Post Road Magazine #28

The Backyard

Nicholas Ward

Many nights, too many to count, it was just us.

Paul and Patti and me.

We'd sit in the backyard, in a semi-circle of lawn chairs off the enclosed porch. We'd stare at the rows of vegetables, the old barn, the long-defunct chicken coop, all the details of Paul's old farm house that I will never forget. From inside came the soft folk music from his mom's record player but otherwise it would be silent, the other houses on Paul's street tucking in long before. Patti would hug her legs up to her chest, wild, curly, red hair falling around her while she rested her head against the cool tin of the chair. I'd light a cigarette, scratch my head, teasing out my hair from the gel I over-applied every morning. Paulie would bring out a guitar, passed from his grandfather, and strum. This was June, the summer after our Junior Year of high school, 1999, millennium fast approaching, the heat exploding in Farmington, Michigan.

"Today was perfect," Paul said one night, head bent toward the ground, fingers picking the strings, lips pursed, searching for the right chord.

I smiled, flicked the ashes off my smoke. That afternoon, we'd picked up Patti from her job at the Farmington Bakery for a jaunt to Flipside Records in Clawson, scouring the racks for buried treasure. After we made our purchases, we climbed back in Paulie's white Ford Probe and hopped on the freeway. Paul just drove, a mixtape played, Galaxie 500's guitar drone washing over us as we cruised, well past our hometown through an unchanging landscape of overpasses and rest stations, no destination in mind. We had no commitments, no jobs or dinners with parents to get home to, so Paul kept on driving. Patti sifted through the stacks of magazines he kept in his car, warm summer air blowing her hair all over the backseat. I stared out the window at the fading sun as we played tape after tape, waves of sound crashing around me.

Back at his house, Paul's plucking gained coherence, transforming into Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (or, more accurately, Jeff Buckley's cover).

Patti sat up, alert, lifting her shoulders from their calm repose and hunching over to stare at him. I'd seen Paul play music before: bass in his middle school band, trading guitar riffs in his brother's basement apartment, on the piano at the top of the stairs of that old farm house. But that night, under the bright Michigan stars, the magic that he coaxed from his fingertips circled the three of us, binding us together forever. I felt a fullness overwhelm me, rising outward from my stomach, up through my sternum, exploding in my chest and tingling down, through my shoulders to my arms, my hands, my fingers, shooting into the ground. That was what I needed in my life and I mourned the sixteen years spent without Patti and Paul together. Maybe I knew then that what we had was fleeting, that none of us could stay in that place, together, forever. I caught Patti wiping the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. Maybe she knew it, too.

Paulie finished out the song and we exhaled together. I hadn't realized I had been holding my breath.

"Wow," Patti said softly.

"Thank you," Paul responded with a nod. "I'm glad you're both here."

Patti smiled. "Me too," she said.

We didn't speak much the rest of that night. Paul, it seemed, had said it all.

***

Tonight, eleven years later, Patti and I stand together in the same backyard, far enough away from the house not to be seen. We share a bottle of cheap chardonnay and a pack of Parliament Lights as the snow falls in the darkness. The first decade of the millennium has come and gone and everything has changed for us. I live in Chicago now, Patti in Los Angeles, and we're home for the holidays, swigging shitty wine and staring at Paul's old house.

Five years ago tonight.

The night that Paul killed himself.

"You know," I say, passing the bottle back over, "Paul didn't like you when he first met you. He thought you were too familiar, had too much energy, didn't really listen."

"Bitchface," Patti says loudly, invoking her pet name for me, "you never told me that." I shrug. "Maybe he fell in love with you at first sight and didn't know what to do."

Patti goes silent. She rarely talks about Paul these days. I have to remind myself that we're talking about her fiancé, not merely our best friend from high school.

A lights flicks on inside the house and I take a step back.

"It's fine," Patti says. "Nobody can see us back here. Besides, they're not coming outside tonight."

Paul's parents are probably inside, alone, mourning his passing in their own way. He didn't commit the act in the house itself, but my guess is that the ghost of Paul still lingers there.

"We made a great team," Patti says.

I don't know if she means her and Paul, or me and her and Paul, but I agree.

