Perhaps that's the best place to begin, because in some small way, that captures the essence of what I loved best about him. And this week, for the first time in years, I've been thinking about a friendship long buried, about a boy who's become a man I no longer know or recognize, and about the gifts that were my inheritance from him: a wildly joyous passion for every facet of life, and wisdom enough to be grateful for a world too big for us - a world beyond our capacity to experience or comprehend.
I met Raymond* at the beginning of tenth grade. I don't remember my first impression of him, or how our acquaintance evolved into a friendship - only that by the end of the school year, he was one of my closest friends. At age fifteen, I thought he was everything I was looking for: intelligent, considerate, fun; a patient listener; quirky, but in the best of ways.
That summer, we met up at the skating rink almost every week and roller bladed together for hours - sometimes alone, sometimes with other friends, but always engrossed in conversations that never faltered. We talked about grammar, about botany, about birds, about classical literature, about East Asian languages, and somehow we managed to be fascinated by every single topic. He had a way of bringing life to all of his interests, and I found that when he told me about them, I could learn how to be interested in them too. I looked forward eagerly to our junior year; between all of the classes we would have together and our shared extracurriculars, I was sure that we were going to have a fabulous time.
And for a while, it was exactly that. He and I would walk between classes together, go to club meetings together, stay at the public library near our high school together late into the evenings, doing our homework and having dinner at nearby diners and fast food joints. I was so happy to spend time with him. His intensity was mesmerizing; his enthusiasm for life and learning were infectious. I felt like he was giving me a whole new way of looking at the world: his drive inspired me to expand my own horizons; his fervor led me to look for enthrallment in my own experiences. With him, I could do anything, learn anything, be anything.
Over Thanksgiving break, we met to work on an English project - we were writing two extra chapters for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - but it was the first day of break, and we didn't really feel like doing work. So instead we went to his house, and I met his pets, his parents, his sister and grandfather. He showed me old photographs, the basement, some of his favorite music. We had dinner with his family, then we went bowling with friends, then to a café with another couple. I had a wonderful time.
Then, in December, everything changed. He missed a lot of school, stopped showing up for meetings, wouldn't take or return my phone calls. For weeks, I would try to get in touch with him, only to reach his parents, even his sister, but never him. I felt terrified that there was something seriously wrong causing this completely out-of-character behavior; I felt angry and confused and betrayed at his lack of communication, wondering if I had hugely misjudged who he was.
We were never anything more than friends, but in my heart I felt as though we had shared something significant and meaningful, that we had been together in a way that mattered. I cared for him as much as a fifteen-year-old girl knew how to care about a sixteen-year-old boy, my journal pages filled with pleas to God or any other power who was listening to make everything okay again. He haunted my thoughts, my overwrought imagination spinning out wilder and wilder possibilities of what could have happened.
He finally came back to school in January, but he deliberately avoided me. We still had classes together, but we never talked anymore, never walked together in the hallways anymore, never went out to eat or stayed late in the library anymore. That spring, I breathed a million "I'm sorry"s into the universe, hoping one of them would find its way to him. I wrote note after note that I never gave to him: "I believe in you. I believe that you are a good person and that you have the inner strength to overcome these obstacles. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for giving up on you and losing faith in you." By the end of the school year, we were cordial but distant. He graduated a year ahead of me, and I figured I would never see or hear from him again.
It took me a long time to make my peace with this, but I did it. I still thought of him once in a while, but I knew that that particular chapter of my life was simply not going to have any more closure, and that was a sort of closure in itself.
So I was completely flabbergasted when, in the wee hours of a February morning more than two years after my last real conversation with him, I found a long email from him in my inbox - an email all about his current life, studying abroad in a country he had always loved, about soldiers building sculptures in the snow, but almost nothing about what had happened, nothing about why - only that he regretted getting out of touch with me, that he missed me.
At this point, I was well into my freshman year of college. I lived in a different state. I was madly in love with another boy, whom I had been dating for six months. My life was full and happy, and when Raymond resurfaced in my life like a ghost long buried, I didn't know how to react, wasn't sure whether I wanted to reopen these doors that I had so painstakingly shut and sealed. After lengthy deliberations, I wrote back to him, a brief, curt, self-righteous email demanding answers. He replied, I replied, and then he finally told me at least part of the story of what had happened that winter.
He told me how difficult things had been for him, between stress at work and at school, between worrying about new friendships and losing old ones. He told me that he had fallen in love with a boy for the first time that winter. He told me that his parents had put him on psychiatric medication, that he was pretty much living in his own world at the time, that at some point he had stopped taking his medication altogether in a step to regain control over his own life. He wrote to me, "It took me a long time to stop hating the people who were trying to help me, including you. It took me a long time to realize that the incredible weakness that made me want to sever contact with everything had an incredible strength to hurt people."
As I read his words, everything about my memories snapped into place in a way that had never made sense before, and I found that what I had thought was peace, what I had thought was closure, were pale shadows compared to real peace and real closure. Suddenly I could accept and understand and forgive and forget in a way that was never possible before. I wrote him back and made my own confessions in turn - telling him that I had liked him as more than friends, telling him about the concern and confusion and hurt that I had never truly voiced to him before. And he emailed me a few more times that spring; I sent him an instant message once in a while; and then we fell out of touch again, this time the natural silence of people whose lives no longer intersect.
In all these intervening years, I have seldom thought of him; I have almost never been haunted by memories of our past. I guess that was perhaps his final gift to me - the truth for which I had so desperately yearned - the truth that, clichéd as it may sound, set me free. The years - silent from all ghosts - have been a testament to the true peace created by our exchanged confessions. Yet, in this week of ghosts, his memory has come back to me - in lecture halls and on snow-dampened sidewalks as I felt the wind whip past; on my bed as I poured over the pages of my old journals, reliving a past I had nearly forgotten.
Because it's only now, years later, after I've experienced firsthand what debilitating depression feels like, after I've been the one to avoid phone calls and hide from the world, after I've been the one trying to keep the extent to which my life had fallen apart hidden from everyone who cared about me, after I too have taken antidepressants, and after I too stopped taking them cold turkey, that I think I'm finally able to understand what I couldn't back then - how courageous and how wise he was, both at sixteen and at nineteen, back when I was too absorbed in myself to realize or recognize that. I was right to see something special in him.
There have been so many years in between now that I'm not sure we would even recognize each other anymore. But somewhere in this world, there is a stranger who is the ghost of my old friend... and my life is poorer for no longer having him in it.
I want you to know that I regret getting out of touch with you. And I miss you.
* not his real name.
This entry is my submission for therealljidol Season 5, Week 6: Ghosts. If you enjoyed this entry, please vote for me in this week's poll.