It is ten years later and those who made it through the program stood at the other end of the overflowing room as they harmonized in honor of my friend, our classmate, who passed a month prior.
I shifted from foot to foot, my feet swelling uncomfortably in the heels I wore. I hadn't anticipated there not being anywhere to sit, but I was deeply moved by the very fact. To my left, Kyle peered at me and frowned, his way of asking me if I was okay. I shook my head dismissively -- there was nothing to be done and I wanted to hear the music, not talk to him.
The truth was I was four days into knowing the truth about him and I was here facing people I hadn't seen in a decade and burying a good man only a month my senior who inexplicably died and all this life he never got to live and all these people who loved him so much and here I stood, facing my mortality and the unknowningness of the future with my swollen feet and clenched stomach and this man I used to say was good standing next to me, playing his role so that I wouldn't be alone and unintentionally cause a scene.
And I couldn't stop the tears from streaming down my face, my shoulders from betraying me so plainly that a kindly older woman behind me tapped me on the elbow and handed me a tissue.
I literally bit my tongue to keep from making a scene.
When my former classmates finished their tribute the receiving line began and every ounce of bravery I had felt surged me forward into a crowd and towards them, the fear of rejection as sharp on my bite-marked tongue as it was when I faced a blossoming adulthood all that time ago. A quiet hey escaped my lips to the closest one, who upon recognition lit up, softened and gave me the biggest, most genuine hug I'd had in quite some time.
I had doubted coming, that I might be unwelcome by the people I had once spent nearly every waking hour with all that time ago. That my grief and want to say goodbye would have somehow come across as needy or predatory as I was dismissed from the program and that inner circle, becoming a faint memory in the shared family-like history they formed in the in between.
But I am still here, in this hometown we once shared, and it really felt like the least I could do, the only chance I'd have to properly say goodbye to someone I'd always liked and admired.
A night later, I would dream of my friend.
In the dream, he called me and asked me to meet him at an address in the middle of rural nowhere, slightly north from where I grew up. I went and it was an abandoned farmhouse, sepia toned against a Ohio winter sky, barren and lonely and in need of desperate repair.
He towered over the little car I drove and greeted me with a giant bear hug and thanked me profusely for coming on such short notice, but he'd thought I'd like to see this and he couldn't think of who else to call.
Confused yet curiously flattered, I followed him into the house.
He told me he had recently purchased the house and the property with a bonus from a touring production he'd been in and he wanted my opinion. He talked about reading my blogs over the years and being impressed with the way I saw the world and the way I transformed spaces into places you never wanted to leave. He said that if I were willing, he wanted my help to make this old farmhouse a home again, to save it from ruin.
But don't you live in New York now? I questioned, unable to understand the sudden interest in this property in the middle of nowhere Ohio. He was making it, he was working and to leave that life and come back here seemed counter-intuitive, almost like self-sabotage.
Yes, he said as his eyes sparkled with dreams and promise, but I want somewhere to come back to, a place to call my own, for a family. I want to be able to come home when I need it, to have roots.
I nodded at him, agreeing to help him, flattered that he sought my input and approval.
He excitedly gave me a tour, showing me the things he'd noticed and asking his questions and I did the best I could to answer him, reminding him that I'm not a professional and that some serious work would need to be done, a good deal of which was out of my realm of knowledge.
He wasn't worried, he said, he just valued my opinion.
Then, from the wall of the attic where we stood nearing the end of the tour, a scratching and a soft yowling became apparent. I looked at him as I tried to decipher it, his face more quizzical than alarmed while mine scrunched up in concentration.
Oh my God, J----, I whispered, is that a cat?
He laughed his deep belly laugh as he leaned his oversized frame towards the eaves where a hole in the wall revealed what once was plaster lathe, peering down who knew how far.
He looked back to me and smiled, leaning on his bent knee while his other leg stretched out beyond his crouched stance to balance, nodding.
Well, good thing I'm a crazy cat lady, I chuckled, shifting my weight to move towards him and the hole with it's soft meowing.
His expression gave me pause, stopping me mid-motion, just beyond his reach and a sight line of the trapped cat.
I knew you were the perfect person to bring here, he smiled as he glowed at me, an equal pride in himself and in me radiating from his kind eyes and joyful smile, filling my every pore and sense of being.
The vibration of my silent alarm on my FitBit briskly stirred me awake, the sepia-toned vision of my friend smiling so genuinely at me dissipating into the moody black of my bedroom.
And I knew he had just told me goodbye.
Towards the end of the service I stood with two of my former teachers, talking about life and art and writing and kids, sheepishly giving over my blogging cards to them as they asked how they would keep in touch with me.
At some point, I'm not even sure how the conversation got there, a man in particular who never was my professor but knew my mother well from their daily duties overlapping (as I attended the same small state college at which she taught and was later administration) and had always struck me as kind took me gently by my shoulders and squared me to him.
"Listen," he said with the authority of a father and teacher, but a genuine softness that accompanies a kind and generous heart. "We hate having to do that, to let you kids go. And I want you to hear me when I say this: I'm sorry. We know how hard that is to go through and it's a necessary evil but we truly hate it, and I'm so very sorry."
All the resolve I had managed to muster throughout the evening dissolved and I sobbed a sharp breath as tears streamed down my face.
Ten years of hurt and rejection and confusion and struggle right there were absolved. My removal from the program had not been personal, and I had realized that some time ago, but to hear it, to have the pain and turmoil that cause recognized and validated was something I hadn't realized I wanted so badly.
I fumbled with the now-crumpled tissue in my hands as I tried to choke out that I knew it was right, that I had been struggling outside of my education and it was effecting my ability to perform as a student and an actor. That not long after I would be diagnosed as bipolar and that I didn't regret the journey I traveled in between that time and now because I am proud of the woman I've become.
And he told me he was glad for me and that he looked forward to reading my writing, and that my children were beautiful and he always hoped I'd do well in life, whatever I chose to do with that.
And I could swear my friend was standing there with me, patting me on the back and smiling at the gift he'd just given me.