I’m awake and I’m alive.
The day will come when that won’t be true. For now I continue to take some measure of comfort in still being here. I look around the apartment and struggle for a connection to any of the things I’ve surrounded myself. There isn’t much as I’ve worked hard to maintain a lifestyle that doesn’t emphasize ownership of physical things. Years ago that would have been called “minimalism.” Now it’s just common sense, at least as far as I’m concerned. What’s the point of possessions when they quickly become detritus left in the wake of your death? What might be fleetingly valuable to you will quickly become a cumbersome burden to whoever has to sort through it all when you’re gone.
Hazy morning light broke through the windows across my small apartment opposite where the bed was placed. It struggled to illuminate the floor, still at an angle that mostly cast shadows on the wall. My eyes didn’t need too long to adjust to the soft light and I stood to make my way to the bathroom that represented the only walled-off section of the single room.
Taking a leak and a starting the shower started off today in the usual way, though I was already dreading the events planned for this evening. A pit of anxious despair and nervousness formed in my gut, setting me on edge before the day was even off and running fully. I pushed those thoughts aside and out of my mind for the moment. The plans were set and there was no getting out of them at this point, so worrying about it now would serve no positive purpose. Finishing in the shower I reluctantly shaved, dressed and moved to the living room, stopping in the kitchen to start a pot of coffee on my way.
I grabbed my media tablet off the coffee table and turned on the TV which sat on a low shelf across the room, nestled under the extended lip of a breakfast bar separating the living room from the kitchen. Scrolling through the selection of movies on the tablet my mind once more wandered to tonight, causing me to again struggle to adjust my focus. I couldn’t obsess about that, not now. The coffee pot signaled the availability of hot caffeine so I selected an old Jack Lemmon movie, deciding it would be good for background entertainment as I got to work. I poured a cup of coffee and took it to the small desk by the windows where my computer sat.
I was a successful enough freelancer writer that there was always some kind of work to be done, some project to continue or finish and deliver. Today would be a moderately busy day, I judged. Nothing pressing. Good. Scanning my messages I saw one editor was requesting an update on my story of a local band on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream. Another had approved a pitch for a story about a now-defunct neighborhood storefront theater being turned into an arts center for local kids to show off their work. A few others were in various states of completion. I opened the small notebook sitting to the side of the computer and listed today’s action items, nodding in approval at what appeared to be positive momentum. Rent would, I calculated, once more be covered.
Rent, yes. Food…not so much. To make ends more fully meet I also regularly wrote obituaries for a local news site and so logged into that content system. Freelance assignments might satisfy my creativity and journalistic aspirations, but the $15 a pop I earned for obits were what helped me pay the bills. It wasn’t work that stretched any new or interesting writing muscles or challenged my skills in a meaningful way but it paid well. Even with several others scattered around the city doing likewise, some of them full-time, there were always plenty of assignments for me to tackle, about a dozen a day. All it required was decent writing talent, a connection to the web and the ability to distance one’s self to not get bogged down while recapping the life of someone’s father, sister, husband, niece or friend. Some days that was easier than others. Today was going to be a hard one, due mostly to the looming dread of tonight’s plans. I needed the money, though, so got to it. An hour and one cup of coffee later and I had churned out five obits while Jack Lemmon nervously nattered in the background.
Having checked off that box for the moment I moved to more substantive work, though not before refilling my coffee. The story of the local band needed to be finished as it would bring in a pretty decent paycheck. It didn’t so much need serious additions or editing, it was just lacking an element I hadn’t yet identified but which made it appear incomplete, much like my life as a whole. Opening up another program where I kept my rough notes I scanned what I’d saved there for something that would act as the keystone for the story, the integral component that holds the whole thing together. I sipped the coffee and leaned back in my chair, aware of the cliched move signaling deep contemplation and mulling the story as it was now, trying to put my finger on what it was that was bothering me about it. If I couldn’t fix it before tonight, I decided, I would ship it to the editor to poke holes in as she sees fit. There, that was my deadline: 7:00. Done.