***

I met Paul Myers in first grade, when I sat down in Ms. Delaney's class and asked the chubby kid behind me, the one gazing out the window at the playground, what animal he had on his shirt. Without dropping focus from the jungle gym, Paul whispered, "Meercats."

Everything about him illuminated my own deficiencies. He was a great baseball player; I barely made contact. His family lived on a farm where they raised chickens; I lived in a subdivision. He wore thrift store t-shirts at seven years old; I was dressed by my mom.

The first time he came over to my house, he brought a boombox and asked, "Do you like to dance?" We spent the few hours before my parents called us to dinner dancing to Kylie Minogue's "Locomotion" in my basement.

He was my first real friend. As the only child of two working parents, I grew up around other kids, spent afternoons after school at houses in the subdivision. But all those people were thrust upon me. I chose Paul. When Patti came along, we had been friends for eleven years.

Patricia Wheeler-Patti for short-moved to Farmington with her parents and two younger siblings at the beginning of Junior Year, where she hooked up with the Goth kids. Paul and I knew them as a quiet and friendly group, harmless despite the black trench coats, eye makeup, and finger nails. Patti wore flannel shirts but was forever in their company.

It was early December,'98, a Wednesday, when word surfaced about Matt Willer, a sophomore in their group. Matt was a boisterous kid that we'd gone to school with since the second grade. I remember that morning vividly: Paul and I stood at our lockers across from the teachers' lounge. We watched smoke seep out behind the cracks of the closed door, curl around the handle, dance into the crowded hallway.

"What the hell?" Paul asked. Students criss-crossed on their way to first period. Few of them took notice.

"You didn't hear?" I asked Paul. "Matt Willer killed himself."

Paul held his eyes on the closed door. He had shot up past me, dwarfing me by five inches. With his constant stubble, long sideburns, perfectly coiffed curly hair, he looked like a man in his twenties, while I remained a boy in my teens.

The bell rang. We didn't move.

"They're letting them smoke in there," Paul said. "That's smart."

I nodded, thinking that Matt's friends needed a safe space to smoke and cry together.

The door opened and they filed out, clinging to each other as they shuffled to class. Patti, hair pulled back, eyes puffy behind her glasses, saw us and peeled off from the group. I threw my backpack down and gave her a big, silent hug. She moved on to Paul, who bent down to give her an awkward squeeze.

"Okay," Patti said, straightening, wiping her eyes, steeling herself for the day in a manner I would see again later. "Time to go to class."

"Who is that?" Paul asked after she was clear.

"Patti Wheeler," I replied.

"You're friends?" he asked.

"Yeah, I guess. I don't really know her but...she gives lots of hugs."

Paulie frowned. "I think maybe she's in my English class and I've never noticed her."

Later that year, as all the juniors were saying their summer goodbyes, Patti asked me, "Can we hang out this summer? I need new friends." Things had spiraled into chaos for the Goths after Matt Willer's death, fueled by drinking and blaming each other for his suicide. I told Patti she could come along with us any Saturday she wanted, to go record shopping and drive around.

We became a team, a fortress against the outside world and no girls or boys or parents or the future could get past. We were Nick and Paul and Patti, together always: homecoming, football games, parties, the hallway at school, Patti's kitchen floor while I cried about girls, smoking pot in Paul's old barn and listening to his fears of getting older, that all-night diner by the highway where we took Patti for cheesy fries the night she broke up with her boyfriend. We made a lit magazine together, produced two plays, but by the time Senior Year wound down we had our sights set on the Holy Grail: The Talent Show.

"We gotta do something," I told them.

"Totally," Patti said. "I want to leave everyone with a lasting impression."

That was April, graduation on the horizon, three different universities awaiting our arrival shortly after that. I was off to school at Miami of Ohio, five whole hours south of our hometown. Paul and Patti, meanwhile, would be at Eastern Michigan and Michigan State, a stones' throw from each other. I didn't know it at the time, but the talent show was our last hurrah.

We cut AP English that day, our circle in the backyard the best option for hashing out our act for the three-hour spectacle that sent the entire student body nutty with anticipation.

"But what are we going to do?" Patti asked.

We shifted our focus to Paul. He sat silently, one leg crossed over the other, thrift store cardigan hanging from his frame. He was so cool. He smoothed his hands over his forehead, up through his dirty blond hair.

