- Daniel Nester
NONFICTION | All My Friends
Check out Daniel Nester's "All My Friends" playlist here.
There are days when I can’t stop thinking about friends who’ve gone. There are days when friends from decades ago walk across the street as I drive through my neighborhood. Days when familiar faces pop up from desks. Chimeras and twins shine on screens for a few seconds and vanish.
At night, I dream about flying. It’s my only recurring dream, or the only one that I can remember. I don’t soar into space in these dreams, like some Major Tom–type character. I float a few feet above power wires and trees, dip up and down with my head. In my conscious life, I’m afraid of altitudes higher than a flight of stairs. I avoid roof decks and looking down hills. According to an online dream dictionary thronged with pop-up ads, my floating dreams of “flying close to the ground” indicate “an uneasy sickness from which the dreamer will soon recover.” This reminds me that the word “nostalgia” came from the Modern Latin term for sickness over the past. For me, this sickness has meant years floating in oceanic regret, whole afternoons spent in basements looking through old photos and journals, sick over a past I never liked that much in the first place. My shrink, as if playing to an assigned script, offers that it could be a subconscious attempt to create some distance, a firewall between past and present.
It might be coincidence this all happens while writing this now, years later, as I look out of my house to my wife and girls playing in the yard. The stable state in which I find myself, the existing order of things, gratifies and yet is unfamiliar. As I’ve gotten older, there are waking moments when I think of little else than the people who have left my life. And then there’s Kieron.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006. I open my laptop and see a new email from Ann-Marie, an ex-girlfriend of Kieron, an old roommate from college I have not spoken to in 15 years. I click on the generic subject, “Hi Dan,” with an unease one usually reserves for emails from ex-girlfriends of lapsed friends.
from Ann-Marie XXX <AnnMarieXXX@gmail.com>
date Tue, May 30, 2006 at 3:01 PM
subject Hi Dan
I got your email from your website, and I wish I had a better reason
for emailing you but I don't. Kieron died on Sat May 20th from the
effects of radiation treatment for stomach cancer. His service was
last Sat the 27th at Aura’s summer camp.
I wasn't sure if anyone had contact info for you so I googled. I'm
sorry if you already have the info, and obviously if I had a number I
would have called. I know email is impersonal when it comes to these
Here is the link to his obit:
If there's anything I can do, email me or give me a call 609-XXX-XXXX
I open my eyes wide, as if to check I am awake. Is this the moment the ghosts began their pop-up routines? This does mark the first time email would bear news of a friend who had died. I open my eyes wide. I feel dizzy. In that moment, reading that email, I feel obligated to conjure up sadness on the spot for someone I haven’t seen in more than 15 years.
The memories remain relatively intact. It makes sense that they come in snapshots. Kieron, the night owl photographer who spent hours in darkrooms alone, dipping and hanging wet prints on clothes lines. I remember what Kieron looked like, the clothes he wore, what he sounded like, the mannered way he washed dishes. The first time I saw Kieron in college, his long hair, thinning and wild, flannel shirt, long black coat, unlaced Doc Martens, friendship bracelets and Goth rubber bands around his wrists. His voice, easily imitated, nasal and bright, like a confident Napoleon Dynamite.
Our first spoken exchange was at a school paper meeting. It was 1988 and there we were sitting in the office of the Rutgers-Camden Gleaner. A camera dangled from his forearm. If I squint my eyes shut hard, I can imagine the look on his face as we joked about all the business majors and jocks strutting outside the student center between classes, their preppy bravado and bright sweaters. I can imagine the first time I visited the post-hippie apartment on Third and Cooper he shared with Aura, his younger sister. Two birds tweeted and swooped across the front rooms. On the walls were homemade potato prints and yellowed museum posters of Giacometti and Brancusi.
Still, no grief. Instead: anger. At first it seemed unspecific, this anger. I then realized this anger was directed inward, at past versions of myself. The current version had just finished his first year of teaching at a historically Catholic college in Albany. I lived in an apartment near what is called the Student Ghetto. Red Solo cups dotted the ground. My wife and I were trying to conceive a child. In the months that followed, we would be going through cycles of fertility and IVF treatments. The minute before I got this email, my wife took the laptop off of my lap for fear of ruining my sperm count.
