At the time of this writing, we are a handful of days removed from a once inconceivable anniversary. Scarcely shy of one decade ago, my friend Dana Flax was killed crossing the street. I clearly remember being in Madison Square Park, between Broadway and Fifth avenue, observing a number of missed calls from friends over the space of a short time. Keith Mayerson, the professor in this life-drawing class, had his attention focussed elsewhere when I finally answered one. It was my sister, and I recall very little of the setup to what she ultimately called to tell me. In long, measured tone, "Dana Flax died."
A few months from that day was my twentieth birthday, just as today I am within spitting distance of my thirtieth. My hair was long and unruly, uniformly unwashed, and I sometimes wore a tuxedo jacket which slimmed my formless profile, at least from a distance. I had made the leap from Djarum Black clove cigarettes to Drum hand-rolled tobacco. I had recently read Mason and Dixon for the first time, and I took pride in having finished the thing, my lack of anything more than a superficial understanding of it be damned. I had a girlfriend with whom frightful new emotional muscles had been flexed for the very first time, a relationship doomed to the fast-approaching and inevitable implosion of relationships between children. The cell phone I answered that day was of roughly the same density and durability as the hull of an aircraft carrier, and was capable of no more than making or receiving calls and texts. The internet was something which was in your home or your dorm room, the library, and a small handful of other select places, and nowhere else. This was soon to be changed, of course, as the iPhone made its debut somewhere in the miasmic smear of my recollections shortly thereafter. I thought it was the stupidest bit of conspicuous consumption I'd ever seen, as a few of my wealthy NYU friends slowly began acquiring them. Credit me with the strength of my convictions: For the five years since I began using a smartphone, I have had an Android.
George W. Bush was in the White House. I believe at that point, I had only recently heard of a young Illinois Senator named Barack Obama. There had still only been one actor playing Spider Man. My anatomy and perspective skills in drawing left a great deal to be desired, and by some measure, they still do. I had recently discovered the work of Karl Wirsum, Victor Moscoso, Fletcher Hanks, Oyvind Fahlstrom and Charles Burchfield, between thirty and ninety years after they had made their most recognizable pieces. Well, today it's forty to one hundred years later, and I still think they're great. Creatively, to paraphrase Thomas Pynchon, I had the idea that in order for work to be any good, it had to be artsy; useless advice I solemnly made up and then took. The various bell tones of association ringing notes I knew best a decade past could go on forever, but suffice it to say, it has been a uniquely eventful ten years.
My friends then are my friends now, with rare exception. Late last year, I was married here in Oregon, to the love of my life, surrounded by nearly everyone who has ever meant anything to me. Some absences were a financial necessity, others, a gulf of time and silence, and I carry no resentment for either. In gathering the slapdash memories of the day together, I find joyful, shimmering visual and emotional mosaic tiles of a piece. Grand and perfect. I admittedly find also a mimetic shiver, that of a life lived, since the death of my friend. Having these people I love, together again for the first time in years, briefly reawakens the guilt of carrying on with my life after a tragedy.
As much as this writing is about my friend, it is also about my life then and since, and the function of memory. I am by no means old, but it bears remarking that in being by no means old and reaching a milestone like the ten year anniversary of a friend's death feels significant. It places in perspective the ways in which the world has changed, the ways I have changed, the events since which might have once seemed improbable or unthinkable. I feel more or less the same today as I ever have. I doubt that I'm much smarter than I was as a nineteen year old, although I'm perhaps more judicious in the presentation of my thoughts and their relative volume. When I was a child, my parents were in their twenties and thirties. They seemed about a thousand years old to me then. I can distinctly remember them being the age that I am now. I wonder if they, too, considered that they were not terribly different than they had been as teenagers.
In characteristic fashion, I have written the first several hundred words of my friend's remembrance about myself. Old habits die hard. At least I finally quit smoking.
Dana was, and remains, one of the funniest people I have ever met. Her laugh was infectious and dynamic, sometimes rolling, sometimes barking. I don't remember if I met her in art class, but that is where my first clear memories of her surface. She had braces and played a game with the rest of the table where you tried your best to make your straight-faced friend laugh. Nearly everyone that I can remember partook in the game where one would gently poke her in the side, eliciting a round and uniformly noisy squeal. It was around that age when kids start having serious discussions about their feelings, and the consequences of their actions, whether they were liked or not, by whom, ad infinitum. All of us, all through class and often late into the night.