"We're going to play a song," he said. "Patticakes, I will teach you bass; you'll only need three chords. Nick, you have a serviceable set of pipes. I'll play lead guitar," he paused for effect, taking a sharp drag off a cigarette, "and we will leave this town in a blaze of motherfucking glory."

We couldn't achieve this without Paul's guidance. And it wasn't just that he played instruments and we didn't. Paulie had swagger. If he said we could do it, we were gonna do it.

Patti asked The Question. "What song?" Music was everything to us, our language and philosophy, our religion and worship, and Paul was our prophet. While most kids in our high school were discovering Zeppelin or the Smashing Pumpkins, we were guided to bootlegged Prince, to Sonic Youth turned way up. Paul would have the answer. Patti and I tilted our heads to the second floor, as if we could see through siding and insulation, down the hall, and into Paul's bedroom to his records and CDs and journals and scribbled notes.

"Alice Cooper," Paul responded. "'I'm Eighteen.' That's our jam."

It was an odd choice. At that time, Alice Cooper was known more for his absurd cameo in Wayne's World, not the anti-establishment rebel of his heyday. But goddamn, that song felt like us. We were eighteen. We were confused every day. We had to get out of this place.

One night after a chaotic and sweaty rehearsal, Paul said, "We're going to transcend everything, this show, this town, our lives. I hope you guys are ready."

The stage at our school was a gigantic proscenium that opened to a 500-person house, packed that night with students, parents, and teachers. We began in total darkness. A spotlight popped center to unveil our trio. I wore skin-tight leather pants and a maroon halter top, my arms held aloft with twin devil horns. To my right, Paulie slouched like a 50s beatnik behind his 1994 40th Anniversary Edition Midnight Blue Fender Stratocaster, a kilt around his waist and pantyhose on his head. Patti posed to my left, suited up for the bass guitar in a brightly-colored apron, worn over a bikini. The lights rose to reveal Tom, leader of the Goths, hunched over a drum kit and Grant, the captain of the football team, on rhythm guitar with a turquoise shirt and painted nails. Before we even began, our fellow classmates went bat shit crazy.

Paulie peeled off a disgusting riff that cruised into "I'm Eighteen" and the rest of us blasted along. I threw myself around like a man on fire, screaming the lyrics with joy; Tom banged the sticks with fury and abandon; Patti preened and pranced; Grant broke a string and fuzzed out for the whole song. And Paul? Deliberately, furiously, purposefully, he ripped off the all of the strings on that blue beauty and the stage exploded in noise. To top it all off, there was a fucking smoke machine.

I have watched the performance of this many times on VHS and it wasn't perfect. The mix was a mess, the bass and drums were outta sync, and I couldn't sing nearly as well as I thought. But never in the history of the Midwest did three friends make rock'n'roll more pure, balls-out, and free than we did that night. See it with me: picture the stage smothered in fog, too-hot white lights, Patti and I bouncing like maniacs, play-acting at rock stardom. Then imagine Paul, nylon and kilt, classmates staring up at him in awe, parents in the back in disbelief. Watch him wail away at that guitar, reach way down inside himself to a place he hadn't ever shown anyone. Maybe you won't be able to see it, to understand his struggle with life, with the simple burden of being alive, with confusion and anger and hunger for something, anything, better. Maybe I didn't see it either. Maybe all I saw were three friends making noise.

***

"Top 5 bands that you discovered since high school that you can't live without. Go."

Behind Patti, Seattle's Puget Sound sparkles in the remarkable afternoon sunshine. I glance at her sideways.

"Bands or individual artists?" I ask. "Am I not allowed to have listened to any of them in high school, but they were around back then?"

She shoves me. "Just list, bitchface, don't over-think."

I over-think everything related to music. Just like Paul. It's been two and a half years now since he died and it's the first time I've seen Patti since the funeral.

"Fuck it," she says, shifting in her seat and pulling her legs up. "I'll go."

We flew in separately to Seattle, rented a car, and are driving to Portland before routing back to the middle of Washington state for a 3-day music festival called Sasquatch.

"Smiths, Silver Jews, Modest Mouse..."

"Modest Mouse?" I ask.

"Oh yeah. My roommates in LA listen to them constantly. I love that band."

