I can’t imagine Kent turning forty. Not because he would have been all that likely to get himself killed between then–those days we orbited the same space–and now, but because he is, more than almost anyone I can think of, the standard-bearer of my own youth. When I think of him (probably more often than he might guess) what washes over me is the perfect memory of what it felt like to be happy doing nothing at all. This is something I’ve lost over the years and it may very well be an exclusive province of the young, but contentment trumping boredom is its own brand of magic.
I met Kent in the tenth grade, on the leading edge of a rough transition in my life– displacement by my mother’s divorce, hip deep in puberty, and floundering in an immediate poverty that we’d hoped we’d left behind for good. That it was a new part of town helped by way of distraction. In the DC Metro area, moving house can mean crash-landing on another planet, albeit only a dozen miles from where you’d started.
The first class-period of the day was Geometry at some really ungodly hour for math. After a little while, I stopped being the new girl and, as subtle as staring out of a pre-dawn window and realizing that you missed the instant when there was finally enough light to barely see by, all of a sudden, I had a friend. I don’t remember how it happened, only that he was there every morning and that I looked forward to math class on more merit than the satisfaction of geometric proofs.
But our playful rivalry of wrestling theorems at seven-something each weekday morning is not what anchors Kent in my mind. Or that I had to duck his girlfriend for the last few weeks of eleventh grade, because she was inexplicably angry that he’d stopped on his way to pick her up to show me his prom tuxedo and limousine. What I remember are the phone calls. Our friendship was pure, beyond whatever impure thoughts we may have entertained of the other from time to time over the years. I don’t know that he knows what he meant to me and how his patience with my oddness saved me in a way that’s still easily right there in the forefront of my mind. Even now. My life was very strange, and I was very strange, but he was my friend anyway.
My family didn’t have a telephone. I would walk two blocks to the supermarket and stand at the payphone there, literally for hours, with Kent on the other end of the line. Usually, he was building a guitar. Sometimes we’d talk, but there were long stretches of companionable silence where I’d watch the traffic on King Street and the clicking of Kent’s screwdrivers and wrenches would be the only sound in my head. I don’t know if he thought I was crazy, or if he minded my being there, without actually, you know, being there. But if he did, he never let on and the blessing of that acceptance, of not being alone when I felt lonely, kept me from floating away on whatever cold current could have blown by.
We never know how our casual kindnesses or cruelties shape other people’s worlds, which is probably a good thing. It would be a lot to bear. But on the occasion of my good friend, Kent’s, fortieth birthday, it might be a bit of a present for him to know how fundamentally good he’s always seemed to me and that I remember him for it all the time.
At the very least, it saves me from having to go out and buy him a gift.
Happy, happy birthday, Kent. I wish I was there.
(This essay was my contribution to a memory book presented to my friend Kent, by the friends and family who organized the celebration.)