I do not know who I loved when I was 17 and a senior in high school. I know that my feelings for Ian were unresolved. The next year, 18 and drunk, I would call him and rage and sob for hours. For his part, if I remember correctly, he patiently listened although at one point had to go quietly sit inside his closet with the phone. I have never not been this teeming, selfish, full-of-feelings creature.
It’s 2:30 in the morning and I’m 31 and I’m in a cab headed back to my apartment thinking about who I was when I was 17 and suddenly remembering and feeling surprised at what our minds do to try and keep us safe. I am wondering if I’m the most selfish person on the planet. Do I think I am the star of my T.V. show? Do I secretly think I’m some special sunflower and not just one of a million voices shouting out into a chorus? The very idea makes my guts roil. I have known those people, those sparklers, comets, and I am not the same. I’m not Gatsby. I’m Tom.
My therapist (okay, my analyst, I’ll say it) says that if you’re worried you’re self-obsessed, you probably aren’t. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with delving inside yourself and trying to suss things out. But I do, at times, worry that since I spent so much time hiding inside of myself all locked away (“You closed yourself off when you were 20,” he’s saying, “do ever think that was a mistake?”) that it might not be just a little dangerous to think and examine myself the way I do.
I want to believe that I’m self-aware. I want to believe that I am honest. I want to believe that I am caring. But it could be that I’m wrong about all of that and really all I am is this scylla-and-charybdis of need, need, need. Outside the cab I notice there’s an unusual amount of garbage on the highway. I stare at the back of the driver’s head, his enviably thick black waves, and I wonder if there is some girl who once screamed at him until he had to go sit inside a closet.
I think that when I was 17, if I am honest, I was probably in love with Nick. Everyone who met him spent at least a little time being in love with him. After he died, my mom told me about going for a run and thinking she saw him at the top of the hill. When he took me to my senior prom he wore a Ratt bandana and flicked his jacket over his shoulder, winking at Sister Faith, my vice principal and the school’s main disciplinarian. She blushed and laughed. Everyone who met Nick loved him, at least for a little while.
I’ve got a diary where I wrote poems about how good he looked in the color blue. Even now if I see a teenager with full cheeks, with dyed-blond hair, if I catch the whiff of a certain drugstore cologne, I remember the wonder of Nick. There he was, hanging out with all the theatre kids, with all the cliques, making everyone laugh. We didn’t all like each other, but we all loved Nick. He loved ’80s hair bands, Poison in particular, and he had a band of his own where he wrote songs. He liked making other people happy and he revered innocence above every other thing. That’s a strange quality for a teenager to have. The writer in me wants to make it foreshadowing, but the universe is bullshit and no one can tell how things will end, not really.
He died in a fire in Rhode Island in 2003. A nightclub, a hair band, pyrotechnics. 100 people died. It made the national news. From my dorm in Tennessee, I called the hotline to see if he was okay. I spelled his name for the woman who answered the phone. A pause. “Are you family?” How do you explain to a stranger that you are? How do you tell a stranger that Nick is part of your family, that he belongs to everyone, that he sang ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ on his guitar in the parking lot of the restaurant and chased Ian’s car with us in it as we tried to leave and he refused to stop and how it made everyone laugh. But I wasn’t family. I didn’t know that them asking me that was as good as telling me the truth: Nick was dead.
Before that happened, when we were kids and he was even younger, and he was full of opinions and jokes. I was 17 and he took me to my senior prom. Even though it was June I wore my grandmother’s fox-fur coat over my dress because I thought it looked so glamorous. Nick showed up and he’d brought me a bouquet of roses covered with silver glitter and I was stunned: It’s the only time in my life a man has ever bought me flowers. We drove to the dance with my best friend Meghan and her date, another friend, Ezra. It was May and we listened to Bret Michaels singing on the way to the country club where we would pretend to be adults, sitting around a table, all hairspray and braces and too much lipgloss. Someone would throw a roll covered in butter. It would hit my dress and I would want to pout, but Nick would make me laugh because that is what Nick does -- that is what Nick always did.
When do we realize just how much of a mystery another person truly is? When do we discover that this is so? I chatted with Nick late into the night online (like a lot of us did) and he would pour his heart out. He was a dark person, and a passionate person. My parents threw me a graduation party and Nick’s band played and he covered Semisonic’s ‘Singing In My Sleep’ because he knew I loved it. Nick was thoughtful and moralistic and idealistic and handsome and kind and a little mean and tall and wonderful-smelling and romantic.
When he and his girlfriend became he and his girlfriend, no one stopped being in love with him. He was like JFK and she was Jackie. No, something more accessible. He stooped and she was under his arm and they were perfect together and you could believe for a second that the most complicated people on the planet, the sparklers, the dazzlers, the ones who are too much -- you believed that they could stay grounded to the earth even if it was just for a moment if they found someone whose eyes held them, if they found someone who wouldn’t insist that they stay.
The cab driver misses the exit. He looks back at me. “I’m really sorry, I’ll turn off the meter.”
This never happens. The streets lights seem warm as they fly past and we redirect ourselves back to the place where I live. “I really appreciate that,” I say, “thank you.”
I get out of the cab on my block and the motion-activated lights on the door next to my own pop on. When we were all of us, young and silly and full of things and hiding in closets and sitting around flagpoles saying exactly what we meant, Nick would point up at a streetlight as it went from dark to light. “I did that,” he said. I think about it still.