Back in high school, my two best friends were Danny and Nick. Danny’s father owned a Shell station just off Marsh and Walnut Hill Lanes. The summer before our junior year, he gave me a job pumping gas and that’s where I learned basic auto maintenance. Danny was already working there and at some point along the way, Nick joined us . I think it was about 6 months after I started working there.
The Shell station was a hub … a meeting place for all our friends. We were pretty busy during the day. But after dinner, when the services bays closed down and all we were doing was pumping gas, guys would come by to visit. We’d sit on the two or three chairs that were outside and shoot the breeze, stopping only when a customer would drive in. Those were the “full service” days, when washing the windows and checking the oil was done on every car that came in. You didn’t think one way or the other about doing it … it was part of the job. Hell, if a cute girl was behind the wheel, we’d almost be fighting to see who got there first.
I used to get mad at Nick – sometimes when I pretty girl came in, I’d beat him over to the car. But then once I had set up the gas to pump, I’d turn around to wash the windows and he’d already be at it, chatting away with her. After all, I wasn’t rushing up there to work the gas nozzle! It was a chance to engage in a bit of conversation while you were nonchalantly checking her out through the windshield while the squeegee was doing its job. And when he horned in? Man I’d be all over him after she left, whether it was trying to get him in a headlock (which was tough because Nick was 6’4″) or trying to hit him with a sopping wet washrag. It wasn’t like Nick had trouble with girls! He was a charmer – the exact opposite of me! Anyhow, everyone would laugh until the next car came in … and if it was a cute girl, it’d be my turn to try and turn the tables on Nick! I don’t think I ever again had a job that was as much fun as working at the Shell station.
Danny worked there, too. From what I remember, he and I worked most of daytime hours during the two summers I was there. He usually left at dinnertime but I stayed on … anything to keep from going home. I used to work 60-70 hours a week during the summer months, double shifts as many days as I could. A lot of nights, Danny came back up to lock up the station for his dad and after that he’d come back with me to my house and we’d go right into the backyard to swim in our pool. Sometimes we’d be out there until after midnight talking about the typical stuff that was on the minds of teenage guys: sports, music, cars … and girls.
We also hung out at Nick’s house a lot, too, along with other guys (who coincidentally all worked at the gas station at one time or another). Nick’s mom wasn’t home that much during the day and I hardly ever saw his dad. And Nick had Playboys in his room which I always thought was pretty cool. Nick always had the coolest stuff, from his stereos to his clothes to his car – a beautiful Dodge 442. I can’t tell you how many nights we’d all be out looking for trouble in that car. We used to do some wicked shit together (and that’s all I’ll say about that!)
Danny’s home was another story. Both his mom and his dad were really cool people. I spent a lot of time over at his house during those years. It was a respite from all the turmoil in my home. His mother was especially kind to me. In all honesty, she was the mother I wished I had. It wasn’t Beaver Cleaver by any way, shape or form. But they always acted like they loved each other.
Danny and Nick both had girlfriends. I didn’t. I never felt I could. There was no way I was bringing anyone home to meet my parents! There were a couple of girls that I really liked, but I’d never take anyone out more than a couple of times, even if I wanted to. That’s just the way it was.
Danny wound up marrying his high school sweetheart, Leesa. Nick and I were both groomsmen … his dad was his best man. I came back from Nebraska to be in the wedding which took place a year after we graduated from high school. We had all pretty much gone our separate ways and it was back to that after the wedding. I saw Danny only once after that, during our 20th high school reunion. And I never saw Nick again.
Years go by. And I mean years! Danny and I began an email correspondence about 6 years ago. I don’t remember how that happened. What I do remember is that I was in the middle of one of my depressive episodes when it started. I tried to keep up my end of the string but stopped. I know Danny could tell that I wasn’t in a good state of mind. He kept the emails coming for over a month but after a very short time, I stopped answering. Almost every day, I’d get an email from him. And while he was offering up all sorts of moral support, all it did was make me feel worse. Why was I such a failure? Why did I have to struggle so much to be happy? Why was I so ashamed to let him in on everything I was dealing with?
Anyhow, the emails stopped coming. I was allowed to retreat back into my own hell. It was one thing to suffer on my own. I sure as hell didn’t need to do it with an old friend looking on!
Over the years, I had tried to track Nick down. At the reunion I mentioned, I asked almost everyone I talked to, “Have you heard from Nick? Do you know where he is?” No one had. The talk ranged from “drugs” to “nervous breakdown” and no one had a straight answer.
My last big push to find Nick came this summer while I was on the road. I came across a gal who was a year behind us, but who knew Nick’s family. After a couple of connections, I was led to Nick’s younger brother and wrote him via Facebook, telling him I was looking for Nick and really wanted to talk to him. No answer. About a week later, I wrote again and again, no answer. I put it aside, knowing that I was going to be in Dallas a few months later and would try again after I arrived.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t to happen. In December, I got the news that Nick had passed. I also found out that he had been suffering from bipolar disorder, and had fought other personal demons his whole life. As a result, he had shut himself off from everyone … all of his old friends. The same as I had.
I can’t begin to describe the sadness I felt on hearing about his struggles. If there was anyone out there who understood his pain, his desire to go inward and to shut people out, it was me. I did the very same thing for most of my life. I don’t know that I could have done anything to help him. Maybe if he knew that someone else understood where he was coming from, it might have provided some solace. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know that it would have reached me if the shoe was on the other foot. Nevertheless, I felt incredible sadness and regret. I’ve lost a number of dear friends from school over the past 10 years, but none of them hit me like Nick’s death.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you’re suffering in silence over depression, anxiety, abuse … whatever, don’t do that! Try to get past yourself and tell someone. Anyone! And if you know someone like that, be proactive and reach out to them. People like us aren’t always successful at opening doors and letting other people in. Sometimes it’ll be up to you to reach out to the sufferer.
Last week, I visited Danny’s parents. His mother occasionally wrote to me on Facebook and sent me a note after my Dallas visit last July. She said how disappointed she was that I didn’t come to see them. I told her that I couldn’t and that the main reason was “shame”. I just didn’t want them to see what I had become. I promised her that I’d see her the next time, not knowing if I would keep that commitment or not.
But I did. The peace I’ve found being on the road the past several months brought me to a point where I could go see them. It was a wonderful visit. At one point we talked about the abuse I was subjected to. His mom said, “Joe and I never liked the way your parents treated you, but we had no idea you were going through that!” His dad volunteered that they would have “come and got” me had they known. Oh well.
Before I drove down to see them, I emailed Danny. In brush strokes, I told him why I stopped writing and what had been going on with me since then. I told him, “I’m not asking for your forgiveness. I don’t think I deserver that. But I wanted you to know what’s going on.”
Danny sent me a very loving email back, telling me that he had been worried about me … much as I had been about Nick, I suppose … and had been praying for me. He offered a couple of uplifting Bible verses and I’ve got them pinned on my browser. We weren’t able to work it out to see each other this time … logistical problems … but we’ve started emailing again. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see each other next March, when I’m back in the area. I’m grateful for that. But I wish I had a second chance with Nick.
It’s funny how things work out. Nick, Jeff and Danny, in that order. Nick suffered and I was trying to reach out to him in my worry. I suffered and Danny tried to reach out to me in his. I did the same thing that Nick did, but I get a second chance to reconnect and Nick didn’t.
Why? That doesn’t seem fair.