I wish I could go back and do it differently. I’m not so naive as to think it would have changed the outcome, but maybe I could have communicated something powerful, and left my mark, if I had just been brave.
Sometimes I wonder if I even have the right to be sad. Maybe, I think meekly, someone could have called me when they found Erik blue-faced in his bedroom.
But then again, nobody knew about our interactions. In fact, I often find myself writing them down, just to remember that they happened. I have snippets scrawled on so many napkins — post-it notes, subjectless email drafts — and sometimes, thankfully, in my bright purple, hard cover diaries that are hard to lose or break.
These were our moments:
When I was in middle school, the most physically developed girl in my grade also happened to have the most permissive parents. She threw a party. Everyone went. But Erik disappeared shortly after he arrived.
I, on the other hand, snuck into the bushes with some boys to take my first sips of vodka. (I fantasized that the boys might kiss me, which they didn’t, which was fine. They were shorter than I was, anyway. Most people were, back then, though Erik wasn’t; he had one inch on me in sneakers. But he was tan, with wavy, light brown hair, and bright eyes, and therefore way out of my league. The two of us were just friends.)
With the taste of vodka still burning on my tongue, I wandered from the bushes to the basement, and found Erik crying in the Train Room. He was crouched underneath the most elaborate set — an Amtrak replica winding through a generic, snow-covered town that resembled Milwaukee. I asked him what was wrong and he told me to shut the door, so I did, leaving the two of us alone in a musty, dark room. Hormones ricocheted through my body. All I could think about was kissing.
“My parents are divorcing,” he said, tears, rolling down his cheeks. “And my dad’s crazy.” My parents were divorced, too, and I knew about crazy. But I was not at an age where I could empathize yet, really. Or rather, all I could see right then was a handsome boy sobbing. Easy prey.
“Do you want a hug?” I asked.
He nodded and I crawled underneath the table. The two of us scooted close, dragging our butts across concrete with the heels of our sneakers. I had never hugged a boy before. When I finally reached for him, our legs were overlapped, octopus style. Touching him felt like touching a lion.
“Thanks,” he said, digging his chin into my shoulder. I was afraid he’d pull away first so I quickly responded, “How about we go back to the party? I’ll walk with you.”
I once spent a certain Christmas Eve with Erik’s father and found out exactly what Erik meant by crazy. I was at my former stepmom’s house to exchange gifts with her, my half-sister, and my former step-brother and step-sister. I referred to them all as family, still, because I was lonely. But the truth was that since my father’s latest divorce, my would-be Brady Bunch had been scattered across various suburban ranch houses and downtown apartments, and we rarely saw one another anymore due to grudge-fueled allegiances that freckle most separations.
Is it possible to write a eulogy that isn’t inherently selfish? How do you express how you felt about a person without talking at length about yourself?
Apparently Erik’s father was sitting at our table drinking all our wine because he was part of my former stepmother’s divorce group — “Small world, huh?” While he was in the bathroom, my stepmom explained to me in hushed tones that she’d invited him only because she had felt bad for him, but hadn’t known he would stay so long. I was angry at her for letting him come in the first place, and then acting like she couldn’t control his being there. The presence of a stranger was making me feel more alienated by my family than usual. So when he returned from the bathroom, red-faced from wine, and complimented my 15-year-old sister’s “rack,” I got in his face and told him, “Get out.” He was too intoxicated to drive anywhere safely. But he got home fine.
One night I met Erik at a bar with about twenty other people — by then former classmates. I no longer went to their school because my mother had swapped me into a private establishment, saying she was worried about the prevalence of drugs — and especially heroin — at the public high school where I had been slated to attend.
I found Erik in the hallway near the bar’s bathroom and told him that I’d spent Christmas Eve with his dad — “Small world, huh?” He looked so embarrassed that without thinking I threw my arms around him and whispered, “It’s okay, buddy, he didn’t do anything embarrassing, I swear.” He squeezed me hard for a long time, and I could almost smell the dusty model trains and wet concrete in the basement where I’d first put my arms around him. We spent the rest of the night drinking side-by-side, stealing glances in each other’s direction and smiling, before we eventually left with different people.
