He sat across from me on the bus. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he drew shapes onto a blank piece of paper. Here, he turned to me suddenly. You try. I shook my head. I’m good. He continued drawing. There’s no right or wrong, he said, still doodling with aimless concentration. I’m good, I replied.
Pause. Here’s what you need to know. I am 21. It is my first summer staying in Pittsburgh. I am an academic University fellow, getting paid to study Anglo-Indian literature in a sea of science students who study neural connections in lab mice, and parasitic growth, and other things that involve lab coats and goggles. I am scared of not being taken seriously. I am scared that my work will be seen as inconsequential. I am self-deprecating and insecure. I miss India. I am desperately trying to call this city home.
That is the first memory I have of Will. Him drawing nonsense on the bus on our way to an academic retreat. I didn’t want to draw nonsense, but I wanted to be the type of person who could draw nonsense, who could scribble aimlessly in public and not care that it was subjectively bad, objectively meaningless. (There is power in not caring. I knew that even then.)
Will was a dancer. He wasn’t trained at all, but music played, and the notes coursed through his limbs, and he moved and swayed like gravity felt different to him. He danced at a second-floor studio above a warehouse. You could walk to one side of the open studio and look down below to lines of sinks, and doors, and porcelain tubs, all neatly arranged like terracotta soldiers of the city. It made it more special that the dusty mundane lived right below us while creatures of the night danced up above. In that dance studio you could feel like forgotten gods.
As you grow older there are places you build shrines to in your head, places that mean more as symbols than structures. That dance studio is one of them, so sacred I don’t even want to share its name with you. I would go there in the darkness and watch Will and the others move like liquid jazz. To piano. To ambient rock. To Radiohead. I would sip cider, and watch them, and write poetry on the walls of this warehouse dance studio and feel like I was interesting, like I was someone worth knowing, and I’d emerge onto the street in even darker darkness and the fact that I never visited the studio in the daylight was important, I never tarnished its pristine mystery.
I could tell you much about Will.
I could tell you that one time after leaving the studio I accidentally missed the last bus home. Even now it stands as a beacon of fear in my mind. Alone in a dark city. Who to call. How to get there. There are strange men on the streets. I am nervous. I am scared. I call the university shuttle, only to be told I am too far away. I think of walking the four miles back in the 2 AM darkness. Would I make it? Would I be safe? It is one of those sobering moments, holding a phone with limitless connectivity and yet no one I want to call. (Sometimes we invent our own loneliness.) I hesitate and then call Will. He comes back for me.
Or I could tell you that Will was an orphan, a strange and heavy word. I could tell you that I once asked him what he thought of people’s reactions to his loss, their gentle I’m sorrys when he shared that part of himself with them. Is it enough, I demanded. Is their response too rote, too cliché to still carry meaning? I was 21. I was starting to think more deeply about words and how they felt when rubbed against skin. I wanted life to feel bigger than it was. It’s enough, he told me. They’re doing their best. I know what they’re really trying to convey, and I’m not sure there are words for it.
Or I could tell you that once he texted me an apology, and I thought of all the men and boys who owed me an apology, and how he wasn’t one of them.
What I am going to tell you about is that one night at the gallery crawl. The first Friday of every month the art galleries in the city opened their doors, and you could stroll down the sidewalk and pop into each one, admiring the art and sampling the free snacks and wine.
I was 21. Nights like this made me feel cultured and free. The darkness and the art and the wine all muddled inside of me, feeling young and old all at once, feeling like a human but also a small flowered vine desperately trying to grow through the sidewalk cracks.
I could tell you a lot about First Fridays in the city.
I could tell you that my favorite exhibit was the Victorian basement parlor full of taxidermy animals.
I could tell you about the loneliness and frustration I felt on a verge of a breakup as I watched a man from an experimental music band thrash a large metal chain against the ground.
I could tell you that weekends like this made me never want to leave.
What I am going to tell you about is walking with Will and some fellowship friends down the sidewalk at night (do young people ever live in the day?), stumbling upon a man reading Ginsburg on a milk crate. He recited and gesticulated, the words from Howl releasing into the street like a sudden hymn. And it was about the words, but it was more about the moment, the abstract poetry of it all. We watched in almost silence. He finished and stepped down. Then Will asked if he could read.
And there it is. The moment I think of when I think of Will. Will reading Ginsburg on top of a milk crate on a dark street in Pittsburgh. That’s what Will was to me at 21. Art and darkness and poetry. And me. Looking up from the ground. Not wanting to read Ginsburg from a milk crate on a dark street in Pittsburgh, but wanting to be the type of person who could read Ginsburg from a milk crate on a dark street in Pittsburgh.
I was timid about being at 21. Sometimes I still am. Somedays I will stand on that milk crate, but sometimes I still won’t.
I don’t know where Will is these days or what he’s doing, and I’m not tempted to find out. Because what if he doesn’t dance anymore? What if he no longer lives his life like jazz, as he once told me he did? What if he’s not the same manic pixie boy from my memory (are you familiar with the trope)? Some people are meant to be comets, streaking once through your life, blindingly beautiful, and never seen again.
And that was Will. That was Will.