On the Rutgers-Camden campus in the late 1980s, men outnumbered the girls nine to one. Campus life, such as it was, took on the qualities of a submarine crew. We lived and went to classes in the country’s most dangerous city, in and around a compound-like satellite campus, where everything but a single liquor store closed before sundown, and Domino’s refused to deliver pizzas, all of which we found to be charming and slightly punk rock.
Soon after I met Kieron, I took him to a metalhead party, where a living room full of long-haired men watched pornographic movies and smoked from a ten-foot long bowl. We came for the pot—did not expect the porn. Or at least so much porn. It shouldn’t have been that surprising. We both smoked from the bowl, coughing like a couple lightweights while bands like Celtic Frost and W.A.S.P. blasted from a cassette deck.
“Don’t you think this is kinda strange?” Kieron asked.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Why are there 15 men in a room watching a porno together in silence? Why aren’t they talking to each other? This is the most homoerotic thing I’ve ever seen.”
I issued a nervous laugh: it was.
Whenever I mix different parts of my life—different eras, work and play, record nerds and poets or in this case, metalheads and artfags—I try to make sure everyone gets along. I transform into a Jane Austen protagonist, someone who needs to make sure Zip, the Tau Epsilon Phi brother and Pink Floyd fan, appreciates all that is interesting in Kenny, the James Bond–obsessed aspiring playwright. I’ve become pretty skilled at doing this at receptions and faculty parties over the years. When we entered the porn dorm, Kieron’s face displayed the kind of dismay only the son of a professor would have. We watched as Tony, a Kiss superfan with a Gene Simmons tongue, obsessed over a particularly acrobatic porno scene, rewinding over and over again.
“Have you ever read Roland Barthes?” Kieron asked Tony.
“No,” Tony said.
“Kieron’s a double major in Art and English,” I said. “He likes to read all the French theorists.”
“Barthes talks about the spectacle of wrestlers and their exaggerated gestures,” Kieron continued. “He says they represent these perfect icons that a spectator expects to see. This threesome scene may be exaggerated, in other words, and you might not be able to re-create it, but it’s just what we expect as fans of pornos.”
I tried to shush him. Kieron was what you would call a “super-chatty stoner.” He was prone to talking for hours in essayistic, serial monologues.
“All I know,” Tony said, “is that there is a lot of love in that room.”
“This really should be an Olympic sport,” Kieron said later, without judgment, almost childlike. “It’s amazing to me how coordinated their moves are, how all three of these guys get in a rhythm. It’s like a ballet.”
It was one of the first times in my life when I was corruptor and not the corrupted.
We lived year-round at our dystopic commuter campus. I didn’t have a house to go home to anyway. Winter breaks were spent in Camden, smoking pot, playing R.E.M., Joni Mitchell, Prince, Flipper, the Let Them Eat Jellybeans punk compilation. Kieron’s taste in music was welcoming, oddly corny: Steely Dan, Japan, John Prine, Fishbone, Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” 12-inch, Be-Bop Deluxe, Leonard Cohen, Native Tongues hip-hop. We scored free tickets to see Metallica one night at a small club in Delaware called The Stone Balloon. We ran out of there with our faces bruised and bloodied from moshers’ elbows, pants soaked in sweat. Summer nights we cooled off on rooftops, discussing Diane Arbus or Susan Sontag or Allen Ginsberg. And that one night we waited for the mushrooms to take effect, the Ben Franklin Bridge blurred to a mottled teal.
I clicked his online obituary, re-read names of his sisters, father, mother. I knew he had married, had children. What I didn’t know was that Kieron had been sick. I could see why I wasn’t told about this, during a time when the wagons are often circled in a family, and Kieron’s family was tight-knit. But I couldn’t get over how I had missed the funeral, which seemed the worst sin one could commit after losing touch. I had the basic desire to be with others who knew and loved him, to share in grief with some and to console others.
If this had happened only three months later, it would have gone differently: September 2006, Facebook opened to everyone older than 13 with an email address. Chances are, I would have found out.
I drive around in my little Honda. New Order’s “Your Silent Face” plays on the stereo, volume all the way up. There’s a ghost in there, between each synthesized pulse. No one has adequately described this detachment I’m hearing, the yearning and detachment, the ghosts these machines release when they imitate real-life.
After two years of hanging out, I moved in with Kieron. It was around that time that we became, I think it is fair to say, best friends. I had moved out of an apartment I shared with Rutgers-Camden’s most successful pot dealer and a punk rock girl from Moorestown. My grades had suffered. From an apartment on Point Street, aka “Joint Street,” with a mechanized bong made from aquarium filters, I moved to another with homemade incense and three acoustic guitars.
