I am sitting on a train, the Hudson river to my right, a man and his daughter to my left. I can smell the leaves outside my window – feel the bite in the air beyond the glass. Dampness is all around. I feel a ritual longing. The winter is gone now. Even chilly Memorial Days are filled with the promise of warmth to come. They end in treacherous humidity and storms so strong that even the memory of white-capped mountains is washed away in the rain.
I live for the fall, and this year, more than most, I am wishing for the sweaty days of summer to pass quickly. More than looking forward, I am casting back to autumns past and the joys they held. The joy of hearing your voice. There is a soft hum of steel on steel and a vague whistling of wind, but I can hear you above it all.
Husky and lilting. Animated. Lively. You had a voice I could listen to for hours as it traversed time and space in virtuoso, stream of consciousness monologues. Your mind was an agile plane where all information was equal in importance and easily accessible. It was as if you had a ball of twine in a park and could tie it to a bench, a tree, a jungle gym, a volleyball net, and a man swimming laps in the pool and say definitively, “Here is how these are connected!” I marveled at that. I still do.
I recently saw the Broadway production of Angels in America. I love that play. I want to believe that we talked about it, but I don’t think we ever did. It moves like a dream through eight hours of Mormonism, AIDS, and Cold War politics; interrogating race, gender, sexuality, and loss, weaving of American history a ragged tapestry.
There is a moment, towards the end, when one of the characters, Harper, speaks to the audience. Her monologue, delivered from the passenger seat of a plane on its way to San Francisco touches me every time I hear it. Every time I read it. She speaks about plague and travel, the atmosphere and the ozone layer. She concludes that “In this world there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.”
Today, I can’t dream ahead. I am filled to the brim with visions of you; my eyes clouded by the past. I don’t mind, of course. According to the play, Harper gives that speech in January of 1986 which means that she could have been up in that plane while you were being born.
At the office the other day, a friend asked me if I would want to know when I was going to die. Without thinking I said, “No!” and instantly regretted it. I remembered the January night when I missed Jon’s phone call. His flat-voiced message.
“You need to call me when you get this.”
The shock. The sadness. It was a phone call I always knew would come, but had hoped was still years away. Jon said the same when we finally spoke. In the days after that call, I kept revisiting a passage from Psalms. I know. Not what you would expect of an atheist like me.
Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to Thee! Do not hide thy face from me in the day of my distress! Incline thy ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call! For my days pass away like smoke and my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is dry and withered like the grass; I forget to eat my food.
I only knew that passage because it was in one of my favorite mystery books about a woman who solves crimes with the help of her cats and dog. A Reverend reads it when he argues with God at a funeral service saying, “Lord, why did you take Thy faithful servant when we have such need of him here on earth?” Though I don’t believe in God, that sentiment was all I could find in my heart in the hours after I got the news. I never got to say goodbye. I wanted to argue with God. I felt my bones burning.
When Jon and I talked the next day, both without sleep, he said, “Her disease owed us that.” meaning some kind of warning. You were gone so fast. There was no slow slipping away as we’d always assumed. There was no sense, to us at least, that This Was It. He immediately corrected himself before I could stammer a reply.
“I’m sorry, that was fucked up.”
I can still hear him saying those words. They came to me again as I regretted my quick “No!” I was thinking only of myself; what it would be like to know my own end and feel it approaching. I hadn’t spared a thought for those I loved. If I had knowledge of my death, I could prepare my friends and family. I could be sure to do the things I wanted – as many as possible anyway – and know with certainty the last time I saw each person I loved.
I was lost in thought for a long time after my friend left. My officemate must have noticed because he asked if I was okay. I deflected with a half-truthful joke. A few minutes later he asked me if I had ever heard of the band The Cramps. I couldn’t help but smile. Jon was the one who first introduced me to The Cramps and he and I covered them almost every time we made music together.
The only picture of you and I together was taken at a party. In it your eyes are closed and you are cradling a PBR in both hands, facing straight ahead. There is a small, satisfied smile on your face. The hubbub of the party is no matter – you are in a world of your own. Contentment personified. I always wish I was leaning towards you in that picture, that we had our arms around each other, that there was some indication of what you meant to me and what I hope I meant to you: the reality of our friendship preserved. But no such photo exists. It probably never could. You studied photography. If you were here, I know you could tell me all the reasons art theorists have for why the photo I wish for is impossible.
Jon and I covered the Cramps’ “Teenage Werewolf” at that party. You watched from the couch. You weren’t feeling up to dancing. We made intermittent eye contact laughing about private jokes I no longer remember. I added extra drum fills to entertain you. You laughed and I laughed and the night passed so fast and happy and carefree and endless.
I’m an only child. Two years before I was born my half-sister died in a car crash. I never knew her and aside from a few pictures around the house when I was young, she barely factored into my life. I knew about her, but her memory did not hang over my childhood like some clichéd dark cloud. She was nineteen when she died. The same age I was about to become when we met. There was a powerful sense of recognition between us. I looked up to you, admired you, and wished the best for you. You advised me well and made me laugh. You became the older sister I never had.
I heard an interview with the actor Christopher Eccleston the other day. He was talking about his father’s struggles with dementia. As his father deteriorated, this hard man who had bottled up his emotions his entire life began to speak with more feeling. One day when Eccleston was leaving after a visit, his father stopped him and said, “I love the bones of you.” I can think of nothing more I wish I could have said to you while you were alive. Because I loved the bones of you: the irreducible core that no illness or time could touch.
Early in Angels Harper takes too many Valium and while in a drug-haze meets Prior Walter, the main character, who is himself in a drugged sleep from his AIDS medication. The place they meet is one that allows them deep insights into each other. They both speak truths and call their meeting place the “threshold of revelation.” Neither one of us is Harper or Prior – that’s not what I’m trying to say – just that there was a part of each of us that recognized itself in the other.
Today I am on the threshold of seasons. It is the end of May and the air is damp, but it still smells like spring. Summer hangs behind each sunset, waiting to leap out in a cascade of endless afternoons. The man and his daughter are both asleep on my left and the setting sun over the Hudson on my right is turning the water yellow and red in the places where it shines through the clouds. There are shafts of light streaming between each fissure in the grey cloud cover. Maybe it won’t rain after all.
It has been three and a half years since Jon’s midnight call. I still love the bones of you.