The night Joe all but died he joked with his best friend, Johnny, that I was probably traipsing across the globe reporting on the toppling of some Marxist regime. Johnny said Joe was laughing and talking into a make-believe TV camera when he said this.
It is five in the morning and I have just awakened from my second dream in as many weeks about Joe, my best guy friend from high school. He was also my mad and secret crush. I loved him.
In this dream I was driving down Exchange Avenue in Oklahoma City, a weird little diagonal byway that connects Western Avenue at Reno to Pennsylvania Avenue around SW 29th. As I drove I dodged dogs, dozens of which were running wild in the street, and when I got to a house at the end of the street, someone screamed at me not to hit a Saint Bernard puppy. I got out of my car, walked up the driveway, and Joe rounded the corner. He reached out to me and we hugged like someone had died.
When he pulled away he told that he had talked to a Carmelite nun I know, but whom Joe never knew. Dreams are so weird. Joe died nearly 15 years before I even met that nun.
“She said she could count on you and that no matter what was happening, you always had a smile.”
In my dream, I was all too aware that Joe was talking about the girl he knew, not the one that Carmelite knew.
Then, I woke up.
Every time I thought of Joe after he died, I would feel his presence. It felt tormented and sad and so I tried to stop thinking about him. He died a tragic death, from injuries sustained in a car accident. It was a bitterly cold night on an icy stretch of rural highway near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. It took more than 30 minutes for paramedics to reach him, and by then he had severe hypothermia and had suffered a stroke. Coupled with hitting a non-breakaway highway sign, it all proved too much to bear. He was in a coma for a long time and he never regained consciousness. He was buried on the family farm in Kansas.
I recently learned through connecting with Joe’s little brother via Facebook, that the family moved Joe to the family plot in the town cemetery where we went to high school. That was the same cemetery I cut through on my walks home from school. Who knew Joe would be there way too soon, and just 400 yards from the darkroom where we practiced printing pictures for the school newspaper.
I miss Joe. I remember helping him pick out his tux for our senior prom. Of course, he took someone else. Joe loved that girl and his family more than anything. I wish he was still here with us, then I realize he is every time I think of him.
After graduation, Joe joined the Army and I went to college and fell in love with a punkish rebel who introduced me to The Smiths, U2 and the Violent Femmes. Joe was a strapping farm boy who would have had trouble finding his footing in my brave new world. He talked about our differences in my senior yearbook. Note his nickname for me below, “Jenni Lover,” which he took from the popular Lionel Ritchie song of that time, Penny Lover.
While I spent my freshman year trying to figure out whether man was basically good or bad via Darkness at Noon and Lord of the Flies, Joe was hacking it out in boot camp. He wrote me letters asking me to pray for him. He told me he loved and to hope and pray for our future. I still have those four letters.
This was a poem Joe sent me from bootcamp.
I don’t know when or how, but Joe and I fell completely out of touch. I remember the last time I talked to him he was stationed in California. He was so good-looking, which made it hard to believe what he told me one night over the phone. “California girls don’t like soldiers,” he said.
The next I heard of Joe, he’d been in the accident. The last time I saw him, he was in a hospital bed. That was nearly 20 years ago. To my daughter, that sounds like a lifetime ago, but for those of us who have lived a while, some days it can feel like yesterday.
It still stuns me when I think of Joe’s name etched in stone. For some, the engraver comes quicker than others. He came too soon for my dear friend, but I no longer feel the presence of a sad or tormented soul when I speak of him. I guess he’s worked out his eternity or maybe the chemicals in my brain have finally helped me reconcile the colossal loss of my friend. He’s older these days. Forty-something, like me, and less gone all the time. Around 5 o’clock this morning, he reminded me of the girl I used to be.