I remember large group walks near her mother's house, stopping at the ice cream shop across the road from her cul de sac, the name of which presently escapes me. Driving around Columbia County, friends in tow, because what else was there to do in rural upstate New York? Not a thing better, I thought then, and maintain thinking now. Talking about everything and nothing, sunsets and sunrises on the Catskills and the Hudson River, spending menial job wages at the Denny's in East Greenbush, or the Riverside Cafe, or the movies. Every memory kissed with a Norman Rockwell glow, imperial orange and violet. Indistinct banalities glossed over, the sum total of memories warmly nestled in spring's transition to summer and the brisk air of early autumnal twilight.
Houses and churches older than the idea of the United States, cemeteries leaning with age. Hills and valleys. Green and then dead, buried beneath snow. Robins and possums, coyote and deer.
The memories of Dana's death are more fragmented, but to this day certain amongst those shards remain clear. I called our friend Rachel immediately after my sister told me Dana had been killed. I don't remember whether I even told the professor that i was leaving. Feebly, in terror, I asked the stupidest question I could, but one that seemed and remains logical in considering it today: Was it true? Rachel sobbed and perhaps my heart stopped. I don't know. I don't remember. I was alone that night, I remember that. Alone at my own request. I do not remember sleeping. I called other friends. All reactions were the same. Tears and stunned, pitiful silence.
I suppose I must have told my parents what had happened. I remember being back upstate with them. I do not remember the train ride, nor arriving at their house. I remember Andrew and I going to Rachel's house. I remember Rachel's big father giving me a hug, our first, trembling in the way powerful men do. I remember being upstairs at her house, having privately moved mentally backwards from the fact of my being there for this reason, to a lack of comprehension. It would not be the last time. Crying anew.
My friend Mike and I on one of those days went to the movies. We saw the movie Grindhouse, half of which was taken up by a Quentin Tarantino film wherein a stunt driver attempts to kill women with a car. I can't conceive of what we were thinking in so doing, and can only surmise we were not thinking at all. I barely recall the movie. I have made no effort to view it since.
I remember the memorial service, Dana's mother Carol and father Steve, her grandmother, her sister, all of our friends. Weeping brokenly, seated beside Mike, hiccuping dry, no tears left. A Jeff Buckley song played. A short montage of photos and movies in remembrance. Downstairs in the church, no appetite.
Somehow I made it from there back to Rachel's house. Everyone did. I drank and drank and drank. I don't recall if anyone joined me. I remember walking with Tristan and throwing a glass bottle onto the road which exploded into a million glittering stars before collapsing in his arms to cry like a kid. I can't altogether pick distinct memories from the rest of that night. Just pieces.
The remainder of my sophomore year in college stands out almost solely for its misery. There's little to remark upon there, though truly, great humanity was shown me by friends, family and professors, one of whom is very famous and spoke to me privately at the end of the term about how hard it was to lose a friend. I was struck by his understanding. He had lost a number of friends down the years to HIV, heroin, suicide and madness. The life of a real artist.
It truly felt to me at the time like nothing would ever be truly all right again. Given that mentality, I found it very easy to frame every unrelated misstep and failure in this context. I treated it like nuclear fallout. Every fight with the girlfriend, every drunk, sleepless night, was, to me, another radioactive crop growing in my personal Chernobyl. I do not have the notebook to hand in which I first wrote that, nearly a decade ago, but it's a thought I remember having. It's a comparison a kid would make, as much to show himself that he could appropriately filter the information he had about Chernobyl as to illustrate in stark and simplistic terms the ways in which the event felt like it would poison every event in his life, forever.
As the years went on, I began to feel guilty for simply not thinking of her death every single day. It had become such a thoroughly imbedded pattern in my life up to that point, the simple fact of moving on with my life, letting my thoughts wander to other things, felt like a betrayal of her memory. Who was I to get on with the business of living? How was that anything but an indictment of my own shallow mentality? I recognize now that one can only exist in a state of exclusive mourning for so long before, consciously or otherwise, time moves that which of the greatest significance elsewhere on your list of mental priorities. I felt horrible for this, despite several years being spent with it near the fore of my thoughts. It's difficult to say what happens internally as you move past something. There remains a greedy need to access that place in my mind, to travel back there and be reminded. It's not hard, even ten years later. The common refrain amongst those addressing a mourner is that he/she would not want it this way, with the mourner's entire life being defined by this one event. Who's to say?