The movie was almost over behind me, having slightly outlasted both my productivity and my indecisiveness. I swung around in my chair to catch the last several minutes, just in time to watch Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine finally figure out how they could be together. I’d been up for close to two hours now and hadn’t had anything but coffee, a situation my stomach was no longer content with. As the credits played I stood up and made a much-needed trip to the head, deciding on the way to treat myself to breakfast at the diner down the street. With everything else that was happening today I didn’t have the resources to deal psychologically with whatever options I had in the house so, having just done the math regarding my income, rationalized it as affordable.
Plus, Melinda would be there.
I grabbed my keys and walked out the door, down the four flights of stairs and out onto the sidewalk. It was a hot summer day, the kind people in Chicago pray for in January but curse in August as they pray for the cool of the winter they will then curse. If we wanted to be hot and humid for nine months out of the year, I’d often joke, we would move to St. Louis.
As soon as I took a dozen steps I was already beginning to sweat in the hot, thick air and knew it would only get worse as I walked the three blocks to the diner. As I walked I continued to noodle on the story about the band, hoping my subconscious would kick some new insight lose. It was still relatively early and the streets and sidewalk were uncrowded. A few people ambled by on the opposite sidewalk and a group of college kids glided by on bikes in the street, most likely making their way back to the DePaul campus. I regarded them all dispassionately, giving them the same attention I gave a flock of birds flying overhead.
My mind wandered to tonight’s event, which loomed large in my mind, creating a black hole of fear and anxiety I was exhausted trying to keep myself out of. I wondered who would be there and what forced, awkward conversations I’d be forced to endure. The bar it was happening at wasn’t too far – about 20 minutes away on the El – but the effort to get there seemed imposing and restrictive. I intentionally hadn’t looked at the other names on the respondents’ list, choosing to maintain a forced ignorance. More knowledge would only lead to more crippling anxiety.
The sun was fully up by now and the heat seemed to increase with each passing moment. Speeding up my pace wouldn’t solve anything so I continued at the sauntering pace I currently maintained. I would be, I guessed, somewhere around “unbearable” this afternoon when I usually took a brief walk to get some air and stretch my legs.
A few minutes later I pushed the glass door of the diner open and was immediately confronted by the comforting cool of the air conditioning, accompanied by the smell of fried and grilled food that didn’t just hang in the air but permeated the furniture. I’d never asked whether the cliched “diner” look of the place was authentic or ironic. Was this simply what someone thought a diner should look like or was it a tongue-in-cheek representation of the aesthetic?
The perky college-aged hostess nodded at me as I walked in, pointing with her chin to communicate that I could sit anywhere I liked. Melinda was nowhere to be seen behind the counter or in the restaurant. She must have the day off, I thought. Bummer. She usually worked Tuesdays. I slid into the red vinyl bench behind a marble-veneer table and gave a cursory look at the menu; I was ready to order my usual corned beef and hash.
A waitress I didn’t recognize – a high bar to clear based on my frequent patronage – approached and asked if I wanted coffee. I’d had enough and so asked for an orange juice, giving her my food order as well. As she walked away I asked, “Melinda off today?” She turned around with an uncomfortable look on her face.
“She was scheduled, but…” and trailed off, turning to continue walking toward the kitchen. Her unfinished sentence carried with it one message: Melinda had gotten caught in The Wave. Shit. When had that happened? Suddenly I was unsure of when I had last seen her. Earlier this week? Some time last week? Had it been here or out somewhere? Probably here since I thought it had been a while since I had seen her anywhere but here?
A ding sounded from the kitchen that I knew meant my order was being sent from the waitress to the kitchen. Melinda showed me how it worked a few months ago. It brought me out of my contemplation.
My mind swirled as I was quickly lost once more in thought. Melinda and I weren’t “dating” in the traditional sense. I’d known her for…what…about a year and a half, mostly through my visits here. She lived in the area and we’d run into each other at bars and clubs and parties from time to time, hooking up occasionally. We’d never done or said anything to make it more serious. Well, I thought, that wasn’t actually true.
The food was delivered and I ate without appetite or enthusiasm. Dammit, I thought, this was the last thing I needed right now. I looked up from my hashbrowns and caught the hostess quickly turning in the other direction. I turned away as well but caught her glancing in my direction when I looked again. She seemed to be assessing the mental state of her patrons, me in particular. Apparently satisfied that all was relatively well she moved out from behind her half-desk and began walking toward me. Her name not only escaped me but moved further from my mind as she came closer. She slid into the bench on the opposite side of the table, hesitating before speaking as if she was considering asking permission.
