Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Died unexpectedly. It's a powerful little phrase, absolutely suggestive of something dark, secret, embarrassing, and it hints at a life snuffed out "before its time" as they say. It's a way of communicating something without really having to communicate it, of suggesting closure when all it really does is open up more questions.

Jennifer Smith Fuller died on Friday. It's hard to describe my relationship with Jen, but I'll try to give it a go...

When I was in first grade I was sent to a second-grade classroom for reading, because I'd learned to read at home and was way ahead of the curve. I was also one of two first-graders in our school's burgeoning gifted program. Both of those statements were true of Jennifer as well. In second grade the school got smart and put us together in the same class, so that we could have a reading group all to our own. From that point on, we were always in the same class through elementary, in the same pullout gifted program, and we had most of the same junior and senior high classes together too. We would clash a little bit at times because we were really each other's only competition throughout elementary school.

Later on, I got to be the sole alpha geek and others caught up and passed Jen, but only because she was better-rounded and because she started having problems. Jen had an artistic temperment, and she was one of the prettiest girls in school. She also had a lot of problems at home, although I didn't so much know it at the time. Toward the end of ninth grade she disappeared and rumors flew--pregnancy? illness? mental hospital? Sadly it was the latter, for the first but not the last time.

She came back strong, though, and she became class president and a cheerleader. We had drifted apart somewhat in junior high and into high school, but toward the end we drifted back together for some reason. I think we were both aware on some level that the small towns where we grew up couldn't make us happy, though I acted on it sooner than she did. She got married shortly after high school and tried to settle down, but she didn't wear it well.

Shortly before I left for California the first time in 1998 I ran into Jen, and it turned out she was living very close to me in Squirrel Hill. She was divorced at this point and struggling a bit, but she had made the leap into the city and into a career-track marketing position. I found out that she was still writing poetry and was into big Russian novels. Unfortunately, she was also well into a string of abusive boyfriends and self-destructive behaviors.

We were in touch occasionally once I moved out West--a phone call here, a chance meeting there when I was home, leading to a lunch or drinks. We saw a little more of each other the year I was back at home, especially summer of 2003 when I was working in Pittsburgh. A couple of times we'd be out with the boyfriend du jour, the one that was different this time, and inevitably I would start getting chilly signals from him when it became clear that I knew his girlfriend better than he did, that we shared the type of wavelength you can only share with someone you knew when you were 6, someone who you went on long field trips with, someone who was a little bit out of place in the same way you were a little bit out of place. Eventually Jen and I would be the only ones at the table of 3 or 6 or 8 laughing. One time someone else's boyfriend even got a little too drunk and wanted to fight me because I was brazenly flirting with yet another dude's girlfriend. Jen and I laughed it off because that wasn't it at all.

And then again, maybe it was a little. I don't want to make too much of this, but a little part of me probably always was in love with Jen. Nothing ever happened and I think it would have bene downright weird if it had. But yeah, on some level I was a little bit jealous of those guys who had body even though they couldn't ever get that corner of her mind that was mine.

In the last several years, accounts got sketchier and progressively worse. When I'd hear from Jen it would turn out that the boyfriends sending the chilly signals really weren't any different from all the others, and that they eventually did turn violent, but now there was a new one who wasn't like that at all. Except of course that he was. My dad ran into Jen's mom one time when I was home visiting and she asked if I could go see her, because she was in the hospital again, and maybe I was the one who could get through to her. I didn't go--partially for selfish reasons, partially because I didn't want her to see me as her mom's lackey, and partially because I knew damn well that you can't talk a person into being sane.

The last time I saw Jen was the day after Christmas, 2003. She and the current bad boyfriend (I think this one was a drummer) had a party that I somehow got invited to. It may have been the strangest party I've ever attended. Jen was going on about whatever new brand of mysticism she was into and was talking about setting up shop as a medium. She had surrounded herself with a bunch of druggies and hippies and stoners and "musicians" and weirdos--and while I normally mean those words in a good way, this was not a good crowd. I tried to fit in as best as I could--I even smoked up for what may well be the last time, and I drank Jen's sangria and who knows what was in there. I sat in a lounging chair with Jen and made her promise to call me when she needed someone to talk to and promise that she'd see better guys. I don't think either one of us believed either promise, but I suppose it was comforting to hear anyway. I never heard from her again.

"Died unexpectedly" is a polite way to say that we don't want the name of the particular vice or combination of vices--the bad boyfriends, the strange mysticisms, taking the bad drugs, not taking the good drugs--that was the proximate cause of death to be printed in the local newspaper. I don't know if I'll find out which one was the real cause, and I don't know if I want to know. Here's what I do know: I got 4 calls, 2 emails, and an IM yesterday telling me something had happened. Bill was the one who finally got me directly to break the news. The news was heart-breaking, soul-crushing, depressing, tragic, and a million other things that I'm feeling now or haven't even begun feeling yet.

The saddest part, though, is this: it was anything but unexpected.

No comments: