Jonathan swims through my memories like a fish through water, darting effortlessly in and out of the rocks and weeds that line them. He moved just as easily through life-a flick of the tail and he was gone, off to the next great ocean to explore. We met the first week of college, twenty years ago. Those first weeks were a pissing contest, with everyone fighting for turf. For most of us, college was our first chance to discover who we were outside the context of our families and homes. Our first chance to define ourselves. We postured and posed and looked for groups to belong to, seeking safety in numbers. Because Jonathan played soccer, the athlete social circles-the ones that carried the most currency on campus-recruited him heavily. It didn’t take long for them to realize, as we all would, that he wouldn’t belong to any circle. He came and went freely. Circles formed around him like the ones that form when a jumping fish plunges back into the water.
As it turned out, everyone wanted to be his friend. More than that, every guy in our dorm wanted to be him- handsome, playful, comfortable in his own skin, and as infectiously friendly as a puppy-and every girl wanted to be with him. While the rest of us observed and sometimes agonized over those social circles, Jonathan did not. He didn’t even seem to notice them. In that way they were a metaphor for other aspects of his life; he didn’t see limitations. If he wanted to do something, he did it. It never occurred to him that he might not be capable of it, whatever it was.
In the wrong hands such confidence might have soured into cockiness. But not with Jonathan. He was as unaware of his confidence as he was of the social groups that coveted his company. We all admired his self-assurance, but we never begrudged it. He was an incoming tide-all the boats in the harbor rose with him...
Dear Jonathan-So much has changed since we saw each other last. These days I ache to be all saltwater and canoes and fish scales and long sunrises across the marshes waiting for the ducks’ first flight of the day. My life wants to be built upon fly rods and darkrooms and typewritten pages of words. In many ways it has been. I’m lucky...
Two years into college, we’d both taken time off, spending the summer of 1991 together roaming the country in a battered VW Golf. Come September, I felt rudderless and temporary without a place to be for the first time in my life. Though we traveled light, I was weighed down by a blind, causeless anger, seeing the world as a series of battles and a tireless queue of adversaries. I thought Jonathan felt the same way. Later, I realized that where I’d been drifting pointlessly, he’d been right where he’d wanted to be – constantly moving forward, learning from everything around him, seeing the world as a limitless expanse of people to meet, opportunities to grasp, trees to climb, rivers to swim.
Still, in Jonathan’s company I learned more about myself than I ever would have being alone. When I remember myself then, I remember being self-conscious, unsure, awkward and unhappy. Jonathan was everything I was not. That same year, we lived with his parents for a short time; I saw how they fostered attitudes and beliefs in him that my own discouraged in me, not maliciously, but because of who they were. Where his planted confidence, mine sowed doubt. His knew you sometimes had to risk something to gain something. Mine prized security over risk, predictability over chance. The ways this affected us showed in our every action. Where he was decisiveness, I was second-guesses. He was a man of action, I was Hamlet. And yet, for all they were obviously responsible for their son’s personality, at times even his parents seemed to marvel at their son.
A year later Jonathan and I lived together again, briefly. We hadn’t spoken for months when he called out of the blue. He’d been backpacking Europe with his girlfriend, and they’d flown into Montreal, a couple hours away. Could I pick them up?
“Oh, and hey,” he said. “Would it be okay if I stayed with you for awhile? I’m broke.” Grateful for more time with him, that summer I watched as one by one my friends instantly and easily became his. He made everything look easy. A decade and a half later, the rest of us still haven’t quite got the hang of it.
Jonathan-My truck is full of coffee cups and wet clothes and hand-tied flies, and around the wheel wells the rust spots are like leprosy. It’s old, but it’s full of me, and my canoe is on the roof, all ash and sea-scratched Kevlar. Fly rods, paddles, waders and lanterns and camp stoves cram the back. I wind my way home through my little town, past the used book store where I’m known by name, past the pub where, too, I’m known by name, snaking through the harbor to watch the storm tip at the boats, up the road past a cemetery full of dead Portuguese dory builders, cod fishermen, spinsters and whalers, and home to write...
College offers a proximity to friends that fades to varying degrees after graduation. For four years you live next door, down the hall, or a couple floors away from each other, and drop by unannounced at all hours of the day and night. You see each other at class, on the quad, or eating at the cafeteria. Someone’s always around to hang out with, and you’re able to see your friends any time you want. That’s a luxury lost to adults.