“I don’t know what happened to her,” she said without prelude. Sandy, her name tag said. “She just didn’t come in this morning and no one’s been able to reach her. So…”
“She was here yesterday, though. Did you see her last night?”
“No,” I said, “I haven’t seen her in…maybe a week or more.”
She looked crestfallen, as if my seeing Melinda last night would have provided reassurance against the mounting worst fears. Maybe Sandy was trying to convince herself she hadn’t been the last person to see Melinda alive. A wave of resentment over her efforts to pass the buck came over me but quickly subsided. Sipping on my orange juice I said nothing, no longer interested in the conversation but pondering what might have become of Melinda.
“Will you come in and tell me if you hear anything?” She looked chastised, as if she’d realized I was taking her comments poorly, which made me feel worse. I nodded while absent-mindedly pushing hash around the plate with my fork and Sandy turned around and went back to her station.
The idea Melinda had been caught in The Wave hit me even more forcefully than it had initially. It was as simple as that. No bigger reason, no complex rationale to divine, just the simple horrifying truth of it.
A thought occurred to me and I signaled to Sandy I was ready for my check. I needed to get out of there now and get to work. I placed my phone over the tablet she held out in front of me, signaling the transfer of funds that would pay for the breakfast I’d only partially eaten, and got up to leave. The heat and humidity that had grown in the last 30 minutes hit me like a wall and I gasped for air as I stepped into the fetid atmosphere. The sidewalk and street were busier than they had been when I’d arrived, though still only a few cars were anywhere to be seen.
I hurried down the sidewalk and back to my apartment powered by the motivation I’d suddenly found. Despite the oppressive heat I was home in nearly half the time it had taken to walk to the diner, the sweat dampening my shirt serving as testament to my hurry and the conditions. The front door lock clicked as I pressed my phone to the pad and entered my passcode, a process I repeated when I reached my apartment door. Pausing only for a needed glass of water I finally reached my computer and sat down.
Pulling up the search function in the database of the recently deceased I and the other obit writers used, I entered Melinda’s name. No results. Shit. All that hurry under the assumption that a quick answer would be found for naught. I was both relieved that she wasn’t listed and annoyed that the mystery remained. She might still be out there waiting to be found by someone, a morbid thought to be sure. It also meant she might still be alive and had simply disappeared for some unknown reason. As my brain battled between hopeful and hopeless speculation I took out my phone and sent her a message, trying to affect a casual tone. “Hey, missed you at the diner this morning. Sandy said to give her a call when you can.” This wasn’t the kind of thing I would normally send her, but I hit Send before I could overthink it. Such was my desire for information.
“Has anyone seen a notice on Melinda Robertson?” I typed in the obit database’s chat channel. As expected, a handful of variations on “No” came back over the next few minutes. Still, at least I’d checked another box. Looking at my phone again I saw my message to her had been delivered but not read. What did that mean? My mind wandered to the dozens of worst-case scenarios it was capable of imagining. I looked at the clock. It wasn’t even 10 am and I was already exhausted emotionally and physically. This didn’t bode well for the rest of the day.
A sense of financial guilt and irresponsibility occurred to me over the money I’d spent this morning, all in the hopes of seeing Melinda, and the drinks I’d have to buy tonight. I turned back to the computer and set to put in another hour or so of obit writing. Not exactly what I wanted to do given the circumstances, but it would help me feel as if I’d offset the reckless spending I suddenly felt I was engaging in. Doing so would also help me keep an eye on updates to the database to see if her name appeared.
It never did and I kept working, driven by the paranoia that it would finally show up the moment I closed my computer. Finally after two hours I was too exhausted, both physically and emotionally, to go on. I set a search for Melinda’s name that would send an alert to my phone and with a force of will closed out and stood up from my desk.
With no further capacity to focus and no appetite, I sat on the couch and flipped through a selection of newer movies I hoped would distract me from the rabbit hole my thoughts kept wanting to take me down. Finding nothing I could commit to I found myself pacing around the confines of my apartment, covering and recovering the same sections of simulated hardwood and hoping answers – or at least clarity – would appear. None did. While the heat and humidity I knew were outside didn’t offer a comfortable environment, it was at least better than indoors inertia.
