This piece is something I’ve held captive in my head for years. Telling this story now feels right, ten years after the tragedy of this loss.
My dear friend, has it been ten years? I remember it was a Monday afternoon. October 10, 2005. I had returned from three and a half weeks in Europe, and I called you. I wanted help changing the oil in my car, such a silly thing. Oddly, your phone went straight to voicemail. The next day I discovered it was because your phone was at the bottom of a lake.
News broke that you were missing, and I couldn’t understand what might have happened. Where were you? For a week they searched, I held my breath every time I checked the news. I didn’t sleep. I tried to be hopeful, but as each day passed the dread in the back of my throat grew. Something was very wrong.
Eight days after you disappeared, I was driving to the store on my lunch hour to buy a cake and card for a co-worker’s birthday. I got notification of a voicemail on my phone from my brother. His voice was quiet, solemn, final. “They found Justin’s body,” he said. “He’s dead.”
I floated into the store, focused on my now trivial task. Somehow my arms picked up what I needed and placed the cake on the belt at the cash register. I flatly replied “Fine, thank you,” when the cashier asked how my day was going. It was unreal. The store was so bright and loud, there was a ringing in my ears and my head felt fuzzy. I thought I saw myself from above.
I lost it when I returned to work. Completely, wholly, lost who I was. I broke down. The cake and card made it to the birthday girl, I think. Another co-worker took me into her office, not wanting me to drive home right away. My vision blurred with tears as I sat there, numb. The light was gone.
The next few days were dark and full of questions. I could not comprehend why you had drowned, HOW you had drowned. I was angry at you for not wearing your life jacket. What kind of Eagle Scout doesn’t wear his life jacket? I thought about the torture your mother had to endure, having to identify your water-logged body. Could she see your face?
I wore all black and a fresh tattoo of your initials and clovers to your memorial that Saturday. Someone sang “Danny Boy,” a song that still brings tears to my eyes. I remember thinking I wished I could have sung it; I would have done better and my voice would not have broken on the high notes. My brother spoke of you. I didn’t have the strength to speak, but he did. He described you as “a true pirate,” which was a lovely and humorous compliment, met with subdued chuckles from the audience that filled Windsor High’s auditorium.
The months and years that followed slightly smoothed over the pain of losing you. You, with whom I got my first tattoo. You, whose virginity you gave to me. You, who looked at me with your twinkling ice blue eyes and made me feel like the only one that mattered. You, who showed me how to break free of caring about what others thought. You, who were so smart but somehow flunked out of college. You, who would at times drink so much whiskey you’d pass out and not wake even when you’d pissed the bed. You, who broke up with me on a frigid January midnight, when I was 19 and didn’t understand why.
I realize now that I can’t remember the details of our first kiss. I do remember when I first met you: you were James’ friend, your mohawk was green, and we all gathered in the damp lot behind The Phoenix, drinking forties of Mickey’s as harsh guitar riffs and ear-bursting bass drum thumps resonated through the old building’s brick walls. I remember your piercing blue eyes, so full of youth and sparkle. There was something intoxicatingly humble in your wild grin.
Maybe we kissed at that party at Terry’s house. The one where I arrived and you were already there, drinking PBR’s by your truck with your gutter punk friends. I suppose it must have been there.
Ten years later, I do think of you often. I am grateful for the impact you had on my late teens and early twenties. I still grieve for you. I write you letters in my head. When my life is dark and meaningless, I speak to you like others might speak to God. I ask you not for benevolent favors, but just to listen. You always do.