When you’re young it’s easy to confuse a visceral response with romantic curiosity. To me, Erik simply seemed larger than life and sort of special and overwhelming. Now that I’ve accepted death as something possible, I feel similarly about nature, or wildlife.
Did I mention that he invited me to his school’s homecoming, and I accepted of course, all jubilant? I wore a tight, black dress with ruffles at the bottom, a padded strapless bra, and picked him up at seven because he didn’t have his license yet. He brought marijuana into my mother’s minivan and told me to pull onto a side street near the public high school. I’d never smoked before.
“This’ll make it better,” he said, pulling something out of his pocket. Then, while I held the pipe, he sprinkled crushed Vicodin onto the weed. I inhaled shakily, and felt nothing, drug-wise, but pretended to as I leaned in to kiss him. His tongue was heavy and half-hearted against mine, and his lips left rings of spit around my mouth. I didn’t know that someone so attractive could be so bad at kissing, or that I would feel so little when kissing an attractive boy I liked so much. When I pulled away to look at him — based on the laziness of the kissing, I mostly wanted to make sure he was still awake — he was pale and drained looking, with purple rings under his eyes.
“Let’s go to the dance,” I offered, trying to be nice about the fact that neither of us wanted to kiss each other. I didn’t realize that this was some kind of turning point — that he had fallen in love in that minivan, though not with me — and that, from then on, every time I saw him he’d be grey-faced and drugged.
A few Christmas Eves later, fresh home from college, I was at my dad’s when the doorbell rang. It was Erik, holding a red, insulated bag containing our pizza. “Hey girl,” he said beaming.
For me, the words “Hey girl” will always conjure clean, cold fleeces, and the physical oomph of wrapping my arms around Erik’s broad, athletic shoulders.
I invited him inside — a gesture, mostly; he was working, delivering pizzas, and I didn’t think he could spare the time. But he said sure, beaming still, and while my father cut him off a slice of sausage/pepperoni, he and I sat side-by-side on the piano bench, poking at black and white keys, talking non-stop for about twenty minutes. I’m pretty sure his car was running the entire time.
“I’m just trying to save up some money so I can go back to Madison and finish up my degree,” he said, his face drawn, grey; his eyes tired, but still handsome. “I don’t want debt, and my dad won’t pay, so.”
His last name had once been hyphenated — a hybridization of his parents’ identities. But he now went by his mother’s name, he said, so I reached for my phone and changed his surname in my address book.
“I run into you now and then and I love it,” I told him sheepishly. I didn’t want to send the wrong signals in case he got freaked out and chose to never talk to me again. I was used to people cutting me out of their life because I was too effusive, too sensitive, too needy.
He nodded. “You’re one of those people for me.”
Afterward he texted me “Hey Girl,” with a list of compliments about my maturity, my brilliance, my haircut.
“Thank you!” I texted back, once again reluctant to seem too obsessed. It was all I could think to say, a fact that I would soon regret.
A few months after delivering our Christmas pizza, Erik died from using bad smack. Some con artist sold him poison instead of heroin, and it killed him. But I didn’t know he was dead until he had been in the ground for almost a year. I was living in California at the time, and nobody thought to tell me, because nobody knew that we were friends. Our interactions occurred under tables, in cars, in the hallways of bars, on my father’s piano bench. They consisted of sporadic texts and Facebook messages. “Hey girl” and “Do you want a hug?”
Why did I write all of this when I know that nobody’s going to read it? That he’s not going to read it?
It’s a hackneyed thing to say, but worth repeating: Try harder with the people who matter to you. Tell them how you feel. That way, when you find yourself writing something like this two years after their death, you will know they’ve already heard you. Talking about how you felt for them, however briefly, will not feel as self-involved or sad.
And one more thing:
When I was seventeen I went to Botswana and touched a leopard. It was not the purpose of the trip, just an unusual perk of having gone. In retrospect I think the animal was probably drugged. It seemed unusually sluggish. Nevertheless, my heart pounded. The leopard was beautiful, huge. Touching it was something I had never thought I would be allowed to do. The experience left me feeling exhilarated, unnaturally lucky, and flattered all at once. It reminded me of Erik.