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I wanted to know what happened to you. It seemed unfair, like I wasn’t being granted information I was entitled to. I mean, I was your best friend. Sure, it’d been a couple years since we’d last talked, but still; when you grow up with someone hip to hip, when you go through your prime adolescence with one person and experience with that person all of the formative moments that’ll remain nested in the depths of your mind forever after, you don’t just stop being best friends. Right? It doesn’t matter whether the friendship is linear. There’s something indefinably sacred about the whole thing; it’s like a pact that’s exempt from the relentless abrasion of time, the harsh limitations of distance both literal and psychological, a pact which remains effortlessly indelible.
And yeah, I was curious. Who wouldn’t be curious? How many times can you recall the family withholding the cause of death? The very absence of a cause underscored its implicit implications. I searched around on social media, read the newspapers. I even consulted the omnipotent Google, that chilling arbiter always ready to appease mordant curiosity. And yet still I found little, much of it the same regurgitated information written in the same obligatory, willfully opaque tone with the same basic, barely-skimming-the-surface details, as if the cost of each printed word were a small fortune.
The day I found out you were gone was rough. The unexpectedness was sudden, almost percussive. The effect seismic.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed staring into the darkness, contemplating the infinite. An incandescent wash of moonlight crept across the window sill and my psyche moseyed on down tempestuous tributaries of thought, a subconscious attempt at obfuscation that always brought me back to where I started.
I was fascinated with a certain notion that had floated to the forefront of my mind: the truth that the same event could mean two totally different things to two different people; how the black and gray writing about your death shook me to the core but meant absolutely nothing to the people down the street, people who’d probably never see your obituary, let alone know you’d even existed.
It made me feel small and insignificant, realizing that the world carried on everywhere at once without cessation, regardless of whatever seismic ordeals I was struggling through. I didn't like it. Having to acknowledge and accept my infinitesimal existence without being diminished by it was existentially suffocating.
The following day wasn’t much better. The whole thing seemed to taint my thoughts, my perspective, the knowledge of your death lingering in the shadowy, peripheral way; it was like I was being forced to see everything through a filter of imminent mortality, like I was privy to something that everyone else wasn’t, an entire dimension of human existence that’d previously remained undetected and irrelevant to someone my age—someone young and carefree and blissfully ignorant of life’s brutal compromises and forfeitures and in the thick of a life driven by the philosophy of immediate rewards and no regrets and defiant frivolity and the headlong pursuit of the never enough—and my relative youth left me ill equipped to process everything. I found it difficult to accept that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t always the way out or a reminder of a better future, but rather the approaching express train.
A week went by. Insomnia became the new norm, the diurnal a placeholder for the night.
I considered asking someone close to you but could never seem to summon the nerve. It made me feel strangely powerless.
I refused to post anything about you on social media. Every time I came across a tweet or an Instagram post that was supposed to somehow memorialize you, I’d shake my head in silent disgust, this prolix-infused posturing that served no purpose beyond oneself—passive spectating by dilettantes encouraged by a culture obsessed with social affirmation.
Another week came and went. Try as I might, I couldn’t divorce myself from your memory, couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of not knowing.
Even the most ordinary of things triggered a Pavlovian nostalgia in me, subliminally but right in the solar plex: songs on the radio, driving by certain places, TV shows and sports. And then came a flood of memories in their reductive slowed-down replay. I started to consider whether there might be something wrong with me. I wasn’t supposed to be so…affected, was I?
The truth was that I didn’t want to care. And the fact that I didn’t want to care made me feel like a terrible person.
But I did care. A lot. A lot more than my parents seemed to understand. They just told me to “let time pass.” Stupid. So stupid. I hated them suggesting that: letting time pass. As if time could be subjected to my will. I once read somewhere that sometimes it's possible to define the depth of an experience by means of how radically it slows or hastens your sense of time. And grief has few rivals in its ability to slow time.
It dawned on me, suddenly, why someone might resort to drug use as a way to anesthetize a reality that was simply too painful to endure; maybe it was sort of like a “mental secession” in which the mind went AWOL, a way to dissociate. The idea provided an almost practical comfort. It’d be so nice to just lose yourself for a while.
I craved the same kind of anesthetic for the dull, deep sadness that seemed to be squatting in my lungs. When you’re that sad it can be difficult to distinguish between the transient and the enduring, and after a while you start to think that maybe the way you feel now is the way you’re going to feel forever, which leads to a sense of hopelessness. Indifference, even. It can run deep in the fabric of a person. But if equilibrium wasn’t possible, then I wanted an escape, however temporary.
Going downtown to try scoring something heavy, something serious like heroin, wasn’t a good idea for a long list of reasons, chief among them my utter lack of dope boy connections. And pot wouldn’t work, either; my parents would definitely smell it, and the last thing I needed was that headache. I figured it made the most sense to just do some “whippets,” snag a few whip cream canisters from the Walgreens on Filmore and inhale some nitrous oxide cartridges like we used to do behind Kenny’s place in junior high. I’d pick some up the following day.
I saw your mom walking out of the post office. I had just hopped back in my car to swing by Walgreens when she walked out, and I froze up because I wasn’t sure what to do, wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate for me to bother her; it felt like I’d be, I don’t know. . . accosting her, or something. But then I was struck by the thought that I didn’t have a right to know what had happened to you so much as a personal obligation as your best friend to find out.
Paralyzed by indecision, observing how your mom seemed to exude a stoic’s quiet grace so perfectly, a mien belying what must have been an internal hurricane the likes of which were unimaginable, my desire for closure finally displaced inertia and I half jogged, half walked to your mom, reaching her just as she was about to open her car door.
She turned, and I saw then that she looked different than when I’d last seen her. The strawberry blonde hair I remembered was now a gunmetal gray, and her mouth betrayed some sorrow, a hidden grief that I was privy to. She looked older. Sorrow has a way of making age indeterminable.
Chronologically, my age advanced by a few months; but my heart, my mind—it all felt like a decade had come and gone.
People who've experienced loss know the price of things. It's a sad truth that the ones we care about most have the greatest impact on us in absentia; that you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry, and when it does, it's like the present becomes sharper and you're able to see the kind of hard truths that are so often obscured by the relentless pace of life and its attendant stimuli.
And now, what was once an abstraction is always present, lurking below my every step, the hurt rising unbidden at any moment. Fickle memories will often bring with them a surge of vitality and a glimpse of potentialities, and it'll feel provisional, like remission. But then I'll remember. And I'll be beset by guilt.
All I want is to return to a place from which we might begin again. That's it. That's all I want.