Only now, 10 years after I started writing this, do I see the move for what it was. I was an interloper. Or a burden. The “substitute bff.” I moved in with Kieron after his sister went to study abroad. Their professor father lived on campus, still a rarity for Rutgers-Camden faculty members, and though I knew I’d never be part of their family, I must have acted like I was. What a burden to put on a family, a fatherless young man like myself, who arrives at an apartment like that, like a stray dog.
We asked you what you’d seen. You said you didn’t care.
My chest rises again. I pull off the road.
I met Deena before my fourth year of college. It was 1989. I had just moved in with Kieron. I worked as a freshman orientation group leader. I was handing out a university-issued map designating places in Camden that were “safe” for students to park. Deena raised her hand before I even spoke.
“Where are the parties, senior boy?” she asked. I told her to talk to me afterwards.
Deena sat in the front row, a pastel sweater past her waist, white leggings, gold flats. We had both attended the same Catholic high school, but she hung out with the club crowd who went to Dance Party USA tapings. Deena had a masculine aspect to her, with gobs of make-up, big red mane sprayed up to the ceiling. She looked like Claire Danes, all eyes and jaw, but more busty. And it turned out she drank more than anyone I had ever met and liked to curse loudly in bars.
Put another way: She was fun to be with.
We hooked up that Friday at a frat house kegger. At first, I didn’t think it was going to be a thing. But then it was. Deena was my first girlfriend and Deena was a drinker. Deena drank. She drank so much at parties that I’d pick her up in a fireman’s hold, put her into her car, and see her off while a friend drove her home. She drank in the afternoons, in the mornings. At bars, she never bought drinks. In the Wild Ex-Girlfriend Olympics, Deena would at least earn the Bronze. Once, she drove on the shoulder of the Turnpike, bypassing a traffic jam, and pulled up to a trooper. Another time she found herself riding the hood of a car on an off-ramp, wearing a bikini. She didn’t get a ticket for either. She laughed so loud you’d hear it outside. But then things would turn. She would become nasty, violent. The time I had with Deena I remember as a long scowl across a room. I am pretty sure she fell in love with me at some point, but I couldn’t point to an exact moment.
We had fun so long as we were drinking and getting high and playing music. We’d break up over a weekend, then have make-up sex when she drove back for classes on Monday. She started to hook up with other guys pretty early on, and I would sit in my room and drink and cry and listen to Hüsker Dü over and over. I will never forget you, Hüsker Dü and I would sing. I wrote horrible poems in notebooks and hid pages inside record sleeves. I still find them when I play my old vinyl. Back then, friends would tell me how crazy she was, how loud and obnoxious she was. But I’m loud and obnoxious, I’d say.
In a move that was out of character for him, Kieron offered me relationship advice one morning: Don’t get too serious with this girl.
“I just don’t want you to get caught up,” he said.
People get sick of me. Whenever I think of myself as that young man, the young man I write about here, I grow embarrassed, as one who enjoyed, as Wordsworth puts it, the “coarser pleasures of my boyish days.” I look at pictures of my younger self—early 20s, always a drink or joint in hand, bleary-eyed, middle finger stuck out. I try not to think about being young or stupid or naïve. I try not to think about being angry, cynical, purposefully obnoxious.
To Kieron, at times I must have seemed to be some Cro-Magnon. He would host friends from New York who went to his summer camp, and I would play Butthole Surfers records and look like an idiot. It was the dawn of political correctness, and if I wasn’t spewing some sexist-homophobic bile or joke, I was drinking too much off on some self-hatred tear. I wasn’t fun company.
People just get sick of me. They just do.
Writing about all this—the ex-girlfriend, the dead friend—more than ten years now after his passing, has given me extended migraines, lasting the better part of twelve hours. The floating dream starts up again, and my head feels compressed. I rub Ben-Gay on my temples and stare up at the ceiling.
Each night writing and rewriting this, I float. I am slimmer in my dreams, which I quite enjoy. I have risen and fallen all over again. I have clicked on old photographs on websites. I have rifled through yellowed legal pads, fired up old mixtapes with names like “Original Groove Attempt #1” or “Bildungsroman in Reverse.”