Patti lives in Los Angeles now, but before that she lived in Portland, Oregon and before that, she lived in Nashville, Tennessee. That's where Paul and Patti moved after college, where he proposed, where they began their life together. We're driving to Portland today to retrieve some personal items she left at a friend's house.

"Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and....the Arcade Fire."

"Obviously. You know, after Paul's funeral-"

Patti puts a hand on my leg. "I don't wanna talk about that right now."

I clam up. All I want to talk about is Paul.

After his funeral, I came back to Chicago in a cloud. I was waiting tables, a job I hated amongst a series of jobs I hated, floating through a haze, unsure of what I was doing with my life or even what I wanted to be doing. At that point, the haze of uncertainty had lasted almost two years. As of this trip, it's still lasting. I'm starting to think the haze is the never-ending restlessness that will be my life forever.

"Pull in here," Patti instructs and I park in the driveway of a one-story rambler in Portland. There's a man standing out front. He's a little bit older than us, wearing a faded t-shirt and jeans, covered in sweat and dirt.

"Hiya, Patti," he says as we get out of the car, opening his arms for a hug. Patti introduces me and we exchange pleasantries, talk about our journey to Sasquatch, bands we're excited to see, etc.

"Well, all your stuff is back where you left it," he says with a jerk of his thumb. "It's my workstation now, so it's pretty dusty down there. I haven't had a chance to clean up."

We go into the basement, bare but for a couple benches and tools. Every inch is covered in sawdust.

"He makes furniture," Patti explains. She leads me to a small closet in the corner of the room. The door is half open and Patti wrenches it all the way.

"Oh my god," she says.

The stereo equipment and books and duffle bags of clothes and stacks upon stacks of records that we are meant to pack up and ship to Los Angeles, all of it, packed in a rush and thrown here quickly, sticking out of crates with no top, are covered in a fine layer of sawdust.

"Shit," Patti says, hugging herself.

"If we clear this area," I look around for a broom, "I can take out the records one by one and dust them off."

"Those are Paul's records," she says and I stop.

***

"Hey, Nick," Paul would say, glancing up from his guitar, "when you die can I have your record collection?"

I'd chuckle. I owned CDs. "'Course, Paul. Can I have yours?" His collection-of actual records-tripled the size of mine.

"Oh hell no," Paul would reply. "I'm gonna be buried with mine."

***

But now here they are. I don't know how or why Patti trekked them across the country with her and she doesn't say. She kneels down and examines the vinyl carefully, pulling out a Beach Boys album to investigate the damage. I wonder what is constantly roiling inside her, what darkness sits on her chest, attacks her at night, wakes her screaming from nightmares. But I can't ask her. Not now.

"I can't deal with this," she says. "Let's just take my clothes and get out of here."

We pack what we can carry in one load, Patti apologizing to her friend, whose name I don't recall and will never see again. We leave behind the music Paul spent a lifetime collecting, relics of a dead man, never to surface or spin again.

We remain silent. We don't speak as Patti drives west out of Portland, into the high desert, vast and open. We follow the Columbia River, curve north through Washington, past Yakima to the Sasquatch camp grounds. In the morning, we awake to a stunning view: miles of brown hills stretching into the distance, eons of blue sky all around us. The amphitheater rests at the bottom of a gorge, a remote and beautiful expanse. For three days we fly from stage to stage, making friends with Canadians, drinking a lot and waking up early with the sunshine. We do not talk. Not really. Not the kind of heart-to-heart that we regularly shared in high school.

We're too close to each other here, sharing a tent, going everywhere together. Maybe we both know that, despite the miles of space and thousands of people, there's nowhere for us to go if one of us says the wrong thing. I am constantly ready to delve into the past, to learn their secrets, but she is not. She isn't the lifelong friend I once had. I don't know why I thought three days in the middle of nowhere would return us to someplace that will never be the same.

After the festival closes, we drive back to Seattle. It's late at night. I have to fight to stay awake while Patti dozes next to me. At one point, she stirs and reaches to turn down the music.

"He got really sick," she blurts out.

"Huh?" I ask.

"Paul," she says. "He got really sick. He wasn't the person we remember. One time, he went after me with a machete, cornered me in the kitchen. Our neighbor broke down the door and tackled him."

