I hadn't heard from my friend Dave for nearly two years. There were rumblings and grumblings in Iraq, and he'd told me one day while we were chatting: "Don't be too surprised if you don't hear from me for a while." And then, nothing.
Dave and I go way back. When I was sixteen and in high school, I took the fencing class offered up at UAF, the local college. The beginning fencing class had been opened to high schoolers, because it made more sense to teach it all together rather than teaching the same thing four times over to a smaller class. I was one of the promising students. Dave was the class's TA, a college student from the intermediate class helping wrangle the unruly high school students.
It made sense that the TA would spar with the beginner who was a little over the caliber of the bulk of the rest of the class. It made sense that two people at that outside edge of the geek spectrum, too geeky to ever hope to be mainstream, but not hardcore enough to count as Serious Fen, would bond with each other. My sarcastic recounting of the misadventures of the infamous Shawn (another member of the class) always made Dave grin. I could bust him up giggling if I had my timing right.
I was sixteen, and had just recently discovered a penchant for slender, pale geekboys. I laughed and joked with Dave, and occasionally asked for a hand unzipping the back of my fencing jacket, and unzipped his in return. I knew that he was far too old, and would never be interested in me. Dave was twenty to my sixteen, and he was acutely aware of it. He schooled himself into a strictly professional attitude around me. It wouldn't be legal, I had a large and very protective father who could probably break him in half, and I was far too interested in that sloppy-stanced Shawn, though what I could see in Shawn was completely beyond Dave. I couldn't be interested in him, and he'd be a creepy old man if he started reading anything more into it.
I have an interesting way of dealing with difficult emotions. If there's time for me to react to something before it happens, I get very emotionally intense and perhaps overreact. But when the crisis hits, if a crisis hits, I'm calm as calm can be while it's happening. Only after the crisis is safely over does the pent-up reaction hit me. And it hits with a vengeance.
High school ended and college came around. Dave and I crossed paths again. I was eighteen; he was twenty-two. I was involved with Shawn; Dave was involved with another girl from the fencing-related crowd. When I was twenty, and engaged to a fellow involved in the fan film shoot that Dave was in, word trickled back to me that actually that enormous crush I'd had on Dave for four years was reciprocal. My fiancé told me. I walloped him with a pillow and tried to ignore the little voice asking me why I was engaged to this fellow instead of trying to date Dave, then. But it was too late to change my mind. I was moving to Arizona with my fiancé.
After the engagement fell through, I wrangled Dave's e-mail address out of some mutual friends. He was stationed in Germany. I was going to college in Arizona. We were awake at opposite hours of the day, though sometimes I would stay up a little later than I should, or stay online a few extra minutes before rushing to school. We operated in a constant communications lag. He read my journal, but never commented. The army's IM client and firewalls made chats uncertain. Weeks went by without our schedules and free time syncing up just right. There was a local boy I was interested in. It wouldn't be worth the wait for either of us. And we were fine as friends. Really. And he would be out of communication for a while.
And then -- no word.
By the time I realized how long it had been with no word, the immediate panic had faded into the numb background of wartime crisis mode. Bush was being an idiot. Dave was a bright boy, and geeky. Surely they'd have him in some dungeon-like base or other working on computers. I had his e-mail address. He had mine. And he gradually faded out of my immediate thoughts unless I saw his last name, or his best friend's last name, in passing somewhere.
I was about to shut down the computer and pack up for errands and my writing group when I saw an ID active on my instant message buddies list that I hadn't seen in far too long. I opened up a chat session. There was a terrible span of seconds when I realized that it could be someone else logging in on his personal box, if he'd not changed his password. Was it him? Would I get a stiff and confused message from some unknown relative telling me that this wasn't Dave, and he would never return my message? I held my breath. I had gone these years without hearing from him, and could have easily gone a lifetime without contacting him again. A lifetime passed in fifteen seconds before the window lit up with a response. It was him.
When that much time has gone between contacts, there's no practical way to get it all said. We summed up in a few lines and started catching up. It still hummed between us, tight and high-tension: the flow, the give and take, the easy camaraderie. For all the changes we'd each gone through, we were still ourselves around each other and we knew it. I excused myself and fled off on the bus to my writing group.
I wasn't sure whether I should dance and scream for joy or kneel on the grass and sob. He was a character from a closed chapter in my life. I could never go back. But he was alive. Gods. He was alive. If things had gone differently, I could have married him. I could have been in danger of being widowed. I could have been widowed. I could have spent a lifetime never knowing if he was dead or alive. I'd lost contact with him. I'd never stopped loving him. I was speculating. I was crazy. He was alive. Oh, gods, he was alive. A quiet halo of conflicting emotion, ragged with two years of unshed tears and unrealized terror and now the unbearable relief of it all, settled over me, and I struggled to keep my face blank on the bus. But he was alive. Alive. Alive.