A boy gone before we could Google him

At my wife’s and my wedding reception in 1984, one of my college roommates said to my mother, “Chris looks terrific. He doesn’t have the shakes anymore.”
One day in 1999, when I was in Minneapolis promoting a novel, a woman with whom I went to college and hadn’t seen in decades studied the cover — which happened to be an image of my house in Vermont and the church beside it. When I told her that I was a deacon at that church, she burst out laughing. “You?” she exclaimed. “A deacon? I can’t imagine you inside a church!”
And even now, whenever I have a story in a glossy magazine, I am reminded of the words of a woman who lived in the same dormitory as me one year. “You’ll make it as a writer,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re any good, but you sure are slick. And glossy magazines always want writers who are slick.”
These memories have been raining upon me like hail this week. I see an image in my mind, and I flinch. The trigger for these recollections? My 25th college reunion next spring, and a memory book that classmates are compiling.
Among the many things this reunion means is that I will be 46 in 2007 — an age that is flirting with the far side of middle age. (Yeah, I know 50 is supposed to be the new 40. Don’t believe it.) It has also forced me to confront the person I was a quarter-century ago, and I’m not sure he was a young man I would have much liked.
Our class was an impressive bunch. There was a lawyer at whose feet I was worshipping from afar last year when he indicted a pol with a child’s toy for a name. There was a housing advocate who won a MacArthur Fellowship. And there was an athlete who would pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays, a gentle soul who died in his sleep far too young.
But mostly my memories have been of my roommate my first year. Like that pitcher, he would also die young. He took his own life his sophomore autumn. He died so young and so many years ago that when I Google his name I find nothing.
And so I must rely solely on specific images I hold in my head. There was the purposeful way he would walk between the library and our dorm with his hands in his pockets and his head down, always, it seemed, bucking the wind. His smile was telegenic, and his gaze was deeply observant. Occasionally, he wrapped the sleeves of his sweater around his neck.
He also might have been the only person on the floor of that first-year dorm who worried about the rituals that surrounded the school’s fraternity culture; whether we were making choices nightly that vacillated between stupid and (ironically) suicidal; and whether — in the midst of the selection process called rush — we were needlessly hurting people’s feelings. His appreciation for reality might, on occasion, have been suspect, but my sense is that his moral compass was unassailable. He worried all the time about all of us.
There’s a lot I regret about my behavior at college. I did nothing in moderation, including coffee and beer. There was a reason people recalled me having the shakes. I also had an absolutely Everest-sized ego, and was so self-absorbed that I would have made Lindsay Lohan look like Mother Teresa.
Still, I have forgiven myself for most of the things I did then, and I’m at peace with the reality that I might not have been especially likeable. Or, to be precise, service-oriented. Or spiritual. Or simply present when a young man who would eventually kill himself just might have wanted to share a pizza at 3 in the morning. The truth is, the world knows more about depression now than it did in the Mesozoic period when I was 18.
But I also hope that when my classmates and I gather in May and we look at how gray and wrinkled and paunchy we’ve all become, we will remember my roommate — our classmate — too. He got away before anyone would be able to Google him, and so it’s up to us to keep his memory alive.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 31, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.