Daniel was a straight D student. His parents were liquor store owners, his older sister was a gangster. He was the class clown, unafraid to tell us about his family’s problems, unafraid to be vulnerable, unafraid to stand up for himself, sometimes too revealing about his masturbatory habits, and quick on his feet for being five and a half feet and almost three hundred pounds. Once, he pulled over at the side of a road to fight a neo-Nazi that kept honking at him. I got my ass kicked, he said. But at least he fought.
It was a dark and gloomy March in Philadelphia during my sophomore year. I reached for the phone – we still had landlines back then – and decided not to call him.
This decision not to call is still vivid to me. I remember justifying it to myself; we had just talked a week earlier and there was nothing to say. I “knew” what we were going to talk about – he would tell me to hurry and come back home, he would maybe tell me about a new workout routine.
A few hours later, I woke up in a muffled state after an insanely real dream of riding a bicycle through a snow-white field, smashing into something, getting pitched over the handlebars, and landing in cottony-white, soft snow with an audible grunt as something hit my chest. In that dream Daniel was in it, riding next to me.
The dream put me in a weird mood, and just a few minutes after waking up I got a call from Sandy. Daniel’s car had slammed into a light pole, swerved around it, and landed squarely under it.
They had to extract him with pliers and airlift him to the hospital. His reported cause of death was internal damage.
He was in my dream again last night. We were meeting at a restaurant. I rounded some seats, all the while seeing some familiar faces, until I saw him again, assessing me wryly through his glasses, under his spiked hair. He looked exactly the same.
We were 19 when he died. Now I’m almost double that age, and he remains the same to me.
When I was traveling the world in my 20s, I used to marvel at the places I found myself in and the people I met, and imagine telling Daniel about them. I would always think, what would Daniel think of this? What would I say? He thought he would die tragically as an LAPD cop. I thought I would never see 30. I always imagined saying something like, Daniel, we made it. Look where we are now.
He was my most honest friend. And that, I now realize, is one of the only definitions of a friend.
He single-handedly cured me of my habit of saying stupid things as filler, just to fill the silence. One time he looked me in the eye after one particularly inane comment, ‘Won, you’re smart, you’re good looking, you know why you don’t have a girlfriend? Because you say stupid shit like that.’ I burst out laughing because it was completely true.
And because he was honest, you knew exactly who he was and where he stood. That’s why I can see him in dreams and know that he would be the same person now as he was then, except with a few more white hairs.
And it’s kept me honest too. They say that death grounds you. When I read that a long time ago, I always wondered what it meant. Now, I’ve come closer to understanding what it means. At least for me.
Because Daniel – during this second lifetime I’ve lived without you in it, I’ve never wanted to become someone that you didn’t recognize.
And you were fearless. So should I be.