You’re Not Forgotten, Zach; or: Traction
(As read at Guts & Glory 1/16/13)
Pretty much whenever I eat cereal, I think of my friend Zach Dunlap.
And sometimes, on cold January Saturdays, as I sit cross-legged, hungover on the couch my brother gave me three years ago, it’s good to know he’ll never be forgotten.
Because these days? These days, daddy’s pretty poor. And eats a whole lot of cereal.
I grew up in a college town in Northeastern Ohio. I think I’ll be forever grateful for having grown up there. I had a truly terrific childhood, and friendships that have lasted over decades. Knowing what I know now, I realize I had a pretty insulated existence. I was not yet awake to the frailty of life.
I had a super Nintendo.
I went to vacation bible school.
Most of my close friends owned bb guns.
I would collect call my parents to have them pick me up after junior high play practice, cramming a full sentence on my whereabouts in the 3 seconds offered to say a name.
It was the kind of fancy-free lifestyle young men can only dream of.
Growing up, I was in a Saturday morning bowling league with a few friends. As we grew older, we always were adding and losing teammates, so one year my friend Porter invited a guy named Zach to our team. Two guys named Zach, to be specific, but you’ll hear more about the other one later.
The league operated as such: every Saturday you would go in, bowl three games, spend $20 of your parents’ money on bowling and soda, cautiously eye the condom machine in the restroom, and then have your parents pick you all up after only a few hours - everyone smelling like someone dumped an ashtray directly on top of them.
Zach and I became fast friends, bonding over sports, movies, music, and not really giving a shit about bowling. But our friendship was truly forged in the disgustingly hot flames of internet connectivity.
In the glory days of AOL instant messaging, he was one of those people that was always available, a maestro of conversation between a symphony of friends. Soccer players. Car dudes. Buddies. Babes. Young babes. Questionably young babes, and scores of other friends. He was a gregarious, outgoing, compassionate person.
He was a great person to talk to.
Since my father grew up on a farm, I was living in a dial-up world, and Zach was spending his days in the dream-like state that is high speed internet.
We were teenagers, it was the late nineties.
Technology, internet piracy, and our hormones were all advancing at an exponential pace, and we emerged like delicate butterflies from an online boner chrysalis.
Zach had internet power.
Naturally, Zach used this power for a collection of pirated music and pornography that was, to a God-fearing boy like myself, simply unbelievable in its breadth and scope.
I remember watching one video with Zach, and afterwards recall being almost frightened by what two human beings can do with just a few ice cubes.
We sat in creaky desk chairs together, fully clothed, watching pretty much the exact videos our parents hold told us not to. At 16, this was pretty much bliss.
We continued to bond over things like listening to Outkast and working shitty summer jobs.
I would drive home from working at the now closed Six Flags Ohio Worlds of Adventure, and Zach was working at Arby’s. I’d pay about $5 and receive what I estimated to be three and a half pounds of food. Roast almost beef, jalapeno somethings, and just so, so many curly fries.
Zach filled me in on the behind the scenes type stuff at my local Arby’s.
He explained they use something called a 'sham,' which is just a metal ham-shaped mold they fill with liquid roast beef. They bake that, and slice it up hot.
It’s good mood food!
Being a year older, I eventually left to Cincinnati for college. Zach and I kept in touch, but periods of silence grew longer with this new distance.
His mom and stepfather moved into the house next to my parents. When I’d drive home from Cincinnati, arriving late on a Friday, sometimes I’d walk over to Zach’s and hang late into the night.
Moving chronologically, Mark Zuckerberg then signed a blood oath with Satan in a cornfield in the deep south, or something, and Facebook became a thing.
One afternoon, in a dirty room in a dirty house just off the dirty campus of the dirty University of Cincinnati, I saw that a mutual friend was posting about an accident. Or something.
She was distressed, trying to communicate information to others that had obviously been asking her questions.
I burrowed through posts from friends and eventually discovered the situation.
Zach, who I naively thought had digestive problems that gave him occasional issues, was in the hospital. More specifically, in intensive care. I was told some of his internal organs had stopped working days before.
Days before, he was at home and could barely move, and just stayed there. After a few days of nobody hearing from him, our other friend Zach burst into his apartment to find him.
Fading in and out of consciousness, Zach struggled to wake up. He was alive, but barely. We could do nothing more but wait for his organs to wake up and start functioning again.
It’s March of 2006.
I wake up. I’m surprised, as this means I was actually able to fall asleep.
I look at my phone to see it’s only been a few hours.
