I was thinking about someone I used to know today as I was driving to work. Mostly, I was thinking, it’s been almost twenty years since I’ve seen him, and in this day and age, with social media and such, it’s funny when someone just drops off the face of the earth, you know? And he did. And I still miss him. Twenty years later. Funny, right? Twenty years, and I still remember the time I spent with him like it was yesterday, like I’ll turn around someday and there he’ll be.
I don’t know what brought him to mind, I mean, today of all days. He pops in, now and then. I don’t know how better to explain it. Twenty years is a long time, and I can’t say I think of him every single day. That would be lunacy, wouldn’t it? But some days he’d fresher than others, and then some days it’s like I’m drowning in him. And today it’s an especially watery day, for no reason in particular, really.
He was someone I was friends with when I was just graduating high school. Our families had recently become friends, so it was one of those “we got thrown together and expected to socialize” things. Those never work out. I was, if it’s even possible, even more antisocial then than I am now. And even worse, he was this totally popular kid, so of course I went into it thinking, oh, great, he’s going to be an ass. Only he wasn’t. He was just the nicest, most intelligent, most thoughtful guy. A poet. A musician. A dreamer. So funny. So kind. And we had the best conversations, and just spent hours laughing and listening to hours upon hours of Pearl Jam and Nirvana and sharing things that, upon retrospect, it was strange that we shared, because we hadn’t known each other very long. It was just one of those friendships that clicked, you know? And I think when you’re that young (I was seventeen at the time) you think those kind of friendships will always happen, that you have just a lifetime of those friendships to look forward to, that things will only get easier, friendship-wise, from there. Only they don’t. They’re kind of precious things, and should be really celebrated when they come into your life. And held onto. Really just held onto with all you’ve got.
He was having a really hard time with some things, when I moved away for college. It was one of the biggest worries I had as I left, leaving him behind. He was a year younger, so had another year of school before he could leave for college. He was planning to attend the same university I was, and we were both excited about this prospect. I wrote to him a lot, for a while, even though I was very, very bad, once I got to college and discovered the wonders of underage drinking, about keeping in touch with people. He responded a few times. His letters were sad, and short, and I couldn’t see him in the words. Do you remember doing that, back in the days of real letters, written with real pen and ink on real paper? Looking for the person you loved in the strokes of the penmanship and the scribbled-out bits and what was said and what was left out? I was worried.
He visited once, on a college tour with his mother, and I got to see him for a bit. He seemed…quiet. And lost. And sad. Not quite there. Distant. My heart ached for him. I wanted him to see how wonderful the college was, how much fun we’d have once he got there. I talked it up, the things we could do, the friends I’d made, how freeing it was to be out of our small, suffocating town and somewhere where no one knew who I was, how it could be the same for him, how he could reinvent himself, once he was there. He smiled, but it was a shadow of the smiles we used to share, and I had a very, very bad feeling about…something. I wasn’t sure what. Just something. I told him to please, please call me, write me, whatever he needed, if he needed me, for anything. He promised he would.
A few weeks later I got the call he’d run away from home. California, my mom told me. There were more problems going on in his life than even I’d been aware of. So, rather than hurt himself – which he’d come close to doing, a number of times, something I knew, but he promised me it was in the past – he removed himself from the situation, without even sticking around to graduate from high school, without even waiting it out to see what college had to offer. He got as far away from the East Coast as he could without leaving the country. Gone. Just, gone.
I never heard from him again.
I heard he had a child, very young, just a year or so later. So that kid would be – good gracious, eighteen now? Really? Older than I was when I even met him? Time really is a thief, isn’t it.
Every year or so, sit down and crack my knuckles and flex my Google muscles and search and search and search, looking for a trail. I’ve never found anything. Not here in New York, not in California (which might not even be where he ended up, it might just have been a way station, I don’t even know that much) not the name I’d heard he gave his son, not anything. I can find his brothers and his sister, I can find his parents, I can find other people walking around with his name that don’t wear his face. But not him. And I can’t contact his family about him, for various reasons not blogworthy. I’ve asked my parents. They think he got into drugs, fell in with a bad crowd (are there really such things, outside of movies of the week? Bad crowds?), but that’s really all they know about it. My father went so far as to say he wouldn’t be surprised to hear he’d died. I won’t even consider that. I can’t. I just know he’s disappeared into the ether. He’s a ghost. He’s a figment of my teenage imagination. And even if I found him, he wouldn’t still be that boy. That boy died out, twenty years ago. That boy got hurt so badly he took off and left himself behind, reinvented himself somewhere else from the ground up. He’s a man, somewhere; a man I don’t know anymore. A stranger. A stranger who might not even remember me, honestly. I might be the only one carrying around this slip of friendship like a tiny tattered flag.
But he’s a stranger with a little bit of my teenage heart walking around inside of him. And I’d like to find him. I’d like to let him know I’m sorry I didn’t do more, I’m sorry I had to leave just when things were at their worst, that I didn’t even know that they were at their worst because I was dealing with some worst of my own and was frighteningly self-centered due to that fact. I want to apologize for not being there. For not being the friend he needed. For missing the last twenty years of his joys and his heartbreaks. I want to let him know that I remember, and that I’ve always remembered, and that I’ve been carrying him around, everywhere I’ve gone, for two decades of my life. He saw the Pacific Ocean with me for the first time. He went to Italy with me. He was with me the night I found out Kurt Cobain died, and I sobbed, thinking of those nights spent talking and talking as Nevermind played on endless repeat in the background.
I miss my friend. Grown-up me misses him as much as teenage-me did, twenty years ago. Some things never quite leave you, you know?
I have this picture of him in my mind; he’s frozen in time, a perfect seventeen-year-old. And he’s laughing, and his eyes are shining, and the sun’s coming in behind him, and he’s lit like an actor on a stage. And he looks happy. So fleetingly, hauntingly happy. It’s how I choose to remember him, on the days he weighs most heavily on my heart. Days like today.
So let me be maudlin, just for a bit longer: Paul, you’ll always be that perfect seventeen-year-old to me. I’d say your whole name here, in the hope you’d find this and contact me and it’d be one of those stories you read about in the newspaper’s Lifestyle section, or something, but I don’t know that you aren’t hiding from that name behind another name, and I don’t want to hurt you any more than my neglect and inability to see your pain twenty years ago already did. I hope you’re well, and I hope you know more joy than anyone has the right to in their lives, and I hope you kicked your demons to the curb a long time ago, and stomped on them with a steel-toed boot for good measure. And someday, I hope to meet up with you again, and I hope when I do, we still have that weird one-in-a-million click, where people just are right together, you know? You don’t get it often. It’s a shame to let it go. It’s a shame to let it get lost. I want to mingle my laugh with yours again. I want to see you laugh again. I just want to see you. It’s something I want, almost more than anything else, some days. Today is one of those days.
I’m just missing my friend today, you know? Once in a while, it sneaks up on you. Even twenty years later. I’m willing to bet, twenty years from now, I’ll still have moments I’ll hear a breath of laughter and turn, quick, thinking it’s him, I’ll catch him, he’s there, he’s found me, I’ve found him, we’re found.
Happy weekend, everyone. Tell your people you love them, ok? I can pretty much guarantee that neither you, nor they, will ever ever ever regret either the telling or the hearing of it.