Driving down Beach, the night sky’s that funny black-orange color that it is at night here, the street lights and lamps and lighted signs and headlights and buildings combining into a perpetual dawn until the sun rises. Chulahoma comes on the radio, loud, as I roll down the empty road, a lot like we used to do back then. Happy. Good music, going to meet friends, the night; there’s nothing else to want.
And then a certain song comes on, one I used to like and understand in a disconnected sort of way, all in the head sort of thing.
I wake up and the phone is ringing, surprised, as it’s early. And that should be the perfect warning…
Now, suddenly, I get it. Now, suddenly, I’m not driving down Beach, I’m standing in my living room in the summer’s early afternoon, looking out the window at a beautiful sun-covered day, and my phone is ringing. It’s an old friend that I haven’t talked to in a few years just because that’s one of those things that happens as time moves on.
“Hello?” I ask.
“Kyle…” she says, her voice a little distant. “Kelly… died last night.”
“You really need a haircut,” she says, as we drive to a market for a couple last-minute things that our friend forgot for his little party. “You look like Einstein.”
She was right, of course. I did. She was right about a lot of things. Kelly had a way of cutting through the bullshit, the nice ways of phrasing things when we have something to tell friends, the stuff that hides what we really mean. She didn’t do that. I don’t think she could. Sometimes I couldn’t stand it, I would get so angry, because how could she say that? But she was often right, even if I didn’t see it, and I appreciated it all the same, because there was no pretense.
We argued about anything that could possibly be argued about. Music, politics, food, movies, it was all an argument. We were both hard-headed then, both were so sure we were right. That was our friendship, formed through countless weekends spent at debate tournaments, class, late nights at Denny’s, movies, shows, and long drives to nowhere. It worked, but at some point during high school, our hard heads had some disagreement or other and we didn’t talk through university.
Until two years ago, almost to the day. We began talking again, here and there, sometime not long before that car ride to Ralph’s.
I remember thinking when she said that, what? This can’t be, I just saw her a couple weeks ago, we were just texting yesterday, she can’t be. I fell into the couch not knowing what to do or to think, not knowing anything, my brain didn’t work. My brain hurt; it didn’t make any sense, it couldn’t process that someone who I could call up any time I wanted and talk about nothing in particular, whose voice and laugh I swear I could hear, was gone. Gone.
So I sat there, staring out at nothing. And then I called our close friends, one call then another and another, and told them what I had been told but couldn’t yet understand, that our friend—someone we met in the beginning of high school and my first memory of her is at a debate tournament and that she was really loud and laughed a lot, someone that was here just yesterday asking me whether she should upgrade to Mac OS X Lion and arguing why she shouldn’t because she always had to argue with me—wasn’t here anymore. And every time I said that word to them, that she had died last night, my heart felt like it was being crushed under the weight of a profound confusion and I was falling into a featureless abyss. It can’t be, it can’t be.
But it was. One second she was here, less than a month away from her twenty-second birthday and starting law school, just years away from marrying the person she loved so much. And the next she wasn’t.
That night, driving to Ralph’s, she talked me through a break-up I was going through, a very long relationship with someone I loved very much. And she did it over and over again with a patience I’ve never seen. That night, and over the next few months, she told me when I was being a fool and when I was doing the right thing, she gave me the courage I myself didn’t own, she helped me get through an incredibly painful part of my life. Over those months, our friendship came back stronger than it was back then, and I was so elated that we had fixed the stupid rift.
And then one day in July, that phone call came. I understood death before the day; but I didn’t, not really. I didn’t truly understand that one second they’re here, here, and then the next, they’re gone. They’re no where. They’re gone. No matter how far you drive or fly or dive into the earth’s seas or climb to its highest peaks, they aren’t anywhere. Gone. Gone.
She didn’t know it was coming. She didn’t plan for it, prepare for that day, like most people have the luxury of doing. She couldn’t have breakfast at her favorite place one last time, kiss her boyfriend, cook dinner with her mother, or say good-bye to the people she loved. She couldn’t do any of that, because gone is final. It defines what “final” means. It just is, and that’s how the world is. One day she was almost realizing everything she had worked her ass off for, but not the next day.
I learned the meaning of that terrible word that day. And I learned what it is to fear—terrified, as you fall asleep—that one day I might start to forget all of the things we did together and her voice and that laugh. That day, I learned what death is.
But I also learned a little more about life. People always say life is precious, or some other trite thing. Life isn’t precious. It’s an opportunity. An opportunity to do something truly great. A chance to make something of yourself, to make someone else’s life better in some way, to feel, to hurt, and to love—to share the time we have here with other people, one or many, to live. It’s a chance, and each of us has it, every day we’re here.
Kelly knew that, knew that more than I did. She lived. She took advantage of it. She would do those things that everyone else says they want to get around to doing some day but never do. She loved. She took a good but troubled person and made their life better, because she knew they were good. She was as good a friend as I’ve ever had. And she worked her ass off toward her dreams, dreams we talked about here and there on those long nights at tournaments and on those drives.
It’s a chance that each of us has, and it’s our choice. We can float through and relax. Or we can take it. We can live.