Remembering those versions of myself years ago fills me with some nostalgia, but mostly embarrassment.
“I cannot paint / What I then was,” Wordsworth writes.
In the weeks following the email, I called old friends to share the news about Kieron’s death. These were outer orbits, people like me who had moved out of New Jersey as fast as they could. Some had gone to the funeral. They told me a boombox played Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” an homage to the scene in High Fidelity, in which Jack Black’s character lists his “Top 5 Songs about Death.” I smiled. I smiled about how we made lists, constantly, hanging out in that dead city. How we rearranged novelists, poets, directors on the white board in our minds. How we spent days debating the merits of Peter Greenaway’s elaborate lateral tracking shots, imitating the sing-song cadence of writers who came to campus and read poems without curse words.
I told the ones who had not been there about the funeral. I told the old friends like me who did not know. It somehow made me feel better, being one to tell them. It occurred to me that I had introduced so many of these people. How cast out of the garden you feel when the garden is your own creation.
“I thought someone should tell you,” Ann-Marie said on the phone after I read her email about 20 times. The way she said that word, someone, its emphasis on some, made it sound like no one had planned to ever tell me, nobody wanted to, or that I wasn’t deemed worthy to know. I heard her drag on a cigarette. She sounded at once solemn and content that no one had told me, and that she got to be the bearer of bad news.
Ann-Marie, you see, is famous for the arch statement. She summed the breakup of Deena and I thusly: “Dan got the dog, and Deena got the friends.”
She rattled off names of funeral attendees—Michael, Todd, Daniella, Derek, peripheral figures from the old crowd who read the notice in the local newspaper and showed up. I know Kieron wouldn’t have cared if I showed up or didn’t show up for his funeral.
I received Anne-Marie’s email the day after Memorial Day. I had spent the afternoon on the couch, watching movies. In the days that followed, I gathered tidbits, bread crumbs of information from old friends. Kieron was married, with two young children. He had suffered from a relatively rare form of brain cancer. His death was not painless.
About a week later, I got an email from Nadine, one of my roommates from those years.
“The fact that no one contacted you was fucked-up,” she wrote. “Jesus, people just need to let things go, especially when life happens.”
I never suspected they had romantic feelings for each other, but at some point over those three years, Deena became friends with Kieron. Best friends even. They worked together at a security company, the kind you see on late-night TV commercials, with people in headphones fielding calls when alarms go off. Bored as hell, answering phone calls from people who’ve fallen and can’t get up or false alarms from McMansions across South Jersey, Kieron and Deena must have talked about everything under the sun. They must have talked about me, relieved that I wasn’t there, happy that I didn’t chime in with some fustian judgment.
All this sounds childish. I held onto the idea that Kieron, my roommate, was my friend first. I never expected she would take my place.
What did I learn living with Kieron? Kieron was certainly more intelligent than I was, but he also just seemed more mature, more graceful, more worldly. As for myself, what I remember from those years, more than anything, is an unfocused anger I felt at the world. My anger back then, as best as I can remember, would be shelved in the Young Adult section. There is a reason angry young men are called angry young men. At the start of my senior year of high school, my truck driver father, straight out of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” left his wife and kids one night and never came back. The summer before I met Kieron, a lawnmower had run me over and almost cut off my foot. I gimped around campus in a polio brace built into a Doc Marten boot. My mother had remarried, to a Republican ex-football player who couldn’t understand why I, too, didn’t want to sell Motorola chips. I was on my own, paying for college and working three jobs. I thought a deck of cards was stacked against me.
Kieron helped me let my anger go. He didn’t set out to do that but that’s what happened. Did we talk about what we’d do after college? Sure, but we didn’t obsess over how we would change the world. We weren’t destined for greatness, and that was fine by us. With him, I wasn’t angry, wasn’t worried. We were happy enough to sit around, tell stupid jokes, live a life of the mind. We would laugh at the absurdity of the adulthoods we were about to endure. We complained about endless chapters of Sister Carrie we had to read by Monday morning, or how the room of Duchamps in Philadelphia Museum of Art felt both cheap and over our heads at the same time, or the way Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sounded best on cheap car stereos.
We developed whole mythologies together. It never occurred to me Kieron might be angry as well.
