Two years ago, a girl I went to middle school with passed away in a car accident. She and her boyfriend had been driving 90 miles per hour on a windy road. They were killed instantly. I found out in a most ungraceful way unbefitting of any tragedy: through people’s Facebook statuses. Shock flooded the airwaves. Her Facebook was still up, and here her friends gathered to process the loss. People recalled memories of her, consoled each other, wrote prayers addressed to heaven. Like flowers, I suppose, but in the age of social media, grief is conducted in public. Virtual flowers. Interactive sympathy cards. Is this the future of mourning?
Grief unfolds in predictable stages when it’s a matter of someone you love intimately. But how is it supposed to work when someone you used to know suddenly dies, well after you have parted ways and lapsed out of communication and become, to one another, passing blips on the newsfeed? I think of all the kids I had inside jokes with in seventh grade, and how many I talk to now.
There was a time I was pretty good friends with Mellissa. We did track together, competed on the same four-person relay team. We had overlapping friends. We joked around. She entertained my quirkiness. She was always laughing.
Middle school came to an end. She went off to Avon High, and I went off to a private high school. Years went by and my old friendships started clocking out. People forgot who I was, or pretended to. By the time I heard the news, I hadn’t seen Mellissa for at least three years.
I used to read her wall every day, every post. Sometimes I wanted to write something, but my fingertips hesitated on the keys. This was a space for people who loved her. Knew her. What could I write? Nothing insightful, nothing beautiful. I was a stranger. I wanted to cry. I tried to make myself cry. I flipped through her photos and read her obituary again and again, trying to make it sink in, waiting for it to process. She is gone. But how to transcribe her absence these past few years to a greater, more profound absence? How to trick my mind into realizing that her absence is no longer simply circumstantial? How do I trigger the tears? How do I make this feel real, so that I can grieve and feel like a person capable of caring about an old friend?
Two years later, her Facebook page is still up. That same photo is there, her senior portrait. She will never age, I realize. There she is, swaying from a tree, leaning 45 degrees to the left, because why not, because she is the picture of youth on the cusp of everything. Suspended in time. Life, trapped in the form of potential energy that will never become kinetic.
She is what I think about when I think about Connecticut in the spring. There are few things I like about Connecticut, but I love the spring. The warm, dewy mornings, the lawnmowers in the afternoon. How green it was. I remember every landmark along the walk from the middle school to the high school we took daily for track practice. Luke’s Doughnuts. The brand new mortuary. The gas station where we bought slushies, also rumored to be robbed at gunpoint more frequently than any other business in Avon. And how could I forget the sound of cars on West Avon Road, the glimpses of fresh-faced high schoolers riding off to unknown adventures, the rising and fading waves of Radio Top 40? How could I forget any of this? Stretching on the football field. The warmth on my arms. Those lawnmowers. Warm-up sprints. Packs of girls meandering around the track, spying on those high school boys.
The four of us get together. We take up our positions on the track. Ready, go. The first girl sprints, hands it off. The second girl sprints, hands it to Mellissa. Mellissa’s coming up behind me. There’s so much fight in her that you cannot ignore the presence barreling toward you. But she is so composed. That face. Whenever I run, my face contorts into a heaving eyesore, but she’s got everything locked down. When she’s coming your way, her wide brown eyes are full of fight. Off-duty, they are gentle. She was always that way; hers was the loveliest, most photogenic smile. The fire’s always there, though. I don’t know what it is. I haven’t figured it out. This was not the faux strength of a middle school queen. There was not a single trace of malice or jealousy in it. This was strength well beyond her years, a quiet strength that she never had the ego to assert. But you felt it. You were drawn to it. I saw it, in the form of a runner sprinting to the spot where I now stood.
I start to run and extend my arm behind me. I look back for a second, see her pouring her last ounce of energy into this final meter. The baton slips into my fingers, and I race off as fast as my legs can carry me. I never look back. I never think to look back.