G used to tell people that we met in Europe, which drove me crazy both because it sounded pretentious and because it was completely untrue. The fact is, we both went to England after high school at the same time, with the same work program, but didn’t connect until a year later, when we were both back here in Canada and I’d moved from Toronto to her city on the West Coast. It’s *possible* that we exchanged smiles upon our arrival in the UK, when the program had us all crammed into the rez buildings at the University of Reading for a 2 day orientation to British life, but really I was so busy being alternately jet-lagged and drunk that I simply don’t remember.
What I do remember are the stories she told me later, of her travels in a van through France and Italy and Germany. We even went to some of the same places, and I like to think we could have met, except that we never did.
This topic usually only came up when we were both inebriated at a party. When I’d remind her of the true facts of the matter, she’d just say, “Yeah, well, we *should* have met back then.” As if that was enough of a reason to tell people that we had.
Her birthday was 5 days before mine, though she was born 360 days after I was: Both Cancers, creative and harsh and protective and moody and sensitive and wanting to belong, with outer shells of toughness that make us push people away when we wanted to know them better. We even did this to each other, becoming once-close friends who in recent years acted like mere acquaintences.
She was killed last month, unintentionally riding her skateboard directly into heavy traffic. I have a particular horror about a death like that, because my closest community is made up of cyclists, and we have near-misses every day even when limiting our risks as best we can: It’s a reminder that any of us could die, which is something that I rarely ever think about in terms of my friends. My family, the older generation, yes… I’ve been preparing myself for losing my parents for a long time now, or at least trying to, because I know it’ll happen eventually. But my friends? These people between 20 and 50 years old, who make up my social scene? No, not them… And certainly not her, this old friend who’d moved on from my small circle of confidants to become larger-than-life.
I met her a month after I first moved to this city, nine years ago. We were introduced by a girl I’d lived with in England that previous winter: They’d attended high school together, and my old roommate said that G was into the same sorta stuff I was. I was immediately impressed by her cool appearance, and when she said that she was working on the upcoming Take Back the Night march, I jumped at the chance to get her contact info.
It turns out that she lived a couple blocks away from me, and was going to be spinning fire at the march. Did I have a bike trailer they could borrow, to hold the kerosene so that they could refuel as they went? No, but I could make one: Some wheels I had lying around, a big plastic bin, a bit of plywood. It sounded like a dozen skateboards as I pulled it behind my bike from my house to the march’s rendezvous point, but it worked. More importantly, it made G raise an eyebrow and tell me that she was impressed. I joined her at the march, towing the trailer in the centre of the fire dancers, the noise of the wheels luckily drowned out by the drummers.
She had a studio in Chinatown, and I soon had a mad crush on her best friend. They often painted together, late into the night, which I discovered during the height of the bad insomnia that hit me during the fall of that year. I was hanging out at the all-night cafe, no doubt engaged in some seriously angsty journaling, and they came in to use the bathroom and get tea. It surprised me that they invited me back to the studio, which was in a pedestrian alley accessed only by a locked gate. Drafty and chaotic, the studio overwhelmed my romantic nature with its sheer coolness, and I was smitten: Not by G, or even really by her best friend, so much as by the entire situation. I went back a lot after that, curling up in a rotting armchair with my book while they worked on their art. Sometimes we talked, often we didn’t, and frequently I just listened as the two of them discussed drama in their social networks, drama that had nothing to do with me. It was comforting, because I’d moved to the city knowing no one at all, and I needed to feel like I belonged somewhere.
The main memorial for G was held in the city where she’d been winning prizes both as an art student and a longboarder these last three years. Locally, plans were made for a second event, one that celebrated G’s life and the connections she made when she still lived here, when I still knew her. In the planning, I pretended it was just another themed party at the community bike shop, which had hosted so many crazy event in the past: A mechanic’s birthday, a fundraiser for a bicycle dance troupe, my going-away bash when I left for Oz. Like we had for these events, Oats and I organized a sound system and set it up, a task that let me continue to be busy and focus only on the details. When the rest of the 100 or so attendees watched the slideshow of photos of G and her art, I barely looked at it, intent only on matching the cue of the music so that I’d get it right for the upcoming video clip.
