Mr. Yelland's science class. First day of high school. The sweet relief and dread horror of being assigned a lab partner by alphabetical order. Me being a B, I plunked down next to the first person with last-name C. He was a tiny weasely-looking kid with a bowl haircut. I was a self-conscious wannabe cheerleader. We looked at each other out of the corners of our eyes. We were both mortified.
Over the next few weeks it turned out we had more in common than we thought. For one, we both had no idea what was going on in earth science. We couldn't follow the scribbling on the board. We didn't hand in our homework. We fell asleep a lot, cheek resting on hand, then eyes slowly and grudgingly blinking closed. A minute later we'd both be face down, lying on an arm, drooling over a notebook. We never talked with each other about anything other than labs, but when you fall asleep two inches from someone else's face, it's surprisingly intimate. The moment when you both wake up with a start you are embarrassed accomplices.
That year Neil was reading "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac and "Naked Lunch" by William S. Burroughs. He was also writing. Tiny scrawl lined up improbably neatly on white copy paper. One day I asked to see and he handed me a stack of ten double-sided pages. I poured over the short story later that day in study hall. I was mesmerized. The prose was on par with anything I'd read in the New Yorker fiction edition. There was sex and intrigue. Droppings of the F bomb. Downward spiral swirling around a burned-out young man living in a New York apartment. His refrigerator light was burned out, but when he put his hand in the fridge it was still cold. That detail is the bit I remember. It was so vivid and real. An observation of base reality and yet a metaphor for our entire young lives.
Neil went to college at Oberlin. My boyfriend brought back reports that he had run into him while touring the Ohio campus. He waxed awe-struck. Neil was the picture of a young man as an artist. Dressed in black. Prolific through the wee hours of the morning. The brand of cigarettes he smoked was impossibly cool.
Neil moved to New York and pursued the life you might imagine. Trips to third world countries. Drugs and drinking and profligacy - but never too much. As a writer he tried everything both 100% and as an observer. He took in each experience, held it against his cheek like tobacco. Felt its tingle. Spit.
Apart from his writing I don't know what kind of adult Neil became, although I feel justified in saying that it was something impossibly cool. What I imagine, from knowing him ten plus years ago and from reading his missives recently, is that he lived life head-on.
This is what Neil wrote recently about boxing:
Training twice a day can be exhausting, like my body’s held together by naproxen and Tiger Balm. But this seems like the only way it can be right now. Sometimes I feel like I'm bored by everything but training, or else emotionally overwhelmed by it; other times I feel like if I'm exhausted and in pain, then this can't be a vacation, which is good, because a two-month vacation would be frivolous. Because if this is a vacation, then I would feel pressure to be having fun. I would be on a failed fucking vacation, which is the most depressing thing I can imagine.
But it goes deeper than that, for sure. A couple people have asked me about what it is I like about boxing... ...In boxing, even failure is something that you can hold on to.
If we can say one beautiful perfect thing about a disgusting and terrible tragedy, it's that Neil wasn't waiting on the rest of us to start living. He was effing doing it. Life doesn't make sense. It's beautiful and crappy. Sometimes it feels like it's going on unbearably long, and then it ends far too abruptly. But however it goes, you live it damnit. You live the shit out of it.
The following quote is attributed to Marvis Leyrer.
Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting "Holy shit, what a ride!"