I’d like to take a moment to talk about a dead friend.
Not recently dead. And not recently a friend.
But a dead friend, nonetheless.
High school in Scottsdale in the early 80s wasn’t exactly any worse or better than I imagine it was anywhere else. It was for some the best time in their lives, for some the worst and for most, like me, just another time, not traumatic enough to scar me for life or fantastic enough for me to talk about it longingly decades later.
I was a studious type and loved the academic life and had, since I was a boy, planned on being a doctor, a plan which went the same way as: astronaut, FBI agent and race car driver. I had a decent amount of friends, most of whom shared the joy in acing a test or wrestling with a calculus problem until we figured it out. I dated a few girls, emphasis on few, and spent most of my time from sophomore year on mapping out where I wanted to go to college. I think this was perhaps the most common activity amongst my friends: figuring out where we’d begin our ‘real’ lives and how far we could get from our parents. Suffice it to say, I was as invisible as I suspect ninety percent of high school students feel and ninety-nine percent actually are. Invisibility to all but a handful of people is the common thread most of us will share from the time we’re potty trained until the time we need assisted care in old age.
Into this tightly wound crowd of ‘smart’ kids (in the years since, I have come to realize how unimportant this category is to, well, most of life), Bill entered. Atypically for our bespectacled, geeky bunch, he was as socially confident a fifteen-year old as could exist in our awestruck minds. We all knew upon first meeting him that he’d scale heights reserved for the rarefied few.
Bill was also one of those guys who was popular with every stratum of high school clique. From stoner to jock to brainiac to musician to the invisible, Bill was a guy to whom everyone was electrically attracted. Even the girls us nerds drooled over and who wouldn’t so much as walk in the same hallway as us, even those preening swans of the fakest variety, found Bill irresistible. And the schoolmarmy Spanish teacher who complained with a finger wag about Bill’s being late to class could not help but be impressed when he explained, a few times a week, the reason for his tardiness in Spanish that could have gotten him from Mexico City to Rio without a hitch. He was, overall, one of those people you meet just a few times in your life and onto which you are impelled to glom.
Bill and I became friends in that flummoxing and arbitrary way that most of us have experienced. By the end of my freshman year, I’d found the first best friend of my adolescence. High school was infinitely more bearable and less boring because of my friendship with him.
Bill was a gifted pianist and a ham the way talented people often are. He loved playing the piano and singing (great voice, too) when friends came over to his house. He knew he was good and we all did too. I don’t remember most of what he played (Beethoven and Brahms, certainly), but I do recall one song vividly – “Rocket Man.” He sang the song with such showmanship and sincerity that you’d swear Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics just for him and played the piano with a flair that Elton John would have applauded. I envied this talent of his more than his others because my own household was devoid of musicians or music lovers, a silent place livened only occasionally with whatever radio station a housekeeper listened to. I credit Bill with my first experience of tasting varieties of music, and I’ve since become a person who needs music like food and books and water and art. His impassioned, lengthy, repeated defenses of the band Yes in the face of detractors gave me quiet strength in the years since, often plucking CDs of mocked and reviled bands off the wall and playing them for friends with supreme confidence and my own defense at the ready.
Bill introduced me to near-frozen Mexican beer on scorching summer days, explained how to be cool with the girls, espoused the idea that intelligence was something to relish and not hide away, gave me the first nickname I ever had, Smarko, and taught me how good chips and extra hot salsa are when chased with tall glasses of frigid, frothy milk while watching football on TV. Burning followed by relief. This analogy to writing and stopping writing is something I think about till this day when I down a mouthful of the hot red stuff.
Bill had a laugh that wasn’t so much infectious as it was healing. When he was in the dead center of a good one, usually after telling a joke or a story himself, the world was better in that tiny piece of geography where we shared our friendship. One of the things we did was watch the A-Team together. Well, not exactly together, but at the same time. When it came on, I’d give him a call or he’d call me and in our respective houses we’d get very stoned and giggle our way through the show, repeating the hackneyed, awful dialogue to one another and laughing our stoned asses off. I have no idea how this activity started or why we both found it so amusing. Some aspects of a friendship are beyond any rational explanation.
Bill’s hyper-intelligence was his most remarkable trait. He had the capacity to fuck around as much as the committed stoners did all day, yet Bill would ace not only every class, but also every exam or quiz in those classes. He’d spoken about Harvard first when we were sophomores, not as if it would be a burden to get in or if it were an exceptionally lofty goal, but in a manner that convinced me they were just waiting for him, high school a simple formality that he’d like to be quickly done with. He spoke about it as if he’d already matriculated, graduated, time-traveled back to our conversation and felt the warmth and comfort of having an Ivy League education packed away like insurance for every version of social, financial and professional malaise a person can encounter in life.
And so it turned out that Bill was our high school’s first student admitted to Harvard. The moment he was accepted (early admission), his aura was fully confirmed and our friendship began to fizzle. I think, honestly I’m certain, it was more because of me than him, because of my envy of his acceptance there and my failure to even get a sniff at the Ivy League schools I’d been casually knocking around in conversation since I could sharpen a pencil.
