About three years ago, I began to take showers in the dark. In part to wash away the grime and filth of the day, but also to feel something that I lost. I would clamber into my windowless room of tile and steel, and lay my towel along the seams of the door; stopping any light that might spoil the dark. I bared myself, stripping away layer after layer, each casted cloth a moment for memory. All would be sequestered in the corner of the room.
The desire to reside anywhere but in myself would overtake me. I would open the curtain; a swift cold urging my hair to full posture. Clinging to the valve, I would turn it to red, as hot as I could bear it. In the windowless room, I was in a state of prescripted blindness. I could not see in front of me, but I knew the room well. I knew the seams on the floor tiles, I knew the sound of thundering water as it collided with the ceramic. I did not need to see. I did not want to.
I would feel the abrasive water relax me like a drumline massage. It was loud and rapid, but soothing. My eyes were open, because why should I close them? I was already consumed in the darkness. Slowly, I would slip away from thought, stress, and anxiety. Until there was only heat, feeling, and reflection.
A few summers earlier, as we rowed down the dirty, girl-scout-green Erie Canal, my crew mates Ian and Christian were chirping along to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”. A few of the other boys and I had grown tired of the tune, as it had played for at least an hour every day thus far on our journey. We had been rowing all afternoon, and in fact for the last five days, in a rowing shell for four rowers; forty-four feet of black carbon fiber absorbing all of the sun’s rays. We were to be in Albany in five days, sweating and swearing our way along the canal. I was the youngest on the crew at the age of 16, and whether I would admit it then or not, I looked up to many of the boys I rowed with. Ian, Joey, Sean, Alex, Mike, and Christian. Christian is a man best defined as a free spirit trapped in a box. Whether it was a boat or a necktie, Christian’s wild soul found itself bound in some way. His messy crop of white-blond hair dangling in front of two bright blue eyes, intelligent and mischievous.
As high school boys trapped in a boat together for eight hours a day… for ten days, you can imagine the kind of cooperation it took to get through it all. It was the kind of cooperation that would make any normal person turn off a song after the third, fifth, or even twelfth request. This mindset didn’t stick much for Christian, though. He would play the song until I had memorized every note of that peppy tin flute solo.
Most of our nights were spent in pitched tents on the side of the snaking canal, or the gnarled gravel of rusted marinas. We weren’t just rowing three hundred and forty miles on a whim or even the goodness of our hearts; it was mandatory, backbreaking charity work. Our act of community service, the ‘Row for Hope’ was a tradition amongst my high school’s rowing team, we simply were the next to take the mantle of Samaritans.
Christian was always the kid to wander away from the eyes of coaches and teachers, inducing panicked thoughts of child abduction before inevitably returning with a token from his journey. One day on the row, Christian wandered from our campsite unbeknownst to the coaches and returned with a handful of warm pennies flattened smooth from a passing train. The throwaway change was transformed into a memory of locomotives, friends, and mischief. That same evening he returned from the woods with an armful of frogs, beaming at our worried coach. I reflect on this memory now with nothing but fondness, but at the time I remember hating his behavior.
I was an extremely anxious kid growing up. I was often told I had the spirit of a 50 year old man, but in truth, I was bound by a fear; grappling with an undiagnosed anxiety and panic disorder. While Christian was communicating with wildlife, and molding metals, I was holding a lump of panic in my throat. What if he got lost? What if we stall too long and miss our next stop? What if we fail to follow the schedule and become the first boat to ever fail on the Row for Hope? I realize now how my doubts and anxieties often limited my appreciation of others. When I looked at Christian I saw chaos walking, a wildman restrained only by a necktie. I must emphasize the shallowness of this assessment.
I never pulled Christian aside to ask him about his fears, to check if the lack of concern was an act. I never had the freedom or wisdom to. I was so self-absorbed by my own mental torment, dealing with my own mental backstabbing, that I wasn’t ready to extend my empathy. I wasn’t ready to be vulnerable for others because I felt so vulnerable within myself. That said, Christian’s personality did not encourage intimacy, at least not with me. We didn’t talk about each other's fears, desires, and other deep ideas; we talked about stupid shit, laughed at stupid shit, and got frustrated by other people’s stupid shit. For a time, I knew him best through the synchronized, snap, swish, flick, pull of our oars.
In the more desperate heats of the summer, when the weather was a painful 90 degrees, Christian would square his oar and let a small splash of canal water hit me as we rowed on. On days of passing thunderstorms, we would beach the boat and run to shore to wait it out, dreading the game of catchup we would face once back in the shell. I would always be concerned Christian would wander off and hurt himself, get lost, or find something truly amazing. Though I hated the way I felt when he was enacting chaos, the suspense he brought wherever he went helped bond us all as brothers, not in blood, but in spirit. Christain’s disregard for scheduling and basic safety never ended in a poor outcome, he always came back with a memory. Each time we were forced to stray from our destined path we were reassured we could forge our own. Despite the begrudging attitude we maintained before the journey, it seemed all of us on the trip grew closer, in no small part thanks to Christian.
