DAVID WAS A SCHOOL FRIEND. I met him in the sixth grade. He sat behind me in social studies and math class. I’d jab him with my pen whenever he’d try to pluck hairs from my head, and I’d roll my eyes whenever he’d block my view of the overhead projector to wave one of his “A” papers in front of my face. His arm was always up, hand fluttering; he was so eager to solve for x at the board.
David’s presence somehow anchored me as I mostly floated through high school. He was organized and smart, his oral presentations crisp. He’d never partner with me for group work, I think because I was such a procrastinator, for which he often teased me. Mostly apathetic in class, I was fascinated that David sat straight-backed, taking notes. He was so engaged, especially when it came to “Galloping Gertie.”
Our physics teacher was stereotypically kooky; his lectures were a composition of exaggerated gestures and varied intonations. He grew the most animated when he talked about his two favorite topics: black holes and Galloping Gertie. Galloping Gertie was the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state, which in 40-mile-per-hour winds on November 7, 1940, galloped and collapsed into the water below. Our teacher loved to show the film of the event; David loved to watch it; I loved to watch how much David loved to watch it.
My last memory of David is during May of our senior year. Voted Most Ambitious of our class, he was off to the University of Michigan in the fall. I was giving him a ride home from school. He was ribbing me about the earrings I was wearing when my car spun out near a deli. We were fine, but he gripped the dashboard until I dropped him off at home.
Years later, a hometown friend told me David had killed himself. I thought of Galloping Gertie and wondered if back in high school he had felt himself beginning to buckle under the pressure of his own ambitions. If so, why hadn’t I noticed? He was a school friend only, but I had seen him nearly every day in class for seven years. Was I too busy floating, meandering in frivolity — the color of my nails, the style of my purse — to see any cracks? He had gripped my dashboard until his knuckles were white. It didn’t make sense. Suicide hardly ever does.
When I was home a few months ago, I drove by the deli where we’d spun out, so David was on my mind. This spring, it is 20 years since we graduated from high school. I am still a procrastinator, but I no longer float. I try to stay grounded and to really see people, partly because I have two young children whom I want to know intimately, and partly in honor of my school friend David.
Recently, at a birthday party with my children, I was chatting with a new mom friend, Emily. I mentioned that my mother was battling breast cancer. “She is lucky,” I told Emily. “The doctors caught it early.” We moved onto other topics as children played around us. Emily must have noticed the slight choke that rises in my throat every time I place my mother and cancer in the same sentence. Later, she sent a short e-mail saying she was glad my mom was going to be OK, but that if I needed an ear or some child care, she was available any time.
With this gem in my in-box, I know that even if the friendship between Emily and me never grows past the level of mom friend, she saw me, and I can’t help but feel more supported and hopeful.
I also can’t help but wish that Emily had been David’s school friend.
Tara Lynn Jordan is a writer in Boston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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