I see him two or three times a week. Yesterday I looked up from my book as the El train doors opened in front of me, and Chris was standing there, waiting to get on the train. Not Chris, of course, but a guy just like him, one with his round head and his round body, his delicate arching eyebrows over rich brown eyes, his intricately-freckled skin and his jutting bottom jaw. I probably looked shocked because the guy with my friend’s face looked at me funny before he pushed past me onto the train. I missed my stop.
Last week I was looking through my friend Eileen’s vacation photos, and I saw him again. He was wearing a tuxedo and had his arm around Eileen’s friend Shannon, the lupine scientist, who lived in Yellowstone. He looked taller. It was Chris but not Chris, and he looked out of the photo at me with a lazy, self-satisfied smile. My breath literally caught in my throat.
I know it isn’t unusual to see people who are dead in the faces of strangers around you. I read about it in a magazine article on grief in my dentist’s waiting room. It’s not weird for me to hear his stuttering, maniacal laughter echoing around me in a crowded bar. I look over, expecting to see him, only to see a middle-aged bartender with long blonde hair and a half-assed ponytail, laughing at something a patron said. It’s not unusual, but it is disconcerting.
After he died, I started call him “Chris.” Before that, it was “Sheets.” Never his first name back then, always his last, just like all his other friends called him. But when he died, it was like our relationship got more formal. Since the funeral had a closed casket, I never got to see his body, so it’s hard to believe he’s gone. It’s more like he still exists somewhere, but we had a fight and haven’t spoken in two years. Sometimes I think he might be hiding somewhere, like Mexico, and someday I will get a call asking me for $200 so he can get back home. That’s the kind of think he would think was funny, the asshole. Or maybe he entered the Witness Protection Program. They would have to remove all of his tattoos for that to work. That would piss him off.
I have dreams about Chris. One was in a hospital. He was standing in front of me, and I knew he was going to die, but for some reason, I wasn’t allowed to tell him. It was part of an elaborate, time-travel experiment that Sheets’ friends were participating in. It was made clear to me that we couldn’t save him. We were just supposed to watch as he died. But I did tell him, and he dropped dead in front of me. Blood poured out of his eyes, ears, nose and mouth.
In another dream, we were walking along a low stone wall, our hands clasped, balancing each others weight as we leaned out. It was sunny, and we were laughing. I woke up aching with loneliness, my throat raw and my eyes melted shut from the sleep and the tears mixing.
The last time I saw Sheets, he was my date for my old college roommate’s wedding in Iowa. He flew in from Austin, and when I saw him, I became extremely irritated because he had shaved his head. He looked like the Michelin Man, all bumpy and bald.
“You’re bald,” I said when he got out of the cab in front of my house, “and bumpy.”
“Yeah, I shaved it off about three months ago.”
“Dontcha like it? It’s really easy to take care of. I’m trying to go bald gracefully.”
The next day we drove five hours over the two-lane roads that dominate Iowa. We argued about CDs, books and movies.
“Hey, I’m sorry you committed yourself to Pink Floyd irrevocably with that stupid prism/rainbow tattoo. I don’t like them. I never will. I understand the contribution they made to rock and all that shit, but it doesn’t change anything for me.” He had his hands over his face, and he moaned softly.
“I can’t believe I am hearing this,” he replied. “I thought you were get over this. I thought you were older and wiser and would see the genius that Floyd is. But no! You are the same jackass you always were.” He started looking around the car frantically. “Do you have any Jewel? I would really like to hear some Jewel right now. She’s a great artist. Better than Floyd.”
I gasped as if struck. “I do not listen to Jewel, dip shit.”
“You used to!” he said as he jabbed a finger at me triumphantly. “You owned a Jewel CD. I remember!”
“Oh, come on! I was 23. I don’t have it anymore! Oh, but wait; I have a good idea. Maybe we should head some Doors because what I really want to hear is another organ solo. Wait, I’ll get my pet monkey out so he can dance to it.”
He turned to me, his face serious. “You leave Jim Morrison alone.”