My eyes sting from lack of sleep. I was up late speaking with my friend Martha. She lets me know that Zach coded last night, for several minutes. I search online to learn what this means.
His brain wasn’t receiving oxygen.
Martha and I have been talking regularly with updates on Zach. She lives in Dayton, just an hour away from me. From there, it’s maybe an hour and half to Columbus, to the University hospital where Zach lays, alive only because of machines.
Martha calls to tell me today will be the day.
I start driving to her apartment.
I stop at Burger King to get a spicy chicken sandwich. I hate the fact that even through pain, I’m still a human that needs food, and that I’ve stopped at Burger King to get a fucking spicy chicken sandwich.
I go in and out of tears.
Martha and I meet. I still remember how tightly we hugged. We drove to Columbus, fading in and out of silence. I remember staring into the late-winter nothingness that is the geographic center of Ohio.
We pace the hospital’s intensive care waiting room after stopping in to see Zach. His hands and body are swollen. Machines fire and beep in a cacophony around him.
Then, they stop.
Zach’s mom walks out to us all, a smattering of friends and family gathered in this hospital waiting room because we’re not sure where else to be. She tells us all that we didn’t win this one.
Later that night, I drive back to Cincinnati, headlights on 75 south blurring through tears.
I drift through days, wanting so badly for everything to just slow down. Stop.
I drink too much some nights.
I cry on the phone with old friends.
I learn about Crohn’s and Colitis.
My mom goes with me to buy my first suit. It’s black and ill-fitting. I remember thinking I should be wearing this as a groomsman instead of a pallbearer.
I make a promise to myself that for the next one of these things, I’ll be one of the people that gets up to say something.
I try filling the space he left.
I realize, soon, that you just…can’t.
Death is inescapable, and that's what makes it a real son of a bitch.
It forces perspective, whether you’re prepared for it or not.
Right now, I’m 29. I think.
I’ve lived almost four years in Chicago. I’ve journeyed through crummy jobs.
Parking cars and selling Nalgenes to the affluent, all while holding on hopes to a faint glimmer of hope. A writing opportunity through editors I randomly met during a year of service with Americorps. After sending initial writing, they wanted to see more, and even offered a contract.
I would write, revise, write again, revise again, and wait, wait, wait.
My job now? Crummy as ever. I work customer service, and speak with people named Gayle that literally fear the internet. With Floridians named Marisela ready to provide details on just where, when and how their coupon for genital waxing ‘let them down as a customer.’
My friend Casey likens it to ‘golden handcuffs’. The comfort that money and benefits can provide, coupled with the gnawing feeling that I’m just spinning my wheels – marking time as I assist rude, frustrated rich people with their business transactions.
My friend Greg says we’re in something called tideland.
Lately I find myself in this conversational groove, speaking with all types of friends feeling similarly stuck, wherever they are. Jobs they’re holding to chase after passions. Dogs they’re walking while they figure out exactly what it is they want.
Jobs like this make me miss my friend Zach.
It’s October of 2012, four years since I met that group of editors in a high school in the south Bronx.
One day, at my desk, I receive an email from my editor. It started with ‘While most publishers have said no thanks, they’ve heard back from one.’
It ended with ‘FUCK EVERYTHING I’M QUITTING MY JOB IMMEDIATELY.’
And that brings me to tonight.
The timing of tonight seemed serendipitous.
I so badly wanted to talk about these shitty jobs. The importance of not letting them control you. All ending in a reading of a composed email to my boss, detailing just what pieces of my soul this job has trampled, with a minimum of expletives peppered throughout. I would click send, we would all get drunk.
But, that’s not how it’s happening.
I still have to wait, patiently, for the difficult, probably evil inner-workings of children's literature contracts to be ironed out. My wheels spinning, faster than ever, but still only whirring in place.
And in this marked time, in the days where these golden handcuffs tether me to my fake desk, I contemplate importance. Ultimately, I come back to that forced perspective.
It’s no longer an emptiness, what I feel for my friend Zach. For years I’ve carried the hollowness with me, and it’s not to say the void has been filled. On the contrary - too many other voids have joined his.
But I’ve learned that the best thing I can do, the best thing to do, is to leave the space death has created. To remember it’s imprint, and fill the rest of your life remembering potential that once occupied it.
So I’m hopeful that my wheels won’t be spinning much longer. These handcuffs will rust and crumble at my feet, that the tides will do whatever it is that tides do.
But I’m also grateful. That for now, this time before I find whatever traction it is, this time is for the more simple things - like making sure a friend is not forgotten.