In those days I spent a lot of time holed up in the bleakness of my dorm room learning to write, a percolator harmonizing with the staccato of my typewriter. Jonathan lived a few doors away. He’d stop by for coffee, or just to chat, and began to call me “Happy Jack,” a name given lovingly, if ironically. It was a name that stuck; when we first went our separate ways, heading to opposite coasts, we kept in touch mostly by mail. All his letters came addressed to Happy Jack’s Snack Shack, care of whatever division he deemed relevant. In one such letter addressed to the Lunch In Exotic Places Division, dated Labor Day, 1994, he wrote from the Black Angus Casino Lounge in Montana.
Dearest Happy Jack. Tom and I just completed a 10-day canoe adventure in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. We ate fish, rice and pasta for 10 days straight seeing only a couple other human beings. 8 days of solid rain, two days beautiful sunshine. The edge of the earth. Just what I needed. Until this, I’d been treading to stay afloat, yet what’s the use in just floating? The well is certainly not dry so it’s time to catch our breath take a dive and swim toward the future. Alive and well, swimming.
He told me he’d gone back to art school to study the thing he most loved, photography. He explained his new living situation, a San Francisco communal housing and studio space full of artists, and in typical fashion, glossed over his own accomplishments to pass three cramped pages describing the talents of his many roommates.
His letter had found me a few months into the world and struggling to define myself as a writer, an adult, a man. I worked a desk job, writing technical manuals, and wrote fiction early in the morning, late at night, or whenever I could carve out a few moments for it. I worried about utility bills and car payments. I worried about health insurance. I worried about proving to my parents that I could make a living.
I thought my struggles were part and parcel after graduation. My own art took a back seat to survival, and once I’d made that choice, it seemed I’d already failed my lifelong dreams. I told myself I’d go back to them. I told myself they’d wait. I wanted desperately to believe it, to believe I had no other choice. Yet Jonathan’s letter proved he’d found a way not just to be an artist, but to live as one, to surround himself not just with art, but with other artists. As always, failure hadn’t even occurred to him. And me? I could think of nothing else.
When you fail at something, you go back and try to figure out what happened, what went wrong, to learn from your mistake. Even now, I lay in the dark studying my failures until I see a pattern begin to form. I know now that each time I’ve failed something, it was because I second-guessed whether I could pull it off. That meant that each time, I failed before I even had a chance to try.
Happy Jack! Earth still spins, school has come and gone and I ain’t got no job! I must eke out my living any way I can. Look for anything and everything to pay them bills. I think I’ll make it to Boston by springtime. Let’s stay in touch-give you a call soon. Take care ‘yo miserable self. Love, Jonathan.
At college in Vermont, Jonathan and I walked through the woods around campus for hours, killing time between classes and meals. We walked every chance we got. One day we were crossing a railroad bridge over the Winooski River, kicking pebbles into the water below. I don’t remember what we were talking about – Jonathan was a great talker, and a better listener -but I remember how the leaves had turned color around us, swamp maples red as wildfire burning past the horizon into Canada and south to the rest of New England.
“Hey,” he said. “Let’s jump.”
“No way. That’s got to be sixty feet down.”
“So what? We can make it.”
“We don’t even know how deep it is.”
“I’m sure it’s deep enough.” And he was sure. But that wasn’t good enough for me, and I told him so.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “Don’t jump. But there’s a train coming.” And he was gone.
Behind us, its engines stoked, a Green Mountain Rail Freight obliviously bore down on us, swallowing track in its wake. The bridge rattled as the train neared. Gauging the distance to either end, I realized I wouldn’t make it if I ran.
High overhead, the freight train thundered across the bridge. Jonathan bobbed like an otter beside me, wet hair stuck to his cheeks, his laughter ringing out after the roar of the train faded, after even my lingering fear subsided. I could see the exhilaration in his eyes. It felt like we’d eluded some sure fate that day, just one of many times I’d get that feeling in his company. But there was a different feeling, too, and that was the feeling that somehow I’d failed again – even with a train bearing down, I’d waited until he’d reappeared safely in the water beneath me before I’d leapt.