My second trip outside on a steamy August day in Chicago was without the direction and initiative of my first one. I had no destination or goal in mind, just the desire to put one foot in front of another. Solar cabs were more numerous in the late-morning as people opted to spend the extra few bucks on a comfortable and cool ride to wherever they were going. I considered calling one with my phone but realized again I didn’t know where I was going. Taking a page from my father’s book of cliches I simply turned in a direction and decided to see where my feet took me.
It took just half a block for regret to set in. Stopping for a moment in the shade provided by a “Choose Life” billboard mounted to the top of the building across the street I pondered my options. I needed a goal. Somewhere to be, something to do. There was no one I was anxious to see, especially in light of tonight’s plans, and no one I wouldn’t be an intrusion upon. My choices appeared limited.
Suddenly my breath caught in my throat, not from the heat but from what felt like falling off a cliff. The dread of isolation rushed at me. Who did I have? Both my parents were dead. Of my few friends, who was I important to? Who actually cared about me? I was alone and would be until someone noticed it had been days since I’d stopped responding to messages or sending in stories. Hey, anyone seen Daniel lately? I would simply drift out of the world with little left behind to attest to my existence. I was a shadow briefly falling on a leaf being blown by the wind.
My eyes burned with the sweat falling from my forehead, the sensation pulling me out of my emotional spiral enough to get my bearings. Traffic, both foot and vehicle, continued unaware of my brief episode like a fast-flowing stream that barely acknowledges the rock briefly redirecting its flow. I thought to go back to my apartment and got within sight of the door before an alternative occurred to me: Melinda’s. I kicked myself at overlooking such an obvious idea that was a mere six blocks away. Taking a taxi was rejected. I’d already spent enough money I didn’t have on breakfast. There was a bike rental station just a couple doors down and so chose that.
When I arrived, completely drenched from sweat, I realized I’d been so focused on getting here I didn’t know what I expected to greet me. Was she simply sick? Dead? Injured? Not home? I pressed the button for her apartment and tried to remember to breathe.
A minute went by. Then three. Then 10. Nothing, despite my repeated button pressing. None of the building’s tenants came or went in that time so I had no one to talk to or ask about Melinda. I remembered her third-floor apartment faced the street so backed up across the street to get a better look. The shades were pulled, keeping whatever secrets lay within.
I walked back to the front of the apartment, barely avoiding a biker while doing so. Below the button to call the apartment was another to leave a message, the kind of thing usually used by package delivery people when they found the recipient wasn’t home. I pushed it.
“Mel, it’s Daniel. Not getting all clingy here but no one has heard from you in a while. I was around so thought I’d stop by and see what was going on. Message me when you get this, alright?”
There was little I could do to hide the faux-casual nature of my message. I wasn’t the only one looking for Melinda, surely, but every effort helped. At least that’s how I justified it to myself.
Adrenaline leached from my body, my momentary mania subsiding and exhaustion once more filling the void. I mounted the bike and set out to return home, which couldn’t come soon enough. After locking it in place at the station and transferring payment to the vendor I walked back to my building. It took all I had to climb the stairs. One in my apartment I realized my clothes were soaking wet so removed them, took a shower and put on a new, dry outfit.
There were still no answers written on the walls or ceiling, despite my desperate need for them. Life stretched out in front me as a series of exits by those around me. It was all too much and I crumpled to the floor in front of my bed, fighting back a torrent of tears with every ounce of energy my stoic German nature had left in it.
A half hour passed before the dread once more passed. I stood and walked to the kitchen, determined to not give into the crushing despair that lurked around every corner of my mind. I would survive each moment, finding comfort in doing so and resolve to survive the next. Victory was as simple as making a sandwich, which I took to the couch where I sat and turned on a live broadcast instead of a movie.
News reports had stopped covering suicides years ago, with the exception of the passing of a notable entertainment or political figure, itself an all-too-common experience. There was simply too much death and calling it out hurt public morale. Despite the feeling of the world ending in slow motion, things went on as normal. Baseball games were played, fires consumed buildings, public officials acted in their own best interest. Few people owned cars anymore, so the traffic reports that were so common in the news of my childhood were almost completely phased out.
