10 Years Later
I didn’t get into anything personal. He knows all of that. He shares the aggravation of our distance. The abruptness of dreams. He remembers my darkest hours the weeks after his death when I contemplated a world with just him instead of one with everyone
For ten years I didn’t visit the cemetery where my best friend Dan was buried. It was a car accident. Dan was 18. His younger brother was 13. They died instantaneously. I used to be able to count on one hand how many times I had said that out loud.
When Dan and Mike vanished it should have been like an action movie where the government mobilizes every unit to bring them back. There should have been choppers and SWAT teams and yelling. Their lives weren’t supposed to end. But none of us made a scene. I went to their funeral in Manhattan and then to the cemetery in Queens and then it was Thursday.
I planned to go back to the cemetery every year on the anniversary of Dan’s death. And also on his birthday. And also all the time. And then I always managed to find something else to do instead. Besides, it wasn’t clear who I’d be going for. Him? Me? Another presence entirely? I didn’t even own a car. Ten years later it was simply time.
The flowers at the greenmarket were orange, dark orange, bright yellow, and yellow and maroon with maroon buds. The man selling them put them in a plastic bag with a little bit of water. “Cut the stems a little each day,” he said. “That’s the key to keeping them.”
I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t planning to sever these particular stems. But I just nodded as though the flowers were going to go into a vase. If Dan’s life had followed its natural course, they very well might have.
By the time I got on the subway, I was convinced that something was going to go wrong. Maybe I had gotten on an express instead of a local. Maybe the cemetery was closed on Mondays. Maybe his mother would be there and I was intruding. Then again, maybe it would be good for her to see me. I sometimes want to tell her that I think about Dan all the time. But she must think about him much more than that.
I arrived at the wrong cemetery and held my breath waiting for the man in the office to tell me that the right one was right around here. I had to get there, there was no turning back now. Fortunately it was down the block. Another stranger pointed me to the area where Dan and Mike were.
The first few months after he died, Dan’s friends and I spoke frequently, desperately and without inhibition. We got drunk and cried and stayed up too late, typing emails from college computer labs and clutching cell phones to our prematurely worn faces. But after ten years of increasingly infrequent run-ins, we don’t make eye contact the way we used to. We hardly mention Dan at all. His death, like his life, has become something of a secret.
So it was a relief to find his name there, etched in stone, affirming both that he was here and that he was gone. I arranged the flowers around his headstone and that of his brother, and his father, who died when we were in Tenth Grade. I had made myself slightly useful, finally. And then there was nothing else to do but talk to the big, square stone with Dan’s name on it. So I did.
I didn’t get into anything personal. He knows all of that. He shares the aggravation of our distance. The abruptness of dreams. He remembers my darkest hours the weeks after his death when I contemplated a world with just him instead of one with everyone else. He knows. So I sat there and made small talk about who from our high school moved where, who followed what career path and who hooked up with whom.
And then for a very long time I said nothing.
It was harder to say goodbye to him in the cemetery than I had expected. As I stood to leave I was suspended between the two worlds again - the one with everyone else and the one with just him. Perhaps the big, square stone with Dan’s name on it wasn’t really representative of Dan, but the stillness of the day reminded me what it used to be like to be alone together.
When I got off the subway I was still holding an empty plastic bag. And it was 10 years later again. And I was where I belonged.