"Jesus. Patti, that's...."

"I know," she says.

I wonder if we're both thinking the same thing, that Paul abhorred violence, that if he got violent with Patti, then something dark had snapped inside him. And even though I know I shouldn't ask the question that everyone asks, the question that can't be answered, I do.

"Why? What happened to him?"

Patti stifles a sob but keeps going. "I don't know. Maybe it was always buried inside him and finally burst. Maybe there was a trigger that I'll never know about. Our last Christmas was the best day we ever spent together. Two days later he was gone."

My hands grip the steering wheel tight. This is the first time I've heard anything like this from Before. Patti and I live in the After, trudging through it, picking up the pieces that Paul shattered so that we can somehow move forward. The Before is high school, the talent show, after schools in the backyard, all of the mundane examples of our friendship that I now dissect for clues. Maybe that guitar rift was a cry for help. The way he narrowed his eyes when he spoke proved he was sick. How about the way he treated me that final summer? It's futile. I couldn't have saved Paul, no one could. But I wonder always if I could have saved Patti and me and Paul.

I drive through the darkness, saying nothing, towards morning.

***

Two weeks before we left for college, Patti and I threw a party at her house while her parents were out of town. We invited everyone from high school and made a drink called Hop, Skip, and Go Naked: vodka, beer, and lemonade concentrate.

"You know how you wanna get laid tonight?" Patti asked, bounding out the screen door to find me smoking alone on the back porch.

"Um, yes," I said, taking the drink Patti offered. I was desperate to lose my virginity before college. I was such a cliché.

Patti flicked her eyes to the kitchen, where a pretty girl in all black ladled some hooch into her cup, careful not to spill it on the floor.

"You're not serious," I said. "Megan?"

Patti set her cup down and placed her hands on my shoulders. "Nick, Paul dumped her. You go to college in two weeks. It's a party. Loosen up."

Two weeks before, Patti and Paul and I had sat on the same floor in Patti's kitchen while I cried about girls. Like always. I didn't date in high school, I was awkward and repressed and never knew what to say. We were doing what we always did; if one person is down, the other two helped them stand up.

"What if I never get anyone to like me ever?" I asked.

Patti chuckled. "You will. Some day soon what Paul and I are saying will all make sense." Patti had had sex with Matthew, her first love, whom she started dating around the time she started hanging out with us.

"And if it doesn't?" I asked.

Patti looked to Paulie like, "You gonna help me out here?" Paul looked bored, lying sideways on the linoleum floor, staring up at the ceiling. Maybe he was embarrassed by my neediness. I hadn't even seen him that much lately. At my nineteenth birthday party, he never showed.

He shrugged and said, "We can at least help you get laid." He had lost it back when we were fourteen, when I dreamed of just kissing girls, and slept with every girl he had dated in the interim, including a pretty sophomore named Megan, who-two weeks later-was suddenly not his girlfriend and standing right in front of me.

"Killer party," she said. "You have a cigarette?"

I fished in my pockets for my pack and gave one to her.

"Thanks," she said, smiling up at me. She was gorgeous, tiny with enormous black eyes; smart as hell too, a few years younger but way more self-assured than I was.

"Wanna go sit on the swing set?" she asked. Behind her, Patti nodded her head vigorously.

"Yeah," I said, butterflies creeping into my belly. Pretty girls like Megan never wanted to go sit on swing sets in dark corners of backyards with me. They wanted to do that with Paul. But I was just drunk enough not to think about any of that, about Paul or the party or leaving for college and never coming back.

We sat down and Megan kissed me. A bomb went off in my stomach. She placed her hand on the inside of my thigh. She whispered in my ear, "Let's go upstairs." We waded through the party hand in hand, past the drunk friends and spilled booze, ignoring the turned heads. As we got to the front of the house, I remember this very clearly, where the main door met the stairwell, Paul entered the party with his new girl, blond with heels. We nearly collided with them and exchanged a glance, he and I, quick and furtive.

Megan pulled me up to the second floor. We found an open bedroom, Patti's parents' room. We kissed some more, her lips on my neck, tongue in my ear; her hands moved over my belt, undid each loop, unbuttoned my pants and took them off. "Remove your shirt," she commanded and I did. She pushed me down on the bed and climbed on top. We jostled back and forth, my hands on her waist, steadying myself, moving to a dance I didn't yet know, some rhythm that felt so goddamn holy cow good. And then?

