Note: This piece is a somewhat dramatized, but real memory, of a childhood classmate that recently passed away. All the names have been changed to protect identity.
We were seated alphabetically, so it wasn’t like, fate or anything, that we ended up next to each other in ninth grade Tech. Lit. He still had that smile that made his cheeks dimple, the one that had made me fall for him as a naive middle-schooler. I was a couple years older and wiser thank-you-very-much, but he was still unbearably tall and dark, and in a few years he would definitely graduate from school boy cute to handsome.
Dan sat on the other side of him, a notorious trouble-maker who occupied most of his attention. This was fine by me, since I was trying to remain aloof, lest he somehow suspect the once urgent, but embarrassingly childish crush. Also, I was an honor student, so I had to keep out of whatever nonsense and class disrupting behavior Dan might rope him into.
I minded my own business, learned my “qwerty,” and went onto websites whenever the teacher’s back was turned, like everyone else in the class. To be honest, much of the time, when he and Dan were joking or making fun of Mrs. Burnett, I didn’t like him. He was seriously immature. Some days I wasn’t sure what I had seen in him in the first place? oh...right, the dimples.
One day, Dan was out sick and the whole class seemed a bit more peaceful, less on edge--really, it was a madhouse in there, poor Mrs. Burnett retired that year, and we may or may not have had something to do with it.
He must have been bored, or perhaps just freed from the pressure of showing off for Dan, because he started talking to me. Somehow we ended up on music.
“Wait, you know Reel Big Fish?” He said, as if this was impossibly hard to believe. In fact, I had spent countless hours listening to the album “Turn the Radio Off” on full blast in the car, to and from my first summer job.
“Yeah” I said, with a bit of a snarky edge, slightly insulted.
He leaned back in his chair so that it balanced on the back two legs, and pursed his lips together as he shook his head.
I rolled my eyes. Really? Was it so hard to believe? Did he look at me and think I was the type of girl who was pining after a Backstreet Boy? Okay, I’ll admit, the Spice Girls dance number I did with a few of my friends for the eighth grade talent show may have sent some mixed signals.
“Prove it” he says.
Oh, no he didn’t.
So I start to sing, “She called me late last night, say she loved me so...it didn’t matter anymore…”
I watched his eyes get wide and his smile slowly widen, but I just played it cool.
“I say she never cared and that she never will…” a quick pause as Mrs. Burnett rounds the corner, “I’d do it all again, guess I’ll have to wait until then…”
Now he’s leaned forward, using his fingers as drums on the table. He does a riff and takes us into the chorus, “and if I get drunk well I’ll pass out on the floor now baby, you won’t bother me no more!”
We both chuckle, because it’s a completely inappropriate song to be singing in school, which makes it all the more delicious. He thrashes his head around to the beat like he’s Axl Rose, and I can’t help but let my guard down a little to give a genuine laugh, and then we’re singing in unison, “and if you’re drinking well you know that you’re my friend, and I’ll say...I think I’ll have myself a beer...”
We both inexplicably jump to the bridge, cause now we’re like, telepathically linked in the music, “whaoooh, oooh, ohh, ohh….” In a half-singing, half-whispering voice while Mrs. Burnett circles around again.
The rest of the song fades into hushed giggles, and he’s convinced. I let myself look in his eyes while he flashes a huge open mouthed smile.
Well that settles it. I’m in trouble.
The day I heard he died, I kept flashing back to this memory, the song played on repeat in my head all day, and I tried to remember how his voice sounded, how he moved, how he was more than a head taller than me even while sitting. I have to dig those glimpses out like precious fossils, gently, patiently, brushing off sand. Mostly, I remember the distinct unease and exhilaration of occupying that seat.
There had never been anything between us but that one moment. We grew up in a town so small, you were bound to have at least one moment with everyone. I don’t know what happened to him after high school, I had forgotten about him completely until I saw his name attached to the article about the skiing accident.
I don’t know how to grieve, since it wasn’t like we were close. I can only empathize with those who knew and cared for him on a much deeper, much more intimate level.
Is a moment enough to grieve? Does the grief come in equal measure to how much time you had together, or is it some wild wind, that blows with a stronger force and speed than you could have ever expected?
A moment, at least, is enough to remember. To know he was there, and that he loved good music, whether or not he remembered the dorky girl who sang with him once.He was there, and I remember.