NOTE: Today's entry will appear in "serial" form (that's serial, not cereal, so avoid pouring milk on your monitor. And put down your spoon). It is quite long, so I will be posting it in installments throughout the day. Each installment will appear just under the one that preceded it not above it in reverse chronology, the way entries customarily appear here.
Let me tell you about a guy I'll just call "R".
In 1996, I bought my first computer, and was curious about these things called chat rooms. I'd heard stories about how ridiculous they were, so of course I had to check it out for myself. I don't remember which chat I was in when I noticed that one of the people involved was incredibly funny and seemed to be making comments that no one was quite getting. I was just lurking, but at some point I jumped in and started "siding" with him. I don't know which of us sent the other a private instant message first, but pretty soon we were off on our own, making fun of the rest of the people in the chat room who were taking it way too seriously.
We instantly discovered we had the sort of rapport that you'd see in a 1940s movie. Hepburn and Grant we were, online, in email, and on the phone. Every day I'd rush home from work and sign onto the computer via an excruciatingly slow dial-up connection, impatient even more than ever because I knew that outrageous email or drawings or Photoshop masterpieces were awaiting me. Some nights we'd "chat" on AIM for hours. Others we'd talk on the phone. We called each other at work. We were inseparable, even though we hadn't even met in person.
He sent me his photo. He was about six feet tall, quite lean, with good skin that was fairly tan. He had a great head of dark curly hair and a mustache. Big, bright eyes. A nice face, a fantastic smile, but not necessarily handsome. I don't think I sent him a photo, so I suppose I had the advantage. Although he wasn't my "type", I wasn't so narrow- or close-minded to base attraction on the physical.
Still, I was somewhat nervous about meeting him in person, which we knew would be the next step. What if he wasn't as dynamic and hilarious face to face as he was behind the monitor or telephone? You never know with these things. And of course there were the admonishments from people in my "real life". He could be insane. He could be a murderer. He could be a pervert. (I could only hope.) I knew that I was the same offline as I was online what you read was what you got but who knew with someone else.
When I finally did meet him in Princeton, he was a lot thinner than he appeared in his photo, and even though I knew from that photo that he wasn't that good-looking, he was even less so in person. I won't lie and say I wasn't disappointed. I was. But within minutes, he had me laughing like mad. His humor was more appealing than any pretty face alone could hope to be. And his energy was boundless, like mine. I was relieved.
He walked with a limp, and I noticed, even through his jeans, that his legs were somewhat misshapen. He explained that when he was 18, he was in a car accident that should have killed him. The local newspapers reported that it was the worst accident of its kind, and he was the only person ever to have survived one of its severity.
I stayed with him and Alex (his goofy young Rottweiler) that whole weekend. We had a great time hanging out in Princeton, going to dinner, playing with the dog and giving her a voice that she used quite freely. We had a bit of a rough patch where a battle of the wills almost made me want to take the train home, but I stayed.
We saw each other quite a few times after that, continued with the email and instant messages and phone calls, but after a while I let things disintegrate. I can't even remember what happened, but I do know that it was my doing. I remember I hurt him badly. We fell out of touch.
About a year later, in the summer of 1998, I started thinking about him again. I knew there was a certain something between us that I couldn't just let die, so I got in touch with him. Fortunately I still had his unlisted phone number, and he still had the same email address, so it wasn't that difficult. He came down to my apartment in Philadelphia, on his recently acquired motorcycle, and from there we took off to New Hope. I'd been on quite a few motorcycles before (other stories for other days), but with him it was the best. I loved holding on to him. And he loved me screaming "Fuuuuuck!!!" into the wind.
What a difference a year made. I found him much more attractive in so many ways. Even physically. Was it because in the year that had passed I'd gone out with guys who, although much better-looking, treated me hideously? I don't know. I do know, though, that he and I seemed to be a perfect match now. We had an absolutely perfect time in New Hope. I spent the night in Princeton.
I can do this, I thought. I adore him. He has a perfect job he has his own very successful advertising company that he runs out of his house and it makes him quite a bit of money and makes him happy. He has two kids (a boy, 13, and a girl, 11) who don't live with him but whom I'm really looking forward to meeting. They're even asking for me. I love his dog, and, since I came around again, R told me she didn't have to be left in her crate when he wasn't home. He relayed the story of how one day he let her have free reign of the house when he went out, and expected, upon his return, to find the place in shambles the way he had any other time he'd left her out. However, before he'd left, he'd told her, "Jodi says if I let you hang out, you'll be good and won't tear everything apart." And sure enough, she didn't let me or him down. They never used the crate again. I took it as a "sign".
I don't know how often I saw him this time around, but one instance stands out in my mind. We were driving down I-95, on our way back to Philadelphia. "Aria" was blaring from the six speakers in his ridiculously luxurious car. We were laughing like crazy over nothing in particular. My favorite part of one of the songs was coming up, so I told him we had to be quiet to listen to it. I closed my eyes, but peeked through my left to see him smiling at me from time to time. He held my hand. The favorite part played, and I felt as if I was floating up into the sky. You know how people sometimes say they felt like they died and went to heaven? Well, that's what it felt like.
That August, he and his kids planned their annual trip to Long Beach Island. They all wanted me to join them, but I made up some elaborate excuse why I couldn't go. I have no idea why. Knowing me, I was feeling "fat" at 110 pounds and didn't want anyone to see me in a bathing suit. So, anyway, I constructed such a ridiculous lie that I actually began believing that my pretend friend's father had suffered a heart attack. Why I couldn't just tell him I didn't want to go was beyond me. Whatever.