It was over.

That was it? That's what I had cried about?

Maybe there is a code amongst friends, that you aren't supposed to sleep with your best friend's newly ex-girlfriend. But at the time I wasn't totally sure Paul was my friend anymore.

A few days later, he called me at home.

"Well," Paul said. "I guess congratulations are in order."

"Uh...thanks," I said.

Paul was silent. The phone shook in my hands.

"So, Nick, I think that's pretty much it for us. You know, don't call. Or anything. Goodbye."

The next time I saw Paul would be at Patti's twenty-first birthday party.

The time after that he was dead.

***

"Nick, are you sitting down?"

"Um....hi, Mom." I straddled a fire hydrant and pulled my scarf tight. "Why are you calling so late?"

It was my second winter in Chicago, a year and a half out of theatre school, and I waited tables at a fine-dining restaurant in River North. The night was slow, calm before the New Year's Eve storm, and I looked forward to catching a cab home for an early night's sleep.

I had just seen my parents at Christmas a few days before.

My mother took a deep breath.

"Paul Myers killed himself."

I heard her whimper. My mom watched me grow up with Paul, hosted him at our house many times, socialized with his mother at the events in our community.

"Oh my god..." A cab pulled up but I waived it off.

"Patti asked me to call you," she said.

"I haven't seen them in three years." Or spoken, or emailed, or texted.

"Nick...she found him."

I went silent. Numbness crept over me.

"The funeral is Monday. You should come home."

***

It was Patti's twenty-first birthday party in East Lansing the last time I saw them. I made the trek from Ohio to celebrate. This was a big deal; I rarely left my university bubble with my new friends and killer parties. But it was Patti. Not being there was out of the question.

The party was at her off-campus apartment, a long narrow building with a shared balcony. The cold blistered our faces as we huddled outside smoking, the warmth inside fogging our glasses. People came and went, Patti's new friends in her new life. I played drinking games, downed beer, smoked pot. Patti whirled around the tiny pad, hugging people without stopping to really speak to them. Paul was there, but I didn't talk to him. He had invited me to his twenty-first birthday party the previous summer but after devastating me, hurting me worse than anyone in my life up to that point, I wanted nothing to do with him.

Late, after most of the guests had departed, I had a cigarette on the balcony, wanting everyone to leave so I could crash on the couch and go home. To Ohio.

The door opened and Patti threw her arms around me, her cheek pressed against my back.

"Thank you for coming," she whispered. "I'm sorry we didn't really talk."

She leaned next to me over the ledge. She had replaced her black party dress with pjs and a peacoat, hair poking out under a Montreal Canadians hat.

"So those are my friends," she said.

"They seem nice."

"They are," she said. "I like to be surrounded by people I love."

The door creaked open.

"I have something to tell you," Patti started, while Paul joined her on the other side.

"Actually," Paul took her hand, sliding his fingers into hers, "we have something to tell you."

I remember flicking my cigarette onto the concrete and stubbing it out with my boot.

I remember taking a final swig of my beer and heaving the bottle into the parking lot, where it shattered on the pavement.

I remember laughing. A snotty sneer. Right in their faces.

"Um...." It was Patti. "Not exactly the reaction we were looking for?"

"Seriously?" I asked them.

Paul slipped his arm around her waist. "I've been in love with her for years, man."

"Okay," I backed away from them, arms outward. "I should just go."

"No!" Patti said. "We were hoping you'd stay and talk. We want to tell you everything."

"You can't just...drop that bomb on me and expect me to react like everything is a-ok."

You might think that I was in love with one or both of them. You probably think I was in love with Patti. But, in my mind, Patti had a choice to make, between romance and friendship, between Paul and Nick. I know now that she didn't choose Paul over me. She tried to choose both of us and I didn't see it.

"You couldn't have told me this was going on at all?" I asked. "I'm, like, five hours away. It's not like I went anywhere far."

"Life happens," Patti said. "I don't have time to just hop on the phone and make sure you're doing okay."

The next thing I said I would regret forever.

"You would if you were my real friend."

