A Very Strange & Specific Thing

“I didn’t understand then / I don’t understand now” — The National, “Pink Rabbits

*

When I was 22, working my first grownup job out of college and feeling decidedly un-grownup, I met a very tall, very blond, very blue-eyed boy. 

I was working for the university I had recently graduated from and couldn’t quite figure out how I was supposed to be — in the same place, with the same spots, but suddenly I had an office and I was around adults and I couldn’t exactly go to The Upstairs Pub and get wrecked on tall AMFs (if you don’t know, god bless) on a Thursday anymore. 

I was in the midst of this crisis of college life and emerging adulthood when I got to work on a fun project — a video series where I’d follow a select group of rising seniors and get different perspectives on why our university was so great. (It really is great.)

Enter that very tall, very blond, very blue-eyed boy. 

He was waiting in the hallway at my office when I got back from lunch one day. I saw him and thought, “Uh oh.”

You can see where this is going.

We got through the project. 

We started dating. 

His name was Brian, and I was wild about him. We were both from small rural towns in central Indiana, and he was the life of every party. He was big and tall and loud and would almost never call me by actual name or nickname, instead insisting upon loudly calling, “ALEEEEEESONNNNNNNNNN” or “Hammburglar!” every time I would see him or walk into a room.

I spent most nights at his decidedly college apartment as I still tried to understand how to be multiple things at once — a young woman still in my college town, with a much-cooler first job than of course I realized at the time, dating a younger guy who was really not that much younger than me at all, who lived with roommates and was wildly allergic to my cats so could not physically be in my apartment for more than 30 minutes at a time. 

Brian wasn’t just funny to me, the person enamored with him — he loved to laugh, and make everyone else laugh. He had dreams to be a comedian, and move to LA, and write. 

There’s much more to Brian than his very blue eyes and the way he made me laugh and his screenplay (that I don’t exactly remember but reviewed many drafts of) and his great, big laugh that filled the room, of course. But ours was not the kind of love that was meant to last, for many reasons that are not my story to share here. 

I did not go to LA with him. 

He went his way, and I went mine, and ultimately, it was just fine.

Sometimes I forget how crazy about him I was. I nearly forgot about that version of myself, agonizing over whether to stay in Bloomington or leave (I left). I almost forgot about the way Brian would call out “ALEEEEESONNNNNNN” and “TEE HEE!” all those times he’d make me laugh hysterically. 

I saw him again in Chicago in 2017, and I remembered all that again, briefly, as we had drinks at my neighborhood bar. I didn’t laugh as much that time. It wasn’t bad, but something was under the surface that I couldn’t quite grasp. I’m sure I never will. I kept hoping he was going to tell me something that he never did.

I was not the same, and neither was he.

Again, there’s always more to tell.

When we hugged goodbye that night, he was as tall as I had remembered. 

*

This past Friday, I was at Pitchfork Music Festival. The National had just started their set when I realized I had an Instagram message from another old Indiana friend, who doesn’t feel like an old friend thanks to the connectivity of social media all these years. 

I saw “There’s no way to tell you this …” and I couldn’t bear not to read the rest. 

Brian has died. 

It’s been almost a week since I received that message, and I’m not sure I’ve yet to fully process. 

The National played on, and if you were near me in the park, you would never have guessed by my singing and jumping and screaming that I had just received a message like that. 

I felt wrong and I felt that I had to keep going exactly like that.

I went home and texted my brother, who fortunately was awake. 

I needed to tell someone who knew Brian, who knew me when I knew Brian. When I loved Brian!

As Jay said, “it’s a very strange and specific thing,” this loss. 

And I tell you, it is a loss. 

That night I searched and searched to try to find all the old photos of us, but they are on my old MacBook that was stolen and not on the fucking Cloud. I felt like screaming. 

I went to bed. 

I woke up, my chest hurting just like it did after I got hit by an airbag in a car accident. A very strange and specific feeling. 

That morning, I finally found some proof. It wasn’t much, but it was something: two photos, attached to a random email thread between the two of us. (I keep thinking about that Ada Limon line: “I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.”)

We are both wearing red and black and it is all very 2006 of us. We look younger than I ever remembered we could be. He’s wearing a tie and a vest (!) over a plaid short sleeved shirt and red backwards hat? I’m wearing a red cropped cardigan over a black tank top and also wearing a red belt? (We were very attractive.)

“Why do we look like we’re at a costume party?” I wrote.

He wrote back, “ali ali ali ali SON, you are a weird bookworm. 

Love, 

Brian”

*

“You didn’t see me I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park
You didn’t see me I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart
And everybody was gone
You were staring down the street cause you were trying not to crack up …

Now I only think about Los Angeles when the sound kicks out

Now I only think about Los Angeles when the sound kicks out

You said it would be painless
A needle in the dark
You said it would be painless
It wasn’t that at all
You said it would be painless …”

— “Pink Rabbits,” The National

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