My mental balance came back into place but I began to wonder: Is this how it starts? Am I on a path that ends with The Wave? Like most people, I was constantly on edge, hoping to identify the first signs of becoming caught up in it. There were no signs, though. Years of research had failed to provide any set of clear indicators that could be used as early warning signs. It simply happened and the people around you were left to pick up the pieces.
The blandly pleasant woman reading the news was covering the latest birth rate numbers, which once more came in below what was necessary to sustain the population. A brief flirtation by the government with a proposal to make contraception illegal had failed three years ago after pushback by religious groups who claimed it violated individual rights. So people kept having sex for pleasure as the population dwindled.
A year or so ago I’d written a story about the scientists working on population forecasting. Their research was aimed at finding the future point where the number of people in the world reached what was essentially zero. Most of those models and forecasts had proven inaccurate, but one point had fascinated me.
A University of Virginia researcher named Dr. Frank Richmond wasn’t concerned with humanity’s expiration date but finding the event horizon of his Population Black Hole Theory. Just as with an actual black hole, Richmond believed The Wave contained a point of no return, a moment where there the pull of gravity was inescapable. In this case, a moment where the downward spiral of the human race was locked in. When I spoke to him he wasn’t yet sure if that moment had already passed or if it was still somewhere in the future.
His assistant informed me Dr. Richmond was dead when I called two weeks later with follow-up questions. None of his colleagues were taking up his work, I was told.
I looked at my watch. My emotional distractions had taken me past noon, which was progress. The droning from the TV continued but nothing warranted my attention. It had already been an emotionally draining day and I felt the lure of sleep pulling at me. A nap seemed like a good idea but that path was blocked when a message from Anna caused my phone to buzz.
Anna and I had met at a club about four years ago. We’d hooked up sporadically for several months after but soon realized that wasn’t going to be how our relationship went. She’d introduced me to several new bands and venues that had been helpful for my writing gigs. I’d introduced her to drug dealers that were several orders of magnitude less skeevy than hers. We never discussed anything, including how we’d stopped having sex, we just continued hanging out regularly.
She made her living as an artist, selling just enough works locally to be able to afford an apartment, food and an active social life. Never actually broke, she nonetheless owed debts of beer, pizza and cigarettes to most of her friends. That debt was largely repaid in the fierce loyalty of her friendship, her willingness to help at a moment’s notice and with no questions asked or quarter given.
I pushed a button on my phone to buzz Anna into the building and went to open the door for her. A moment later she walked in wearing black jeans and a pink tank top with “YOU FUCKING SMILE, DICK” in big cartoonish letters. The bag she carried offered a familiar and welcome scent.
“You look like hell,” she said in reply.
“I just ate lunch but I’ll take a couple for later.”
“Never said they were for you.”
“They’re in my apartment.”
“Did I mention you look like hell?” She put the bag on the kitchen counter and opened a cabinet for a plate then looked back at me as if she suspected I was up to no good. “Tonight’s your thing, right?”
“Yeah.” I rubbed my eyes. The weariness that had been creeping in before was growing. “Not excited.”
“Wouldn’t expect you to be.” She took a bite of a sesame bagel. “You sure you don’t need a co-pilot on this? Or some heavy drugs to make it bearable?”
“I’m sure,” I said, putting on a grateful-looking smile. “What’s going on with you today?”
“Just booked a new show. It won’t go up for a month or so but I’m going to check the place out this afternoon. Up in Lakeview.” She tried to look cool but I could tell this was exciting for her. It must be a big deal.
“Yeah, from my trip last year to New Orleans.” Calling it a trip oversold it. She’d wound up on Louisiana on what was essentially a series of escalating dares with a group of friends. “I met the curator when my friend Cheryl tried to set us up. So I got a show and a decent lay.”
“Good for you? Let me know the details. Might even be able to write about it somewhere.”
Mentioning writing caused me to momentarily seize up, remembering how Melinda was still missing. Anna must have seen that look on my face because she asked why I was tense all of a sudden.
“A girl I know is missing.”
“Shit, I’m sorry. Someone you were sleeping with?”
Anna had no filter. “Sometimes. She was a waitress at the diner I like to go to.”
“That shithole? Did I ever meet her?”
“Probably. She didn’t come to work today and no one has been able to get in touch with her, so I’m assuming the worst.”
“Sorry, Daniel. That sucks.”