No one spoke for a long time. Patti leaned into Paul's chest.

"Nick, I think you should leave," Paul said.

Tears streamed down my cheeks. I gathered my belongings and spent the night in my car, feeling left out of that once beautiful circle, and empty. When the sun came up and I had sobered up, I drove back to school.

***

I was early to Paul's wake. A couple of cars dotted the parking lot of the Thayer-Rock funeral home. I took a deep breath, my hand on the door. I opened it.

She was on me immediately, a wave of wild, curly, red hair smothering me in a hug.

For all I know, our embrace took over the small foyer, grief-stricken friends and relatives forced to scoot around us as they entered and exited. I didn't give a shit. It felt good to cry into her again. It felt like home.

"What the fuck," I blurted.

She started laughing. "I know, right?" Music played faintly in the distance, a new song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs I really liked.

She put her arms on my shoulders and we looked each other square in the eyes.

"Let's go see Paul," she said.

She led me to the casket, past an assembled collage of photos and a laptop playing music. He looked unreal lying there. He'd hanged himself, gruesomely, slumped forward on his bathroom toilet, belt tied to the window behind him. It took force and determination for him to die. To make him look presentable to us, they'd shaved off most of his beard, leaving only a mustache that was so...not Paul.

Standing there felt like years, like we were making up for lost time, communicating in a language only we could understand. I didn't know then that Paul's death would give my life meaning, that since he died I have learned to anticipate the funeral around every corner, tried to fill each moment of each day with a love that buries itself deep in my stomach, explodes in my chest, pulses through my fingertips and out to the world.

Patti interlocked her fingers with mine.

"What's with the mustache?" I asked.

She grinned. "That's what I said. I don't know why they just didn't shave that off too." Her eyes were puffy from crying but she was smiling, her gaze fixed on Paul. "I half expect him to jump up, do a little Paulie dance, rip off that stupid mustache and shout 'Just kidding!'"

We laughed despite ourselves. We needed to.

"When I found him..." she trailed off. That story could wait. "But he looks peaceful now."

We stood silent, holding hands. When we exhaled it was in perfect unison.

***

"I don't know how this is possible," I say, fishing out the last Parliament Light for Patti, while she passes me the bottle of cheap chardonnay, "but you always look the same to me, in my memory or right now. Different hair styles or colors, new tattoos, glasses, contacts, crying, smiling, snow, summer, you're always eighteen years old to me. We could be anywhere in the world, at any time."

"But we're not," she says, with a nod to the old farmhouse, gussied up with a new addition to the back, so that it looks familiar yet unrecognizable in the same breath.

"I want to tell him things," I say.

"Like what?" she asks.

"Little things," I say. "That he'd probably like the Arcade Fire a lot."

Patti smiles. "Yeah, he would."

And you'd probably like LCD Soundsystem too, Paul, and The XX and Janelle Monae.

And I wish you could read what I wrote about you. I wish I could tell you that you visited me in my dreams, talked to me like you were alive, told me everything was going to be okay. I wish you didn't kill yourself and that the three of us-you, me, and Patti-could sit in your backyard as adults and listen to you play music. I'd smoke cigarettes, even though I haven't had one in a long time and maybe your daughter would sit on Patti's lap and your mom would cook platters of vegetables and gossip with my mom and our dads would talk awkwardly while they grilled meat and we could all just be together, one big clan. But you're gone. And never coming back.

I rock on my feet and the snow crunches, the wine twists in my guts. Patti passes our final cigarette and I finish it quickly, stubbing it out on the ground. It's time to go soon, me back to Chicago, Patti to LA where she moved after Portland, after Nashville, after Michigan.

We hug, deep and full, like that night at the funeral home. We're way beyond discovering our friendship again. This time, we will cling to each other and never let go.

She touches my face with her hands. "A month before he died. Paul told me that he missed you terribly, that he thought about you a lot. He felt bad about how things had ended between us. He wanted you back in his life."

"Really?" I ask.

Her gloves grab the lapels of my coat. "He loved you, Nick. And this," Patti gestures to the house but I know what she means. "This is how he brought us back together."

I don't know what to say. I am overwhelmed and overjoyed and tired and full.

"I'll see you soon," I whisper.

"Yes," Patti says. "Soon."

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