Toward the end with Deena, it was evident we weren’t exclusive anymore. In the third year, I got some kind of infection. I now suspect it was chlamydia, but back then I thought I was going to die. Desperate, I went to my family doctor in my hometown. People said he looked and sounded like a frog, so he collected ceramic frogs, inflatable frogs, Hummel frogs, wind-up frogs. I undressed right there in this frog-filled room. He squeezed me with rubber gloves, put his hand on my leg all frog-like, and asked if I got a blowjob from a hooker. I said no. I didn’t hook up with anyone, didn’t cheat on my girlfriend. I remember the blasé look he gave out the window, the heard-it-all, confidences sur l'oreiller look. I remember thinking, this can’t go on anymore.
Deena and I never used condoms. For the first year or so, we did the Hail Mary Pull-Out Method and it worked. Not really: there were a couple scares, days when she was late and then everything was fine. Wait, really not really: there was one time we were really, really scared, and I’d call her each day and there’d be this pause where I’d wait for her to tell me whether or not she got her period, and she’d get mad at me, not because I said anything, but just because.
Then there was another time, the last time. Deena’s period was late. Really late. Like more than a week. It was spring break.
“This is it,” Deena said. “I’m pregnant.”
She didn’t take a home pregnancy test. She just knew. I remember I bought one at the Rite Aid in Camden, where the movie-friendly scene played out in which the cashier said congratulations and started talking about her babies. I gave a look that said, It’s not like that. I brought the test kit back to my apartment, and it sat beside my bed for a couple days.
“You don’t fucking believe me?” she hollered. “You think I’m not telling the truth?”
“Why not find out? Let’s not just worry,” I said. “Let’s do something about this.”
“What do you mean do something about this?”
I meant: I was 23, she was 20, were we going to have a kid? In the two years I knew her, she escorted two of her friends to clinics to support them when they got abortions. I just assumed she would take the same route.
“I’m pro-life,” she told me.
The way she said “life,” held out the l-word, like la la la, it sent neck-shivers to the base of my spine. Pro-la-la-life. A life, a living kid, a baby? Had I ever even held a baby at that point? Nope, never.
Pro-life. The rest of my life. With Deena. And a baby. It must have seemed obvious how I felt. I must have given away how horrified I was at the prospect of all this.
All the while, each night, Deena drank, smoked bowls and joints, did shots. I would take her aside. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” she said.
Days and weeks went on. We continued hanging out with Kieron and other people at our apartment, no one knowing. Other nights she’d go to the underage bars with friends. I abstained from booze and pot, which must have seemed conspicuous or strange.
One night I got on my knees with some ring I got a hold of and proposed.
“Fuck you,” she said.
There came one night during this time, the last night, a Thursday night, when Deena drank until she passed out on the couch. I sat in my underwear on the hardwood floor, bare legs pressed on the old building’s hardwood floor, in the apartment I regarded as home, the canaries tweeting as the sun came up. I felt I had levitated slightly there, wondering what to do next.
I got on a bus and went to my old church, sat in the back pew, and prayed. Then I called my mom collect.
Right there in the payphone, I told her everything. She didn’t cry. She just wanted to know what I was going to do. “Are you going to get married?” she asked.
On the bus home, I listened to Hüsker Dü on my Walkman and cried on the bus ride home. This tendency to cry when I was upset enraged Deena so much that she would walk out of a room if she saw me doing it.
While Kieron was at work, I called places listed in the Yellow Pages under “Abortion Services” to ask about how much a procedure would cost. Everywhere I called was a front for some pro-life organization and the voice on the other end recommended alternatives. One called me a baby-killer.
A couple nights later, while she was at work, Deena passed out. Kieron called for an ambulance. I borrowed somebody’s car and got to the hospital. The first thing Deena said to me when I got into the hospital room was, “Well, it took you long enough.” I remember crying, saying I was sorry this happened. But what happened? It remains unclear to me and it didn’t seem to be my business anyway. No fucking chance was I going to ask if this was a miscarriage or if she did this to herself, like those wayward women in 19th century novels who leap off horses. I didn’t know shit about any of this. She went home the next morning. I called each day but it went to her parents’ answering machine. It was over, we were over. I felt relieved; I can’t avoid saying that.
Deena moved to New York City a year before I got there in 1994, and her apartment turned out to be two houses down from mine in SoHo. I wrote about this story before. We said hello, even hugged. She visited my apartment, which I was subletting. We talked in a friendly way, and we never spoke again. She got married to a banker and they live on the Upper West Side and I think Hamptons. She has kids now. I teared up when I saw their photos on Facebook. I am glad she is OK.
