The day my boyfriend broke up with me (long distance, over the phone), Phil called and offered to cook me dinner. Ever the cool customer, what he really said was:
"There are these two lobsters sitting on the counter, staring at me, and I can't eat them by myself."
His timing was a bit miraculous. Phil didn't know about the breakup; he probably wasn't even aware that I'd been dating someone. I desperately needed to be thinking about something else, and at that moment, all I could think of was whether or not I was going to like lobster. Yes, in spite of the fact that at least two generations of my family had spent much of our lives living near the water, none of us were big seafood eaters.
"But Phil, I've never had lobster."
"Well then, you must come up and eat these with me, you'll love lobster."
I do not know where his parents or older brother were that evening, but it turned out that lobster is easy to cook and I love anything drowned in butter. We enjoyed having the house to ourselves, catching up on stories from our respective colleges, walking up to the yacht club and sitting on the same porch we spent most of the summer on, talking until dark, and heading home. I never mentioned the breakup. Sometimes it's the gifts you don't know you are giving that are the most memorable for the recipient.
I'd known Phil since he was twelve. He was a year behind me in school, but I had briefly dated his older brother, if you could call it dating at age thirteen. In any case, it was a situation that ended so awkwardly that, two years later, when Phil and I discovered that assigned seats put us side by side in the front row of a French class, the first words out of both our mouths were "Oh, no!"
Of course, by the end of the semester, we were commiserating about our parents, his father and my mother, whose expectations we would never live up to. He drew sharks and AK-47s, expressions of frustration, on his notebooks and occasionally on mine. For the next two years, we'd meet at the library or hang around downtown on Saturdays, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with other friends. Summers found us on the porch of the yacht club, feet up on the railings, looking out at the water. He tried, unsuccessfully, to help me improve my tennis game. He taught me to windsurf. He extolled the virtues of the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, The Doors, bands I never mustered much enthusiasm for. He lived to have a good time, to enjoy life, I fretted constantly.
His junior year, he was very excited about a trip to Germany, where the drinking age was lower. His senior yearbook photo was not the standard, formal, portrait of a high school graduate, but a shadowy image of him on a mountain top in Germany, beer bottle in hand. He was thrilled to have it escape the morality police on the yearbook staff.
When I went away to college, we exchanged letters; pages and pages of the kind of stuff that seems so important when you are an emerging adult, but really isn't. The first year was probably not that interesting, but the second year I was stunned to find him experiencing the same kinds of challenges I had as a college Freshman the year before. Here, finally, was an area where I could be there for him instead of the other way around.
The year after the lobster dinner, I spent most of the summer outside of Boston acting as nanny to two incredibly spoiled children who did not have the word "obey" in their vocabularies, but substituted a whole lot of other words I considered inappropriate for girls aged six and four. So much did their permissive upbringing clash with my strict one that, at the end of my time with them, their mother suggested I should probably never work with children again. Letters from Phil provided breaks in my misery. He gushed about his latest obsession, bicycle racing, and complained about how he couldn't seem to get through a race without a collision or some other equipment failure. It was frustrating, but he still loved what he was doing. When was I coming home?
My return to Guilford in mid-August was heralded by a spectacular screaming match with my mother the moment I walked in the door. She was upset about my performance in college and threatened to withdraw her tuition support. She backed down when she realized I was perfectly willing to walk out the door with the guy who brought me down from Boston, kiss her tuition money good-bye, and figure it out from there. Bad attitude and unsuitable boyfriend dispatched, my mother returned to whatever she was doing in the living room before I arrived.
Seeking sanity, I moved to the kitchen to call Phil.
I do not know what made me put the phone down, seconds later, without dialing. I went back to the living room to ask my mother if Phil had called.
"Oh!" she gasped. "Phil died."
In that moment I lost one of my best friends and realized my mother hadn't had the basic decency to call me and let me know about the funeral. It had been held a week before. I'd missed the whole thing.
Phil was hit by a car while he was riding his bicycle up a steep and curvy hill towards the high school. The driver was a fellow classmate who was found to have marijuana in his glove compartment. We'll never know if it was also in his system because the driver's father was friends with several cops who conveniently lost the urine sample taken after the accident.
His brother told me that my last letter was on Phil's desk the day he died. He'd never gotten the chance to open it.
Phil and I didn't have a lot of common interests, but what we did have was that common experience of not quite fitting in to one's own tribe. One day in French class, he grabbed my notebook, wrote some song lyrics on it and handed it back to me. It was a typically teenaged way of communicating. I thought very little of it then, but time has made me wonder if he did not make some connection there that I wouldn't recognize until years later.
And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes,
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.
Who knows? Maybe he will.