We grew in the same fields

This morning I got the news from a high school friend that a mutual friend of ours had died in his sleep last week. He was 32.

Dylan and I met at Maybeck — the tiny high school in Downtown Berkeley California we both attended. We were nerds in a school known for nerds, and became friends. It took us several months to realize we were from the same tiny town in Massachusetts.

Not only the same tiny town 3,000 miles away, we were part of the same gang of 5–10 year old miscreants who used to terrorize the even tinier Mill River park in North Amherst. Somehow it wasn’t surprising — it seemed like we’d always known each other, and we had.

We stole and ate the same ice cream sandwiches from Cumberland Farms, we looked at the same sex books we snuck out of our friend Max’s house, we drank from the same fountains and breathed the same summer air. We were planted in the same earth and we grew in the same fields.

I moved back east in my junior year. I hated the big school in the tiny town. I dropped out, got very high, lost my ambition and travelled the world a bit. Dylan went on to college. I didn’t think of him much until 7 years later. I’m back in Berkeley, sitting in the Pub and someone says I remind them of their friend Dylan, I even talk like him. “He must be handsome, articulate and thoroughly untrustworthy”, I reply. She agrees and tells me he’ll be here soon. He is every day. And she’s right.

Many beers, many games of backgammon later: Dylan is an accidental computer programmer like me, going back to school to be something that is more interesting to talk about at the Pub — like me. I’m drinking too much these days. He drinks even more. We mostly meet at the Pub, and every time it feels like summer. 2 years later, I quit school for a job and a woman and a new country, he quits school for the Pub.

3 years pass and I’m back in Mass. The pretty girl Dylan and I used to drink with at the pub is with me and we’ve got a kid. The full disaster: salaried job, car, house, swimming class at the Y on Saturday mornings. I’m rushing between appointments trying to get my Mac fixed. A handsome face with a few days of black stubble pokes out between two scrawny shoulders at the computer shop and offers a slow, meek smile.

It was effortless.

Although he claimed to be depressed or at least bored he was always quick with a smile. How to do Dylan’s smile: Eyes wide and twinkle, jaw bones retract, the grin pushes the chin out, the shoulders slightly forward, the neck in. But you can’t do it. My smile (like most peoples’) is full of pretense. Looking in the mirror, waiting for someone to appreciate it. Dylan’s smile didn’t ask for anything in return. It was its own gift.

I convince him to join a bowling league. He needs a night off from his girlfriend and something to keep him from his doubts.

I need to get away from my toddler, my depressed wife, my middling job. I need a place to drink and throw heavy shit to keep myself from going under. It’s perfect.

He is the worst bowler I’ve ever seen. His stance is hilarious — staccato tiptoe runnup like a ballerina, he plants his foot like a pole vaulter and throws the ball like a discus. Thoroughly unapologetic — unfazed by failure or success — just happy for a beer, the occasional strike, a smoke break. Our handicap was higher than some teams’ averages.

Last January I visited Northampton during a business trip back to the US. As usual, we had not been in touch. But it never mattered. I spent 3 hours trying to track Dylan down. His mailbox was full, he didn’t respond to emails, but that was always Dylan. His girlfriend worked at the overpriced organic food market with kale dog food and fair trade emu dropping shampoo. Her boss let me know Dylan had broke back for the west coast. I believe she said, “you kinda look like him.”

This morning I got a message from our friend: I hate to do this in a Facebook message, but…

He and I were like two subjects in a controlled experiment. We were from different seeds, certainly. He was smarter, patient, humble, empathetic. I coached him to give a shit, I reminded him of his genius, his charm, his heart, a fortune of gifts. He once told me he didn’t like compliments, it made his failures more pronounced. I don’t know what failures he means. Drug problems? Women problems? Work problems? Money problems? Bowling problems? Whatever he thought they were, they produced one of the most generous, kind, funny and honest people I have had the privilege to know and to know me.

As I am writting this, I go back to our days in Northampton outside the bowling alley. One smoke would turn into 5, then a beer in a paper bag, then 5 more. One night we sat slumped up against the alley wall long after the lights had gone out — fireflies in the haze of camel light smoke — switching from sex, to the Pub, to freedom, to 3d rendering, to amphetamines, to William Blake, to tech careers, inflated expectations, underwhelming lives, to the Buddha, back to bowling, to alternative histories… The stories in the whitespace of life. Where things could have gone for the two of us and never did.

How can this end here and now? We are still so young. I am robbed so suddenly of all the new memories I so casually assumed I would be able to recall in the future. This experiment should not be over.

Why am I slumped over a laptop crying and why has Dylan been harvested?

I love you Dylan. We were planted in the same earth, and we grew in the same fields.

Originally published at http://www.jacobsingh.name on October 16, 2013.

Jacob Singh
CTO in residence at Sequoia Capital. Independent product and Engineering Coach Mediocre guitarist, singer, rock climber, point guard and baker Dedicated dad. American in New Delhi.
New Delhi