One detail a friend told me about Kieron’s funeral: Deena arrived in a limousine she and her husband took from Long Island.
I called up my mom and told her what happened with Deena. And she’s the one who planted in my head that maybe something was amiss with Deena. Or I wasn’t, as she puts it, “getting the whole story.” I dismissed it at first, even got angry at her.
After I broke up with Deena, I started to think about what my mom had said. Did she ever even take a pregnancy test? Why did she drink? Why did she smoke pot?
There’s more to the story, as with all break-ups: there’s the reunion, for one, then the shacking up, then more drinking, then me putting off graduate school, then sleeping in the basement, and then, finally, moving out to a one-room apartment in Philadelphia while Deena was away. There was the requisite furniture and records thrown beside the curb. I’ve told this story before.
The last time I saw Kieron was 1992, a few months after I escaped to Philadelphia. I met him at the PATCO station at Sixteenth and Locust. The visit was brief. I had just hooked up with Holly, an old girlfriend, and I made sure she was gone by the time he got there. I wanted him to think I was living the ascetic life of an intellectual. I served him coffee, apartment-proud, hoping we could start some new, post-Deena period of our friendship. He sat on my futon, looking at books. He might have said he did not want to discuss the break-up.
Our friendship had ended, effectively, a year before this meeting, just before I moved out of his apartment in Camden.
It’s a scene I try not to remember. I was lying in bed, hadn’t left my room in a day or two. Kieron knocked on the door. Can I help? he asked. I scratched the wall a couple of times and didn’t say anything. Anyone could tell he had had enough of my drama, enough of listening to Deena and I fighting and her yelling at me in the middle of the night. Kieron just wanted some peace in his own apartment. He asked again, and I told him everything: about the fights, getting the clap, about the pregnancy and the drinking and smoking and the praying and the levitating. And Kieron stood there at my bedroom door, the same place he stood when he offered relationship advice three years before.
“I can sympathize with you,” he said. “But I can’t empathize.”
He could appreciate in clinical terms what I was going through, in other words, but he couldn’t necessarily know, or maybe want to know, exactly what I was feeling. As I listened to him parse his own words, define those two terms for me in the doorway, the sunlight behind his back shone around him, like he was a saint. I wasn’t angry at him, because I was never angry at him, I could never be angry at him, even after he let my phone calls go to voicemail, even after he didn’t answer my emails over the years, even after I sent him a copy of my first books in the last mailing addresses I sent him. I can understand how he must have gotten sick of me.
Some friendships persist even after they end. When I broke up with Deena, a crash-burn of a three-year love affair as volatile as anyone would wish to have, I didn’t want to encounter anything associated with Deena, even friends. Even Kieron. I wanted nothing to do with the state of New Jersey, early Coen Brothers movies, Corona beer, smoking pot from homemade bowls, listening to Steve Martin records, holding hands, or the Roman Catholic church. This was a period of my life when clean breaks with the past seemed natural.
Lately I’ve begun to think of my relationship with Kieron as a love affair— the kind that fades out as fast as it starts. Or maybe our friendship was born out of convenience or proximity. In high school, for instance, my first two friends had last names close to mine alphabetically, because that’s how we were seated. John McPartland behind me and Stephen Peterson in front.
Maybe Kieron and I were friends because we attended the same college, in the same region of the same country, had same sense of humor, took the same drugs. We were both male. When any of those common traits go, often there’s no reason to go on being friends. Maybe Kieron’s exit sticks with me because it was he, not I, who ended our friendship. Maybe whatever Deena went through was an experience that not only brought her and Kieron together, but estranged myself from both of them. This is the best I can get at explaining this, at my most earthbound and logical. But you can’t be logical with friends or lovers.
From the basement: a print of a photograph Kieron took, one that I’ve kept for 20 years. It’s a girl on Market Street in Camden. She’s holding her mom’s hand and stares straight at the lens. It’s raining. Kieron threw it out at first. He mixed his chemicals wrong, he said, ruining the exposure. It gave the effect of a girl illuminated, bright, angelic. He thought it was hokey, sentimental. He didn’t submit it for crits in his photography class, so I hung it up in my bedroom.
He gave me another print as a birthday present once. He repeated his mistakes just for me.