Jonathan. So much happens in the years we’re apart, and it’s difficult catching up in so short a space. I’ve changed-it’s visible both to the eye and in less tangible ways. I’m sure you have too. I miss the times when we could count on each others’ daily presence. Those walks when we talked about everything. Sometimes I think my life has everything it needs to be happy. And yet, I’m not.... Thinking of you...
Over the years, my life has changed dramatically. I’ve moved cross-country four times, changed careers twice, and chased happiness with varying degrees of effort – and even more varied degrees of success. If I were to sit down with Jonathan now and try to plot the course my life has taken, I’m not sure I’d even know where to begin. I’d know which parts haven’t changed-I’m still fighting the same battles. Self-doubt still plagues me. Confidence still eludes me.
And yet, I’ve found ways to make a living by writing, just as I set out to do all those years ago when he and I sat around Happy Jack’s Snack Shack, sharing coffee, our hopes and dreams possibilities waiting to be enacted. In one way, Jonathan has never stopped being part of my daily life; he’s in much of what I write: the character who exudes easy confidence, or inspires the people around him. The possibilities enacted.
I also work from time to time as a photographer. It’s an art I learned to love when hanging around darkrooms while Jonathan worked. A gifted artist with a natural eye, he made the camera’s lens seem a symbiotic extension of himself in a way it never will me. Like everything else, I have to fight with it. Muscle it into submission. Most of the time I’ll wrestle an image from it that I think is good enough, knowing that Jonathan wouldn’t have settled like that. He would have coaxed out the exact image he wanted. He wouldn’t have stopped until he had.
The thing about photography is that some images capture moments in time exactly how they occurred and others capture them completely out of context. When you look back at the photographs, sometimes it’s hard to tell which they are. It’s like this when I remember Jonathan – have I built him up too much? But then I talk to others who knew him and realize that, if anything, I’ve shortchanged him.
Happy Jack-It’s an adventure down a river, an exploration of all things we encounter-a freedom and not a competition. Time and time again I romanticize the journey’s beginning and end. I wonder if all will be well and productive. The only thing I am certain about is the uncertainty that lies ahead. The river carries us. We are not attempting to carry the river.
When Jonathan visited me in Massachusetts in 1996, I took him striper fishing at the shore on his last day. He loved water in all its forms-in many of my memories he’s surrounded by it and seemed to be elementally linked to it. Though he’d been fishing much of his life, that day he uncharacteristically struggled to catch anything at all. The fish ran thick around us, and I reeled in one after another while he came up empty. As darkness rose like the tide, Jonathan’s frustration grew along with the volume of my taunts. Finally, he beached a single, tiny fish, and quit in disgust. The next day he borrowed a fishing rod from me for his drive back west, promising to hone his skills and embarrass me the next time we fished together.
That was the last time I saw him. We talked a few more times. He wrote a handful of letters, most detailing his upcoming canoe trip down the Mississippi River for a book of photographs. That unfinished trip would be his last. The river took him, as if collecting a debt from that long-ago day in Vermont, or any of the countless others he’d accrued.
Six months before that trip, he wrote me a Christmas letter (to the Trout Bum Division) in which he talked about his projects in the works, his involvement with a nonprofit teaching arts to inner city teens, all the things he hoped to accomplish. Though he was making a living, he said, he wanted to do more than just survive. He wanted to leave the world better than he found it.
Jonathan has been gone now longer than I knew him. For months after his death, I continued to write him letters. Out of habit, I guess. Or a stubborn reluctance to admit he was gone. Or because I had learned so much from him, and had so much yet to learn. He’s still around in many ways-in my writing, and in my photographs, and swimming through my memories like a fish through water.
Anyone who’s seen his photography knows that, given just a little bit of time, he’d have left his mark on the art world. I know how much he wanted that, but even that, I don’t think, is what he meant in his letter. I look back at pictures from those first days of college and wonder if I knew how much my life was changing, and how much of a role Jonathan would have in that change.
For those of us who knew him, who loved him, for those of us who miss him, our worlds got better the moment we met him. Through his example, we go on trying to do for other people what he did for us. It’s one way of ensuring his legacy. We may not do it as well as he did. It may not come as easily to us. And some of us may even believe we aren’t pulling it off. But we keep trying, because that’s what he taught us.
And then, with a flick of the tail, he was gone.