How are you supposed to feel when someone dies who was very important to you for a very short time very long ago? It seems like I shouldn’t be allowed to be as sad as I am. Like I’m grabbing the coat tails of someone else’s tragedy. But all I know is that there are a small smattering of people who played a role in my life during pivotal periods who I’ve never been able to reconnect with through social media as an adult, and I can now stop my periodic Google searches for this one guy. I never found him. And there’s a tiny hole in my heart because of it.
The end of my eighth grade year was a time of shifting loyalties. In my overly dramatic brain, I was beset on all sides by friends who had never been friends, by enemies who had always been enemies, by people who did actually like me but sensed which way the wind was blowing and desperately jumped ship when being my ally became a liability. I had always been something of a joke, but as middle school marched towards its close, my value as a target for ridicule seemed to reach a terrifying crescendo.
But then something strange happened. An odd assortment of people began to tentatively stand by my side. People who had written me off as a hopeless nerd got to spend some time with me and realized I was actually funny and interesting. People who had always blended into the woodwork emerged and reached out to me.
I have no recollection of how my running joke with this guy started. We were in art class together; that was it. To be quite honest, there may have been some casual inhalation of rubber cement that made us think the whole thing was funny in the first place. But suddenly every time we passed in the halls, he would hip check me and we would trade our silly lines, act out our tiny play. There was no romantic aspect to it (that was already developing elsewhere with someone else I had barely noticed before). This was just a simple affectionate gesture between two people who were practically strangers until that spring, that spring that had been so bleak for me until that point. Did we recognize our mutual dysfunction? A similar darkness inside, a sensation of being lost and directionless?
1994 was a long time ago, and due to a variety of factors my once formidable memory has begun to crumble, so all I have left of him are snippets, small vivid moving pictures of the two of us from that summer and fall. I remember us at a birthday party, both having escaped from the main celebration, hanging off a bed and watching The State upside down. (It was the episode with the Sleep With the State Concept and Barry Lutz Monkey Torture, for the record.) I remember both of us leaving tryouts for soccer teams that we had very little interest in actually joining, strolling with another friend across a baseball diamond, a parking lot, a grassy quad. I don’t remember what we talked about, just a feeling of contentment.
I remember the new school year starting and alliances shifting yet again, making a new set of friends through the fall play, never really seeing him beyond the occasional nudge in the lunch room. And then I remember him being gone. And I remember myself losing my mind, and being too distracted by my own crumbling sanity to have any consideration for his disappearance. I knew he had disciplinary issues. I knew he had dismal grades. I assumed our school had “asked him to leave” because unless someone was actually caught doing drugs in the gym the administration was reluctant to do anything so déclassé as expelling anybody. I heard he had transferred to another local prep school. I decided he was fine. We were never the kind of friends who would chat on the phone, so we disappeared from each other’s lives.
One day he appeared at school, alongside another former middle school classmate (who had, presciently, left after 8th grade rather than bother with another four years of snobby nonsense). He shambled up to me with a huge smile on his face, I yelped with surprised delight and gave him an enormous hug. We fell immediately into our little script from years ago, a script that we had tossed out in favor of actual tentative friendship before he had vanished but still, always, the core of our bond. It was a stupid little bond. I was nothing more than a blip in his life, I’m sure of it. I called him Vinny. He called me Gina. And then he was gone. I never saw him again.
I saw his brother once, when I was living in New York City. I asked how he was doing. The answer was generally noncommittal but clearly not good. I could commiserate. That same night I caught a cab home from Grand Central, rode with the window down, watching the city fly by, letting the air hit my face, feeling that old emptiness, that old darkness. I woke up the next day and found I had plunged into my worst depression in years. It took me another two years to pull myself out. From the sound of it, whatever my old friend was going through, he was in too deep.
I searched for him every time a new social network popped up. Friendster. MySpace. I was actually briefly Facebook friends with some other rando from Buffalo who happened to have the same name until I read his profile and discovered this kid was about seven years younger than us and a drummer in a Christian rock band. Definitely not the same guy. I was apparently not the only one who had left town but occasionally poked around the internet trying to track him down; he had left absolutely no digital footprints. But he had never gone anywhere. As I now understand it, he was in Buffalo the whole time. And tomorrow, I am going to his funeral.
When you’re an adolescent, you break your identity down into pieces and then put yourself back together at least once, if not multiple times. Sometimes in that interval when you’ve fallen apart, you have a moment where you are briefly no one in particular, where you can look around with some peace and clarity and relate to other people with no baggage. The end of 8th grade was that moment for me. I was tired of everyone’s bullshit, sick of their expectations, over their preconceived notions of who I was and who I was supposed to be. And in that moment, I made a friend. Just for a moment. Not enough of a moment to merit the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when I was told he had died, logically, but no one has ever accused the emotional portions of my brain of having much connection to logic. In that moment when I needed him, he was Vinny and I was Gina. Some days that was what made the difference.