He called while he was away, but I wasn't quick to return the calls. I started to retreat, just like I'd done the previous year. I probably didn't want to get caught in the ridiculous lie I'd set up. But R didn't seem mad. He pressed on. In fact, while on vacation, he sent me a rather unusual gift via express mail. It was a big box of Dutchies hard pretzels (we used to make fun of that name). I thought that was all, but then I noticed that the box had been opened. "What, did he have to eat one, and send me an old box?" But of course not. Inside the box was the "Aria" CD that we loved and a handwritten note on stationery that he made just for me. It said:
I dashed to the computer and wrote him a thank-you note, telling him I adored him and the gift. "Baby, you're the living end," I wrote. (The "baby" part was a joke. We both hated that word as a term of endearment, so of course we had to use it to make each other cringe. A little sado-masochism never hurts.)As with you, my wonderful friend, the joy is in discovering what is inside.
Thank you for allowing me the privilege of getting to know you.
R [Yes, he signed it "R"]
I was surprised that I didn't hear from him when he got back from vacation. I called and left messages, but he didn't call back. I figured that my games finally caught up with me. As he'd told me after our first go-round, self-preservation was vital to him. He'd gone through a lot of very rough stuff in his life (I have to respect his privacy and not divulge it), and he'd told me he didn't need more pain. I couldn't just play around with him so callously. Yet I did. So I couldn't blame him for backing out. But this time I was hurt too.
Apparently he wanted nothing to do with me. He got rid of the AOL screen name I knew. I kicked myself in the ass for missing out on what could have become a really cool relationship. I missed him like mad.
Three years passed. I was in another relationship. One night in early August I was sitting in this very room, when all of a sudden I was overwhelmed by the desire to talk to him. I had to know how he was, where he was, what he was doing. I knew he would get along swimmingly with the DOG. Although R was extremely outgoing and gregarious and the DOG was not, they had so much in common that I knew they'd take to each other immediately. Plus, of course, they both loved what each of them called my "running commentaries" on everything that passed in front of me. I thought it would be fun if all of us, including whomever R was seeing, got together for a nice vegetarian dinner. Indeed, R was the one who introduced me to a restaurant here in New York that I in turn introduced to the DOG and which became one of our favorites.
So with nervous fingers and a leaping heart, I called the number for his personal phone but was connected with a psychiatrist's office. I thought that was funny because we always joked about our mutual lack of sanity. I looked for a new number on the internet. Nothing.
I tried everything I could think of. I thought of finding his ex-wife's number and getting his number through her in the morning. I thought of contacting an organization that he chaired. I racked my brain trying to think of the name of his best friend. Still, nothing. But then it came to me. There was one thing I hadn't tried! So I tried it.
A screen came up with his name. Listed next to his name was the name of the place where he "last resided", which coincided with a town just outside Princeton. Still, there wasn't enough information on that screen for me to be sure it was he. The next step involved a small sum of money. I figured he was worth it. I desperately needed to hear his voice.
The paid search yielded more information, including a birth date. I couldn't remember R's birth date. I knew it was in July, but I wasn't sure of the day. Then I remembered it was several days after another friend's birthday of July 11. Then I remembered that yes, it was July 15. Yes. I'd found him.
You'd think I'd be happy to finally find him. But I wasn't. You see, the information I found included not only his birth date but his date of death as well.
The back of my neck was hot. It was cold. It was hot and cold. Cold and hot. Both at the same time. My head started to spin. My heart pounded furiously through my chest and at the same time sank deep within it. It almost leapt from my throat when I discovered, by reading old email, that the last time I'd seen him was exactly three years ago from the night I decided to find out what happened to him.
So I finally found out why I never heard from R when he returned from vacation. He'd died on Sunday, August 16, 1998 the day before I received the box of pretzels and CD. I almost literally fell out of my chair. I felt as if a vice were squeezing every organ inside my body, and an ice-cold clamp gripped my throat. I felt like I was drowning.
I didn't sleep much that night. I don't think I slept at all. I couldn't. I wrote the DOG an email (we lived together, as we do now, but we still sent each other email, as we do now) telling him what I'd found out. I had told him all about R a while ago. He was one of the good ones, I'd said. One who treated me the way I deserved. One he would love to meet. One who loved jazz and animals and coffee and me. They had a lot in common.
The next morning, the DOG and I searched the internet for more information. I don't know why I didn't think of it the night before. I suppose shock is a good enough reason as any. I sat by his side as he found a couple of articles that told us everything we wished we didn't have to know.
R drowned in the Atlantic Ocean while on vacation with his kids. He and his son were in the ocean around 8:00 on the morning of Sunday, August 16. They were pulled far from the shore by an ocean current and R had difficulty when he tried to swim back. His son was unable to pull him back to shore, so he swam back alone to find help. By the time he made it to the shore, his dad had disappeared. His body was found two days later.
By the time I'd sent him the email telling him he was "the living end", his life had come to an end.
Sometimes I swear I hear his raucous laugh beside me. I'll be sitting by myself, drinking coffee on a bench, popping dark chocolate-covered espresso beans into my mouth the same kind that he and I overindulged on one afternoon to somewhat ill but hilarious effect and I will hear it. I will have to breathe deep and tell myself it was just my imagination. I won't close my eyes, though, because if I do, I will see his face and those eyes peeking at me as I sit beside him in his ridiculously luxurious car with my eyes half-closed, watching him.
Today you would have been 50, R. You would have laughed like the madman adman that you were to think that you'd managed to reach the half-century mark. I would have told you you didn't look a day over 90. We would have acted like we were 10.
I will try not to cry as I try to laugh today for you. If you were here, we'd be in your car you, me, the DOG, your girlfriend or wife, Taxi, and Alex heading somewhere to find the perfect spot to drink too much coffee and eat way too many hard pretzels with hot sauce. We'd find a bench big enough for all of us, and I'd provide running commentary. All day would be like "the good part" of my favorite song. I would wish it could go on forever.