I vividly remember the first time we met. It was a bizarre exchange when juxtaposed with the way our friendship evolved.
You came up to my table and introduced yourself, said you noticed I was here every day, asked me what I did…
It was the first of many lengthy conversations, but this one didn’t end so well. Somehow we landed on the subject of gorillas, then zoos. I, in my overly-opinionated, self-righteous fashion, blurted out that I thought zoos were prisons.
You snatched up the card you had given me, visibly irritated, said something to the effect of “we’re done here”, and walked off. I didn’t fully understand what had just happened, but I felt terrible. I tried to apologize. You weren’t exactly receptive.
The next morning you walked over to my table and started listing off links I needed to look up. It wasn’t an ask, and you weren’t going anywhere until I did. You proceeded to explain all the projects your family had funded to improve the major zoo where you grew up. I acknowledged their contribution and apologized again. You seemed relatively satisfied and went back to your table.
The next day you walked in and came right over to me. Had I seen it? The huge gorilla painted on the wall next door? You were excited and adamant; I had to go right then and look at it. So I did, smiling as I walked out.
I was redeemed.
You were a talker, no question, but your stories were riveting- tales of celebrities, ambassadors, extravagant galas, exotic girlfriends, President Kennedy discussing the fate of our country at your kitchen table. You had lived a charmed life… but that was a long time ago.
We never went into details, really, but we both understood we were in similar places- everything had fallen apart and we were trying desperately to piece our lives back together. It seemed like you were, and you were determined to help me do the same.
You were always coming over with ideas- where I could publish, jobs I could pursue, people I should contact. I would ask how things were going, and you would always respond. “With me? Oh, everything’s fine…ya know, just pluggin’ along.”
The holidays were approaching and you knew I was struggling. You would check in every so often…”How ya holdin’ up, kiddo?”. “Fine”, I assured you, “…just pluggin’ along”.
Right before Christmas, you asked what my plans were. I avoided answering and assured you I’d be fine. You waited until I went to the bathroom and slipped an envelope under my computer on your way out. It was $100 bill with a message written on the envelope. “Just go do something fun, will ya?” By the time I saw it, you were nowhere to be found.
I still have the envelope.
Almost every time you walked by my table, I would hear a single ‘doo-da-doo”. I wondered why you did that, but it always made me smile. Maybe that’s why: your way of telling me to keep my chin up.
The last conversation I remember having, you came over announcing that you’d just been paid. “Let’s go to the grocery store and stalk up. We can go right now if you have time”. “Absolutely not”, I replied. There was no way I would let that happen, regardless. But I also knew you weren’t in the position to do it.
But it wasn’t about the groceries, was it? You wanted to do something kind and you wanted a friend to spend time with. I denied you both. I could have just went to keep you company. But I didn’t. I was too busy ‘pluggin along’. I thanked you several times, but no, I couldn’t possibly. You looked disappointed and left.
We didn’t interact much after that. I knew you weren’t doing well on some level. Every time I looked up, you were engaged in conversation with someone new. You weren’t reading as much, just talking. It bothered me. I’m not exactly sure why, but it did. It seemed exhausting for everyone involved. As if you were desperately trying to be heard, to convince everyone that your life wasn’t always like this…to be remembered.
But no one else seemed to be bothered by it. Because you were charming and intelligent, interesting and kind. And it was never just about you. You genuinely wanted to know all about the person you were talking to. You asked questions and listened attentively. You gave advice, and without fail, I would hear, “Good for you” from across the room.
You truly just wanted everyone to feel good. You wanted to connect and encourage and lift everyone up. And you did.
You didn’t show up Monday or Tuesday. By Friday, we started to worry. We knew you had to move out of your place. Were you just in the thick of moving? The following week we sent you an email. You didn’t respond. Nobody had your number.
‘J’ came over to me this week and asked if I’d ever heard back. He handed me the card you sent.
You were clearly saying goodbye, but it didn’t seem like that goodbye. I emailed you again.
But you didn’t get it. You were already gone
I’ve moved to a different spot. One where I can’t see your chair. The one that remains empty. Except now, it’s not empty because you decided to move. It’s empty because you’re dead.
And one thing has become painfully clear: your presence always filled the room.
Now, so does your absence.
Look at you, just up and disappearing on us! I would be mad at you if I wasn’t so concerned.