Some days, you feel the shadow of death everywhere. It lingers in the exhausted eyes of the coffee shop girl who was out too late last night and in too early this morning. It crouches on the stoop of an old man’s shoulders as he loiters at a bus stop. In swirls over the bleary grey-blue clouds that roll across the sky. I’ve been feeling like that a lot over the past few days. Ever since last weekend, when my phone rang at half past midnight and a piece of my world ended forever.
I hadn’t seen Jon in about a year, not that it mattered. Ours was an uncomplicated friendship that flourished despite the absence of regular proximity or contact. It was as though we were brothers who knew everything about each other but always spent a bit too much time apart. When one of us realized that we hadn’t hung out in a while, we’d track the other down and get drunk, catch up, tell stories—Jon told great stories, punctuated by his recklessly enveloping laugh and expressive hands—of the places we’d travelled, the women we’d dated, the things we’d learned. We always said we’d go travelling together one day, to Asia or maybe South America. When we had money and time, when things calmed down, when we finished working on whatever it was that occupied us just then. We meant it, too. We always thought there would be enough time.
I’ll tell you a story about Jon. He saved my life once, back in high school. It was a Friday night and a group of us were hanging out in the McDonald’s parking lot. That’s what teenagers in my hometown did when there was nothing better going on. We’d snack on salty fries and silicone ice cream when we could afford it, loaf around looking for rides to somewhere better when we could not.
It probably doesn’t matter why those French guys chose me. I mean, sure: in those days I was a shit-disturbing smart-ass who didn’t always know when to keep his mouth shut, but as far as I can remember I had only been walking past them when they threw me against their pickup. Maybe it was because I was from the English high school and they were from the French, because I was scrawny and not on the hockey team like they were, or hell, maybe because I had wronged them in a past life. For whatever reason, they decided I had it coming. They kept chanting, “What the fuck you looking at? Eh? What the fuck you looking at at?” in a tone that made it clear I had slighted them somehow. I explained that I hadn’t been looking at anything in particular, but somehow that made things worse. Some people just get drunk and go looking for a fights, I suppose.
Not me. Fighting terrified me then, and it terrifies me now. (I’ve been in four actual fights in my life and, although I guess my record is technically three wins and one loss, I’ve always believed that if things come down to a contest of fisticuffs then everyone has already lost.) As they took turns pushing me against the truck , I kept talking (maybe to distract them) as I tried to figure out how the hell I was going to avoid getting shit-kicked in a parking lot. Nothing came to mind. It was as the first fist was about to smash into my face that Jon appeared. Or rather, his fist appeared, in the throat of the guy who was going to hit me. My assailant dropped to the ground and gasped for air, a sick gurgling sound that was like heaving, gasping, and gagging all at the same time. His friends stepped back and eyed this development suspiciously, torn between conflicting impulses to flee and pounce.
“Really, guys?” said Jon, like he was mentioning it might rain this weekend. (Much later, I learned that this was how Jon sounded when he was furious.) “Three against one? Maybe you should try picking on someone your own size.”
Jon was not, strictly speaking, their size. But he had probably sixty pounds on me, all of which was menace and muscles. People had always been terrified of Jon: of his dirty jeans, his scuffed leather boots, his mess of unkempt hair. He was as big as a house and could speak louder with a glare than most people could when they screamed. That glare told you he didn’t give a fuck, and that he was the kind of man you spent the better part of your life hoping you’d never meet. Somewhere along the way Jon had learned how to fight and he wasn’t afraid of it. He unclenched his fists and waited. He would stand like that against despots in post-apocalyptic wastelands, or while mowing down zombies at the end of the world. That was Jon.
This was the exact moment Jon and I made the mysterious transition from nodding acquaintances to some sort of friends. Before that moment, I didn’t think he would stand by me in a fight. I asked him about it a few years later and he simply shrugged, said it had pissed him off that the odds against me weren’t remotely fair. Jon had a thing for fairness. At the time, all I knew was that I was immensely glad to have him in my corner.
It was over in about five seconds. One guy lay bleeding from where his face collided with the side of the truck, and the other was wailing and cradling his now crooked wrist. Jon touched my arm and informed me that it was time to get the hell out of there.
That became our pattern, showing up when one of us needed the other. I stayed with him when his dad was sick. He stayed with me when my grandfather died. We gave each other money a couple of times, bought each other beers. I edited his poetry. We talked with a kind of honesty that neither of us had experienced before we met. Somehow, it made our friendship great.
I thought about all that as they put his body in the ground last weekend. The rain beat against my umbrella with an inconsiderate rhythm. The aroma of wet earth and masticated grass and something like methane reminded me of cow shit. I had to laugh. Jon would have found it hilarious.
I was barely conscious at his funeral; just going through the motions. I held his mother’s hand as she clung to me, the way she had clung to Jon when his father had died of cancer two years ago. It was a meaningless service, the kind people later call beautiful. Someone quoted the bible and a few people told stories, but they weren’t Jon stories. I don’t even remember the eulogy. It was only when everyone was gone and I was alone by his grave that I felt something. A kind of fury. Fury at Jon for dying too young, at the drunk driver who killed him, at myself for not having told Jon I loved him, at the universe for once again taking something beautiful from me. I sat opposite his grave and let the tears come. When I was finished, I stared at the ground like I was waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen. Nothing continued to happen for a very long time.
I stayed at a friend’s house that night. We drank a bottle of Jameson’s—Jon’s favourite—and toasted his memory until we were too tired to do anything except go to bed. It was the kind of story I would have told Jon about. When I woke up, I rolled over and watched the rain beat against the window. It was barely six in the morning and the house was quiet. The world looked the way I felt.
I slipped out without saying goodbye.
I was supposed to be heading to France on holiday when I got the call. I was supposed to be collecting stories and sleeping with beautiful French women who had a thing for wine and Canadians. But then, Jon and I were supposed to have travelled to Asia together, or maybe South America.
All I ever really wanted was just a little more time.