On the Death of a Stranger
A girl I knew in high school posted childhood pictures of the two of them, without caption or commentary, and the grainy stills did not sit well with me. Her intention, it was unspokenly clear, was more than reminiscent. A cursory web search of his name returned first a years-old news story from the town in which we all grew up, detailing his arrest after having fallen through the ventilation system of the administrative building of a local housing development, his afterhours violation neither validated nor explained in its absurdity by the article. The image was so quintessentially Kyle – an act of rebellious mischief that surely held within itself a larger backstory too crude to publish. He was at times irreverent to a fault, at least as I remember him, and as a result was often in some sort of trouble. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation as it was described in such terse and journalistic terms, and then I found the obituary.
During the years that I knew him, I don’t think that I would have ever called Kyle a friend. Back then, the definitions of words like that were as malformed and self-conscious as the relationships that they described, and in such a small town where one would at the very least recognize by sight every person they would come across in their daily routine, and steeped as we were in the insecurities of adolescence, harder lines were drawn in our bonds. But looking back, of course he was a friend of mine. Never a dear friend, and we never knew each other very well, but the gulfs between ourselves that we were able to bridge in our limited interactions constituted… something. Neither of us would have been able to tell what that was, exactly, I don’t think. Neither of us would have really cared, either.
It wasn’t until my parents separated and I moved with my father into a house in the development where Kyle grew up, the same one in which he would eventually crawl through airshafts like a puerile and hilarious scene in some college comedy, that I ever got to spend time with him. The atmosphere and the landscape were painfully suburban, angst-riddled, and the handful of kids who inhabited the houses on the tracts all knew one another, most having spent the entirety of their short lives up to that point in those very spots, and they commiserated in wandering groups, haunting the playground that sat at the center of the large cul-de-sac or roving up and down the local nature trails that intersected the wooded sections of the town, paralleling the long, ominous rows of townhomes that were identical save for the few lazy idiosyncrasies of color and tile that some developer placed as an afterthought, who knew how long ago.
They commiserated through substance abuse, mostly. Vandalism. We did. Rebels without causes, among institutions without real constituents. It’s the best way to describe where I grew up, I think: static. Inert. Without direction or charge. We all knew it, and whether we yearned consciously for something greater or not, the soul-level anhedonia normally thought of as being reserved for the more world-weary was palpable. Looking back, quite honestly, it’s easy to remember the town fondly, as a calm and beautiful place tucked between mountains, where people moved to live their lives peacefully and rightfully. But in our youth we know no better, lack any sort of appreciation for the pastoral. In our youth, part of us wants only to hurt.
Clichéd as that may sound, Kyle and I met on these trails of teenage pathos and exaggerated ennui. I knew him locally as an extremely bright and charismatic guy, the son of respectable, well-educated, and active parents, and a vibrancy of character that was always clearly too much to be contained by the narrow parameters that our small community offered: he was frequently at the center of some local happening or gossip, and I’m sure he knew intimately more than a few of the town’s police officers. The pond was certainly small, and he clearly had the potential to grow into as big of a fish as he would have liked. Or at least that’s the way it seemed. While I never really knew him that well, and honestly at times found him to be sort of obnoxious, there was always something in him that I respected, recognized. Perhaps that conscious yearning to be beyond our own waters, though we never spoke about it.
We did, however, speak about quite a few other things, and my hazy impressions of our sparse conversations are punctuated not by the details of what exactly it was that we shared, but by my appreciation even then at being able to have deep and heartfelt yet noncommittal discussion with someone removed from my most direct circles. It was my age of greatest experimentation, and Kyle and I would outrun the sleeplessness of some nights in hurried steps and babbling, chain-smoking cigarettes and playing with the dials of our blood chemistries like children at a colorful switchboard. That’s exactly what we were, I know now. Children, who thought they knew better without knowing anything, and we turned to every available substance as if it were some golden ticket. Those years and those experiences were incredibly formative and educational for me, and I would guess that they were for him, too. We had no way of foretelling what was to come. There was no way to know that Kyle was forming habits and dependencies that would eventually take his life from him some ten years later.
This may be reading somewhat like the sad and nostalgic reflection on the life and death of a dear friend, but it is not meant to be. I could not dishonor Kyle or those who loved him by claiming some retroactive strength in bond. In truth, the last decade has jettisoned so much of my adolescent life into the slipstreams of distant memory, and these recollections were thrust upon me in the wake of the news of his death. The morning I discovered his obituary was just after the night I had finally allowed myself to finish a rereading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the last 50 pages or so having been set aside weeks prior because I felt myself not yet ready to handle their weight, and my head and heart were still swimming in the novel’s primordial sea of humanity and empathy and anti-solipsism, looking for some shore on the horizon but knowing that there would be none in view. It was also a morning spent in honest and enthusiastic reflection with my loved ones around me, joyous conversations of life and love and appreciation for one another. The sun was shining over the first briskness of the coming autumn, the coffee was fresh, and there was nothing to do that day but feel alive.
The news of Kyle’s passing could not have been more apposite. When I first heard it, I felt shock, confusion. I sat on the sidewalk and wept, without knowing why. I wouldn’t think the death of someone who was essentially a stranger in life’s grander scheme to affect me so, though my sympathy went out to his family, stranger still as they are. And as my tears poured forth, the realization came gradually that what I was experiencing was actually my own happiness, in its most tangible form: gratitude. Gratitude for being where I am, for who I am with, and for everyone and everything that got me here. Gratitude for all that is to come next.
Kyle’s story could very well have been my own. We came from the same place, our seeds of the same soil. At some point in the time after I had known him, he took up rock climbing. His favorite author was apparently David Foster Wallace, the same Wallace whose tome of addiction and soul weariness I had just closed the night before. He traveled, having spent the last years in what seems to be as many places as he could find himself. He searched. He loved. And I have no doubt that our differences all those years ago were actually much fewer than I ever would have guessed, when we walked beside one another under a sky that felt so small, and the heavy heart of my adolescence so far from anyone, no matter how close they were to my own hand. And yet I am still here, having struggled with my own addictions, and he is not. Having not always chosen life, though it seems that life has chosen me. That this is the only difference between us I have my doubts, but it seems to be the only one that matters beneath a setting sun, and should I always see the same sun’s rising then I will consider myself lucky, will remember that I am loved.