Sitting across from me in a new bar, in a new city, was a new kind of girl. One, who I assumed, I should like. You can go to a new city at 23 and reinvent yourself, it's not a gradual evolution over time, it's a moment. It's the last box you unpack. It's the first shit you take in your new city. It's that first girl you kiss. You've remade your world, you've remade yourself. Or, at least, that's what I had figured at the time. So she was my reinvention. A new kind of girl. Tattoo'd arms, back, and legs. Thick, chunky black glasses that matched her thick, chunky black boots. This is where I would remake myself. She would pull me into the counter culture, the indie scene, the punk world...I wasn't sure where she would pull me but I was ready to launch regardless.
Over a few beers things were going just fine, I was funny - she was purposefully quirky. She drank micro-brews for a totally different reason than I did. Up until that point I thought I liked the taste, suddenly though, I liked them for some reason that I don't even remember now. We shared stories and eventually it came time for me to talk about moving. The one person who helped me was my best friend Jay so I talked about him for a minute. At this point in my life the story escapes me, one of triumph? Doubtful because I started it as such, and this part I recall with absolute clarity because of the way she misunderstood my inflected aside; "my best friend is an idiot, he had cancer..."
She chuckled thinking I called him an idiot for having cancer but I'm sure the story was some misadventure where I led him to being an idiot while I escaped being only a silent instigator - as was often the case in my college+ years. Somehow though I've always thought it amazing that somebody would imagine I was calling my best friend an idiot for getting cancer.
"Hey, what are you doing tonight?" Nick asked, calling from Saratoga a quick 20 minutes from my parents house. It was a weird point where I was working a job I hated, just out of school, and living with my parents; I was driving to Saratoga a lot. Maybe to smoke weed, drink a few beers, whatever the case was, I was just anxious to get out.
"Nothing, what's going on?"
"You should come here, Jay's in the hospital, he might have cancer."
From there it's a bit blurry for a while. I know that I ran out the door within a minute of hanging up the phone and got over to Saratoga Hospital. Yes, I know what you're thinking, it is the same hospital where Donnie Wahlberg went after he fell through a trap door at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Wahlberg, as you know, was fine, no serious injuries and NKOTB went on to be the bestest band who every lived in the history of the universe.
To say you could hear a pin drop would be underselling what the room was like. We stood around, a bunch of college kids, wondering what the fuck was going on. His aunt broke the mood up a little when she walked in with a box of Dunkin Donuts coffee; "anyone want coffee?" I still remember how the words sounded almost too chipper when they fell out of her mouth. She was a nurse, she was 30 years our elder, she was, in a word, experienced. The five or six of us in the young group milled around the room, not knowing when to speak, when to leave, when it was "family time" and when it wasn't.
Nick and I went outside to smoke a cigarette. Probably not the thing you do when you're trying to find out if your best friend has cancer. Not just my best friend, Nick's as well. We were only friends because of Jay. A lot of people are only friends because of Jay. He has a gentle way about him that instantly gains trust. He's quick witted and even quicker to laugh at a half way decent joke. I've never heard him be mean, it's in him, but somehow he doesn't feel the need to let that out like most people do. Eventually, Jen and Eric joined us. I think the only thing we said, through dry throats and wet eyes, was, "this is so fucked." I mean, we did talk for a while out there, but every sentenced included fuck in one of its glorious forms.
We sat outside of a closed door for what seemed liked several hours, although I'm sure it was more like 10 minutes. Inside the door Jay was sitting with just his parents.
"Dude, you're fucking killing me, what is wrong with you?" I kept asking Jay when he came to visit me my last semester at college. His breathing was so loud that we had to turn up the television several times. I remember watching Friends and laughing...we must have been stoned. I remember it was the kind of laughing that you only enjoy with a great friend. That night we went to the bar and got pretty drunk. Not so drunk that we couldn't walk home - but drunk enough that we had to walk backwards so that Jay wouldn't puke on his shoes as we walked.
"Turns out that breathing thing...you were right, there was something there. I have mono." Case closed right? We all thought it was. He got better. And life went on.
Jay was always skinny. For a tall guy, about 6'5" to weight 165lbs though, is crazy. "I'm still getting over the mono." It wasn't as if he didn't eat but he was always as broke as he was tall so nobody knew if he was eating his own food or only eating our food. That type of thing doesn't matter when its Jay though. You let him have as much food as he wants - it's that trust thing. Also, there is never any doubt that if he bought a pizza you would get half of it, even if you showed up unannounced just as it arrived. Believe me, that scenario would have never happened. In the off chance that it did happen though, he'd have come through.
When the door finally opened we walked in to Jay's teary eyes. His parents, I remember looking at them and seeing their heartbreak, thinly veiled with a tough "everything is going to be alright" exterior. We, his friends, were not so tough. Although, I believe we all waited until we were outside and away from him to actually start crying.
Later we would learn that the tumor, the one pressing on both of his lungs and his heart, was non Hodgkin's lymphoma - it disguises itself as mono. Tricky mother fucking tumor if you ask me.
He was going to be transferred to Albany Med. Albany being the only real city, or at least in the clump of only real cities that was near us. But we aren't in Albany yet. We are still in Saratoga deciding what, as friends, we can do.
There was nothing. There is never anything you can do in that situation. You can be a friend. You learn to look around at the people in your daily life and tell them you love them. You learn that your friends are more important than you had given them credit for and you learn that helplessness is an awful, shitty, horrific feeling. But you learn that it's not as bad as cancer. Especially when you have to watch an amazing friend and an amazing person go through it.
It was right around his 22nd birthday. He'll be 29 in a month and I'm overwhelmingly happy to say that I'll text him when I hit the "publish post" button to tell him that I posted this.
You can't force a moment to change your life and when it does it's often a change you would never want.
He went to Albany Med. but that story is for another day.