Remember that guy from high school? You know the one I’m talking about – he was popular and good-looking, yet still remarkably down-to-earth? He always had a smile on his face and laughter in his voice?
He’s that guy that every girl had a crush on, and even though you didn’t have a chance in hell with him, he still treated you like the most beautiful girl on the planet, making you think that maybe, in a different place, at a different time, you might actually have had a chance?
And his guy friends. Remember how he was with his guy friends? He got along with everybody. So much so that when you think back, it feels equally comfortable pairing his name with half a dozen other guys as best friends. Because he was best friends with all those guys.
He wasn’t just one of the guys, he was the guy.
The one that always comes up in conversation, years after high school, with everyone asking, “Hey, have you heard from him lately? Do you know what he’s up to?”
Of course you know him. We all know that guy. Because every high school had that guy. It’s one of the few things that made high school bearable; knowing you might pass him in the hallway, or share a class at 6th period.
I remember that guy.
All my friends remember that guy, too.
He died 20 years ago.
In a car crash.
The details are too horrible to go into, but suffice it to say that the story of his life is so much bigger than the story of his death. Because face it, we all know someone who died way too young also, don’t we? It’s another one of those common factors we share – the friend who died, tragically, accidentally, at the very point in our lives when we thought we were immortal?
But how often does it happen that both those guys turn out to be the same person?
It’s almost too much to bear.
It is too much to bear.
For years, not a day went by that I didn’t think about him. Every day his face appeared before my eyes, his bright smile making my heart sing and shatter into pieces all at the same time.
Luckily, I had some pretty incredible memories to hold on to. I’ll never forget U2′s Unforgettable Fire tour in 1985, when a whole bunch of us snuck onto the floor of the Montreal Forum, hiding under other people’s seats when security came around. I eventually got kicked off the floor and found myself alone – until I bumped into him. He took my hand and brought me up to the reds, where we watched the rest of the show, side by side. Bono draped himself in the Irish flag for Bad and I stood next to the most handsome man in the world.
The other standout for me was a night, like any other, where a whole bunch of us gathered at one of our houses for an evening in. Those nights always consisted of some form of teenage debauchery and make up some of the best memories of my youth. This was at the height of my crush on him, and I’ll never forget how we cuddled on the couch, all night long, without saying a word.
I hadn’t been close with him for years by the time he died. But he was one of those people where that just didn’t matter. I could pick up the phone at any time and call him, or when I saw him, you knew there would be a meaningful exchange and deep, heartfelt hug.
Except there wasn’t.
The last time I saw him was in Plattsburgh. I spotted him from across the mall, and he saw me, too. But I didn’t go up to him. He was with an ex-boyfriend of mine and to say things had ended badly with that boyfriend would be an understatement. So I didn’t say hello.
How was I to know it would be the last time I’d see him?
My last chance to see that smile?
I’d like to think that one of us, or both of us, at least acknowledged the other, but I honestly can’t remember. That memory is so wrapped up in the ex that everything else is hazy. I just remember that he was there.
And then he was gone.
One night, a few years after the accident, I had a dream. I dreamt I was in the metro station, waiting for the train to come. I was sitting down on one of the skeezy benches, and he walked over and sat down next to me.
In my dream, I started to cry. He smiled at me and we talked. We talked and talked and talked for what felt like hours. I don’t remember the details that clearly anymore – I’m not sure if I ever did – I don’t even know if we touched in the dream. But when it was over, and I woke up, it felt like we had said goodbye.
After that, I thought about him less and less often. I’d come across a picture, or a car, or hear a song that reminded me of him and it would all come rushing back. But the instances were few and far between.
Last Saturday night, I went to a 20 year memorial evening that was put together by his sister. I went with one of my oldest and dearest friends and together we sat with other friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since high school.
It was a wonderful evening of reconnecting and sharing and generally just being happy to enjoy each other’s company again. And I think he would have been so happy to know that, 20 years later, people were still gathering together in his name. That somehow, he was the impetus for us all to stay connected. Of course, there were moments when we remembered why we were there and he wasn’t, either privately or collectively, and those moments were hard.
But I’m glad I went. Because it had been too long since I had remembered. I realize now that I can’t even conjure up the sound of his voice anymore, so to surround myself with others who loved him, who had spent time with him, who were members of his family was special; somehow sacred.
I miss you, Dean.
I will always miss you.
[Photo credit: R. Roth]