At graduation years ago, we wore burgundy robes, sat in alphabetical order (not for the last time in our lives), clapped our hands raw for each other, and hoped we wouldn’t trip on the way up the stairs. The air was heavy with basketball — the plywood floor and carpet not enough enough to hide the venue’s usual purpose — and summer, sucked through open doors and windows.
In the crush afterward we threw our caps in the air, finally free; you and I stumbled across each other, stood for a moment marveling. For the first time, you weren’t in jeans and my hair was curled: life was suddenly, inexplicably different.
We had said our goodbyes weeks ago, but on that last day, from nowhere but the blue, you put an arm around my shoulder and hugged me, diploma still in hand. I looked up, you looked down, we smiled — and that was all. The world was milling around us; there was no time to spare on more than platitudes. And we wouldn’t have heard each other over the din, anyway.
Time only to move on. “Bye!” we shouted. “Good luck!”
Sprinting in opposite directions, we came out of the long tunnel into the sunlight. I moved more slowly (my legs would never be as long as yours), and I remember your head above the sea of suits and Sunday best. By the time I reached my family, you were only a speck of orange, the sun setting on the other side of the earth.
It was the last time I saw you.
I thought about you only briefly over the last seven years, unlike my grandfather, whom I loved and lost at 18, and for whom I spare a thought almost every day. I might wonder where you were, what you were doing when I received an email from one of our mutual friends. When I had dinner with Dave and we talked through each bit of information one or the other of us had heard about high school alums, your name inevitably came up, but neither of us ever knew anything about your life after high school.
I had the chance a couple years ago to attend my five-year high school reunion. I didn’t go. There were other concerns occupying my mind then, and five years seemed like a silly anniversary. The essence of time had barely changed us. Who can say anything concrete about her life a year out of college?
We’re only 22, I thought, and spent the weekend in unmemorable fashion.
But in retrospect — isn’t it always? — I wish I had gone.
We met as freshmen, young and wide-eyed in Theater 1, as unprepared for high school as — well, any normal freshman. I had a little crush on you immediately. You were tall — I liked tall men as much then as I do now — and you were funny, a dry wit at a none-too-subtle age. You had reddy-orange hair like no one I had met before, and I’ve always been attracted by the different, too.
The crush didn’t last, of course. I knew it was hopeless. Over the years, we never had any classes together except theater, and we ran with different crowds, so we never became more than casual friends. We worked together on shows — you were my son, my secret lover, among others — and when we were seniors, we sat in the prop shop on lumpy blue couches, two “teaching assistants” with nothing to do. Except talk.
“People with wisdom teeth are less evolved than people without,” you said one day.
“Huh?” was my reply. You could have been teasing, but then again, I didn’t pay much attention in biology sophomore year, so you never know.
“You had your wisdom teeth out?”
“Not as far as I know.”
You nodded sagely. “More evolved,” you said. “See, wisdom teeth are useless — soon as they grow in, you get them out — and our genes are slowly weeding out the useless to make room for the … well, useful.”
“Yeah,” you said. “And the taller live longer. ’Cause of survival of the fittest and all.”
I didn’t know what wisdom teeth were until that moment. Even now, when I sometimes run my tongue along my gums at night and feel for the barest outline of an emerging tooth, I remember that day: just you and me and Darwinism.
But that was years ago. I tend not to dwell on the past when it’s not printed on paper.
As I was organizing my files this past summer, packing the stacks of old stories and poems, papers and clippings into boxes, I came across an article in the school paper. It was about you.
I wondered: “What is he up to these days? I should really look him up.”
A week later, I found out. A mutual friend from our theater days called me at my parents’ house, catching me there for the first time in a week.
He called to tell me you had died.
I tried to wait until I got home to cry. Felt like I shouldn’t need to, really. But as I drove down Route 66, the radio loud to drown my thoughts, I passed our high school, saw it between the trees: red brick and squat windows. I thought about you more in a moment than I had in seven years.
I found myself on the shoulder, crying on 66 not because I would never see you again, nor because I never really knew you.
I cried because for me, you have always been laughing on that blue couch — because the truth of it is, I would rather wonder about you all my life than know for certain that yours had ended.