One of my best friends from college died about three weeks ago. I only found out yesterday. I was attending an art event—a gallery tour in Tijuana—and happened to check my email in between stops. At first, not recognizing the sender's name, I thought it was spam, but it turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of his, a woman I'd heard about many times but had never met. It's a strange, isolating experience to receive terrible news while you're surrounded by friends who are having a good time. My impulse was not to ruin everyone else's day, but of course I couldn't entirely keep my feelings to myself. A few people checked in with me, sensing my distress. I demurred.
In some ways, I suppose this friend was already gone from my life. It had been a couple of years since the last time we saw each other, or even really spoke. We had grown apart, and in some ways I had already grieved that loss. But in the back of my mind I guess I thought things might turn around. He'd had some changes in his life recently, and was engaged to be married. I was happy for him, and part of me thought that we might reconnect some day. That won't happen now.
I've thought so much about this man over the past few years, so often with sadness or worry. I met him the first day of college, and still, more than two decades later, that is how I remember him. He was slender and energetic, enthusiastic and outgoing in a way I've seldom seen, before or since. He laughed loudly and often. He hugged with his whole body. He was utterly un-self-conscious in telling his friends that he loved them, a rare thing for men of my generation. And that was something he gave to me—a willingness to say it back without feeling strange.
He was a man of big appetites and a passion for pleasure unlike anyone else I've ever known. He carried around a recipe for cheesecake in his wallet, and happily took every opportunity to make one and share it with you, even—usually—on the spur of the moment. Back then we all drank too much, ate poorly, failed to care for our bodies. A few of my friends drank like they were punishing themselves, but for him drinking and substances were always and only about pleasure. It took him to some dark places, eventually. I don't know how or why he died, but for some time now has feared and maybe even expected the worst. I still thought we'd have more time.
And this is the thing that has haunted me, saddened me, worried me about our friendship as we got older. Some of the things that make us fun or funny or endearing when we are young become less and less excusable as we age. And, hopefully, as we learn. Some things he never learned. Some of the things that made us laugh at nineteen make me cringe now. Some of the things we said and did then are things that hurt people, or hurt ourselves. We were ignorant then, or maybe we were innocent. Maybe we should have known better then. Maybe somewhere inside some of us did. Either way, we should know better now. The fact that he couldn't or wouldn't learn to be better made it hard for me to be around him. Increasingly, in mixed company I found myself having to make excuses for him, or apologizing for him afterwards—something I'm sure he didn't want and certainly never asked for. He was sure of himself, even when he was wrong, even when the horribleness of what he said was evident to everyone but himself. When he dropped away from me I was sad, but part of me was also relieved.
I wonder if he was confused about why we stopped connecting. I wonder if he was angry with me. If he was, he never said so. As much of a pain in the ass as he could be, he was also one of the most unfailingly generous people I knew. He took genuine pleasure in seeing his friends enjoy things. Maybe in distancing myself, I was unfair to him. Maybe I was justified in doing what I needed to do. Did I cut him off, or did he move along on his own? I don't know how he saw it. Now he's gone, and I have to live with the fact that that's where we left things.
I try to take comfort in knowing that he was unafraid of dying. Neither of us believed in an afterlife, which terrified me and comforted him. Once—perhaps twelve, thirteen years ago—I was working myself up into a panic attack about my impending nonexistence. He just said to me, calmly, "It's nothing to be afraid of." I try to remember that, but of course the pain I feel now is about the hole he's left in my life. An absence that, yes, I will some day get used to, but which will never be filled. This is the thing about life: the longer you live, the larger and more numerous the holes become. Eventually everyone goes away, or we do.
And yet I cannot think about my friend without thinking about all the ways that he pursued his pleasures. The landscapes of our souls become furrowed and holed by loss, and new joy and new love cannot fill those voids. But what they can do is expand the boundaries of our emotional territory, giving us someplace new to stand.
I remember my friend smiling. It's all I can do.
• • •
I do have updates on my projects and my work, but I'm going to let them sit for now. It can wait.
I hope you're well, and that whatever you need, be it joy, peace, nourishment, or anything at all, finds its way to you soon.