I shrugged. “Sooner or later I’ll figure out what happened.” Something in my brain was spinning on a plan I wasn’t even fully conscious of working on. “Tell me about the show.”
For the next hour Anna told me about how she and the woman who ran the gallery had met, started sleeping together and more. Once she’d seen some of Anna’s work – she didn’t know Anna was an artist until two weeks after they’d met – she offered her a showing. It was an up-and-coming gallery, building a reputation for identifying talent but not yet lucrative or sought after. A show there would build Anna’s standing in the community and likely result in enough sales to let her live comfortably when combined with her freelance design work.
When she’d finished her story she looked at her phone. “I gotta go. Work to do. You sure you’re good for tonight?”
“No, but there’s not much to do about that. Can’t promise I won’t get drunk when I get home, though.”
“Text me if you need anything stronger.” She kissed me on the cheek and walked out the door.
After she left I returned to my computer and checked the obits database again for Melinda’s name. Nothing. It was now mid-afternoon and the desire for a nap was stronger than ever, especially considering I’d be out late tonight. One last search for her name resulted in nothing so I stood, closed the shades over the window and started an old movie I could easily zone out to.
Sleep came fitfully, never fully taking over. I never quite lost track of the movie but also wasn’t able to follow along fully, my mind darting between the dozen issues needing attention. Melinda, work, tonight…everything mixed together, leaving only chaos as the maelstrom of thought carved out its path.
Too soon I startled into wakefulness, no better rested than I’d been before. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were flirting on the TV. I noticed the bag of bagels still sitting on the counter and I grabbed two, spreading peanut butter on each, realizing I needed to eat now so the beer I’d likely be drinking tonight wouldn’t hit me too hard.
My phone buzzed with a message from an editor responding positively to a pitch I’d sent months ago regarding an old song that was experiencing a popular resurgence. He needed the story in two weeks so I got to work immediately, thankful for the distraction a new project provided but fully aware it wouldn’t last.
The clock on the computer read 6:18 when I finally looked at it after doing the initial outlining of the new story. I was due at the bar at 7:00 and knew it would take about 20 minutes to get there. If I left at 6:45 I’d be fine. After spending all day with my focus elsewhere, the prospect of tonight’s meetup being imminent made my heart drop.
The plan was to join a group of old friends to mourn the passing of someone we all knew, to celebrate Todd’s life and reconnect with each other. Most of the people who’d be going I hadn’t seen since high school or college and it promised to be an awkward gathering. We would say how long it had been, share old memories, make empty promises to stay in touch and express disbelief that some now had kids in high school themselves. It was exactly the kind of thing I worked hard to avoid, but there was no getting out of this one. If it hadn’t been Todd, I’d pass on it. Only he could get me to go out something as dreaded as this. I owed him that much.
There’d been no falling out, no fight that had led to he and I not seeing each other for most of the last decade after being inseparable friends since second grade. We’d simply taken different paths in life and contact between us petered out over the years. I’d think about getting in touch but never followed through, never sure of what to say after so much time. Inaction begat further inaction. Now he was gone and I was wracked with guilt over opportunities never seized.
We’d been the best of friends. We’d fought, gotten drunk, talked about girls we were crushing on, watched movies, gone on road trips and everything else two friends do. For a good part of my life there was no one I was closer to.
It had been a bit over a week since I’d learned he’d passed. In that time I’d been fighting the anger that seemed poised and ready to burst through my very skin. I wanted to hit things, to yell at people and rail against the world’s injustices. There was no one to direct that anger toward, though, at least no one useful. All that rage would be misdirected and do more harm than good, proving unsatisfying in the end. There was no peace to be found.
The circumstances of Todd’s death did nothing to ease or lessen my anger. It hadn’t been The Wave that had gotten him. His body had simply failed. From what I’ve pieced together he’d been sick for a while but no one knew with what and he wasn’t sharing. He’d brush off concern, dismissing his haggard appearance as being due to a lack of sleep. One day he collapsed. 12 hours later he was dead.
I was mad at him. I was mad at his selfishness. I was mad at his stubbornness, a trait I’d seen both the good and bad side of in him. I was mad at my own repeated refusal to take the first step toward reconnection. My brother in all but blood was dead and I was left adrift. Even though we hadn’t talked in years, I still took comfort in knowing he was out there somewhere. Now he wasn’t.
