My first job out of college–minus a short stint at Dunkin–was at Highlights magazine. I was hired as an intern at their editorial offices based in Small Town, PA (why don’t I want to say the name? Why does that seem like the part of this story that is too much?). I had two job offers on the table, this and a corporate writing job based outside of DC that paid 50 percent more, and I chose the children’s magazine because it seemed like 23 was too early to sell out and start a career I already wasn’t stoked about, even though the prospect of having my own office was enticing.
So I left. I moved. The first of many to come.
I liked this Small Town. I liked my 650-square-foot apartment that overlooked the cutesy alley, home to the cheese shop and Vietnamese cafe. I liked my CSA hauls of beets and watermelon radishes. I liked my five-minute walking commute that passed through Central Park (not that one). I liked my office with a Giganotosaurus skull perched in the window, which we decorated with appropriately-timed holiday hats. I liked my job and my friends and the undergrowth of ferns in the preserve that turned vividly green in the spring rains.
Everything can be fine, and life can still feel lacking. The town felt too tight, ill-fitting. I never found anyone like myself.
I started running 2-5 miles after work as a way to clear my head. A loop through town and the graveyard, along the narrow streets that line the river. When the weather got bad, I joined the gym.
Small towns are fascinating because rarely is anything new. Everything is historic and important, and so life is breathed into old Victorian houses, and rundown churches are resuscitated, and nothing is left to rot or fade because even if the people are leaving, even if the people are dying with needles in their arms, the town will prevail.
This is a long way of saying that the gym I joined was in the basement of an old armory. It was windowless and dank, but it was within walking distance of my apartment and I needed an escape from winter, a place to eek out serotonin as my feet pounded the treadmill.
B. was a weightlifter there. Him and his blond-haired friend with biceps the size of couch arms would slip plates onto metal bars and press and sweat and grunt. They knew everyone there. It was a small town after all. I enjoyed eavesdropping when I could.
I don’t remember how it unfolded, how we became gym friends. I think it was the time I was lifting free weights and he offered suggestions for my form. He was cautious about doing so, about offering unsolicited advice, and I appreciated the help that came without condescension.
Maybe it was then. Maybe that was the start.
Anyway, we chatted. His world began to unfold one gym session at a time. I would go to the gym hoping to see him there, hoping he would be there without his friend whom I found wildly intimidating, hoping I could catch glimpses of him in his overly cut t, muscles curving out the sides.
I was obsessed in the way most people are obsessed when they find someone they think can staunch the emptiness, even if just for a little.
A friend at work called him the milk guy because he guzzled water from empty gallon milk jugs.
We talked about New York and how he used to have a penthouse right on Wall Street. He’d talk about the windows, how one wall was entirely glass and how you could see the city sprawl beneath you, a king overlooking his kingdom. He was a big time dealer until he got caught. I never asked about that part. But he used to live in Manhattan and then he lived in jail, where he read Nietzsche and drew pictures that he mailed to his girlfriend, which he regretted because they broke up and he missed those drawings, maybe more than her, and now here he was, back home, fifth generation on his plot of Pennsylvanian land, sober and trying and complaining about Trump. He told me that there was no place he’d rather be than these rolling hills, and whether that was a thought plucked from choice or circumstance I never knew, but I envied his assurance.
Our friendship never left the gym. It never evolved beyond those sparse conversations. He continued coming with his friend and eventually his girlfriend, and I was somewhere in the background, lifting weights with poor form and sprinting to DMX on the treadmill.
My best friend was visiting, and a truck honked at us while we walked down the sidewalk, the driver waving as we were getting three-dollar ice-cream sundaes, our third in as many days.
Who’s that? My friend asked.
It was B. I knew his truck from all the rest.
A flood of Facebook posts has informed me that he’s died. I can’t say I’m overly sad because I barely ever knew him, but the thing about social media is that it keeps all those people alive. In the four years since my Highlights departure, he’s existed as a small photo on a screen where once he was a person sipping water from a milk jug proselytizing Nietzsche, and now he is a swarm of pictures and words and condolences, a gush of affection for this man now gone. I click through the photos. I read all of the memories I was never a part of. Many of them mention the gym.
A small insistent sadness, DeLillo once wrote. I think about that a lot. Pain as pebble-shaped and lasting. I wish we talked about that more. The big grief, yes, but the small griefs too, the pocket-sized sadness of losing someone whose life scraped against yours for a brief moment in time.
What did you lose? That’s what I want to ask everyone now in 2022. There’s this continual push to be happy, to be back to normal, to be past this never-ending pandemic, and I get that, yes, I too want sunshine, but I want to know the shape of everyone’s missing because I don’t believe that anyone escaped these years unscathed. The loss rings and rings and rings and we keep trying to pretend that it’s music.
I text my best friend that B. has died. She’s the only one I ever shared his memories with. And that’s the other thing, I guess. The things we keep to ourselves. The stories, the honesty, the apologies, the declarations. How much is private until a person is gone or distant and then we finally undo our safety vests and take the plunge.
But I want to know now. I’m tired of people believing that things and people will be there when they are ready for them. The world moves on without you.
Rip yourself open. Tell me: what did you lose?