“We were together. I forget the rest.”
I lost a friend this week. An old friend. A dear friend.
I should say, we lost a friend this week. Because he was everybody’s friend.
When I was a junior in high school, I left my small private school to follow my friends to the much larger public school. I was overwhelmed and even though I had my group, desperate to fit in. As one is. I don’t remember exactly how we met, but soon we were a pair. He introduced me to ditching class, and hip hop. We went to his house after school and I sat on his bed while he made me mix tapes. He picked me up in the morning and gave me rides to school, blasting music that had scandalous lyrics that secretly thrilled me. I loved him, and he loved me too. I knew he wanted to be my boyfriend, but I pretended I didn’t know. He didn’t push, and that made me love him more. Pretty soon, I had a boyfriend, one who had recently graduated, and he would pick me up for lunch, as Jav watched us drive off together. But he still gave me rides home. We still ditched class and shared Coronas at parties, but a little bit less. One day, he strode slowly across the quad, one hand holding up his sagging jeans, his huge white t-shirt hanging down and said,
“S’up, girl? Why you gotta be busy all the time?”
He was never too busy for me. When this older boyfriend balked at the idea of taking me to prom, Jav grinned and asked what color corsage I wanted. When the boyfriend failed to meet me at one of those prom after parties, I cried to Jav while he listened patiently and we shared another Corona. The one thing he didn’t say was, “Enough talk about other boys. You owe me.”
We stopped talking on the phone every night, falling asleep saying nothing, the phone leaving a bruise on my ear.
Jav was a DJ. Everyone knew him and were drawn not just to his flawless taste in music but to his huge smile and ability to make you feel like the only person in a packed bar. But that old soul sadness that not everyone saw was the thread that I understood too well and kept us bound together. Sometimes we sat up crying together, but mostly that common demon was unspoken.
In my early-twenties, I started dating someone from our same group of friends, who had been at all those high school parties. When we showed up together at a bar, Jav looked in disbelief from me to him and said, “Really? Really?”
Don’t, I said. Please don’t. He stayed off to the side all night, watching me and shaking his head. I saw that sadness overtake him and as we all left he lunged, pushing him into the street, and as my drunk suitor reeled back towards him, Jav punched him and said, “You don’t deserve her. You don’t know how to treat her. You never will.” I was scandalized and secretly thrilled. I was starting to understand that he was in my life to make me understand that I am worthy.
As that relationship dissolved several years later, I went to a bar, and saw Jav. We left together and I took him to his apartment. It was filled with people. People I didn’t want Jav living with. We locked ourselves in the bathroom and talked. He walked me to the car. We sat in my car in silence and listened to music, then I gripped his hand and told him I had to leave. Please stay Jess. Please. I couldn’t. I watched him walk back to that apartment, his head down, hands shoved into his baggy jeans. As I drove home with the sun coming up he called me. Please come back, Jess. I can’t do this alone. Please come back.
I didn’t go back.
I didn’t go back.
When I reconnected with John, right before I came up to Seattle to see if this is what we thought it was, I went back to Santa Fe for a few days. I had lost touch with Jav, but when I went to see a friend’s band, I hoped desperately he would be there. I saw him before he saw me. I bought two beers and walked over to him.
“I know you can’t ever request songs from the DJ, but can you buy the DJ a beer?”
That grin. “Yeah. You can buy the DJ a beer.”
It was packed and I ended up with my back to his, as the girlfriend I came with and he realized that they both knew me. I heard him say “The best thing about Jessica is that she’s so beautiful and doesn’t know it.” I hugged him goodbye, knowing I would see him again, but mostly lost in the anticipation of seeing John.
I found out he had died on Facebook. I refused to believe it and began reaching out to friends, hoping someone would tell me it was a rumor. As it sank in and I lay in John’s lap, sobbing in fits, I remembered I had a picture from prom. I was ready to look through every box I had to find it, but there it was, right on top of the first box I opened.
He has a son. A baby, and I’ve never met him. As the initial shock wore off, messages began coming in, people now asking me if it was really true. I got a group email, the names the names of all my old friends and the topic was, we need to set up a fund for the funeral. And for his son. I scrambled to find recent pictures for the site, and was sent some of Jav and his son, just after he was born. I could hardly bear to look at them, and instead focused on getting them to the friend setting up the site. In less than 24 hours, the goal of $5,000 was met and we figured out how to set up a trust for his son Elijah, putting everything over the goal into the trust.
I quickly realized I couldn’t go to the funeral; the tickets were just too expensive. And I secretly wondered if I could handle it. My heart was bursting with gratitude, so many people supporting, contributing, and I obsessively watched the numbers on the site go up and up. But could I sit in that church, looking around at each of them, wondering how they knew him? Did they try to help him? I couldn’t save him. I didn’t save him. And I don’t know if I could stand to see that reflected back to me.
Don’t go, Jessica. I can’t do this alone.
The days started going by. I couldn’t take a shower. I slept even less than I normally do, remembering that my insomnia started when my dad died. Back then, I couldn’t figure out why I stared at the wall all night, but falling asleep, without fail, as the sun came up. Then I realized: I was the only one left who loved him, and couldn’t leave him alone in the dark.
He died the same way Jav did.
Today was the funeral. Last night, we went to the grocery store to find a candle. I knew exactly which one I wanted, and there it was, in the Mexican food isle, next to the salsa. The service was at Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she looked out at me from the $2 candle.
Last night I dreamt that Jav and I were in Mexico, at a huge house on the beach, with windows all around. We were dressed in white. The mood was tense and filled with impending doom, and we were surrounded by a pack of unruly dogs who kept jumping up to bite us. Jav looked at me and said, “I have to go Jess. I can’t help you take care of the dogs anymore.” As he walked away in his white shirt, his hands shoved in his pockets, one of the dogs jumped though a window, the glass smashing everywhere, as huge, hot tears slid down my face, faster than I could push them away. Please don’t go, Jav. He couldn’t hear me and was already far, far, down the beach.
My alarm went off, set for the time of the service. John asked me if I wanted to go light the candle, but I felt as if my body wouldn’t move and I just shook my head. He brought the candle to the bed, and I kissed my fingers and touched it, and John lit it. The day passed quickly and unbearably slowly, all at the same time. I began to feel crippled with sadness that I wasn’t at the funeral. But I had to let that sadness go, because I know now what a festering, unattended sadness will do to you.
Please don’t go. I can’t do this by myself.
Jav, every day I will have to wake up and remember all over again that you’re gone. But then, this: I’m not doing this alone, and I never have been.
Javier Jose Ortega 1979-2013