I could, then as now, be struck by it at times. There are songs and locations which snap me right back to that time. There is a cover of the Modest Mouse song Ocean Breathes Salty by an artist called Sun Kil Moon, which I will never truly dissociate from the time and event of her death. The indignant anger, the sadness you carry with you, at losing a friend too early, is better expressed in this iteration of a song he did not write than I have managed in the likely several thousand words I have now written on the topic. It's my personal take on it, of course. The song was written about a friend spiraling towards death, or perhaps committing suicide. Dana did not waste life, nor did she waste death. I was angry at the fact of her death, not at her for dying. It's less about the lyrics of the song than it is about the atmosphere it brings with it; it evokes traveling alone, days turning into nights and into days again, of leaving something behind for which you can never go back. The song is my madeline cookie, a remembrance of things past. If you can't make it good, make it artsy.
It's been ten years now. I remember at the time commenting that her death had thrown a hand grenade into our circle of friends. Ten years later, surrounded by those same friendsat my wedding, I am happy and grateful to report that I was wrong. It was a day of wild happiness, simultaneously taking an important step into adulthood and keeping one foot planted firmly in the friendships I've had for ten, fifteen, twenty years. Family, friends old and new, and that perfect sunset silhouetting Mount Hood, that familiar autumn twilight.
I have a few more memories to share, insofar as closing a piece about death and memory is possible. The first memory is of a dream I had, less than a year after Dana died. My friends and I, seated on a raised wooden platform in a field unmistakably in the assembled dream terrain of upstate New York. In the middle distance, a ferris wheel, the tops of circus tents, striped and tipped like Russian spinnerets. The hazy timeless dreamtime of neither day-nor-night. Dana is then there, on the platform with the rest of us, and we embrace. I ask her if there is an afterlife. She responds by asking, What do you think?
I still don't have an answer to that question. The dream was ham-fistedly literal, by the senseless standards of my typical night fare. To what degree a dream will manifest to offer comfort or solace, I simply don't know. I doubt my own cosmic significance to the point that one reaching across the divide to tell me what I need to hear seems unlikely, with the chilly and logical lens through which I view the world. But I couldn't say. I take some small comfort in not having a concrete answer.
The second memory took place when Dana was still alive. She was a year younger than I was, and I went to a party wishing her well as she left for college in Baltimore. At a point in the night, I had to leave, and she burst into tears, hugging me good bye. She would no longer be local, we would not see one another with the regularity we had when she was upstate and I was in the city. I don't recall what I said, but I had no reason to believe this was a good-bye of any more significance than when I had left for college the year before. It was the end of summer, and I was touched by the simple fact that my friend would miss me, and I would miss her. I am certain I saw her again after that, but I filed none of those meetings away, not knowing that there would be a Last Time I Would Ever See Her amongst those get-togethers. I remember instead her crying, surely struck by the enormity of moving away from friends and family for the first time. I have since retroactively framed that tearful embrace as the good-bye neither I nor anyone else were ever given the chance for; I couldn't say whether or not this is a responsible use of the memory, but it's mine.
Life goes on. I feel that in this writing, I have at best nibbled around the edges of loss and tragedy, ten years on. I dislike essayists ending their essays with apologies for what they have written, but I recognize its necessity with something as immovable and nebulous as losing your friend and continuing to live your life. It's perhaps too big, or just too close, for me to meaningfully capitulate or make manifest. I chose not to look closely at the work I was producing at the time of her death, instead relying on my memories of it and the way it felt to be the person creating it. Successful or not, I felt that I couldn't permit the decade anniversary of this event to pass without at least attempting to say SOMETHING. As usual, it couches itself heavily in my life and my perceptions. I'm as self-absorbed now as I was when I was nineteen. But I'm married now, my life is very, very different from the way it was then. I suck on nicotine lozenges instead of cigarettes. I drink perhaps once a month. I live in the west, which at the time she died was still a place I had only seen in movies. The decade anniversary weighs heavy. It places in perspective how much has changed, and how much hasn't. If nothing else, this once-unimaginable marker sends me back, to the time of New York's valleys and skyscrapers, to late nights and setting sun, to a period in my life when the nights always felt warm and my friends were all there was.