I walked in the front door of the bar 22 minutes after leaving my apartment, delayed slightly by an intentionally laconic and unhurried pace. I’d been here before, but not for a few years. The smell of beer, peanuts and bar stool leather hit my nostrils as I scanned the room, secretly hoping no one else would show and I could toast Todd’s memory in solitude.
The faces I glimpsed at the back of the bar were both familiar and strange, resembling people I’d once known but as if they were worn by others. Those faces hit my mind like a series of wrecking balls, breaking down walls built around memories from long ago. I walked toward the group with the same trepidation as someone entering a turbulent ocean, unsure of the power of the waves and fearful of being pulled under. My mind raced as I quickly chose which persona to slip into.
People came and went over the course of the evening. Old stories were shared, hugs were exchanged and memories dragged out of the past they’d long been consigned to. It was awful. It was fun. It was terrifyingly awful. It was insanely freeing. I measured what I said as carefully as I measured what I was drinking, the latter informing the former. There were people I knew on sight and fell into familiar, easy rhythms with and those I couldn’t remember the names of. I spent time with some and avoided others, confident the passage of time had not added to the list of available conversation topics.
We all remembered Todd in our own way. Sometimes it was with laughter, sometimes with barely-contained tears. We remembered him as a good and loyal friend, someone who would drive to Mexico on a moment’s notice and with no questions asked if you called. We remembered him as someone governed by strong emotions, who would hold a grudge like a lifeline without decades but who also was giving and kind to a fault. We toasted his name and cursed his passing with the same breath.
As the evening wore down I checked my phone, specifically checking for a response from Melinda or a response to my query on her name. Nothing on either front. The gathering broke up gradually as people left to get a little sleep before work the next day, get home to their families. Others simply no longer wanted to be there, emotionally spent after dragging the lake of nostalgia for so long.
I, of course, fell into the latter category and so began making the rounds of final handshakes and hugs as I moved toward the door, having connected with people on social media and exchanged phone numbers and so on. I had been genuinely good to see many of these people again, even if the circumstances were horrible. It was time to put away the Daniel of 20 years ago that had been pulled out of storage for the evening, the one that existed before the drama of everyday life, before The Wave disrupted reality and before Todd had died and left a gap in the world that might never be closed.
I walked out of the bar, exhausted from engaging in so much constant conversation. “Cool” was a relative term this time of year, but the night air still seemed refreshing as I caught my breath and enjoyed being outside, not confined to a small portion of a small, crowded room. I decided a walk would help clear my head and so aimed toward not the nearest El stop but one several blocks down.
Lights shone above and the occasional bike whizzed past as I ambled down the sidewalk. My mind wandered, always weighed down by memories of Todd. Moments I hadn’t considered in 20 years felt as fresh as if they’d happened yesterday. Places we’d gone, conversations we’d had, jokes we’d shared, arguments we’d almost come to blows over. They’d all flooded back, wave after wave of them in the last weeks. I couldn’t shake them.
Of course this wasn’t the first time someone I’d known had died. What made it worse was that he hadn’t gotten caught in The Wave. It wasn’t completely arbitrary and pointless. The existence of a cause and a reason made it more difficult for me to come to terms with and accept, because I kept wondering what I could have done to avoid it. If I had reached out five years ago and made an effort to keep in touch, would he have confided to me what was wrong with him? What help could I have provided? What comfort could I have offered? I was confronted with the reality of my own mortality as well as my own failings and the combination was staggering.
The laughter of a group of people coming toward me on the sidewalk lifted me from my reflection. They were all at least 15 years younger than me and likely heading toward the bar I’d passed a block back, one that seemed to cater to the sort of vacuous, superficial youths these appeared to be. I moved to one side of the sidewalk to let them pass but that didn’t seem to be enough for a couple of them, who through me side-eye and obviously put out by not being entirely catered to. What little emotional and mental energy I had left after today was spent not giving in to the impulse to use these entitled pricks as an outlet for all my frustration over Todd, Melinda and the rest of my life. A pointless fistfight wouldn’t solve anything, though I convinced myself they’d likely go down easy and without much of a fight.
I finally got home and collapsed into bed, motivated to do nothing more than embrace whatever portion of sleep was allotted to me that night.