G’s best friend burst into tears and ran past me.
There was another death earlier this summer, of someone I’d met several times but hadn’t really known. G, however, had been a good friend of hers. When this other woman died, G went to the community gathering where she’d lived, and in their conversations she’d spoken about what she wanted when she died. Many of those same people were at this memorial and they’d remembered what she’d said. So, there it was: Art on display, fire dancers, bicycle theatrics, a table of pickled beets and rye bread and sausage and other favourite foods of hers, trays and trays of vodka shots passing around, singing, a live mamba band (of which she’d been a founding member), stilt walkers. Lots of crying too, though I’m not sure how much she’d have liked that.
What I’m sure G would have loved was the stories being told, as the crowd circulated and we all reminisced. “How did you first meet G?” We’d ask each other. Some of these people have been my friends for almost as long as my own history with G, and yet we’d never talked about these parts of our recent pasts. I found out that P went to high school with her, and M met her through J, who met her when she was working at the health food store downtown. In the background, while we talked, was the mural G had painted across the back fence of the bike shop’s yard.
I suppose that G was in town for one or more events this past year, but I don’t remember talking with her at all. These are my two most recent memories of her:
At the annual huge bike party 3 years ago, she won a spot in a dance contest, along with 3 others. When I, as DJ, started the song I’d selected, she stopped in the middle of the space that’d cleared around her and yelled at me, “I can’t dance to this shit!”
“You can if you want to win,” I yelled back, while she glared her meanest glare. I think she was dead serious, but so was I, and after another beat or two of eye-daggers in my direction, she just went wild with a kind of shimmying step. I believe she was wearing a spandex unitard or something similarly odd, tight, and shiny. Did she win? I don’t remember, but I know she was a crowd-pleaser.
The other memory comes from maybe a year after that, in the city where she’d moved for school and to follow her sport, where I was visiting with Oats for a weekend during the early days of our relationship. G was walking down the street towards us, recognizable even when still a fair ways away simply because she had a artists’ portfolio under one arm and a pair of stilts balanced across the other shoulder. “Hi,” I said when we passed, “How are you?”
“Oh, hi,” G replied, as though seeing me was the most natural thing in the world. “I’m great. And you?”
“Fine,” I said.
We barely slowed the pace of our walking: It was the briefest of encounters, though completely polite and gracious. But this is exactly why it always stuck with me, because it seemed to illustrate how very distant mine and G’s orbits had grown from one anothers. Even before her death, I’d think about this sometimes, as a lens to apply to my behaviours in other relationships: How can someone who was once my only friend, who once made up the bulk of my (admitedly very limited) social life, become someone whom I almost completely pass on the street?
I’d hoped to have some big conclusion here, but I don’t. Maybe it’s too soon: Maybe the fact of G’s death is still settling, and I’ll have something final to say about it in another month… Or decade. Or maybe there’s nothing big about it: Maybe it’s all the little things.
Some of these are basic, such as the lesson to not take one’s friends for granted because they might not be around as long as you want them to be.
Some of these are more complex, such as my parents, who were visiting from Toronto at the time, declining my invitation to attend the memorial. It’s not that I exactly wanted them to watch me get drunk on vodka and cry while K sang Ave Maria in her incredible operatic voice, but I did think they should know who my community is, know what it is that I’m part of out here on the far side of the country from where they raised me. In short, I wanted them to know that we are rad, and that we take care of one another.
Which is pretty much the best conclusion I can think of right now: Last summer, I learned that my community does good weddings, as two couples hosted fun and meaningful nuptial events complete with group bike rides, open air ceremonies, and self-written vows. This summer, I learned that we can do good funerals too. As sad as that is, and as hard as it is to say goodbye to one of us, I’m very glad to know this.