed my sweetheart page willingly, God bless you. You wrote a small monologue, your handwriting tight and neat – which is a feat to be admired, since it was written entirely in the metallic silver gel pen that was so popular in the early 2000s.
In the immediate aftermath of your death, an insensitive friend of mine asked me, almost accusatory in tone, “Have you even TALKED to him recently?” – and it felt like a kick to the gut. I immediately felt shame, like I had no right to hurt for someone I hadn’t seen since high school. I felt unworthy of carrying this grief, like it wasn’t mine to have. I immediately negated our memories, our shared experiences, the relationship that we had in the time and space where we existed together, because it suddenly didn’t feel like enough, and I felt like a fraud. I didn’t go to your funeral because of this. I’m really sorry for that, too.
In this time since you’ve been gone, I have searched so hard for a trace of what I might have meant to you, if anything. I don’t know why this validity was so important, but it became vitally so. And, after all, when I bounced the ball to you, there’s no denying it – you kept it. You never bounced it back. I drove myself crazy thinking like this, raveling and unraveling my memories, convincing myself that you had never cared about me at all. I consulted God, tarot cards, angel readings, the moon, dream analysis, signs in nature – whatever I could find to grasp at even the shortest of straws. Did you ever care about me? Did you ever think about me? Worse, and selfishly … if it had been me that had died, would you have carried even a fraction of this weight? The shame and the sorrow and the perpetual feeling of guilt and missed opportunity? Would you have even paused on your facebook feed after reading the news and sat back for even the briefest of sad, quiet moments?
I don’t know. Like everything else, I’ll never know.
With that yearbook opened in my lap, I traced your careful print with my fingertips, the indentations in the page where your pen had left behind pressure points so long ago. In a soliloquy entitled “Lessons For Life, Volume One”, you attempted to prepare me for the real world, adulthood, and everything that would come in the great big after. An instructional guide that was peppered with equal parts wit and sound advice – I reread that message, eventually finding myself laughing and crying at the same time. It was so, so you. And I know that, I realized, because I know you.
“And maybe you can name your hot dogs after me.” you finished emotionally, wrapping up your elaborate parable about adulthood with a carefully drawn heart and your name. It was succinct and goofy and right. Just like you.
I closed the book, literally and emotionally, and wiped my wet eyes with the back of my hand.
I don’t need to look for answers anymore.
Gone but not forgotten, the saying goes.