Around 2007, I friended Kieron’s widow on MySpace, and one afternoon I clicked through the photos she had compiled, an online roadside grotto, a folder called “Kieron: Rest in Peace.”
Here he is, looking thin after a round of chemo. He’s posing with his child.
Here they pose at their wedding. Her wife has short hair in the punky style favored by women who once listened to New Wave as teenagers.
Here he is under a white tent at his sister’s wedding, wearing a collar-less cotton shirt and shiny vest.
Here Kieron’s family poses with people at a horror convention—a horror convention?—in Cherry Hill, NJ: Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, the actor who plays Freddie Krueger.
Here Kieron poses with his wife, smiling out of the jaws of a theme park King Kong.
Here they are smiling in front of what looks like a giant-scale tip of a cigar on the Florida Keys.
Here his wife wears a long peasant dress and stares at the camera, her elbows on each knee.
Here’s one with the caption “Kieron’s fav pic of me: Paris 1996.”
Here’s a picture from the time I spent with him. I can tell because he still has his hair, long strings not yet extinct from his head, all dyed blonde. He holds a camera to the mirror. His thick watch, his woven hippie bracelets, his worn t-shirt.
Every once in a while, Deena pops up in a picture or in the name of a whole album: “Kieron and I at Deena’s Wedding.”
As I flip through the photos, I can find the precise period when Kieron and Deena became not just friends, but best friends. It makes sense that someone—maybe not just Deena, I will concede now, but anyone I knew from this time—would not want me to stand there in the middle of a field in the high spring, in South Jersey, saying goodbye.
I had to admit I was not welcome, that my condolences weren’t welcome.
It’s best he doesn’t come, someone must have said. Or thought. Or they forgot me altogether.
Mikey, an old friend from those days, sent me an email after reading this. “Kieron,” he wrote, “would have loved for you to be there. I don’t know the details of why that crew didn’t tell you, or look for you, or whatever, but when I read that line my first thought was ‘bullshit—he totally cared if you were there or not.’ That’s not to make you feel guilty for not being there—that was obviously out of your control. Rather, it’s the belief that in death, we are all love.”
I need to remember that.
I sent a long letter to Kieron’s widow. If she or the kids ever want to know about their dear old dad when was in his early twenties, I wrote, they can always drop me a line. I kept what I wrote wholesome. Everything you do from age 19 to 23 is wholesome, after all, no matter how tawdry it seems at the time. Everything is clean, unspoiled, not yet ruined.
A couple summers ago I found myself drinking a glass of wine by myself. I was back in my old stomping grounds in the East Village. I had nothing to do in Manhattan, nowhere to go. It was the beginning of my sabbatical. A midday rain drove me inside to some unremarkable Italian restaurant. I sat by the front windows and watched the light hit the floor sideways.
People walked by with umbrellas and I looked at my cellphone contact list. Names scrolled by of people I hadn’t seen in years, people who I wouldn’t see again, maybe ever.
I was, in many ways of measuring these things, a person who had made it. I had just gotten tenure. I was married to a beautiful woman. We had two healthy daughters running around a nice house.
As I took sips of warm red wine, I could feel my medications and synapses battle with sulfates and sadness. I thought of all the people I missed, people who were gone, people who left my life or whose life I left. People I turned away.
Years away from past lives.
Years’ worth of people I’ve hurt, ignored, treated rotten.
Just when I didn’t need to hear it, on the restaurant’s stereo came an LCD Soundsystem song, “All My Friends,” a song I interpreted to be about how, in life, just when you reach the point you thought you wanted to reach, you realize what, and who, is missing.
You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan, go the lyrics. And the next five years trying to be with your friends again.
I thought about my past six years I’d spent in classrooms and committees at a job I thought I’d never get in my life, and all the friends I’d lost to get there. Deena, I am sure, loves this song, loves to dance to it, loves to watch the waves come on the beach to it. If it came out two decades before (and it could have, sound-wise), Kieron and I would have listened to this song, maybe in silence, in a car or on a couch, looking out the windows, characters in our own story, waiting for the light to hit our foreheads.
Years I never called back to came back. Years when no one called came back. Years I was too afraid or never wrote about, all came back.
It lifted me up like a wave in my chest.
I’ve never landed.
Daniel Nester is the author most recently of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects. His other books include How to Be Inappropriate and God Save My Queen I and II, and, as editor, The Incredible Sestina Anthology. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.
Photos: Dan Long