I reminded him how, when we were roommates after college, I would wake up and find him asleep in the middle of the living room with one arm wrapped around an enormous bowl of pasta that, in his drunken stupor, he had cooked and not eaten the night before. Sometimes the pasta would have spilled during the night, and he would be lying in a drying pool of marinara sauce. It looked like a massive head wound. The carpeting looked like a crime scene. We didn’t get our deposit back.
I wouldn’t let him drive the whole five-hour trip. I love driving. When we stopped for food at the Casey’s or QT’s that infest Iowa, Chris would unwrap my cheeseburger and make a little handle out of the wrapper so I could hold it while I drove and not get all messy. He also unabashedly filled the car with rancid farts, cracking the window from time to time and grinning at me. He read aloud from Travels with Charley while we drove and tried to explain why I should keep trying to get through Joyce’s Ulysses. He had done his English Honors thesis on it, and I couldn’t get past page 24.
When we arrived in Centerville, we checked into the Ma and Pa Motel and collapsed on the double beds that were stuffed into the tiny room. The plan for the weekend was that I would do my bridesmaid duties, and he would work in the hotel room. He brought his laptop, but we found the room had no phone line. He ended up tagging along with the bridesmaids for the rehearsal at the church and for the dinner. He helped set up the reception hall, filling silver pots with sand and jamming silver candles into them for centerpieces.
He sat quietly on the motel bed later that night while the bridesmaids drank warm beer and talked. He was very happy hanging out with the girls while we chatted about flowers, nail polish, and hairstyles. Even for girls, it was girly conversation, but he looked so content just soaking it in. I got the feeling he hadn’t met many women in Austin and was just enjoying the estrogen-fest.
The next day, during the four hours before the ceremony when I had to get my hair done, get dressed, and hang out with the bride, he took my car and got the oiled changed and installed new windshield wiper blades because I am terrified of mechanics. He also bought a hideous, monkey-shaped air freshener that smelled like radioactive apples and hung it from my rearview mirror. The monkey had a bulbous backside that he turned to face the drivers. Whenever we argued from then on, he would loudly kiss his finger, put it on the monkey’s butt, and say, “This is for you, Jackass!”
After the reception, he drove me and another bridesmaid around so we could dance at the townie bars in our poufy lavender dressed. We twirled on the empty dance floor making our full skirts flare out. He stood back, drinking a one-dollar beer, watching us make fools of ourselves, and laughing.
Back at the motel, I lay on the flowered, brown-and-mustard yellow bedspread, and he rubbed my feet which were completely numb from dancing all night in cute shoes. I asked him if he had fun, and he said yes. We fell asleep still in our wedding clothes, holding hands, with hangovers already creeping up our bodies.
Six months later, almost to the day, he was dead. He died one day after his 28th birthday, alone on a hill in Texas. When it was clear something was wrong with Chris, his hiking partner had run down the hill to get some help at the ranger’s station two miles away. When they returned almost twenty minutes later, Chris was dead. I try not to think about how scared he must have been, alone there on the hill.
I looked up the symptoms of heatstroke. They include “confusion, delirium, or unconsciousness, and skin that is read, hot and dry.” The autopsy showed he had plenty of water in his body, and he had want amounts to an aneurysm from the heat. When I tell people how Chris died, and they say something like, “Well, drinking water is important,” I feel a wave of dizzying violence come over me.
At the funeral in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, I saw people I hadn’t seen in years. Many of Sheets’ and my former coworkers were there, along with classmates and family. I wore fishnet stockings and knee-high boots because I knew Chris would dig it. He would have wolf-whistled, clutched his heart, and pretended to swoon or something cheesy like that.
At the wake, I introduced myself to his mother for the first time. She wasn’t Mrs. Sheets anymore, having divorced Chris’s father years ago. I was flustered, and I didn’t know what to call her. When I walked up to her, she looked shaky but dry-eyed and in control, with a polite little social smile on her face; the kind that gets you through things like funerals. As I told her my name and reached to shake her hand to convey my condolences, her face crumpled and she swung forward, forcing me to grab her elbow and hold her steady.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry for you.” She gripped my hand so tightly and searched my face for something, and I couldn’t breathe.