My awaiting college, UC Berkeley, was all the way on the other side of the country. While nothing to sneeze at, Berkeley wasn’t, isn’t, Harvard and I could tell our trajectories would seriously diverge after high school. I suppose I was already mourning a dead friendship rather than doing what I should have been: making it stronger so it might have a chance to last.
For the last year of high school, we hung out less and less until we graduated, the summer rolled away and we were each off to our next step in life.
I didn’t last at Berkeley. Academics weren’t the issue at the time – Berkeley suited my awkward desire to exercise my brain like a Mensan. An odd loaf of financial hardship and a myopic family incapable of commonalities like communicating with other human beings kinked my plan. I’d turned down a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State, my local university, because I had the same species of ant under my feet that many kids that age have, the kind that makes you want to get away from everything you’ve ever known and start anew. But because I turned it down upon graduating high school, I was rendered ineligible for it anytime in the future.
So, I returned to Arizona, went to school after a year of moping, and led as equally an uninteresting life after high school as I’d done since I left the carnival of infancy.
Move ahead more than ten years. By 1997, I’d long since graduated college and was sliding my way toward 30. I had a girlfriend I wanted to marry, a woman who once kissed me so nicely, so perfectly, I lost consciousness for a few seconds. This woman left me giddy enough so I annoyed my friends with constant talk of her. She also led me to thinking about all the great people I’d had in my life and what they were doing.
I hadn’t seen Bill in more than a decade, but kept up with his activities through our dwindling grapevine of mutual friends that I’d see at the bars occasionally. He’d graduated Harvard in three years and returned to Arizona to go into the securities business with his father and start a few ventures of his own. One of them, oddly, was a bar. I assumed the only kind of bar Bill would own must be very classy or very cool and made a mental note to drop in and check it out sometime.
Finally, in early May of 1997, after thinking about it for months, putting it off because of my job or my girlfriend or any of a number of regular hangovers, I got the notion to call him out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken in such a long time, but I was confident that at least we’d be able to catch up over beers, perhaps revisit and restart a friendship that I’d thought about often as I bumped around my twenties. Maybe because 30 was near and because my more recent friendships seemed flimsy at the time, I wanted to rekindle one I felt was strong. I easily found a number for his brother Jeff, who’d never left Scottsdale, and called him to ask how I could get a hold of Bill.
In a monotone I’ll never forget, Jeff told me Bill had recently died. I couldn’t speak and uttered some incomprehensible gobbledygook and nearly puked. Jeff said he’d been killed in a car accident on April 15, about three weeks earlier. I was at work when I called, a denim resale shop a friend owned, and I broke down like a baby.
I cried my way through asking to go home for the day, cried my way home in the car and cried the night away on my couch, so sad, so surprised, so utterly incapable of accepting that this person, a guy of Bill’s intelligence, humor, talent and promise was dead before thirty. I fell asleep on the couch as wiped out as if I’d run a marathon or been beaten by an angry mob.
The next weekend I visited Bill’s grave. It was a clear, windless spring Arizona day. When I got to his gravestone and saw his name, the tears came again. I stood there for thirty or forty minutes thinking about our concluded friendship, not quite believing he was freshly buried beneath me. As I was getting ready to leave, a wind kicked up and a piece of paper tumbled corner over corner toward me from the edge of the otherwise pristine cemetery.
When the paper reached me, the wind stopped and it lay still at my feet. I bent over to pick it up and put it in the trash. It was a flyer for an anti-tax rally and on the bottom, in bold, was April 15, 1997, the day Bill died. It didn’t make me religious but certainly cemented the day in my head as something more than the day to send in my returns.
In the years since Bill died, I’ve often thought of him. To many, perhaps most, people who knew him he’ll always be just shy of 30. But to me, he’ll always be 18 and always be my first best friend.
Even in death, maybe especially, a friend can teach you so much. My friendship with Bill, or should I say his friendship with me, a fairly unremarkable person, was a gift that I still unwrap and learn from.
In the ensuing years, when I felt like, feel like, an asshole or nasty words for people are just behind my lips, ready to escape, I think of Bill and how he treated me: as an equal, a friend, someone to eat salsa with and someone just to get to know. I’m far from the most tolerant person on the planet, but my friendship with Bill reminds me, even when I’m in a lousy mood, that good friends are better than good jobs or good trips or lots of money or any of the other things that are stand-ins for what life really is about. My friendship with Bill helped strengthen in me the shapeless, nameless muscle one needs to nurture friendships and it has served me well. I’ve become a better friend to others (though far from perfect), keenly sympathetic and kind to the oddball in all of us, and a more compassionate person in general than I ever would have had our paths not crossed.
He lives with me and will until the day I die, always extant in the architecture of my personality, as are many dozens, hundreds, of other people also in that structure. Bill provides, however, along with only three other people in my life, the most important part: a certain, solid foundation buried beneath the skyscraper that I feel like I am some days and the hovel I feel like on the rest, both of which are invisible to most save a vital few.