Christian and I found our lives intertwined for a time, even after our experiences on the crew team. Junior year of highschool I joined the Rugby team, a team which Christian was an integral member of. Nervous, inexperienced, and tentative, I found myself attached to Christian as a source of familiarity in an environment entirely new to me. Christian taught me the rules of the sport: how to run, where to run, how to tackle, who to tackle.
He taught me what emotions were useful and which were not in any particular moment. When the situation called for calm, he was quiet; when it called for fury, he was loud. He never denied pain, but neither did he indulge in it. He seemed to have a sort of balance.
Christian was one of the smallest guys on the field each practice, playing the role of “scrum half”: a small, speedy runner whose job was to take the ball from a tackle, and throw it to the first receiver, which initiates each play. It was in this context I could see the wild side of Christian freed from the bonds of boats and neckties, as he sprinted from point A to point Z throwing the ball. Although small and speedy, Christian was not afraid to take on any giant that may oppose him. He voraciously attempted to tackle anyone who should cross his path. His passion rubbed off on me I suppose. Through the guidance of Christian, I became a determined, seasoned player. Although I was a decent rower, I found my true physical talent in Rugby.
Christian was a senior the year I joined, so he did not see me become captain of the team the following year. There are many things I wish Christian had seen, many things I wish I had said. Although we were close, we never quite made the journey into deep emotional conversation. Perhaps it was the age gap or grade gap, or maybe there were other gaps I couldn’t see or dare venture, but the closest we came to emotional expression were the hugs we gave after each rugby match. Win or lose, we found ourselves in an embrace, an unconscious support transferred through flesh. When we found ourselves at the NY State Rugby Championships, playing one of our final matches of the season and one of the last matches with each other, we lost our first game, placing us in a competition for third. Despite the loss and the hopes abandoned, we hugged.
Oftentimes we do not memorize what people say. Unlike what movies may have you believe, even if someone is important in your life you often can’t remember their most profound moments. My writing of this piece is impaired, because you don’t get to have flashbacks of dialogue where everything is serene and they know just what to say. You remember what the world wishes you to. You can’t force memory to be profound, it just is. I don’t remember Christian’s statements. I remember determined looks on his face, hugs we shared, things he did. I remember eyes filled with the copper shine of flattened pennies. I remember him tearing shirts apart with his teeth to make sleeveless crop-tops while rowing. I can remember sweat dangling from the tips of his wild blonde hair while he ran across the rugby field. I remember a feral smile on his face as he joked. I remember a tame smile as we greeted strangers at mass. I remember “You Can Call Me Al” and a perfectly memorized tin flute solo, of all fucking things. These things mean more than any great quote to me. I remember Christian.
It has been three years since he was found dead of natural causes in his college room in Hong Kong on February 5, 2020. I didn’t know how to react when I was told. He was only 20 years old, two years younger than I am now. As is often the case, the emotions had hit me late, a cheap shot right as I was walking away. I cried in the hallway of my first dorm around a month after his death. I had thought I stopped thinking about it, but when my father added “Christian Memorial” to my calendar it started again. I felt a sort of revulsion to see him become another date in a book, a place in the calendar of “things to do”.
When he died my emotional intellect was in its infancy, and unsure of how to move on I began to take showers in the dark, not simply to wash aways the grime and filth of the day but perhaps to feel something that was lost. I would take a deep breath, and try to let the loud waters relax me, let the darkness consume my thoughts, and let the heat hold me. Was this a regression to infancy, to feel naked, in the heat of the dark womb? I didn’t know how to remember Christian in the light of day, in the frantic halls of life. So I took showers in the dark.
I didn’t realize that those moments, standing in my darkened shower, were the beginning of the hardest period of change in my life thus far. Almost immediately after Christian’s passing marked the beginning of COVID in a practical sense in my life. I was sent home much like many other students, but I became drug dependent as I attempted to cope with the instability of my life. This, combined with extreme anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and an eating disorder radically affected my mental state and tested my resilience. For some time I lost sight of Christian and those feelings of mourning as I was dealing with my own demons. Again, I was consumed in my own backstabbing to empathize with others.
As a result of all of that personal hardship, I have found myself. I brought myself out of my addiction cold turkey, examined and helped heal my own mental health. As an atheist I will admit that my logic based, hedonistic stoicism brought me unhappiness because I was out of balance. Now I have a newfound sense of balance with the world, and new ideas about how I should live my life. I used to think happiness was something to be acquired, but now I know it is something to be crafted. Happiness is not won, it is grown and tended to. I don’t take showers in the dark anymore, now I accept the pain that may come from light. I have finally learned the lesson I was to blind to adopt in highschool, that every moment of chaos is an opportunity to summon the order within us and forge a new path.
I now know that my mindset is a tool that manufactures reality for my own consumption; that locking myself in the darkness does not cut me off from my pain, only from that which can aid the burden. I know now that Christian wasn’t a creature of chaos chained by a world of order, rather, he was a wild wind harnessed for flight.